Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sedlec Ossuary - Bohemian Bone Chapel

The Sedlec Ossuary is a small chapel located beneath the cemetery church of All Saints in the town of Sedlec, a suburb of the Bohemian town of Kutná Hora, Czech Republic. The ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of approximately 40,000 people; many of the skulls and bones were artistically arranged in the late 19th century to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.

The cemetery of a 12th century Cistercian Monastery was for centuries a popular burial ground for people from all over Eastern Europe, because a thirteenth century abbot who returned from the Holy Lands sprinkled some earth he had gathered at Golgotha over the cemetery grounds. When the church had to be enlarged, a lower chapel was constructed to hold the skeletal remains of the thousands of bodies unearthed in mass graves on the property; many of these skeletons dated from the time of the plagues of the 14th century (approximately 30,000 victims were buried here) and the Hussite Wars of the early15th century. In 1420 Kutná Hora fell to Jan Zizka, leader of the Taborites, a sect of Hussite extremists.

The upper chapel was rebuilt in the early 18th century in Baroque style, but it was not until 1870, when Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that František Rint, a woodcarver, was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to put the stacks of human bones into some sort of order. The macabre result of his efforts speaks for itself. Four enormous bell-shaped mounds of bones occupy the corners of the chapel. A gigantic chandelier, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the nave with garlands of skulls draping the vault. Other works include piers and monstrances flanking the altar, a large coat-of-arms of the noble German Schwarzenberg family, fashioned entirely from bones, and the signature of Rint, also executed in bone, on the wall near the entrance.

Kutná Hora, a town made fabulously wealthy from silver mining in medieval times, is about 45 miles southeast of Prague. In Kutná Hora, the flamboyant gothic church of St. Barbara is not to be missed. Sedlec is about two miles from the center of town; the ossuary is open daily except December 24 and 25. A small admission fee is charged.

In a close-up of the Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms, a "bird" plucks an eye from the head of a Turk; one of the Schwarzenberg counts conquered the Turkish occupied fortress of Raab (present day Győr, Hungary) in Renaissance times. This family made its home for several months of the year in Český Krumlov, in southwest Bohemia. Český Krumlov has become the second most visited Czech city after Prague.

Kutná Hora and the neighboring town of Sedlec are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Among the most important Kutná Hora buildings are the flamboyant Gothic St. Barbara's Church (photo below), begun in 1388, and the Italian Court, formerly a royal residence and mint, which was built at the end of the 13th century. Sedlec is the site of the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady and the famous Ossuary.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Embassy of Texas in London

No. 4 St. James Street
City of Westminster

In London, the original building that housed the embassy of the Republic of Texas still stands. Opposite the gates to St. James’s Palace, the Texas Legation’s Embassy of the Republic of Texas was located in an alley next to legendary wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd (at no. 3), which was also the creator and manufacturer of Cutty Sark Scotch. Just a happy coincidence, perhaps? Berry Bros. & Rudd were landlords to the Texas Legation in the 1840s, a fact not forgotten by modern day Texans. About 25 years ago, during the Texas sesquicentennial, 26 Texans dressed in buckskin showed up at the wine shop to settle the Republic’s outstanding debt of $160, repaid on the spot in Republic of Texas bills.

During its time as a Republic, Texas maintained three Legations (a diplomatic entity similar to an embassy): in Paris, Washington DC and London. In London a plaque marks the location at No. 4 St. James Street, which was the diplomatic address of Dr. Ashbel Smith, appointed ambassador to London by Sam Houston. Smith was a medical doctor who served as the Texas Republic’s last Secretary of State. At the time No. 4 St. James Street was operating as a whorehouse and notorious gambling den, so Berry Bros. & Rudd suddenly found themselves with a more prestigious tenant.

The location was certainly convenient, since ambassadors were then presented to the Court of St. James across the street at St. James Palace. When the plaque was installed in the alleyway in 1963 by the Anglo-Texan Society, former Texas governor Price Daniel and Tony Berry (a Berry Bros. & Rudd descendant), were in attendance. Novelist Graham Geene was also member of the Anglo-Texan Society, which was founded in the 1950s.

Through a narrow arched opening next to the wine shop, one enters the dark alley lined with black painted wood paneling and half timbering. Halfway down the alley on the right, under a sconce, is the door to the rooms once used by the Texas Legation.

The plaque, mounted at the St. James Street entrance to the passageway, reads:

“Texas Legation. In this building was the legation for the ministers from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St James 1842-1845. Erected by the Anglo-Texan Society.”

Ambassadors to Britain are still officially ambassadors to the Court of St. James’s, which includes the monarch and a group of diplomats.

At the far end of the alley lies Pickering Place, a paved square with a sundial in the center, London’s smallest public square and once a notorious venue for duels and bear-baiting*. Pickering Place, shown in the painting below, has two distinctions: being the last place in London where a duel was fought and the place where Napoleon III plotted his return to France (he was in exile in England between 1838 and 1848, during the time the Texas Legation was in residence, 1842-1845).

Texas did not become a state and join the union until 1845. A restaurant near Trafalgar Square called “Texas Embassy” pays homage to this bit of history. Interestingly, its location at 1 Cockspur Street was the former office of the White Star Line, owners of the ill-fated RMS Titanic.

*Bear-bating was a spectator blood sport in which a bear was chained to a post and set upon by dogs. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were avid fans.

No. 1, Place Vendôme (Paris), built in 1723 for Pierre Perrin, secretary to King Louis XIV, became the Embassy of the Republic of Texas in 1842. France was the first nation to recognize the independence of Texas from Mexico before it achieved statehood in 1845. However, the French ambassador to (Austin) Texas complained that he was nearly killed by an arrow during a Comanche Indian raid which whizzed by his head as he left his Texas residence one afternoon. In 1858, no. 1, Place Vendôme became a tourist hotel, which was recently purchased and renovated as the Hôtel de Vendôme. The engraved stone marker, still visible today, reads:



Friday, October 9, 2009

Sweden's Ice Hotel - 20 Years of Cool

Looking for a cool, hip place to stay? Do you mean “cool” literally? Do you fancy paying over $300 a night for a windowless hotel room with no doors, bed sheets or indoor plumbing? Glad you asked.

This winter marks the 20th anniversary of Sweden’s Ice Hotel. Every year since 1990, from December through April, the Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi (pop. 519; 140 miles north of the Arctic Circle), has hosted tourists in an ephemeral hotel made entirely of sculpted blocks of ice.

The welcome mat is out at the Ice Hotel. Note the deer skin entry doors and antler door handles.

The floors are covered with snow, and ice sculptures grace the public areas. The hotel features a bar, chapel (weddings are popular), main hall, reception area and rooms for over 100 guests, who sit and sleep on blocks of sculpted ice fashioned into chairs and beds.

Animal skins are placed atop the beds, although guests sleep in protective thermal sleeping bags.

The ice used in construction is harvested from the adjacent Torne River, a prominent river in Lapland. This same ice is used for the hotel's decorative elements, such as ice sculptures, tables, chairs and fixtures.

Each suite is of a unique design, and the architecture of the hotel is changed each year, as it is rebuilt from scratch. Artists submit design ideas, and a jury selects about forty of them to create the chapel, Absolut Icebar, reception desk, fiber-optic chandeliers, sculptures, main hall and guest suites. At the Absolut Vodka sponsored Icebar, even the glasses are crafted from ice molds.

Overnight guests use bathrooms housed in an adjacent heated structure, where breakfast is served. The cost of such unique habitation is not cheap – rooms start at US $335 and top out at US $975 (per night, single or double occupancy). When planning a visit, bear in mind that the sun does not rise from early December through mid January, although there are a few hours of twilight during those weeks. Choose from 85 rooms scattered throughout the 43,000 square foot facility. Non guests may visit the hotel at a cost of 295 Swedish Kronor (US $41.50 per person).


The interior of the hotel is at a constant temperature of approximately 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 Celsius), so multiple night bookings are challenging. Travel costs are also considerable, given that reaching the remote site is an inconvenient, arduous and expensive undertaking. The Ice Hotel is nearly 600 miles north of Stockholm.

In spring the whole thing simply melts back into the landscape, to be rebuilt the following December. This year's chapel, with deer skin covered pews, and lobby lounge area are captured in the photos below.

Ice Hotels have since been constructed in other locations, as well: USA (Alaska), Canada (Québec), Norway, Finland, Greenland and Romania (accessible only by cable car). Your dear blogger stayed in an Ice Hotel in Québec, Canada, some years ago, although I have made valiant efforts to erase the entire experience from my memory banks. It was an unpleasant, costly nightmare, and I lasted nearly seven hours before fleeing to the Chateau Frontenac, where I enjoyed the comforts of indoor heating and plumbing.