November 24, 2017. Kutná Hora, Czech Republic.
Trains aren’t so bad once you get used to them. By the time I finished this morning’s existential blogging I only had a half an hour before the train left, and it was a 25 minute walk to the station. Pretty standard odds. I skedaddled across Prague, got yelled at by the lady at the bus line and sent down the metro line where a much nicer lady sold me a $5 ticket to Kutna Hora and said, “Platform 4”.
Welp, I found platform 1, went toward it, went away from it, went toward it again, then stopped at a money changing booth and asked the lady there where Platform 4 was. She said, “Just keep going straight”, and I did, and- ahhh, okay, so it’s not like an airport.
Seats were at a premium. I tried to slip into a six-seater booth that only contained one old white woman, but she told me in Czech that it was reserved. It’s reassuring to know that old white women are like that no matter where you are.
I eventually found a seat in the cattle car section and spent the ride staring out the window and thinking about bones.
A smooth hour later, I got off the train in the middle of nowhere. Since there were no roads in the middle of nowhere, hence, nowhere, I had to walk down a set of train tracks. Talk about nostalgia.
In the halcyon days of my youth, everything was a minimum four miles from everything else, and much of it was only connected by highways and bypasses. If you couldn’t drive, and you wanted to go somewhere, you took the train tracks, and you hoped there were no railway police, hallucinating junkie hobos, or Leatherface murder-hicks with the same idea.
After a few blocks the tracks ran parallel to a paved road so I had to hop a shoulder-high fence that was, as far as I could tell, made wholly of rust.
Kutna Hora was silent. I didn’t realize it at first, but for the past month I’ve been dipping from one major city to another. Traffic, noise, low-level metropolitan chaos was a constant, and the only respite I’ve got are these Wal-Mart earplugs which, realistically, are not long for this world. A car would pass, and then I could count breaths and heartbeats before another one came. You don’t realize how much you miss something like that until you don’t have it.
I basked in the quiet until it was disrupted by three Australians behind me, pointing blithely at anything with a steeple and saying, “Is that it?” On the third time, I asked if they were headed to the bone church.
“Is that it?” they repeated.
“Nope,” I said, “Around the corner, couple blocks up. I was wondering what brought ya’ll to this hub of tourism.”
They said they were studying in Prague, then asked the usual battery of questions you ask to anyone in Europe with a backpack: how long you been out, where have you been, how long will you stay out, etc. We reached the cathedral and separated before we could finish the song-and-dance.
Before we get to the good stuff, if you don’t know what the Sedlec Ossuary is, let me give you a quick rundown.
In 1278, an abbot named Henry was sent by a Bohemian king to the holy land. Pilgrimage complete, he scooped up a handful of Jerusalem’s finest dirt, then brought it back and scattered it around the abbey cemetery. Boom. Transubstantiation. That was no longer secular bohemian land, but rather, hot new Holy Land, and everybody in Europe wanted to be buried there.
Many of them would get their wish within the next hundred years, because that’s when the Black Death hit. The bodies business was booming. Then, early 1400s, the Hussite Wars make the cemetery even bigger.
The local Roman Catholic diocese responsible checked out the plot of land and said, “You know, all these consecrated bodies are great, but what we could really use, right here, in the center, is a Gothic church.” So of course they built one. Problem is, that takes a hell of a foundation, so they had to exhume a lot of the bones of the buried faithful, beplagued and slain, then just kind of… tossed ’em in the basement. No harm, no foul.
None of this was decreasing demand to get buried in the Holy Land away from Holy Land, so the bodies were still, literally, piling up. The church, in their infinite wisdom, assigned a partially blind monk the task of exhuming more bodies and stacking the bones. That was his job. Until he died, and presumably joined them.
1870 rolls around, and House Schwarzenberg is now the owner of the largest pile of bones in Europe, containing the remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 dead people in the same way that a Boston cream contains its filling when you squeeze it as hard as you can. Something’s gotta be done, so they hire a wood carver, for some reason, to put the bones in order. Little did they realize this wood carver was nuttier than squirrel shit, and lo, the Sedlec Ossuary was born.
It was incredible. It was also the first time I’ve ever touched a real human skull sans skin. They’re surprisingly tiny, but that might have been because most people in medieval central Europe were like 5’0″.
I puttered around oohing and aahing at all the upcycled dead people until the selfie brigade started to grate on me, then I went to the only restaurant in Kutna Hora and ordered what I hope wasn’t traditional Czech food from a surly, bottom-heavy waitress with eyes dead enough that she could’ve also come right from the Ossuary.
It was an unseasoned chicken breast with reduction of Cream of Spinach soup on top. I didn’t realize Kutna Hora catered to bodybuilders. I ordered the potato pancakes as a side mostly for their German name, Kartoffelpuffer. Teehee. Kartoffel means potato in German, but that’s from the Italian tartufulo, which refers to a truffle, but originally both came from terrae tuber, or earth-bulb. Puffer is both self-explanatory and pretty funny.
Well, I saw the bone church, and I ate. According to tour offers, I could spend the next 6 hours in Kutna Hora learning about a medieval silver mine, but that sounded boring and awful, so I caught a train back to Prague and slithered on to a connecting FlixBus. I couldn’t order the ticket online, so the bus driver made a big deal of saying, “It will be 150% more if you buy from me now.”
“You mean, 50% more?”
Well, it was about 15 Euros for the ticket online, and I wound up giving him 20, which was almost all of the Czech money I had left anyway. I have another 200 or 300 CZK left in my pocket (around $25), but I’ve been on this bus for a couple hours, and I’ve got to be in Austria by now.
You know, considering my track record, you gotta wonder how many ghosts I dragged with me outta that well-stacked pile of bones.