I stayed in Prague for three nights, but hardly spent any time in the city itself. I lodged in a fantastic hostel located right downtown (and still ridiculously cheap at 8 euros a night!), and it was there I met Sierra, another American. Sierra teaches English in France, but was on holiday in Prague for a few days. We ended up spending all our time together while I was in Czech Republic, which was great, particularly on the October 31. I’d been searching for a suitable European city in which to spend Halloween, but kept coming up dry. Luckily, Sierra truly understood the awesomeness of this holiday, so we decided to make a day of it.
We woke up early on Halloween, which began perfectly with clear blue skies and a chilly autumn wind. We dressed warmly, grabbed coffee, and headed to the train station, where we caught the commuter rail to Kutná Hora, a tiny town in the Czech countryside.
Kutná Hora was once the second largest town in Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), with a booming economy from its many silver mines. You’d never know it now. The town is extremely small, and totally dead. We were there in the middle of the day on a weekday and hardly saw any people. Most shops and restaurants were closed. All was quiet and still.
Our draw to Kutná Hora was its one tourist attraction: Sedlec Ossuary. Located on the outskirts of town, this tiny gray church appears unremarkable, apart from its three skull-and-crossbones weathervanes swiveling gently in the cool breeze.
But inside, the church was anything but unremarkable. Everything – everything – within the church was absolutely covered in human bones.
Thus began the best non-American Halloween ever.
“In the mid 14th century, during the Black Death, many thousands were buried in the abbey cemetery, so it had to be greatly enlarged…Around 1400, a Gothic church was built in the center of the cemetery with a vaulted upper level and a lower chapel to be used as an ossuary for the mass graves unearthed during construction…After 1511, the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel was given to a half-blind monk of the order.”
Just another Series of Totally Normal Things Humans Do…
Despite the human remains filling this tiny church, I did not feel that the atmosphere was solemn or grave; it did not feel like a memorial to the dead or a place to appreciate those whose bones were now decorating the church’s chambers. This may have been because the place was buzzing with loud, photo-snapping tourists and obnoxious student groups, but it still felt a bit odd to be present in that church and somehow not be completely overcome with human feeling… The church was certainly fascinating, and actually quite beautiful, but I felt a bit uneasy with the fact that we were gasping in awe and taking a million photos while surrounded by real human bones, of real people, who had lived real lives and were now likely only remembered by these morbid works of art in Sedlec Ossuary.
After exploring the church and Kutná Hora, Sierra and I made our way back to Prague where we wandered around until we came upon the city’s “Pumpkin and Ghost Festival”, Prague’s very serious attempt at a Halloween fair. It was…cute?
And I got some fresh pumpkin soup and delicious homemade bread for, like, a dollar, so I can’t complain.
After the festival, we walked to Prague’s historic Olšany Cemetery. Though we’d intended to visit Olšany at some point during our stay, we certainly hadn’t planned to visit it in the dark – but this is what ended up happening, and I’m so glad it did. I think Sierra was a bit freaked out, but I found it serene, peaceful, and deeply meaningful.
I (perhaps weirdly?) feel so at peace in cemeteries. I have visited at least one in every country I’ve been to. I just like to be in them, to think and feel in their silence, to be present. I think these places have such interesting energy, and to be amongst so many graves, to feel so much life and history, and so much loss, is extremely powerful and thought-provoking for me. Olšany Cemetery was no exception.
Olšany is ancient and huge. Originally established for victims of the plague, over one million people are now buried there. It is also stunningly beautiful, even in the dark. The landscaping includes dense but carefully pruned shrubbery, immense, looming trees, and countless haphazard clusters of ornate gravestones and regal mausoleums. The ground was covered in soft dirt and colorful fall leaves, damp from a light evening rain. On most of the graves we passed, candles had been lit by people who’d passed through earlier, illuminating the intricate carvings into each unique stone, and the fresh flowers and wreaths decorating many of the tombs.
Wow, Czech Republic. Your Halloween was wonderful, despite the fact that you don’t celebrate it at all. I haven’t been this sober on Halloween in a while… but I also haven’t felt so peaceful and connected.