The Czech Republic's second city is the first choice for some expats

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon in Brno and I'm tucked away on the second floor of a trendy café adjacent to the newly refurbished square with fellow expat Ivan from Macedonia.

We've met to discuss life in Brno, and for Ivan the tranquility of the city is one of its only redeeming features.

"Prague is way better than Brno," he tells me. "Compared to Prague, Brno is filthy."

Indeed, Brno has a bit of a dishevelled feel, and the relative shortage of eagerly spoken English and fairytale architecture have for many years begged an unfavourable comparison with her Bohemian rival.

On the other hand, a recent boom in local demand for international IT professionals like Ivan could help change the city's provincial image.

As a host to such big names in the IT industry as Siemens, IBM, FEI, SGI, Vodafone, Honeywell Controls and Symbol Technologies, the Czech Technology Park in Brno is becoming a mecca for foreign IT talent seeking a comfortable life in Central Europe.

IBM alone can now boast 70 nationalities.

Many of those I spoke with were mostly attracted by the job opportunities and arrived without high expectations for their adopted city. As I soon learned, however, some of those who relocated for the livelihood have stayed for the lifestyle.

Tony left everything behind in Kansas to take advantage of what Brno has to offer in the IT field, as well as to travel in Europe. He's content with his new home and insists he could never live in Prague.

"Prague is too busy. Brno is less hectic ... there are fewer people here."

I have to agree. Though the population of Brno is around 370,000, it feels much smaller. An afternoon spent in the city center almost guarantees I'll run into someone I know.

Historic & Cultural Attractions
Like me, Tony also appreciates Brno's historic and cultural attractions.

Though the beautiful buildings are not so densely situated as in Prague and the choice of festivals, exhibitions, and other events not nearly as exhaustive, there are plenty of cultural activities in Brno.

Rebuilt in the 17th century, Špilberk castle is one of several national historic sites located in Brno and the best place to watch the fireworks on holidays and at the kick-off to Brno's Museum Night (Brněnská muzejní noc), when 14 museums and galleries are open to the public, free of charge, until 12:30am.

A number of cozy art theatres host a slew of film festivals throughout the year, and you can check another UNESCO site off your list after a visit to Villa Tugendhat, a unique example of modernist architecture.

My personal favorite from among the historic fare is the precipitous, cobblestone path up Petrov hill to the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul (Katedrála sv. Petra a Pavla). The original cathedral was erected in the 11th century, but was rebuilt in the early 1900s in a rugged and imposing neo-Gothic style.

Dining & Nightlife
Having spent seven years in Skopje, Ivan is understandably less impressed with Brno's historic sites, but we all agree that Brno has great pubs.

One of the most popular is the Pegas brewery just off the main square on Jakubská street. The building itself dates back to the 14th century and the large space and thick wooden ceiling beams give it the feel of a medieval public house. Donning their signature red aprons and sullen expressions, the barmen serve three different types of delicious micro-brewed lagers and one wheat beer.

For the freshest Pilsner Urquell and pork knees in town, try Bláhovka (Restaurace U Bláhovky) just north of the center on Gorkého street.

If your tastes are a bit too sophisticated for pork by the kilo and beer by the half-liter, there's no need to worry, as cafés, wine cellars, restaurants, and dance clubs abound in the city center and environs.

Tony’s only complaint about Brno nightlife is the rarity of arena rock concerts and the scarcity of eclectic international cuisine.

Cost of Living
There's also consensus among Brno expats about the cost of living.

As Ivan explains, "I don't think I could buy a car here, but the public transportation is good and I have what I need." According to the Czech Statistical Office (Český statistický úřad), in 2007 the average monthly salary in Southern Moravia was 19,036 CZK and though prices seem to be rising faster than salaries in Brno, everyone I spoke with was happy with their accommodation.

A quick scan of realty websites shows 2+1 apartments in the center with monthly rents starting at around 8,000 CZK, and those thinking of relocating with their families can find fair prices on larger apartments just outside the center.

Mariusz moved from Poland with his family in 2005 after being offered a technical position in Brno and decided to enroll his daughters in the Czech public school system. Both girls were given 71 hours of free Czech language instruction over the course of a semester before starting school and Mariusz beams with paternal pride when he tells me "they are like Czech girls now."

Mariusz and his wife are very happy with the public school system in Brno, especially with the after-school activities, specialized instruction, and communication between teachers and parents.

He admits, however, that the integration process would probably be much more difficult for older children or those from non-Slavic countries.

For those who prefer their children study at an international school, Evropská základní škola a mateřská škola Brno offers primary education in both English and Czech and as it is heavily subsidized by the city and region, there are no tuition fees at present.

Though it is currently not accredited as an international school, the facilities look first rate and the headmaster was very friendly and helpful in response to my queries.

The curriculum emphasizes multiculturalism and European citizenship -- values that will no longer be just academic abstractions if Brno continues to be such a magnet for foreign IT workers.


"Prague is way better than Brno" Compared to Prague Brno, is filthy"

"Everyone is entitled to their point of view regarding the relative merits of Prague vs Brno. I lived in Prague for eight years and have now moved back to Brno so I have my own opinion!

"However to say that Brno is filthy compared to Prague is simply not true.In my experience, most large Czech provincial cities such as Ceske Budejovice,Hradec Kralove,Olomouc and Brno are much cleaner than most areas of the capital city with the exception of Prague 6 and possibly the tourist centre."

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