Dressed in white coats with flashlight-crowned hard hats, we enter the dank darkness. The chiseled mountain passages are wet to the touch, and we can’t help, but touch them.
At times the ceiling is so low that we must crouch as we walk. At others, it’s so narrow that we must curve our posture in order to maneuver through.
And sometimes, we have to do both, making it a simple task only for a contortionist. Or maybe a yoga guru.
We’re neither, so we end up on our hands and knees, then on our bellies, for this tour of Kutna Hora’s ancient silver mines.
With strangers, it might be too close for comfort, but I’m here with my wife, Nataliya, and our friend, Brian.
The white coats are not just to make us easy for the guide to keep track of us. They also protect our clothing as we scrape against the mucky walls. Not for the claustrophobic.
In some areas, we can barely squeeze through the narrow passages. In others, we have to slide or climb. I feel like Indiana Jones exploring these dark caves, damp and cold despite the warmth of the summer air outside.
But there is no treasure for Indy or for us in these mines today, save the treasured experience of this fun adventure.
Travel in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
Now part of the Czech Republic, Kutna Hora was once the second most important town in Bohemia, due mostly to of the enormous amount of silver mined here.
In the second half of the 13th century, rich deposits of silver were discovered, making the king the richest ruler in Central Europe. The silver mined from Kutna Hora and minted into coins (the Prague Groschen) circulated across Europe.
This, the largest silver mine in Europe, made Bohemia the richest area of the world in that time. One man could, with hammer and fire, pound out as many as two thousand coins a day.
The mines were stripped by the 1700s, and the town became a little village once again.
They may not be producing silver any more, but they make a mint due to people like ourselves, who pay to explore the silver mines that many workers would have wanted to escape centuries ago.
Conditions are far greater now than they were back when these mines were in use. Many people died down here.
They’d been buried beneath the ground most of their working lives; now they’re bones are buried in the ground nearby.
Bones. That’s the other thing Kutna Hora is known for. But first, a walk through town to St. Barbara’s Church.
St. Barbara’s Church
We’re in the middle of Bohemia, not California, but the tree-covered mountains and valleys are every bit as beautiful.
From a distance, it is a sight to see, this enormous church – the Cathedral of St. Barbara — standing right over a cliff at the edge of a mountain, three giant tent-like spires reaching for the sky, buttresses along he back and smaller spires all along the sides.
Standing next to the church, along the edge of the mountain, we are at the high peak of Kutna Hora. We look down. In the distance we see a procession of white-robed figures.
“Look,” Nataliya points.
“I wonder if those are monks on a pilgrimage, or something. Maybe to St. Barbara.”
“Or Sedlec,” Brian suggests. “The ossuary.”
Nataliya, who spotted them first, is also the first to catch a reflection of the sun off a flashlight hardhat. “They’re on the same pilgrimage we were on an hour ago,” she says. “Into the silver mine.”
We turn and refocus on St. Barbara’s Church, our reason for being up on this peak. We walk around the church until we reach the front.
A crowd of people are here in suits and dresses, and we see a bride and groom exit the church to cheers. We are unable to enter the church and see the marvel from the inside because a wedding is going on.
But we stay and watch the wedding for a few moments before heading down, down, down.
Sedlec Ossuary: The Bone Church
The most unusual sight we find in Kutna Hora — and perhaps Czech Republic — is the Sedlec Ossuary, or “bone church.”
It’s not a suggested stop for people who are uncomfortable around the dead. This is no ordinary church, nor is it an ordinary graveyard. The dead are the decor.
Surrounding the simple-looking church is a crowded graveyard. But inside is where most of the remains are. It is unreal, like a vision from a horror movie, the view of the church once we’ve entered.
Human bones cover the walls and ceilings; everything is made of bone. A large coat of arms, all human bone, feature a raven pecking at the eye of a skull. A grand chandelier hangs from the high ceiling, all constructed of bone.
In fact, although it took more than one person to make that chandelier, it features at least one of every bone in the human body.
Skulls and leg bones and arm bones and entire skeletons hang from walls and rest on pedestals. The bones makeup the decorations and even the furniture in this Roman Catholic church.
The Ossuary houses at least 40,000 human skeletons. Some estimates put that number as high as 70,000. More than 200,000 living bodies come to see the Ossuary each year.
The story is that the local abbot, back in 1278, was sent by Bohemian King Otakar II to the Holy Land.
Henry, the abbot, brought back dirt from Golgotha, or Calvary, the place where Jesus was crucified. Calvary is derived from the Latin term Calvaria Locus, or “Place of the Skull.”
The abbot spread the earth from the Holy Land on the graveyard. News of his pious act spread, and soon everybody wanted to be buried here.
“Everybody” became a lot of people, in part, due to the Hussite wars and the Black Death plague of the 15th century. There wasn’t enough room in the graveyard. A blind monk began placing the remains inside the church.
Garlands of skulls and bone decorate the arches and doorways. Bones are everywhere. We spend a heavy half hour or so touring the place, observing human remains as a medium for artistic expression.
“I could use a drink,” I say as we exit the Seldec Ossuary.
“I know where there’s a nice beer garden in town,” my friend replies.
There’s a local brewery in town called Dacicky, and they have a nice little restaurant to go with their beer. It’s popular with the locals as well as tourists, and the food and drinks are reasonably priced.
We enter the place and come from the sunlight into a darkened hall of wood and metal and a roar of clashing conversations. People eat meat and drink beer. This has the look of a medieval beer pub or ale house.
Since the sun is low in the sky, the sky is clear, and the breeze is cool, we opt to go through the restaurant and dine in the beer garden out back.
Normally, I’d probably prefer the classic look of the inside dining area, but we’ve had our share of dark insides today, between the silver mines and the Ossuary. A dark beer in the sunlight will be a nice balance.
Nataliya has a light Dacicky, and I have a dark. We sample one another’s beers; they are both good. Between the three of us, we get a lot of meat to go with our beer.
Alchemy was always a part of this region’s history, with the silver mine, but this place keeps it alive with alchemy in the kitchen.
Such combinations as fish with fruit and beef with seafood. Plain pork (or wild boar knee, as the case may be) is fine with me.
“I feel like we’re in Lord of the Rings,” I say as I chew my meat and wash it down with dark Czech beer.
“The movies or the books?” Brian asks.
“I mean, first we’re in the silver mines of Moria, then we’re climbing mountains to St. Barbara’s Cathedral in Rivendel, then we hit that bone church,” I explain.
“And now we’re like the three trolls talking over meat and ale,” Nataliya adds. Brian and I look at her, surprised she even got the references.
“That’s The Hobbit, not Lord of the Rings,” Brian says.
Nataliya shrugs. We order another round of beer.
We talk about what we’ve seen and what we have yet to see. Other people, mostly locals, are at tables nearby in the gardens. The sun is setting but it is still light out. The wind is cool and it feels good to relax out here.
“We missed our train,” Brian says, looking at his watch.
“Oh no,” Nataliya says. “How are we going to get back to Prague.”
Brian pulls a train schedule from his pocket. “We’ll just catch the next one.”
“When is that,” I ask.
Brian’s eyes travel from his train schedule to his watch to his beer. “In about another beer.”
It actually takes two, but that makes catching the next train all the more enjoyable.
Getting to Kutna Hora
The easiest way to get to Kutna Hora from Prague is by train. You can catch a ride from the Prague Main Railway Station to Kutna Hora Main Railway Station.
Or back again just about every two hours, six minutes past the hour, and it’s about a 50-minute ride. The ride is around $10 each way.
Kutna Hora is close enough to make for a great day trip, with trains leaving as early as 6 a.m. and returning as late as midnight.
However, if you’d like to stay overnight in the land of silver, beer and bone, there are a number of hotel and apartment options that are as affordable as Prague.
We made our journey a day trip, so we can’t suggest one over another. If you plan to visit the silver mines, keep your Sunday best in the closet, even if you plan to go to church.
Author Bio: Eric D. Goodman enjoys traveling as much as he loves writing. His fiction and travel stories have been published in many periodicals, including Go Nomad, InTravel Magazine, Travel Mag, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Review, The Pedestal Magazine, The Potomac, Grub Street, Scribble Magazine, and others. Eric’s the author of the award-winning Tracks: A Novel in Stories about travelers who connect on a train, Flightless Goose, a storybook for children, and the forthcoming Womb: a novel in utero. Learn more about Eric and his work at www.EricDGoodman.com and connect with him at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman.