Central Bohemia, a land which sounds equally charming and cryptic. A region rich in castles and countryside, and deep valleys flanked by dense forests. Of course, the mystery fades away slightly when you learn the administrative centre of the region is Prague, one of the best city-break destinations in the world. But, a short hop from the city, and you’ll be transported deeper into the history and intrigue of the Czech Republic, which shouldn’t be overlooked when one is visiting the capital.
If you’re as intrigued by unique architecture and uncommon attractions as I am, then a Chapel of Bones is certain to pique your interest. A mere hour by train from Prague and you’ll arrive at Kutna Hora. Close to the edge of the Central Bohemia region, this old silver mining city makes for a perfect day-trip, although an overnight stay will allow you the time to visit nearby Třebešice Castle and the charming town of Cáslav.
It was a dark winters day when I arrived at Kutna Hora, the clouds were dramatic and imposing, perfectly setting the stage for the first port of call, the Sedlec Ossuary.
The imposing St. Barbara’s Cathedral
Sedlec Ossuary: the chapel of bones
Situated in the suburbs of the city, underneath the cemetery of the former Sedlec Abbey, the Sedlec Ossuary is one of the most unique religious sites you’ll find.
Nicknamed the ‘Church of Bones’ – which doesn’t leave too much to the imagination – a rather bland entrance will take you to this creepy cave-like setting.
Here, in the chapel, a very unique type of decoration can be visited. Some 40,000 human skeletons adorn the walls, ceiling and pillars. Arranged into chandeliers, towers and even coats of arms, it’s quite overwhelming even if the nickname has somewhat prepared you for what you’ll see.
The Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora
Taking centre-stage, so to speak, is the vast hanging chandelier. Reportedly containing at least one of every bone that us humans have in our bodies, it’s certainly a claim that not many light fittings can make.
But why, I hear you ask?
Well, for that we need to take a little history lesson – back to the days of Bohemia. Nearly 800 hundred years ago, the Abbot of this very abbey was sent to Jerusalem by the then Kind. On his return, he brought back a particular souvenir: a jar of soil.
This soil wasn’t just dirt though, it was ‘Holy Soil’ – thus creating a surge in those who wanted to be laid to rest in this very spot. With soaring numbers, the cemetery was expanded, and with it, the church was constructed. The basement of this church becoming Sedlec Ossuary, to house the ever-growing number of bones. Fast forward to the 19th-century, and the bones were rearranged into the current situation we can see today.
It’s certainly a bizarre sight to bear witness too, but the belief is these bodies wished to rest in the space of the ‘Holy Soil’ – and here they continue to.
The UNESCO St Barbara’s Cathedral
With a slight chill in the air, and arguably in my soul, I continued my tour of UNESCO Kutna Hora to St Barbara’s Cathedral.
On the approach to the Cathedral, walking past the grand Jesuit College, statues of angels and sad faces loom over you to the left, as the imposing Cathedral gets ever closer – adding to the eery air of this fascinating destination.
The Jesuit College and St Barbara’s Church
One of the most famous Gothic churches in the world, it’s magnificent from every angle, both inside and outside. It’s made even more interesting due to the work which has taken place on it over hundreds of years, blending Baroque features from its restoration, all of which earning its place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Inside, vaulted ceiling and delightful frescoes, painting a picture of the old mining days await. It’s a true masterpiece, and honestly, while my travel through Europe often has me a bit fatigued by Churches and Cathedrals, sometimes they can still genuinely make my jaw-drop.
What else to experience in Kutna Hora?
While perhaps Kutna Hora sounds like a haunted place of dramatic stories and creepy chapels, the city itself is actually very inviting.
Warm and welcoming Cafes serve up cappuccinos and local plum cakes, while greenery and trees spread out into Bohemia, while venture inside the old neighbourhoods will allow you to experience more of the city.
The Italian Courtyard, once the Royal Central Mint of Prague until a fire put an end to that, is home to a grand palace, and nowadays the town hall and a minting museum. Dating back to the 14th century, it was once a castle, complete with a moat, where the towns silver would be stored. You can enter the museum and the royal chapel to witness the history – the interior of the chapel particularly impressive.
Inside the Jesuit College, next to St Barbara’s, is now the Central Bohemia Gallery, housing a collection of 20th and 21st-century art. The Early Baroque architecture of the building another dimension to admire alongside the exposition, especially in the halls with the frescoes still exposed on the ceilings.
Jesuit College, now the Central Bohemia Gallery
More than anything though, a day trip to Kutna Hora provides the chance for a change of pace. With the capital, one of the (deservedly) top city destinations in the world, the smaller regional cities and towns offer a chance to slow down, wander without crowds, and take into a more authentic look at the Czech Republic than you’ll likely find in the touristy beer-halls off Prague’s Old Town Square.
If you have an interest in unique architecture and bone-chilling stories, then Kutna Hora is the one for you – or perhaps you want a spa-town escape steeped in history, in that case, I invited you to read my guide to Karlovy Vary.