Olomouc doesn’t cease to surprise the traveller at any point in the journey by staying true to its description as a hidden jewel
I felt like Ali Baba in the cave, as I went discovering more and more treasures in Olomouc. Awestruck by its rich array of architectural gems, I was dizzy with delight. Rated as one of the 10 hidden jewels of Europe by the Lonely Planet, this beautiful town was the historical centre of Moravia, for centuries. After Prague, Olomouc contains the largest concentration of monuments in the Czech Republic.
My guide Steve, a citizen of Olomouc, was justifiably proud of its rich legacy. As Olomouc is exceptional in its concentration of churches, chapels, palaces and monasteries within a single location, there was so much to see, and not enough time to see them all. Often I would be lost, lagging behind, gaping at the intricate sculpture. Here, Baroque churches alternate with secluded corners and towering above the town square is the spire of the cathedral, whilst the splendour of the superb palaces is heightened by the quiet charm of the cobbled streets and public areas full of flowers and greenery.
As the spiritual metropolis of Moravia for 1000 years, the town offers a uniquely magical atmosphere, filled with superb churches and masterworks. The most prominent church is the thousand-year-old Saint Wenceslas’ Cathedral, in the compound of the Olomouc Castle. It was renovated and rebuilt many times, with varied styles of different ages, like Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque, but always retaining the original features. One of its three spires at 328 feet, is the second-highest in the country.
The Holy Trinity Column, is an outstanding example of Baroque, with a rare honour of being individually inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Built shortly after the plague which struck Moravia (nowadays in the Czech Republic) between 1714 and 1716, it is exceptional because of its monumentality, rich decoration and unusual combination of sculptural material (stone and gilded copper). It is the largest group of Baroque statues within a single sculptural monument in Central Europe with 18 sculpted saints, 12 light bearer figures and 6 relief busts of the apostles, and a prominent sculptural group of the ‘Assumption of Virgin Mary’, offerings of Cain (crop), Abel (firstlings of his flock), Noah (first burnt offering after the Flood, Abraham (Isaac and lamb), and Jesus’ death. For centuries, Olomouc belonged to the most significant residence of the Czech monarchy and Empress Maria Theresa with her husband Francis of Lorraine, is said to have participated in the consecration of this column in 1754.
The archdiocese acquired large tracts of land, especially in northern Moravia, and was one of the richest in the area. The Archdiocese Museum in the buildings of the former Olomouc Castle is the city’s most extensive historical sight. Though very modern, it was constructed to blend in and complement the surrounding ancient structures. With relics and artefacts of the church, Museum showcases the spiritual culture of the Olomouc Archdiocese. A picture gallery displays marvellous paintings collected by Olomouc bishops since the 16th century. A concert hall called “Mozarteum” is part of the Romanesque Archbishop’d Palace. It has been named to commemorate the stay of the famous composer at this place (later, Steve showed me the house of Mozart where he lived and composed his sixth symphony).
Prominently displayed was the splendid ceremonial carriage of Cardinal Ferdinand Julius Troyer (18th century). Richly gilded, the magnificent coach had Rococo carvings in the seating space and pictures on all sides depicting classical mythology. This great piece of art weighs three tonnes and is priceless. I am sure the reverend was much envied for enjoying such luxuries! More wonders showed up at the treasure room. Dazzling diamonds, rubies, emeralds of the highest quality and value were encrusted in monstrances, reliquaries and chalices etc. With subtle lighting in the black room the exhibits glistened and created a mystic aura.
John Sarkander’s chapel is an attractive structure. He was a priest who was tortured to death in Olomouc prison in the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, because he, as the legend says, refused to break the seal of confession. Surprisingly, Olomouc’s town hall is still being used as the town hall. Most of the Czech civics have moved to more modern facilities. This 600-year-old structure dominates the main square and is a natural meeting place for locals and visitors. A four-winged building with an inner courtyard, its intricately carved stone window frames of St Jerome’s chapel (with a unique ribbed vault), the elegant double staircase and Renaissance loggia at the eastern end of the town hall are striking. A number of original vaulted rooms, including a ceremonial hall (now used for weddings) have been preserved to this day. After climbing the 140 steps of the tower, we had an amazing view of the city with its roof lines. Looking down, we saw a row of vintage cars lined up for a car race that day. Later, we admired all those classic beauties as the race started. There was also a wedding procession, the bridal couple briefly stopped at the Holy Trinity Coloumn’s chapel to pray before proceeding to the church.
The original medieval astronomical clock on the front side of Town Hall is a rarity. From the 15th century Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque, it has undergone many changes with time. The clock was reconstructed after World War II in socialist realist style with figures of workers, sportsmen and rural folk in procession.
Olomouc has a collection of six Baroque fountains in the central area, (Caesar, Mercury, Jupiter, Hercules, Arion and Triton fountains, all built at various times between 1688 and 1727) and are well maintained even today.
I was excited to spot a Bata shop in Olomouc. Steve said that Tomas Bata, hailed from Moravia, and started Bata Shoe Company with his family’s long history of shoe making, spanning eight generations, over three hundred years. He was pleased when I told him that every Indian city boasts at least three to four Bata shops.
The ancient University Founded in 1573, as part of an effort to re-establish Roman Catholicism in the country, plays a very important role in the life of the town. City services are mostly student oriented and closed during holidays and the university exam periods. It being summer vacation, we found the roads almost empty. I met a Pakistani couple from Lahore, and four Indians, all working and living in Olomouc.
Despite its considerable charms, Olomouc has not been discovered by tourists in the same way as Prague or Cesky Krumlov. As tourism spreads far and wide, soon people may realise that this beautiful and quiet town, can offer windows into Central European history and culture. Or is it better that Olomouc is left alone...and have only an occasional visitor peep into its treasure trove?