On my final morning in Prague I met up with the tour group that I’d be with for the remainder of my trip. We were a large group (maybe 35) composed mostly of Australians and New Zealanders, and while I was hoping to find some nice people to chat with on the bus and at our group dinners, I ended up meeting some truly lovely people who I want to keep in touch with thanks to the magic of the internet — just a terrific group! What luck!
Our first stop after leaving Prague was Sedlec Ossuary, a small Roman Catholic chapel located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutna Hora. It might have looked unassuming from the outside…
But inside, not so much. The lower-level ossuary (which is a final resting place for a collection of human bones) is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, but it’s the way they’re displayed that makes the Sedlec Ossuary both notable and popular (no dying to get in jokes, please…I beg of you).
So how did this artful bone display come to be? The story goes that in 1278, an abbot in Sedlec was sent to the Holy Land by King Otakar II of Bohemia to bring back a religious relic. Having perhaps (meaning definitely) spent the money on other things, he returned with some dirt and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. Word spread, and the cemetery became a popular burial site throughout Central Europe. Disastrous world events with high death tolls (think the Black Death in the mid 14th century and the Hussite Wars in the early 15th) meant that, before long, there were thousands of bodies at the cemetery, and space was running out fast, so around 1400, they expanded. A Gothic church was built on the site, and the ossuary was included house the many graves disrupted during construction. For awhile a half-blind monk had the job of stacking the bones, but then, in 1870, a wood-carver named Frantisek Rint was employed to put the bones into order, and he ran with it.
For example, in the middle of the room, an enormous chandelier containing at least one of every bone in the human body hangs from the ceiling.
Does it make sense now why the ossuary is among the most visited tourist attractions of the Czech Republic? Over 200,000 visitors a year come to take a look, and it’s truly amazing. Some of the skulls even show the battle wounds of the wars they died fighting, and it’s hard to think about how each skull was a person with a life and family and people who loved them. And now, in 2014, I’m taking photos of their bones and leaving coins of remembrance.
Leaving the Bone Church behind, it was onward to Olomouc (Olla-moats) in the eastern half of the Czech Republic. Known as the country’s Moravian (eastern) capital, Olomouc is home to Palacky University (the oldest in Moravia and second oldest in the Czech Republic), giving it a large student population in addition to a comfortable amount of churches, monuments, and Moravian wine bars.
Since we’d only be there for one night, we got in a quick walking tour of the downtown area before tasting some of that Moravian wine and gathering for a group dinner. One large feature in the main “Upper Square” of Olomouc is the baroque Holy Trinity Column. It was built in the early 1700s and boasts sculptures of the Holy Trinity, the assumption of Mary, all twelve apostles, and important saints. At the base is a small chapel and a welcome circle of seating for eating lunch or relaxing.
Olomouc is also home to an astronomical clock , but theirs is much different from the one in Prague. Originally constructed in the 15th century, it was badly damaged during WWII. The 1950s Communist re-build (which replaced the original saints and angels with scientists and laborers) lacks the ornate beauty of the original, but still reflects an important era of Czech history and the tile work up close is impressive. At noon the clock puts on a small show, but I didn’t see it.
After admiring the clock we made out way to the Baroque St. Michael’s Church, which looked pretty nondescript from the outside, but the opposite on the inside. Considered one of the most beautiful baroque churches in Central Europe, it also has a painting of an apparently pregnant Virgin Mary, which is a rare sight in a Catholic church. There was actually a mass taking place when we entered, but since the church is such a large tourist attraction in the city, as long as you’re quiet and respectful, the clergy don’t mind.
I loved the incorporation of plants in the hallways, tucked in among the statues, and bathed in sunlight.
In the “basement” there’s also a well that’s said to be the well that the city was founded around. I think this is what our guide told us but I can’t find anything about it online, so who knows…
Back outside we made our way over to the very large and very beautiful St. Wenceslas Cathedral, a thousand-year-old church with the tallest spire in Moravia.
I was glad to see a lot of hand-painted floral motifs inside. They lended a simple homey-ness to the otherwise grand interior.
After the history lesson it was time for the wine tasting and then dinner, which was especially for me nice since I’d spent so many days by this point eating alone with a book. I enjoyed some pasta with sautéed veggies (after having been told, as usual, that the meat and garlic soup at this restaurant was especially nice) in the fine company of Aussie power couple Hana and Dustin (loved them!), friendly Canadian Darren (but he really was!), and the very young and adventurous Ellie and Adele, who were in the middle of a 6-month trek through Europe together. Imagine that?! If you’re an average American like me, you can’t. I was so envious!
The little taste of the non-Prague Czech Republic was lovely, but the next morning would be quite a bit different. After crossing the border into Poland, our first stop was at Auschwitz. That’s next.