Prague is just the right size for wandering around and stumbling upon great finds. Our discovery of the Museum of Alchemy was a complete accident as we walked through the Old Town toward the Jewish Quarter. In fact, the subterranean rooms were only recently re-discovered, following the floods of 2002 when clean-up workers found the entrance to the lab rooms and catacombs beneath this home at Haštalská #1. The museum opened in 2012.
What’s more, dozens of formulas for elixirs were found intact, as were glass vials and tubes made on site. The experiments and magic potions involved dozens of herbs suspended in alcohol or opium, and a variety of metals which the alchemists attempted to change to gold. The preparations promised eternal youth, love, long memory, and more.
The lab was active in the 16th Century, and supported by King Rudolf II. The laboratory rooms were reportedly connected to the castle and town square by tunnels running under and along the Vltava River (known as Moldau in German). The building itself goes back to medieval times, and is located along the oldest trade routes from Europe to the Far East.
The building survived the major fire of 1689, only to be surrounded by legends of strange and fiery events. The lore includes sightings of a carriage pulled by goats, all aflame as they passed by. Ventilation issues, explosions, and experiments gone wrong might explain these reports, but inexplicably, the house was spared from demolition for reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter in the late 19th Century.
Over the years, the rooms above ground served as a home and shop. Today, the entrance room, a few steps down from street level, is lined with elixirs made according to the original recipes (but without opiates), for sale. The laboratory (entrance fee 200 Koruna, or about US$10) is accessed only with a guide. Inside, the primary salon is decorated with various symbols of the occult, original items found in the area, and styled as a 17th Century drawing room. It includes a bookcase loaded with skulls, feathers, carvings, test tubes, and powders. The walls and ceiling are decorated with paintings of the four elements. A secret door, of course, opens to a stairway leading down to the laboratory rooms.
A series of dimly lit rooms opening from a narrow hallway, the lab was a complete production facility. The glass vials were made right there, ventilation was supplied through chimneys, and stepped ovens provided a range of temperatures for cooking the mixtures.
With a tour of the Museum of Alchemy under our belt, we could see Prague’s Jewish Quarter and Town Square in a different light, and feel the layers history and mystery at our feet.
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