Carmen and I knew we were in trouble when the train we thought was going to Kutna Hora suddenly stopped in the middle of absolutely nowhere. A Czech voice crackled something over the tannoy, probably saying ‘this train is terminated’ but we just stayed in our seats until the conductor came and kicked us off into the snow. Now what?
We trudged over the bone cold ground towards a small platform with a shelter full of people. We managed to find someone who spoke a little English who told us to wait for another train at another platform just down the road. So we went back out into the blasting cold and walked as quickly as we could – if we missed the train then it was all over.
We had been in the Czech Republic for a few days and were having a great time exploring its noble capital Prague. The winter freeze had really set in though and it took a lot of motivation to put on our layers and make the most of the days. Luckily we were staying at a brilliant hostel called Sir Toby’s which came with an all you could eat breakfast – so every morning we gorged on pancakes, toast, cereal, pastries and fruit to ensure we’d have a lot of fuel in the tank to burn. I think I’m still burning some of it now.
Anyway, we heard about Kutna Hora from some fellow travellers over breakfast. It’s a wonderfully preserved city that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is perhaps best known for the Sedlec Ossuary, a small chapel beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints. They told us how the chapel is decorated with bones from floor to ceiling ‘like something from a horror movie’. We were intrigued and decided to set out the next morning to Kutna Hora to check it out.
Back to our story then. We found our way to a huge railway terminal that was somehow colder inside than out. Everyone was smoking to keep warm and had their eyes on a huge Soviet-era clock ticking down the minutes until the train to Kutna Hora arrived. Mercifully it wasn’t long and we clambered aboard our new connection.
There was already a big group of travellers on the train – they had caught the right one in the first place – and we followed them through the twisting streets of Kutna Hora until we reached the cemetery where the Ossuary was. We paid the small entrance fee and went down the dark steps into the bowels of the earth. When our eyes adjusted to the light we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
It was like a heavy metal album cover from the ’80s. Every surface was covered in ornate arrangements of bones. Skulls, fibulas, tibulas, femurs, patellas, all the skeleton parts you learned about in human biology were strung up and sculpted as aesthetic decoration. In the middle of it all was a huge chandelier which the guide said contained at least one of every bone found in the human body. In fact, there were the bones of between 40,000-70,000 bodies hanging in the church.
Why? Well, the easiest answer is they needed more room in the cemetery above. The Black Death, wars and the short life expectancy back in the old times meant space for bodies was running out in the graveyard and they figured the best way to rehouse the bones was to dedicate them to the glory of god in sculptural form. The place is oddly beautiful once you get over the initial horror.
It was a very strange day. We left the Ossuary in twilight feeling a little creeped out. We took the train (the right one!) back to Prague and our carriage was buzzing with people talking about what they’d seen – was it grotesque? Beautiful? Would you want to be used as a decoration after you die? It definitely reinforced my desire to be cremated when I’m gone, but then again, maybe I have lovely bones.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
How to get there – Kutna Hora is a short train ride away from Prague but do check the timetable carefully before you set out or could get a bit lost like we did!
How much – Train tickets are very cheap and the entrance fee to the Ossuary was a few euros so it’s a cheap day out.
When to go – Any time. The Ossuary at Kutna Hora is a place of pilgrimage so it’s open most of the year. Maybe avoid Halloween. Or not…