Kutna Hora Bone Church – The Ossuary, Czechia
Kutná Hora is an easy day trip from Prague, located just over 100km from the capital, pretty much right in the centre of Czechia, and is well worth a visit. There are loads of tour operators that can arrange a trip and it takes around an hour and a half to reach the city from Prague. Many tours offer a package that includes a local lunch.
The town was established in 1142, marked by the construction of the Sedlec Abbey. Silver had been discovered some decades before and mining became a significant part of the town’s heritage and contributed to its growing wealth. Indeed, it provided serious competition to Prague economically and politically for several centuries. Like Prague, it is a very beautiful town.
The remarkable St. Barbara’s Church, which began construction in 1388, has the qualities of a cathedral. St Barbara, appropriately, was the patron saint of miners and hence the obvious choice of saint for a town built around the silver mines. It is a gothic church which took many centuries to reach completion and the style evolved over the years.
It is an impressive, imposing building that also has some frescoes reflecting the mining heritage of the town.
The Italian Court was another building of historical importance as it was the location of the Royal Mint. In keeping with its location close to the silver mines, it was also the residence for the king when he visited the area. Its name was derived from Italian specialists who provided expertise on the workings of a mint. Coin-makers worked in the courtyard.
The Kutna Hora Bone Church
The main reason for us wanting to visit was to see Sedlec Ossuary. We have long admired the work of film-maker Jan Švankmajer – the animator of Prague – whose animations originally captured our attention when we were students. His films often use a combination of live action, puppetry and stop-motion animation and are surreal, challenging, sometimes funny and often shocking. They are always fascinating and utterly compelling.
We first saw Švankmajer’s terrifyingly beautiful 1970 ‘documentary’ The Ossuary many years ago. On its original release the original soundtrack for the film was banned by the Communist authorities for subversion and replaced by a largely musical affair, a Jacques Prévert poem with solo female vocals in a light jazz style. (Turn the subtitles off and just enjoy the audio-visual experience.) These days you can also hear the original soundtrack, that of an irritable and slightly overbearing guide who insists that she isn’t a guide – ‘I’m not a guide’ – who threatens visitors with a 50 crown fine if they dare to touch any of the bones.
The Kutna Hora bone church contains around 40,000 skeletons. After Kutná Hora’s abbey had been established, one of its abbots, Henry, visited the holy land in 1278, and brought back some earth from Golgotha, scattering it on the ground around the church. As a result many people desired to be buried there, particularly wealthy people, from all over central Europe. The Black Death and the Hussite Wars in the 14th and 15th centuries added to the numbers of burials.
Woodcarver František Rint was commissioned to do something with all the bones in the 18th century and set about decorating a chapel using the skeletons that had been buried there.
There are 4 pyramids of bones inside the main chamber.
There is a chandelier that is comprised of at least one of every bone from the human body.
Additionally, there is a coat of arms for the Schwarzenberg family (one of the noble houses of Bohemia, who commissioned Rint to create the ossuary)
Jan Švankmajer’s film, with its Dutch tilt camerawork and snappy editing, depicts the Ossuary as a truly macabre place – frightening and full of sadness. But thinking about it, Švankmajer can make anything look terrifying – even a jar of jam. In reality, The Ossuary was a peaceful church, particularly when the light flooded in. Yes, it’s macabre, but it’s also strangely beautiful.
If you would like to see the film, along with many of Švankmajer’s other wonderful animations, you can buy a DVD.
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Pilsners for Pedestrians in Prague
Some cities are beautiful. Others are plain ugly. Some are superficially unattractive and their charm needs to be discovered when you explore them. But Prague’s architecture ensures that it is one of the most elegant cities in the world. It’s a great size for walking around too. A long weekender city break will ensure that you can enjoy the main sights, including splendid museums and theatre shows, and even take in a day trip away from the city.
The town square with Tyn Cathedral are centrally located between Wenceslas Square and Charles Bridge. It holds enormously popular Christmas and Easter markets each year. Just off the square is the amazing mediaeval astronomical clock, located on the town hall wall. It is apparently the third oldest such clock in the world. Inevitably it attracts large crowds trying to get photos, especially on each hour when the figures adorning the clock are set in motion and the twelve apostles appear.
Charles Bridge is the oldest bridge in the city and crosses the Vltava river, and has many statues of saints lining its balustrade.
After crossing Charles Bridge it’s a short hike up the hill on the other side of the river to Prague Castle which proudly overlooks the city. The president resides here now but it was formerly a residence for kings of Bohemia. It makes for an interesting morning exploring the extensive complex with its fascinating buildings.
Within the castle grounds the most famous building is St Vitus Cathedral. The site dates from the 10th Century and is considered to be the most important place of worship in the country. The gorgeous gothic structure of the cathedral started construction in 1344 and was further developed over the centuries.
It has the most stunning stained glass windows.
We were mildly sozzled for much of the trip because it turned out that beer was cheaper than water and there was a huge variety to choose from.
Most styles are pilsner, a pale lager which offered much refreshment after a morning or afternoon’s exploration of the city.
Pilsners were developed in the Czech Republic, originally in the city of Plzeň that’s located around 90 km west of Prague, in the mid nineteenth century. Using a malting process that ensure the barley was kilned to be significantly paler than traditional malts, a yeast that fermented on the bottom of the container and lots of noble hops (Saaz being a notable variety) which provide the beer with its bitter element, the local water also proved to be ideal for production as it was relatively free of minerals. A good pilsner is golden in colour, hoppy (but not too hoppy), and should have a balance of flavours.
In Prague the beers were served cold, with a large, frothy head. This style of serving is popular in much of Europe (and also in Japan, whose brewers imitated the style of pouring they visited Germany to learn their craft in the late nineteenth century). In the UK we’re not so keen on a massive head (less actual beer in the glass!) but apparently the froth protects the beer from oxidation which helps maintain the flavour of the pilsner. Although if you drink it quickly enough you, too, can help prevent oxidation!
Of course, we made sure we tasted as many as possible. There seemed to be a convention for ordering beer:
1) You will be offered beer as soon as you enter any fine establishment.
2) It’s perfectly OK to go into a restaurant to drink beer and not order food.
3) The default size seems to be large (0.5L). You would have to ask for a small beer. But why would you want to do that?
4) The friendly barperson will have a preternatural ability to detect that your glass is empty the moment you swig the ultimate drop and will offer you more beer instantly. It’s usually a good idea to accept.