This week, we'll be visiting the town of Jihlava, which is located at the very border of Bohemia and Moravia, dividing the eastern and western parts of the Czech Republic. In fact, no-one knows which of the two regions it belongs to and town residents agree that it spreads over both of them. Jihlava has a population of 53,000 and its earliest written record dates back to the 12th century when it was founded thanks to the discovery of silver.
"According to legend, silver was discovered thanks to a pot maker who lived in a little settlement that was established above the ford that crossed the river Jihlava. No matter how much he tried, he could not prevent his pots from cracking whenever he put them into the furnace to be baked. One day, a merchant came by and found the problem when he inspected the broken pieces. The clay that the pot-maker had been using contained bits of silver ore. The merchant proceeded to buy the pot maker's land and that's why the settlement grew and the Church of John the Baptist was built."
The church can still be admired today and the preserved Romanesque foundations in the presbytery show that it was built shortly before the year 1200. But the town of Jihlava was actually founded on the opposite side of the river, after the merchant's discovery of silver ore attracted numerous miners, craftsmen, and merchants from all over Europe. Protected by a mighty fortification, it soon became one of the most powerful towns in the kingdom. The town even had a license to die-stamp coins. However, its glory was not to last for long as less than two centuries later, most of the silver was extracted and what remained was flushed away by floods and earthquakes.
However, Jihlava held an important position in judicial law as it was the first in Central Europe to codify its own municipal and mining laws, becoming the seat of the Supreme Mining Board for several centuries. Today, Jihlava's glorious period is remembered with a procession through the historic centre that's organised every two years in June. Jana Novotna again:
"After a 32 year break, the procession was re-started in 1999. It is one of the biggest attractions in the city. Miners parade themselves in their traditional costumes. These are authentic costumes that were repaired at the Vysočina Museum. The equipment used by the miners is also authentic. What I find most interesting is that they show up as if they really just came out of the mines. It seems like the floor of part of the square opens up out of nowhere and the people in the procession appear from below. Their walk through the historical centre attracts numerous visitors every time."
Following the decline of the silver mining era, Jihlava soon recovered thanks to the textile industry, eventually becoming the second largest textile producer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, a fire, the Swedish occupation during the Thirty Year War and a number of other factors saw the town transformed several times over the centuries. Although mainly in Baroque style today, Jihlava had numerous houses surviving from the Renaissance with courtyards and large underground passages. One of its biggest attractions is the St. Ignatius Jesuit Church, built in early Baroque style in the last quarter of the seventeenth century.
"I am now standing on what's most likely one of the biggest town squares in the country with an area of over 36,000 m2. In front of me is a large column called the Plague Column that was built in the late seventeenth century as an expression of gratitude for sparing the town from the plague. Apparently, in the Middle Ages, an execution place and a pillory stood here. Two water fountains also decorate the square with the sandstone sculptures of the antique gods Neptune and Aphrodite. But one building that certainly seems out of place, disturbing the peaceful atmosphere of the square is that of a department store built in the 1980s. The city has come up with a number of ways to make the square more aesthetic without tearing down the building and one of the most popular suggestions is to cover it in mirrors that will reflect the historical buildings surrounding the square.
While it may not appear so at first sight, there are 213 protected heritage sites in Jihlava's historical centre. To get a breathtaking view of all the sites from above, those of you - unlike myself - who do not suffer from vertigo, can climb up the 63-metre high lookout tower at St. Jacobs's Church. I myself, preferred to go underground."
Jihlava's catacombs - or underground passages - after those in Znojmo are the second largest in Moravia. Radka Pechova is a tour guide.
"The underground passages are 25 km long. There are three levels, the lowest 12m below ground. For quite a long time, historians believed the passages were galleries of ancient silver mines. However, the idea came about that they were built for military purposes. But it looks like they really came to being when the merchants moved here. Jihlava was established on an important crossroad of trade routes and when silver mining reduced, trading and crafting became popular. Traders started to widen their cellars to store products and that's how the passages came to being."
Should you decide to visit the catacombs, I suggest you wear a sweater. Average temperatures down here lie at around seven degrees Celsius. With the ground made up of mostly granite and gneiss it took experienced miners much effort to build the passageways. Apparently they worked in pairs while one dug and the other carried the rubble away. Although digging is probably the wrong word to use as they managed to clear a mere 2.5 centimetres a day. It was obviously very tough manual labour and that's why most of these men only lived to be around forty years old. Radka Pechova claims that one local woman actually had thirty husbands because they all died early due to the hard work. But the main attraction of Jihlava's catacombs is one particular part that has a rather spooky atmosphere...
"This is the so-called shining corridor. It was discovered in 1978. The walls are covered with a milky coating. After they are exposed to light, they shine green. Specialists tried to determine how this coating came here. Some said it was phosphorous release d from the bones of monks who are buried above us. Then they said an unknown organic substance is behind it. The most likely explanation is that Nazi officials painted the walls to have some light while they were hiding underground."
After the freezing catacombs, my colleague suggested I try some of Jihlava's famous brew to get my body temperature back to normal. Back in the eighteenth century, of the 450 buildings in the city centre 112 of them were allowed to brew beer - that's every fourth house. The beer that prevails is called the Jihlavsky Jezek or the Jihlava Hedgehog. Why "hedgehog" ? Jana Novotna:
"The name of the city - Jihlava - most probably comes from the German word for hedgehog - Igel. According to legend, many hedgehogs were in the way when the town and its fortifications were built. The hedgehog has now become the symbol of our city."
And it's clearly visible. No matter where you go in Jihlava, you will always come across the hedgehog in various forms. The best however, is in its liquid form.
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