Brno – home to skeletons, mummified monks, and the birthplace of genetics

Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic and the largest in Moravia.  There is evidence of human occupation in the area since the Neolithic, and documented evidence of the city existing since about 1000 CE.  Because of its rich history and culture, the city is a must see for anyone visiting the Czech Republic.

We arrived in Brno at around sunset.  Walking out of the train station was a very sketchy feeling experience, as it looked like a place one shouldn’t be at dark here in the U.S.  We walked toward where we were staying, Hostel Jacob, which was located in the main square near the church.  Once we made it there and checked in (I used my Michigan driver’s license and confused the guy at the desk), we found food at this small fast food place that had pizza and kebabs, both of which were wonderful after not eating since breakfast.  It was a weekend night, and Brno is a college town, so of course the streets were full of students heading to nightclubs and grabbing food before going out.  We were definitely not interested in joining, as cross-country travel does not exactly promote high energy or desire to go clubbing.  We crashed at our hostel pretty quickly to get ready for the long day of ossuary and crypt exploring the next day.

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Breakfast room at the hostel

After enjoying the free breakfast in the breakfast nook of the hostel (fresh bread and Nutella!), we made our way to the square and entered St. Jacob’s Church, a stunning gothic church right in the center of the main plaza.  The outside of the church is white, and the flying buttresses have been mostly obscured from view, making it look less gothic on the outside.  The inside, however, is extremely gothic in style.  The giant pillars and ornate ceiling gave it an imposing feeling, but the large windows brought in much needed light to contrast the darkness.  The most impressive part of the church though, is located below ground.

The Brno Ossuary is located directly below St. Jacob’s Church, accessible by a small staircase to the right of the church.  There’s a small museum at the entrance by the ticket booth which includes examples of skeletal trauma and pathologies, as well as a bit of art.  The main ossuary is located behind a large iron door that leads into a dark brick corridor.

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Tiffany entering the vault

Soon after entering, the walls are made entirely of long bones and skulls.  Floor to ceiling there are thousands and thousands of human skeletons placed in various piles.  The skeletons came from an old ossuary that was rediscovered in 2001 when construction workers were renovating the cobblestones of the main square around the church.  It is the second largest ossuary in Europe, only behind the catacombs of Paris.  The bones were collected and moved to an area accessible to the public and the museum opened in 2012.

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Inside the ossuary

As you walk further into the ossuary, you will find a large stack of skulls, many of which show symptoms of disease like tuberculosis and syphilis.  Evidence of disease continues into the main corridor, which houses hundreds of skulls carefully placed in the piles of femora, tibiae, and humeri. It was fascinating to examine the crania and find evidence of diseases, trauma, and genetic traits.  Interestingly, many of the skulls in the ossuary had metopic sutures, which normally fuse together in childhood but occasionally stay unfused into adulthood.  One of the most interesting crania has obvious signs of trauma that had completely healed, though it left a giant gash in the frontal.  Also in the main corridor were old gravestones and coffins that were found in the excavations.  The coffins were painted with scenes of the crucifixion, which were remarkably preserved for their age.

According to the time stamps on my photos, we spent almost two hours in the ossuary looking at the remains.  Countless tour groups came and went while we were down there (including a middle aged man carrying a balloon).  Eventually, though, we had to leave to get lunch and continue exploring the city.  We got a suggestion from the hostel and made our way to a well known Czech restaurant a few blocks away, where we had an amazing Czech lunch of food I can’t pronounce.

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Delicious Czech lunch

After lunch, we made our way through the shopping streets along the main corridor, which had seemed so unsettling the night before, but were actually full of high end shops and restaurants.  On our walk, we stumbled across the location where Gregor Mendel lectured on his discovery of inheritance in pea plants in 1865. Not far from this location was the next part of our morbid tour of Brno, the Capuchin Crypt.

The Capuchin Crypt is a crypt attached to a monastery where the monks are buried.  The bodies remain preserved as natural mummies due to the conditions of the crypt.  In the museum section of the crypt, there are many examples of coffins from different time periods, as well as the bodies of some nobles from the mid-1700s.  One of the noblewomen was actually buried alive, as her body was not placed in the usual burial positions and there were scratch marks inside the coffin.  One floor down from these mummies were the mummies of the monks.  The bodies lay in various states of decay along the edges of the room, their heads supported by bricks.  There is one coffin in the room, located below a cross.  The most recent decedent is placed in the coffin, and the remains that were in the coffin are placed on the floor with the rest of the bodies.  Since there are so few monks, there is long enough of a time for the bodies to decay and preserve before the coffin is needed again.  The entire crypt was fascinating, but had much less to see than the ossuary so we only spent about a half hour exploring.

From the crypt, we walked toward the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul.  This church is also in the gothic style (see a trend?) and is located on top of a hill, giving it a prominent position on the skyline.  We couldn’t enter the church due to a wedding, but I was able to climb the tower and see the entire city below.  Tiffany was all towered out after Prague and stayed on the ground to look around the church.  It was interesting to see the divide between the old city and the industrial districts just on the other side of the train station where we came into the city.

From the cathedral, we continued walking around the city, eventually ending up at Špilberk Castle, a 13th century castle turned Hapsburg prison.  We didn’t have time to explore much and see the rest of what we wanted to see, so we walked around the publicly accessible grounds and kept walking toward the Gregor Mendel museum nearby.

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Špilberk Castle

The Gregor Mendel museum is located right next to the Abbey where he lived and worked.  The foundation of the original greenhouse in which he grew his pea plants is uncovered near the entrance of the museum.  Even cooler are the pea plants growing next to the foundation which are descendants of the original experiment.  The museum exhibits were very well made, explaining the history of Mendel and other scientists in the region before discussing genetics and how Mendel shaped the scientific community.  The most fun part was the kids area, which had X and Y foam benches and a game where you put the green/yellow/smooth/wrinkly peas in the correct petri dish.

We left the museum in late afternoon and slowly made our way back to the hostel.  At some point we stopped at a small shop to buy a couple of things we needed.  Tiffany needed a small bottle of shampoo, and at this shop all the merchandise was behind the counter, so you had to ask for the item to see it.  The lady at the store didn’t speak English, and neither of us spoke Czech, so we spent some time pointing and miming and trying to find words in my Central Europe Lonely Planet Phrasebook.  Eventually we got what we wanted and went on our way, but it was a very memorable experience.   We went back to the kebab place for supper and hung out in the hostel for the rest of the night.  That was our last night in the Czech Republic, as the following morning we left for Krakow, Poland.

Kutna Hora – a day in the infamous Sedlec Ossuary

Kutna Hora is a small town located about 70 km outside of Prague.  The town itself isn’t especially beautiful or unique, but it does hold one of the most impressive and macabre sites in Europe, Sedlec Ossuary.  The ossuary is affiliated with the cemetery of a nearby church and is located in a small gothic style building in the center of the graveyard.

 

The sidewalk at the entrance to Sedlec Ossuary

Tiffany and I headed from our hostel to the train station in the late morning, still a bit jet lagged and tired from the previous day trekking around the entire city.  As we made our way to the train, we stopped in Wenceslas Square for a small breakfast of berries and a cheese sandwich which we carried to the station.  After purchasing our tickets, we spent an hour sitting on the floor eating berries and waiting for the noon train.

After an hour ride, we arrived in the rainy town of Kutna Hora and began our quest to find the ossuary.  Our first stop in town was the church which owns the ossuary.  This imposing structure, built in gothic style, was surprisingly bright and cheerful inside, as it had a soft yellow paint which covered all the walls.  The domes of the ceiling had ornate murals and patterns of white trim.  However, there were traces of the macabre inside, such as a section of wall carved out and holding four human skulls and some long bones.  There was also a section on the second floor that allowed you to see the original stonework of the walls and arches.  Overall, it was a beautiful and quaint church that one would never expect to be home to a site as macabre as Sedlec.

 

Inside the church

 

Who needs bricks when you can have skulls?

We carried on walking in search of the ossuary, and with the help of the information desk of the church, we got a map and arrived at the entrance shortly after.  We came in through the back entrance of the cemetery, so we had to walk through the paths which criss-crossed the yard to find the doors to the ossuary.  Walking in was a shock, instantly the infamous chalice of bones and skeleton chandelier were right in front of us.  We bought our tickets (and a couple of skull souvenirs) at the small desk at the entrance and proceeded to spend an hour walking through the tiny building.

 

The ossuary and surrounding cemetery

From the entrance, you descend down a staircase flanked on both sides by the bone chalices, and below a cross of bones.  From here you are standing below the chandelier, which is surrounded on two sides by rooms stacked to the ceiling with human remains.  Below the chandelier are displays with human skulls covered with wax from the candles lit above them.  Each of these is topped with a cherub figure, topping off the creepy/cool factor of the place.

 

Entering the ossuary



 In one of the side rooms hangs a huge coat of arms made of almost every bone of the body cut and broken into place.  My favorite part of this is the bird, whose beak is made of a broken humerus, pecking at the orbit of a skull.  In between this area and the opposing room is a small shrine where people throw coins and light candles.  We spent so much time analyzing the hundreds of skulls in the ossuary, a foreshadowing of what we would be doing a few weeks later in Romania.


 When we finished fangirling over the ossuary, we took a bus across town to St. Barbara’s Cathedral, a stunning example of gothic architecture located on the other side of the city.  This building has enormous flying buttresses and exquisite stained glass windows depicting various stories from the Bible.  The ceiling is adorned with ornate trim and paintings of the coat of arms’ from families in the region.  The church was so much more impressive than the first one we visited that day, but unfortunately we had to rush back to the bus less than 15 minutes later in order to catch the bus back to our train to Brno.  I’d love to return to visit the town for more time, especially St. Barbara’s, but that day we continued our journey southeast to the city of Brno.

 

Inside St. Barbara’s Church

 

St. Barbara’s Church

 

Prague – the beginning of a whirlwind trip through Central Europe

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, so I’ve decided to start chronicling past travels again.  So far, I’ve covered my most recent adventures in South America, but those are only a few of the experiences I’ve had abroad in the past few years.  This will be the first of many posts about my 7-month study abroad turned Round The World trip that spanned 17 countries on 4 continents.

It all started with Prague.

A little background: Following my return from a field school in Bolivia in the summer of 2013 (which I’m sure I’ll cover eventually), I began searching for field schools in bioarchaeology to attend the next summer.  Well, talking with a grad student from UNC introduced me to Archaeotek, which had a bioarchaeology field school and osteology program that was affordable!  After applying and getting accepted, as well as my friend Tiffany from uni (who I’m sure will see this, hi!), we began planning a short backpacking trip across Central Europe —because the flight is the most expensive part, you might as well enjoy Europe once you’re there!

Prague was chosen as the entry point into Europe.  There was one reason that we chose this city, Sedlec Ossuary, otherwise known as the Bone Church (though the cheap flights didn’t hurt).  On Memorial Day, we left Chicago O’Hare on separate flights, mine being on LOT Polish Airlines, and arrived in Prague at roughly the same time the following afternoon.  I had the exit row window seat on my flight from Chicago to Warsaw, which was great not only for sleeping, but also listening to Of Monsters and Men while flying over Iceland and Scandinavia and feeling like I was in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Anyway, after barely catching my connecting flight to Prague (thanks LOT for the unnecessary delays!), I arrived and met Tiffany at the airport in the early afternoon.

 

Flying over the motherland and blasting OMAM

 

Warsaw->Prague

 

Getting to the city from the airport is not an easy task when you don’t speak Czech and haven’t slept well in 24 hours.  After questioning all the information agents, we made it to our hostel after taking the bus to the metro — where we couldn’t find the ticket machine — and then wandering around in circles at the entrance to Muztek metro station to figure out with of the roads went the right direction.

Our hostel, Hostel HOMEr, was located in an old Renaissance era building right around the corner from the Old Town Square and Astronomical Clock.  I don’t think I could have asked for a better first hostel experience than this; our room was on the top floor of the building and had a small window that overlooked an enclosed courtyard and the wonderful Italian restaurant on the first floor.  Once we checked in and dropped off our bags, we began our two days of adventuring in Prague.

 

Hostel porch nook

Walking into Prague’s Old Town Square for the first time is probably one of the most memorable travel experiences.  The light from the late afternoon sun illuminated the old and colorful buildings with a warm yellow light, which really accentuated the beautiful architecture around the plaza.  I can’t think of a better place to first step foot in Europe, I don’t think there’s a more beautiful city on the continent.

 

Astronomical Clock

 

First glimpse of Prague

Once we were finished admiring the square, we started wandering aimlessly through the convoluted streets of the Old City.  We walked by marionette shops, old synagogues, and even a creepy Prada ad which had eyes that seemed to follow you wherever you walked.  Eventually we stumbled across the Charles Bridge around sunset, on which walked about halfway across before turning around and visiting a nearby church on our way back to the hostel to find food.  There were some fire dancers in the square by our hostel, which we watched briefly but were too hungry to stay for long.  After a delicious homemade Italian meal at the restaurant under the hostel, we crashed for the night in what was probably one of the best sleeps ever (food coma + jet lag = bliss).

 

Aforementioned Prada ad

  
Believing we were sufficiently rested from travel and the previous day’s exploring, we had a semi-late start for our only full day in the city (in hindsight, this was terrible planning on my part — prospective visitors, you need at least 3 days unless you hate yourself and like climbing stairs all day).  It was a cloudy and wet day, which seemed to be a theme for the entire week.  Our first stop was the Astronomical Clock tower, since it was literally a 2 minute walk from our hostel.  The views from the tower are some of the best in Prague.  You can see the red roofs of the old city in all directions, as well as the numerous church steeples that are found across the city.  The rain caused the roof tiles to look especially red that day, which made the scene that much more impressive.

View from the clocktower

We headed to Wenceslas Square next, which took about 5 times longer than it should have because I had yet to understand navigating old European cities at that point.  We only stayed for a few minutes before leaving to do other things, like the super fun Museum of Torture, which is such a tourist trap but oh so entertaining to visit (who doesn’t like medieval torture instruments?!).

 

Wenceslas Square

By lunchtime, we made it to the famous Old Jewish Cemetery, which has gravestones stacked on gravestones in all directions in this small patch of land in the center of the Jewish Quarter.  The graves were in various states of decay, with green mosses and lichens slowly enveloping the Hebrew etched stones which lay along the ground.  This was the first of many Jewish memorials which we visited in Central Europe.  We spent a great deal of time here and the accompanying museum admiring the different types of memorials and the sheer number of graves in the small cemetery.

 

Closely placed gravestones in the Jewish Cemetery

Continuing on the quest of seeing all the major sites of Prague in the least efficient way possible, we visited the Lennon Wall near the Charles Bridge.  The wall has been covered with graffiti for decades, most often quotes or images of John Lennon.  There were tons of symbols and writings from exchange students, couples, and backpackers who wanted to leave their mark on the ever changing wall (a few months after we left, someone came in and painted the entire thing white as a modern art piece — it didn’t last long like that).


Thanks to Atlas Obscura, I had one last memorial I needed to visit to complete my list of must sees in Prague — the Memorial to the Victims of Communism.  This memorial is located in a park not too far from the Lennon Wall, but isn’t often visited by tourists.  It is composed of a haunting series of statues that appear to be slowly melting away the further back it goes.  The memorial reads “The Memorial to the Victims of Communism is dedicated to all victims, not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism.”


At this point in the day, about mid-afternoon, we had yet to eat lunch and Tiffany was about to kill me since we hadn’t seen a restaurant that wasn’t really overpriced in quite a while.  Personally, I can go an entire day without eating when I’m traveling because I’m so interested in doing stuff I just forget to eat.  This is not the case for Tiffany, and I learned this fact that day after receiving death glares for hours.  We stopped at the first restaurant we saw across from the park and had three courses, including these wonderful Nutella crepes which we still discuss to this day.

Having settled the hunger issue, we continued onward toward Prague Castle.  Along the way, we encountered another tower viewpoint, which I could never resist climbing, much to the dismay of Tiffany.  This particular viewpoint had artists’ depictions of Czech horror stories along the rooms going up the tower, which were unfortunately entirely in Czech and therefore completely useless to me.  The view from the top, however, made up for the disappointing displays.  It gave a spectacular panorama of the city on the side of the river opposite the Old Square, as well as the Charles Bridge.


After descending the tower, we climbed back up the seemingly endless stairs to the top of Prague Castle.  We got lost a couple times on the way up and ended up by some embassies and consulates before finding the correct road to the top.  Unfortunately, the castle was already closed for visitors by the time we made it to the top, so we wandered the castle grounds and around the nearby St. Vitus cathedral for an hour or so before heading back down to Charles Bridge to walk across the entire bridge to take photos and head back to the Old Town Square.  After walking for miles and climbing innumerable towers, we stopped back at the hostel to rest for a bit and ended up passing out until late the following day, when we left Prague for Brno, via Kutna Hora, home of the infamous Sedlec Ossuary.

 

St. Vitus Cathedral

 

Charles Bridge