Kutna Hora, Czech Republic: The Ossuary:
I have visited the Czech Republic two times, and on both visits made it a priority to travel to the charming town of Kutna Hora, an hour's drive from Prague, to visit the Ossuary (affectionately known as the Bone Church). Upon arrival in Prague, I promptly arranged a day trip to Kutna Hora through the concierge at my hotel. The next day I found myself in the middle seat of a minivan, wedged in between eight other travelers from various parts of the world heading madly down the highway to the Ossuary. But how did this place begin? Legend has it that in the 13th century, Jindřich, the abbot of Sedlec monastery, returned from a visit to Palestine to the grave of the Lord, returning with a pocketful of holy soil and sprinkled it on the cemetery surrounding the Chapel of All Saints. The direct connection to the holy land led to the graveyard's transformation into the most sought-after burial site among the European aristocracy and all of those living in Bohemia. In the 17th century, there were more deceased bodies than grave sites, however, and this required an unorthodox resolution. As a result, many remains were exhumed and stored in the chapel by a mad, half blind monk. It is estimated that today, there are bones from over 40,000 people decorating the elaborate chapel. The story is that a local woodcarver, Frantisek Rint, was commissioned for the artistic arrangement of the thousands of excess bones. He discovered his creative dark side with his designs which includes six skull pyramids, among countless other creations. He designed the grand chandelier composed largely of femur bones, but is said to contain at least one bone from every part of the body. There are glossy skulls, all of which he bleached for a uniform effect, strung like popcorn on a Christmas tree, hanging on strings from a balcony. There is a display case filled to capacity with skulls containing wounds that were inflicted by various mediaeval weapons. My personal favorite is a coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family, the landowners at the time, which depicts a raven clawing an eye out of a severed head of a Turk. For the equivalent of a mere $4, one can purchase a ticket to take as many photos as desired. The chapel is small, but brimming with bones and skulls for unprecedented photo ops. There is an enormous pile of skulls neatly stacked on either side of the chapel behind a caged wire. Rint had a special skill for geometric designs and he possessed such an artistic flare. Rint's unique signature is still visible on the wall today and using his favorite medium, his name is spelled out in bones. It may seem creepy and unsettling to some, but make no bones about it, this place is a "must see" if you are in the area.
Basilica San Domenico in Siena, Italy:
While on a journey through Italy's Tuscany area, I decided to spend a day in Siena. Wandering through the breathtakingly beautiful Basilica of San Domenico, at first, seemed like many other cathedrals until further and closer investigation of some of the smaller chapels. I saw a sign on one wall that simply read "Testa de Santa Caterina". Naturally, never leaving home without my Italian dictionary, I quickly flipped the pages to the T's until I located the word "testa". "OMG" I thought! Testa means head.
Legend tells that Saint Catherine, at the early age of seven, began having visions. She saw Jesus on a throne surrounded by saints. As a young girl, she chose to take the vow of perpetual virginity and gave her life to nothing but worship and prayer. Her family tried to marry her off, so in protest, she cut off her hair, scalded her body and became a nun. Soon after she became a nun, she had more visions, this time of Jesus marrying her with a special ring made from the baby Jesus' holy foreskin rather than gold. She never stopped seeing that ring on her finger for the remainder of her life. Later in life, it was written that Catherine had received the stigmata, piercing her hands, feet and heart. Witnesses said that she was often seen levitating during prayer and a priest once reported that the Holy Communion he was administering during mass flew straight from his hands into the mouth of Catherine like a holy flying saucer. The really interesting part of this story is that she died young at age 33 and was canonized over 100 years later. Although she died in Rome, her home town was Siena and Siena wanted her body for burial. Realizing that it was impossible to get past a pack of guards in Rome, they decided to take her head only, hiding it in a paper bag. The suspicious guards stopped the thieves anyway, but by some miracle attributed to the dead Catherine, the guards only saw a bag full of rose petals when they looked inside. The head was withered like a dried prune, but again, by some miracle, it had rematerialized whole and rejuvenated after its return to Siena. Her head was then placed in a glass-encased niche at the Basilica San Domenico in Siena, and later seen by people like me. Not far from her head is one of her severed thumbs, another bullet on Siena's Top Ten list. Her foot is reportedly in a chapel in Venice. (That's another itinerary to plan from Lonely Planet's "Off the beaten track" list.) So, what I was looking at in this chapel, was the actual rejuvenated, supple head of Catherine, albeit eyes closed, but lifelike nonetheless. Her skin was fresh and dewy, much like a model's from an Age Perfect Loreal skin cream commercial. It was just unbelievable! She looked better than Cindy Crawford! Another shockingly impressive item I discovered on my travels and one I will not soon forget.
Torture Museum at the Torre del Diavolo (Devil's Tower) in San Gimignano, Italy:
Where, do you ask is this well-executed museum located in this small town? After passing through the main stone gate to San Gimignano, head straight through town, pass the second well and turn right. It is in the third stone building on the left. Devil's Tower is one of the more perfectly preserved of its type. Imprisonment was not considered a punishment in and of itself. It was simply a way to take a criminal out of circulation until the trial. To actually punish an evildoer, the offender had to be tortured, publicly humiliated, or executed in some dreadful manner. There are the usual devices in such a place: thumbscrews, flesh pickers, iron chastity belts, a guillotine and the infamous Maiden of Nurenburg, a sarcophagus with 1000 inwardly pointing spikes. Just by opening and closing the door on this device, the victim could be impaled over and over. The walls are so thick that screams of the victims were completely inaudible. Who would imagine such a grisly place would be nestled so discreetly in the charming countryside of Tuscany? Oddly, wine shops, sidewalk cafes, pottery stores, bakeries, and sleepy dogs surround this macabre place. Don't forget to inspect the unwelcoming spiked inquisitorial chairs and the heinous device called the heretics fork. There's also an adjacent museum called the Museum of the Death Penalty where you can see firsthand, a collection of ancient instruments used for final punishments prior to the delivery of a death penalty. The breast rippers might be enough to send you running for gelato in the piazza outside the museum. The museum is quite robust and offers engrossingly fascinating descriptions of each instrument and their origins and history. Not only do these types of places give an impression of an interesting window through which to glimpse some of the darker moments of human history, but also serve as a reminder that torture, albeit not in the same form still exists in our world today. Frankly, the worst form of modern torture I can think of is watching episode after episode of the Kardashians after listening to Paris Hilton sing "Stars are Blind" about 50 times. That would do it for me.
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)