A walking tour of "esoteric" Prague
The din of the crowd you can hear behind me are hundreds of tourists who have filled into Prague's Old Town Square on a simply gorgeous Thursday evening. The clock has just struck six but and a few of us are waiting for Jana, our guide, who will lead us on a walking tour called "The Ghost Trail". The flyer has promised a journey into darkness and Prague's haunted streets - a tall order on an evening when the sun continues to shine brightly and finding abandoned alleyways will be difficult. Dozens of travellers walk by or sit on benches, draped over their backpacks.
For a moment I can not help but think this kind of tour might best be presented on a day of drizzling rain and icy wind, with an old wizard for a guide. Or in the blackest of night when the moon is hidden and we follow a hunched figure by the light of an oil lamp; but, then I know, I'm probably asking too much.
Instead, I decide to get the visitors' views on what they expect.
Young Scottish couple:
"My girlfriend brought me to Prague, she made the decision, I was blind to it. She said 'I've booked you a holiday and you're not going to find out until we go. I'm happy she's brought me!"
"I think we came over for the culture and the history of the city. I think more of eastern Europe is opening up now and we hadn't really been to any of the east European countries before."
Are you fans of the esoteric, stuff like astrology, or are you just curious to hear the legends?
"I think it's purely curiosity."
"I think it gives a different side to the city as well to hear legends and myths."
Almost inevitably mysticism and the occult form one of the prevailing backdrops to ancient Prague: the stories are out there, from the Jewish Quarter's legend of the Golem - Rabbi Loew's artificial man brought to life, to tales from the court of Rudolph II, the eccentric Habsburg emperor who entertained dreams of discovering the philosopher's stone. Those tales and the tragic events of 1621 - the execution of Czech protestant nobility - are all discussed on the Ghost Trail as well as tales of secret societies like the Knights of the Rose and the Cross, Freemasons and the Templar - popularised by authors like Umberto Eco and most recently by Dan Brown, in his pulp sensation "The Da Vinci Code". But, with so many myths and legends and stories of esoteric societies, I wondered if at times it isn't all a bit much for the tourists - many in Prague for the first time - who may know little or nothing at all about more mainstream Czech history. I asked guide Jana what she thought.
"Definitely when they have no clue about these secret societies, it can be difficult. On the other hand these secret societies like the masons still exist, in England and France and Bohemia, so I think people are familiar with these terms and it's not such a problem."
Certainly, there is something alluring about the esoteric vision of Prague as a magnetic centre of medieval thought, philosophy, art, and science, imbued with the deeper secret meanings. Especially when history melts into legend, myths go some way in forming a sense of national pride. Our guide's favourite tale is that of the Blanik knights, destined to come and save the country when it finds itself in greatest peril.
Evening falls. Now we approach St. James' Church just off the Old Town Square and hear the tale of a famous thief who tried to steal from the altar.
"Have you heard about it?"
"Yeah we have."
"You've heard the story..."
"Something about a thief trying to steal a necklace and they chopped off his hand."
"That's right. The story talks about the altar of the Virgin Mary at the back of the church. In the past people used to bring her precious gifts: jewellery, earrings and so on, and then one of the thieves who lived in Prague wanted a share of the treasure, so he tried to steal it. The legend tells of the statue grabbing his hand and not letting go until he was caught. Then they cut his hand off."
To this day the thief's dried-up hand - cut-off for his crime - hangs high in one of the church's corners, looking more animal than human, like some cursed monkey's paw. You won't be able to enter the church on the tour - but it is highly recommended you view it on your own. Now, the group prepares for the second leg of the walk - which lasts two hours in all, and will take it as far as a beer at a local pub and then the famous Charles Bridge. By then the sun will have disappeared and perhaps the ghosts of Prague will make an appearance. A tour on the Ghost Trail without them wouldn't be complete.