Kutna Hora & Sedlec Ossuary

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St. Barbara’s Cathedral and Jesuit College in Kutná Hora

An hour’s train ride from Prague is the town of Kutná Hora. We knew about it because of the bone chapel in the Sedlec Ossuary, but were happy to see we could spend a full day there. Our train car on the way there was nearly empty; we passed through other cozy-looking towns before coming to Kutná Hora’s station. Hopping on a second, two-car train that shuttles visitors between the station outside of town, the Chapel, and the town itself, added just another couple minutes to the journey.

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Interior of the Church of St. James and St. Barbara’s

After a while wandering the old town, we ended up at the Church of St. James. Often overlooked, it is next to a viewpoint that overlooks the imposing former Jesuit College and the Cathedral of St. Barbara. Inside, St. James is quiet and houses an impressive altarpiece.

A ten minutes walk past the Jesuit College (now an art gallery) is the Cathedral. Constructed with money from the city’s silver mines, it is a towering Gothic structure bedecked with gargoyles. Altars built by mine owners (and miners hoping for saints’ protection while underground) dwarf visitors.

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Sedlec Ossuary Chapel; bones unearthed during restoration work

After a meal overlooking St. Barbara’s vineyard (which only produces mediocre wine), we walked three kilometers through the old town to the Sedlec Ossuary. The Ossuary is just a small part of a former Cistercian Abbey. The massive Church of the Assumption also survives, though we decided not to pay the entrance fee for another church.

The Ossuary is a small chapel in the center of a small cemetery. From the outside it didn’t look like much, despite the shiny skulls topping the spires. Once we got to the door, however, we discovered otherwise. Since we arrived mid-afternoon we avoided tour groups and were able to walk right in.

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Bone chandelier

Bone art is visible from the ticket booth, which is tucked into a corner at the top of stairs leading down into the crypt. The four corners of the underground chamber are walled off and each houses large pyramids made of bones – the resting spot of tens of thousands. Above, garlands of human skills and arm bones decorate the arches. A coat of arms created with tiny bones represents the powerful House of Schwarzenberg. In the center is the famous chandelier made from every bone in the human body. Some skulls show marks from the 15th century Hussite wars – sword cuts and arrow holes.

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Ossuary decor

Sedlec Ossuary was eerie, but not disturbing or claustrophobic in the same way Paris’s Catacombs were. It takes only a few minutes to see in its entirety. Since the Chapel was undergoing preservation work, we circled it. In a trench behind the building was an archaeological dig… they had run into more bones. That shouldn’t be a surprise in a cemetery, but that skeleton was more unnerving in its completeness than the random piles inside.

We had a couple of beers at a bar down the street while waiting for our return train. Another few minutes walking got us to the station to meet the evening train back to Prague.

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Prague

All over the world, we met people who adored Prague. It topped many ‘best of’ lists for tourists and digital nomads alike. We once spent part of an evening insisting that Poland’s beer was the world’s greatest only to have that adamantly denied by those who had been to the Czech Republic (Spoiler: we were all wrong – Lithuania is the uncontested beer champion).

Flying out of Uruguay was pricey, and Prague was on the cheaper end of the spectrum. With all we’d heard, we decided to re-cross the Atlantic heading to the Czechia’s capital. It took three flights, 25 hours of travel time, and one frantic connection in Lisbon with staff getting us past the thousand-person immigration line. We landed in Prague in late afternoon – enough time to find our Airbnb, get groceries, make supper. Forty hours with no sleep and a five-hour time zone shift didn’t leave energy for much else.

Fortunately, by the next afternoon we had enough rest to head to Czech Beer Fest, just two blocks from our apartment. Scores of beers – all served in the proper glass – begged to be tried. I’m not much of a beer-drinker, but I clearly needed to embrace it for the month. From the first sip, it put much of South America’s offerings to shame, and I found a few I could actually enjoy. Combined with the goulash soup, hearty sausage and chicken plates, and the frat parties, the Festival was worth going to… and at about $2US per beer, far cheaper than drinking out in Seattle even if it was high for Prague.

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Czech Beer Festival

My sister-in-law arrived for a week visit a few days later. We all took in some of the Prague Old Town, beer gardens, the Prague Castle, and the Lego Museum. The Cathedral of St. Vitus in the Castle might be the single grandest sight in the city. The (relatively new) stained glass windows are beautiful. Even though the Cathedral is crowded, it still feels calmer and cooler than the streets outside.

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Nerding on overdrive – the Mars Rover model at the Lego Museum; bridge views

My cousin and his wife also happened to be in Prague during our stay (the most family we’ve seen on the trip so far). We met them at Letná Beer Garden, one of the most relaxing spots in the city for afternoon drinks, and at U Kunštátů, a craft beer bar with a multiple-page menu of beers where even I found plenty to enjoy.

Prague Museum Night happens annually in June – for one night museums open their doors late, don’t charge admission, and are linked by free shuttles running all over Prague. We took in the multiple art museums near Prague Castle and one of the synagogues downtown.

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Free arts!

There is plenty of street art just waiting to be found; even the river is decked out with sculpture. We walked by the Dancing House on the way to a Craft Beer Festival. Apparently its fame isn’t enough to keep the offices completely full. This smaller beer fest, associated with a farmer’s market, was even better than the first. Prices were just as cheap and the small breweries were dedicated to creating tasty products.

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Quirkier corners

I was surprised by how literary Prague is. There are multiple statues of Kafka and of other famous writers and poets throughout the city. And, of course, there are libraries. Sadly, the Klementium Library was closed during our visit but others were open. We found this book sculpture in one of the public libraries downtown.

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Endless tunnel of books – future goals.

And the Strahov Library, often confused with the Klementium, was open for visits. Its two halls, the Philosophical and the Theological, managed to fill my library quota for the month by themselves. Thousands of books housed in intricately painted and carved halls… what more do you need?

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Philosophical Hall – Strahov Library
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Theological Hall – Strahov Library

The Uber driver who picked us up at the airport warned that Czech food was mediocre. However, the city seemed full of options after two months in Uruguay. Goulash soups, sauerkraut, sausages, and local gelato were all fantastic. And restaurants catered to tastes from every corner of the globe – we had our first good pho and Asian stir-fry since leaving Europe eight months earlier. Grocery stores had peanut crisps and ajvar, two of my favorite snacks that are hard to come by outside the region.

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Goulash Soup, summer berries, peanut crisps, pho

While Prague lived up to descriptions we’d heard, some parts weren’t for us. The Old Town was mobbed each day by sightseers and by night with drinkers. We witnessed more stag and bachelorette parties here than in our entire lives up to this point. And while most of the drinking was relatively contained and amusing, it still can be obnoxious, especially at 2 pm on a Tuesday. Prague is cheaper than many European capitals, but that gap is closing. Certain museums and eateries overcharge wildly in the city center and in areas heavily populated with expats.

Those minor complaints aside, I’d return to Prague. The parks, beer gardens, relaxed atmosphere, and international feel were a welcome change of pace for us. Those high quality of life ratings are definitely well-earned.