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.
Like much I did during my too brief visit to Prague, I stumbled upon Vyšehrad Cemetery purely by accident after having stumbled upon the Alphonse Mucha Museum and discovering that his final resting place was nearby. Well, relatively nearby. The next morning, misty and overcast but unseasonably warm, I set out from my hotel on the outskirts of Old Town en route to Vyšehrad Cemetery, an urban hike that took me through neighborhoods I would have otherwise likely not visited. And, of course, it took me past the Toilet Museum, though it was not at that hour of the day open.
The path to the museum itself, when I finally got there, was tricky to find and required cutting across a parking lot to a narrow walkway in between buildings, which then became a path meandering up the steep slopes of the bluff upon which is perched the old fort of Vyšehrad, the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul, and the cemetery to which my favorite artist, Alphonse Mucha, had drawn me. Affording stunning views of the city from a perspective that takes in Prague Castle, famous towers and churches, and the weird Eiffel Tower facsimile across the river Vltava. Through an iron gate flanked by guardian skulls is the cemetery itself, a fairytale version of what it means to be a cemetery.
I’ve seen gorgeous public park cemeteries, like Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Cave Hill in Louisville, but Vyšehrad is a world apart even from them. Although there are plenty of the moody monuments one expects from a historic cemetery — weeping angels, praying children, Jesus in his “ehh, whadda ya gonna do?” pose (some say it is his “come into my arms, lamb of God, and be forgiven” pose, but I don’t buy into that hokey nonsense) — the cemetery is equally populated by the weird, the offbeat, the spooky, and the quirky. Chrome balls, pyramids, abstract sculptures, lithe forest maidens, lanky ingénues, and plenty of famous visages stare solemnly — and sometimes not so solemnly — at you as you walk the cluttered but meticulously maintained grounds. Partly be design and partly by the happy accident of collecting so many weirdos and visionaries together in one place, Vyšehrad is like stepping into an Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There ideal of what a cemetery should be.
There are three main sections to the cemetery: the grounds themselves, a beautiful riot of colors and monuments arranged in narrow rows; the arcade, a covered promenade full of large tombs and monuments; and the Slavín tomb designed by Antonín Wiehl, a massive monument where are interred many of the country’s most famous artists, including the man I’d come up the hill to see, father of the art nouveau movement and designer of much of the iconography of Czechoslovakia when it first attained independence in 1911, Alphonse Mucha. Although a strange place, and one that invites heavy use of the camera, there remains still an air of quiet contemplation, sly amusement, and an otherworldly sort of journey to a hidden place, as one might find in an Arthur Machen story. Rarely can you say of a cemetery that it winks at you and delivers a clever witticism, but that is certainly the case within the walls of Vyšehrad.
Keeping Mucha company are a host of great creatives and scientists, including the composer Antonín Dvořák, Nobel Prize winning researcher Jaroslav Heyrovský, poet Karel Hynek Mácha, actress Olga Scheinpflugová, and so many other inspiring notables in the world of the arts and science — from a time when the two were not so rigidly and tragically separated as they are today. Hours passed without me noticing as I strolled, lost as I was in a sort of reverie. Eventually, I shook myself out of it, bid farewell to that place full of wonder, and made my way back down the bluffs for a walk along the river. It’s not part of Old Town, and it’s a bit out of the way, but Vyšehrad Cemetery is one of Prague’s less-seen must-see places, even if you’re not an Alphonse Mucha obsessive like me.