Czech Republic

We are on a promenade lined by Baroque statues, looking over a wooded valley. History is full of ironies... Bucolic Kutna Hora could have been as famous as Prague and even wealthier...but today its one of the most visited sites of the Czech Republic for an entirely different reason- but more of that later…

Kutna Hora’s brush with wealth goes back to the time, when it was a great mining town, with silver ore running in great veins in the hills surrounding it. Thanks to this town’s wealth, many Bohemian kings became rich and powerful rulers. Legend has it, that the town takes its name from the cowl of a monk’s dress, following the discovery of silver, by a lazy Cistercian monk who was taking a nap, near the All Saints Church! More than 2500 workers used to work in the claustrophobic mines here, shoveling out the precious metal for more than eleven hours a day. The silver groschen that was minted here, in those days, was the most powerful currency, all over Europe. More than 2500 tons of silver were extracted, over four hundred years. As the silver deposits spluttered and ran dry, the town’s importance also dwindled.

Kutna Hora is built over rolling hills, with cobbled streets and brightly colored patrician homes emblazoned with friezes of miners and sculptures of knights. The finest sight in town is the tent- like St Barbara Church, which was the miner’s church. It was built over a period of five hundred years, out of locally quarried sandstone- it was named after the patron saint of the miners. Our guide says that St Barbara was revered by the miners, and there are countless stories about how she showed the way out, to workers stuck in a mine, or helped in opening a hard rock. The Hussite wars and the town’s reserves of silver dwindling, all contributed to the church’s construction slowing down. High ceilings, wooden statues and traces of its exquisite frescoes, double arched flying buttresses and mining motifs; sunlight streaming through its windows-it’s an impressive church. The church has one of the finest pipe organs that I have seen. The town hosts a unique Organ music festival every year, when the local churches resound with mellifluous organ music.

The Italian Court was once the home of the Royal mint, filled with the din of the hammers of the ancient coin minters, as well as the residence of the King when he came to visit the mines. Today, a swish museum has the ancient coins stashed under glass, in stone pillars, with portraits of kings who had their coins minted there on the walls. There is a coin minter who gives us our own special souvenir coin- made out of aluminum, though! About 2000 coins a day used to be turned out, and the noise levels made many minters deaf. In a chamber downstairs, we understand about medieval quality control- there are mint masters marks painted on the walls- they were marks that indicated quality. The Assembly Room of the Royal Palace is ornate, with paintings depicting the history of Kutna Hora. There is an interesting bench which came from the town hall -it is built in the shape of a chest with a revolving back- rest. When the councilors did not agree with the mayor, they turned the back rest and sat with their backs to him! The show stopper of the building is the Royal Chapel, where masters from Nuremberg created the altar and the paintings. There is a hollow wooden statue of Jesus Christ- it has a door at the back and was used to store important documents.

My guide, Georgina warns me that I am going to see something very strange and unique next. Most people visit Kutna Hora, to see the macabre Bone Church or Ossuary at Sedlec. It all started when a local abbot brought back a sackful of holy soil from Golgotha, Jerusalem where Christ was supposed to have been crucified. He sprinkled the soil in Sedlec, and soon, everyone wanted to be buried here. Due to the Black Plague, more than 40,000 people had to be buried here; many poor souls had to be dug up to make room for more. A half blind monk arranged the bones in pyramids, later a wood carver was appointed by the Schwarzenberg family to decorate the chapel and the rest is history. Today the ossuary draws curious visitors from around the world.

We walk in to the dimly lit pint- sized chapel. Piles of skulls with femur bones in their mouths and garlands of femur greet us. The piece de resistance of the creepy décor is a chandelier made of every bone in the human body! Floor-to ceiling mountains of human bones, coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family, creepily creative bone Chalices and candelabras decorate the church. Monstrances flank the altars and even the carpenter’s signature is executed in bone! We walk around in hushed silence, occasionally exclaiming at the bizarre creations. Glass cases hold broken skulls of soldiers maimed by medieval weapons like a flail or mace. I notice that even the souvenirs are small skulls and candle holders in the shape of skulls

After a morbid morning, we head for the vineyards near the St Barbara Church, for some wine tasting. The sommelier, Kocian explains that the first grapes that were cultivated here were brought from Burgundy, in France, and over the ages adapted to the climate and soil here. Today, this region produces some of the best wine in the Czech Republic and has won many awards. Kutna Hora sure gives you a taste of the sublime and the macabre!

Published in the Hindu Metro Plus, February, 2012