South Moravia is well-known for its wine, which has been produced there at least since thirsty Roman soldiers far from home began doing so in the 2nd century. Move forward a thousand years or so, to the 13th century, and wine trading had become one of the most profitable businesses in the region. Those are the days that our destination for today stretches back to.
The village of Kurdějov is just a tiny pinprick on the map, about half-way between Brno and Břeclav, and there are just enough inhabitants for each of them to have their own day of the year. But while easy to overlook, Kurdějov is notable for many ancient features, all born of the fact that this is one of the oldest winegrowing communities in the region.
In fact the first time anyone mentioned Kurdějov in writing it was about wine, specifically the sale of vineyards, in 1286. Such was the local wine then valued that the four sons of the local nobleman agreed, around 80 years later, that “all the wine from the hills of Kurdějov be divided into four parts, so that none might be diluted”. To describe the village of those days is Antonie Němečková, a businesswoman and promoter of Moravian wine.
"Kurdějov is one of the oldest vineyard communities it the country, and whichever direction you look in, the hills there used to be covered in vineyards. The village was German-speaking and has more than 1,000 inhabitants. It was an affluent community, and between all the fields there were wine cellars. The fortified church is also a testament to the wealth of the village. The fortifications were erected to protect against the raids of those who wanted to plunder the village."
There were lots of enemies, to be sure, from Turks and Hungarian rebels to rapacious Swedes. Most of them took the added effort of burning the village down, while the Transylvanian prince Gabriel Bethlen actually took 400 of the villagers as slaves. The people of Kurdějov were ready for the Tartars, at least. During their onslaught the villagers did a great deal of damage to them thanks to the useful presence of a fortified church - today one of the oldest monuments in South Bohemia. The church was here as early as 1350, with the fortifications added later. Miroslav Žemlička, a guide in the church, describes some of its interesting features.
"The bells come from 1456, 1469 and 1606. During the First Republic their value was estimated at half a million crowns, but today they are priceless. The tower adjacent to the church used to be 53 metres. Today its height is 45 metres because previous repairs and other work had to decrease it to keep it from falling over."
Also part of the fortification is the chapel of All Saints.
"The encroachment of foreign troops or other enemies in the village could be prevented not only from the city walls but also through the crenels, or battlements with arrow slits, on the chapel. Previously the chapel and the church were connected by a bridge. It’s not here today because it collapsed sometime during the 18th century, so the church and the tower can only be reached from the outside."
While lovely today, history has taken away some of the once grand features of the tower. Each floor originally had four smaller turrets, the tops of which had green weathercocks and stars. Harder for time to erase is the set of underground tunnels beneath the tower, accessible from the nearby wine bar, where Miroslav Žemlička offers a local speciality - spirit of almond (the neighbouring town of Hustopeče hosts the only almond orchard in the country). It’s a good courage booster for what lies ahead.
"Now I’ll be taking you into the local underground corridors. Among other things they served as a hiding place when the village was attacked. There are 340 metres of tunnels here, and one of them went all the way to the church in Hustopeče. If you go by the road, that’s three kilometres away, but in the 15th century these tunnels were 12 kilometres long. With land changing hands over so many years though, and various waves of settlement, the better part of the corridors did not survive. There is this section and then another in Hustopeče in the cellar of a pub."
The corridors get narrower and lower and wind around more and more the further one goes. It used to be that neither the church nor the corridors were secured, and Mr Žemlička would visit them as a boy, so he has their every nook well mapped out. Today the area is accessible only on reservation.
"When you go into the corridors the first tunnel on the right is a dead end. At the end is a flight of stairs and beyond them a metal door. That was the original entrance to the cellars. And if you keep going straight then you’ll come to the church, which you will recognise because there are stairs going up that are covered by concrete slabs. That corridor goes up to the altar. We are about 20 metres under the surface now and it get’s quite damp. I’ll light your candles now and you can go inside..."
Though Kurdějov was originally a Czech village - which we know, among other things, because almost all of the recorded correspondence was written in Czech), a strong German influence beginning in the Renaissance overcame the settlement in the centuries to come. By 1921 there were 881 Germans, 19 Czechs and 16 ‘foreigners’ living in 212 homes there. After the Second World War, that situation radically changed. Antonie Němečková, again.
"After the expulsion of the Germans the population here went overnight from 1,000 to two people. So the village was doomed until they began resettling the borders. A lot of the people who received houses here didn’t know how to deal with owning property, they didn’t know how to take care of a house. So when the roof caved in on them they just moved to the next empty house. Gradually almost all the property in the village was destroyed in this way. After the revolution, in 1993, I met a married couple from Austria who were taking a picture of one of the houses, so I invited them to come have a look at what was new in Kurdějov. They had tears in their eyes and said they had been born in that house, not told us not to worry, that they don’t want it back, they had just come to look and see how it was doing."
Today Kurdějov is far from a backwater. It is a much sought after retreat for private and business gatherings, with tennis courts, hotels and of course vineyards and wine tastings. There are plenty of different wines from different vintners on hand for you to try out, thanks in part to Mrs Němečkova’s business efforts.
"We are promoters of Moravian wine, and the way we decided to do that by building the biggest wine bars. We selected one hundred winemakers and took six wines from each. Then we selected from that, and now we support what we believe are thirty truly excellent winemakers."
Kurdějov and its surroundings offer a beautiful environment for all kinds of interests, be they historical, sporting, or wine-related, and a visit to the nearby almond orchard in Hustopeče, a botanical rarity, is not to be forgotten. Almonds need a lot more warmth than the Czech Republic would normally offer, and out of what was once tens of thousands of trees only about 800 remain. But the town is determined to hold on to it in spite of the difficulties.
Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 9, 2011.