It was growing dark. Bells tolled, drums rumbled in the distance. Thousands of people milled about cobbled streets, lined with Gothic, Renaissance and Art Nouveau buildings, spiced by turrets and domes. Market stalls offered lavish gingerbread hearts, baskets and giant balloons. I succumbed to a wooden lemon-squeezer: Moravsky Bramborak (potato pancakes) sizzled, turning golden in bubbling oil. Sausages dangled on strings, a pig revolved slowly on a spit.
Children marched about waving small wooden swords, inhaling cotton candy, clutching giant balloons. There were bands performing country music - Czech-style - and Glory, Glory Hallelujah, while dancers enthusiastically joined in. 'Historical music' by Lucrezia Borgia, buffoons on a handcart. And everywhere, in the ancient squares: Wenceslas, Nicolas - there were stalls offering red and white burcak, a slightly-fizzy, seemingly-mild, ultimately powerful drink made from the fermented must of grapes from the harvest. (Moravians believe that it's necessary to drink 7 litres a year to clean out the system.) Soon, it was time to find a spot to view the parade which celebrates the annual Burcak (Young Wine) Festival in the South Moravian town of Znojmo. (Say the j like a y and you can pronounce it.)
More drums, and the parade began: a medieval tapestry come to life with dulcimers. There were priests, churls waving flags, demure maidens, jugglers and a dozen stilt-walkers. Knights in armour clanked by. Bare-chested executioners in red masks were followed by roped prisoners pitifully begging for help. One troop carried falcons, another struggled to control surging whippets and greyhounds. A fourteenth-century monarch, King John of Luxembourg and his spouse, Eliska Premyslovna, rode past, graciously waving to the population. At the end, a band of raucous grape-strewn nymphs cavorted. The procession headed for Masaryk Square, for an exuberant performance featuring duelling flame-throwers. And then the fireworks began.
There was another parade next day, just as much fun, executioners more sinister by daylight. We particularly enjoyed the entertainment in the Chicken Market. There were puppets, of course. Teeny-bopper belly dancers waved fans, followed by stern seven and eight-year-old taekwondo types breaking bricks with fists and feet. There were sacred concerts in churches, brass bands and horoscopes, fortune telling in Vlk's Tower and buffoons.
Knights jousted in a tournament at the immense Baroque Louka Monastery. Barrel wine sales and wine-tastings were also on offer. (Drivers and teetotallers get a small souvenir bottle.) Louka, founded in 1190, was abolished as a monastery in 1784. Among the notable monks was Saint, Klement Maria Hofbauer (1750-1820), a local boy, who began working in the bakery before studying Theology and becoming a missionary. Prokop Divis was a famous scientist who invented the Denis d'Or, the first electrified musical instrument and built a 'weather-machine' between 1750-54, a version of the lightning rod, before Benjamin Franklin's theories were well known in Europe.
For a time, Louka was a military academy for the sprigs of Viennese nobility (Znojmo is near the Austrian border.) The Soviets used it as a military barracks during their occupation. Since 1992, it has been rented by Znovin Znojmo, a consortium of local wine-growers. Nearly a million bottles are maturing in the vast Gothic cellars. There is a wine archive with half a million bottles dating back to 1945, an art gallery, shop and museum. The railway bridge nearby was designed by Eiffel, of tower fame. They also own Sobes, in the heart of a national park. One of the most beautiful of vineyards, it resembles an innocent Mayan temple.
Vinobrani (Wine Festivities) are held during September every year in Southern Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, but the celebrations in the Royal town of Znojmo are especially elaborate. It seemed that half the 34,640 citizens were in the festival, the other half watching. It takes the 1,000-member cast half a year to prepare. Approximately 60,000 visitors attended last year.
Only Czech Airlines (www.czechairlines.com) fly direct to Prague from Toronto or Montreal. It's a treat. They don't make you take off your shoes, you eat with proper knives and forks and you can enjoy Moravian wine
Mary Alice Downie writes for Kingston Life Magazine and contributes to Fifty-five Plus, Good Times, Forever Young and many other magazines as well as a food blog, 'Edible Souvenirs' on the website
kingstonlife.ca. She is the author of 28 books for children and adults.
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