The Bone Church of Kutna Hora

We’ve been to hundreds of cathedrals, basilicas, churches, and unique wooden folk churches throughout Europe’s wilderness. Our trips have taken us to some of Europe and Israel’s most stunning Christian sites. So, we were eager to visit the unique “The Bone Church” in Kutna Hora, a small town in the Czech Republic. You know you are in for an adventure when you encounter a church with a skull and crossbones on its steeple.

Known as The Ossuary in Sedlec, the Bone church is located in the lower level of the Church of All Saints, built in the late 1300s. The lower level of the church is “adorned” with the bones of 40,000 persons. A woodcarver, Frantisek Rinto, was the artist who fashioned these exceptional decorations in the 19th century into a chandelier, candelabra, coat of arms, etc.

The church’s exterior and surrounding graveyard are not overly impressive and remind you of many Gothic-style European churches. The fresh graves reminds the visitor that this is an active Roman Catholic church.

The Ossuary’s history and interior make the site one of the most visited destinations in the Czech Republic. It is a favorite day trip by train for visitors from Prague.

A Cistercian monastery was founded in Sedlec in 1142 in the present-day outskirts of Kutna Hora. During the 12th century, silver deposits were discovered by a monk, and the monastery became the economic and cultural center of the area. Kutna Hora was one of the wealthiest towns in the land, second only to Prague in importance.

In 1278, the Abbot of Sedlec Monastery, Heidenreich, is said to have brought soil back from the area of Golgotha in Jerusalem and spread it over the cemetery. Thousands of people from all over Europe requested their burial in this cemetery as it was special “Holy Ground.” Likely, the superstitious people of that time thought they were closer to Heaven if this cemetery was their final resting place.

The monastery chronicles state that 30,000 bodies were buried in the cemetery during the great plague in 1318. The Sedlec Monastery was burned down during the Hussite Wars in 1421. The rich monastery was capable of funding both the rebuilding of the Church of All Saints and the nearby Convent Church of the Virgin Mary.

The bones of perhaps 70,000 bodies began to pile up and were at first placed around the church grounds. They were later housed in the lower level of the Church of All Saints. The chapel was on the second floor. In 1511, a half-blind monk piled the bones into pyramids. In 1661, the bones were rearranged, and the collapsed vaulting was replaced by a new structure.

In the 18th century, Jan Santini Aichl reconstructed the lower chapel and modified the interior, including designs for decorations made of bones and other accessories, into a style called “Baroque Gothic.” This appears to be the first time the bones were used as decorations.

Josef II abolished the Sedlec Monastery in 1784, and the Schwarzenberg family purchased it. They had the Ossuary reconstructed in the present form. Woodcarver Frantisek Rint was the artist who fashioned the bones into the artwork we see today. He and two family members disinfected and bleached all the bones with chlorinated lime.

The ingeniously creative artwork overwhelms the senses with a macabre atmosphere as you enter the dark, chilly ossuary. The chandelier, containing at least one of every human bone found in the human body, is the focal point in the Ossuary. Candelabra shaped like a little Gothic Tower, a bone chalice and monstrance, bone garlands, and other random bone masterpieces grace the interior walls. Four large pyramids of bones are loosely arranged in wooden structures without any fixed binding.

Another impressive artwork is the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family, which is also made of human bones. Commissioned by his patrons, Rint artistically reinterpreted the original family coat of arms out of bones. The first thing people usually notice is the raven pecking out the eye of a skull. This macabre scene relates to the Turkish War, commemorating the conquest of the Turkish-held fortress of Győr in 1598. This fortress was also known as Raab, “raven” in German. If you look closely, you will notice that the skull has a “ponytail” that imitates the typical Turkish hairstyle of that period.

Closeup of raven pecking out the eye from a skull

Another part of the coat of arms is the rounded crown, representing the prince title given to the Schwarzenbergs in 1670. Rint included the intricate bottom band of the crown made of sacral bones, two rounded designs of pelvic bones with skulls in the centers to make the shape of the crown and a cross made of long bones at the top. The crown is outlined with ball joint femur bones and completed at the bottom with a fringe made of rib bones.

Hiding in the top center portion, a crowned lion rampart stands on two paws, three flying alerions, and an upright standing sword. The Prince of Schwarzenberg was granted the right to represent these three-part arms of the Habsburg family their coat of arms by Austrian Emperor Franz II.

Several pyramids of bones are contained within wooden walls

One of the most familiar pieces of art for any church is the crucifix in the photo below.

Christians can meditate on the symbolism of the Ossuary and its decorations. Their purpose is not to celebrate or worship death but to spread the Christian idea of the equality of all people before God.

The phrase “Memento Mori” represents the church’s people and past. “Remember that you will die.” In other words, the bones warn us, “What we are, you will become, and what you are, we once were.”

How to visit Kutna Hora

Regional train taking visitors to Sedlec or the town of Kutna Hora from the main train station

The towns of Sedlec and Kutna Hora are an hour’s train ride from Prague’s main station (Praha hl.n). Purchase a ticket to Sedlec, not Kutna Hora. This will allow you to disembark the train in Kutna Hora hl.n and transfer over to the small regional train that services Sedlec and the town of Kutna Hora. Get off at Sedlec and follow the easy signs to town. Go to the information center on the left side of the street and purchase the tickets for the Ossuary. They don’t sell them at the church.

We went to a local restaurant afterward and had a nice lunch. We tried to purchase a return ticket at the Sedlec office but couldn’t find a machine there. We just walked 15 minutes to the Kutna Hora station since we had the time.

You have two choices for the trains to and from Kutna Hora hl.n. Direct trains are every other hour in both directions. There are trains in between that require passengers to transfer at the station in Kolin, which adds time and inconvenience. The train system has an easy-to-understand website and app:

In Kutna Hora

Saint Barbara’s Cathedral

You don’t often find a cathedral built at the edge of the forest wilderness., This magnificent UNESCO-listed church is dedicated to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Its unique design with a three-tent roof and intricate flying buttresses make it the town’s most significant monument. The construction took over 500 years, beginning in 1388. The building was interrupted several times due to the Hussite wars or lack of financial resources. Just like the church exterior, its interior is stunning and quite complex.

Lots of the interior imagery depict scenes from Kutná Hora’s mining life. The statue of a silver miner is unique, and the casual observer may think he has his apron on backward. In fact, the miners had to slide down shafts on their behinds, so the thick leather apron made the descent less painful.

Kutna Hora has a silver mining museum and a beautiful fountain. Potable water was needed because of the toxic impact of silver mining on the local supply and was transported through wooden pipes. The twelve-sided fountain is unusually large and originally had a hexagonal roof.

Other wonderful sites in Sedlec include the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. John the Baptist in Sedlec.

Krakow’s Christmas Tradition: the Szopka

One of Krakow’s favorite holiday traditions dating back to the Middle Ages is the creation of szopki or Christmas cribs. These unique lightweight structures resemble the historic castles, houses, or churches around Krakow in miniature. Other scenes inside a szopka depict historical and contemporary events and contain figurines illustrating elements of Polish culture, such as politicians, artists, the Pope or the Dragon of Wawel. The main materials to build the structure are wood or plywood. Smaller parts are made of cardboard and then are decorated with colorful tinfoil.


The 2018 winners of Krakow’s Szopka or Christmas Crib Competition were announced on December 9, 2018, after the noontime trumpet call from the towers of St. Mary’s:

Kryspin Wolny is the winner in the category of large cribs

Renata and Edward Markowscy in the category of a medium nativity

Wiesław Barczewski in the category of small cribs

Jan Kirsz is the creator of the most beautiful miniature crib.

(I will include photos of the winners when they are available.)

Every year on the first Thursday in December, the szopka creators place their splendid entrees on the steps of the monument to Adam Mickiewicz located in Krakow’s medieval town square. There, with the 800-year-old Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s in the background, thousands of visitors to the Christmas Market view the newest szopki. Following tradition, the artworks are again presented in a parade before announcing the winner. The szopki are then displayed in the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków.

szopki na krakowskim rynku

Started in the 14th century, the szopka represented the birth of the Baby Jesus, with the calls of the angels, the homage of the shepherds, and the three gifts brought by the Magi. A gallery of other characters representing various regions or countries, occupations, and ethnic groups were often included to honor the holy infant.


Szopki for sale in 1934 in Krakow

The modern tradition began in 1937 but came to a stop during the German occupation. The event resumed in 1945 on the steps of the destroyed Adam Mickiewicz statue.

The origins of the szopka were likely from mystery plays performed at Christmas in the early 1200s when the Church organized processions. Other historians related the earliest szopki to the portable medieval altars and the evolution of its theatrical function when they appeared in the form of a mobile puppet show in the late 1600s.


In the past, the Christmas cribs were mostly the works of Krakow craftsmen (bricklayers and construction workers) during their idle weeks of the rain late autumn. In recent year, it is a passion of many Poles from all walks of life. Several families construct new creches every year.

szopki na krakowskim rynku

This year’s competition is even more special. UNESCO placed the Krakow tradition of building szopka nativity scenes on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO recognized the szopka’s important educational functions, as it passes on knowledge about the history of the city, its architecture, and customs.

Some szopki are quite unique and don’t follow the traditional format. This one resembles the bread sold on Krakow’s streets.


Szopki can be purchased at the museum shop and in local stories throughout Krakow. We purchased this small szopka in a Warsaw gift shop selling items made in Poland. It sits in a place of honor on a table passed down from my Polish grandparents.

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Krakow Szopki from past years:

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My Grandparents’ $5.00 Gift


My Polish immigrant grandparents who immigrated around 1906 sent $5 twice a year to thirteen sets of families they left behind in Poland. The Polish cousins who told me this story didn’t mention the years but emphasized how this gift helped them get through some very desperate times. The entire family in this small Polish village was severely impacted by the two world wars, the worldwide depression, and then the decades behind the Iron Curtain. A few of their oldest siblings also immigrated, but the immigration act of 1924 made coming to America almost impossible for most Central and Eastern Europeans. The law discriminated in favor of those immigrants who came from Northern and Western Europe. The younger siblings were forced to stay behind in the villages and work as poor farmers.

My great-grandmother Jadwiga, a widow in Poland, born in 1865.


My Polish cousins whom I met on two trips in 2016 and 2018 remember the stories of my grandparents’ generosity to this day−a hundred years later! Like the scarf my grandfather sent to my cousin, the stories were handed down through the generations.

Scarf my grandparents sent to my cousin Maria

My cousins were shocked when I told them my grandparents, in my opinion, were rather poor.  They assumed my grandparents had become rich Americans. They owned their own house, but my grandfather, according to the 1940 census was a floor sweeper at a local steel mill. He became a crane operator in later years.

A family history book I wrote about my grandparents’ family history

My cousins’ perceptions made me wonder how much this $10 a year gift was worth in today’s dollars, so I did some research.

$10 a year in today’s dollars* Total to 13 families
1910 $258 $3,354.00
1920 $122.56 $1593.28
1930 $146.78 $1898.00
1940 $175.08 $2276.04
1950 $101.70 $1322.10

*From US CPI index

Those are pretty hefty sums of money, but then consider how much more they would have been worth in a depressed economy such as Poland’s during these decades. In addition, my grandparents sent medicines and clothing. I remember my First Communion dress being sent. It probably was sold on the black market for more necessary items.

Zofia, an elderly cousin who was about twenty during WWII, told me a poignant story that brought tears to my eyes. After the war, the villagers who had to evacuate their homes in 1942 were allowed back in the village. Zofia had only one tattered and worn dress, but my grandparents sent her some printed fabric. This is what she said: “Because of your grandparents’ gift, I made some nice printed dresses for myself, and I was the prettiest girl in the village. A nice man asked me to marry him, and it was all because of your grandparent’s gift of that fabric!”

My visit with Zofia in 2016

I remember her telling me that story with the same seriousness as she would have related any other war story. The end result of this gift was a good marriage, and that was a fact!

Those of us with such generous immigrant ancestors should be so proud!

I’m back from a fabulous research trip to Poland!

A walk in Poland’s forests with my family

I have just returned from an amazing research trip to Poland and will be writing many articles related to WWII history and travel in Poland and England in the months to come. These will usually be posted as a blog on this website and in the permanent article section.

I will also be completing my historical novel “War in the Wilderness” (working title) this year. The novel is set during WWII in the villages near Blizna and Niwiska in Poland. It tells the story of the villagers’ experiences living amidst the largest SS training camp outside of Germany, working as forced laborers for the Nazis, real villagers’ experiences in German concentration camps such as Magdeburg and Ravensbruck, and also the impact on the locals when Hitler brought his top research V1 and V2 missile program to Blizna in 1943 after the bombing in Peenemunde. So many fascinating people in Poland, Sweden, and the USA have been providing me information.

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This story is unique as it is the first time much of this information has been made available to English speaking people. Many of the Polish villagers’ stories have NEVER been revealed because of the brutality of the Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1990. Most feared for their lives if their partisan involvement was discovered. One of my husband’s relatives was executed by the Russians in 1948 because of his AK activity during the war, and his body was recently just discovered in a mass grave. Poland was a harsh place to live for many decades, and WWII didn’t end for them in 1945. The war more correctly ended in 1989 when Poland became a free republic.

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Milk Bars: A Taste of History in Poland

In Poland, tourists won’t find milk bars in a “Top Ten Places to Go” list.  Malbork Castle, the Salt Mines, Zakopane, and the Old Town in Krakow are all there, but milk bars (“bar mleczny” in Polish) should be near the top if you are seeking a unique experience not found anywhere else. Some refer to milk bars as “ Poland’s version of cheap fast food,” but it is more accurate to view them as “good traditional food served fast.”

Milk bars are very inexpensive restaurants found mostly in Poland’s larger cities and offer traditional polish cooking, just like your grandmother used to serve. The only difference is that the women servers in their flowered aprons won’t remind you of your sweet, solicitous grandma. These women are cooks, not chefs, are efficient and hard-working, but have a reputation for being impatient with those who don’t know how these cafeteria-like eateries work.  Seinfeld’s hilarious episodes about the man referred to as “the Soup Nazi” in New York might be the closest comparison.*

 History of Milk Bars

Milk bars have nothing in common with lounges and bars as you won’t find alcohol. The milk part of the name harkens back to their origins in urban dairies in the late 1800’s when the abundant supply of milk made it possible to help feed those on a very limited income. Early milk bar meals consisted of milk, egg, and flour-based foods and no meat

 After WWII, when Poland was satellite country within the Soviet Union, milk bars became state-subsidized. Workers were quite poor but could find an inexpensive, hot meal at these eateries. There were more than 40,000 in their heyday, but the numbers shrank to about 140 by 2016.

Milk bars began closing after Poland gained total independence in the 1990’s and embraced capitalism. During these transition years, milk bars represented a holdover from the decades of communism and patronage fell into decline.  Today, the younger Polish people aren’t burdened with memories of socialism, making milk bars popular with university students. The average Pole and lucky tourist will not find a better deal for dining. 

 Finding a Milk Bar

My favorite way to find the best milk bars and other inside information is to ask Trip Advisor Forum experts. These very knowledgeable and generous people will provide information for planning your trip or at the last minute “on the ground” (where is a recommended milk bar in Krakow, Rzeszow, Warsaw, Gdansk, etc.? Where can I find a store in Krakow that sells Polish pottery? etc.).

You will find milk bars in the large cities in Poland but not in the smaller towns. If you haven’t received recommendations, Google map your city and then search with the term “bar mleczny” (milk bar). Cities such as Krakow and Warsaw have quite a few so check out the reviews.

You will discover there are two types of milk bars: government subsidized and not subsidized. Neither is necessarily better than the other, but the ones who rely on government subsidies have their prices with odd numbers in the ones or cents place. These eateries, likely the less expensive of the two choices, change their prices based on the current costs. The menu and prices on a chalkboard, whiteboard or similar board is a clue.

The non-subsidized tend to keep their prices more stable, are slightly more expensive, and their prices are often listed in rounded up numbers: 9.50, 3.20, etc.

A new trend is what some refer to as “hipster milk bars.” Entrepreneurs often purchase milk bars that are going out of business and remodel them to make them more appealing. They often receive very good reviews with mention of friendly servers, nice atmosphere, table service, and the most important attribute: English speaking workers. The food tends to be a bit pricier, and you will find a menu with an international flare: Irish breakfast, crepes, lattes, paninis, etc. These restaurants are highly regarded by many locals and maybe a great place to start your milk bar adventure.


 Depending on the milk bar’s popularity and the time of day, you can expect a relatively long line at lunchtime. The large menu on the wall will list the items in Polish and the price per serving. The interior will be low frills, usually metal-framed tables and chairs for 2 or 4 people, and minimal décor.

Milk Bars in Warsaw and in Krakow

 The typical patrons are university students and professors, local workers, and pensioners. They order, eat, and leave since the ambiance doesn’t lend itself to leisurely dining. The expectation is to eat and move on.


Each milk bar is unique, but all the menu items are familiar to Poles and may not be in English.  Milk bars that cater to tourists have the foods listed in Polish and English. There is nothing wrong with that if it encourages visitors to order. Some milk bars offer an English translation on paper without prices.


 One of the best features of milk bars is that they serve fresh foods without artificial preservatives. Some favorite and traditional foods at a milk bar are:

 Pierogi filled with meat, sauerkraut, mushrooms or potatoes and cheese.

Soups: Zurek (my favorite), barszcz, chicken noodle, mushroom, or tomato

 Meat Dishes: breaded pork cutlet, fried chicken legs and thighs, beef roulades, golabki (stuffed cabbage), and Bigos.

 Sides: potatoes, sauerkraut, small salads such as coleslaw, cucumber salad, or mixed vegetables, potato pancakes, and bread

 Beverages: coffee, tea, Kefit, or kompot (homemade fruit juices made with fruit, sugar, and raisins)

 Desserts: Apple cakes, cheesecake, paczki, etc.

 How to order:

Since milk bars are mostly cafeteria style, patrons will see the menu displayed above the serving or ordering area. Stand back and study it before you approach one of the servers. 

The goal in ordering is to be quick and efficient. If you are a person with very limited Polish skills, study the menu and do a bit of translation. You might want to write down the food you desire before approaching the line and can ask other patrons for help. The younger people in Poland tend to have very good English skills. Many Poles in larger cities do speak some English, but the middle-aged and older populations were forced to learn Russian in school and often are not able to help.

Even if it is not reciprocated, smile while you order and start with “please” which is prosze (pronounced “proh-sheh”). Then say how many you want. You can also show the server with fingers, but it is preferable to learn the Polish number words:

  • one (jeden, pronounced “yeh-den”)
  • two (dwa, pronounced “dvah”)
  • three (trzy, pronounced “chrih”)

Many milk bars now offer carryout for a small fee. The cashier may ask you “na miejscu? (pronounced nah myay stsu) which means “For Here?” If you are finished ordering, say either “Tak” for yes or “Nie” (neeyeh) for no and continue to order.

Some milk bars are just a cafeteria line with most of the food in steam trays, but most have windows for picking up the order. You will receive a receipt to hand to the worker at the window. Soups and drinks are served immediately, but there is some wait for the popular dishes like pierogi. You can take the ready items to a table and begin to eat while waiting for the rest of your food. Listen for your order to be announced and be sure to bring your receipt. Confirm that the order is yours.

 The patrons are expected to dispose of their trash and return the dishes in the appropriate area.

Now that you have the basic strategies, you are equipped to partake in a bit of history not on most tourist’s radar. Enjoy your dining as a cultural adventurer! 


* If you want to see the Seinfeld episode, search for Seinfeld and Soup.


The Fascinating History of Polish Honey

Honey produced in Poland has always been esteemed as a type of liquid gold. Historically, many bee colonies were under control of the royal landowners. Stealing honey from their estates was often met with death on the gallows.  Destroying an entire colony of bees, even if they belonged to the accused, resulted in an unimaginable punishment: evisceration. The person would “be handed over to the executioner, who shall take out the entrails and wind them round the tree in which the bees were willfully destroyed and shall afterwards hang him on the same tree.”[1]

A Polish beekeeper from 1870

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