Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Prague Pints pt. 6: Bone Church to Dačický Beer

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 348
A day trip to somewhere as exotic as the Bone Church should start with a delicious breakfast after a good night’s rest. Up at the crack of dawn, yawning profusely while scratch our bums all the way down the carpeted stairs of our hotel, we settled for the “At least the bathrooms were clean” McDonald’s next to the bus pick up point to begin our day of sights, scenes, and smells. At least they were almost clean. And required checking in with a security guard to verify actual McDonald’s patronage with proof purchase in hand, because under this Ronald’s roof, purchase proof is the price to pay to pee in Praha. Note to self, the McDonald’s in Prague isn’t a 24 joint, it’s “Non-Stop.”

Soon we hear the call to arms, or in our case, kafuffle free, we stood by the kiosk where a couple days earlier we’d procured our tickets to ride, and if by yellow submarine you meant maroon and white bus and by octopus garden you thought a church decorated almost completely with human remains, then call us the Beetles as we boarded the bus to bonesville. Or, more specifically, the Bone Church of Kutná Hora. 

Of course, like any great quest, half the fun is the journey, and soon our magical mystery tour rolled us into a tiny Czech town that once upon a time had a name until I just now forgot it. It was a small town, a quiet town, the sort of place you go to disappear, and where it’s easy to shoot a low budget horror film that’ll look simply awesome. 

Soon after we poured off the bus outside the high walls of small, modest building that looked not unlike a Spanish mission, modest and unassuming, scarcely a hint of all the human bones waiting for sight seers inside those walls, a discovery for the uninitiated or uninformed akin to finding out the nice old lady down the streets that makes pies for the country fair also has a meth lab going in her basement. 

Inside we paid at the front desk and began noticing the first bone decorations on the walls and over the stairs that lead down into the Bone Church proper. That you have to go underground to see it clearly made some of the people from the bus, a mix of tourist types from North America, Europe, and Russia, uneasy, and a few of them never left the foyer. I practically sprint downstairs, pausing only long enough to snap pictures of pretty much every fixture I saw.

Downstairs is a mix of Hammer Films film set, French catacombs, a few dozen video game clichés, and loads of old Universal monster movies all turned on their ear and rejected as viable comparisons. Downstairs in the bone church is a modest subterranean cathedral shape that both houses and is adorned with elaborate, deliberate arrangements of bone, overwhelming, intimidating, beautiful, tragic, horrifying, still, and contemplative. I reached the middle cross section of the space ahead of the tourist pack and turned a slow circle while my brain tried to come to grips with the sheer import and audacity of the place. 
The morning sun outside shot shafts of light into the dim cavernous space. While the church had the composition and arched ceilings of a cathedral, the actual dimensions were far smaller, perhaps the footprint of a 3 bedroom rancher in suburban So-Cal at most. The ceiling reached possibly twenty feet overhead at the farthest peak, and quickly tapered down to heavy load bearing columns. The building materials, presumably some variant of stone, appeared slightly more bleached and far smoother than the bones, such that the bones set apart from the walls and largely accounted for creating any texture of shadow or ridges. 

I roamed the space, taking it all in with my eyes, then tugging my camera from my coat to make the rounds again, snapping pictures of the details, the patterns, the sculptures, the statuary. Shields, signets, and chandeliers of bone, so much detail and so many parts of what had once been people. Candelabra, chalices, coats of arms according to the church’s homepage, and saw all of those things too. Over 40 thousand bodies represented in there, or so the website claims. I can’t verify that, though I lost count well after thirty of so before I even walked down the stairs from the foyer. Unless someone found a skull tree somewhere, at one skull per person, there are more melons in there than a Hooters convention.

I’d brought my mascot and discretely, respectfully as could, I snapped a few pictures with him there. I quietly asked the room if anyone would mind and the bones stayed silent, so I believe I didn’t offend any ghosts. Hopefully not, since I’m already, karmic speaking, in the hole for jumping on graves as a kid in the cemetery by Milligan College in Tennessee. 

After years and years of nature doing its thing where once a casket and body were interned, eventually there is a sort of empty pocket with six feet of dirt above it. All you need is one precocious kid exploring the graveyard to happen to trip over a thick tree root and tumble onto an old grave and feel the dirt give and sink in about a foot and half to end up with a kid treating the rest of that graveyard like a giant, grassy version of bubble wrap. So while I would never, ever tamper with or knock down a grave stone, I can’t look anyone in the eye and claim to have never leapt on a grave to help it settle. First 30 don’t count though, right?

After a half hour our tour guide, an amazing polyglot, announced the time had come to return to our chariot. Linda and I reunited in the foyer and without much hesitation procured from the small gift table adjacent to the ticket desk a replica skull that for all intents and purposed appeared to have come directly off the wall except for weighing way more as HYDROCAL® White Gypsum Cement typically does when compared to bone. 

This amazing souvenir of the Bone Church would cause us some consternation during our later travels during the rest of our honeymoon. In particular entering Heathrow, where I’d gone through security first and got to see the skull passing through the x-ray machine in our carry on luggage on the screen over the airport security official’s shoulder. 

Just as I’m mouthing the word “cool” and fighting an urge to whip out my camera and take a picture of the amber-orange x-ray relief depiction of the skull on the guy’s screen, he’s pushed a button and stopped the belt while nodding at another agent to come hither and find whomever owns the carry on. We were ready for questions, since before boarding we’d joked about how we were bundling up the skull in our carry on might raise eyebrows. 

We just didn’t expect the looks we received from the security agent as she opened our carry on bag, pulled out a plush Chewbacca  back pack we’d picked up from an awesome toy shop in St. Germaine up the block from our hotel in Paris, Chewie’s belly looking distended for having a skull wrapped in socks and t-shirts inside it, zipper down the front like there was an autopsy in Chewie’s past. 

Once the uniformed woman had the skull in hand she could tell from the weight that it wasn’t made of bone, so then she felt compelled to swab it in case we were mad bombers that bomb at midnight with shaped explosives like Bill Murray in Caddyshack sculpting his gopher killers into gopher playmates. I again fought the urge to take pictures while Lindz calmly told the woman about the Bone Church. Moments later the skull was back in Chewie’s belly and packed up ready for travel. There were more raised eyebrows getting the skull back home to Canada, but nothing as rich as seeing the Heathrow agents reactions to opening the bag and discovering a Muppet style Chewbacca with a belly full of Bone Church souvenir replica death's head.

After the Bone Church our tour traveled on to see a full blown church, to tour some of the surrounding medieval village and auxiliary buildings still awaiting refurbishment after years of abuse or arson during Soviet occupation. 
We saw a company filming a commercial on the steep slopes of the village, carpenters building sets while set decorators blew fake snow all around to make the scene more idealistic and wintery, despite the unusually warm October weather leaving a lot of green still on the trees.

The final leg of the tour before busing back into downtown Prague stopped by an old, former monastery and a square filled with shops. I elected to give the monastery a pass and join our tour guide for a pint while waiting for Lindz and the rest of the group to join us for lunch. 

I learned a bit more about Prague from her perspective growing up as the Soviet system broke down, and seeing it fall. She said she found a lot of the kids, particularly Russian kids, have little to no sense of how things were, and thus they lack the sense to show respect, or to fully appreciate the magnitude of what it means to see a burnt out, boarded up church building now. 

I thought again about how comparatively young Canada and the US are, and wished I’d learned, more so been exposed too more foreign history and culture than I had been as a kid, or as an adult. We’d come to Prague hoping to learn more, and see more, and enjoy the somewhat legendary foods and pints. This bus tour, unlike most I’ve ever been on, certainly increased my exposure too and appreciation of Prague’s history and national identity, particularly during a time when the nation is rediscovering and redefining itself post USSR. 

The tour guide introduced me to a local big bottle beer called Dačický beer in the Ristorante Piazza Navona, and I thanked her for that wondrous discovery repeatedly. From the silent, creepy majesty of the Bone Church to long tables, great food, and memorable beers, this might well have been the best tour bus tour I’d ever embarked on.

After folks filled their bellies we piled back on the bus for a long, sleepy ride home. At some point along the way our tour guide got off to head home, and we waved at her through the long window because she’s an inspiration for tour guides everywhere, a polyglot in international waters, a patient and knowledgeable person, and with great taste in beers to boot.

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