After breakfast we walked into the Old Town to exchange the only remaining Euros we had in order to buy some of that Becherovka – our promises to our friends eventually having more bearing than any messages we were trying to send to Prague's retailers.
The tour we wanted to take to Kutná Hora didn’t leave until 1:15pm, and we essentially didn’t have anything to do in the meantime (the things we would have liked to do would have cost cash we either didn’t have or were saving for things like the taxi to the train station. We wandered around the Old Town for a bit, but then returned to the hotel frustrated again. I’d have loved to buy gifts for my niece and nephews, friends, family (heck, for me!) – but it was just too frustrating to go near anything that involved money.
It’s interesting – it was an unhappy feeling, knowing we had money at our disposal theoretically, but not being able to access it. It felt like much of the city was unavailable to us. Certainly, this is a very high-class problem to have, and it seems very small of me to complain… And yet, when you work hard in order to go on holiday, it’s disappointing to find that the things you wanted to do aren’t possible because of what appears to be a computer problem. (I’m going to get in touch with my bank when I get home, because it reflects badly on Prague and the Czech Republic, which isn’t fair if it’s a problem with the bank machines.)
At any rate, that morning felt oddly like our last day in London in 2003 – we ended up feeling a little bored. We walked for a bit more along the river, and then eventually back to the hotel where I began reorganizing and repacking my suitcase. After an hour or so, Chris (who had been reading about Czech history) suggested we try to go to the Museum of Communism. It was close to the meeting point for the Kutná Hora tour, and if they took Visa we could go. On the way, we bought the tickets for the Kutná Hora tour, and felt very lucky that the Museum took Visa!
The Museum of Communism is pretty small, but the exhibits are really interesting and well laid-out – they take you through the history, starting with the things that led the Czech people to want to align themselves with the Communists in the first place (having to choose between Nazism and Communism isn't an enviable position). Then they present sort of the ideals of Communism – what the people thought they were getting into, and what the Communists were (theoretically) striving for. The “reality” of how it played out in the Czech Republic (and probably everywhere else, frankly) was very different – that’s the next section, followed by the downfall of the U.S.S.R. and the recreation of an independent Czechoslovakia.
Communism is one of those things I learned about in high school and have largely forgotten about – especially since the fall of the U.S.S.R. – so it’s nice to get a little refresher course now and then on things about which I should remember more! It’s also really moving to read about the seemingly small and personal things that people do to resist a force that should seem stronger than they are. In the Czech Republic, the most poignant example of this is the young student Jan Palach who set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the Communist rule. He died as a result of his injuries, and his death was turned into something of a rallying point for others who had either been too afraid to speak out or who had felt their individual voices were too small. We take so much for granted in the U.S. in this day and age – certainly people have fought and died for the rights we have today, and some are still fighting and dying, but it all feels so removed from my everyday life that it’s hard to imagine how different things could have been if I’d been born into, say, East Berlin.
Then it was time to go on the tour, so we hopped on the small bus. The guide was a Czech woman called Jana who gave us an overview of the country’s history as we drove the approximately 60 km to Kutná Hora. I don’t think I remember even 5% of it (even when I’m trying to pay attention, that stuff tends to escape me), but it wasn’t for lack of knowledge on Jana’s part!
The first stop on the tour turned out the be the thing I was most interested in – the ossuary at Sedleč. We’d seen it depicted in the “Long Way Round” program, though I’d forgotten about it entirely until I was reading about potential day-trips from Prague. And even though I’d seen it in “Long Way Round,” that was many months ago – and I was convinced somehow that it was bigger…
At any rate, when we arrived Jana told us to go ahead in, bypassing the line, and she would wait and pay for all our entrance fees and photography permits. We tried to go in, but one of the women at the counter refused to let us pass until Jana had paid for everything – and despite the fact that Jana was right there showing her the money for the photography permit, she refused to let me take pictures until the permit was purchased. Just plain silliness.
So, tickets and permits finally paid for, we went down the stairs into the ossuary itself. Lining the staircase on both sides (and above, I noticed later) are already examples of the artist’s work – there are various bones, including skulls, placed artistically above the banister and along the balcony. In two recesses along the stairs there are two large chalices, over three feet tall, made of bones. There’s also a small glass display case with examples of skulls they found that show deformities or causes of death.
While most of the bones are contained in four giant hollow pyramid-shaped piles in the four corners of the room, the real highlights are the art pieces. Towers surround the center of the room with skulls artistically woven into the ironwork. An anchor weighs down one wall. A coat of arms on one wall, easily five feet tall, includes a skull with rib bones poking out of a hole in the top like a jester’s hat. The piece de resistance, however, is the "chandelier." It hangs in the center of the room and is as ornate as any crystal equivalent in opulent homes or hotels around the world – it just doesn’t actually produce light, or look quite as opulent! The chandelier is apparently made out of all the bones in the human body, and it’s probably over five feet tall. There are skulls at strategic points, and smaller bones used like the teardrop crystals on “normal” chandeliers. Perhaps my favorite part, however, is the artist’s signature on the wall near the entrance in – you guessed it – bones. His name and the date, all spelled out using bones. Really fabulous stuff. I bought one of each of the postcards they sold, and we were happily on our way after fifteen minutes. Yeah, I just thought it would be bigger. I do think I need to look into what other ossuaries like that might be in the world, and make a tour of them…
A couple of views of the room itself. In the left photo, you can kind of see the corner bone-pile behind the fence (right-hand side of picture). Bones are strung overhead all around you, like popcorn-strings on a Christmas tree.
A closeup of one of the corner pyramid piles - there was one of these in each corner, and all of them were huge.
(L) The Coat of Arms, and (R) one of the chalices.
The ever-so-cool chandelier... Don't you just want one for your foyer?
And finally, the signature of the "artist."
The next stop was Kutná Hora proper (Sedleč was a suburb, of sorts), a UNESCO World Heritage Town. The buildings are really lovely, and though it’s an easy – and touristy – day-trip from Prague, it felt like a million miles away. The first stop in Kutná Hora was the Cathedral of St. Barbara, with its distinctive tent-like roof and beautiful art nouveau stained glass windows. (I’d been getting art nouveau and art deco confused up to this point in Prague, thinking they were the same thing and that I didn’t like them – truth is, they’re very different and I only dislike art deco. Art nouveau, it turns out, had some of its origins in the area as Czech artist Alfons Mucha is one of the founders of the artistic movement. The lithe figures and long lines in the art nouveau pieces are reminiscent to me of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the painters of the arts & crafts style, which I love – so I’m happy to have had the confusion put to rest.)
Inside, the Cathedral of St. Barbara (the patron saint of miners) isn’t unlike other cathedrals I’ve seen, though it’s far less heavily decorated. The windows are comparatively new, and Jana told us that when they’re replacing pieces of old buildings they try to do it in keeping with the style of the original time rather than duplicating the original work exactly. I’m not sure why, but the overall effect is really lovely – the sunlight streams through the bright and colorful art nouveau windows and hits the Baroque carvings inside the small chapels around the perimeter of the altar.
Kutná Hora came to be a wealthy and important town because silver ore was discovered there, leading to the establishment of a minting house. Italians were “imported” to create a beautiful town (architects) and because they were master minters (silversmiths), and the town does have an Italianate feel to it in places. The locals were employed largely as the miners themselves, and there are statues honoring their work all over the town. It’s nice that they’re honored in death, because they had altogether the most difficult positions in life.
The statues of miners in the cathedral, Jana told us, show us what they wore to work – long white shirts and leather belts with, essentially, “tails” like from a tuxedo extending off the back. The white shirts were an attempt to make them more visible to one another in the mines, which were sometimes 600 meters deep and where they could take no candles because of the potentially explosive gases (though I can’t imagine how a white shirt with basically no light is going to help at all, especially as they were likely to be covered in coal dust not long after starting out), and the leather “tails” made it easy for them to slide down the mineshafts and get to work more quickly. They each carried a large bowl atop their heads in which they deposited the coal they mined. (I think Jana explained how they got back up, but I wasn’t clear on that part.)
From the cathedral we walked to the nearby Italian Court, which served as the center for the minting process. There are several small doors which used to open into a central courtyard and which used to be the entrances to the various minting houses (they’re closed now and bricked up). Jana handed us off to a tour guide working for the Italian Court, who led us on a brief tour of the public areas of the building. It’s in use today as a town hall, and even a few of the rooms we saw on the tour are still used for town business. The new guide picked up a set of enormous metal keys that looked like something out of a storybook, and we were off. She showed us the town meeting room, where weddings are held, and where new babies are “welcomed to be members of the community” in special Czech ceremonies. We also saw displays of the coins made in the area dating back several hundred years.
For some of its history, the Italian Court served as the royal home of King Wenceslas II, who was apparently quite short – the guide said he was just under five feet tall, including his crown. Off of one of the display rooms there’s what looks like a tiny door into a tiny room – if you can call it that. It appears to be only big enough for an overstuffed chair, if that. That was apparently a private chapel for the King and not, as Jana put it, a closet where they put the vacuum cleaner. The highlight of the tour, however, was the Royal Chapel. The small chapel – perhaps two rooms – was beautiful, painted on every wall and the ceiling with art nouveau figures and designs, all done by a husband-and-wife team around 1905 (so therefore a newer addition, and likely not part of the chapel the King saw, but still…).
We had about twenty minutes until the tour was officially over and nothing more to see – so Jana suggested we go to a small café she knew. After our little break we were on the bus back to Prague. The ride back was almost entirely silent, though Jana did pipe up now and then to tell us about something we were seeing – mostly as we entered the city. The commentary was welcome at that point, because we were stuck in some pretty awful rush-hour traffic. Jana pointed out the other castles on both sides of the river, the Communist-style high-rise buildings in the new town, and the area that used to have the royal vineyards (there is apparently still wine produced in Prague, but in such small quantities that it’s not exported).
Back in the city, we walked back to the hotel, dropped off our bags and went right back out to find a place to eat dinner. The first place we tried, courtesy of our trusty Rick Steves book, looked beautiful – art nouveau tiling on all the walls – but didn’t take Visa. They took Diners Club, but only Diners Club. Only Diners Club? Thankfully, by that point we mostly had a sense of humor about the whole thing – Chris said the “Diners Club only” place was just a symbol of all the silly money problems we’d had the previous few days.
The next place we looked at, Café Fischer, had a nice-looking menu and a Visa sign. We were escorted to what felt and looked like an old wine cellar two floors below street level and seated in a nearly empty restaurant. The menu was fairly extensive, but I went right to the “Czech Specialties” page. Once again, I had roast duck with baked cabbage and dumplings. Chris had beef goulash. Both were wonderful – the dumplings at the other place had been converted to gnocchi, probably to “mix things up a bit,” but I prefer the steamed doughy bread dumplings I remembered from my last visit. This place served the dumplings the old fashioned way, and they were great – big and fluffy, sort of like humbao rolls without the meat filling.
We walked back to the hotel via the Old Town Square one last time, finished packing, and got some sleep – ready to get back to Germany and bank machines that believe we’re not broke.