The Church of All Saints (Sedlec) with ossuary beaneath.
Acknowledgement : First a brief nod to my fellow Brit globetrotter and long-time star of TB, Phil Deats (Deats). It was in the very early stages of my having finally decided to take off around the world for 2 years(ish) that I came across Phil’s own blog, discovering he was already long into such an adventure. 26 months and counting at the time I think (!!!). He very kindly answered some questions and offered me some travel tips ahead of my departure. "Cheers again Phil!" I made though an immediate decision not to yet read his undoubtedly fabulous and inspiring blog as I wanted to enter into my own odyssey as on to a blank sheet of paper with no concept of situations and destinations that other people on such journeys may have encountered… however that one initial glance at his blog did flash up his first entry (or thereabouts) of a fascinating, eerie looking ossuary in a town near Prague called Kutná Hora.
Being as I now found myself in Prague I must thank Phil for having brought this fascinating place to my attention. “Keep on truckin’ Phil!”
The guresomely captivating 'Bone chandelier' arrangement in the ossuary.
Kutná Hora is (I forget?) about 1 hour/ 60km by train roughly east of Prague and historically at least an economic power that once vied with it’s neighbour in standing. I can’t deny that principally it’s my morbid curiosity with regards to the ossuary, one of the town’s main tourist draws I think, that has drawn me here today.
You arrive at Kutná Hora station but first you will walk towards what is effectively it’s conjoined sister-town Sedlec and it is here technically that the ossuary resides.
It’s a fairly hefty walk at that (with another 1.5 - 2km before you then arrive in the real centre of the town of Kutná Hora itself. Both towns have had UNESCO World Heritage Site status since the mid ‘90s. Historically the once substantial wealth and politico-military power of the town(s), especially between the 13th to 15th Centuries), was founded on the copious deposits of silver and the attendant boom in silver mining that occurred in the region. This has not been the case for nearly half a Millennia now as the towns principle silver mine was irretrievably flooded in the mid 16th Century. The towns’ prestige also eroded drastically over the centuries through the deleterious effects of various wars, the Austro-Hungarian occupation and numerous devastating plagues.
But back now to the ossuary, the first point of interest you should come across if your map reading skills are on form as you head towards town.
A small Cistercian monastery (the Church of All Saints) sits unassumingly in the sun at the heart of a modestly sized cemetery. This is the Sedlec Monastery and the incredibly gothic Sedlec Ossuary resides within the foundation chamber or crypt of this building. The monastery dates to some 100 years prior to the discovery of the silver deposits and the cemetery to the mid 13th Century. Various factors at this time and over the years led to many, many thousands of people being buried at the site. The main ones being 1) The towns’ increasing populations owing to the development of the silver-mining industry 2) The monastery’s Abbot having supposedly brought back a handful of earth from the Grave of the Lord in Jerusalem and having scattered it all about the cemetery, people of all standings from all over Bohemia then wished to have their own remains interred there it now technically being part of the Holy Land and 3) The large amounts of bodies bequeathed to the earth as a result of recurrent, severe plagues; 30,000 bodies are estimated to be buried here from a Great Plague in 1318 alone!
Silver 'n' Bones.
The macabre ‘creative’ arrangement of the bones that one finds within the ossuary walls are construed largely of skeletal remains reclaimed from renovations to the church and cemetery over the centuries, particularly following its being burnt to the ground in the 15th Century in time of conflict.
There have apparently been various renditions of the ’décor’ over the centuries and it’s current (and final one presumes) form owes itself to the efforts of one Jan Santini Aichl at the beginning of the 18th Century although there have been amendments and additions since.
A Tale : This is possibly not a spot for the easily spooked or squeamish but I think this is a really great, not run-of-the-mill sight to see if you’re up for the trip out to it. It reminds me of a trip my sister, a mutual friend and I once made to a place called Hythe Crypt in south-east England. The famous crypt containing endless shelves of the skulls, again of plague victims, was shut to the public at the time, but we cheekily knocked on the door of the kindly incumbent vicar of the parish church who was more than happy to grab the key and let us in to both the crypt and enlighten us as to it’s history.
Ostensibly we just wanted an opportunity to take loads of moody black and white photos (for a project of my sister’s) with Eric and I looking all pseudo-gothy with probably far too much smudged eye-liner on and safety pins stuck all through black shirts to really be sensible… and a most heathen use of such sacred ground to boot! Fair play to the vicar for lettin’ us loose in there. He didn't seem to mind. Suffice to say today I am only accompanied by my backpack and Muju (my travel companion) and have considerably less eye-liner on y’all will be relieved (or disappointed?) to hear :)
Within the ossuary a gigantic chandelier hangs from the ceiling formed of skulls, fibulas, tibias, pelvic-girdles and shoulder blades whilst ‘strings’ of piratical skulls and crossed bones flow in arcs up and down from the roof like Adams Family party decorations.
The four corners of the ossuary contain four large skull’n’bone pyramids behind metal fencing with large carved wooden crowns suspended above them, this representing both a reminder of human mortality and of the symbolic idea of the ultimate ascension of all these souls to a rightful place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Warning : Do NOT - tempting though it may be - stick your hands and camera through the metal fencing set before the skull pyramids to get that “one GREAT shot!” as proximity alarms DO fire off noisily for about 10 seconds or so every time this occurs… which is quite often predictably and all very embarrassing to those found guilty. I of course was respectful, sensible and certainly not one of them… err?…ahem?… possibly that might be true ;D
(Dark) Muju 2 [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
Onwards in the glorious sunshine now to Kutná Hora town centre and a very becalming and pretty one it is too.
The beauty and charm of Prague but on a much smaller, much quieter scale. There are many more churches of interest for those that are interested and an interesting sounding museum of the history of the town, and specifically the techniques and tales of the silver-mining centuries. This includes a guided tour down into the actual narrow, rocky bowels (with mining lamps and silly white coats) of one of the defunct silver mines. Unfortunately you really have to book this a little ahead of time as it is popular and only so many people can go down on the periodic tours at once. The next available slot is too late for me so I have to pass this time. Instead I’m happy to head on up to the groovy looking spiky-spired edifice of St. Barbara’s Church. It looks great set against the green backdrops of the surrounding area.
Monument to the Plague Victims, Kutná Hora.
A large section of the cathedral is under restoration at the moment and sadly the church interior was closed to visitors at the time of my arrival for a wedding ceremony.
The unusually-spired St.Barbaras Church, Kutná Hora.
It’s a looong walk back to Kutna Hora train station (yeah, yeah, yeah I know there are buses but hey I’m in no rush!) and having got there I realise I’m to be (mildly) punished for the first time for lack of organisation/ research on my trip. I’d just assumed that being nominally the regions ‘second city’ so to speak there would be fairly regular trains back into Prague but this is not the case and they only depart every 2 hours… and yep, you’ve got it in one. The last train left 5 minutes ago.
“D’oh!” Reeeeally should have checked the timetable when I arrived and it’s forking miles back to anywhere where there is either food or civilisation so I’m stuck (without my book) for nearly two hours slumberin’ in the sun awaiting the train. Oh well. As I said. I’m in no rush.
St. Barbaras Church, Kutná Hora.
Back in Prague I still want to further immerse myself in this great, great, pretty-pretty city so walk around some more in a happy daze. The tour groups continue to bustle around in large numbers but they don’t get in your way really here as they so often do in other places. Back in the medieval Old Town Square and the sun’s gone down, the lights are up again.
I’m completely pooped and just sit down in a happy heap on a large curb stone just down from the Astronomical Clock. Gaggles of people as with yesterday stare up at it as if they were awaiting Millennium Comes, not just the hour of 9 o'clock. A girl, I think in an equal daze of tourist-ecstasy, pleasantly overwhelmed adopts a likewise seated position on the curb stone in the square. I could sit here forever I feel. Watching the people go by. The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn looks even more captivating after dark than it does by day. I’m tired. Happy. Rooted to the spot. I imagine myself sat here petrified, turned to stone. Stuck. A tiny little grinning curbstone-top gargoyle.
The one who couldn’t be arsed to climb the spire’s of the church or was too scared of heights. “Watch you don’t trip over him!”
Killing time at Kutná Hora train station...LOTS of it :(
The Charles Bridge is also a knock out place to walk over by night. The life, the artists, the impromptu performers and musicians carry on until late. A recurrent spectacle of the Prague city-night skies are the large throngs of sweeping white doves that circle some of the old building roofs in celestial-looking frenzies of activity, glowing bright, bright white against the night as they are caught in the arc-lights that shine up to illuminate the buildings after dark. Two guys in the Chili Hostel spotting these white gliding forms at a significant distance from out hostel windows the night before had walked all the way back into town to discover what the effervescent objects were (the assumption being a kite-flying ceremony or suchlike)… but no, just doves shining so brightly they seemed larger than life from afar.
Beautiful night light views : The Mala Strana end Tower of The Charles Bridge.
I walk around and around the safe, pretty winding streets. More fantastic looking little hotels (to come back to one day) and a little district just filled with the most enjoyable, seductive looking bars, restaurants and jazz bars (all of which must be visited one day)… I can’t wait, simply can’t wait to come back (one day). But that will be a while away my friends. The city is for you to discover too in the meantime.