Kutná Hora came highly recommended by a good friend. The way he put it, if you do a weekend trip to Prague, it would be criminal not to swing by this quaint little town. Silver was found here sometime in the 10th century and the consequent mining and allied businesses catapulted the town to great prominence between the 13th and 16th centuries. In fact, it was in direct competition with Prague as an economic and cultural center. For such a small town, the density of monuments and places of cultural significance is truly astounding.
However, what motivated us to wake up at 4 in the morning (when many of our hostel mates were just getting back and ready to crash), wrap ourselves in our thickest scarves and make it in time for that morning train ride was, I admit, our ghoulish fascination with the ossuary in Sedlec. Somewhere within us, our 10 year old selves still live, and assert themselves lustily at times like these. We could barely contain our excitement when we saw the sign at the train stop that said “Sedlec.” And nothing about the stop itself betrayed the wonders that lay beyond those desolate tracks.
We made our way to the information center at Sedlec and got maps and some pointers about entry tickets. We needed coffee and calories before we started exploring. A tiny coffee shop was spotted near the ossuary which had excellent honey cake and half decent coffee.
We visited the church of the Assumption of our Lady, a beautiful Gothic church with high, vaulted ceilings, a conch-shaped spiral staircase and creamy interiors glowing in the morning sun. It was the perfect counterpoint to our next stop, the ossuary.
A small graveyard served as our entry point to the church that housed the ossuary. It is said to house between 40-70,000 human skeletons. The abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Sedlec is believed to have sprinkled some of the earth that he brought back with him from his sojourns in the Holy Lands (specifically Golgotha) on this property. The graveyard attained a holy aura and became a highly desirable catholic burial site in Central Europe. The Black Plague of the mid-14th century and the Hussite wars of the early 15th century complicated things a bit. The abbey could no longer keep up with the new arrivals. The existing Gothic church was built with a lower level that would function as an ossuary. A half-blind monk of the order was in charge of organizing the bones that were dug up from the existing grave site. From the little that I have read, it appears that he made neat piles or stacks, similar to how bones have been organized in ossuaries in other parts of Europe. The current, more macabre, yet aesthetically pleasing arrangement is the brain-child of František Rint, a wood carver, who was employed to re-organize the bones in 1870. Standing at the entrance to the ossuary, you have to wonder, at what point while looking at this pile of human remains did it strike him, that this was his life’s work, the work that he would put his signature to. Which he did, in bone.
You had to admire the elaborate central chandelier that contains at least one of every bone in the human body, flanked by garlands of skulls, bone crucifixes, smaller bone chandeliers and towers of skulls and cross bones.
What we loved the best was the coat of arms, such attention to detail, the bones arranged as if woven together.
At most of the Catholic burial sites that I have been to, an awareness of mortality hangs heavy in the air. Death is serious business. And there is no escaping the finality of it: the fact that people who once were are no more. The bizarre arrangement of bones in the ossuary somehow deprives death of that seriousness and finality. It appears more likely that these people shed their skeletons and walked into an alternate dimension.
From the ossuary we walked to the Italian Court. It was the seat of the Royal mint, a store for the silver ore and royal abode all rolled into one. There was a wedding in progress and the place was cordoned off.
We decided to walk to St. Barbara’s church directly and skip the museums and churches in between. The weather was slightly warmer now and the walk through the quaint, narrow streets with their tiny boutique shops and buildings painted in pastel colors with ribbons and calligraphy was a real pleasure.
However, none of this prepared us for the approach to the church: a walkway lined with statues of saints and religious figures on one side and the stately Jesuit College on the other. The railing with the statues gave way to a steep slope draped with terraced vineyards. Late autumn fog obscured the church from view until mid-walkway, the spires emerged, and as you got closer, the rest of the church revealed itself in all it’s majesty. Sandeep and I are both convinced that this place was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s Gondor. It feels magical, in an ancient, sacred kind of way.
We walked through the church, taking in the extravagant stained glass windows, the high, vaulted ceiling, the flying buttresses. The ceiling was dominated by coats of arms. Since the church was dedicated to St. Barbara, the patron Saint of miners, there were quite a few representations of miners and mining within the church. When you realize that a lack of funds led to less than half of the original plan being realized, you try to imagine what that might have looked like. And then you accept that you can’t. You are overwhelmed by what you see in front of you.
From the terrace of the nearby chapel, we spent some time admiring the flying buttresses, truly magnificent and wing-like on this church. The relative isolation of the church, the beautiful gardens surrounding it, and the vineyards on the slope, make this terrace a place of quiet meditation. We are thankful for this chance to rest a bit before we continue.
After we leave the church, we decide to step into a nearby restaurant for lunch. It was one of the best serendipitous food discoveries of our lives. It was not that the fare offered was particularly unique or the service particularly stellar. It is just that the food was prepared perfectly. It was clear that everything tasted precisely how it was supposed to taste: the beef in the goulash tender but not pulpy, the sauce of exactly the right consistency, the bramboraky (potato pancakes) crispy on the outside while soft within and mildly spiced, the sausages with just enough heat.
The beer was great and what was supposed to be a quick lunch turned into an hour long indulgence. We realized that we had ten minutes to get back to the train station. The guys in the restaurant told us it was a 45 minute walk and gave us the directions to the nearest taxi stand.
Surprise! Surprise! There were no taxis at the taxi stand. We weighed our options: the 45 minute walk versus hitching a ride vs hoping a taxi would magically appear in the next five minutes. We decided to make a run for it. Considering our height and how fast we ran that day (we broke our existing records), it was a true miracle that we made it to the station on time. Also a 45 minute walk is a 5 minute run for Usain Bolts like us. Or that guy at the restaurant was messing with us. Or we defied the laws of Physics.
When we got back to Prague, we had a quick cuppa’and headed to the Vyšehrad. It is quieter here and the views of the city and the Vtlava are breathtaking. Within the fort, there is a cemetery where many notable Czech citizens are buried like Alphonse Mucha and Karel Čapek. There were a series of gardens and structures within. We spent most of our time there walking through the gardens.
We stumbled into the Basilica of St Peter and Paul but after our encounter with St. Barbara’s earlier that day, we found our sense of wonder significantly depleted. It was a lovely church with an art deco inspired interior. However, we were still processing everything we had seen earlier in Kutná Hora. We called it a day and headed back to Wenceslas Square to have an early dinner. The cobbled streets of Prague and the 5-minute-Physics-defying-run had done a number on our feet at this point and the Thai Massage parlors around the square with their neon-lit rickshaws at the entrance became increasingly hard to resist. We got the 30 minute foot massage which came with a complementary cup of green tea: Bliss. My feet felt the love and kept thanking me through dinner (Goulash at a non-descript joint near the square). That night we slept like babies.