By Dave Mendoza, Master Cybersleuth, JobMachine & Staffing Consultant
Throughout my seven day visit, I found that the true magic of Prague lies in its labyrinth of winding cobblestone paths that will take you, if you choose to follow, to the city’s hidden pubs, lounges, and restaurants bringing you further away from the dizzying frenzy of tourists meeting at the Jan Hus statue in Old Town Square. Take these paths as far as you can, not forgetting to take in the beauty of the pastel rainbow-colored buildings and connecting archways, through towers, past churches, any path you take will overwhelm you with the authenticity of the intact, Baroque and Gothic architecture. Itâ€™s a varied skyline of Gothic cathedrals soaring over Romanesque churches… Art Nouveau facades nestled alongside Cubist buildings. And, everywhere I went, I discovered clock towers.
Beer certainly is cheaper than water and stronger than what you’re used to. Don’t offend, order the largest one available and get into the spirit of things. And although vegetarians may be restricted to fried cheese and food critiques might frown at the lack of seasoning of most dishes, the truly traditional Czech dishes are something to smile about. After all, what goes better with a beer than goulash and dumplings? A hearty meal like this and a beer numbing your cheeks is the first step of getting into the heart of this culture; and try your skills with a little Czech to get the waiters and bartenders smiling, “Jedno pivo prosimdiky mocs!” (One beer please, thanks much!). This should surely be followed by, “jeste jedno prosim,” (“one more please”) repeated as often as necessary.
Ignore the ridiculous tourist books warning you of pick pockets and rude customer service. I never felt threatened as I walked the darkest corner alley. I finally cured myself of the paranoia my pre-trip research conjured after two day and I felt lame carrying my wallet around my neck as a means of security, and the welcome atmosphere towards Americans was never interrupted. The funny thing is that when I dropped a bunch of coins fumbling through the currency, two vendors came to offer to pick it up and hand it to me.
Having missed my missed my “Grand City Tour of Prague by Bus” tour by 9 hours, the concierge suggested the “Haunted Prague Walk” tour.
Prague is known as one of the most haunted cities in Europe: on par with Edinburgh or York, in England. Given my curiosity of the tales I read, I took the bait and I literally ran to the Old Square to make it in time. Upon my arrival I met with the hooded tour guide holding an orange umbrella directly underneath the famous “Astrological Clock,” one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated clocks on the side wall of the Old Town Hall. With glittering hands and a complex series of filigreed wheels, this ornamental timepiece does not merely mark the hours. Symbols of the zodiac tell the course of the heavens, and when the bell tolls, windows fly open and mechanical apostles, skeletons, and “sinners” begin a ritualistic dance of destiny. Throngs of tourists awaited for the hour to chime in with a mechanical figure of skeletal form signifying Death–leering and tolling the great bell, along side Wooden carvings of the twelve apostles and a calendar disk with astrological signs. The crowds cheer and disperse as quickly and we began our tour with Johanus, our friendly neighborhood tour guide.
According to the guide, most of these ghosts are harmless souls, “desiring only to be freed from their sentence of eternal haunting.”
Johanus, a university student by day, alley dweller by night, had many such stories. Some meld with Prague history, such as the much-told tale of the landmark, astrological clock’s origins: Legend says that the city government asked the master clockmaster to build the most beautiful clock in the world. When the work was done, Ganush, the clockmaster locked himself up in the workshop to create improvements to the original design. In the city rumors spread that that the master decided to make a new clock that would be some more beautiful than the previous one. The government decided to blind Ganush as he slept with a hot poker so he could not duplicate his masterpiece at Staromestska radnice. To avenge them, the blinded master went to the clock conspiring to set the gears to tangle the evil doers and kill them, he failed to set the trap and in anger broke the clock. When bell tolled one last time and the clock stopped, master Ganush died. The Clock was repaired years later, delayed by its design, far ahead of its time.
There is the sad story of the “Young Turk at Ungelt 7” who haunts Tyn Court at the full moon. Facing the building, one can feel time open to the 16th century when merchants traded here, one of them a wealthy Turkish guard who fell in love with a blonde beauty at this very doorstep. Being devout, the Turk returned to his native land to receive the Muslim blessing to marry the girl. He begged her to wait, and she did. But, after many months (some say even years), the girl began to hesitate. Jealousy, the killer of all love, made her suspect the handsome guard had fallen in love with someone else. And so, on the very evening of the Turkâ€™s return to Ungelt, the young girl married. In a rage, he grabbed her long, blonde plaits and lopped off her head. Still, he loved her and immediately mourned this rash action. Now, the Turk haunts Tyn Court, ever sleepless in his attempt to find his loverâ€™s body and reunite it with the severed head.
Such is the story, and many others like it, Johanus tells as she take visitors on the Prague Walks Ghost Tour through the back alleys of Old Town.
Outside the Karolinum, which, to this day, is used as a medical faculty office, one can hear the rattle of bones, the bones of the fabled Begging Skeleton, who, in life, stood exceptionally tall for his era, – more than two meters high. This poor chap tried to outwit a Charles University professor who wanted the young manâ€™s skeleton for his collection. Thinking he would surely outlive the professor who was a good 40 years his senior, the young student sold his bones for 30 crowns, which he drank away that night. Sometime after midnight, the drunken student was killed in a brawl and his skeleton came into the professorâ€™s collection. We are told, that to this day, his tall, bony shape appears in the vicinity of the Karolinum, stopping tipsy citizens to beg for money with which to buy back his skeleton.
Some stories have their beginnings during times of pestilence and famine, such as the tale of the countess who danced in shoes made of bread. Other tales recount the days of alchemy, when science, magic and greed conspired to turn steel into gold.
There are Jewish ghosts and Catholic ones, Hussites and witches, pixies, headless monks, spiked heads of innocent nobleman, and deceitful wives. The most amusing story of the night was the story of the gambling mom who spent her soldier son’s savings and threw herself out the window and landed where my foot was. Her ghost is said to ask for a few coins to save her from the shame of telling her son he was now penniless, no thanks to her habits.
After the tour was done, we asked if he had seen any ghosts. Johanus responded, â€œYou just need two shots of Absinthe, After that, youâ€™ll be seeing a ghost on every corner.â€