Brno, in the eastern historical region of Moravia, has the second-largest ossuary in Europe, after Paris. Yet as I tour the 330-foot-long repository of bones beneath the Church of St. James, I’m underwhelmed, at first. Then, I take a closer look at the walls and the pillars of the main chamber and two side passages. They’re made up of the skeletal remains of 50,000 people, tinted yellow due to lack of exposure to sunlight. The skulls stare at me, hollow-eyed.
At the entrance is an exhibit of old photos of the church and cemetery. I refer to a pamphlet and several signs in Czech and English, but the sheer volume of the bones does most of the talking. The crypt was built in the 17th century to accommodate remains from St. James’ cemetery and along the passages are tombstones from the original graves. The original crypt’s three sections filled up quickly and had to be expanded for victims of plague, cholera, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Swedish siege of Brno. Once full, the ossuary was covered and lay in oblivion for 200 years.
In 2001, it was discovered as part of a land survey. Researchers spent a decade gathering the remains, and cleaning and rearranging them before the ossuary opened to public in 2012.
In the central chamber is a creepy chapel with a tall cross, pulpit and “walls” of bones; in the far corner is a stained glass mural. Two glass coffins contain the skeletons of a grown man and a 13-year-old. There are glass cases and thin railings shielding the bones but they’re well within reach and some people around me touch them surreptitiously.
At the end of one passage is a pyramid of skulls, some of which still have teeth, making it seem like they’re grinning. A few modern sculptures provide visual relief. The other relief is tonal: sombre, customised music streams over the speakers.
It takes just 20 minutes to tour, but I’m glad to leave. As I walk out, I murmur the Latin prayer on the marble wall outside: “Eternal rest grant unto them.” (Open Tue–Sun, 9.30 a.m.-6 p.m.; tickets from CZK70/Rs 205).
According to a legend that I came across in a book, a countess named Amalia—who murdered 13 lovers and hid their bodies underground—still roams in the tunnels under Zelnýtrh, Brno’s vegetable market, to ensure that her victims remain hidden. She must be doing a good job, because I didn’t spot any bodies during my one-hour tour there. The Labyrint pod Zelnýtrh (Labyrinth under the Vegetable Market) is about 26 feet, or 200 steps, below Zelnýtrh Square, one of Brno’s oldest. Its cellars, discovered in the last decade, were reinforced and connected via passageways in 2009.
The audio-guided tour offers insight into the use of the cellars as storage space for food, wine and beer in the 13th century. I learn that liquor barrels were “refrigerated” by placing them on wooden grates. There are also exhibits showcasing life and practices from that time: An alchemist’s lab demonstrates medieval medicine, a wine cellar and tavern are reminders of the local winemaking tradition, and sources of artificial light from the first torches to oil lamps are on display.
The most chilling section is saved for last: replicas of torture devices for criminals. In a corner is the “cage of fools,” a low, small iron enclosure. The dimensions of the cage made it impossible to sit let alone stand inside, especially when crowded with prisoners. A few members of the tour group attempt squatting uncomfortably, but give up after a few seconds. (Open Tue–Sun, 9 a.m-6 p.m.; tickets from CZK80/Rs 235).
The threat of nuclear attack is far from my mind as I enter 10-Z Bunker. I’m just seeking my room for the night, and a refuge from the cold. A row of thick army field jackets at the entrance confuse me, until I realise that the temperature inside is actually lower. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected so much from a Cold War bomb shelter.
Through dark tunnels, the night guard takes me to my room, which we find after several wrong turns. It looks like it has been untouched since the shelter was completed in 1959. Two steel cup-boards hold blankets; a table is strewn with a telephone, used test tubes, bottles and gas masks. The silence is suffocating, broken only by the creaking of the bed as I manoeuvre myself into a sleeping bag. It is difficult to believe I’m just below Špilberk Castle, just off the main road. The next morning, there’s no sunlight and the artificial lighting throws eerie shadows illuminating empty rooms and machines.
The bunker was first built by the Germans during WWII as a civil defence shelter from the American and Soviet bombardment of Brno. After the war, it served as a wine store before being confiscated by Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime. The nuclear fallout shelter built in its place was intended to protect 500 of the city’s political representatives for up to three days. It opened last year as an 18-room hotel.
During the day the shelter has guided tours, but armed with a map, I set off by myself to explore. There is a diesel generator room, air filtration room, emergency telephone exchange and a decontamination room. Atop ventilators and machinery, tiny televisions screen documentaries about people who built this and took shelter here during WWII, and broadcast local Communist era advertisements. I pass rows of army hats, medicine boxes, gas masks, an old army motorbike, telephones, typewriters, and in a few places, old sinks and lavatories. The most interesting display is the “cell of death” door, taken from a Brno prison. It is carved by prisoners who were sentenced to death during WWII.
I end my tour at the Milk Bar, lead by Chef Marcel Ihnačak, which serves “Stalinist and wartime specialties,” including sundaes and custard cream. It doubles as a hotel common room. On a floral patterned sofa, I listen to the chatter of foreign languages while munching on Russian egg and sweet crêpes, and drinking cider and beer.
I leave early the next morning, accompanied by the same night guard. She tells me that in case of nuclear war, entry and lodging here are free. As the gate clangs shut, I hope I never have to return. (Open daily 11.30 a.m.-6.15 p.m.; tickets for tour from CZK130/Rs 380; twin room €50/Rs 3,850).
Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer and journalist. A silent feminist (they do exist!), food snob, and Potterhead, she prefers canine company to that of humans. She actively seeks out cheap eating haunts, and weird and wondrous places, when travelling.