An Overnight Bus Ride With Sweaty Macedonian Men

Perhaps one of the most memorable portions of my Balkans Bouncing this summer was the penultimate leg of my trip en route back to Greece. The bus ride between Kotor, Montenegro and Skopje, Macedonia is something between 10 and 13 hours – so long, and one that was filled with an array of bumps, border crossings, interrupted slumbers, and smelly and urky Macedonian men. Yes, urky is a word, you get it.

I was already traveling during the most heightened period of refugee entrance into Europe, capped off with the frontier between Greece and Macedonia shutting its doors sometime while I was bouncing. So tensions were high, and there was no shortage of “be carefuls” coming from afar, as I was a single lady traveling solo via many modes of transport, and not without vigilance by my side. However, I really don’t think any amount of vigilance would have decreased my creeped-out-ness on the journey into Alexander the Great’s (still being debated) Macedonia. I actually think it was the most ON in terms of vigilance that I had to be during my whole three weeks on the road.

I became a pro at maneuvering the internet, bus, and train stations for my desired mode of transport between each point of interest, and my long bus ride was set to depart Kotor a little after 7pm, arriving in Skopje sometime around 8am. Ear plugs, neck pillow, and snacks were packed for easy access.

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When I hopped aboard, I was pleasantly surprised that there were only about 5 or 6 of us on a charter bus. It was glorious and I could definitely get down with all this loungy leg room. That bliss held up for perhaps two or three hours. Two or three hours which consisted of my feet on top of the seat in front of me as I gazed out the window, only to be interrupted by the onslaught of a swarm of sweaty, smelly, mish-mosh teethed Macedonian men. Ugh.

The guy who sat down next to me was balding, round, and snored with deep intensity. And that was in addition to being shouty with his other sweaty friends. Good thing I had my ear plugs within finger’s reach. During the whole bus ride I hugged my purse as I sat or slept, making sure everything was zipped and a part of my bodice. I had never felt like such a good little white American girl in my life.

I eventually got some shut eye, only to be awoken by a tap on the shoulder by my sweaty friend at each border crossing, one after the other. During that sporadic night of shuteye, we traversed four countries, or 3.5 depending on your Kosovo stance. The most memorable was while crossing from Albania into Kosovo, where we were all ordered to disembark the bus, collect our baggage, and line up for a search of our belongings. The immigration officers immediately dismissed me back to the bus when I said I was American; meanwhile my Macedonian companions were searched and patted down multiple times before being cleared. Despite popular belief, being an American abroad tends to have its perks.

Now we were in Kosovo, and I was a little bit excited mixed with a lotta bit on edge and ready to get our, what seemed like the hundredth rest stop, show on the road. It felt like at every rest stop we stayed for at least thirty minutes, so in retrospect our journey probably took well over 12 hours to complete. During my brief trip to Kosovo, while the bus driver and Macedonians ate and smoked, I explored the mini-mart, which was overflowing with packaged drinks and snacks. It looked like they were what I can only imagine military bulk shipments might resemble.

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Enough beverages to start a new country.

At first I was unsure what currency to use to purchase something, since Kosovo is sort of kinda not a country depending who you ask, and there are so many currencies in those parts. Turns out everything was labeled in euros, so euros it was. I bought some candy, and had a good giggle when one of my bus companions asked the guy at checkout what the name of his country was. Hesitantly, the cashier replied “Kosovo” and my homeboy thanked him for his clarification. Twas clearly a touchy subject and awkward interaction I’m thrilled to have bore witness to.

Then I had to pee, so I found the toilet, which of course was a squatter. I have explicitly fond memories of squatters or holes in the ground whilst on other inter-country bus rides, so this was a fun one to add to the list. It warranted a plugged nose, and was topped off with a broken window and a drip dry. I felt safe. Come to think of it, I probably have material to write a book on all the fascinating johns I’ve used.

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This is the best I could get of said window and squatter.

I peed and wandered back to the bus in hopes that we’d be ready to get a move on it. Not so fast. I walked past the restaurant’s kitchen and there was a lot of nothing, except for these two plastic containers filled with something that looked like a concoction of peppers, squid, and salmonella. I wondered what they were all eating.

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Yummy.

We were finally at the home stretch, with only the final cross into Macedonia. When we arrived in Skopje at the crack of dawn, I was pretty much a shell of a human as can be assumed. I met a Chilean guy on my bus and turns out we were walking in the same direction to our hostels. We walked, talked, gaped at the ridiculous statues literally everywhere, and wowed at the piles of trash decorating the ground as the sun began to rise.

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I know, so many beautiful photos in this post!

While I was creeped, urked, and constantly torn from my beauty sleep during this entire bus ride, I can now say I’ve ‘been’ to Kosovo (my passport says so!), and successfully add another weird and humorous international bus journey to the ever-growing list of hilarity that only happens while traversing the developing world.

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Have you ever taken a bus ride that left a weird taste in your mouth, but ended up being a favorite travel story in retrospect? Have you actually eaten real food in Kosovo that didn’t exude food poisoning? Tell me about it in the comments! 

 

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Captivating Kotor

If you’ve read any of those lists circulating lately about the Top 10 destinations you MUST get to this year, then you’ve most certainly heard of Kotor – only you may have no real idea as to where it is, because I surely did not prior to the summer. In continuing along my Balkans Bouncing, Kotor came as one of the most beautiful and invigorating suggestions, and I’m so happy that I went.

Kotor is an exquisite and still fairly untouched-by-tourists seaside town on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro; nestled between Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina to the west and Albania to the south. Only a hop and an offered day-trip away from Dubrovnik, Kotor is virtually the opposite in terms of what you get. Where Dubrovnik is crazy expensive and crawling with tourists from all over the globe (mostly Game of Thrones fans), Kotor is still mellow and just beginning to get traction from commercial cruise liners. I’ll say it now though, it’s only a matter of time until that bay is jam-packed with Titanics. Once people hear about it the treasure chest will come flying open. So, get there now!

Initially, Kotor was ‘planned’ as a one night stay, which quickly turned into 4 nights worth. During my time there I found out I wasn’t alone in this scenario – which could be attributed to the adorably pushy front desk boy with the big brown eyes telling you to stay so you can check out an abandoned building together, or the straight up relaxation, views, and slow change of pace that are so very welcome when your back is killing from backpacks and cramped bus seats.

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So, if you’re in the market for a treat to your eyes, a little burn for your thighs, and some relaxing vibes, then Kotor is just for you!

EYES

Every angle of Kotor is unbelievable, so your eyes are bound to be in constant wonder. Whether it’s from admiring the walled city from the outside, wandering amidst the old city walls, or climbing up to the top of the UNESCO protected Kotor Fortress, you will not be disappointed. I spent a lot of my time just wandering around all the little Medieval alleyways reminding myself to keep looking up.

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City guard shark

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I also ventured outside the old town to walk along the Adriatic and try my hardest to tackle at least one abandoned building break-in, which unfortunately to my dismay was an unsuccessful feat. There’s just something about a place left in mysterious disarray that really gets me excited, and well, in Kotor there happens to be the old Hotel Fjord. Sometime in the mid-90s the owner had money problems, forcing the prime property to never see the check-in of one single visitor. When I went to try and jump a fence, I soon noticed that there was absolutely no way in, and later found out that along with the surrounding fence, the authorities had set up cameras to prevent squatters from stealing old mattresses. Why that matters is beyond me, but I was quite displeased.

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The closest I got was to the trash-laden pool at the sea’s edge, where people basked just a stone’s throw away.

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THIGHS

Perhaps the biggest must-do in Kotor is the hike to the top of the fortress. While I am by no means an avid hiker, I do enjoy the view from the top, and the feeling of worked out thighs. Typically the hike is supposed to take a couple hours to ascend, and significantly less to get back down, however, my Kotor friend and I took a leisurely five hours to reach the view point – which was worth every single second!

Instead of entering through the designated entrance within the city walls, Michaela had been tipped off my the cute front desk boy that there’s a quicker (and free) way to start the climb from just outside the walls. So we took his tip and got on our way.

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The hike up was excruciatingly hot and picturesque, causing us to stop and disrobe or pose for photos with our magnificent backdrop around nearly every turn. When we got about half way up there was an abandoned church just nestled into the mountainside. The inside was all eroded with time, with colors from old frescos faintly decorating the walls and ceiling.

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It was around here that we reached a fork in the road. To the right was the entrance to the city wall path, and to the left was a suspicious sign saying cold drinks and fresh goat cheese. Initially we thought ‘nahh’ we don’t want to get killed on the side of a massive mountain, but then turned around because why not. And it was the sweetest detour we could have made!

We arrived at the home tucked high on the mountainside where a family has lived for 40 years making their own cheese, selling refreshments on the fortress path to sweltering hikers, and whose children ‘commute’ down the mountain to school everyday. We relaxed, watched the women care for their goats, ate delicious goat cheese from said goats, and enjoyed some of the most spectacular views my eyes have ever been privy to.

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After almost getting stampeded by a gaggle of wild goats and a brief photoshoot, we made it inside the walls and successfully mounted the mountain. Feast your eyes on that Pterodactyl call!

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VIBES

When you’re done feeling the burn, it’s time to max, relax, and chillax; and there’s no better place to do just that if you’re bouncing through the Balkans. While the sea is overrun with cruisers on their daily stop-off, the shore also has this gorgeous Mediterranean vibe that just can’t be messed with. Not to mention, if you’re a beach goer used to riding and diving in waves, and dodging from impending shark attacks, you will not get that here, or really anywhere in these parts. The serene waters are perfect for playing, swimming, wading, and always people watching – which this group of 60s-ish men playing a game of dive & catch really brought home for me.

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When you’ve surely worked up an appetite there is no shortage of fresh fish restaurants littering the old town. After my time in Bosnia and Serbia I seriously meated myself out, arriving in Croatia and Montenegro on a purely fish kick which did not disappoint. I treated myself to a couple fresh fish feasts at one of the oldest fish restaurants in Old Town Kotor, Scala Santa, which also happened to be just across from my amazing hostel. I left with a very happy tummy each night.

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When I wasn’t busy eating or basking, I was wandering (of course). A couple times I happily stumbled on some pop up antique collections, one which was so crazy to me. This guy was selling hundreds or thousands of year old coins and weapons that his father had found in the surrounding areas. It was mind-boggling to me since I have only seen such artifacts in museums; but here I was able to hold them and really examine them with an up close eye. Definitely my kind of enjoyment!

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Kotor is on all those lists for a very good reason, as it’s a little gem craving to be visited. It’s got the perfect temperament for romantic getaway or solo jaunt and anything in between.

Have you visited Kotor or anywhere else in Montenegro? What were your thoughts? Have I persuaded you to add this magical place to your travel bucket list? I hope so! 

A Summer Holiday In That Other Side of Greece

The last time I was in Greece was in October 2007 with my mom and brother. I’ve wanted to return so badly, and finally had the free time and a pretty sexy reason (if that’s even a requirement) to return. This time for a couple months (yikes) holiday in between my trip home and my return to Spain in October. Not too shabby and a lot a bit scary. I’m here this summer with absolutely nothing to do but eat tzatziki and the reddest tomatoes on the planet, walk around getting blacker by the second, jump in mediterranean waters, squeeze in some exam studying, tend to this blog which I’ve handsomely neglected this year, and see some untouched Greece along the way. Nothing to do. Who even has time to say that? Not many, especially the Greek I’ve come to see.

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My heavenly first meal.

So here I am in the northwest region of Epirus, neighboring the island of Corfu and Albania, in the city of Ioannina, which I’ve been told has about the same population as Santa Barbara County (for those interested in population counts and want a point of reference). It ain’t big, but my, is it beautiful and untouched, and a side of Greece that few, if any, think of when the country comes to mind. At its center lies Lake Pamvotis, with the unnamed island perched in the center. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, the city of Ioannina was once quite secluded and a journey to get to, until the initiation of a great highway system.

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The view from way up in the mountain village of Ligiades.

On my first day here, Mr. Chops zipped us around town via sparkling red Vespa, and my first thought after “I hope I don’t fall off this thing,” was “this is exactly what I envisioned for my European life!” those eons ago when I first planted the seed of a life in Europe in my 10 year old brain. The city consists of a bustling stream of cafes and shops surrounding the hushed part of town lying within the once-upon-a-time castle walls. There are cobblestone streets aplenty, renovated buildings side-by-side with ones in disarray and graffiti, a stunning lake, and of course since it’s Greece, captain of all things ancient and crumbling, a plethora of remnants from the Byzantine and Ottoman eras.

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Lambchops has been quite concerned for my boredom here, and how I’ll keep busy for a summer, which is unbearably sweet. To be honest, there isn’t a ton to do in the realm of excitement, so I understand, but I’m also not looking for a crazy time; and gorgeous places are within a mountain’s drive or boat ride away. I also like to wander, so I’ve done enough of that to turn about 5 shades of negro darker and find myself in a new part of town on most days when he comes to fetch me after work around plus or minus 3pm.

Of the ways I’ve spent my weekday afternoons while he’s been busy working his brain off and I’m not trying to add my womanly touch to his quarters (lots of scrubbing required), well, let me break them down for you.

1. Drink Coffee Like the Greeks Do, and People Watch

There are so many cafes in this city that it’s quite hard to choose just the right one. They’re all so cute, and when I look for a cafe to sit in I definitely look for a ‘cute’ ambience. I know, how girly of me. But after coming from Korea, land of the cafe, to Spain thats sucks as far as cafe culture goes, Greece has the cafe on lock. After you’ve chosen your locale, choose your coffee. Nescafé rose to fame some time ago with their Frappé, or simply Nescafé because they own that entire market. They’re quite sweet, and from the looks of the tummies on most men, consumed on the regular. I personally have been ordering an Espresso Freddo, which is essentially espresso over ice with sugar, only I ask for medium sugar because health (and I just can’t do espresso black because of sensitive tummy and bitterness). And when I’m feeling particularly in need of calming, and mind-traveling, a glass of white wine, because I’m in Europe and that’s what people do in the afternoon besides eat a huge lunch and nap.

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The lines of people waiting to retrieve their 50 euro per day is real.

2. Walk Through the Castle Walls

If you’re in the market for some quiet wandering, just walk towards the lake and you will be met with these ancient walls at one point or another. Once you enter it’ll amaze you how you can hear a pin drop. It’s so unbelievably quiet (unless you’re being followed by a hoard of loud and obnoxious out-of-work youths). These homes are from what I have been told some of the most expensive property in the city, and date back 100s of years. This region of the city has seen many changes in power whether under the Byzantine or Ottoman rule of Ali Pasha. Walking through here is one of those reasons why Greece is so fascinating to me as an American. It’s amazing to see structures like Ottoman bathhouses that have been preserved from seriously hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

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3. Visit Its Kale Fortress

As I already mentioned, it’s really amazing to walk through a modern city, and then stumble onto remnants of eras passed. Within the castle walls lies yet another set of walls, and the former home of the Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha. Sitting high on the acropolis overlooking Lake Pamvotis, this fortified area underwent massive amounts of renovation during his rule. While his palace is in ruins, there also lies Fetiyie Mosque overlooking the lake, with his immaculately designed tomb just in front, and the Byzantine Museum in between the two.

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Fetiyie Mosque, The Byzantine Museum, & the residence of Ali Pasha.

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The final resting place of Ali Pasha and one of his wives.

4. Ferry Out To the Nameless Island

A ferry leaves the main port in Ioannina every 30 minutes and makes its 10 minute journey over to the island, which plays home to approximately 100 people. Aside from the restaurants serving up fresh seafood (the specialty I hear is eel, and not my thang), there are a few streets filled with residents begging you to buy souvenirs of silver and baklava from their little shops. Delicious baklava I might add. Once you get past the main entry point, you are free to wander and roam through the white-washed walkways and see the many Ottoman-era monasteries that litter the tiny island. I walked past some, but frankly it was too hot to ascend the hills, plus I get cathedraled or religiositied out and am more into seeing how the people live and the picturesque streets and boats. I basically went to the island and spent a lazy afternoon walking around, swatting mosquitos, itching my bites, visiting the Ali Pasha museum where he was beheaded, drinking white wine by the lake, and talking to two little girls who were in awe of the foreign English speaker at their cousin’s restaurant on this tiny little island.

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The salvaged canon (and balls) used by Ali Pasha to protect from the Turks when Ioannina was seized between  1820 – 1822.

5. Visit Ioannina of the Mountains

This is of course just what I call it. One of my first days here, we took the vespa way up (about halfway up) the mountain on the other side of Lake Pamvotis to a lookout point, that also happens to bear a monument in memoriam to the people of Ligiades who were massacred by the Germans in October 1943. Fun little fact about Ioannina is that before World War II, it was also home to the biggest Jewish population in all of Greece. Who knows, perhaps the Greek side of Mama Schaeff’s family originated from here before settling in Odessa. I wonder! Though not religious in any sense of the word, I am fascinated by Jewish history, and love that Mr. Chops has enlightened me to that history of his city. And funny I’d end up here, in the land of Greek Orthodox.

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6. Jump In A Pool

When the heat needs to be beat, jump in a huge vat of water at a hotel pool. Ioannina is about an hour from the beaches of Igoumenitsa, Sivota, and Preveza (amongst others) which we have definitely visited, but you can see are a bit out of everyday reach when sans vehicle or public transport. So pool it is! Lambchops told me about Hotel du Lac which has a lovely pool open to the public for 8 euros a pop, which is more than worth it for a dip and a shade change in the dead of summer. They also have other nice spa treatments and massages which I may just treat myself to in the not so distant future.

7. Get Fit

Lambchops and I said we were gonna get active and keep our health regimes in check, which I think we’ve both done a decent time of maintaining despite the lack of cooking utensils and materials in his apartment. That aside, we are big meal sharers, and I found the studio Yoga Union which is excellent, unlike the yoga I signed up for in Korea (me, a sweater who never sweat, imagine that). I signed up for the month, and at the very least it gives me one thing I need to commit to!

8. When All Else Fails…

Take a nap, because the entire city turns into a ghost town between the hours of 3-5pm. The siesta culture here is insane. Even more pronounced than that of Spain, the country that claims the siesta. I was out walking around one afternoon and was literally in awe. It’s one of those things you don’t really fully believe until you see that absolutely nothing is open and any restaurant that is actually open is sans comida. I’m not kidding, there’s even a typed out reminder to keep your trap shut during said hours in the entryway to his apartment building.

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Now that you’ve seen the exhilarating ways I’ve been spending my early afternoons, stay tuned for the late afternoon/early evening excursions to come. They’ve been beautious and open an eye to a historical and lush side of Greece that you will definitely want to see if you haven’t already!

Prague Is Bad To The Bone

This winter took me traveling around what I always called Eastern Europe, but which is more Central Europe. But that’s all technicalities as far as I’m concerned. You read previously about why I became obsessed with Berlin, and now I’m going to let you in on the next destination on my winter escape, Prague.

For forever and a day, Prague has been boasted about to me by everyone and their mother in waking life and on the interwebs. You’ve probably heard it too. No one can keep their trap shut about how Prague is the most enchanting city on the planet. And while it is enchanting and stunning and reminded me of Beauty and the Beast at every corner we turned, its people are horrendous, which somewhat overshadowed a bit of Prague’s wonderment. A bit like Paris, they’re damn lucky they’ve got such a visually pleasing city.

With that out of the way, I will get onto the good of Prague, and really one of the coolest things I’ve ever bore witness to.

Jen and I entered Prague on the floor of a train, and after that haggard train ride, had a little tricky situation getting into our Airbnb. Twas a bit of a tumultuous morning, but once settled we came to realize our host was excellent. Martina happened to work for Czech Tourism, so she was a whole wealth of knowledge when it came to must-eat foods to add to my ever growing list, and where to eat them. Based off her recommendations, the two of us ate like queens during our time in Prague.

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Kielbasa my damn Jewish face off.

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Memories of Koko as I greasily ascended up to the castle.

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A nightly tradition of parting the Red Sea. Here we have duck, bread dumplings, red cabbage, schinitzel, and mashed potaters. Oh, and Radler. Yummy!

As for the sites, I could sit here and yammer on to you about the must-sees that Lonely Planet or Señor Rick Steves will tell you to see, but I like the out of the ordinary so I will spare telling you to go see things like…

The Astronomical Clock and Name Day Calendar

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This face isn’t unenthused over the spectacle, but rather of the Chinese tourist I thought to be in my shot.

Prague Castle and its insanely exquisite gothic architecture.

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St. Vitus Cathedral is in the center of Prague Castle. The view from the top of the mountain cannot be accurately depicted. Must be seen with your eyeballs.

The Charles Bridge with Prague Castle in the background.

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A wander over this bridge will lead you to Prague Castle. Fun Fact: We spent NYE at the ‘biggest club in Europe’ just next to the bridge.

Or Frank Gehry’s eyeball-tickling Dancing House.

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And of course, the Jewish Quarter of Josefov, formerly the Jewish Ghetto. This deserved much more time as it’s mystical and beautiful and boasts one of the largest Jewish museums.

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The Old New Synagogue, which I fancied to look like a menorah.

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Rabbi on a string.

While you should see all these because they’re spectacular, the highlight of Prague to me lies an hour’s train ride outside of the city in Kutna Hora. I first learned about The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora from a group of girls I met in Berlin on a Third Reich tour. They told me if I did only one thing in Prague I HAD to go there. And I did!

The Sedlec Ossuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a Roman Catholic chapel decorated entirely of skull and cross bones. Yes, you read that correctly. The interior is the most beautiful display of bones you will ever see, and while it’s quite macabre, it’s exquisite at the same time. To think of living the remainder of eternity as the most bizarre artwork is quite a spectacular thing to imagine.

Above the chapel is the cemetery, that holds a special history. In the 1200s, an abbot of the monastery returned from the Holy Land with some holy earth to be sprinkled on the cemetery grounds. When word of this broke out, it became one of the most prized burial sites in Central Europe at the time. In the 1300s, after the Plague swept through Europe, the cemetery had to be enlarged to compensate for all the additional bodies to be buried there. Then, in the 1500s, after the chapel had been built in the center of the cemetery, bodies that were exhumed to make room for new ones were piled up in the cathedral. The bones were later organized in the 1800s into the masterpiece that it is today. It’s strange, and creepy, and extraordinary, and this kind of ish fascinates me!

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Craziest chandelier I ever did see!

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New meaning to human shield…

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The only kind of selfies I take.

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Hello sir.

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And one more for inappropriate measure.

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Crazy, right? If you are intrigued just as much as I, I suggest carving out a morning or afternoon to get your badonk out of Prague to see it. You can either do it on an organized tour or by yourself, which is what we did. Many of the tour companies don’t do it everyday, so you’re left to do it yourself. It’s open everyday except I think Christmas and New Years Day.

Getting to Kutna Hora on your own:  From Prague train station, purchase a roundtrip ticket to Kutna Hora Main for 183czk. From there, basically just follow the herd, but it’s about a 10 minute walk from the station to the Ossuary and quite self-explanatory once wandering. A suggestion is to check the train times back to Prague at the station before you head out to the chapel, because we ended up waiting 2 hours for the next one from the time we were done. When you purchase your entry tickets, you can buy for 1, 2, 3, or 4 of the UNESCO sites. We bought for 3 of them and decided we didn’t want to see the others after the 2nd one (which was a huge let down after the bone chapel). The final 2 are in the city center, so a train or bus ride away.

Well there you go! I hope you weren’t too creeped out and have now decided that you will hop on a plane just to go see this miraculous chapel! Have you been to the Bone Chapel before? Did you go to the other UNESCO sites? What did you think of them? Did I make a stupid decision to throw them to the wind? Were there any other off-the-beaten-path wonderments I should have seen while in Prague? Did you think the Czech people were as rude as I did? Let me know all of your whathaveyous in the comments! 

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