more than anywhere else I visited, the remnants of the Communist regime appeared most frequently around Olomouc. while the town certainly has its share of historic sites at its core it feels like your average working, university town, albeit one that has undergone changes in the last two decades. while I’m sure one could say the same about other places, like Prague and Brno, Olomouc seems like a work in progress, as an evolving, thriving city. in Český Krumlov there was a concerted effort to restore the medieval character of the town to appeal to tourists, and Prague readily embraced capitalist/consumerist culture and adapted itself to suit the new system and obfuscate elements of communism that didn’t fit into a limited, easily-quantifiable box of history.
in Olomouc, however, you see things like these speakers, still attached to a light post in Dolni nam (one of two large town squares), twenty-one years after the Velvet Revolution. the speakers broadcast messages from the Party to residents of Olomouc — the importance of productivity, working for the betterment of the state and society, admonitions not to worry about reports of unrest in Prague, what are you talking about “velvet revolution”? students don’t protest – that’s just silly. whether a reminder of the past or simply a matter of expending resources on more important things, Olomouc still has some of these unique remnants that more seamlessly blended that part of the past into the present for me, reminded me that the present builds upon the past and no matter how ardently we might deny what we have or have not done, those events remain part of our nature and sense of self.
|view of Klet’ and observatory from Křížat
my second hike took me in the opposite direction from my first, south of Český Krumlov, and up the road past my hostel. both the owner and managers of the Krumlov House urged me to hike up Křížat, a modest yet steep peak with a chapel on top and stations of the cross situated through the neighborhood and meadows leading up to it. the view of the sunset from the top, I was told, was quite remarkable.
despite feeling decently taxed by my kayak trip down the Vltava, the glowing recommendations swayed me to hike up Křížat. because she recommended it so highly, I invited Anna (on of the managers) to hike with me but a delay at dinner kept us from getting back to the Krumlov House at the appointed departure time. worried that I’d missed her, I took off up the hill in the hopes that I’d catch her up. as I’d come to learn even more thoroughly later, I found it somewhat difficult to determine precisely which trail to follow and which direction the markers were leading me. taking a left, I made it half-way up the hill, darting through a residential neighborhood before I lost the trail entirely and doubled-back down to my starting point to try the other trail markings.
in the end, I jogged most of the way up the hill and didn’t see Anna (she’d been out when we got back), but as promised, the sunset was spectacular and worth every ounce of effort it took to getting up the hill in time to see the sunset.
|view to the west over the mountains from Křížat
hands down, the Sedlec Ossuary qualifies as the oddest sight of my trip. during the 13th century, an abbot from the oldest Cistercian monastery in Bohemia (in Sedlec) returned from Jerusalem with a pocketful of dirt, which he sprinkled in the monastery’s burial ground. because of this new religious consecration, the cemetery became a highly desirable location for burial among people throughout Central Europe. already packed with tens of thousands of bodies because of its association with Golgotha, the devastation wrought by the Plague during the 14th century overwhelmed the cemetery and bodies were simply piled up. in the space of only a few years, some 30,000 people died and sought burial at the Sedlec monastery.
around the turn of the 15th century, a chapel was constructed in the midst of the burial grounds and bodies displaced during excavation were placed in the ossuary beneath the chapel. for several centuries, the surplus bodies simply remained beneath the chapel, but when the Schwarzenberg family purchased the monastery in 1870, they enlisted a local woodcarver (František Rint)
to use the bones to a more creative effect.
the result of his efforts draws thousands upon thousands of people out to Sedlec every year. in addition to four pyramids of bones standing in each corner of the underground vault, Rint produced an altar, monstrances, and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms all with bones. the most remarkable piece of the collection, however, is the bone chandelier that hangs in the middle of the ceiling and contains at least one of every bone in the human body. when confronted with such magnitude of human mortality, it became somewhat hard to understand the implications of what my eyes wanted to tell me. it felt a very medieval way to confront death — inevitable, coming much sooner than one would like, a wherein the physical body loses importance because the spiritual essence has moved on to the afterlife. why place importance on the physical when such remembrances might carry profound suffering? of course, it could also be evidence of elite callousness, using the earthly remains of the anonymous masses that filled the vault of the new family chapel to create something unique and buzz-worthy.
whatever the rationale or motivation behind the project, the result remains truly remarkable, if profoundly, profoundly macabre and unsettling.
as I mentioned previously, I took advantage of the extensive hiking trails that cross the Czech Republic while I visited, but the only hike that I had on my list prior to departing was up Klet’, a peak of 1,084 metres (3,556 feet) located just a few kilometers outside of Český Krumlov. the hike itself was gorgeous, though the first several kilometers were along a standard country road — my first opportunity to put responsible hiking techniques to good use. there were a fair number of penzions along the route, though at this time of year none seemed too busy. because of it’s convenient proximity to Prague and the Austrian and German borders (and also because the town is well preserved and gorgeous), the town is extremely popular with tourists. but, as I said, late September is the end of the season and although the center of town was swamped by o.a.p.-filled tour buses, on this warm and sunny day I the road out of town to myself.
finally, and rather unexpectedly, the path took a turn to the left and dove right into the woods. the flora reminded me of the MMSD’s School Forest — deciduous trees with sparse undergrowth. there was some evidence of logging — oddly square clearings here and there, muddy tracks of trucks rumbling out from beneath the trees — but things were quiet during my hike. in fact, the entire way up I didn’t encounter a single person. (I must acknowledge, however, that my extraordinarily-well-rested self set out from town immediately after breakfast and was back in town by 1p.m.)
while I enjoyed the hike, the final stretch to the top of the peak tested me and I spent most of it convincing my legs to keep climbing. in addition to a viewing tower and snack-bar cafe, the peak is home to an observatory that tracks near-Earth objects, such as comets, asteroids, and “other unusual objects,” including planets. the observatory is the oldest in the country and on clear days you can see the Alps in the distance. of course, the terms “clear day” and “see the Alps” are more finicky than one might suspect and despite what one might think on a day like the one I scaled Klet’, I could not see the Alps. in fact, the viewing tower remains closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so I didn’t have the opportunity to determine whether another couple dozen vertical yards would make a difference. I encountered a fair number of people at the top, in spite of the closed tower and possibly-unstaffed cafe. it seemed apparent, however, that most of the other hikers came up the eastern slope of the peak, quite probably with the assistance of the ski lift that runs from a car park near Krásetín, to the summit.
despite my fatigue, under-hydration, and the closed nature of the tower, the hike up Klet’ was absolutely worth the effort. at the very least, it helped prepare me for my other hikes of the subsequent 10 days, hikes that I did not plan out as thoroughly and which took me unexpected places at unexpected paces.
one reason I chose to travel when I did this year was to have something memorable to say about my golden birthday. three years ago, I went to a club in North Park with two friends who were California natives. two years ago I went to the San Diego Zoo, then out to one of my favorite places in San Diego — the beach in Coronado. last year, I went out to Blue Mounds State Park with my parents for a hike on what was a decidedly, wonderfully fall day.
this year, I was in Prague. lovely, lovely Prague (even if it was sprinkling most of the day). I certainly didn’t want to go without some special birthday treat to mark the occasion, so after a morning of wandering around the city I popped into the Prague Bakeshop just a few blocks the fashionable Pařížská and Old Town Square. there, I enjoyed a cup of reasonable Earl Gray tea (the Czech Republic is not known for either its coffee or its tea) and a perfectly delectable white chocolate torte with chocolate crumb crust and fresh raspberries. I was never been much of a white chocolate person, but I do believe the Czech Republic might have me swayed in its favor now and forever.
the most stunning landmark in Kutná Hora is the Cathedral of St. Barbara, begun in the late 14th century thanks to patronage from local miners and intended to rival St. Vitus in Prague for size and grandeur. in fact, the first architectural contractor was the son of the master-builder of St. Vitus. some believe that the father (who designed St. Vitus) had a hand in drawing the plans for St. Barbara as well.
|reticulated vaulting, work of Matyáš Rejsek
progress on St. Barbara, however, depended heavily on the prosperity of the mines and, to that end, construction on the church halted and resumed periodically. various designers left their marks on the cathedral as original plans were updated or amended. the vaulting changed markedly as construction progressed (as seen in the two photos to the left; the one on the top was the earlier work, the one on the bottom, the later). the dependence on the mines and miners shows in the designs throughout the Cathedral. various crests on the roof represent different miner organizations, and St. Barbara is the patroness of miners.
|helical valuting, work of Benedict Ried
as mentioned previously, money from the mines eventually dried up and the cathedral sat unfinished for more than three hundred years. rather than leave the impressive if incomplete structure open to the elements (and, obviously, unusable), a wall was thrown up in 1588 to close of what had been completed. finally, in the late 19th century the local archeological society persuaded the city to take an interest in the completion of the cathedral and construction was resumed. it took another thirty years before the plans the project completed but in 1905 the building that found its way onto the UNESCO World Heritage list was finished.
after some consideration, I’ve settled on a unifying element of my trip to the Czech Republic: walking. my accidental 28km hike was just one of many foot-borne excursions I enjoyed during my travels. Czechs, I came to understand, enjoy their outdoor activities and hiking and biking trails snake everywhere across the countryside. before I left, I spotted tips in my guidebook for people looking to hike the length of either the Czech Republic or Slovakia and thought the idea absurd — what country has the hiking infrastructure to allow people to hike that far? to make an enjoyable vacation out of the activity?
the Czech Republic, I now know, for one. presumably Slovakia for another.
I went into a bookstore in Wenceslas Square in Prague looking for a standard, nationwide roadmap like the one I got in Ireland and there were nearly as many detailed local and regional ordinance survey recreational maps as there were for maps for the rest of the world. walks around Český Krumlov, around Prague, around Štramberk, around Olomouc, around Brno, around the Mikulov region … you name it, there was a recreation map to cover your needs. maybe two.
however, for those like me who don’t deem such detailed ordinance maps necessary, the trails are so adequately marked that you’ll do all right without them. as long as you know your destination, or the next town on your path, then the periodic signposts and painted markings on trees and farmhouse corners will lead you in the right direction. of course, you might be better off to have the hyper-detailed maps (or at least to consult them during a planning stage) so that you don’t end up hiking three times farther than you think you will hike and run most of the way back to town so as not to miss the last bus back to where you’re spending the night … but that adventure is for another post.