The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Monday, April 20, 2009

Euroromance: Day 5: Everyone loves a Kutna Hora

Today was the day, I resolved. Today I would actually do the things I’d promised myself I’d do on this vacation. Namely, run in the stupid cold and then see some historical places.

So I actually (gasp!) set an alarm. And then I actually (gasp! gasp!) got up when it went off. And then I actually left to run without showering first (gasp!^3). But before running, I started a pot of coffee brewing (I had stopped yesterday during my rambles and bought ground coffee (which may or may have not been embarrassingly from Starbucks (and which I may or may not be regretting that I am admitting this sad fact)) and tulips for my apartment).

With my reward for running in the stupid cold percolating, I set out to do an easy forty-five minutes that would take me (finally) across the bridge and through old town and the Jewish quarter.

Did I mention that it was stupid cold?

The first thing I need to clarify is that running on cobblestones is no joke. Especially running on cobblestones when my bad foot is already protesting the last few days’ walking activities. I have mad respect for those women who wear stiletto heels on these streets as if it were nothing. I must have looked like some sort of gimpy hunchback recently escaped from the nearby cathedral with my askew gait and sloooooooow pace. But I did it. And after a few minutes (read: 25) of running, I settled into something that actually resembled a run. I moved through the streets of Old Town, ever toward the main square and the astrological clock, trying to time my arrival with the 7am hour change. I got there with 5 minutes to spare and congratulated myself that unlike the throngs of tourists who would arrive later in the day, I would gaze upward, mouth agape, in the discreet solitude of the early morning.

But apparently, 7am isn’t a real hour change. Much to the amusement of the men setting up the Easter fair in the middle of the square, I stood, growing ever colder, staring at the clock. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Come on little skeleton, do something. But the skeleton would have none of it, and apparently the apostles weren’t about to emerge in the stupid cold. So I returned to my run (this time mostly to just get warm again) and the bridge to watch the sunrise.

I have determined in this weird air here, that watching the sunrise and sunset directly is not as amazing as watching its effects on the landscape in the opposite direction. In this case, I faced west towards the castle and Malá Strana. At first the buildings and roofs began to gleam a faint pinkish-orange. This glow intensified and was punctuated by sharp glints of silver where the sun hit the skylights and windows. The blue hills began to shift, still ever hazy but the haze morphing from blue to green to red. The scribbled shapes of skeleton trees became more and more distinct as the sky continued to lighten.

I may love this city.

And there was coffee waiting when I got home!

Today was my day trip day. I had decided to take a short train ride to the towns of Sedlec and Kutná Hora. The attraction of these towns is the infamous bone church. A structure decorated entirely with the bones of over 40,000 people (the current arrangement is very new--from 1870. But the bones are much much older, some dating back to the mid 14th Century). You have to love Europe and its awesome sense of macabre.

After spending a full day in the Czech Republic, I was more comfortable with navigating public transportation (and I didn’t have my huge suitcase). Taking the metro to the main station was a snap. As was finding my train to Kutná Hora. The ossuary was a bit of a walk from the station but it was cool to see what a tiny Czech town looks like.

I made it to the church just as two tour buses disgorged their load of American tourists. I quickly moved into the building so as to a) not be associated with this boisterous group and b) be able to see a few minutes of the church before the locusts descended. I was joined by über-cool backpacker couple who also wanted to beat the crowd. We paid our entrance fees (damn it! I forgot my student id!) and descended into the cool ossuary.

Über-cool backpacker couple was all business (I can imagine their having a brief where they synchronized their watches, allotting 7 minutes for this site before moving on to the next historical place: “we’ll get there exactly at 1301. The tour buses arrive at 1303. We will have two minutes for pictures while simultaneously listening to the tour guides dispense information. We can fill in whatever gaps we have by reading the information card and be out of there by 1308. Move out!”). They took a series of flurried pictures then crouched in the corner, intently reading the yellow information card before shouldering their packs and leaving. It did literally take about 7 minutes.

Despite the fluster of the backpacker couple and the bluster of the tour group, the ossuary was truly like nothing I’ve seen before. In the four corners of the main room, pyramids of sculls and other bones were stacked in layers. The center of the ossuary was dominated by a large “chandelier” comprised of (yup) bones. The walls had decorations created out of artful arrangement of certain bones: jaw bones formed the shape of flowers, a grouping of pelvic bones made a halo around a skull, smaller bones formed words. There was even a coat of arms that featured a rook eating the eyes out of a Turkish soldier (done all in bones naturally). Honestly, I have no cultural meme for this expression of faith. To openly display the dead to point to the kingdom of God (according to the yellow information card) is just something that isn’t done in California or anywhere in the US really. To be able to acknowledge death as a necessary and normal function of life is more foreign than the Czech language. To consider death as starkly beautiful. . . that is something I need to think about.

Of course the lighting in the chapel was also something to write about. The air in the ossuary was so cold I could see my breath and the bone-white light seemed to soak up the cold. It thinned and spread over everything like a sheen of ice.

The warm air outside after the bone-cold interior of the chapel was like being enveloped in a thick blanket. Combined with the more socially “normal” treatment of death in the cemetery surrounding the chapel, it was like the part of my psyche that had been exposed in the chapel was being re-enshrouded in comfortable familiarity. The church is surrounded by tombstones of various ages. Some dating back to the 1800’s; others, much, much newer. Many had been erected in 1945. These stones varied in size and style though many featured photographs of the interred. Keeping with this culture’s willingness to confront death, most of the graves were well-kept and had flowers or various trinkets on them. The maintenance made it obvious that these dead were still active in their families’ lives if only in memory.

The sound of the emerging tour group, drove me from the cemetery and to the larger town of Kutná Hora. About a 20 minute walk from the church, Kutná Hora is a gorgeous town. Set in the hills about a river valley, its cobbled streets and plastered houses meander and flow up and down the terrain.

In my zest to avoid the crowds, I stumbled on to the old church. It is an imposing structure, all heavy stone with none of the fanciful Gothic touches that grace the palace further up the hill. As such, it gives the feeling of being firmly grounded. Forever placed in its spot, unmovable, unshakable, protective. In contrast to the palace’s flying buttress—dripping with curlicues and spires, calling the eye and spirit to fly up—the church, though immense and tall, squats. Reminding its people that life on earth isn’t just fancy frivolity but about enduring faithfulness.

Tucked down a small street beside the church, I found one of the things that makes traveling truly amazing: the perfect place to eat and while away the afternoon.

Supposedly built on the site of a skin flint’s house (who walled his daughter up in the cellar so that he wouldn’t have to pay a dowry for her marriage), V Rutharrdce is situated on the side of a hill with a view of the river valley below and the castle above. In the distance, the hills across the valley recede into the blue distance, the silhouetted skeleton trees softening the line between hill and deep blue sky.

Today was the perfect day for sitting outside. After discretely losing some clothing layers, I found myself, feet up on the back patio, in a sundress and flipflops. To those of you who claimed I would not be able to sit in the sun and read this vacation goes one big giant HA! This day was sunny, warm—almost hot—and I read the shit out of it.

The back patio is a little walled garden. To the east, the grounded stone church oversaw the kitchen’s outdoor grills. The castle perched to the west, just visible over the stone wall and through a curtain of about-to-flower trees. The bistro tables were old-fashioned sewing machine stands complete with working wheels. The service was casual and friendly. Both servers wore Birkenstocks with socks and used any free moment to steal not-so-covert kisses from each other. Neither of the servers spoke English well, but their grasp of my language was much better than my grasp of theirs. Between us, I managed to order a pils, the soup “at the chef’s whim,” and a pork dish. The food, I think, was the most traditional Czech food I’d had so far: pig, potatoes, mushrooms, and root vegetables. And it was fresh and freaking amazing. It was like the Czech version of Texas barbeque but without the sauces and heavy nastiness (sorry y’all).

In the distance, I could hear the laughter of roving tourists, but here it was only me and some under-aged locals, sipping beer and smoking like chimneys while they texted people a few tables away. We were in a sanctuary of easy camaraderie. Two men near me spoke in low voices as they unlaced their heavy work boots and gratefully drained their pils. A small family finished their lunch, and dad took the tiny pre-toddler (just on the verge of walking) on a tour of the garden as the family dog followed while the mom finished her voda (water) and shouldered their groceries for the trip home. The most animated of the under-aged smokers/drinkers (a small girl with dark bobbed hair that had a shock of amber/red dyed in, skinny black jeans, tight shirt, and a cell phone that cried “dookie” (from South Park, I think) when it signaled a text had arrived) wandered around the restaurant, calling to the servers, giving kisses to various other diners, and flipping off another table when she found their text to her not to her liking.

I could have sat there for many more hours, but unfortunately—the story of my life, it seems, I had a train to catch . . .

On my way to the train, I meandered up to the castle. From the top of the hill, I could see over the town and the valley. A picturesque scene of blue hills, jumbles of trees, red-tiled roofed houses with brightly-colored facades, gardens, stone streets, and off in the distance . . . smoking factory towers. Indeed, we’re still seeing aspects of the Soviet Union.

Realizing, I’d taken in the view a smidge too long, I began another hurried movement to the train station. It’s amazing the muscles you work in your legs when you are speed walking in flip flops. Tendons tightened, muscles in my shins tore, calves bulged as I grimly double-timed it down the street. I arrived at the train station in time to see the train I needed pulling away from the station. With a sigh and an hour to kill before the next train, I walked back into Sedlec. The last site to see was a cathedral that used to be a part of a convent. The church was, in a word, cold but otherwise unremarkable. It was very spare and empty. Seeming like the space of the church was designed to merely showcase the few church artifacts that they had. Cold concrete interspersed with the warm wood of an “authentic baroque confessional.” The remarkable thing, the thing which I think is worthy of remark, about this site is that the convent’s been taken over by Philip Morris. So the beautiful grounds and main living quarters of the nuns were off limits. Possibly because the evil cancer merchant empire is afraid that tourists will discover their latest campaign to market cancer stick to infants.

Or maybe they’re as annoyed by the buses of tourists as I am.

After getting back to Prague (a trip that included an inexplicable train change in Kolin for a train that was 20 minutes late), I decided I needed a break and some hard core tourist watching. So I walked up from the train station to the main square in Old Town, Staroměstské náměstí. On the way, I got to see the huge Jewish synagogue. Very brightly colored.

Once in the square, I quickly determined the best seats for people watching and sun. I did have to do some mad table work. Namely, I claimed a table in the area that was prime viewing turf but wasn’t an A-grade table. Then, after establishing my presence by ordering a beer, I intended to quickly shift to a table front and center of the action once the occupants had moved. Positioned perfectly, nonchalantly eying the family at MY table as the wife/mother insisted she finish her wine while husband/dad not-so-patiently dealt with over it children, my mad skillz became apparent to one and all as I outmaneuvered a tourist couple for the prime table. The female component of the interloper couple was about to mouth to wife/mother “are you leaving?” as I gracefully slid into the open seat, spilling nary a drop of beer. The female nicely conceded defeat with a shrug and a smile, and the couple took a table in a less desirable place.

Now, in the perfect spot, I let mad people watching commence. The best part about people watching in Europe is that the tourists are from all over—not just Arizona. And frankly, Prague has to be one of the best places to people watch. I played many little games with myself like guess who’s from the US or how short can that skirt get. As well as just soaking up the general atmosphere of joviality. At one point two little “Russian” divas appeared, dejected and tired with their token “Prague Drinking Team” shirts (I kid you not, everyone had these. I don’t understand that. It’s not like Prague is PB with the overt “drink yourself stupid” credo). They trudged aimlessly around the square before plopping in the stoop of a closed business, apparently waiting for an end-of-day-shopping rescue. At another point, I saw two boys stroll by. One in a “Save the Ales” shirt and the other in a pot-leaf printed hoodie. Convinced I’d just seen some fellow NorCal-ers. I may or may not have leapt from my table, hunted them out of the crowd, and asked where they were from. Confused by my US accent, they replied (in perfect English, I might add) that they were from Slovakia. Nothing daunted, I began to grill them about the shirt, convinced the wearer had gotten it from the North Coast Brewing Company in NorCal. Nope. They got it in England. Apparently, saving the ales is a worldwide value.

The sun had just started sinking behind the buildings in the square when I decided to take myself to Karlovy Most. The bridge is indeed an impressive affair. Studded with large, aging statues on both sides along its length, Karlovy Most’s sturdy stone construction gives it a sense of permanence. None of that whimsical baroque/Gothic flimflam for this bridge. The Charles is firmly grounded, straddling the sides of the Vltava with great aplomb. Tourists do indeed throng it though the two times I crossed is (one being very early and the other after sunset), the crowd was either non-existent or easily navigated. It was a slight disappointment that both ends of the bridge were under repair, so the statues in these areas were veiled behind a mesh of scaffolding.

Honestly, I wasn’t completely taken with this bridge. The guide books’ accolades of its beauty and the amount of statues gracing its sides left me feeling much like a tourist does after seeing the Alamo: sure it’s great, but . . . I thought it’d be much bigger. Unlike the bridge south of it, I did not feel like the Karlovy Most was Most Legit (a joke that sadly continued to play out in my heard over and over this trip (actually the bridge is called most Legii)).

But whatever, who am I to judge the significance of a bridge that has endured not only religious conflict (a battle between protestants and Catholics played out on its stones) but also the Velvet Revolution?

No one at all.

After a brief respite in my apartment, I headed up to the Strahov monastery (Strahovsky klaster) for some home brew. Yesterday, I began my pilgrimage to this lauded place but ended up calling it off on account of the lateness of the evening. But tonight, my last night in Prague, no matter how tired, no matter how much I’d packed into the day, I was determined to pay my respects to this bastion of faith and brew.

Again, the light of the monastery called to me, but this time it beckoned, not distracted. I headed toward the blue-green light and the brew from heaven. Or at least brewed by those interested in bringing heaven to earth.

The interior of the monastery grounds at night was composed of an insinuating blue and green and white light. The brewery overlooked the color-soaked square. I sat at a table as close to the color spectacle as I could, forcing myself to sit in the ever creeping cold in order to view the light. Next to me was a table of two men. One a backpacker, the other an overtly self-styled “native” of Prague. I eavesdropped on their jovial conversation while I waited for a server to acknowledge my need for a brew. Noticing my not so subtle interested in their conversation, the “native” graciously spoke to me as they left, telling me that though the service might be lacking here, the pivo (beer) and jídlo (food) was beyond expectations. I became determined to wait things out.

And then I was rewarded. With an amber brew of exceptional quality it could almost make me cry. Almost.

The brewery makes two brews at a time: light and dark. Both are exceptional. Both are the best I’ve had in this part of Europe so far. But really the amber is the one that was truly from some other dimension. Sweet yet not cloying. The perfect amount of amber color combined with a sharpness of hops. Oh yes, my friend, this truly was the brew of God.

Since this was my last night in Prague, I couldn’t just call it quits after a religious experience. I had to visit the other two pubs of my affection.

I ended the night with a brew at both Vu U Zavěšenýho Kafe and St.Nic’s before retiring to get some much needed rest before my train day on the morrow.

Tomorrow I cross a continent. . .


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