Pátek 5 Leden 2018
Guest post by Tim Moss
By Prague standards it’s still early when we meet Darko outside our apartment at 10am; the air is still fresh and cold enough to fog our reintroductions, although these aren’t strictly required. Darko is every bit as welcoming and warm as we had anticipated, giving the distinct impression that he is a man very much engaged in doing what he loves: meeting people, and sharing stories and time together.
As we discover on the way to Kutná Hora (it’s about an hour from Prague, or at least it’s an hour with Darko’s efficient, precise, and fast – very fast – driving style), Darko is himself an import to Prague, born in Macedonia and relocating 14 years ago, frustrated with the difficulties of trying to attract tourists into fractured countries. The Czech Republic seems to genuinely suit him, and he it, and he speaks of the Czech people with a fondness and familiarity. He’s a wonderful host; we find breakfast and water waiting for us in his comfortable and modern van, and we learn about his daughter, who is still new to skiing but can swim better than just about any other child in Prague (thanks to Mediterranean summers), his business (how he holds an ambition of one day working full-time in Kutná Hora, leaving Prague to a colleague), and some of the people he’s met. Needless to say, time passes quickly in his company, and we arrive at our first stop, the Sedlec Ossuary.
Darko tells us something of the history of the place, and how earth gathered in the middle east was scattered here, as it was believed to be the driest soil in the world and thus excellent at returning bodies to their most base materials in no time. People lined up to be buried here, and with plague and war both close to hand, it was a long line. Bodies and their component bones piled up in the ossuary for many years, until in the 19th century, a carpenter was employed to “do something” with all of the bones. He did, and what resulted is something of a unique fusion of display, respect, pomp, macabre sideshow, and religious offering. There are sculptures, piles and pyramids, threaded columns of spine, skull, and hip bones, and a chandelier containing at least one of every bone that can be found in the human body. The sculptor even signed his name on the wall. Using bones. I’m not sure how I felt about all this; I think a strange, unresolvable mixture of awe, shock, revulsion, and appreciation. Maybe that was the intention all along.
The place begins to fill up as one and then another large coach pulls in and disgorges loads of onlookers. Darko’s approach is more in tune with our own; some brief facts and points to note, and then he removes himself while we “make photos”, joining him outside for our next stop. This is the pattern across the day, and it is well-practised and orchestrated. Darko has clearly rehearsed this tour; it seems effortless as we move to our next location (the Church of the Assumption, still in Sedlec), hear some interesting points about how the church was designed somewhat too ambitiously (taking so long to finish and costing so much money that it had really outlived its necessity by the time it was completed), “make photos”, and then find Darko waiting outside with our van, ready to move to the next location.
Next is Kutná Hora itself, a fascinating and well-preserved (in fact still quite busy and fully-functioning) city that at one stage looked set to challenge Prague for the status of capital of Bohemia. There’s a sense of wealth behind the place; I’m reminded of gold rush towns in Australia, where there are giant, solid, opulent architectural examples that hint at a past that was considerably larger than the present, or indeed the future.
Kutná Hora had modest beginnings, as the site of a monastery, until one day, taking a much-needed break, one of the monks put his feet up on a rock, scuffed the side, and discovered silver. Fast forward just a little, and Kutná Hora was gripped by what Darko called “silver fever”, with tens of thousands of people both above and under ground working the mines (in dangerous conditions, almost total darkness, and caverns constantly at risk of collapse or flooding) and creating wealth and status and lives. In places, it’s a beautiful town, and Darko points out the fusion of Gothic and Baroque architecture that seems to dominate the town itself.
Much of the Gothic architecture is gone as residents decided the style looked horribly dated and so conducted ‘extreme renovations’ to update their properties to the Baroque style (Sedlec Ossuary was similarly updated in somewhat disastrous style, as the cement poured to fill in the Gothic windows has so overloaded the structure that it seems to be collapsing in on itself, putting at risk the unique treasures of the basement described above). As we stroll the streets, Darko gives us a sense of life in the town, and some of the colourful personalities and exploits of the past (we are fascinated to hear of the jeweller who specialised entirely in making jewellery for the many statues of Kutná Hora, and indeed for the wider region – the Czechs do love their statues!). We see grandiose buildings and churches constructed with ambition and prestige in mind, such as a palace constructed so that the king could relocate from Prague (he politely declined, but did make use of the palace as the royal mint so at least the place didn’t go to ruin). After our delightful walk, we have lunch in a traditional Czech restaurant, and Sharon’s meal of svickova na smetae (a kind of stew with beef, cream, and cranberries) looked extraordinary and (I’m led to believe) tasted even better.
After lunch, to “aid our digestion” we walk to the largest of the three churches in the area, St Barbara’s Cathedral.
It seems too large, too grand, too ambitious for Kutná Hora, and indeed from the information we’re given it probably was. Again, this was an effort to trump Prague’s efforts at communicating with and celebrating God; unfortunately the silver, and thus the money, ran out (several times) before the cathedral could be finished, and so it sat as a fixer-upper for several hundred years, only really being completed in the 20th century. Even then, completion really involved chopping off about a third of the plans and just putting up a wall instead and calling it done.
Still, as we learnt in Venice, apparently the architects of these great cathedrals always had a ready-made excuse for any alterations and compromises in their completion, because “only God can create perfection”. We take a little time to learn about the various chapels, make a few photos, and then head out, to find Darko waiting with the van again, already running and warm inside. He’s even restocked our fruit and water supplies.
It’s later than expected when we arrive back in Prague, and we decide we’re too tired (and still full from our traditional – in both taste and size – Czech lunch) to head out in the evening. It’s an early start again tomorrow – we’ll see Darko in another 12 hours for our airport drop off!