Ghosts of Old Prague

In February and March of 2014, I had the good fortune to spend an extended amount of time in Prague, one of the great towns in the world for strange and spooky stories. The following long-form article has been assembled from travel dispatches written while roaming the winding streets of Prague in search of of ghosts, goblins, and golems. Prices and hours of operation are reflective of the time, and have most likely changed.

On the Golem’s Trail

Prague’s history is tailor-made to appeal to a vast number of my personal obsessions, among them my fascination with the history of magic and alchemy and the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem. Modern Prague has not failed to capitalize on this history of mystery and magic, as places like the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians prove. Fans of weird and mystical history owe a debt of gratitude to Emperor Rudolf II, the 16th century Holy Roman emperor who, because of his own obsession with the occult, turned his home base of Prague into the capital of European mysticism and alchemical pursuits. Rudolf II’s endless quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, as well as his craving for a potion of immortality, brought such notable alchemists as Edward Kelley and John Dee to the city, not to mention Jewish mystic Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.

Born sometime in first quarter of the 16th century (sketchy records place the year somewhere between 1512 and 1526), Loew was from a successful family. His uncle Jakob ben Chajim was Reichsrabbiner of the Holy Roman Empire, sort of the liaison between Judaism and the Holy Roman authority in Europe. Loew’s brother was a well-respected rabbinical scholar as well, but Judah Loew himself never received any official or organized religious training, rising instead through the ranks on the might of his own keen intellect and appetite for study. Aside from holding several positions of authority within Jewish communities, he became a notable commentator on The Talmud, as well as on other philosophical discourses and studies of the books that form the basis of the Jewish faith.

But it was his knowledge of Jewish mysticism — the Kabbalah (not the version that sold magic water and bracelets to gullible celebrities in the early 2000s) — thought brought him to the attention of Emperor Rudolf. In 1592, Rabbi Loew had an audience with the superstitious emperor, who counted the well-known Jewish leader among the great alchemists of Europe. It is his association with alchemy and Kabbalah that also resulted in Loew’s name being attached to one of the most famous legends in Prague, and around the world.

The Old New Synagogue

Visitors to Prague can today trace the history of Rabbi Loew through the still existent monuments, sites, and buildings associated with him. The Old New Synagogue, where Rabbi Loew presided, still stands. Loew’s grave is in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. And a statue of the legendary rabbi — a naked woman draped around his leg, because why not — stands watch outside of the Prague City Hall, along with one of Prague’s other great legends, the Iron Knight.

Your tour begins at the oddly named Old New Synagogue. This where Rabbi Loew presided, and as the legend goes, the golem was hidden in the attic of this temple. Completed in 1270, it is currently Europe’s oldest continuously active synagogue (older ones have been demolished, though, at least one is older but did some time as a Christian church) and draws its ungainly name from either one of two sources. As the one story goes, it was originally called the New Synagogue, but once it had been around for a long time and newer temples had been constructed, it pulled the holy equivalent of a 1960s pop band called the Originals discovering there was already a band called the Originals, and so deciding to call themselves the New Originals. That is to say, it became the Old-New Synagogue.

A slightly more fanciful tale keeping more in line with the legend of the golem and the mysticism that surrounds Rabbi Loew is that the name of the temple was, in Hebrew, At-Tnay Synagogue, meaning the “conditional synagogue. In this story, the building was constructed using stone from King Solomon’s temple, and eventually the synagogue would be dismantled so those stones could be returned and used in the construction of the new Temple of Solomon. However, the Hebrew word “at-tnay” was mistranslated as “alt-neu,” meaning “Old-New.” Whatever the case, and regardless of whether or not the golem is quietly slumbering in some hidden nook, the Old-New Synagogue has survived a miraculously long time, escaping destruction during both the original demolition of the Jewish ghettos and occupation of Prague by the Nazis during WWII.

Prague City Hall

Prague’s Nova Radnice, or New City Hall (which is in Old Town), is flanked on two corners by two of the city’s most famous legends. Obviously, the one is Rabbi Loew, or we would not be mentioning it in this article. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, the second statue is not the rabbi’s fabled golem (though it is frequently mistaken as such, as far back as 1938 and by a number of publications that should know better); it is, instead, the Iron Knight, an altogether different legend and a curious choice to stand guard over your city hall — though I guess given the curse that was placed on the knight, he has ample free time to keep an eye on things.

Both Rabbi Loew and the Iron Knight statues were designed by Art Nouveau artist Ladislav Saloun and sculpted by Eduard Zvelebil in early 1910s, at the dawn of Czech independence. While other artists working on the city hall building opted for more classical figures, Saloun felt that the Iron Knight and Rabbi Loew communicated the true spirit of Prague. In his own words:

“On the other side, I couldn’t have placed a better figure than that of the learned and mysterious High Rabbi Loew, who incorporated everything that the most noble old ghetto of Prague produced. Rabbi Loew was a symbol of the ghetto to me, and also a symbol to me was the figure of a little girl who is freed from the oppressive fetters of clothing and holds out to her great father a rose, from which breathes the breath of death. For just as this beautiful child caused the death of Rabbi Loew with her fragrant flower, so the new period of freedom unwittingly crushed with the breath of its young life the old relics of bygone days. This also marked the end of the Prague ghetto.”

Although Saloun’s statue does not come to life and defend Prague’s Old Town from drunk Brits stumbling into Thai massage parlors, it did have something of a golem-esque adventure. In 1940, when the Germans swept into young Czechoslovakia and declared it part of their territory, the Nazis demanded that the statue of Rabbi Loew be destroyed. Rather than comply with the order, Saloun spirited the statue away (or as close to “spirited” as you can when something weighs as much as a giant stone statue) and hid it in his home. In 1946, with the Nazis soundly defeated, Rabbi Loew was returned to his rightful spot on the corner of the city hall building, and there he has remained, one of the most famous symbols of Prague.

Old Jewish Cemetery

The bittersweet specter of death that looms around Rabbi Loew’s statue makes visiting his actual grave the obvious final stop in our walking tour of the history of the golem. There are so many legends associated with Loew, so many fantastical tales of wizardry and mysticism and strangeness, that one can easily forget that he really did exist, and alchemy and magick aside, was a noted and revered Jewish scholar. He is interred in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, which you must pay to enter and photograph, as I mentioned earlier. But of all the sights in Prague’s Jewish Ghetto, the cemetery is worth the price. It is an almost frantic jumble of headstones and sarcophagi dating as far back as the early to mid 1400s. Some 12,000 headstones are crammed into a relatively small footprint, and while there are no hard numbers, because of the layered nature of the burials and the fact that only the wealthy and notable have tombstones, there are an estimated 100,000 people from some seven centuries in the cemetery.

In old racist literature, most infamously the anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it was claimed that secret caves and tunnels beneath Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery was where the Jews gathered to discuss their plans for dominating the world. They might have consorted with Catholics and slurped the blood from the slit necks of proper Christian babies down there as well — or maybe that’s Jack Chick. It’s hard and not really worth keeping all those bigoted crackpots clear. Although soundly and unequivocally proven to be a hoax authored in Russia sometime between 1897 and 1903 to stir up anti-Jewish sentiments, everyone from Hitler to modern-day racist blowhards still cite the thing as if it truly was a collection of minutes from clandestine meetings beneath the Old Jewish Cemetery.

Among the most notable, of course, is Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who rests in a stone sarcophagus about 2/3 of the way through the walking tour of the cemetery, right up against the narrow sidewalk that winds through the jumbled gravestones. The cemetery is an overwhelming place, a contradiction, both quiet and contemplative as well as riotous and confusing because there’s just so much. I’ve never seen a place quite like it, and despite the unwelcoming price tag of entering, it was one of my favorite of all of Prague’s on-the-beaten-path tourist destinations. For me, someone who has no Jewish heritage (of which I know anyway — seems like we discover something new every year, though) but plenty of Jewish friends, who lives in a city in which Jews have played a major role in our history, and as one who has been in love with the golem legends since I first saw Der Golem while I was in elementary school, being able to stand there in front of Rabbi Loew and touch his grave was quite an experience (I’m not sure if I was allowed to touch it, actually; tradition says one should write a prayer on a piece of paper and place it near his grave).

My Golem and Me

So how did Rabbi Loew’s name become associated with the legend of the golem? Well, it’s no surprise, really, given how much weird, wizardy stuff is already attributed to him. It seems more or less historically accurate that he spent time as an alchemist in the employ of Rudolf II. Less historically accurate: that he was able to take a pestilence spell cast against the Jews of Prague and throw it back into the face of the villainous sorcerer who first cast it, or that the rabbi constructed a magic castle to which h could teleport for important meetings with heads of state of notable magicians. Attributing the creation of golem to him seems obvious given his role as both a defender of Prague’s Jewish population and a major figure in the history of mysticism and the Kabbalah.

As for the golem itself…who knows where it’s slumbering? When the Nazis entered (but failed to successfully destroy) the Old New Synagogue, they apparently never found the attic in which the golem supposedly slept. And the fact that the Nazis didn’t — or couldn’t — destroy the temple helped rekindle interest in the golem. In Michael Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of the characters even seeks out the golem in hopes of reviving it to help fight Nazis. The attic is still there, but the stairway to it is cut short, and no one is allowed up there — to protect the sanctity of the golem’s bedroom, perhaps, or possibly for insurance reasons. There used to be a large golem statue in Prague, but that had to be hidden away thanks to another threat: intellectual property lawsuits, brought by the artist who claimed to own that particular iteration of the golem.

As an alchemical aside, you might also squeeze in a visit to Speculum Alchemiae, the recently opened museum dedicated to an underground alchemists’ lab and network of tunnels leading from Prague’s Old Town to as far as the castle (which I’ll cover in more detail later). Did Rabbi Loew walk those old stone tunnels? Did he ply his wizardly trade beneath the streets of Prague, rubbing elbows with Emperor Rudolf II and his alchemist contemporary, Edward Kelley? Did the golem plod down those dark corridors on its solemn quest to defend Prague’s Jews and inspire the makers of Frankenstein? Following in the footsteps of Rabbi Loew and the golem was an excellent way to pick up histories of Prague, its Jewish population, its most famous legend, and its bizarre history of mysticism.

Prague Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments

I think every city of even modest size in Europe has at least one museum dedicated to the cruel and imaginative ways Europeans tortured one another during the Middle Ages. Prague, being a city that deals quite cannily with tourists, has a few torture museums. I’ve heard that many of the implements displayed in these types of museums were dreamed up mostly for the museums themselves, but I’m no scholar of medieval torture, so I can’t say. They seem believable enough to me, based on the research I’ve done of watching The Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price.

Anyway, of Prague’s multiple torture museums, I selected The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments (Krizovnicke nam. 194/1, Prague Praha 1, Czech Republic) using the most scientific of criteria: it was near a lot of other stuff I wanted to do that morning, right at the foot of the fabled Charles Bridge. Despite the garish advertising, it’s a fairly sober and “historical” museum, with none of the gory wax dummies you expect and often get from such museums. Still, quite an interesting exploration of man’s dedication to creativity in pursuit of his dedication to inflicting pain on his fellow man (or more often, woman), even if some of the most famed instruments of torture were created for museums of this nature. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the museum. Fortunately, I didn’t see that sign until I was leaving.

Mysteria Pragensia

If Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments proves a little too well-behaved and respectable for you, then perhaps you should switch gears a little bit and explore the two museums that make up the Mysteria Pragensia. Tapping into Prague’s rich occult and magickal history, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians, and its sister museum down the street, The Museum of Ghosts and Legends, offer up all the gruesome wax dummies and delicious strange lore you want from a proper tourist trap museum.

Just across the monument-lined Charles Bridge you will find the first of the two museums. A giant cloaked Grim Reaper beckons you away from your money and into The Prague Museum of Ghosts and Legends (Mostecka 18, Prague 1). There is a lot of reading material in the museum, so if you are keen on standing around a ghost-themed room, reading scrolls about headless Knight Templars, ghostly maidens, drunken water spirits, and other tales of the supernatural, your hunger for such tales will be well satiated. The scrolls are mounted throughout displays featuring mock-ups of graveyards, alchemical workshops, taverns, and other such settings.

After getting your fill of reading and clicking the lights on spooky dioramas, descend a spiral staircase into the museum’s piece de resistance — the Street of Ghosts. There you will get to walk through full-scale displays depicting many of the legends and ghosts you read about upstairs. Gory stumps, green ghouls, and artfully hovering baby dolls highlight your stroll down this supernatural avenue. Yes, it’s totally ridiculous, but amongst all the corpses and bloody stumps and looped audio of clinking chains and moans, I did manage to learn rather a good number of great ghost stories and local legends. Plus, it’s not like I’m morally opposed to museums full of bloody wax dummies.

Just a little ways up the hill you will find the second half of the museum (there is a deal if you buy tickets to both, and I can’t imagine anyone who reads Teleport City not wanting to do both), The Museum of Alchemists and Magicians (Jansky vrsek 8, Prague 1). The structure of the museum is basically the same: the first half is a room (smaller than the one at Ghosts and Legends) with a ton of reading material in multiple languages printed on mounted scrolls. There’s a spooky room full of alchemists and light-up runes, as well as a few other bits of alchemical ephemera. Most of the stories revolve around Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy much to the consternation of the church of which he was the ruler (among other things he ruled). During his reign, Prague developed its reputation as the magickal capital of the world, and there was no more infamous an alchemist than Edward Kelley (except maybe Rabbi Loew).

The second half of the museum requires a hike up a spiral staircase into a tower, purported by the owners to be the very tower where Edward Kelley (probably) did some of his best alchemical work (or charlatanism; whichever). The tower attic is a largish jumble of alchemical ephemera, most of it fake or recreation but still cool to walk through. Teetering stacks of old books and grimoires, displays of alchemical studies and labs, giant bellows, skulls on desks, and of course, a few wax dummies. Nailed to the wood beams around the alchemist’s tower are excerpts from old guides, which offer sage advise like “be thee careful around the fire of the bellows, especially if thou havest a wooden leg.” Like Ghosts and Legends, you get out of it what you bring into it, and I brought into it the hope to learn a little about alchemy in Prague while being entertained by dioramas and jittering plastic skeletons. I left happy.

And I left happier still because connected to the museum is a tavern, The Kellyxir, where a friendly young woman served me an inexpensive mug or two of Gambrinus and a plate of tasty goulash and bread dumplings. The pub is themed to fit in, with alchemical recipes and rants scrawled on the walls, the ceiling lined with beakers and glass tubes, adn the bar itself lit up with spooky Mario Bava lightning. Well worth stopping in for a half litre and a bite.

Vyšehrad Cemetery

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 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 fairy tale 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.

I Am Iron Man

In the tale of Rabbi Loew and the Golem, I mentioned the statue of the Iron Knight (or Iron Man) that stands vigil over Prague’s Old Town from a corner in the city hall building. Because the other corner is occupied by a statue of Rabbi Loew himself, and because the legend of the Iron Knight is relatively obscure outside of Prague, an overwhelming number of publications—including many that should be respectable enough to check their facts, like a 1938 issue of Life—misidentify the statue as Rabbi Loew’s golem (a few also identify it as Darth Vader, but what can be done about that?). Of course, it looks nothing like the golem, but with Rabbi Loew hanging around on the other corner, most people assume any strange monstrosity must be his golem.

Which is perhaps why the Iron Knight still hasn’t been able to lift the curse placed on him over four hundred years ago.

The statue, designed by Ladislav Saloun, the same artist who created the statue of Rabbi Loew, and installed in its corner at the same time as well, is of a knight by the name of Jáchym Berka. As the legend goes, Berka left Prague to fight in a war somewhere, and upon returning home heard that the women he’d loved and to him had been betrothed had bedded another man. Enraged and perhaps not thinking clearly, Berka sought revenge in that most classic of ways: by finding another woman and marrying her out of spite. He probably should have checked out the veracity of the rumors about his betrothed before going the whole “grudge marriage” route, however, because the rumors turned out to be lies. She had faithfully awaited his return the whole time. So heartbroken was Berka’s former lover that she drown herself in the Vltava River. Her father, swept up in the shame game, threw himself from a high tower.

When news of this reached poor, dumb Berka he reacted with all the clarity of thought and careful consideration as he had when first he heard the rumors about his betrothed’s infidelity. First, he strangled his new wife because…well…I mean. OK, he strangled her because he was in a rage and kind of colossal asshole. He then went on to hang himself, which is about the only reasonably justifiable death in whole tragic affair.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought Berka’s behavior demanded punishment. For his cruelty, the knight was turned to stone. His ghost was cursed to wander Platnéřská Street, with freedom from his spectral fate coming only when he can convince a kindly maiden to sit and talk to him for an hour. He gets his chance at this once every hundred years. It doesn’t seem that tall an order, at least not until you remember this is a guy who grudge married a woman to spite a fiancée who then committed suicide, to which Berka responded by strangling the wife he’d used to mistakenly seek revenge against said fiancee. So I would guess he’s not the greatest conversationalist when it comes to chatting up women on a dark Prague street.

His most famously retold chance at…well, not redemption, since he doesn’t seem to ever redeem himself. Let’s call it his most famous chance at freedom came a couple hundred years ago when a family with young, pure, innocent daughter moved into the home in front of which his statue had been placed. She happened to be nearby when the knight was freed from his bond for his centennial chance at talking to a woman. However, the woman’s mother found out and forbade her daughter from talking to the murderer. When Berka entered the house for his fireside chat and found the angry mother waiting for him instead of the daughter, he irritably complained, “Another hundred years!?!” His most recent chance came in 2009, and by all accounts, he blew it. Maybe he gets mad because everyone opens conversation with him by asking, “Aren’t you the golem?”

Then again, maybe if he just said yes, he’s the golem, someone would stop and talk to him.

Today, the statue of Iron Knight Jáchym Berka stands watch over Platnéřská Street, the road his ghost is said to haunt. How did such a ghoulish character from Prague’s dark folklore come to occupy such a prominent position outside the city hall? It really had to do with the location, and with the artist wanting to incorporate into the building some of Prague’s rich history of magic and legends. Said Saloun, “…on the corner of Platnéřská Street [I created] the Iron Man figure, which was well-known to locals and foreigners, enveloped in myths and a typical feature of not only the picturesque medieval Platnéřská Street, in which the legend took place, but also of the entire Old Town.”

Not well-known enough, apparently, since so many people think doomed, murderous Berka is the golem created by his statuary neighbor, Rabbi Loew. So the next time you find yourself stalking down narrow, dimly lit Platnéřská Street, and someone points to Jáchym Berka’s statue and says it’s the golem, you can push your glasses up your nose, sniff knowingly, and explain to them the sinister tale of the Iron Knight who just loved over-reacting to rumors. Correct enough people about the statue, and I guarantee you your conversation will be as much in demand as Jáchym Berka’s himself.

Speculum Alchemiae

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. 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.

%d bloggers like this: