By Ryan Knowles
I absolutely could not wait for the plane to leave. I had already put my suitcase into the hands of Czech Airlines, and was now desperately trying to shove my enormous carry-on bag into the top shelves. Finding this physically impossible, I resigned myself to a slightly less comfortable flight with my bag stuffed between my legs. I didn’t care one bit though; in a couple of hours I would take my first ever step on European soil, and neither an uncomfortable flight nor jet lag could spoil this amazing experience for me. Everybody that had been to Europe before told me that Europe was a very laid back and beautiful place, and I had heard elsewhere that the Czech Republic was one of the most beautiful places in Europe. I guess you can say that my expectations were a little high.
I arrived at the airport, and couldn’t wait to rush out of the airport and gaze out at the grandeur of the Czech Republic. I expected to see old castles and ancient Cathedrals. What I saw was a very modern city. I would be lying to say that I was not a little disappointed. I had expected some great and ancient buildings overflowing with history, and all I saw was a city not very much unlike downtown Toronto. As we loaded ourselves onto a bus, jet lag hit me like a sledge hammer. This, combined with a familiar and therefore uninteresting view, made me fall asleep almost before I sat down.
When I woke up, I saw a walled off church. As I walked outside I realized that we were going to enter the Sedlec Ossuary (Sedlecká kostnice). I was a little more cautious with my excitement, with the disappointment of the morning weighing heavily on my jet-lagged mind. As soon as I stepped in, however, my excitement was full blown. There were bones everywhere! And these bones were not just piled about the room as I had expected. There were crosses, chalices, coats of arms, pyramids, and a chandelier, all made of skeletons! It was chilling. It was creepy. It was awesome! I was amazed at the skill in which the creators had placed spines, ribs, and skulls to create magnificent works of art. It was by far the most amazing thing I’d ever seen anyone do with skeletons. And to speak honestly, being part of a chapel of bone seems an awfully better way of serving God after death than lying buried in a cemetery.
Once again, we were reluctantly ushered onto the bus. My mind was racing. Some of the chaperones said that there were many things even more amazing than the Sedlec Ossuary. I couldn’t believe them. Even trying to invent some sort of a place in my head left me sleeping in seconds. When I woke up, I was ushered off the bus with the rest of the group, as we were going to be eating our first meal in the Czech Republic. I had no idea what to expect, and so I had no way to prepare for one of the most amazing meals of my life. We were given the most amazing soup. It had no chunks of meat or vegetables, as I was used to finding in soups. Be that as it may, the spices added in to it made it one of the best soups I’d ever tasted. After this, we enjoyed delicious pork with mashed potatoes, cabbage, and gravy. This meal was topped off with an amazingly light and rich chocolate cake.
The taste of this heavenly meal stayed in my mouth in the final stretch of our bus ride to the university dorms in Hradec Králové that we would be sleeping in for the festival. When I arrived, I saw the outside of the building, and I must say it looked unnervingly like a prison. Luckily, the rooms were very large and well lighted, so this illusion of a prison was shrugged off and replaced with coziness that was usually reserved for a familiar place, such as the choir school or my house.
The next couple of days would be marked by rigorous but enjoyable choral rehearsals for the big concert that was to be held in Prague. We were very lucky to have such amazing conductors to lead us in song. Some were always smiling, some were always calm, and some were mildly insane. However, all of the conductors were passionate about music, and worked their hardest to make sure that all of the assembled choirs, from many different countries such as the United States, Canada, Poland, and of course the Czech Republic, sang as one. We sang in two churches, both of which were gorgeous. Again I was struck with the devotion that one would have to have for God to create something so beautiful. And still I heard from people that the best was yet to come. And still I could not believe them.
I was up at an early hour the day that we were going to Prague. My expectations were once again unbridled by the disappointment of the first day, and even so they were met and surpassed by a mile. Prague was amazing. It wasn’t just the churches, or the embassies; it was the entire city. Every single building was a work of art. Each building had carvings or paintings that rivalled some of the most decorated cathedrals in North America. I was so awestruck that anything more would have made my head explode. And then it rained. If it had been a light rain, I would’ve walked through the city undeterred. But it poured. It poured buckets. It poured bathtubs! My first day in Prague had been amazing but half of it had been drowned by the torrential downpour that consumed it.
Our next day at Prague was not rainy at all. We also had the honour of a guided tour through Prague Castle. I had thought that nothing could compare to the rest of the city. Once again, all I had seen was outshone as we were led through the Royal Palace, and down the Golden Lane. The architecture was astounding, with statues and carvings everywhere. I honestly had trouble finding a wall without some sort of decoration on it. And then there was the St. Vitus Cathedral. The thing was a behemoth, spires and walls and windows and mosaics as far, and even as high, as the eye could see. Unfortunately, we were unable to enter that day, and so I vowed to return on our next free day in Prague.
I couldn’t wait to sing in Dvořák Hall in the recorded Gala concert, which would be the climax of the music festival. The Hall itself was as amazing as anything I’d seen in the city. The concert was pretty much flawless, with each choir trying to outdo each other, and therefore sounding better than ever. But it wasn’t until the massed choir part of the concert, when all 593 choristers sang as one choir, that we truly shone. We were terrific. I don’t mean to be boastful, but anything less would be a lie. As we sang the last song, Goin’ Home, my only thought was this: Yes, we are going home…but not without getting inside the St. Vitus.
The next day we were once again set loose in Prague. I took a very shady and beautiful park route to the Castle, finding many lookout points from which I could see the splendour of the entire city. Once I got into the St. Vitus however, all thoughts of anything else were swept away. The Cathedral was the most beautiful place I had ever seen, and likely will be the most beautiful place I will ever see in my entire life. It was shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from dim candles, and blazing, colourful stained glass windows. I spent an hour in that Cathedral, and given the chance, I would do so again. The St. Vitus to me seems to be the most solid evidence, we as mortals have, that there is a God.
As we were entering the airport, many thoughts were varied. I felt relief; finally I was going home. I felt satisfaction; I had seen all I needed to see, and sung all that had to be sung. But most of all I felt regret. I was leaving the most beautiful place that I’d ever seen, and the largest and most professional festival I had ever participated in. And I truly felt a part of the wondrous heaven on earth called the Czech Republic.
The author, aged 16, is a student at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. He has just returned, along with the other choristers, from the 2nd International Boys and Men’s Choral Festival held in Czech Republic.