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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?!).
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.
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.