There are three things to look for in a guide to spontaneous weekend travel when visiting Prague's little neighbor - the Bohemian mining town of Kutná Hora...
1. Amusement 2. Entertainment 3. The ephemeral "spirit" of the place. The fourth thing would be, maybe, a map if you don't have a smartphone.
6:00 pm Saturday, Radost: Nursing the worst hangover in town, when a sudden jolt of caffeine reminds me...: shit, I need to go somewhere, anywhere. Fast.
6:30 pm Home: I catch up with token Czech travel-pal and translator, my roommate, who for privacy purposes will be referred to as 'Jan'. Kutná Hora, I tell him, a UNESCO site, a millennium of history, and a train ride shorter than a trip to Ikea. "You're on your own, dude," he tells me. "Too touristy."
7:30 pm-8:35 pm Na cestě: I board at Masarykovo nádraží, the place to be for short local trips. I wake suddenly and stumble off the train at Kolín, whereupon I discover an essential formula: Kolín ≠ Kutná Hora.
9:00 pm Kolín Hlavní nádraží: "Na Kutná Hora?" I ask a passing conductor, proud of my Czech. Who needs Jan anyway? "Do Kutný Hory," she says, and points to a train on the last platform. Still not convinced, I ask a nearby passenger, an older man with a cigar and a plaid blazer. "Do Kutný Hory?" I say. "Na Kutnou Horu," he confirms.
Fuck you, Jan.
9:20 pm Kutná Hora Hlavní nádraží: With no buses in sight, I decide to head into town on foot through the non-UNESCO district. Contrary to what I expected, this is not a particularly small town. I wander for forty-five minutes and the only sight of international renown that I've seen is the Philip Morris compound, whose logo, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to the town coat of arms.
10:30 pm U České koruny: Even in the midst of tourist land, you can still find a good-old fashioned Czech pub with wooden tables covered with Gambrinus tablecloths, antlers on the walls and cigarette smoke sending clouds across the television screen. Even the light fixtures are made out of antlers. I make it in and down a beer, then tell the bartender I'm looking for a good, cheap hostel, and ask her if she knows of any nearby.
She stares at me for a second.
"You knew that this is a hostel, right?" she says. I see that my shoes are untied. "Sure I did," I reply. She takes me up to meet the owner, who shows me to my room and loans me a museum-sized photo book about the architecture of Kutná Hora. I explain that at this hour I'm looking more for nightlife, and before you can say Mecca, I have a cabbie/provisional tour guide waiting for me downstairs. When he enters the pub, the group of older men drinking in the corner bursts into cheers, which soon turn into boos and protests as I drive him back out to the door. He tells me he is taking me to Planet Music, where the clientele are attractive and friendly.
POZOR! Attractive + Friendly = Under age
10:45 pm Club Anděl: A large and well-spaced discotheque with an upper balcony and two bars flanking the dance floor. At the moment it looks something like a high school dance, with only a few of the braver teenagers leaving the safety of their friends. After an hour or so, however, I hear the first strains of "Sladké mámení", and suddenly the floor is packed. The next thing I know it's a Czech dance party in a techno club, as if the entire crowd of Meloun ended up at The Roxy by mistake.
Later: I meet a pair of college students celebrating a friend's svátek, who for privacy purposes will be referred to as 'Jana' and 'Jana'. As the only people over 20, we become fast friends, they make me dance and drink bad things like absinthe and lots of something which Jana calls "Fruits of the Forest".
Oh, I realize later: Fruits of the EVIL Forest.
12:00 am - 3:00 am Mám vokno. 3:30 am Club Jáma: The place is still rocking a half hour after close; the bouncers say the hell with it and unlock the doors to let us in. You can always tell a good bar by the availability of large, comfortable couches, a dance floor with techno thumping in the back and 10 crown juice and soda. (Um, I wasn't really in the condition to drink anything...else.)
5:00 am U České koruny: The roosters are crowing outside as I wander into my room. It seems like a waste to spend money on a bed you will only use for a few hours ... until you get into it.
10:00 am - 12:00 pm: Having overslept breakfast by an hour, I discover the perfect hangover brunch; hot vegetable soup, thick Turkish coffee with cream and a full cheese vegetable plate. Price? Included in the room.
Instead of being a Responsible Journalist, I sit in the restaurant for two hours chatting with owner and proprietor Andrea Neslingerová about the history of the place and her restoration efforts. In typical Wanderer fashion, I have accidentally come upon a site of considerable history, which has been in her family for about a century; in which time it has served as everything from a stable to provisional headquarters of the Red Cross. The various things she told me are too numerous to mention here; they were also in Czech so I have no idea what they were.
12:10 pm Hotel U Růže: The kostinec is closed for lunch, so I stop in to the Hotel U Růže down the street. Cuisine is hit or miss; if you order the fish expect to get your hands dirty, and chew carefully. I recommend the Špagety po uhlířsku, but vegetarians beware, although they have included this dish on your menu, the proprietors clearly consider ham a vegetable.
Don't complain, either, or this wonderful-smelling meal will be whisked away and replaced with the somewhat less savory ketchup-vegetable pasta.
1:00 pm The Bone Church: This is the most chilling place ever... literally. It's an uncharacteristically warm day outside; but in here, stiff nipples. In many places, I have seen monuments to the dead. This is the first time I've seen a monument OF the dead. The décor is bone, the chandeliers are bone, all the inscriptions on the walls are in bone. The coat of arms is interesting: a skull and crossbones made out of, well, a skull and crossbones. There are enough skulls in here to match the population of this town.
Like a fool, I start counting the skulls hanging in rows along the archway. Left side: 13. Right side: 13. Next to me a pack of Americans are discussing costs and benefits of Fuji digital cameras ... I can see their breath. I look into the protected space and see at least three hundred toothless skulls staring back at me, and it kinda looks like they're moving. I stop counting and get the hell out.
4:00 pm Saint Barbora's Church: I finally reach Kutná Hora's most famous sight, tired, sore and painfully hung over, only to find that the church has already closed. The courtyard, the approach along the castle wall and the view from the top of the hill are all, however, open 24-7. I think I got the better end of the deal. 4:30 pm I give up. There's just too much to see in this town, and my ass is officially kicked. I resign myself to the ride home and to certain death at the hands of my editor, who for privacy purposes will be referred to as 'Juan'.
But then it strikes me, I had fun.
And what more do you need when talking about a town like Kutná Hora? Information about history and attractions can be found on Internet pages; pictures of places like the kostinec can be found in books; but you have to actually go to experience the people, the tastes, the smells; you have to go for Andrea Neslingerová to show you pictures and paintings of her family's homestead and its legacy.
That's the cool thing about Kutná Hora: real people live there. And when you go, you won't see everything ... but you'll definitely see something. As Paní Neslingerová told me, "Člověk musí jít a přesvedčit se na vlastní oči." I have no idea what that means, so if anyone can tell me, please send an email or something for God's sake.
And last but not least, don't fall asleep on the train on the way back ... not just because you will miss your transfer in Kolín and end up in Nymburk by mistake, as I did. But simply because, even with the UNESCO-celebrated beauty of Kutná Hora behind you, your view of Prague's hill-top neighborhoods as you approach Masarykovo will remind you that some cities can never be outdone.