Sticks & Stones

A town called Kolin

 

Sunday 18th January 2009

We were up bright and early again this morning courtesy of the sunrise flooding in through our bedroom window. Half asleep I got up and on auto-pilot repeated the morning routine with breakfast in bed.

I then went upstairs with a fresh cup of coffee and popped my head out of the rooflight to check the weather. The view was still as breathtaking and the skies were promising a brighter day.

We weren't going to be staying in Prague today though. Our plan was to head out on a day trip out to Kutna Hora, a place that in its heyday rivalled Prague as Bohemia's premier city.

I had already checked the timetables on-line before coming to Prague and had decided on catching the 10:40am train to Luhacovice, changing at Kolin.

I don't know what I was more excited about, visiting the World Heritage site of Kutna Hora or the town the bears my name; albeit spelt with a 'K'.

We gave ourselves an hour to walk across to Hlavni Nadrazi train station but it was only a short distance away from the National Museum at the end of St. Wenceslas square so we arrived with plenty of time to spare.

We entered the grandest entrance hall of any train station we'd ever seen. It was worthy of a cathedral with its beautiful golden dome adorned with the crests of the various destinations throughout Bohemia.

Arched glass windows brought light into the space and added a certain Art Nouveauness to its style. We noticed a Kasa sign and walked over to buy our tickets but I don't think it had opened its windows since the velvet revolution.

Our best laid plans were on the verge of floundering when we opened the heavy glass doors flanked by art nouveau statues ending up on platform 1 with no sign of a ticket office.

"Shit, where do we buy the bloody tickets?" I moaned.

As we were about to give up a cleaner shuffled past with her mop and bucket so we asked her politely "um ... uh .... Kasa?"

She pointed to the floor. Our total bemusement was obvious so she pointed again, this time to the staircase that went down below the platform. "Ah ... OK ... Spaseeba" I answered. I don't know why I fell into Russian. It may have been her unsmiling face.

Down in the basement there was a whole new world of trendy modern shops, snack bars and a ticket office. Hooray! We bought our return tickets for the two of us to Kutna Hora for 262 Kc , which was only about £8.50. That was great value.

After buying a take-out coffee each we made our way over to platform 4 passing along the way a plaque on the underpass wall commemorating Woodrow Wilson.

Apparently at one time the station was named after the 28th American President. It quoted "The world must be made safe for democracy." but I couldn't understand the Czech text.

I guessed it possibly had something to do with his role in the birth of Czechoslovakia. At the end of the First World War this corner of Europe gained its independence from the dissolved Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

It didn't hold on to its democracy for long with the Nazis and then the Communists coming along but at least the future seems to fulfil Woodrow Wilson's statement.

The 10.40 to Luhacovice soon arrived. It's strange how excited we both were at the classic style of its carriages, certainly not from the outside but inside they were like the first class carriages of our childhood. Train travel from a bygone era.

We had a compartment to ourselves, in fact we had the whole carriage to ourselves until a rather apologetic lady and her daughter evicted us from seats.

In her broken English she explained that she had seats reserved and would rather be sitting in the right place in case the train got busier later on.

There were plenty of empty compartments for us to choose from so in my broken Czech I said "OK"

We settled down and at precisley 10.40am the train juddered to life and off we set.

The scenery at first was Prague's urban sprawl and industrial wasteland but we were soon out into the Bohemian countryside.

There wasn't much to see other than large flat snow covered fields. It was difficult to see where the fields ended and the sky began such was the greyness of the day.

Within an hour of leaving Prague we rolled into Kolin.

Ever since finding out that there was a town that shared my name I'd done some research on-line and found that whilst the historical centre of the town had many gothic and baroque buildings there wasn't enough of real interest to warrant a full visit.

We only had fifteen minutes here to wait for the connecting train so I was content with just having a photograph taken on the platform.

In no time we had reached Kutna Hora or the train station at least.

A small shuttle train which looked more like an old bus converted to roll on train tracks was poised to chugg its way down the 3km to the historic centre of Kutna Hora. We chose not to board this home-made charabang. The main reason for our soujourn today was to visit The Ossuary at Sedlec which was within easy walking distance of the train station. So off we shuffled.

After a few minutes Julie asked "What time is it ?"

"Why?"

"I'm sure I've read somewhere that this place we're going to is shut between 12pm and 2pm"

And she was right! A quick look at the guidebook confirmed that the Ossuary was closed for two hours over lunch. We spun on our heels and walked as quickly as we could along the icy pavements back towards the station. We arrived at the precise moment the station master blew his whistle and shuttle wagon pulled away without us.

Unpreturbed with being potentially stranded in the middle of nowheresville, we had a plan B; we just had to wait for the bus arrive. It eventually turned up ten minutes late according to the timetable at the bus stop. We asked for two tickets to take us to Kutna Hora centrum assuming that it meant the centre of town.

The distance between Sedlec and Kutna Hora was only short but our route took us the long way round driving through a large residential area, stopping on what felt like every corner.

We finally reached the bus stop with the sign "Centrum" above it. We stepped off and waited for the bus to drive away. Looking around we couldn't see anything worthy of an UNESCO World Heritage listing. We were still in some residential area.

A friendly bus passenger who stepped off at the same time as us realised we were obviously lost and without a word of English he explained to us that centre of Kutna Hora was a short walk away to the right. In a total role reversal the old man helped us cross the road before returning back to the other side.

We walked on and before long we began to see the tips several spires. I was relieved that we were heading in the right direction at least.

 

With the three points of the Cathedral of St. Barbara safely in our sights we relaxed and soon broke out into a snowball fight.

 

Julie couldn't hit a barn door from three feet away so she had no chance of hitting a moving target. Her first two missles went predictably high and wide and whilst she was reloading I quickly scored two direct hits. We then descended into hand to hand combat which I always win. Then when I shoved one my icy snowballs down the back of her neck she waved the white flag of surrender.

We couldn't stop laughing as we walked down the steps towards the Cathedral of St. Barbara. Or perhaps it was just me who was laughing?

Anyway the tittering soon stopped when we saw the inspiring structure that stood before us, even with a little bit of scaffolding it looked imposing.

I wasn't expecting such an impressive buidling.

It came as no surprise to discover that Kutna Hora's jewel shared its original architect with St. Vitus in Prague.

Peter Parler, a name worthy of a toungue-twister, was involved in the conception of both.

The outside more than rivalled St. Vitus of Prague, in fact I'd go as far as saying that Barbara's flying buttresses were even more impressive. It was a stunning cathedral.

We unfortunately couldn't go inside as it was closed for the two hours over lunch. So I suppose there was only one thing to do over lunch time and that's to have lunch!

Our guidebook had only recommended one restaurant called Harmonia but with no map we probably would never have found 105 Husova street if it wasn't for a little godsend.

Up on a noticeboard by the Church of St. Barabar was a large local map, the sort you see with a "You are Here" sign on it.

From it we could work out where the restaurant was and how to get there. Hallelujah!

As we walked down a statue lined street called Barborska that was reminiscent of Charles Bridge we saw a glorious view of Kutna Hora.

For such a small town it had its fair share of grand churches.

Dominating the view was the tall gothic spire of the Church of St.James but it wasn't only the churches that were grand, the streets were lined with beautiful baroque town houses.

Kutna Hora was built on the success of its silver mines. It became a very prosperous city that was the equal of Prague.

The Royal Mint was sensibly established here so they didn't have to transport the precious metal too far.

We could see behind the Church of St.James the Royal Palace and Mint now known as the Italian Court. Apparently when the silver ran out so did the town's future.

The ruler's of Bohemia focused their attention on Prague and left Kutna Hora to remain pretty much as we see it today.

At the end of Barborska was Husova street.

It became quite steep which was why we chose to walk in the middle of the gritted road rather than risk the icy pavements on the shaded side of the street.

We turned down Husova and almost directly opposite the Church of St. James we came across the entrance to Restaurant Harmonia.

We were grateful for the Time Out guide because it actually looked like the only place that was open for lunch.

Inside was really funky, its bright red and green colours hinting towards the alternative choice available. Whilst the main menu was the traditional Czech fayer there was a smaller menu offering Mexican cuisine.

Aye carumba!

We shared a salad to start with which was overloaded with sweetcorn depsite not being from the mexican menu.

Julie then had roast pork with piquant potatoes. The thin slices of pork were tasty enough but the potatoes were a big hit.

We even ordered another portion to go with my "fried cheese" which I suspected was brie in breadcrunbs.

We were tempted by the blueberry dumplings for desert but conscious of the time we decided we had to leave. We needed to be back at the bus stop by 2:01pm (I checked the timetable earlier) so that we could quickly scoot around the Ossuary in Sedlec before catching the 3pm train back to Prague.

The walk back to the bus stop, up hill all the way, was quite a struggle.

At least we could admire the colourful townhouses along the way.

They were very similar to those of the Mala Strana, the Little Quarter of Prague. It's no wonder the entire historical centre of Kutna Hora has UNESCO World Heritage protection.

In a square called Rejskovo namesti, in front of the Church of St. John of Neopmuk was this peculiar circular gothic building. It looked like a small church in its own right but I read later that it was a stone fountain.

With the freezing cold conditions there wasn't any water splashing about.

Even so, I just couldn't imagine it as a fountain, a gothic windowless prison perhaps but not a fountain.

We reached the top of the hill and the bus stop with a good ten minutes to spare. There was a group of youths sitting in the bus shelter drinking from out of what looked like a bottle of rum. It was interesting to see how Czech teenagers were no different to their British counterparts. The bus was late and the kids left.

The bus was so late that technically the 2:01pm never arrived. The next scheduled arrival of 2:33pm came and went without a bus.

"We could have walked there by now!" I huffed.

We been waiting here for so long that we even resorted to counting coloured cars to pass the time. We used to do this a lot with Hannah when we were on long car journeys. Julie won with 37 red cars to my 23 white.

Finally, with only ten minutes to go before we had agreed to start walking a bus arrived. Catching the 3pm train back to Prague was out of the question but at least there was a later train.

We got off the bus in Sedlec at a stop called Tabak. There was another cathedral here called the Cathedral of Our Lady but we walked straight past it.

We were on a mission to find a much smaller church but one with a much larger reputation. It was called The Ossuary but I knew it as the Church of Bones.

I heard about it whilst watching two travel programmes on TV. "The Long Way Round" with Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman and "Adventures in Architecture" by Dan Cruickshank and thought "we've got to go there!"

It is one of the most eerie churches in the world.

As we arrived at the gates we cursed our luck as a tour bus turned up at the same time. "Bloody hell" I muttered "hurry up". We quickened our pace to get inside before the hordes descended.

As soon as we walked in we could tell it was no ordinary church. The souvenir shop to the side was doing roaring trade in replica skulls.

After waiting for a pair of black eyelined goths chosing a skull for their mantlepiece we evenutally paid our entrance fee and got in before the tour group. As we walked down the steps into the ossuary itself we noticed the first example of the bone art that makes this church so unique.

Up on the wall looking down on us was this large coat of arms made entirely from skull and bones.

It was extremely creepy.

Walking down the steps we entered the crypt-like church.

It was only a small space but it was inundated with skulls, everywhere you turned. There's apparently 40,000 in here!

Many were ornately arranged on silver display stands or strung together like garlands.

In the centre there was a chandelier that allegedly used every single bone in the body in its contstruction.

We were both speechless.

Not for long however as Julie quipped "Is this a bonafide church?"

We stiffled our laughter as not to be disrespectful.

It didn't seem real though. The stage set design seemed more set up for a scene from the latest Dracula movie rather than a place of worship. Ossuaries (a chamber to house human remains) are not uncommon but to arrange them in such an ornamental way was quite shocking.

The story goes that this church became an extremely popular place to be buried after a 13th century abbot returned from the Holy Land with a jar of soil and spread it over the cemetary.

A few centuries later and the graveyard was so full they had to begin removing the earlier remains and store them in the Ossuary.

 

After another couple of centuries of stockpiling the bones in 1870 they appointed someone to tidy up the place.

"Whoever did this wasn't bone idle" joked Julie.

This time I couldn't stop myself from laughing out loud. Her timing and dead pan delivery was comical.

The man behind this macabre masterpiece was a woodcarver by the name of Frantisek Rint .

I wonder what the public reaction was at the time?

At the unveiling did people gasp and shout out "You sick bastard!" or did they appreciate his gruesome genius.

We only spent five minutes staring at the skulls and we couldn't make up our minds either.

It certainly captured the morbid fascination that's in us all.

Eventually the tour group flooded in and the peaceful reflective atmosphere was shattered. It was time for us to leave.

Before heading out the gates we had a walk around cemetery.

In many ways cemeteries can be a great collection of ghostly works of art.

I was surprised to see a number of modern grave stones. It must still be a popular place to buried.

It'll be time again for a clear out.

We walked the short distance back to the main road where we decided against waiting for the next bus.

We didn't want to miss the next train as well.

After only a few minutes the allure of a brightly coloured cosy bar almost tempted us in for a drink. What put us off I think was the hilarious sign of a man shoving a sausage into his mouth.

"That looks a bit weird" said Julie.

"Doesn't it look like he's giving a blow job?" I added.

That was enough to make us to walk straight past the gay sausage bar.

The train station was a lot nearer than we thought and we arrived with an hour to wait for the next train.

We sat in the waiting room but only for a few minutes. One woman who was clearly a few quarts short of a pint was rocking in her chair humming along to some funky music she was playing through her portable CD player and listening through her huge DJ headphones. The other side of the room a man was slumped back in his chair snoring, farting and generally scratching his bollocks.

We couldn't face staying there a moment longer so we made our way back towards the sausage munching bar.

After only a few minutes Julie spotted a sign above a door that looked like it was a beer logo.

"Is that a bar?" she asked.

She was right to question it as the seveties concrete building looked most uninviting. It looked like a dilapidated student's accomodation block but at least there wasn't any signs of simulated sex acts above the door.

"Lets go and have a look"

We were so glad we did. It turned into one of those quirky experiences that makes a trip memorable and you wouldn't see it in any guide book!

Inside looked as dated and as shabby as the outside. The filthy net curtains were a perfect addition to the workingman's club vibe. That and the chain smoking workers sat in their working men boots supping their beer.

We stood at the bar for a few minutes waiting for the barmaid to arrive. When she did she was surprised to see non-regulars standing in front of her.

I pointed to one of the pumps and raised two fingers.

She poured two half litre glasses of a local brew called Dacicky which at 18 Kc was incredible value.

We sat down at a table and looked at Mr. Dacicky dressed in his frilly medieval neck collar looking back at us from the brewery's logo on the bright red table cloth.

Despite looking like a portakabin it was nice and warm in side. We were sat not too far away from a small gas fire.

Nothing of note happened to make this an unforgettable experience, it was just one of those moments when something was so bad it was good. It was a great little bar!

We walked back to the train station to catch the 16:33 to Kolin.

When the connecting Prague train arrived it was so busy we thought we were going to have to stand for the hour journey. The train had already set off and we were still looking for somewhere to sit when thankfully we found one compartment that had two spare seats free.

As more and more people walked up and down the train looking for seats we counted ourselves very lucky to be seated even if it was with a motley crew of passengers.

Julie and I couldn't converse as we weren't sat together.

The hour dragged as we all sat there in silence, looking tensely at each other as if we were all waiting for bad news whilst sitting in a doctor's surgery.

We eventually arrived in Prague just after 6pm.

The thought of walking all the way back to our apartment, especially in the dark, was too much for our little legs to bare, so we caught the metro.

Whilst there were signs for the metro from Hlavni Nadrazi train station we ended up walking quite a distance underground to the Muzeum stop, which is at the top end of St. Wenceslas square.

We caught the train for only two stops and got off at Mustek, popping out at the other end of St.Wenceslas square. It hardly seemed worth the effort!

After a quick change of clothes we went straight back out of the apartment before we fell asleep on the sofa.

We had promised ourselves an evening out around town tonight we headed out to find a couple of bars.

We entered the old town square which was now beautifully illuminated. In particaulr the spires of the Church of Our Lady in Tyn were atmospherically lit.

Through the windows on the turrets an organge glow flickered like the flame of torch lit room.

The town hall clock was also beautiful in more beautiful bathed in relective light.

Our first port of call was the Hard Rock Cafe store but after a two minute browse we left without bying anything. Everything seemed so expensive.

A short distance away we came across a very inviting bar called U kata. The drawing of a hooded figure with two axes was a hint towards the meaning of the name, the Executioner.

Every table was taken except for one which became ours. There was a lively atmosphere inside. Large groups sat along long wooden tables shouting over themselves to be heard, others sat in corners putting the world to rights.

What they all had in common other than the large jugs of beer were the cigarettes they were all smoking. Every single person was puffing away.

Twenty three human chimneys and the two of us.

Despite the sort of air quality that brings tears to your eyes we didn't want to leave. This was another great bar experience!

We sat down and a waitress came to our table with menus. We ordered two pints of beer and a dish called Pivo Syr. It apparently was a traditional dish to accompany beer.

The plate arrived with a dollop of mustard, a few small pickled onions, three chunks of mild cheese, one plain, one heavily dusted with parika, one covered in ground pepper. It was perfect beer food.

Once we had eaten and supped up our beer we moved on.

Our next port of call was in complete contrast to the stripped down bare basics of U Kata. It was brand spanking new entry to the Prague chic bar charts. The Buddha Bar.

After some difficulty in finding the place we entered what they called the Siddharta Cafe.

Wow, the decor was extravagant bohemia at full psychedelic tilt.

The bar was empty though which gave the room no atmosphere whatsoever.

There was another couple sat in the window and then Julie and I. There was actually more staff that customers!

We ordered two very expensive cocktails.

They came with cool designer names like "SoBe @ Miami" and "white lotus" but at a staggering 375 Kc each they should have been called "pretentious rip off in a glass" and "reassuringly fucking expensive".

I sat there, listening to the cool vibes served by the resident DJ, sipping my RFE cocktail of vodka with elderflower and lychee juice, staring at a multitude of colour cordinted Buddha statues on the wall, thinking to myself "This is just siily"

Before leaving Julie turned into Ms.Pretentious Who moi? and pretended to be a prospective customer for the Buddha Bar hotel which hadn't opened yet.

She asked the aloof "too cool for school" staff about any details.

One of the bar staff took us around and even took us downstairs to what appeared to be a VIP bar but it must have been the Buddha Bar proper. It was a lot lot darker than the colourful Siddharta Cafe upstairs but it was a lot busier. Bodies were lurking in the corners and staff down here appeared more gothic. We were invited to stay but it wasn't at all inviting.

Instead of mixing with the vampires in the cellars we surfaced and walked a short distance to the corner of Jakubska street and Mala Stupartska and went in a bar called Chateau Rouge.

It was absolutely heaving inside with banging music and a crowd that were young enough to be our grand children. Well, almost!

The lively atmosphere was back but so was the smoke, (of many flavours). We sat on stools looking out onto Jakubska overlooking what had to be the strangest window decoration.

There was a small plastic doll, an old 7 inch single, an electric toothbrush !?!?

What was all that about? It was like a boxful of rubbish from a house clearance.

It was very unnerving drinking our beers over that view.

The night was young but we were beginning to tire. We were also getting hungry so after we finished our drink we left for some food.

Instead of traipsing the streets looking for restaurant we decided to head back across the Old Town Square to the Italian we ate on Friday night.

The food was as tasty as it was then.

Julie had an Arrosto misto, a plate of mixed roast meats and I had Linguine al pesto but the best bit was when Julie had another toilet trauma. This time she didn't lock herself in one but within twenty seconds of leaving the table she came back saying "I can't get in"

"What do you mean you can't get in?"

"I can't find the door!" she explained.

We hadn't had that much to drink, it was just such a strange concept in doorways.

There wasn't a door as such, the whole wall swung on an axis. All she had to do was push gently where the female sign was and the toilets would have been revealed.

After watching someone else navigate the wall she had the courage to try again and having succesfully broken through to the otherside I was relieved when reappeared a few minutes later. I feared that she couldn't work out how to get back out again.

Trauma over we finished our meal and left the restaurant full and tired. After climbing the dark damp staircase to our apartment we were tucked up in bed shortly after 11pm....... my God we're getting old!

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