As Mayan ruins go – and there are many in Mexico, and I’ve visited more than the average bear– Palenque is one of the best.
This ancient city is quite older than some and it dates back as far as 226 BC . While Palenque seems quite small in comparison with some other ruins such as Tikal and Chichen Itza, it is thought that the majority of the city remains undiscovered behind dense jungle. What is there is incredibly well preserved for a city of more than 2000 years old.
Palenque stand out in my mind for several reasons one of which is this is the only ruin I visited where I had family with me. My dad, who has since passed away, met me in Guatemala City on a complete whim [what can I say, spontaneity runs in the family]. We traveled together on a rickety old school bus to the Mexican border, stayed in quite possibly the worst hotel [and I use that word cautiously] I’ve ever been in [and that’s saying a lot], nearly froze to death in San Cristobal de las Casas, and once of us [hint: not me] angered the travel gods and suffered Montezuma’s Revenge. By the time we reached Palenque, one of us was very nearly dead and the other wanted to finish the job.
The heat and humidity of Palenque is no joke. Having come straight from the mountainous San Cristobal [where I suffered from fever of unknown etiology and was quite weak], it was next to impossible to adjust to the heat and humidity of Palenque. I did what I rarely ever do: I rested. I woke up with the howler monkey screeches at 5 am, siesta-ed in the hottest middle part of the day, and prowled around like an ocelot at night. [Ocelots and howler monkeys do live in the jungle, but I never saw either of them]. On the third day, we tackled Palenque.
The entrance to Palenque is a giant parking lot filled with people selling everything from refreshments to hats and souvenirs. Many of the paths within the gates are also lined with vendors. At the entrance to the site, official guides vie for your attention. They may mean well, but you can get almost as much information from plaques dotted around the site, and it’s much more enjoyable to explore the ruins at your own pace [even if you have to leave your dad sitting on the steps with the jaguar]
Who even knows where my dad is at this point; Mayan architecture was not all that exciting for him.
Once upon a time I had crazy dreams of being a cultural anthropologist or historical preservationist or something that would allow me to travel and be the #historynerd that I truly am. But then the reality of these jobs set in. 1. They are few and far between 2. Most require a masters to even get started, and even finding a program that’s available and affordable is not so easy. 3 most are funded on the whim of a government and therefore pay is low and sometimes not at all. In spite of all that, I chose to do my senior thesis/project on Mayan Art and Architecture which 1. required a thoroughly researched and well written thesis [in Spanish] and 2. on-site visits to some of the sites. This was back in the Dark Ages when the internet was a baby, digital camera quality was awful, and blogging was a journal and scrapbook [of which I have both]. So with my SLR… that’s right, there’s no D if front of that SLR and copious quantities of film that I carried in a separate bag and polite instruction to ‘inspeccione por mano, por favor’. Thankfully they did and my 50+ rolls of film, both black and white and color, in different ISOs, made it safely through airport security and allowed me to photograph all the little quirks of Mayan architecture to my little heart’s content.
A little history of Uxmal
Chichen Itza is the most well know of the ancient Mayan site, but Uxmal should give Chichen Itza a run for its money –at least in terms of its vastness. It’s not super well known and isn’t directly on a bus route the way Chichen Itza is, but it is relatively well preserved. If the access was easier, my guess is that it would be more popular than Chichen Itza.
Uxmal rising out of the jungle
The area around Uxmal was occupied as early as 800 BC, but the major building period took place when it was the capital of a Late Classic Mayan state around 850-925 AD. Somewhere around or after the year 1000, when Toltec invaders took over the Yucatán peninsula [establishing their capital at Chichen Itza], all major construction ceased at Uxmal. However, it continued to be occupied and participated in the political League of Mayapán. Uxmal later came under the control of the Xiú princes. The site was abandoned around 1450, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
Mayan legend claims that a dwarf magician, born from a egg, built the city of Uxmal in a single night. In reality, archaeological excavations reveal that the Pyramid of the Magician itself was erected in a series of five successive builds upon existing, lesser pyramids. This was a common Mayan building practice, thought to capture and amplify the power of the underlying structure.
Kabah is situated slightly further along the road from Uxmal, and is famed for the Temple to Chaac, the Rain God of the Maya. The structure is filled with the masks of Chaac. Across the road, there is also a Maya Arch, part of a Maya Road system that used to span the entire Yucatan region.
Sayil has a beautiful multi level palace
At Labna, you can clearly see an example of a Maya Road system, as well as a well-preserved decorative Maya Arch. The palace is also very beautiful.
OK enough with the technical stuff…
The area where Uxmal, Sayil, and Kabah is collectively known as the Ruta Puuc, and it is for lack of better terms, deserted. There are plenty of small temples to see as well as small villages [<50 inhabitants almost all of Mayan descent and who speak only Mayan and are ecstatic to talk to you, you know if you can actually communicate. In honesty, most do speak some Spanish, but if English is your only language, you may be out of luck. Luckily, everyone I met was really nice], and deserted roads almost covered in vegetation.
The main road down the Ruta Puuc. I saw very, very few cars and lots and lots of lush, green vegetation. It is easy to see how the area could be reclaimed by Mother Nature.
A small Mayan town more or less in the middle of nowhere in the Yucatán peninsula.
Poc chuc, a very traditional Mayan meal. Essentially it’s seasoned pork with peppers, onions, and lime juice, to be wrapped up in tortillas and eaten like tacos. Tomatoes, avocados, and cucumbers on the side.
Labna, and when you are the only one there, it’s both awesome, and a little bit creepy. Yes, I realize I could have been bitten by a snake or some wild animal, and no one would have ever seen or heard from me again.
Some beautiful ruins at Kabah.
Hundreds of masks representing the gods along the front wall, often with long, protruding noses.
If you look very closely, you can see all of the masks etched in this wall.
One last view of Kabah.
Salbutes. It’s a very common meal in the area, and while not my favorite, it is amazingly fresh, so I had this for a couple of my meals.
I have always kept a record of my travels. It used to be with a pen and paper and 35 mm film. Now it’s all digital. Occasionally I reflect back on some of my past travels and travel mishaps before I started this blog.
Chichen Itza is located in the Yucatan region of Mexico not too far from the Gulf. It was a major economic and political power from 600 to 1000 A.D. Chichen Itza is a mix of many of Maya and (Central Mexican) Toltec styles; who influenced whom? so much of pre-Columbian history is still being debated. But I’ll do my best to summarize.
The Castillo (or castle in English) is the monument that most people think of when they think of Chichén Itzá. It is mostly Toltec construction, and it probably dates to the period of the first combination of cultures in the 9th century AD at Chichén. El Castillo is centrally located on the south edge of the Great Plaza. The pyramid is 30 meters high and 55 meters on a side, and it was built with nine succeeding platforms with four staircases. The staircases have balustrades with carved feathered serpents, the open-jawed head at the foot and the rattle held high at the top. The last remodel of this monument included one of the fanciest jaguar thrones known from such sites, with red paint and jade insets for eyes and spots on the coat, and flaked chert fangs. The principal stairway and entrance is on the north side, and the central sanctuary is surrounded by a gallery with the main portico.
Kukulkan, or feathered serpent, is the name of a Maya snake deity that also serves to designate historical persons. The cult of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl was the first Mesoamerican religion to transcend the old Classic Period linguistic and ethnic divisions and facilitated communication and peaceful trade among peoples of many different social and ethnic backgrounds. Although the cult was originally centered in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, it spread as far as the Guatemalan highlands so you’ll see this guy as far south as Tikal.
The Mayans loved sport and were quite serious about the games played. They built huge ball courts to contest these matches. It’s often said that the captain of the losing team would offer his head as payment for losing while the captain of the winning team would be allowed to ascend directly into heaven. The Great Ball court of Chichen Itza is 225 feet wide and 545 feet long overall. It has no top, no discontinuity between the walls and is totally open to the blue sky. Each end has a raised to the temple area.
One of the mysteries of Chichen Itza, is the acoustic dynamics of the great ball court. A whisper from end can be heard clearly enough at the other end 500 feet far away and through the length and breath of the court. The sound waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of day and also night. To this day, no one has been able to figure why or how the Mayans achieved this feat.
The goal was to get a ball through this ring. The rings are about 25 feet off of the ground.
The particular sport is not like any one sport being contested today. It has elements of soccer, but the ball used is much more like a weighted basketball. Of the hundreds of images of the game, very few show that the ball was touched with the hands, so archaeologists have deduced that the ball could not be caught. The ball itself was a little larger than a basketball and was made of solid rubber, so it was quite heavy. Players wore protective padding around their hips and were richly dressed and decorated during play. Personally I think JK Rowling saw images of the ball court and had this in mind when she developed Quidditch.
Information about the solar, Toltec, and Maya calendars is carefully built into el Castillo. Each stairway has exactly 91 steps, times four is 364 plus the top platform equals 365, the days in the solar calendar. The pyramid has 52 panels in the nine terraces; 52 is the number of years in the Toltec cycle. Each of the nine terraced steps are divided in two: 18 for the months in the yearly Maya calendar. Most impressively, though, is not the numbers game, but the fact that on the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, the sun shining on the platform edges forms shadows on the balustrades of the north face that look like a writhing rattle snake.
But Chichen Itza is more, a whole lot more. Some plazas have thousands of columns. Some have observatories. There are several temples at each site, each serving a different purpose.
Archaeology has always fascinated me. Stories of mysterious ancient civilizations and their fascinating architecture has always made me want to grab my pick and machete and go exploring. What could be more thrilling to this Archaeologist Wannabe, a lover of art history, than an ancient city nestled in the Mayan jungle on top of a limestone cliff, with a magnificent view of the blues and greens of the Caribbean.
Ah, Tulúm! “Walled City” in Mayan, it was built on a natural platform of cliffs that rise 40 feet above the Caribbean, with the north, south and west sides of the city protected by stone walls five meters high and three meters thick. It was originally called “Zama”, or “City/Place of Dawn”, and once you see the breathtaking east view of the Caribbean from there, you can certainly imagine how fitting that must be. The Spaniards, on their first trip along the shores here, wrote about this city with the highest tower they had yet seen, describing it as a colorful city compared to Seville, with many Indians calling to them. In some buildings, you can still see traces of paint. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the Spaniards!
Amongst bits of relentless jungle, there are about sixty structures within the ancient city walls; the oldest dating to 433 BC, the youngest, 1200 AD, and I wander and wonder amongst them for a bit. Tulum is such a magical place–especially if one is lucky enough to stay in the cabanas just south of the ruins. Walking along the beach you can approach Tulum just as the Spaniards did–you can also get there a few hours before the masses from Cancun descend on the site. There in its unpopulated glory, Tulum shines.
The actual ruins are small compared to some of the other Mayan sites, but the beach and the scenery make up for the lack of things to do and I could easily spend weeks living in my thatched-roof cabana escaping from life and existing without a care in the world.
The first time I saw you I was intrigued. There was something there that was definitely missing from the long term relationship I was in. We met at the most common of places: my work, not a crowded bar, at a grocery store, and certainly not anywhere romantic, like a white, sandy beach. You were tall(ish), with black wavy hair, green eyes, and an olive completion. I speak first–the most banal–of opening lines, ‘Can I help you?’ and on the surface, his reply was just as common– ‘oh, yes ma’am you can’. But it was the way he said it, the glint in his eye, the accented English, that flirty smile. I knew I was in over my head.
Weeks later, after heavy flirting, I finally agreed to go out with him. The LTR was still hanging on by a thread, and you knew this and liked to tease me about this. ‘What would your boyfriend do if he knew you were out to dinner with me?’ you asked. ‘He’s not my boyfriend.’ I’d reply. “So it’s OK if I kiss you?” as you lean over to do just that. ‘Oh that’s definitely OK’ I replied as I kissed you back. In that moment fall in lust. It’s everything I’d hoped it might be and more, and it was so incredibly different than before.
Two days later, I finally end the LTR, and that weekend we were back together for another hot sultry summer night. We drove down to the river, and open the moon roof of the car. I crawl on top of you and we kiss, and occasionally, I stick my head out of the moon roof for a literal breath of fresh air.
“Come home with me” you implore. “I can’t do that. I have work in the morning” I try to explain, but you interrupt. “No, no, my darling Micaela. Come home with me to Cartago.” “To Costa Rica?” I ask. “Yes, mi amor. To Costa Rica. You will love it there.”
Suddenly I can’t breath. It’s as if all the air is sucked out of me. Despite the 80 degree temperature and near 100% humidity, I am shivering. Even the heady combination of tequila, salt, and sweat can’t shake this chill. Although the full moon is nearly as bright as the sun, everything in my world has gone dark. All I can hear is the sound of my own heartbeat echoing in my ears.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. You were a breath of fresh air. You came around just in time to save me from a catastrophe. You were supposed to be a short term fling. A summer romance. And now. Now you are asking me to go to Costa Rica with you.
In that moment, I hate you. You know my weakness for far-flung places. Places I’ve never been. You know how I hate monotony and routine. You know that I’ll say yes to Costa Rica even if I’m not exactly saying yes to you. You are a beautiful man. So sexy. So sensual. So what I needed in the moment we met. But I cannot go to Costa Rica with you. I. Can. Not. Leave. The. Country. Again.
*** *** ***
Three weeks later I have quit my job and I arrive in Cartago. I call you, and you seemed surprised to hear from me. A little distracted, perhaps, but you agree to come pick me up. I see it in your face: despite your words, you are not happy to see me. “What’s wrong?” I ask, as I reach over to kiss you. You turn your head and my kiss lands on your cheek. “I did not expect that you would come. Micaela, you said you could not come. You have work. You said you had no vacation available. I have many things going on. I have work…”
“But I did. I came to see you. I want to meet your family and I want to see where this goes.”
“But Micaela, where will you stay?”
“With you, of course”, but I knew as soon as the words we coming out of my mouth that it was not to be.
“Let me make a some calls. You stay here. Micaela, mi amor.” The way the said my name was almost a threat.
A relationship ending just as it’s beginning is never quite what one imagines it will be. One imagines it will be painful, and it is, but it isn’t painful all at once. There is the surface cracking… where all the hopes and dreams one may have had disappear shattering the illusion of perfection, and then there’s the deeper cracks. The things that pop up after the initial injury. The ones no one else can see, like the fracture of a bone. It hurts much worse than imaginable.
The next two days are torturous as we spend time together, each knowing that this–all of this– was a mistake. You show me the volcanoes, and around San Jose.
The volcanoes are beautiful, just like the beginning of the relationship, but there’s hardness here too. A stumble, a fall; it could be the end. And I’m acutely aware that I am in a remote place with a man that seemingly has much to hide. I don’t want to be here anymore. Not with him. I don’t want to look into the green-eyed abyss any more. I used to think that I could stare into those eyes for an eternity. Now those green eyes stare back at me with an emotion I can’t quite place. Not hatred. But certainly not the lust from the summer.
After coming back from the volcanoes, I say “I don’t want to be here anymore. Not with you.” Even though my heart is breaking, I refuse to cry. His jaw tenses, and he put his hand on top of mine.
“Micaela.” Just the sound of my name in his accented voice almost causes the dam to break. “Micaela. I did not want to hurt you.”
I pull away from his hands, look into those green eyes, now heavy with regret, turn around and walk into the city. I do not look back.
I imagine, as I am walking away, that you feel sadness. Sadness of what was never meant to be. Sadness for taking a chance. Sadness for keeping secrets. Whatever those might have been.
*** *** ***
I had to the bus station seeking to the first bus to the coast. Caribbean? Pacific? It doesn’t matter. I just want–no need– to be surrounded by salt water. I get seated on the bus, my backpack on my lap, and the tears start to fall. Slowly at first, almost as if they are waiting their turn, and then, much more rapidly.
I opt for the Caribbean side of Costa Rica’s and end up in the sleepy town of Puerto Viejo Limon. It is a hippy, dippy kinda of place where some people come to visit and never leave. It had a small guest house, a bar, beaches as far as the eye can see, and some very interesting neighbors.
The first two days I ate nothing but fresh fish, rice, and a variety of fresh fruit, and drank nothing but passion fruit and vodka. I tried not to think of him. You try not to remember the way his green eyes sparkled in the morning sun. I tried not to remember how those green eyes faded to black when you saw my at the San Jose airport. I tried not to remember how incredibly sexy you were, shirtless your brown sweaty skin glistening in the moonlight, down by the river on those hot summer nights. I tried not to remember that I was also shirtless. I tried not to remember how you took ice cubes and melted them on my skin. I tried not to remember how the coldness of the ice melting and the heat of your breath drove me mad with desire. I tried not to remember how time stopped when our lips met.
But remember I did. All these moments and so many more. No amount of passion fruit and vodka could make me forget. But I wanted to forget. I wanted to forget so badly, and so I looked at the bartender and said ‘Uno mas, por favor.’
*** *** ***
Somewhere around day 5 I notice you staring at me. You are definitely not Costa Rican or even Caribbean. I look at you and you stare back, our eyes locking.
“I’ve been watching you” you tell me. Your English is good. Definitely not North American, but it doesn’t sound quite British either. I tend to notice things like that.
“Oh? Seen anything interesting?” I reply.
“You’ve been drinking entirely too much vodka.”
“Obviously you haven’t been watching me too closely or you’d know I haven’t been drinking enough vodka because I still remember.
“What do you remember?” you ask.
“Everything. Everything I want to forget.”
“Walk with me” you implore.
“I can’t go with you. I know nothing about you. You could be a serial killer for all I know,” I reply.
“I’m not” you say. I notice that I’ve hurt you. The expression on your face is that of a small child who has just has his favorite toy taken away. “Walk with me.”
I get up… Slowly, partly due to the vodka, and partly because I’m just now noticing how attractive you are.
“But I still don’t know anything about you…” I say as we begin our walk along the white sandy beach. “Why are you in Costa Rica?” I ask, then ponder as to why that’s my first question as opposed to something more useful like ‘what is your name?’
To be honest, I don’t even remember your reply… something about Costa Rica and biodiversity and research. I realize I am drunk, and wonder how long the copious quantity of vodka I’ve consumed will stay down. I also wonder if you will kiss me. And if drunk vomiting is the worst turn-off imaginable.
“I need to sit down” I say, probably slurring my works. I notice you steering me towards another beach-side bar. There seems to be one about every 500 meters or so. “No… no more vodka” I muster. I noticed you talking to the bartender and you come back with water. Nice cold water.
“Why are you drinking yourself into oblivion?
“Because I’m trying to forget”
“Forget what?” you ask.
“The reason I’m in Costa Rica. Everything about Costa Rica. Just everything.” I look at him with sadness. There are no more tears. The sea has swallowed them whole, but there is still sadness inside.
At the random beach-side bar, where the not quite English, yet definitely not North American cute ecological researcher gave me water, I notice a dart board. Suddenly I’m feeling better. “Wanna play?” I ask. He’s not so sure about letting a drunk person throw sharp, pointy objects. “Where are you from, anyway? I ask.
“Wales” he replies “It’s near…”. I cut him off and asked “beth yw dy enw?” His jaw dropped to the floor and said ‘You speak Welsh? Where are YOU from? I just smiled and said ‘I asked you a question?
“My name is Matthew. I grew up in Ceredigion.” “I’ve been there” I reply. You look at me, curious. Curious as to whether I am telling the truth or just trying to impress you. “It’s near Pembrokeshire” I reply. I can tell you are impressed. In that moment, I forget about Costa Rica, the reason I came, and everything that has happened in the last 10 days. I look into your eyes, green with a hint of gray, and kiss you. And finally, I forget.
*** *** ***
Two years later on a cold dreary November day, I hear the version of my name that only you used… Micaela.
I turn around and look for you. Two years have aged you a lot. I stare into the familiar green eyes and feel nothing. I always wondered what it would be like if I saw you again, and now I know. There’s no bitterness. No hatred. No feelings of lust. Just you, smiling, searching for something in my expression. He says hello, and I reply in kind. How about a drink, he asks. No thank you, I say for the first time. It was good seeing you. And it was.
I will forever be grateful that he came into my life when he did. Sometimes, even now after all these years, I wonder what he’s doing, and where he is. In my mind, the entire country of Costa Rica will forever be linked to heartbreak, a green-eyed lover, vodka, and the one who made everything OK.
Really? are we that dumb that we don’t know that the Czech Republic, home of Prague, and several centuries worth of positive history is not the same place a Chechnya–an area that was once part of USSR and has pretty much been fighting someone in its entire history? If there is an actual need for a story like this, then it is a sad, sad day for history and geography teachers everywhere.
Prauge’s astronomical clock
My winter visit to the Castle yielded a much better view than in August… when it was 100 degrees and full of people.
Let’s get one things straight right off the bat: Scotland is awesome. The more places I visit in this beautiful country, the more I fall in love with it. I came to Inverness for two reasons: to see the monster and to be in the Scottish Highlands. I was only partially successful. Inverness has about 50,000 people and it is considered the capital of the Highlands.
I searched Loch Ness for the monster [didn’t find her, but the lake is quite pretty]
I heard a plethora of bagpipes. The local college in the town that I grew up in had a mascot that was a ‘Scotsman’, and he played the bagpipes at official college functions. I’m pretty convinced that there is only one song [+ Amazing Grace] that is ever played on the bagpipes.
Made my way to Culloden Battlefield…It was hauntingly beautiful. In the mid 1700’s a very violent and bloody battle occurred between the Scotsmen and the English…Today it is a beautiful, lush windswept moor
I am horrible at genealogy, but as my ancestors are from the Carolinas [and Carolina was settled mainly by Scots, Irish, and English] for as far back as the USA can count its history, I’d wager that some of my distant relatives died on that battlefield. Either as a Mac-something…
or as an Englishman…
The Inverness footbridge allows for viewing of the River Ness from the town…
Let me preface this was that I never intended to get naked. It was a frigid January day in Budapest, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from exploring. Bundled up in all the clothing I had with me, I set out from my hostel in the historic part of Buda. The steam rising out of the drain cover caught my attention first. I paced along the walkway, limbs mechanical yet numb, face frozen, eyes rimmed with weather-induced tears. All the while thinking ” was not made for this kind of weather.”
Everyone was cold. I saw it in the hunched shoulders and stooped spines of the commuters who huddled past, bundled beneath thick fur coats, scarves and fur hats. Which was why the drain surprised me. Whimsical fingers of mist curled through the gaps, growing thinner as they spiraled up towards the sky. The sky which experience told me still loomed overhead, but which I avoided looking at in case I inadvertently exposed another sliver of my neck to Budapest’s biting air.
Clouds of steam teased me from the outside–“Was it because the water was really that warm or because it was really that cold?” I wondered. I knew with absolute certainty that the concrete surface surrounding the thermal baths was freezing cold. I had no idea whether the ‘thermal’ pool I had just paid money to use would be steaming hot or just slightly warmer than the below freezing winter air temperatures. Hoping that the steam was not a false promise, my toes tested the water below. A split second passed before I internally began singing the Hallelujah chorus.
Warmth tickled my toes. And it was a small piece of heaven. I stumbled down the remaining steps sliding deeper and deeper into the warm water. I am sure people stared at me when I let out an audible sigh of relief. Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded at this bathing suit optional bath I had chosen to immerse myself in. Not knowing exactly what to do, I just sat there, naked, in my pool of hot water… watching snowflakes get eaten up by the steamy waters.
Budapest is well know for its thermal baths and Szechenyi didn’t disappoint. It has held the title “City of Spas” since the year 1934, as it has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world. There are 118 springs in Budapest, providing over 70 million liters of thermal water a day. The temperature of the waters is between 21 and 78 Celsius. Budapest’s thermal waters were enjoyed by the Romans as early as the 2nd century, but it was only during the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th century that the bath culture really started flourishing. Today, there are 15 public thermal baths in Budapest, not counting the private thermal spas established in some luxury hotels, such as the Ramada Plaza, Thermal Hotel Margitsziget and the Corinthia Royal, which have their own spas that you can enjoy.
In some of them you can even keep your clothes on.
When I’m at home, I hate all things winter. Being from the southeastern United States, winter [meaning snow, skis, cold] is still a bit of a foreign concept. Just the threat of snowflakes sends everyone scurrying about buying up all the milk and bread in sight. Should the grass actually be covered, expect the entire city to shut down. For days.
An example of a recent snow that shut down the town for 4 days.
So my position statement on winter has always been I like to visit winter; I do not like winter to visit me.
My previous adventures on skis consisted of one adventure when I was 16 to the North Carolina mountains and my recent trek in the French Alps where I discovered that I LOVED cross-country skiing So, bolstered by success in the Alps, I knew skiing would be on the agenda when I ended up in Sarajevo. Why Sarajevo you ask? Sarajevo [as Yugoslavia] hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics than Sarajevo, and if you know me, you know that I love all things related to the Olympics.
Sarajevo is a city surrounded by mountains which makes for some awesome outdoor adventure activities. These mountains have seen a lot in their day–from being a world-class Olympic destination in 1984 to being occupied by Serbia in the 1990’s to being used to attack the city in the Siege of Sarajevo. Sarajevo the city has experienced peaks and valleys just like the mountain that surround it. Sarajevo’s popularity is surging yet again as it is much less expensive and much less crowded than say -France and Switzerland, and it’s mountain are just a good for a variety of winter sports.
Jahorina and Bjelašnica are the two of the most popular ski resorts in the area; both are approximately 30 minutes’ drive from Sarajevo city center. If you are new to skiing, I’d recommend Jahorina Olympic Center. It’s perfect for skiers of all levels, offers ski equipment rental, but not clothing rental, and has cheap ski lessons for 10 euros/hours. A day pass can be had for less than 20 Euros.
The great thing about this resort is there are fewer crowds.This resort is probably Europe’s best kept secret. I am not a downhill skier. And I know my limitations, so lucky for people like me there are other options such as hiking and snowshoeing and just riding the ski lift. On this trip I opted to try snowshoeing, and man, is that a workout. My heart was pumping; my lungs were screaming, and my legs were crying by the end of the trail.
But to see these views, to do something new, and to experience these mountains…
It was completely worth the time and effort and expense it took to visit the mountains surrounding this city on the rise.
Ah yes, the church of bones. I’d heard about it before and even visited other crypts and ossuaries, but I knew that I’d have to visit Kunta Hora if given half a chance.
Less than a day away from Prague, lies the hauntingly beautiful chapel of Kunta Hora–a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones. The Sedlec Ossuary is a chapel in a suburb near Kutna Hora about an hour’s train ride from Prague. Several travel companies offer packages from Prague but it’s none to difficult to go about it on your own giving you the benefit of doing what you want when you want.
Traveling in winter in the Czech Republic often leads to nearly empty streets and tourist free site, especially when you get away from the larger cities and more popular destinations such as Prague, and it being January, Kunta Hora was practically deserted.
Entrance to the Sedlec Ossuary is about $5 and in my opinion, totally worth it. It’s estimated that the remains of 40,000 people were used to adorn the walls of the chapel. The story goes that during the Black Plague of Europe, they essentially ran out of places to bury people. So they dug up the already dearly departed, and used their space to put the new, plague-infested corpses in. The solution as to what to do with all the much older dead was to use the bones (skin was already long gone) for ‘decoration’. To think that you were walking among real human skeletons was bone-chilling.
Being the #sciencenerd that I am, I tried to identify which bones were the most used. Clearly skulls make the biggest impression, but I found an impressive number of long bones such as the tibia, fibula, femur, and humerus. These long bones were used to make the ‘X’s and
After my self-guided tour of the chapel (you get a printed guide in the language of your choice as long as it’s English, Czech, German, Russian, and a couple other languages I didn’t recognize), I explore the town, the outdoor cemetery, and the impressive St. Barbara’s Church. If you know anything about me, you know that I love exploring a new (to me) city’s cemeteries, reading tombstones, and imagining their past lives.
Reading tombstones is much more difficult when they are snow-covered, but still hauntingly beautiful.
The next spot that piqued my interest was the massive gothic style St Barbara’s Cathedral. Started in the 1300’s and completed in the 1800’s, the cathedral consists of several architectural styles, but gives off mostly gothic vibes.
St Barbara’s Cathedral
It’s not a gothic cathedral without stunning stained glass adorning the windows.
The town of Kunta Hora with St Barbara’s dominating the landscape
It’s always a bit eerie walking around a deserted town in the snow and frosty temperatures, and it being January, most things were closed so you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the amazing (and not because it was one of the very few options open) Pizzeria Piazza Navona Restaurant. A delicious Italian-like pizza in the heart of Bohemia was pure heaven.
I *may* have eaten the entire pie. Or not. I’m not telling
Kutna Hora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both St. Barbara’s Church and the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec. If you have a day to spare when visiting Prague, I recommend getting out of the city and exploring the odd and unique Sedlac Ossuary and with it the rest of the town, Kunta Hora.