By Bill Pfeffer
If Znojmo were any more anonymous, the Federal Witness Protection Program would stash all their people here.
In fact, it would not surprise me to discover Jimmy Hoffa running the pension next to our hotel. Not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, Znojmo is an inconspicuous and little-visited destination apart from the trendy and popular towns of Prague and Cesky Krumlov.
Three hours south of Prague, and an hour and a half north of Vienna, this spotless village in the Czech Republic territory of Moravia flirts with its neighbor Austria in the midst of burgeoning wine industry, content with neglect and comfortable being overlooked as a tourist stopover.
Bus from Brno
Arriving by bus from the Czech town of Brno, we were captivated by our first sighting of Znojmo (pronounced ‘Zaw No Way Moe’). The dominant church spire of St. Nicholas Church overlooks the terra cotta roofs of the village below, as they appear to be kneeling in homage during worship at a Sunday Mass.
Settled since prehistoric times, it is one of the oldest towns in Central Europe. Znojmo is aligned tightly against the Dyje River, and the Rotunda of the Virgin Mary and St. Catherine sits majestically at the town’s apex.
Overflowing geranium flower boxes teem with color as ankle-twisting cobblestone alleys zigzag through the town, colorfully shadowed by sun-drenched pastel tones. We spent eight days exploring the region, hiking to nearby villages, and sampling food and beverages in the attractive Renaissance town square.
Light on Tourists, Heavy with Local Flavor
We loved our accommodations at the Traveller’s Hostel in Znojmo, with a large comfortable double room, shared bathroom, kitchen privileges, and views over the nearby river and hills for a tidy $39/night.
There is a wide range of accommodations in town, with many pensions offering simple rooms in the $30-40 dollar range. With a population of 6,000, Znojmo is compact, refreshingly free of souvenir shops, and light on tourists. Here you shop at the neighborhood meat market, share dinner with the residents at the homey pub, and raise a toast with homemade whiskey.
Every day in the square, the farmer’s market teemed with freshly picked apples, blueberries, and plums. The only concession to tourists is a sightseeing train that scurries through the village. It ferries visitors to the highlights, including the unique underground labyrinth, a 30-kilometer series of secretive passageways covertly hewed back in the 13th century.
Still, this is a sleepy town, so do not expect vibrant nightlife. Here you will test your pantomime skills, as Czech and German are the predominant languages.
Thoughtfully Designed Trails Through the Forest
Bordering Znojmo is heavily wooded Podyji National Park, a vast expanse of open space that spills into neighboring Austria. The park is bisected by the Dyje River and is laced with trails that meander through villages, groves of birch, occasional heather moors, and patches of wild blueberries.
Color-coded trails, segregated into cyclist and hiker, are frequently marked on trees and rocks, with intersections well signed and easily identified on maps.
Even more thoughtful are the wooden wine stands and hospitality stations serving snacks and pints of Hostan beer that beckon along the trails.
Pick up a map at the tourist center, choose your loop and distance, and follow the color-coded markings through the countryside.
With an extensive network of trails extending throughout the country, it is possible to rent a bike in one town and return it to another, a tempting alternative if you wish to take a tour of the countryside and stay in local pensions along the way.
Top Bicycle is a full-service company that will drop off and picks up bicycles between a range of cities in the Czech Republic. They will transport your baggage, arrange to lodge along your route and provide GPS programmed itineraries.
You can rent bikes for the day from the Cycling Information Center located right next door to the visitor’s center off the main square. Head off for the day to the local wineries, an excursion that the tourist brochures tout as ‘wine cycling’.
We left early one morning from Znojmo on a three-hour hike to the vineyards of Sobes, passing through the villages of Popice and Konice, and their splendid 200-year-old churches.
Charmed and blessed by the many religious shrines dotting the paths, we arrived at a tasting stand overlooking verdant vineyards terraced into the hillside.
Notable for their sauvignon style white wines, about a dozen varieties are available for tasting, with samples measured into shot glasses (25 cents to $2).
The Last of the Iron Curtain
While in Znojmo, make sure to hop on a bus to the village of Cizov. Here stand the last remnants of the infamous Iron Curtain, just across the street from the surprisingly well-staffed and informative visitor’s center.
A lonely sentry tower overlooks rusty barriers of barbed wire while a barren fifty-foot swath of no man’s land, poisoned so many years ago, bears testament to a time not so long along when this country fell under the influence of communist Russia.
Originally running the length of the border with Austria and representative of a bygone repressive government, this is the last remaining segment, now so out of place in this modern independent Czech Republic.
From Cizov, we followed a series of wooded trails back to Znojmo, a distance of approximately fourteen miles. Routed through dense forests, we crossed through open fields resplendent with wildflowers and dotted with local deer stands.
Through vineyards and villages, we ambled, delighted with the fresh air and sights as we wound our way back into town.
There is bus service between the many villages, so whenever you want, wait at the well-signed bus stops for a ride back to Znojmo. We did take a few wrong turns along the way, so do pick a detailed map at the visitor’s center before heading out.
Mikulov Is Also Worth a Look
A one-hour train through cornfields and vineyards will take you to the picturesque village of Mikulov, dominated by a Baroque Chateau that sits upon a hill in the center of town.
On a lazy Saturday morning, colorfully clad cyclists congregated in the town square, eager to explore the many roads that radiate into the surrounding countryside. Cafes, souvenir shops, galleries, and places to stay edge the square, while a friendly tourist information center dispenses excellent brochures and information.
As we sat on the square enjoying a pint of original Budweiser, the owner amicably dispensed homemade unfiltered wine from an old plastic jug into recycled liter soda bottles, quickly snatched up by the locals. Emphasizing their tourist-friendly outlook, free WiFi is available in the main plaza. Disgorging passengers from a steady stream of buses, Mikulov is definitely more of a tourist town than Znojmo.
Bordering the town are limestone foothills, home to many endangered species of plants and animals and protected as a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Scramble up Holy Hill past the Stations of the Cross to Saint Sebastian Church and enjoy the views to the horizon of this remarkable area. Wander down the historic Jewish quarter of Husova Street, and visit the centuries-old cemetery.
A few kilometers outside of Mikulov is the town of Lednice, home to one of the largest and oldest (200 years) landscaped gardens in the world. Inexplicably, buses run during the week – but not on weekends – to this UNESCO World Heritage site.
Very Easy to Get Around
Both Znojmo and Mikulov have an efficient and well-located transport station, with connections by bus and train to Prague, Vienna and nearby towns. Bus and train schedules can be viewed online for travel within the Czech Republic and to neighboring countries.
Just check the English box at the bottom, provide departure and arrival towns, and the date you would like to travel.
We found the country to be very affordable compared to mainland Europe. Finally, we were visiting in the middle of September, when temperatures were pleasantly in the seventies.
A perfect tonic for the frenzied traveler looking for a quiet escape at relatively modest prices, the Moravia region of South Eastern Czech Republic will delight with its unexpected adventures, fresh air, and simple way of life.
If you want the hustle and bustle of crowds and trendy destinations, head to Bohemia and its combination of Prague and Cesky Krumlov. However, if you want something off the beaten track and a little more authentic, then give Moravia a look. You will not be disappointed.