Braking, bones

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
kutna hora campsite

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I was a little late setting off in the morning, but strategic study of the guidebook Yols brought out to me in Prague had pursuaded me to change my vague and pointless plan to go to Tabor and replace it with the specific and ingenious plan of going to Kutna Hora. This had the advantage of requiring me to follow one straight road. Cycle paths are scenic, safe and slow, and after yesterdays laziness I wanted to put some clear tarmac between me and Prague.

The combination of proper signage, tarmac and direction meant the 5hrs it took to get to Kutna Hora included 3.5hrs of actual motion- a very good ratio. I arrived at 15.30 and pitched my tent at a campsite five minutes walk from town. The tourist attractions were all closing by the time I headed into town, but my destination could be seen anytime: St. Barbara's cathedral. My cathedral.

Not only is St. Barbe my middle name, but she is also the patron saint of people who work in danger of death, against death by artillery, against death by explosion and sudden death, all of which must mean she's patron saint of this trip. She's even the patron saint of brewers! (among a load of others). She's also following me. First she cropped up in the Brussels museum, where one of the decorated panels of a polyptych showed "the martyrdom of St. Crispin and St. Crispinian (by boiling), patron saints of shoemakers, Masters of the legend of St. Barbe". Despite asking several times, google has refused to shed any further light on this connection between them, so I can't explain what the quote means.

Kutna Hora was, in medieval times, one of the most important Czech cities. Some rich veins of silver in the region led to the mint being located there, and for a while it was touch and go whether Kutna Hora or Prague would be the dominant town in the region. Suffice to say the uncertainty was resolved. The mines went bust and Kutna Hora sank into sufficient obscurity that it escaped being redeveloped and extended and has retained its medieval character. So now, as a UNESCO world heritage site, it can survive, if not thrive, on tourism. I saw the sights- a museum of mining, the old mint, a church. This took the couple of hours until dinner time. I ate at the terrace restaurant of a grotesque 60's built monstrosity of a hotel that blights the main square. They're operating the ingenious marketing ploy of being so ugly that you'll stay there just to avoid looking at it.

The next day I broke camp and went in search of breakfast. I was feeling a little the worse for wear after finishing last night in a local bar that didn't seem to have a closing time. Ham and cheese toasties helped a little. My plan was to visit the ossuary in a nearby village, before heading south in the afternoon. The ossuary was about ten minutes ride from Kutna Hora and the streets were empty. What happened next I can only attribute to some mixture of hangover, residual drunkenness, complacency and tiredness. Approaching a roundabout from a steep hill, not a car in sight, I leaned into the bend and took the corner without slowing down. But the bike didn't seem to turn the way it should, and I found myself drifting wide, and suddenly the clear, calm, concrete and dreadful realisation dawned on me: I'm going to hit the kerb. Sure enough, a split-second later, the front-right pannier crunched into the foot-high kerb. This pivoted the front wheel into the same kerb, throwing the bike onto the road, the left pannier onto the roundabout and me onto the pavement where I landed curled into a foetal position and scraped across the stones. When all had come to a standstill, I breathed deeply and took stock. Madelaine (as the bike is now christened) wasn't broken, the bags all reattached and, apart from a few minor grazes, my first crash had left me quite unscathed. After five or ten minutes double checking that brakes were working properly and such like, I set off again, making a mental note that braking for roundabouts is a Good Idea.

I found the Ossuary, which was a very strange place. The grounds around the chapel were graveyards for many years, but for some reason they had to reduce their size and therefore exhume a lot of bodies. For a while there were huge piles of bones around the chapel. The monks decided that this simply wouldn't do and chose instead to use the bones to decorate the interior of the chapel. Who wouldn't, after all? Its the natural thing to do with the bones of 40,000 people.

The chapel is interesting and disturbing in roughly equal measure. Once I got over the natural combination of morbid fascination and dark comedy that were my first impressions, my recurring thoughts as I walked around were of human (and in particular my own) fragility and mortality. Skeletons, it turns out, are smaller than you think. Stripped of muscle, flesh and life, the bones seemed tiny- skulls are not much bigger than grapefruit. I still can't decide if I'd mind ending up part of a skeletal chandelier.

While looking round I could still taste adreneline and my heart was beating fast. I decided I was in shock after crashing, so went for a big lunch and a sit down at the nearby restaurant. Of course, I may just have been hungry.
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