The Czech poet Jan Skácel once described Mikulov as a piece of Italy moved to Moravia by God’s hand.
On a quiet afternoon in this ancient town, which is the heart of a fertile winemaking region, one can truly experience the peaceful atmosphere so typical of the south of Europe.
It envelops you as you stroll through the half-deserted Renaissance town and as you gaze out over the valley, whose white rocks stretch out toward the horizon. Some say that Mikulov is a place where you can dream undisturbed with your eyes open. And there are those who think this dream could easily be real.
Photos: Mikulov's town square (© Jan Miklín), Chateau in Mikulov (© Ladislav Renner)
When you first look around in Mikulov, there is almost nothing to hint at the town’s eventful history, which dates back to the 11th century. Near the Amber Road, on which Roman traders set off on adventurous journeys as far as the Baltic Sea in search of the rare resin, initially there were just small settlements. In the Middle Ages, King Přemysl Otakar II had a castle built at this strategic point to protect the border between Moravia and Austria. Not long thereafter, the castle was passed on to Jindřich of Liechtenstein for his faithful service, and the glorious history of the town began in earnest.
A town famous for its tolerance
During the governance of the Liechtensteins in the first half of the 16th century, the town became a place of religious refuge, first for an Anabaptist sect known as the Habans and a few years later for a sizeable Jewish community. Perhaps the most tolerant town in Europe at that time, Mikulov became uncommonly prosperous because of it, and the town gradually became not only the centre of Anabaptism but also the seat of the provincial rabbi. This post was once held by the famous Rabbi Jehuda Löw, who, according to legend, was the creator of the mythical Golem of Prague.
While the Jewish quarter succumbed many years ago to a terrible fire, you can still visit the synagogue and walk through the second biggest Jewish cemetery in the Czech Republic. You can admire the craftsmanship and winemaking skills of the Habans at a winemaking exhibition at the chateau, but also when visiting the nearby Haban cellars, the largest of the wine cellars built in Moravia by members of this Anabaptist sect.
Over the town’s long history, the Mikulov Castle and Chateau experienced periods of unprecedented glory but also complete devastation. It was besieged often and was conquered by many armies, which repeatedly advanced through the region from one major European battlefield to the next. Several times it succumbed to fire, only to rise again, like a phoenix from the ashes, in a new and even more spectacular form. During the Napoleonic and Austro-Prussian wars in the 19th century, it became a stop-off point for some of the greatest military commanders of all time, who negotiated peace treaties here that changed the map of Europe for many years to come.
The site of peace treaties
In 1805, after the Battle of Austerlitz near Slavkov, Emperor Napoleon spent a few days here to conclude peace negotiations with Austria. His stay here is commemorated in an exhibition at the chateau, and once a year the town comes alive with a re-enactment of those historic events. Half a century later, in 1866, peace talks were conducted here by the leaders of Austria and Prussia. The chateau became the Prussian headquarters of King Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck. Conditions negotiated in Mikulov were confirmed by the so-called Peace of Prague, which ended the Austro-Prussian War.
Photos: Otto von Bismarck, Maria Theresa
Photos: Napoleon I, Wilhelm I
The next chapter of Mikulov’s illustrious story begins in 1575, when the Liechtensteins were succeeded as lords of the domain by the Dietrichstein family, with whose achievements and failures, both political and economic, the fate of the town and its inhabitants were directly connected for nearly four centuries.
The most prominent figure of the family was Cardinal František Dietrichstein, nicknamed the Moravian king, who in troubled times marked by prolonged tensions between Catholics and non-Catholics turned Mikulov into a centre of culture and education. The cardinal, closely connected to the Italian cultural milieu of the day, began by gradually rebuilding the austere castle fortress into a representative Renaissance residence which corresponded to the social standing of a cardinal. He transferred his office and the entire court to Mikulov, amassed one of the largest and most valuable libraries in Europe here, and established the first Piarist college outside of Italy.
The chateau preserved its Mannerist-style appearance for a mere hundred years. After a devastating fire in 1719, it was rebuilt in the Baroque style. Nor was it spared further fires. Mikulov experienced its last major fire at the end of the Second World War. In the 1950s the chateau complex was restored in its Baroque form, and today it houses the Mikulov Regional Museum.