Prague; The old town centre; Astronomical Clock; Train to Kutná Horá; The Sedlec Ossuary, my reason for being in Europe; St. Barbara's boring cathedral; Running for the train; A basket of mushrooms; Researching the Moravian Karst

Two days in a row getting up early - do I dare hope this is becoming a trend? Like yesterday, though, our motivations were mainly to avoid having to share the showers, and to sneak enough food from the breakfast buffet to let us make lunch. Both missions accomplished, we ventured out to the old town centre to see all the things again in daylight that we’d seen last night in the dark.

Prague’s Astronomical Clock is huge - it’s at least two stories tall - and not free-standing as I’d pictured, but rather built in to the wall of the St. Nicholas Church. It has four or five separate dials, the purpose of all of which we couldn’t divine. The day and month were obvious (though not accurate) and the hour likewise (there was no minute hand). I think two of the others were the astrological sun and moon signs, but the rest of them were a mystery to me. It’s quite visually impressive, with lots of intricate detail picked out in gold leaf, and lots of little statues all around. One nice touch is that the names of the saints are inscribed around the large bottom dial that tracks the year and month - each saint to his corresponding day. According to the clock, my birthday (February 16th) falls on St. Juliana’s Day (among other saints) which I hadn’t known. The best part of the clock, though, is that at each hour (well, five minutes past each hour, by my watch) the clock comes alive. A little gold skeleton rings a bell, and a parade of apostles goes past a window at the top, each one approaching, turning and standing in the window, and then turning and gliding away, all accompanied by the ratcheting and clanking of clockwork.

The mission for the day was to get out to a town called Kutná Horá, about an hour east of Prague, to see the Sedlec Ossuary (about which more below). We weren’t sure whether we were taking the train or the bus - the train was faster but a bit more expensive - so we left it up to fate to decide. Checking the schedule, we found a bus leaving in ten minutes, so we raced for the bus station… and promptly got lost. So the train it was, which I was fine with - trains are always nicer than buses. There was a bit of a wait, but we needed every second to find the main train station, buy tickets, and find the right platform. It’s a challenge buying a train ticket when there’s a language barrier - we were nearly certain that we had the right train, but weren’t sure if we needed to change trains at Kolín or if the train went directly to Kutná Horá. Everyone we asked seemed to think it was direct, though none of them were actually going there, so we took a gamble and stayed on the train, which turned out to be the correct decision. It took a little over an hour to Kutná Horá, passing through some of the most amazing broken-down Soviet-era industrial plants and equipment. I’d have loved to have taken a couple of days to walk through Prague’s outlying sectors and shoot all the abandoned buildings.

The train itself nearly qualified as an industrial relic, actually - bone-rattlingly shaky and with peeling bench seating as it was. Out of curiosity we investigated, and the only difference between first and second classes (besides the much higher price) was that the first-class section, half of one car, had individual seats rather than bench seats. It was, unsurprisingly, empty. Relic or not, though, the train did its job eventually and we alighted in Kutná Horá’s hlavni nádraží main train station where we found signposts for ‘kostnice’ (ossuary). We decided to walk the two kilometers or so rather than wait for the bus, and arrived at the church at Sedlec only about two minutes after the backpackers from the train who’d waited for the bus.

The Sedlec Ossuary is stunning. I’d heard about it for years, and it was my primary reason for coming to Europe and to the Czech Republic. It’s a large room decorated with the skeletal remains of 40,000 people, most of them dead of a plague, that were stacked and wired together by an insane woodcarver in 1870. There are four huge pyramids of skulls in the corners, a magnificent skeletal chandelier, reputedly containing at least one of every human bone, and the coat of arms of the Schwarzenburg family, sponsors of the project, composed completely of bones. I was a bit too excited to shoot good photos of the place, and had a hard time finding good angles that didn’t look too messy and incoherent, so after waiting so long to see it, Sheryl’s photographs are much better than mine. I wish I’d been able to spend the entire day there with a tripod, a ladder, and a proper set of lighting equipment, it’s what the place deserves. I did pick up some postcards from the gift shop, though.

After Sedlec we walked the four or five kilometers across town to see St. Barbara’s Cathedral, a Gothic monstrosity we were told was nearly as impressive as St. Vitus’ in Prague. I didn’t find it so, to be honest. It’s a big pile of stone in an empty field on top of a hill, and it’s either unfinished or under construction. I suppose it might be the first sign of Cathedral Fatigue setting in, but St. Barbara’s bored me a bit. Sheryl wasn’t particularly impressed either, so we started the walk back to the train station (6km or so at this point), quickly realizing that we weren’t going to make the train unless we ran. I didn’t fancy waiting the two more hours in tiny, empty Kutná Horá for the next train, so run we did, and we made it with two or three minutes to spare, exhausted, thirsty and overheated. The two old ladies who had to share our compartment looked nervous and shocked when we opened the door, which is an indication of what we must have looked like. They were gracious enough, though, and one of them showed off her basket of giant mushrooms to Sheryl (we were later to discover that mushroom-picking is the Czech national sport).

The train was delayed half an hour with mechanical problems, but we finally got back to Prague. It had been a long day, so we didn’t have energy for much more than dinner. Sheryl went for a walk in a fruitless attempt to find beer, and I did some research on our next destination, the Moravian Karst, a region in the southeast which is rich in caves. It’s not rich in accomodations for backpackers, though - it wook ages to find something, and when I finally did it was a small hiker’s hostel in a microscopic place called Macocha, outside of a tiny place called Skalní Mlýn, outside of a small place called Blansko, which itself is on the way to Brno, Czech’s second-largest city. I attempted to make a reservation using the hostel’s website, and it looked as if it went through, so I considered the planning a success. We intended to take the train to Blansko the next day, grab one of the five-daily buses to Skalní Mlýn, and walk to the Macocha cable car which took us to the hostel. It sounds torturous, but it had bicycles available to rent, and it was right in the middle of the Moravian Karst, so I thought it would make a good base to explore the region.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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