The Silver and the Surreal
A visit to Kutna Hora & the Bone Church

kutna horaToday Kutna Hora is a quiet, provincial town, home to 21,000 people, but almost a thousand years ago, it was one of the best-known cities in Europe, and one of the wealthiest as well. Its seemingly endless supply of silver did much to bring attention and wealth to the city and the Bohemian kings who lived there. Renowned for both its silver-mining past and the surreal bone ossuary that is one of its greatest tourist attractions, Kutna Hora is a perfect getaway from Prague anytime of the year.

There are several must-sees in Kutna Hora. The Sedlec Ossuary, often reverently referred to as the "bone church", houses the remains of 40,000 people, many of whom died in the Plague during the 14th century. The bones are sculpted into unique forms of art which decorate the building. Another must is the Italian Court, it was a busy place, as coin-making workshop, the Central Mint, and the royal residence of kings such as Wenceslas IV; who professed his love of Kutna Hora and chose to make it his main residence. And it's not hard to see why, standing on the terrace by the Italian Court and gazing over the valley at the gothic spires of St. Barbora's Cathedral. The cathedral, the country's second largest, was constructed for the local miners, and conveniently located just next door to the entrance to the mines and what is now a mining museum, in Hradek chapel. With the exception of the silver mines all of the town's attractions are open through the winter months and although the city is walkable in one day, it's easy to get sidetracked down a winding alley or into a warm, beckoning pub.

Sedlec Ossuary
The advantage of arriving in Kutna Hora by train is that it positions one in close proximity to the Sedlec ossuary, which is just around the corner from the second bus stop when leaving from the train station, "Tabak," (or an easy walk from the station itself). The ossuary is housed in the basement of the chapel to the neighboring Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, built by the Cistercian monastery that owned the lands circa 1100. The cemetery surrounding the tiny chapel had preceded that building's erection, and had become famous when an abbot named Henry brought back a handful of earth from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the grounds in 1278. Thus considered part of the Holy Land, it became all the rage to want to be buried there and the place was quickly filled to capacity, first by popularity, then by necessity - the Plague contributed so generously that by 1318, there were around 30,000 people buried in the cemetery. Subsequently the grounds were enlarged and, after initially stacking the bones from re-used graves outside the chapel, a half-blind Cistercian monk was assigned the task of arranging the bones in the lower chambers of the chapel sometime after the year 1511.

Stepping into the chapel's interior, it's impossible not to lose your breath for a moment as you are confronted by the four pyramids of countless bones, or to experience a shiver as mortality stares at you in the guise of an intricately beautiful chandelier containing every bone of the human body. Upon buying a 30 CZK entrance ticket, you are also given two glossy booklets chock-full of history and photos, one about the ossuary itself and the other about the city of Kutna Hora, which is particularly helpful and details the major sights of the city.

Kutna Hora city center
Silver was first discovered on the grounds surrounding the Sedlec monastery in about 1260 and a visitor's walk (or bus ride) from Sedlec into Kutna Hora's center is in many ways a figurative journey through the silver-rush years of the 13th century. If time allows, put your map aside once you get to Palackého námestí, the main square, and enjoy the pleasant surprises offered by wandering the narrow alleyways which open up to give glimpses across the valley, down to the woodsy, nestled amphitheater below. The amphitheater is often the site of summer concerts, which are frequently part of music festivals hosted by the city.

Perched overlooking the valley and just a few minutes' walk from Palackého square, is the Italian Court, which served as both the royal residence of King Wenceslas IV and the mint that was, from its first, hand-minted coin of 1283 to its closure in 1727 (the practices were transferred to Prague), both the hub of European currency and the source of Bohemia's wealth and power. The fact that the U.S. dollar is named after Kutna Hora´s silver "tolar" is just one example of the town´s far-reaching influence.

The Court is conveniently located close to the entrance to the Osel mines - which in summer provide a not to be missed opportunity to don a miner's cloak and hardhat, complete with flashlight, and descend to the depths of the mines, so narrow and low-ceilinged at points that one must duck down or turn sideways to pass. In the 16th century the mines reached 500 meters deep and were the deepest in Europe. They were so deep, in fact, that part of the miner's standard uniform was a leather apron that was used to sit on and slide down to the bottom of the mine. This could be done in a relatively short amount of time, but it must have been pretty uncomfortable.

The Italian Court offers English-language tours every half hour, for a price of 70 CZK. The trip takes you through several museum-like rooms that document the history of the Czech mint and how the first Central European Currency came into being here. Coins from the reign of each king and each major historical period are on display. The tour also takes in the private chambers of King Wenceslas IV himself, as well as the Royal Audience Hall, something of a small parliament in the 14th century. Among the many rooms of the Court are those that now house Kutna Hora's city hall, and facilities for occasions such as weddings, baptisms and municipal meetings. The royal chapel is especially worth seeing and the Art Nouveau paintings on the walls depict a panorama of Kutna Hora and various kings and saints, including St. Barbora, patron saint of miners.

St. Barbora's Cathedral is the most noticeable feature of the Kutna Hora landscape and a scenic stroll away from the Italian Court past the Hradek chapel, and it is worth taking the time to walk around both the perimeter and to visit the interior. Of note are the impressive, 3.5-meter statues that ring the upper level representing the four Christian values: justice, bravery, caution and temperance, as well as the statue of the miner inside the cathedral.

After such a tour through the centuries, you will no doubt want to spend a few silver coins of your own on a well-earned meal and a tankard of pivo. Highly recommended is the Dacicky Pivnice located at Rakova 8. A sprawling beer hall perfectly suited for any time of year, this pub brews its own beer, Dacicky, and at 16 CZK a half-liter, it's well worth it. The pub offers a spacious, tree-canopied garden in summer with an outdoor grill and plenty of seating, and in winter a strong fire blazes in the fireplace inside to warm your bones from your trekking. Dacicky Pivnice also offers a lengthy menu of hearty Czech fare, much of which follows the pub's medieval theme, and provides the perfect space and opportunity to sit and reflect on your visit to Kutna Hora, or to just toast a na zdravi to your friends.

Getting There
From Prague, the eastward journey to Kutna Hora takes roughly 60 - 90 minutes, with buses and trains leaving regularly from both Prague's Florenc bus station and from Hlavní nádrazi train station. In Kutna Hora the bus station is conveniently located in the city center within easy walking distance from Palackého námestí, the main square. The train station is slightly further afoot, providing a one-hour's ramble into town on a nice day (albeit through somewhat drab outskirts at points), and a bus service. A Saturday found buses running once every 25 minutes into town, and the information center at the train station is closed weekends; but new arrivals will find it relatively easy to navigate the town using the basic map on the station wall.

More Info:

Sedlec Ossuary
Open daily:
November - March 09:00 - 12:00; 13:00 - 16:00
April - September 8:00 - 18:00
October 9:00 - 12:00; 13:00 - 17:00 (Closed on December 24th)
dmission: 35 CZK
Students: 20 CZK
Admission and photo: + 30 CZK
Admission and video: + 60 CZK

Open Tuesday.-Sunday
October: 9:00 - 12:00; 13:00 - 16:30
November - March: 9:00 - 12:00; 14:00 - 16:00
April: 9:00 - 12:00; 13:00 - 16:30
May - September: 9:00 - 12:00; 13:00 - 18:00
Admission: 35 CZK

Tourist Information Center
Palackého námestí 377
Mon - Fri 9:00 - 18:00
Sat/Sun 10:00 - 16:00