Rambling with the Ghosts of Prague




by Ray Riegert


Actually it was a flight attendant on Lufthansa who first told me about them. While describing the city's long tradition of saints and scoundrels, none of the guidebooks had mentioned anything about ghosts. It was long past dark on an all-night flight to Prague when she unraveled the untold past of the Czech capital.

Dinner had been served and most of the passengers were asleep. The cabin lights had dimmed and Katya, a friendly Czech woman working for the German airline, began recounting the story of a poor mother and her children during the time of a plague epidemic. They lived in the shadow of Strahov Monastery, a beautiful Baroque structure with twin towers that even today dominates the skyline. The pestilence struck the children down one by one. Each time another child died the woman would use her only coins to ring the chapel bells. After she died, the bells continued to ring—with a hymn to Mary that still is occasionally heard on moonless nights long after everyone has left the chapel.

Perhaps it is the mysterious play of light and shadow on the city's "hundred spires" that gave rise to the ghost stories of Prague; or the multitude of conquering invaders and strange deaths during its 1200-year history; or the fairy-tale atmosphere of the Golden City with its vaulting castles, narrow cobbled streets and whimsical houses.

Ever since the Velvet Revolution freed the Czech Republic from Communism in 1989, I had been hearing increasingly about Prague's unreal charm from fellow travelers. This Central European city of 1.2 million had become an "in" spot during the 1990s and now finally I was going to experience it. Little did I realize when I stepped aboard that Lufthansa 747 that the flight itself would put a welcome and unusual twist on my visit.

As Katya explained, even Prague's signature landmark and top tourist spot, Prague Castle, is haunted with spirits. Seeming to float above the city, the "castle" is a complex of palaces, courtyards and cathedrals, a maze of brooding buildings within which are buried generations of the royal family. It's in the Royal Crypt, open to anyone willing to descend into its warren of dank rooms, where the four wives of Emperor Charles IV are said to wander the night, fighting jealously among themselves and seeking a last glimpse of their husband.

There are jokes on the other hand about "non-ghosts" at the Old Royal Palace nearby. If ghosts are victims of murder or other grievous wrongs then the two Catholic governors who were thrown from a high window by Protestant noblemen in 1618 must be the opposite. The act ignited the Thirty Years War but left the governors pungent but unscathed: They landed in a dunghill in the castle moat. 

As with all ghost stories, Prague's meet with a spectrum of responses. Skeptics dismiss them as nonsense, others stand midway between reality and shade, claiming that the "spirit" of these individuals—some of whom were great leaders or notorious villains—imbues the air of contemporary Prague. But believers envision them actually inhabiting the city, roaming its ancient streets, passing among the populace.

The sense of history here is not only pervasive but multilayered. Like an archaeologist you find that immediately behind one level of the city's past rests another and then another. I had checked in to the Hotel Intercontinental Prague, a steel-and-glass hotel built in the 1970s. The hotel had been recommended by friends, but perhaps it was fate that placed me in a sleek ultra-modern hotel, too young to have resident ghosts, that provided a welcome relief after each long day in pursuit of specters and myths.

With its health club and fashionable café, it was also a comfortable counterpoint to the city I gazed upon from my window. The hotel sits directly on the Vltava, the scenic river that divides the Medieval Mala Strana district from New Town. This last neighborhood, a veritable youngster among Prague neighborhoods, dates back merely to the 14th century. The Intercontinental seemed like a time capsule from which I was viewing each fold of Prague's long history.

The river itself boasts a few resident ghosts. According to early Slavic lore, Princess Libuse, the female warrior who founded the city, cast her lovers into the Vltava's murky waters whenever she tired of them. And every Czech child is familiar with the Vltava water spirits, tiny men with pipes and green coats who have lived in the depths since the birth of Prague and are always ready to dispense advice to residents and visitors alike.

The river courses through the heart of the city and heart of the heart is the Charles Bridge. Together with the distant silhouette of Prague Castle, it is the symbol of the city, a 600-year-old stone bridge that links Old Town and Mala Strana. Adorning this Gothic span is a succession of Baroque statues that stand like sentinels for the length of the thoroughfare.

One in particular was pointed out to me. Not because it is the oldest on the bridge but rather that it is said to be a "frozen ghost." The subject, St. John Nepomuk, took confession from the wife of Wenceslas IV. When he refused to reveal her secrets to the king, Wenceslas ordered the priest tortured and hurled from the bridge in 1393. For almost three centuries the cleric was periodically sighted along the waterfront until his vagrant soul was "captured" in the 17th-century statue. Once the artist completed the rendition, St. John was never seen again.

I heard my favorite ghost story at one of the city's illustrious cafes, which once were the haunt of the 20th-century author Franz Kafka. His former residences are seemingly everywhere and include one that today houses the American Embassy. But it is on the street rather than in his old homes that Kafka's shade is seen. Legend has it he sweeps through Prague's tight passageways and rutted streets angrily hunting a fellow artist. It seems that Kafka had directed this loyal friend to destroy his writings when he died, but the well-meaning chap defied the demand, allowing the novels to be published—and guaranteeing Kafka immortality and world renown.

Prague I found is a city of extraordinary beauty with a strange allure, a place whose friendly inhabitants and measured pace give it the familiarity of a village. But most intriguing were the inhabitants I never saw, a roving assembly of phantoms that includes priests, kings, commoners and a famous 20th-century novelist who turned out to be not only a ghost, but an ungrateful one at that!


Ray Riegert is the publisher of Ulysses Press and author of numerous travel guidebooks, including Hidden Hawaii and Hidden San Francisco and Northern California. He lives in a house in Berkeley, CA that dates back almost a century but (so far as he knows) contains no ghosts.


Travel Tips

General information: The Czech Tourist Authority is a good source for future visitors. Contact them at 1109 Madison Avenue, N.Y., NY 10028; 212/288-0830, 212/288-0971 fax; e-mail mailto:travelczech@pop.net; URL http://www.czechcenter.com/travel.htm

Arrival: The airline I have found that provides the most frequent and convenient service to Prague is Lufthansa. They have regularly scheduled flights from international airports around the country. For reservations and information call 800/645-3880.

Lodging: Located in Old Town, the Hotel Inter-Continental Prague is a 364-room facility with two-restaurants, a café and lounge and a friendly staff. For reservations and information contact them at Nam. Curieovych 43/5, 110 00 Praha 1, Czech Republic; 011-44-022-488-1111; 011-44-022-481-0071 fax; e-mail mailto:prague@interconti.com; URL www.interconti.com

Guidebooks: The Insight Guide Prague (APA Publications) provides excellent background information on the city; Michelin's Green Guide Prague is good for sightseeing; and Cheap Eats in Prague, Vienna, Budapest (Chronicle Books) is filled with helpful tips on dining economically.