Exploring the Czech Republic by campervan: beer, gothic buildings and a bone church!

We left Gorlitz in Germany and headed south for the Czech Replublic…

St Barbara’s Cathedral, Kutna Hora

One of the things we love about van life is how you can temporarily move to a place based purely on your mood at the time…if we feel like finding some peace and quiet we can drive out to a woodland or park up on the edge of a field, if we want to have an adventure we can seek out mountains, and jaw-dropping scenery or if we want to experience new cultures and meet new people we can head into the city. Living in this flexible nomadic way feels very natural to us now.

We’d been parked on the edge of a forest surrounding Lake Berzdorf near Gorlitz, a beautifully tranquil spot where we had our own private space with woodpeckers and sheep for neighbours. Nestled deep in the woods is a huge observation deck reaching up into the sky. We made the climb to the top one morning and marvelled in the vast views all around, looking across at the Jizera and Zittau mountain ranges stretching across Poland and the Czech Republic. We felt enticed to travel further and make our way to a new country.    

Travelling on a budget we decided to avoid the toll roads for the majority of our trip, for a lot of places you can find alternative routes of a similar distance but on slower roads, which isn’t normally a problem for us as we like to drive slowly anyway! We did however find some of the alternative roads around mountain ranges were tough going in the van…lots of steep climbs/descents along winding narrow roads put quite a strain on our brakes no matter how carefully we drove. In hindsight we would say making use of the toll roads is probably worth the extra cost for the easy stress-free driving it allows you.

We decided to head straight towards Prague but weren’t quite ready to tackle the bustle of the city so stopped for a night in a small town out in the suburbs called Melnik. This was one of those ‘happy accident’ places that we just picked on the map purely for its convenient location along our route, but then turned out to be one of our favourite stops on the whole trip.

We parked right on the river bank, just along from the confluence of the Elbe and Vltava rivers.

We arrived around sunset and immediately set out to walk up to Melnik castle’s viewpoint which towered above our parking spot.  The honey golden sunlight glistening over the two rivers, stretching out for miles into the distance was a magical sight.

After a peaceful evening on the water’s edge we got up and set off early for the city, arriving in Prague just before lunch time.

It was tricky finding a parking spot anywhere close to the city, it is heavily built up and brimming with tourists, but we managed to find a spot along the river out of the town. It was surprisingly tranquil and on our arrival we were met by another van dweller from France called Robin who gave us a very friendly welcome and we enjoyed indulging in the common greeting ritual for many ‘van lifers’ of exchanging van tours!

Arriving back here later that day we found it probably wasn’t the best place to park the vans. Getting back late in the dark we realised just how secluded it was and noticed a few abandoned/ smashed up vehicles just down the road…something to consider when parking in cities!

We rode our bikes along the river into the city, another enjoyable ride along a dedicated path separate to the road with some wonderful sights of the city’s ornate medieval bridges.

As we approached the city centre we suddenly found ourselves unable to ride on the path as almost every inch of space was occupied by tourists. We understand how it might seem hypocritical complaining about tourists when we get so much pleasure from visiting foreign countries ourselves, but our issue is more to do with the way tourism changes the local culture. In order to capitalise on tourism and make it a beneficial industry to the economy it seems that locals are often forced to sell the most stereotypical, archetypal experiences from their country which can feel unauthentic and fake, as the history, culture and identity of the place gets commodified.

Often when we visited historic/cultural sites and art installations we were disheartened to see other groups of tourists go along for about ten minutes in which they’d each pose a few times to get the perfect selfie, then promptly move on to the next photo opportunity…to us it feels there’s something a bit soulless about this.

This was our overall impression of Prague…though the stunning historical buildings and architecture took our breath away we were too distracted by the endless rows of fast food stands and souvenir shops to really enjoy being there. This being said we were visiting in the height of peak season…we’d been before in January 2017 and had much better experience, the Christmas markets were still in full swing but as it was getting towards the end of the season the city was much quieter.

Determined to find something authentic we made our way into the suburbs and walked around the Zizkov neighbourhood, home to Bořivojova street, famous for its bohemian bars.

At first we found it wasn’t quite the lively bohemian centre we were hoping for…apart from a local food market the streets were quiet. The weather took a turn for the worse so we were forced to take shelter from the rain in a nearby craft beer bar. After a little liquid motivation we were spurred on to find more of what the area had to offer and headed to the local punk hangout, Bohužel Bar. It can’t get any more authentic than this place…a thick layer of old gig posters and anti facist group stickers plaster the walls, metal and hardcore music fills the room..we quickly felt at home!

The next day we decided to move on from Prague, there is probably loads more to see and do in the city but on our limited budget and timescale we felt content that we’d experienced everything it had to offer us on this trip. We continued East to the medieval town of Kutna Hora.

When looking up places to visit near Prague our interest was sparked by the Sedlec Ossuary or ‘Bone Church’ as it’s known, a small Roman Catholic Chapel in the suburb of Kutna Hora.  

The chapel is elaborately furnished with somewhere between 40-70,000 skeletons, hanging in an array of macabre displays to form chandeliers, chalices, candle holders and even a coat of arms.

As you enter and descend the steps into the lower chapel which lies beneath the Cemetary Church of All Saints, the atmosphere is cold and damp. Chains of linking bones drape from wall to wall almost like decorative bunting. It’s hard to comprehend the vast number of skulls, rib cages, femurs, tibias and other body parts housed within the chapel.

We each felt a need to find out who they belonged to and why they’d ended up as part of this morbid display but struggled to find much information…the site became a desirable burial place in the 13th century after Henry abbot of the Sedlec monastery sprinkled a handful of earth he’d brought back from a visit to the Holy Land over the abbey cemetery. Since then war and disease resulted in many thousands being buried here, eventually leading to the construction of the lower chapel which was to be used as an ossuary. In 1870 a wood carver was employed to put the bones in order which resulted in the decorative display seen today.

Aside from this very unusual and memorable site, Kutna Hora is also home to the UNESCO world heritage site of St Barbara’s cathedral, a stunning example of Gothic architecture.

We had an amazing few days of history and culture in the Czech Republic and found it to be a perfect place to explore in our vans.

The parking spots were on the whole peaceful and easy to access, the roads were well maintained and we were able to find motorhome services areas for water and waste emptying.

Next up on our itinerary was Austria, going in search of warmer temperatures, lake swimming and nature hikes….

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