There is a whimsical character in so much of what constitutes Prague, a tendency to find the creative, the artistic, and sometimes the absurd in even the darkest of places. That indomitable creative spirit is most evident in the place where many of the Czech Republic’s creative spirits have come for their final rest. Historic Vyšehrad Cemetery, located on a hill high above Prague and on the grounds of old Vyšehrad Castle, was established in 1849 as a cemetery dedicated almost entirely to the dizzying number of musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, actors, and other artists who made Prague in particular and the Czech Republic in general one of Europe’s most interesting nations.
Author’s note: I wrote this piece for the Winter 2001-2002 issue of Route 66 magazine. It was my first professionally published magazine piece. I was a different writer then, though not perhaps quite that different than I am now. In the spirit of a happily haunted Halloween, I reprint it here, literary warts and all, unaltered even though some of the details are no doubt out of date. Photos by Ellie Tam.
On October 25, 1829, the gates of Eastern State Penitentiary — ESP — creaked open to admit the first of many criminals who would be confined behind its walls and within its solemn cells. Designed by John Haviland, one of the most storied architects of 19th century Philadelphia, it was the first true penitentiary in the young United States of America, embracing the “Pennsylvania System” conceived of by Benjamin Franklin. The primary principle behind the system was that imprisonment should be a time of reflection and penitence, with prisoners confined to solitary cells with very little to do beyond stare at the blank white walls and think about their sins.
Last Halloween, I wrote an article on Alcohol Professor about haunted bars in New York City. Well, gather ’round the campfire, children, because I’ve more macabre drinking tales yet to tell. Only this time, we’re going global. Son of Booooozy Tales: Haunted Bars Go International looks at haunted pubs, bars, and watering holes in New Orleans, Seattle, London, Wales, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Sydney. Be ye fairly warned. The person sitting next to you at the bar might have been there since the 1800s.
When it comes to spooks and spectres and things that go bump in the night, Prague is undeniably one of the richest towns in the world. Its bizarre history, winding streets, and jumble of architecture spanning centuries’ worth of styles make it the perfect setting for tales of the macabre and unexplained. On these streets prowled the golem created by Jewish mystic Rabbi Loew and the socially awkward Iron Knight, still trying to get a young woman to listen to him for a couple of hours so he might be freed of his murderer’s curse. Most famously, Prague was the center of medieval alchemy thanks to the obsession of its one-time ruler, Emperor Rudolf II, who invited mystics and alchemists and wizards from across the world to come to Prague. Deep beneath the cobblestone streets of this most mysterious of cities, at the Speculum Alchemiae, one can walk the secret passages and hidden laboratories where these sorcerers sought to unlock the secrets of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life.
My latest Frolic Afield at Alcohol Professor takes me far afield indeed, through New England, past Halifax, and up into the wild north of Nova Scotia. Malt & Moose is the tale of this journey most epic, a journey that included inadvertent weapons smuggling, attractive border guards, grazing moose, and of course whiskey since the point of the trip was a visit to Glenora, Canada’s first single malt whiskey distillery.
A new Frolic Afield, back on Alcohol Professor and back in the state of my birth. This time around, we’re visiting Jim Beam’s American Stillhouse. The Jim Beam distillery used to be a waste of time, little more than a trip to the gift shop and nary a glance at the actual business of making the world’s most popular bourbon. In 2012, Beam substantially revamped the experience, and the result is now one of the must-see stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Another stroll through some of (but by no means all of) my favorite places in New York City, this time spread out across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and The Bronx (we’ll get to you, Queens; as for Staten Island, I’ll see what I can do). Another of the many things I like about this city — and really, about most places — is that it’s basically one big, open-air museum. Between free exhibits and things that are just on the street there to be witnessed, you can take in a tremendous amount of history, both mainstream and obscure, simply by doing a little research and walking down the block.
I have a new Frolic Afield up at my usual corner on Alcohol Professor. In a rare moment of timeliness, The Bar that Launched Pride is a look at the history of the Stonewall Inn and how a scummy shithole of a bar that blackmailed its gay customers became the rallying point for and birthplace of the LGBT rights movement in America.
Where does our Frolic Afield take us to this week? To Bardstown, Kentucky, by way of Alcohol Professor. Bottled History is a look at my visit to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. From bottles of old Coon Hollow to a still they claim belonged to George Washington, it’s a fascinating — and free — look at the history of my favorite tipple told by an amazing assortment of artifacts.