What a Palava!
Jan’s forebears looking down from sepia photos with knowing smiles.
It’s one of many highlights on a whistlestop tour of South Moravia, a region with more than 17,000 hectares of vineyards and oodles of charm, traditions and castles.
Most of it can be found within a two-hour drive of the Czech Republic’s second city, Brno, or better still as part of a cycle tour through the countryside.
It’s fair to say we don’t talk much about Brno. But with regular flights from Stansted, it’s a perfect stop-off en route to this relatively unknown district.
Don’t be in any hurry to move on, though. Brno may not match capital Prague in the sightseeing stakes, but it’s an enchanting city, with a young, energetic vibe.
Outside our base for the first night – the imposing Hotel Grandezza – vegetable and flower growers arrive early to sell their wares in the aptly named Cabbage Market, a daily ritual since the 13th century.
For a culinary treat, the hottest ticket in town is Element, a cool, tastefully decorated and surprisingly reasonable restaurant and bar in the city centre.
It’s run by well-travelled head chef Tomas Reger and renowned drinks expert Jan Liska, who met in Dubai and decided to return home to Brno to showcase their talents.
The restaurant was launched to great fanfare before having to shut after just one day when the pandemic struck. However, as the country returned to something approaching normality, it quickly gained a reputation for excellence and the five-star reviews followed, making booking in advance strongly advised.
My delicious trio of fish croquettes, grilled pork and deconstructed cheesecake came in at 730 Czech Koruna (£25).
Suitably refreshed, we go to Valtice Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of central Europe’s most impressive baroque residences, where the powerful Liechtenstein family once lived.
We head down into the caverns for a wine-tasting session. More than 100 varieties await,
each summarised on poster boards with information on everything from their sugar content and acidity, to their sensory characteristics.
The cellars quickly fill with visitors and, as the sample wines disappear, so the noise levels rise, creating quite an atmosphere.
Although my taste is for dry white and red wines, I’m smitten by the sweeter Palava. It’s a treat then to travel to the Sonberk Winery, nestled in 40 hectares of vines in the foothills of the Palava hills to sample more.
It’s like tasting Palava wines in 3D. And it’s no surprise to see an image of the vineyard on the cover of the encyclopaedic Wine Explorers tome, selected above hundreds of other pictures of vineyards from across the world.
Only a small batch of the 100,000 bottles produced by Sonberk each year makes it to the UK, with most consumed in the Czech Republic. I can’t resist taking a bottle of the Palava home for 300 Koruna (£10).
I envy the villagers and winemakers in Vrbice and, further east in Petrov, who can shelter their wines in cool caverns, ready to share on warm summer evenings.
Ancient traditions abound in this region, with thousands flocking to the annual Ride of the Kings.
Locals in traditional folk costumes parade through the village on horses, before entertaining the crowds with dancing and singing, a ritual that dates back more than 200 years.
At the front of the parade is the ‘king’, a 12-year-old boy with a rose in his mouth and two accomplices. Behind them, 18-year-old boys from the village form an honour guard, waving swords to ‘protect’ the king.
They tease the crowds, encouraging them to drop money into a pouch to help cover the costs of the
Wines are sheltered in cool caverns, ready to share on warm nights
costumes – said to be up to £3,000.
It’s all great fun until one of them points his sword at me and bellows something in Czech, sparking great laughter among the hordes. I empty my pockets into the pouch, then ask a couple in the crowd what was said.
“He was making fun of the fact you don’t have a beer belly and that you must like wine, not beer,” they say.
As insults go, I’m more than happy with that, even though it’s not strictly true. To celebrate, I resolve to toast the occasion with my favourite tipple.
Now where’s Frankovka when you need her?