The More Unusual Side of Prague
As a tourist destination Prague is just a baby, but the Czechs have successfully managed to cash in on the recent influx of world travellers who want to see what Central Europe, Bohemia and the old Czech Republic is all about. In the past thirty years, Prague has grown to become one of the busiest and most popular European destinations.
Prague is a city that has something for everyone. The history is ancient and recent, enthralling and horrifying and the architecture is stunning whichever way you look. For some, Prague is a city rich with history from our lifetime, for some it’s an opportunity to delve into culture with the city’s buzzing art and music scene. For others, the bars and clubs are pumping, the girls are beautiful and the beer is cheap. What more could a tourist (or a hen/stag) want?
Well, how about something a little bit different? I like to dig a little deeper when I visit a place and Prague has quite a lot hidden under the surface. It is a city of stories and secrets, truth and fantasy, and of myths and legends! Prague is simply and wonderfully, one of the wackiest places I have ever been to. Of course, you could follow the herd and stick to the many tourist traps that Prague has to offer, or you could follow in my footsteps and explore the city for the many hidden and unusual gems that lie beneath the surface.
Some of these more unusual sights are easy enough to find; you may even come across them by accident if you like to spend an afternoon walking around a city. Some, however, are hidden away, so much so that I almost didn’t find a few even though I was looking for them!
So, here is my guide to some of the more unusual things to discover in Prague. Be a little different, experience the wacky side of Prague!
The Metronome of Letna Park
I have to begin with the Metronome as it is the one you are most likely to see if you happen to be anywhere near the Vltava river and decide to look up. Easily visible from the bridges and river at the bottom of Letna Hill, a very large working metronome, with a hand that extends to 75 feet, swings from side to side at the very site where Stalin once stood.
Prague's Metronome, Letna Park
Ok, it wasn’t the real Stalin, but a huge granite statue of him and a few of his workers, measuring 15.5 metres in height, 22 metres in length and 17,000 tons in weight. At the time it was the largest group statue in Europe and the world’s largest representation of the Russian Communist dictator. The statue was unveiled on the 1st of may 1955 and took 5 and a half years to create, but de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union by Nikita Kruschev, began shortly after the unveiling and was eventually destroyed in 1962 with 800 kg of explosives. The statue was a huge embarrassment to the city. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia hated it, the people despised it and even the sculptor who created it, Otakar Svec, killed himself the day before it was unveiled.
Prague's Metronome and Shoe Monument
For seven years, even after his death, Stalin loomed over Prague, watching the move of every citizen and quietly kept control of the Soviet satellite state of Czechoslovakia. Its destruction led to rejoicing in the streets of Prague before another 30 years of communism. Now, when the people of Prague look up at where Stalin once stood, they see the ever ticking metronome, a reminder that time never stands still, connecting Prague’s past, present and future.
The Skaters of Letna Park
Today, the Metronome, which was erected in 1991, sits among the trendy youth of Prague, with a beer garden and skaters use the area behind it to demonstrate their skills. Interestingly, beneath the granite plinth is a bomb shelter, once used by pirate station ‘Radio Stalin’ in 1990, and later was home to Prague’s first rock club. The doors to the bomb shelter are now locked.
The Hanging Shoes of the Metronome
Tumbling down from the top of the Metronome is a long telephone wire, which now displays an incredible number of shoes, supposedly thrown up there by the local skaters though the symbolism behind it is unknown and the meaning really depends on who you ask. Whatever the reason the shoes continue to hang there, you can be sure that it is a message against resistance.
The Hanging Shoes of Prague
* Get a tram to Cechuv Most at the end of the Svatopluk Cech Bridge and climb the steps!
The Museum of Communism
The Metronome monument of Prague links seamlessly to the story of the Museum of Communism, both feeding off the city’s recent history. In a city of hundreds of museums, it is strange that this one often gets overlooked. It isn’t the easiest place to find, hidden inside the 18th century palace of a Czech aristocrat which now has a McDonalds and a casino in its midst, quite an ironic symbol of how the Czech Republic has grown from the oppressed communist satellite state of the Soviet Union, to a country of modernity and capitalism. Walk through the McDonalds on Na Prikope, which sits between Hugo Boss, Mango, G-Star and Hamleys, and take the stairs up to the first floor and you will find yourself amongst one of the most bizarre collections of communist memorabilia.
A Statue of Stalin at the Museum of Communism
The museum was founded by American political science major and bagel mogul, Glenn Spicker. He set himself on a mission to collect relics and every day artefacts from the Czech Republic’s communist past, searching flea markets and junk shops across Prague. The displays of statues, posters and every day objects exhibit the period from the end of World War II, to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, during which time Czechoslovakia was governed by the communist Soviet Union. The artefacts are surrounded by story-telling texts and multimedia presentations which remind the visitor about the horrors of “Communism - the Dream, the Reality, and the Nightmare”.
*Find the Museum of Communism on the junction of Havirska and Na Prikope
The Lennon Wall
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I have already written about the Lennon Wall in my article ‘The Art of Prague’, but it is certainly worthy of a mention here too. It is not only unusual in many ways, but it also lends some light relief and the perfect antithesis to the communism related sights mentioned above. The Lennon Wall was once a normal brick wall, but in the 1980s, it was covered in Lennon and the Beatles inspired graffiti by young Czechs who were desperate for change and ultimately, peace.
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Since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the wall has been used as an outlet for any grievances, and while initially this led to a clash between students and security police on Charles Bridge, the wall has continued to play host to the words of the world’s people, symbolising ideologies such as peace and love.
Leave Your Own Message on the Lennon Wall
The wall changes every day; you can even buy some paint and leave your own message to the world if you wish.
*Cross Charles Bridge from old Town, turn left onto Lazenska and keep following the road round
David Cerny and the Man Hanging Out
Moving on from the people’s art to modern art, David Cerny, Prague born artist and sculptor, always has a number of weird and wacky pieces on display around the city, some temporarily, some more permanent. Cerny came to prominence in 1991 by painting a Soviet tank pink, to serve as a war memorial in central Prague. The tank was a national cultural monument at the time and he was arrested for his actions. In defiance, his fans took themselves to the tank and painted it pink once again. Since then, David Cerny has left his controversial art work all over the city.
'Man Hanging Out' by David Cerny
One of the more difficult to find is the ‘Man Hanging Out’, created in 1996 as a statement about intellectualism in the 20th century. Walk under it by accident and you may well think that somebody is in real trouble up there! In fact, it is a statue of Sigmund Freud, meant to make people look up and consider whether intellect can truly have any great affect on our future.
* From Karlova, walk south along Husova, you will find Freud at the junction with Betlemske nam
The Tunnel of Books
David Cerny may well think that intellectualism is at a loss, but the Prague Municipal Library thinks otherwise. The Tunnel of Books is a sculpture by Slovak artist, Matej Kren, which he actually named ‘Idiom”. Kren created a cylindrical tower built from hundreds and hundreds of books and then used mirrors inside to create the illusion of infinity. The artist wanted viewers to connect knowledge with infinity, suggesting that you can always learn and that knowledge should be passed on.
Unfortunately, at the time I was in Prague, the Municipal Library was closed for refurbishment and I was unable to see the sculpture for myself.
* The library is located at the back of the Klementium on Platnerska
The Magical Cavern
The gallery of Reon Argondian
Most people visit Petrin Hill for a nice stroll in the park, a drink or some food at the restaurant on the way up, or for the views of Prague from the top of the Petrin Tower. Many however, miss the slightly crazy, if not incredible Magical Cavern, set in a small old mill building half way up the hill. Reon Argondian is an artist who has managed to make his gallery into a work of art in itself. Wander past the old mill cottage and you would think that it was abandoned, crumbling on the outside and covered in ivy. His beautiful but rather circus like assistant stands at the entrance trying to lure people inside and if you are brave enough to enter, you will be immersed into a psychedelic, fairytale world of fantastical colour and pure imagination.
A Psychedelic World of Mystery and Fantasy
It is quite sad to think that so many miss the opportunity to view Reon’s work. I was the only person there at the time I visited and I saw at least ten people walk past and decline to enter. There is a 70CZK entrance fee, but it is only a small amount for the experience you get once you’re inside. The Kingdom of Argondia has every nook and cranny filled with works of art that are said to have been inspired by the artist’s personal visions. They are all for sale of course and his style is in total contrast to Cerny’s but absolutely worth the hike or tram ride up the hill!
The Kingdom of Argondia
* Either walk or take the tram from Ujezd LD half way up Petrin Hill. At the restaurant, take the upper path into the park and you will find the old mill house about 200 yards in on your left
The Infant Jesus
Visiting the Infant Jesus at the Church of Our Lady Victorious is quite an experience. I was fortunate enough to arrive there as mass had begun and I do wonder if my experience would have been quite different otherwise. I must profess, I am not religious and without the intention of offending anybody, I find the idea of the Infant Jesus being a miracle worker, a little hard to swallow. However, I also believe that faith is powerful, what you have faith in is irrelevant. To some, this small statue representing the child Jesus is everything. Certainly, the mass and the affect that it had on people there was quite moving.
The Priest and his Clerics Pray to the Infant Jesus
The statue dates back to the 16th century and is believed to have once belonged to Saint Teresa of Avila. Legend has it that a monk in a desolated Spanish monastery had a vision of a little boy telling him to pray; he made the figure of the child after several hours of prayer. It was brought to Prague by Maria Manriquez de Lara Mendoza through her marriage to Czech nobleman, Vratislav of Pernstyn. Maria’s mother is said to have received the statue from Saint Teresa of Avila herself. It was then displayed in the Church of Our Lady Victorious. The statue became known as a miracle worker when people began to profess their problems to the Infant Jesus and their problems would later be mysteriously solved.
The Infant Jesus, Permanently Displayed in Prague
Today, thousands of pilgrims travel to Prague to pay homage to the Infant Jesus every year. During the mass I attended, the priest and his clerics moved to the altar in front of the statue and specific prayers were recited. There was then the opportunity for anybody in the congregation to pray to the statue directly and ask for its help. An American woman just in front of me spoke out and thanked the statue for helping her to stay strong during her battle with cancer and asked the Infant Jesus to continue to help her fight against the disease. It really was quite moving.
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* You can walk down Karmelitska from the St Nicholas, or take the tram to Hellichova to find the Church or Our Lady Victorious
The Thief’s Arm
Staying with the religious theme, we now move to the church of St James the Greater, where a 400 year old mummified arm dangles from the ceiling. Legend tells that a thief once tried to steal the jewels from a statue of the Virgin Mary. When he touched the jewels, the statue reached out to him and grabbed his arm, holding him there until the parishioners discovered him. The people couldn’t free the thief from the statue and were forced to amputate his arm. As soon as the arm was cut from his body, the statue dropped the severed limb and returned to her original position. The arm has since been hung from a meat hook inside the church as a warning to all thieves.
The Mummified Arm of the Church of St James the Greater
The church is positioned not far from Old Town Square, behind the church of Our Lady before Tyn and is easy to find. The mummified arm, however is not! As you step inside the church, turn to the right and look up. It’s hung at quite a height and it is much smaller than you would imagine, with absolutely no signage, so you really do have to look for it. The church itself is worth visiting for its spooky past anyway. If the story about the severed limb isn’t enough for you, the church is also the resting place of Count Jan Vratislav of Mitrovice who was buried in a beautiful tomb inside the church in the 1700s. He was buried alive, wailing and moaning for days, the locals believing it was the sound of his ghost. When the tomb was opened several years later, his body was found outside of his coffin. Spooky!
* From Old Town Square, walk behind the Church of Our Lady before Tyn and follow the path through an archway, the church is on your left with a stone sculpture facade
St Valentine’s Shoulder Blade
Part of the wonderful old castle of Vysehrad, the church of St Peter and Paul is home to perhaps one of the strangest relics in the world, St Valentine’s shoulder. The relic was discovered by church officials in 2002, the shoulder clearly labelled as such in the church’s vaults. Apparently, the Roman Emperor Charles IV who lived at Vysehrad castle, brought the shoulder to Prague in the 14th century. DNA testing hasn’t actually be done to confirm the claim, but nonetheless, the shoulder is always on display and the church holds a special service in honour of the shoulder on Valentines Day each year. Composers Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak, writer Karel Capek and artist Alfons Mucha were also buried in the church cemetery should you be so inclined.
* Inside the grounds of Vysehrad Castle
The Museum of Alchemy
Statues coming to life and people being buried alive suggests an air of supernatural in Prague, so why not magic? Alchemy may well be a scientific art but it is a process surrounded by mysticism. Actually back in the late 1500s, the alchemists of Prague were thought to be magicians by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II who had chosen Prague as his home. Magicians, witches, scientists, connectors to the afterlife, workers of the devil, there are many names associated with the work of the alchemists and now you can see for yourselves, just what they got up to.
Credit: Museum of Alchemy, Prague
I was actually really looking forward to visiting this wacky museum and it is quite a trek to get there, so I was disappointed to find that it was closed, with no suggestion of this on its website. Apparently, the main floor has displays and replica artefacts, the second floor claims to be the actual tower where Edward Kelley and John Dee performed their esoteric experiments, complete with and stacks of scrolls and grimoires and a half-completed homunculus, the ultimate alchemical achievement. You can even try some of their many elixirs, the recipes of which had been found under the house. The Elixirs of Eternal Youth, Love, Memory and drinkable gold are just some on offer! I really needed all of them!
The Elixir of Love
* From St Nicholas, walk up Trziste and continue on to Bretislavova, a tiny street that passes the Alchemist Grand Hotel, turn right and walk up the hill, the museum is on the right hand side
The Sex Machines Museum
Once you’ve had a taste of the Elixir of Love, you’ll probably want to head over to the world’s only museum dedicated to sexual gadgets. It’s not for everyone but it certainly is unusual. While it may sound smutty and slightly unnecessary in so many ways, apparently it is quite interesting and the exhibits are displayed in quite a clinical way. Unfortunately, I didn’t get my Elixir of Love and so I chose not to visit the museum of sexual contraptions, just in case my libido or lack of, couldn’t quite hack it. Over 200 sexual instruments are displayed across three floors, including iron corsets, shoes worn by ancient Greek prostitutes and other sex related artefacts dating back to the 16th century.
* In the heart of Old Town, take the road opposite the Astronomical Clock, Melantrichova, the museum will be on your left
The Love Lock Bridges
Sex and love go hand in hand right? So after your dalliance with all of those sex contraptions from the dark era to the present day, why not stroll across Charles Bridge and onto Kampa Island where you can find the true symbol of love, the love lock. Yes, there are several locations on Kampa Island where iron railings and mesh metal has been taken over by a flock of inscribed padlocks.
Love Lock Bridge, Prague
Love locks may have become a craze, but the history of the love padlocks dates back at least 100, to a melancholic Serbian tale of World War I, with an attribution for the bridge ‘Most Ljubavi’, the Bridge of Love. A local school mistress called Nada from Vrnjacka Banja, fell in love with a soldier named Relja. Shortly after becoming engaged, Relja went to war in Greece where he fell in love with a local woman from Corfu. Relja and Nada called off their engagement and Nada later died of heartbreak. Young women from the same town wanted to protect their own loves and started writing down their names, with the names of their loved ones, on padlocks and affixing them to the railings of the bridge where Nada and Relja used to meet.
The Padlocks of Prague
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that modern day padlocks were seen left on bridges all over the world.
* Walk across Charles Bridge away from old town and take the steps down at the other side
The Wacky Side of Prague
There are many, many more crazy places to experience in Prague. For a start it really is the city of museums, there is a museum in Prague for everything, even toilets! Yes, you could even spend an afternoon browsing at the Museum of Historical Chamber Pots and Toilets. There is also the KGB museum, which is a little crazy for being in the middle of Prague anyway, but is also owned and hosted by what appears to be a man who is slightly unhinged! Reviews are mixed for this particular attraction, mostly due to the behaviour of the owner, but the comments themselves and certainly the owner’s replies are well worth a read for some light entertainment!
Have you been inspired to experience the more unusual side of Prague? Perhaps you already have? Did we miss something or somewhere important? What wacky things have you done in the majestic city of Prague?