Kutna Hora: Silver and Bones
“Cut! Stop! There is a person on set”. I raise my head and see a strange commotion among actors in medieval dresses and someone running towards me waving their hands and desperately pointing to a sidewalk.
“Oh, shit”. Walking in quiet contemplation and studying the cobblestones of Kutna Hora, I got so completely lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice that the medieval streets of this beautiful Czech town were being used as a movie set. And just like that, my not-very-medieval character wearing a Northface backpack and armed with a Ricks Steves guidebook walked into a medieval movie scene.
Seeing the chaos I unintentionally created, I sincerely apologized and quickly crossed to another side of the street. The actors were now taking an unintended break, courtesy of this unsuspecting tourist. I looked around and understood why a movie is being filmed here. Kutna Hora is a delightful medieval time capsule, a time machine transporting you back in time.
Kutna Hora was one of the three full day trips I took out of Prague. In addition to my adventure visiting Karlštejn castle, a day trip that nearly cost me my life, I also visited Český Krumlov, a spectacular town located in a remote part of the country by the Austrian border. I loved it, but going to Český Krumlov on a day trip, instead of staying there overnight, was a mistake. I spent good eight hours of my day just getting there and back from Prague resulting in only four hours of rushed sightseeing blitzkrieg. Kutna Hora, with its proximity to Prague (only one hour by train) and an abundance of sights, was a great day trip, all way around.
I started in the outskirts of the town visiting the Sedlec Ossuary. This chapel, just a short stroll from the train station, is one of the top sights in Czech Republic and the main reason why people come to Kutna Hora. The chapel is not your everyday cookie-cutter church. It is the resting place of remains of more than 40,000 people, decorated… with the remains of the said people. In a morbidly bizarre, yet strangely creative in an artistic way, bones and skulls are displayed throughout the chapel on the ceiling and walls. The early history of the chapel reflects the grim European history of the Middle Ages. As the Black Plague raged through Europe, thousands of people were buried, often in mass graves, in the cemetery of the abbey that stood here. After a new church was built in the center of the cemetery, the exhumed bones recovered from the construction site were put into the chapel’s lower-level ossuary for storage. The visitors’ brochure described a story of a medieval semi-blind monk who oversaw the stacking and organizing of the bones in the ossuary. Yet, the person who put the chapel on a tourist map was František Rint. In the second half of the 19th century, this talented Czech woodcarver and carpenter transformed the chapel from the storage place for bones into a whimsical, macabre chapel with human bones and skulls exquisitely arranged into elaborate garlands, chandeliers, wall decorations, and even a coat of arms. Also, in a true fashion of an artist, Mr. Rint signed one of the walls of the chapel with his name, the name of his hometown, and the date of his work, all in human bones, of course.
As I walked around the chapel admiring this masterpiece, it became clear to me that human artistic spirit thrives in any circumstances and people have always utilized any medium readily available for their artistic outlets: from drawing on the walls of caves at Montignac 20,000 years ago to spraying graffiti on concrete walls of industrial zones in the 21st century. This chapel was proof of exactly that. Give an artist nothing but bones and skulls and he will create something beautiful and memorable out of them.
As I learned later, following the Black Plague such bone ossuaries were not uncommon throughout Europe, and Kutna Hora was not the only place for such ghoulish artistry. Years later, while visiting the town of Evora in the eastern part of Portugal, we stopped by a similar bone church, albeit with less elaborate decorations. Julia, who was visiting such a place for the first time, was dismayed with what she saw and ranted relentlessly about medieval monks who used somebody’s bones and skulls without permission for essentially creating religious propaganda. I was just relieved that the gift shop did not sell human bones souvenirs.
After visiting the Sedlec Ossuary, I headed to the town center to explore the town’s medieval architecture. The compact old town of Kutna Hora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its neat medieval streets is a photogenic paradise. It is not surprising that so many movies are filmed here. Kutna Hora used to be a miner’s town and has been known as Czech’s Silver City. In its heyday with nearby silver mines working at full capacity, the town was one of the wealthiest in Bohemia. The silver excavated here allowed for rapid development of the town, including the construction of an imposing Gothic cathedral in the town center dedicated to (no surprise here) the patron saint of miners – St. Barbara. With silver money flowing plentifully, for quite some time, Kutna Hora even went toe to toe with Prague competing for dominance in the region. Nowadays, there are no working silver mines here, and the efforts to overtake Prague have long been abandoned. But the town does not look like a depressing ghost miner town, with tourism and, occasionally, movie industry replacing source of income for the locals.
I spent the rest of my day strolling and admiring the medieval architecture of this charming town, studying the drawings and frescoes depicting miner activities on the walls of St. Barbara church, and trying not to ruin any more movies. While Prague is a world-class city and deserves all the hype and visitors it gets, Kutna Hora presents a pleasant and easily doable day trip option for those who have some extra time in the country and desires to venture a little bit off-the-beaten trail.