Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Field Trips in the Czech Republic: Kutná Hora and Český Kras/Hrad Karlštejn

Although this was one of the few weekends I have left in Prague (don't get too jealous when I tell you that next weekend I'll be in Vienna, the following one in Budapest, and the one after that in Berlin!), I spent it mostly exploring some of the non-metropolitan towns of this country. 

KUTNÁ HORA (Friday): 
On Friday, we went to Kutná Hora which, among other things, is famous for the Sedlec ossuary (bone temple).  When I first heard that we were going to a "bone temple," I pictured something in line with tooth fairy castles made of teeth. Obviously I was wrong--the temple is not made out of bones. But it is decorated with bones. Skulls, ulnas, radii, pelvi (pelvises?), etc. Here you can see the "chandelier" and the surrounding chains of skulls.... Post jokes in the comments, or, if you're uncomfortable putting them out for the public to read, send me a personal message. 

Crest made out of, what else, bones. Look, there's a pelvis!

Didn't expect to find a Blues Cafe in Kutná Hora, but we were so happy that we did! I wish I knew about a place like this in Prague--there's a cafe set up, but also crates upon crates of records of all kinds of genres (Muddy WatersMiddle BrotherPete Seeger, and more). Unlike most of the places I've been to while in Europe, the owner let us look around and browse for 30 minutes, and didn't once come over to ask if we wanted to order anything. Plus, he let us use the bathroom.

Looking over from the Italian Court (formerly the HQ of the central mint) towards the St. Barbara Cathedral and the Jesuit College, which now houses the GASK gallery of modern art

In terms of world history, Kutná Hora is probably most significant for its role as a medieval silver mining town that was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe and minted silver groschen for all of Bohemia. We took a tour of the mines--hard had, white coat, lamp and all, which reminded me a lot of the Mining Museum I went to when I went on a "math team exchange" junior year of high school with a school in Salgótarján, Hungary. At one point, our guide had us turn off our lamps to simulate the limited amount of light the miners would have had; answer: minimal (they identified silver ore by smell and sound). Then she turned off her lamp, too, to show us what would have happened if the miner ran out of fuel (ie: animal fat) for his candle--a darkness so black that we couldn't even see our hands in front of our eyes! Photo by Larissa Szyszka.
Looking out at the Italian Court from the courtyard outside of St. Barbara's Cathedral. The Italian Court  is designed in "old gothic" style architecture, in contrast to... 

St. Barbara's Cathedral, which is "new gothic"--it has many more frills, and huge flying buttresses.
All of the pews in St. Barbara's Cathedral are bookended with handcarved designs/images, none of which is identical to any of the others. This guy was one of my favorites. It took more than 5 centuries (yes, 500 years!) to build this church--they started in 1388, and didn't put on the final touches until 1905. Thanks, Wikipedia.

Although the stained glass was bright and beautiful from the inside, I found it much more interesting from the outside. What was cool from the inside was being able to walk in the "attic," above the vaulted chapels, and to see how those were constructed. 

Some of the gargoyles on the sides of the St. Barbara Cathedral. When I see things like this, I forget that I'm not actually back at school, though Princeton's gargoyles are much funnier than these.

With the Jesuit College and the Italian Court in the background. (Lisa, I use your Cookiehead Cookies tote bag all the time.) Photo by Tyler Jacobs.
Last Saturday, a group from my program went on a hike to the Karlštejn Castle, only a short train ride outside of the city. I couldn't go (thanks, JP!), but the pictures that friends put up looked beautiful. So when I saw that the International Club at Charles University was organizing a 12 mile hike culminating at the castle for this weekend, I signed up immediately. It was a little intimidating to decide to go on a trip with a club at a university I'm not actually part of, but I was sure I'd meet some great new people and it had been way too long since I'd gone hiking. When I got to the train station there were lots of people hanging out in groups of twos and threes; luckily, three girls in the film studies track of my program had seen my post in our group and decided to come along, too, so we gravitated towards each other.

As soon as we set out on the trail, I knew that I'd made a good decision. All over the place was proof that spring is (finally) upon us!

Some pretty vines crawling across the wall. 

I think my favorite thing about the route of our hike was that there was a great balance of walking through forests and walking in or near villages and towns. It's nice to see what non-Prague Czech Republic looks like, and this town seems to be a pretty good representation, based on my small sample size of Zuzana's village and...well, nothing else, really. 
I really know nothing about this canyon/gorge (name, location, etc.) except that it's beautiful. After we left the gorge, we continued in the direction we had been going, but every few minutes our leaders stopped and pulled out their maps. As an OA leader--and just in general as a person with common sense--I had a feeling we were a little lost. A few miles back we'd seen a sign with "Karlštejn" written on it, pointing the other direction, and sure enough when we turned around we headed almost right back to where the sign had been. Turns out we weren't really lost, though--going to the gorge had been an intentional loop in the trail, but we'd gotten a bit turned around finding the correct path back after the view.

I met some lovely people! Sophia (left), Nicole ("BADD" hat), and Kacey (sunglasses in the back) are students in the film (Sophia and Kacey) and photography (Nicole) tracks of my program. Here we're with two of our new friends, from Portugal (next to me) and Hungary (in the front). Photo courtesy of Nicole Lewis.
There it is: the Karlštejn Castle! Named for King Charles IV, obviously, and built in 1348. We didn't do a tour of the inside, but I hear there's not much there, anyway. On the final stretch of the hike leading up to the castle, I ended up walking with a French medical student who I gave a Judaism 101 Crash Course too. She was very curious and, having grown up in a very agnostic family, knew very little about Christianity, too. It was really interesting to try to explain things to someone without even a basic knowledge of terminology (although she did know "kippah"--watch at least a few seconds of that one, you won't be disappointed). I had to explain the Rabbi as "sort of our version of a priest, but not." I think it's the first time that I've been the first Jew a person has met, and although I was often looked to in high school to explain the wierd things we sometimes do, it was strange to be someone's sole source of information on Judaism. I hope I managed to present Judaism positively while also giving honest explanations...and hopefully not making up too many things. I really enjoyed talking with her, and we had a really honest conversation about spirituality, which was wonderful--hiking is the best time for those conversations, I think.
Me with the castle, and so happy that the weather was so beautiful :) Photo by Nicole Lewis, a photography student at the San Francisco  Art Institute who is studying in Prague this semester. You can see more of her work on her website: http://www.dancingshutter.com/
Here's the whole group of hikers. It's easy to spot me--I'm next to the woman in the bright blue pullover (she's from Finland, and does capoeira). Photo courtesy of Nicole Lewis
Kacey, Nicole, Sophia and I headed back to the train a bit early and had the chance to walk through the  town which was only a little too touristy. We walked into a couple great bazaars, and drooled over all the food stands. When we passed this guy, making sweet crepes, we couldn't resist. The flavors looked incredible, but I was mostly intrigued by his impressively meticulous gestures for making the crepes. Look, he's using a squeegee to spread the batter over the perfectly circular griddle! We got strawberry and nutella filling in ours.

Once the blue decided to poke through the clouds, the river made for a pretty mirror. It was a great final view of the town before we got on the train back to Prague.
Although it's not related to Kutná Hora or Karlštejn, I tell you a little about my day yesterday, since it was the first time the weather was really perfect. I woke up to a blue sky, put on my brand new leather "Jesus sandals" I got in Israel, had a couple hours of class, met up with a friend to work on our JPs, listening to a street musician play hard, played nerf-ball catch in the park at sunset. On my walk home I happened upon the most incredible, Joshua Bell-esque "street pianist" (later found out it's Peter Mešo, apparently a huge Michael Jackson junkie) playing "anything you wish" pieces on the piano just outside the entrance to Old Town--after 10 minutes of listening I asked him to play Smetana's "Vltava" so that I could sort of hear a live version of Hatikva on Yom HaAtzmaut and then stayed for another 30 minutes just listening. When I continued walking, I ran into a woman who looked lost; after passing her I turned around, asked if she needed help, and ended up walking her all the way back to her hostel because it was sort of in the same direction as my apartment--and found out that there are two great flea markets/bazaars right near where she's staying! Good weather clearly has such an impact on peoples' actions. Serendipity :)

As a final note: When I came home from yesterday's events, I was shocked to hear about the two bombs that exploded at the finish-line of the Boston Marathon. Thanks to the efforts of runners, volunteers, EMTs, firefighters, policemen, Twitter, Google, and many individual people, help and information were dispensed efficiently. I don't think this is the right forum to make any commentary on the attack, so I'll just leave this at hoping to contribute to creating a world where things like this don't happen. 

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