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.
Also known as the Muzeum Alchymie, Speculum Alchemiae is located inside one of Prague’s oldest buildings, dating from 980 AD and having survived any number of disasters, including the razing of much of the Old Jewish Quarter of which it was once a part. In 2002, when Prague suffered severe flooding, a sinkhole opened and people discovered that the house at Hastalska 1 on the outskirts of the Old Town had another secret: a vast network of tunnels and secret chambers that ran beneath the streets of the city — some as far as Prague Castle, where lived the ruler who commissioned their construction, Rudolf II. Built during the 16th century, many of the tunnels were blocked by hundreds of years of debris and collapse, but the area directly under the old house was relatively salvageable. Ten years after they were discovered, the catacombs that once served as the secret workshops of some of Rudolf II’s most valued alchemists opened to the public in the form of the Speculum Alchemiae.
The entrance to the secret tunnels through the historic house is also the gift shop full of shelves lined with a variety of elixirs. As we waited for the tour guide to arrive, we were told the history of many of the elixirs, their purported powers, and the secret ingredients of old that are no longer permitted to be added to these otherwise ancient recipes (in almost every case, those banned ingredients were high-proof spirits and opium). One suspects that the delicate, ornate glass containers are more miraculous than their contents, but then, when one is in Prague it is more fun to play along (at least until the point of purchase).
Speculum Alchemiae, which translates to “The Mirror of Alchemy,” is a name derived from one of the most important works of alchemical literature. Written sometime in the 16th century and often attributed (without any factual basis) to Roger Bacon, it was the second alchemical manual translated into English. When our tour guide arrived — a lovely young woman slightly out of breath from her dash across town on her bike — we entered the second chamber of the house, a recreation of the home’s study, complete with alchemically significant chandeliers. But it was the secret behind the bookcase that brought us to the museum, and as it creaked open we knew we were going to get our money’s worth, even if this particular museum of alchemy was heavier on historical respectability (the site is a UNESCO World Heritage site) than on creepy wax dummies and sound effects, as was the case at the more frivolous Prague Mysteria Pragensia.
Down a narrow stone staircase we descended into the dusty stone tunnels where once walked the likes of sorcerer supreme (or con man supreme, depending on whose story you believe) Edward Kelley, John Dee, astronomer Tycho de Brahe, creator of the golem Rabbi Loew, and very likely the alchemy-obsessed Emperor Rudolf II himself. The secret tunnels and chambers are a combination of reclaimed original artifacts and recreations (glass and organic matter just doesn’t survive hundreds of years of tunnels caving in on it). The recreations were made based on original sketches and diagrams from the 16th century, and the blend pretty seamlessly. The tunnels run under Old Town and even the nearby Vltava River, to Prague Castle, the Old Town Hall (a building flanked by statues of Rabbi Loew and the Iron Knight), and the military Barracks, though none of these longer passages are open to the public. The tour includes three chambers: a main laboratory, a root and herb cellar, and a glass blowing room and furnace.
Through it all, the breathless young tour guide spun tales not just of what the rooms were used for and the history of alchemy, but also how it was probable that these tunnels and labs gave rise to some of Prague’s more famous ghost stories — thanks usually to smoke, fumes, and noises drifted from the alchemical laboratories up to the streets of Prague. Speculum Alchemia the museum is well worth a visit if you find yourself prowling the mystical streets of Old Prague. It’s a more fact-based experience well-balanced by a same-day visit to the afore-mentioned Prague Mysteria Pragensia — both equally entertaining and informative in their own way. And while Prague Mysteria Pragensia’s Museum of Magicians and Alchemists features the Kellyxir bar, the Speculum Alchemiae is near the highly recommended Prague Beer Museum, itself a more serious drinking place and the perfect spot to relax and grab a pint (or five) after a thoroughly exceptional experience beneath the streets of Prague.