On a day trip to Kutna Hora from Prague, we discovered the architectural legacy of medieval and renaissance Bohemia, presented in beauty and bones.
The inevitable question of anyone visiting Prague for the first time is, are you planning to go to Kutna Hora?
Kutna Hora is a UNESCO World Heritage city, arising from its historical status as an important Bohemian political and economic center beginning in the 14th and 15th centuries. What UNESCO calls the “cultural vivacity” of Kutna Hora was linked to riches from the area’s silver mines. Their prodigious output influenced currency reform and the establishment of a central mint at Kutna Hora in the year 1300 by King Vaclav I.
This thriving economy and royal favor sparked an architectural legacy in Kutna Hora, whose skyline is dominated by St. Barbara’s Cathedral, as well as the lesser Church of St. James. At the height of Kutna Hora’s boom, the royal residence and mint, the Italian Court, was simultaneously home to King Wenceslas and the state’s ore reserves.
Fortunately, we’d allowed an entire day for what turned out to be a memorable first look at Bohemia. Kutna Hora, best known for the Sedlec Ossuary (Bone Church), was much more than we expected.
It was nice to have a minder and companions in the form of our tour guide, Martin, an architectural student (this would prove to be fortuitous), and a group including an Australian couple and several young women from Asia. After a somewhat disorganized start, we hopped a local out of Prague for the hour-long train ride. This train had seen better days, but even then it had been basic. “Bare bones,” I thought and suppressed a laugh. Sick. I hoped the day’s experience wouldn’t devolve into an inappropriate joke fest in my head. Macabre already and not even off the train.
We pulled in to the Sedlec stop, Martin hustling us off and along, setting the pace ahead and we, following like good little ducklings, struggling a bit to keep up. Trudging, really, if you want to know the truth, along a sidewalk with houses and trees, then a 4-lane artery, which was quite empty. A quick (and I mean quick) right and we stopped. The Bone Church was dead (snicker) ahead.
The Bone Church, its formal name the Sedlec Ossuary, is gothic architectural oddity, subset creep factor, of the impressive kind. Make no bones about it (can’t.help.it), this tourist attraction gets about a quarter of a million visitors each year. It all started in the 13th century when this became the place to be buried. Pretty soon it was overflowing because of Black Plague victims and war dead. Within 200 years there were between 50,000 and 70,000 buried here.
Wandering about the cemetery grounds, we noticed there were impressive contemporary gravesites, well-tended and decorated. Evidently, this is still a cool place to be buried if you’re a rich Bohemian. I began to notice little details that appeared a bit cheeky, considering this was a church yard. The line between afterlives appeared to be blurry in this place.
The energy was calm and respectfully quiet as we entered the church. Visitors descend stone steps into the ossuary, where František Rint was hired in 1870. His job was to organize the bones. The result was a one-of-a-kind artisanal gift that strangely pays tribute to the tens of thousands from whose earthly remains it is comprised. The typical gothic archways and stone details are softened by embellishments constructed of bones. Thousands of bones, so many thousands that it was hard to fathom.
Displays are grouped and sorted.
It felt as though at first, Rint and his helpers went about their work with a methodical, organized approach. But it became evident that the bones suggested artistic expression, particularly those that were not in uniform condition. And so, shapes and constructed elements took form.
It all began to feel oppressive. I didn’t want it to crescendo into a phobic response on my part. How unfathomable to imagine being in this place, day after day, handling, stacking, sorting, putting these bones into displays, creating beauty out of chaos and horror. I climbed the stairs and gulped outside air.
The day was somber as we piled into a van serving as visitor taxi to the other side of town, where the Cathedral of St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, awaited. From bones under ground to a masterpiece devoted to the protector of those who worked underground, I thought. Bohemia is about the blend of aristocratic and common elements, the rise and fall of Celt, Slavic and Magyar dynasties, and the juxtaposition of ancient mysticism with Christian dogma. Somehow it all works. We walked around the exterior of the church, whose design and completion had spanned over four centuries. Grand plans from the heydey of the silver boom had given way to a more modest execution wrapping up at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
When we got inside, it seemed even colder. It was then that I recognized design elements that we had seen in the Bone Church. Is it just me? See what you think:
We were so cold in there, and starved, too, to the point of distraction. The only thing that was keeping me going was the promise of a hot meal. And a drink, I needed a drink. We exited the church and headed toward the center of town on what might have been a very pleasant walk if it hadn’t been freezing. There’s the Kutna Hora version of the Charles Bridge and the Italian Court, which are lovely, but by then we were scarcely paying attention.
Finally, hurrying through a warren of narrow streets, we arrived at Pivnice Dacicky. The restaurant is named for Nicholas Dacicky, a 16th century Czech writer and nobleman who, legend has it, spent most of his time in taverns next to a cup of wine. This was going to be just perfect. It was a lovely old place, a warren of rooms really, graced with fresco and painted details, filled with long tables of boisterous locals. Even so, the festive Puss n’ Boots-like quality in the picture was balanced by the threat of ghoulish and sinister elements. That’s how the place felt, and the undercurrent worked for me. I felt as though I wanted to keep whatever things were outside at bay in this warm, and a bit fuzzy, room. Shivering from a cold blast every time the door opened behind us, we re-wrapped and blew on our fingers. The Australian girl looked at my husband in wonderment upon receipt of one of our handwarmers. “Squeeze this.”
Pivnice Dacicky serves the kind of food that my dad would have said – wait for it, seriously – sticks to your bones. The menu referenced death throughout: Drowned Man’s Salad, Poacher’s Sausage, a widow’s Pickled Cheese. The devil was literally in a lot of the details: sauce and toast were named after him. Goulash Soup served in a bread bowl was the choice of several in our group. We went straight for the dumplings. These Bohemian dumplings are like no others, bigger than life, chock full of lard and bread with herbed flavors. I had the fairytale-named Wild Boar Goulash with Gingerbread Dumplings; they were like fruitcake. It was less than ten bucks.
Pete must have had the Fiery Dacicky goulash with the more traditional loaded bread dumplings. I seem to recall he was impressed by the red pepper:
The restaurant makes a big deal out of its mulled wine and mead. I tried the mulled wine and it took the edge off. Pete was contented with the wide variety of local beers from which to choose. Our guide, Martin, loaded his skinny young frame with carbs and fat. Check out the rest of the menu here.
This stop was a great way to unwind from the intensity of the experience, both at the ossuary and the cathedral. We’d received a mini-refresher in identifying architectural motifs and symbology, yes. But there was dealing with the energy of souls, or perhaps even a formal portal to what lies beyond. Even though I’d descended into a sort of secretive hysteria at times given the macabre atmosphere with its sense of foreboding, I’d managed to keep it outwardly together throughout the day. It felt good to rest these weary old. . . yup, pathetic.
Tips: We did the Sandeman’s tour. You’ll pay for your own lunch at Pivnice Dacicky, but train tickets are included in the tour price, which was about 30Euro at the time we took it. It’s a lot of walking, be ready for the weather (it was bone-chilling, sorry couldn’t resist, when we were there in January). The Sedlec side of Kutna Hora is home to a Phillip Morris factory and headquarters. Passing this on foot on our way to the Ossuary from the train station (see map), our group was bothered to various individual degrees by the stale odor of tobacco which lingered over the neighborhood. This just added another layer of sickening to the experience. It wasn’t dreadful, but it wasn’t subtle, either. If you’re getting there on your own, you can also choose to take a bus (just under two hours) to Kutna Hora from Prague. We returned by train with our group. While we felt rushed at times, there was a lot to cover. Our guide’s educational background in architecture enhanced our appreciation – it was he who pointed out this saint up in the eaves, seemingly giving us the finger.