Prague and Kutna Hora
Who really counts Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino as proper countries? Their only purpose is to take up the bottom spots in world cup qualification groups so that no-one else ever has to finish bottom. As such, when I visited the Czech Republic, I considered that I had then been to every country in Europe.
Normally when I turn up in an unfamiliar city, I can find my way about pretty quickly. For some reason in Prague I never really got my orientation sorted, and had a ridiculous time when I arrived trying to find my hostel. I got a bus into town easily enough, and walked to the station, but then it all went wrong. I went into the station so that I could follow directions from the relevant exit, only to get lost in its empty cavernous halls, and then to find that the relevant exit was locked up. I found my way back out, through a window in a deserted corridor, and set off in search again. I ended up walking for about an hour, exploring many parts of Žižkov and Karlin, before I finally managed to get to the hostel at 2am.
I got up late the next day, and headed back out into the city. I managed not to get lost, and found my way eventually to the Charles Bridge. When my sister had been here, a few years earlier, she'd said it took her twenty minutes to walk across the bridge because of the crush of tourists. Today, one side of the bridge was behind hoardings and the crush was doubled. It took me a long time to get across.
I walked up to the castle. The streets heaved with tour buses and camera-laden tourists, and I wished I'd come here first in my European travels, instead of last. My dad travelled here in the 1960s, and it must have felt like a different universe back then. I walked through the castle grounds, barging through hundreds of tourist photographs.
I headed haphazardly back towards the old town. Another sense of direction failure meant I ended up crossing a busy road to get back to the river, and so finally I reached a spot where there weren't many tourists around.
In 1989, as revolutions swept Europe and the continent changed forever, I was too young to know what was going on. But I did remember hearing certain places mentioned on the news, and Wenceslas Square was one of them. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered here as the communist regime fell.
When I was there, the square was lined with markets and filled with tourists. I had walked past the top end of the square on my epic trek from the centre to my hostel, and now I walked back up to the top, knowing now which way lay endless suburbs and which way my hostel was.
In the hostel that evening, I was in the kitchen cooking some food, and some other people were talking about various travels they'd done. One of them seemed to have been to an awful lot of places. It had been a while since I'd met anyone who had travelled more than I have, so I joined in the conversation. He turned out to have been to more than 100 countries, annoyingly.
The next day I decided to go to Kutna Hora. I met my travelling rival over breakfast, and he was also going that way. We walked to the station, talking about various places we'd been. There were some countries I'd been to that he hadn't, but not many.
We were going to Kutna Hora mainly because it contains the Sedlec Ossuary. 600 years ago, a church was built, and the site they chose to build it on was a mass grave for victims of plagues and wars. For reasons unknown, they decided to dig up thousands of skeletons, and then arrange the bones artistically in the new church. Seeing piles of skulls reminded me of photos I'd seen of memorials in Cambodia and Rwanda. Seeing strings of skulls strung across the ceiling like Christmas decorations was just weird.
The ossuary was much smaller than I'd thought it would be. I imagined caverns and tunnels all filled with bones, but it was just the one room. So, the possibilities there were quickly exhausted. We headed into the centre of town to see what there was there.
It was a long walk through grim suburbs, but Kutna Hora turned out to be really picturesque. The town was dead, most things were closed, and it was a relief to be out of the Prague crowds.
Wanting to find out when the trains to Prague left, we went to a tourist information office. They gave us train information, which was good, and they gave us coffee, which was very good. It was getting pretty cold out, and so this was a life saver.
We got the train back to Prague and got back after sunset. Near the hostel I could see the Žižkov TV Tower. It looked pretty ugly, but I imagined that the views from the top would be good, so I headed up there. It was disappointing, in the end: the viewing area was inside behind panes of glass, and it was all lit up so that the views and photos were all spoiled by reflections.
At the bottom, I looked back up at the tower, and noticed the spooky 'baby' sculptures crawling up its legs. It looked ugly from far away, but it was much more of a work of art when seen up close. I took photos as the clouds raced overhead.