Unravelling Prague’s underground from secret alchemists’ labs to nuclear bunkers

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

As the Old Town developed in Prague during the Middle Ages, the multi-annual floodings of the Vltava River were so destructive that the whole city was raised by one floor: ground floors became basements and new ground floors were built on top of them. This has created a whole network of underground tunnels throughout the Old Town that can be explored today…

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The alchemists’ hide

Penetrating the underground of one of the oldest houses in Prague, dating back to the 9th century, is not an easy task. We look at ourselves in what used to be officially a pharmacy. A secret door to the lab of the alchemist is hidden somewhere… Of course, the key is the library! Our guide lifts and twists a wooden sculpture and a whole panel opens on a wide staircase. We follow it, deep into the dark candlelit underground…

If Czech’s most popular King Charles IV (1316-1378) of Bohemia, the father of the nation and builder of the namesake bridge, was versed in the occult, his successor the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612) was truly passionate about it. Rudolph thought the esoteric was key to understanding the hidden forces of the world. He attracted astrologers, fortune tellers and alchemists, as well as astronomers such as Tycho Brahe and Kepler to his court that he moved to Prague, at a safer distance from the invasive Ottomans than Vienna. The town became a centre of occult sciences in the Renaissance, that the Vatican considered a blasphemy. As Judaism was quite tolerant, several alchemists set up shop in the Jewish ghetto by which the Grand Via trading route from northern Spain to the Far East was passing. Exotic goods were easily available for the alchemists who, beyond trying to transmute base metal into silver and gold, were in fact skilled chemists conducting research, examining chemical compounds, and testing their reactivity. In the underground, they were drying their herbs, manufacturing their own flasks and distillation apparatus and working on their elixirs as we pass by the reconstructed labs.

Miraculously, this house of the alchemist was spared from destruction at the end of the 19th century when the Jewish quarter was redeveloped. This is not pure luck, according to our guide. Better, after the 2002 flooding, a secret cavity covered by a stone door slab was uncovered in the forgotten tunnel underneath the house of the alchemist. The original 16th century recipes of his elixirs were found, as well as some flasks. On special order by the emperor and funded by the crown, the miraculous Aurum Potabile or liquid gold was intended to rid of all diseases. The elixir of eternal youth was made of 77 herbs and intended to stop the aging process by healing the body, balancing body functions and enhancing vitality. The wine-based love elixir contained some Tribulus Terrestris, an herb nicknamed “natural viagra” which is mentioned in the old scrolls of the Kama Sutra. Memos was a red wine-based elixir with ginkgo biloba that is currently used today to improve focus and enhance memory.

Today, Benedictine monks are making these once forgotten elixirs according to these original Renaissance recipes. Over the ages, wishful thinking and promises of wealth and health have been too tempting to being resisted… Alchemy was very successful then, and still fascinates today.

The largest underground complex [The Old Town Hall]

If many marvel at the 1410 astronomical clock (the oldest functioning in the world), and some venture up the 69.5-meter-high (210 ft) tower to admire the breath-taking views on Prague from its gallery, only few explore the underground of the Old Town Hall.

Our guide Anna stands by a small door, under the stunning 19th century glass mosaics depicting the legend of the founding of Prague and calling to Czech national pride.

As she unlocks the door and we enter a dim room, we already feel a temperature difference. The air also feels more humid. The feeling increases as we go deeper into what looks like a massive brick basement with vaults and corridors.

“You are now standing in the former medieval city of Prague. There used to be windows right here in this wall and the road would be there”, Anna describes when she points out to another wall at the same level as where we stand. After continuous floods the rooms at this level were simply used as foundations, filled with sand, pebbles and soil. Higher levels were built on top of them to decrease the risk of floods and roads were elevated too. Anna leads the way up and down some stairs into large houses equipped with a well, rainwater containers and even an oven construction still visible. “About 70 houses still have this underground construction in Prague where the people used to live, and we suspect there are more that have not been uncovered yet. After excavating them, some have had different functions over the years. The town hall underground has been used as a prison, a shelter during the war and an army hospital.” We continue through narrow alleyways of cobble stones and pass through medieval arches in the largest remaining underground medieval complex of Prague. Today, many of these spaces have been reconverted: some as bunkers or simple basements, some as art exhibit space or even beer spas.

A Soviet nuclear bunker

After a short tram ride west of Prague, and a stroll up a hill, we went down 84 steps and are seating what feels like deep underground in the Bezovka bunker. Built between 1953 and 1957, 4,000kg (8,000 lb) of concrete and lead surround us as a shield against blast and radiation from a potential nuclear attack. Seated, I am already taking too much space. The 2,500 square meters (27,000 ft2) of living space of the bunker were to accommodate 5,000 civilians for up to three weeks: half a square meter (5 ft2) per person… and some clothes, food and water (the two 2,500-cubic-meter (550,000 gallons) water tanks were mostly dedicated to the decontamination showers) had to be brought for one’s own usage. When we passed the 6 toilets designed to be used by 1,000 people a bit earlier, I now realize it was probably where one would have had the most space in the whole bunker!

In total, 678 nuclear bunkers were built by the Soviets to shelter 700,000 people in case of a western attack. The very deep subway network itself was turned into a nuclear bunker in the city centre where a nuclear attack was feared following Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Surrounded by mannequins wearing all sorts of Soviet gas masks, our guide Carolina, born and raised in Prague, is explaining the history of Czechoslovakia, these dark years between 1918 and 1993 most of which dominated by the communist dictatorship. How Czechoslovakia felt betrayed by the 1938 Munich agreement giving away part of its territory bordering Germany to stop Hitler’s territorial claims. How the Nazis still invaded hardly a year later. How the communists after freeing Prague got elected into power in 1946 and headed a coup in 1948, ruling ruthlessly during the bloody 1950’s. How in the late 1960’s, a new generation of communist leaders, led by Alexander Dubček implemented socialism with human face – the Prague Spring – that was ended abruptly by half a million Soviet soldiers of the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet mirror image of NATO) marching into Prague on August 21, 1968. How after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 50 years after the Nazis shot students, on November 17, 1989, about 60,000 Czechs peacefully gathered in Prague in commemoration – an event the communists in power could not oppose as they hated the Nazis – asking for free election, freedom of speech and movement; how the secret police attempted to spark violence; how the Velvet Revolution happened peacefully, the communist dictatorship coming to an end with no casualties, the leaders of the Velvet Revolution taking over, led by the to-become-Nobel-piece-prize laureate Václav Havel.

Carolina pauses. Chilled to the bone, by her stories and the underground temperature, I am stopped in my thoughts: I hear a bird. And a car driving. I remember we walked up a hill before we went down into the bunker. “Yes, we are back at street level, down the hill,” Carolina explains. “I’m not sure how well protected we are from a nuclear blast,” and she check her phone: I have signal too: loud and clear!

The bunkers were in fact a big part of the Soviet propaganda: the West being the devil, communists were protecting the people, building strong bunkers, providing gas masks, first aid kits and tons of survival guides… “People couldn’t find anything in stores, so they often stole from their workplace including building materials… The subway walls were actually not thick enough to withstand the 2002 flood! So, a nuclear attack?” she mocks.

Still, today about 200 bunkers are still maintained around Prague, including the Bezovka bunker which Soviet diesel-powered generators are still turned on weekly. In these modern times, 2,500 people would be sheltered here…

Travel tips:

  • There are many different small museums dedicated to alchemy in Prague. To see the real house of the alchemist and the underground structure where elixirs have been brewed for centuries, make sure to visit the Speculum Alchemie Prague.
  • To explore the largest medieval underground structure of Prague, hop on a tour of the Old Town Hall.
  • Prague Underground organizes tours in the Old Town as well as the excellent Bezovka bunker tour.
  • To stay in style, consider the music-themed Aria Hotel Prague. With a private access to the UNESCO Vrtba Garden and a wonderful rooftop terrace, this is the ideal location to explore the city.
  • The Vrtba Garden with the Aria Hotel Prague and the castle behind
  • Sculptures in the Vrtba Garden from Aria Hotel Prague
  • View from the Aria Hotel Prague suite
  • Author Marcella van Alphen in the living room of the Aria Hotel Prague suite
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)! The black pins will lead you to other articles:

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