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Prague and beyond: Travelling overseas

Prague and beyond: Travelling overseas

In a darkened cemetery beneath brooding skies, a crow picks at scraps beside a crooked tombstone. From outside, the chapel looks anything but remarkable; sandstone brick, arching stain glass windows, pointed spires stabbing skywards towards encroaching clouds. But once we step inside, it’s a whole other story.  Stacks of human skulls and bones have been arranged into neat pyramids in every corner.

An ornate chandelier fashioned entirely from human bones dangles from the ceiling like some macabre masterpiece from the chambers of Nosferatu. Evidence of death is all around and yet the scene has been arranged with such poise and delicacy, there’s a chilling beauty about it.

My wife and I are at Sedlec Ossuary, a tiny Roman Catholic Chapel located in the picturesque town of Kutna Hora an hour east of Prague. Said to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 to 70,000 people who perished at war or at the hands of the plague, the modern incarnation was arranged by a woodcarver known as Frantisek Rint, in 1870.

Surprisingly perhaps, the chapel now attracts some 200,000 visitors a year but it’s just one of many sights easily accessed from the Czech Republic’s celebrated capital, Prague. Heading back there by train, we enjoy exploring less ghoulish sights — Prague’s longstanding reputation as the jewel of Bohemia is not without good reason.

Founded in the late 9th Century, the Czech capital is a sprawling city divided into ten districts, but its beautiful Old Town area is relatively compact and easily navigated by foot. It’s not hard to pass a couple of days simply roaming the Old Quarter with no set script, there’s so much to see. All that’s really required are a good pair of walking shoes and a keen eye for beauty.

We begin at Old Town Square, a hub of historic churches, palaces and statues blending Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture in impossibly beautiful picture-postcard fashion. Serving as Prague’s main market place for over 1000 years, the city’s nucleus is home to most of the major sights including the Gothic Tyn Church dating back to the 14th Century and the famous Astronomical Clock, the world’s oldest of its kind still in operation.

Prague is not a city built in an orderly grid formation. In fact, much of its charm lies in the ramshackle nature of its layout. From the Old Town Square, a labyrinth of cobbled streets and side alleys snake off in all directions like tentacles from an octopus.

Taking pot luck, we venture down many at random, only to be rewarded each time with a new discovery; a side alley beer hall with long wooden benches and tall glasses of Pilsner, a unique shop selling old photographic prints, even a slick restaurant in the underbelly of a church. It’s like a game of choose your own adventure.

We continue exploring over several days, meandering the iconic Charles Bridge with its 30 statues exploring the vast courtyards of Prague Castle, even taking a historic cruise along the Vltava River for another perspective.

Soon it’s time to head out of the city once more. Taking a train two and a half hours south, we arrive at the charming town of Cesky Krumlov at dusk. A dense Autumn fog shrouds the cobbled streets beside the rushing Vltava River, candles flicker outside the heavy oak doors of bars and restaurants, and it isn’t hard to imagine arriving here on horseback as a medieval knight.

Built alongside the s-shaped contour of the Vltava River in the mid 12th Century, Cesky Krumlov has become one of Europe’s most celebrated small towns and in peak summer, the crowds certainly reflect its fame. Come in late Autumn or winter though and you’ll find the atmosphere infinitely more tranquil.

In some ways, it’s as though someone pointed a miniaturising ray gun at Prague and zapped it into the town of Cesky Krumlov. The parallels are many; a perfectly preserved castle, an old town square, baroque and renaissance architecture and the Vltava River. Only here you can walk from one side of town to the other in about twenty minutes. Consequently, many travellers make the mistake of assuming this is a day trip from Prague. It isn’t. Stay at least a couple of nights. In spite of its compact size, there is so much to do here, though none of it requires copious amounts of planning, you can just make it up as you go along. The galleries are plentiful and you’ll want to linger longer in almost all of them.

Without glancing at a guidebook, we watch live bears prowl the castle grounds, learn history at boutique museums, take a horseback ride through surrounding woodland, marvel at historic architecture, dine on hearty goulash dishes, and yes, drink more than our fair share of Pilsners.

This is the beauty of travelling the Czech Republic – you don’t need an extensive checklist. Just turn up, do as the Czechs do, and the rest takes care of itself. 

Written by Guy Wilkinson. Republished with permission of MyDiscoveries.