Visiting Kutná Hora: How to be a tourist?

This weekend was a long weekend in the Czech Republic for May Day. And so, with Friday off, myself and herself went to the town of Kutná Hora, one of the 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the the Czech Republic. What we saw there was breathtaking – from the gothic splendour of St. Barbara’s Cathedral to the famous Sedlec Ossuary, with the bones of over 40,000 people who sought burial on the site, decorating the interior of the chapel. But we both left Kutná Hora a little uneasy: the historic town centre is preserved but was ghostly thanks not just to bank holiday, but also because the majority of the towns inhabitants live on the the edge of the town, in a series of high rise flats that run all the way from the historic town centre to the far edge where the Sedlec Ossuary can be found, and attracts over 200,000 visitors per year. A ghoulish place is Kutná Hora, but the spectres that haunt are not just those of the skulls in the ossuary, but the realities of making your town a tourist town – those hulking high rise flats also haunt.When we got to Kutná Hora we first wandered up through the city from the train station – up in  a loop so that we came down on one side of the former Jesuit College of the town, now an impressive contemporary art gallery. After spending sometime in there, we came out, turned right and were at the approach to St. Barbara’s Cathedral.

When we got to Kutná Hora we first wandered up through the city from the train station – up in  a loop so that we came down on one side of the former Jesuit College of the town, now an impressive contemporary art gallery. After spending sometime in there, we came out, turned right and were at the approach to St. Barbara’s Cathedral.

Approaching St. Barbara's Cathedral.
Approaching St. Barbara’s Cathedral.

Inside this magnificent gothic cathedral you were treated to a host of extraordinary stained glass windows and statuary, most famously perhaps the miner dressed in a white robe representing the many silver miners who helped to turn Kutná Hora into one of the most important centres of commerce in 14th and 15th century Bohemia. This spectacular church is worth the trip to Kutná Hora alone – and in my personal estimation is a considerably better reason to visit the town than the Sedlec Ossuary.

Detail of Christ's crucifixion from early 15th century inside St. Barbara's. According to guide book, the style of the figures suggest it is pre- Hussite, pre-1420.
Detail of Christ’s crucifixion from early 15th century inside St. Barbara’s. According to guide book, the style of the figures suggest it is pre- Hussite, pre-1420.
Detail from same wall as crucifixion. This shows someone working as a minted of coins. This wall forms the western end of the Minters Chapel inside the cathedral although this is dated ca. 1463.
Detail from same wall as crucifixion. This shows someone working as a minted of coins. This wall forms the western end of the Minters Chapel inside the cathedral although this is dated ca. 1463.
One of the decorative pieces from inside Sedlec Ossuary.
One of the decorative pieces from inside Sedlec Ossuary.

Unfortunately, when we were there, St. John’s Church appeared closed for heavy renovation work, so we moved through the rest of the town and also took a walk on the edge of the forest along the river before we began to seek out the Sedlec ossuary, the famous bone chapel of Kutná Hora.

During the worst years of the plague many thousands of people from the area surrounding Kutná Hora and Sedlec were to be buried in the chapel – but with the numbers vastly in excess of what the cemetry could be expected to hold, the bones of the dead were instead used to decorate the church in a variety of ways, and the repose and perpetuity of their souls instead prayed for.

Today, this site of death and macabre is little more than a freak show – there are no encouragements toward respectful silence like that expected of you in St. Barbara’s Cathedral, and photography is openly allowed and indeed encouraged (which I did engage in, I must admit). It seems that the ossuary of Sedlec is pitched somewhere between teeny-goth palace of horrors – the tack shops nearby specialising in all kinds of grotesque skulls statues and the like – and site of genuine historical interest. The former seems, in the behaviour of visitors that we observed at least, to favour the former rather than the latter.

So what can this tell us, if it can tell us anything at all? The Czech Republic as a whole, and not Prague alone, are significant destinations for what is usually called cultural tourism. According to a recent report of the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism accounts for 2.9% of Czech GDP. [1] In 2012, two academics wondered about Czech tourism, especially its cultural tourism:

However, the Czech Republic has a competitive edge in the extraordinary abundance of historical monuments, especially in locations such as Prague, Český Krumlov, Kutná hora, the Lednice-Valtice area and others. The spa industry, especially Carlsbad, a destination popular primarily among Russian tourists, is also important. Compared to other sporting or typical summer leisure resorts, the Czech Republic is disadvantaged in that reaching “recyclability” is harder. While many people keep visiting the same seaside or ski resort for years, tourists can be hardly expected to visit Prague repeatedly just to have a stroll on the Charles Bridge. That is why the position of the Czech Republic is weaker compared to other destinations; therefore, one may ask whether the whole region has lost its lustre and its potential has been exhausted. [2]

Going from this paper in 2012, to the recent report from the WTTC, that the relative importance of tourism has not declined in the Czech republic, at least as measured by GDP. It seems to have remained at a steady 2.9% since about 2009, even though this is a decline from the early 2000s, when it was worth as much as 3.6% of GDP. [3]

Both Smrcka and Schonfeld acknowledge in their 2012 paper that these difficulties are compounded by an inability of the Czechs to compete with near neighbours in terms of adventure tourism – the recyclability issue as in the quote above – an issue that can also be difficult in terms of cultural tourism, despite rightly acknowledging the sheer abundance of historical sites in the Czech Republic that give it a natural advantage. Despite this somewhat pessimistic note about the recyclability of these experiences, another recent European Commission report on tourism in the Czech Republic suggests that in fact adventure tourism, blue tourism (along rivers etc.) and cultural tourism all have the potential to impact positively on the situation. [4]

But what of how to be a tourist in the Czech Republic? Are there appropriate and inappropriate ways of “consuming” the cultural “product” on offer? Can the “consumer” be blamed for the mode of their consumption if the cultural “product” is being debased by a failure to accord sites like the Sedlec ossuary the requisite levels of reverence by those who wish to earn money from them in a marketised tourist economy and when what is essentially a kind of mass grave is pitched to the lowest common denominator?

Looking from their flats on the edge in Kutná Hora, living in the same place as all these tourists visit, but not as any tourist experiences or sees it as such, the people here must wonder what on earth we are all doing, pulling stupid faces next to the skulls of the plague’s victims.

It is right and proper that such a place as Kutná Hora is a tourist destination – and it is worth seeing for its architecture, its history – it was after all a vitally important centre of commerce once in this country. But the town is more than just these old buildings – in the shape of the Central Bohemian Gallery it provides an important space for contemporary Czech visual art and installation art. It is also worth visiting the Sedlec Ossuary. But finally, it is worth remembering, when you pay your 90kc to enter, that those are real bones – the real bones of real people with real lives who died. It behoves us to act accordingly in their presence.

Perhaps the consideration should not be whether the Czech Republic  – be it Prague or elsewhere – can offer up that increasingly sought after aspect of tourism i.e. the “authentic experience” through a diversification of the tourism “product” but whether the tourist – be they seekers of gastronomical, cultural, historical, adventure or other forms of experience –  can themselves ensure that these places do not “lose their lustre” or “exhaust its potential” by their own behaviour, attitudes and expectations of what this marvellous country has to offer. [5]

_______________________________________________

[1] World Travel and Tourism Council, Economic Impact 2014: Czech Republic: http://www.wttc.org/-/media/files/reports/economic%20impact%20research/country%20reports/czech_republic2014.pdf

[2] Luboš Smrčka and Jaroslav Schönfeld, “OBSTACLES TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF TOURISM IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC “: http://www.lubossmrcka.com/files/4_corfu-2012.pdf

[3] Luboš Smrčka and Jaroslav Schönfeld,  “OBSTACLES TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF TOURISM IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC “: http://www.lubossmrcka.com/files/4_corfu-2012.pdf ; see also Luboš Smrčka and Jaroslav Schönfeld,  “Impacts of the Global Economic Crisis on Tourism in the Czech Republic”: http://www.wseas.us/e-library/conferences/2011/Lanzarote/SOSOMACTS/SOSOMACTS-19.pdf

[4] European Commission, Tourism sub-sector, Country Report: Czech Republic (March 2014): http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/sectors/tourism/tourism-business-portal/documents/business/internationalisation/czech_republic_country_report.pdf

[5] As a favoured destination, thanks to the cheap beer, of many stag and hen parties, it was especially dismaying to hear about the behaviour of an Irish stag party in the Prague recently who donned Nazi uniforms and Adolf Hitler masks: http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/cork-stag-party-wearing-hitler-masks-in-prague-was-national-embarrassment-328113.html

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