It’s the living, who scare me

Most of us would have seen churches and been inside at least a few them. There are churches plain and simple in far-flung towns and villages, there are churches known for their splendid architecture and ornate decors, and there are churches known for their world’s most precious artefacts. But ever heard or seen a church decorated with… a mind-boggling 40000 odd bones and skulls?

DSC_1045aWhile looking for off-the-track places for a day trip from Prague during our recent visit, we came across the strangely titled “Bone Church” in a town called Kutna Hora. Our Lonely Planet’s Prague guide had a page on it and a simple Google search also threw in several links. So off we went to explore.

An hour’s train journey from Prague central train station, Kutna Hora is small, sleepy, laid back, typical East European town, with its own history and landmarks behind. And most important of them is the “Bone Church” or the Sedlec Ossuary as it is known locally.

The church is barely 300 meters from the unmanned Kutna Hora – Sedlec station, past St John’s church- a signpost directs visitors. The streets are practically empty with an occasional car passing by or a human being in sight. The “Bone Church” is in the middle of a cemetery and is fairly small. As we entered the gates of the cemetery, we could see a few people (like us) wanting to explore the unique church.

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At the entrance is a reception desk with a lady issuing tickets with a customary smile. Our curiosity began right at the reception area where the walls and the roof were adorned with … skulls and bones ….in all sorts of creative designs. A flight of steps led us to the basement were two chambers on the left and right with heaps of skulls compiled into pyramid shape welcomed us! We walked further down to the main hall or chamber and you are surrounded by even more bones and skulls arranged creatively in to lamp poles, bells, chandeliers and even a royal insignia. The chamber is lit by few dull lamps and faint rays of sunlight coming from two small side-windows adding to our eerie feelings and spooky atmosphere. The main altar is actually small: a dark alcove with a Cross in the middle surrounded by …. again skulls and bones.DSC_1031a

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We came out and went upstairs where, much to our relief, there were less bones and skulls and it was brightly lit with an array of photos of the church’s various stages over the years.

A handy flier given out along with the entrance ticket describes the history of the church. The Ossuary contains the bones of about 40,000 people, who died in the 1318 plague in and during the Hussite wars in the 15th century and were originally buried at the church cemetery. When the cemetery was closed at the end of the 15th century, the exhumed bones were transferred to the chapel and compiled into pyramids. In 1870, a wood carver/ carpenter named František Rint was commissioned by the local royalty to arrange the bones and skulls into creative decorations.

On our way back we stopped for a coffee (actually to get out of that grim experience). We were wondering why would anyone want to preserve the remains of the dead and the old lady at the coffee shop answered, “we believe that these people are not dead but live among us and the church reminds us every day of this belief.”

DSC_1049aCall it unique, macabre, eerie, creepy or spooky but a visit to the church is an experience you will never forget.

Just then I remembered a website I browsed, where a visitor said he asked the lady at the desk if she ever felt bothered to be working there. She flipped her hand in a dismissive way and said “Pfft! They’re only bones, they won’t hurt you; it’s the living who scare me”.

Madrid Musings: For a few dollars

It’s a common sight in all major touristy cities- from London to Lisbon and beyond…. You see them at all popular attractions- in front of palaces, museums, in squares and parks. We came across a number of these street performers displaying whatever skills they are good at, to entertain and … to earn their daily bread; magicians, acrobats, guitarists, craftsmen, comedians, sopranos and tenors, dancers and actors in every imaginable and unimaginable costumes.

Most of us just stop by for a couple of minutes to watch their performances and move on throwing a Dollar or a Euro. Many take photos with them, laugh at them, make fun of them, try imitating them, tease them and sometimes even intimidate them.

You see a fat guy seemingly floating in the air while another in full Sadhu attire doing his penance in the air (obviously with the help of hidden gadgets), a magician pulling a few surprises with his acts for the umpteenth time, another guy in complete Terminator make up and gadgets inviting onlookers for an act from the film and take a picture, few other guys in some greasy/oily /metallic paints pose as statues, frozen for hours…

At first sight they all seem to have one goal; earn a living by making people happy but watch them closely; their eyes sport only empty look often looking at the collections on the sly, their laughs are dry, their bodies begging for rest; there is melancholy written all over their wrinkled, weather-beaten faces. Sunshine or rain, snow or wind, they just can’t afford to take a break but continue with their act, for a few dollars….

 

Madrid Musings: The Flamenco Dancer

The place: Royal park, Madrid, Time: A cool evening in late October 2015.

During our recent family vacation at Madrid, Spain we spent an evening at the Royal Park at the end of a busy walking tour of the city. The weather was just perfect hovering around 150 Celcius with a nip in the air. The park was almost ready to wear her autumn colours! Being a later part of a week day, the usual tourist buses had come and gone leaving the sprawling park just for the locals and the late visitors like us.

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As we moved forward we saw the usual street performers here too like elsewhere in popular touristy cities, displaying whatever skills they were good at, to entertain and … to earn their daily bread; a magician, a guitarist, a craftsman, a soprano and a flamenco dancer.

We stopped by for a couple of minutes at each of them watching their performances, when we heard the foot-tapping and palm-clapping sounds of the Flamenco dancer. What we thought could be one of the usual street performances, turned out to be a lively, entertaining display of flamenco skill that one wouldn’t have expected from a street performer.

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A full fifteen minutes of highly energetic dance with her twinkle toes tapping the footboard in nimble yet graceful movements with her hands clapping at right times in tune with the music (by a guitarist by her side). The agility and grace of her movements – the lean legs displaying the footwork of a virtuoso while the slender arms swaying in the air in rhythm- were adorable. The expressions on her face were lightening; from casting a fiery stare to a romantic look, from assertive to vivacious – all in seconds!

I went on a clicking spree and tried to capture those moments as much as possible.

I am sure she must have been dancing for a good part of the day but I couldn’t see any signs of weariness either in her movements or in her countenance.

I am not a Flamenco expert or a critic but in my humble opinion, she deserved to be at a good theatre dancing to the well heeled; probably the lady luck has not (yet) smiled at her.

We really enjoyed a fabulous Flamenco performance in an autumn setting! We happily gave her a few Euros when we left. The evening was well worth it!

Madrid Musings:Mercado de San Miguel

Vibrant, colourful, exotic, noisy and a bit chaotic,…these words came to my mind when we entered Mercado de San Miguel food market, Madrid.

One of Madrid’s oldest, well-known and not-to-be-missed landmarks in Madrid, just a couple of hundred meters from Madrid Royal Palace, the San Miguel market has been a favourite rendezvous for Madrilenos (or Madridians or Madridans?) for a few centuries and until now.DSC_0507a

Once inside the large, beautifully carved iron and glass structure, rows of stalls welcome you with an indescribable concoction of strange flavours floating in the air. Benches and stools (yes) were crammed with locals and visitors while many more were hovering around trying to find a place to squeeze in and enjoy the exhilarating atmosphere.. Joining the happy-go-lucky crowd, we squeezed our way through to scan the culinary fare on show.DSC_9141a

An exotic variety of dishes were on display – from the most popular Spanish Paellas and Tapas to mouth-watering Calamari fries (neatly packed in designer cones), bizarre-looking Gulas on bread slices to spiky Sea Urchins(cooked and top open), from cooked bi-valve molluscs to steamed Octopus (in full and just the arms) …..indeed quite exotic!

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Gulas on bread

The quick-serve bars were doing brisk business serving a range of Spanish cocktails – the ubiquitous Sangria to colourful Mojitos and Bajitos and a range of Spanish and Port wines – to customers who just stood at the stall counter drinking and chatting unmindful of the world behind. A walking bar (yes!) – a tall Spanish guy was doing his rounds selling (yelling!) wine by the glass, served from his cleverly designed large tray that held a number of wines and glasses.

It was well over 2 pm and having done a half day walking tour of Madrid, we were hungry and the whole market atmosphere was so invigorating that we felt even hungrier!

I settled for plate of seafood Paella and a large glass of Sangria to wash it down. Though never tried to be adventurous with food, the sea-urchins somehow caught the fancy of my daughter and me and we decided to bet on it for 4 Euros. Mustering up my guts, I took a small scoop of the yellowish meat inside the shell and tasted….Far from getting repulsive, we actually started liking it and finished it in no time! It tasted like a dish made of mashed potato with a stash of ground fish.

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Bi Valve Mollusc

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The lunch was complete with another famous Spanish Churros dessert.

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Churros in chocolate sauce 

One thing that I observed during our stay in Madrid…. Madrilenos just love life…. 24X7.. From the cream-da-la crème to the commonalty, I could feel a jolly good bonhomie in every place- squares, restaurants, Al fresco dining places along the picture-postcard boulevards, bars you name it…. Mercado San Miguel is a typical example.