Kutná Hora

A church full of bones and a beautiful cathedral might just be enough to make Kutná Hora the perfect Prague daytrip

Kutná Hora, 70 kilometers east of Prague, has a church full of bones and a cathedral of spectacular beauty.

It's not Disneyland, but it's just enough to make the once-great silver-mining town a perfect day-trip from Prague.

There's plenty here to keep you occupied for a day, but it's also easy to get round the main attractions quickly, without feeling like you've missed anything out.

The easiest way to get to Kutná Hora is by train.

It's possible to take a direct train from Prague's main station (hlavní nádraží) to Kutná Hora's significantly more modest main station, in the outlying Sedlec district. (For train times, see the IDOS site.)

From the station, it's a short walk to the Sedlec ossuary (bone church).

Appropriately, you pass Philip Morris ČR, the country's largest cigarette factory, on the way to the graveyard, then turn right onto Zamecká street.

Entry to the ossuary is a very reasonable 35 Kč. There's also a 30 Kč supplement if you want to take photos.

The ossuary contains the remains of around 40,000 people, eager to be buried in Sedlec after the local abbot scattered a handful of sacred soil there that he'd brought back from Golgotha, the hill near Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.

As the bodies piled up, the church authorities struggled to deal with the influx of remains. Eventually, they hit upon a creative solution, hiring local woodcarver František Rint to use the excess skeletons to decorate the space.

This probably sounds macabre, and I suppose it is, but it's hard not to feel like there's a sense of humor at work here.

While most of the remains are used to make up four large "bells" (not much more than large piles of bones, really), there are more imaginative touches throughout.

The most prominent feature is a human chandelier containing every bone in the human body, but a coat-of-arms, from the noble Schwarzenberg family, also rendered in bones, is equally striking.

The detail on the shield, in particular, is impressive, right down to the crow pecking out a Turk's eye - a rather unsavory and politically incorrect touch.

On my last trip to Kutná Hora, at the height of the summer, the chapel was busy with German and Italian tourists. During the winter months, it's quieter and slightly spookier.

It's probably best to check ahead to make sure that the ossuary is open - on one trip, a German film crew was making a low-budget horror movie there, which spoiled things somewhat.

When you're done with the ossuary, it's a fairly long and not particularly inspiring walk into the town's historical core. There's an interesting-looking Soviet war memorial along the way but beyond that, you could be in any Czech town anywhere.

St. Barbara's cathedral, though, is worth the effort and certainly worth the 30 Kč entrance fee.

Approached via a statue-lined terrace similar in style to Prague's Charles Bridge, the 16th-century church is among the most spectacular I've ever seen.

Paid for by miners and named after their patron saint, St. Barbara's offers a more blue-collar, no-nonsense relationship-with-God than Prague's overly fancy St. Vitus's cathedral.

In place of St. Vitus's elaborate stained-glass windows, St. Barbara's painted-glass windows allow streams of pure, white light into the building.

And while St. Vitus's freely mixes religion, commerce and nationalism - some of its inter-war windows are sponsored by banks and insurance companies - St. Barbara's is a more austere experience, all high ceilings and mining paraphernalia.

Overhead, wooden statues of the Four Virtues - Justice, Bravery, Caution, Temperance - look down from an insane height. (Apart from Justice, it's hard to tell one from the other, but maybe that's the point.)

The chapels, meanwhile, are decorated with religious frescoes from various eras.

The Baroque "St. Ignatius wounded in the battle of Pamplona" is particularly impressive, even if zoological accuracy has been sacrificed in favor of artistic license. (My notes refer to a "poorly rendered lion" and a "mean-looking elephant.")

The lack of tourist-driven affectation throws up some comedy moments too.

The English-language handout for visitors, for instance, has some amusing typos ("judging from the style of panting...") and on our last visit a bicycle and a purple gymball were visible through the portal of sacristy.

The one concession to Mammon is the slightly distracting recorded organ music piped round the cathedral and available to buy on CD, but overall it's an awe-inspiring building.

"Here," as the handout says, "we come to the end of an inspection of a cathedral which represents all the greatness of the Bohemian Gotic," and begin to think about heading home.

If you've got time to kill, though, there's a smattering of other historical buildings around town, plus two museums - the České muzeum stříbra (Czech Museum of Silver) and the newer Muzeum alchymie v Kutné Hoře (The Alchemy Museum in Kutná Hora).

Otherwise, it's a taxi back to the station and a train back to Prague.

Sam Beckwith
Prague, Czech Republic

Tales from Suburban Bohemia, a "semi-regular, semi-humorous column," is published simultaneously on Stumpy Moose and Prague TV.

Post your comments on Tales from Suburban Bohemia on the Stumpy Moose Board or the PTV Discussion Forums or e-mail sam@stumpymoose.com.

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