Iconic tunnel connecting Prague’s Žižkov and Karlín districts marks 70th anniversary

The Žižkov tunnel

If you need to get from Prague’s district of Žizkov to neighbouring Karlín, there is no faster way than to walk, or cycle, through the Žižkov Tunnel. The 303-metre pedestrian shortcut, which also houses a nuclear shelter, was fully completed exactly 70 years ago, on December 19, 1953.

Tachov Square and the tunnel entrance on the Žižkov side | Photo: Anaïs Raimbault,  Radio Prague International

The tunnel connecting the districts of Žižkov and Karlín opened to the public already in 1951, but it was not fully completed until two years later. It is approximately 4.5 metres wide and 3.4 metres tall, and if you go from the direction of Žižkov, it runs slightly downhill. It is also curved so once you reach the middle, you cannot see the entrance or the exit.

The tunnel was built not only to connect the two neighbourhoods, divided by Vítkov Hill, but it was also intended to protect the population in times of war. Martin Karlík, a Prague tourist guide, says plans for the tunnel emerged already in the 1930s:

Martin Karlík | Photo:  Anaïs Raimbault,  Radio Prague International

“During the Second World War, the city’s first air-raid shelter was built here. After the war, a proposal emerged to build a pedestrian tunnel that would be partly connected to the shelter. At the same time, there was also a plan to build a tunnel for cars in neighboring Šaldova street.”

While the second plan never came to fruition, a different tunnel for cars running under Letná Hill materialized. Both of the structures have a strikingly similar design, with walls completely covered in cream-colored tiles.

The Žižkov tunnel featured a fully functional fallout shelter with a capacity of over 1,200 people, designed for the event of a nuclear war, which is maintained to this day. It contains over a thousand metres of corridors and could be hermetically sealed in case of a disaster.

David Chvátil | Photo: Archives of Zane Perkone

Part of the shelter, originally supposed to serve as a morgue, is today used by the Nuclear Research Institute, of the Czech Academy of Sciences. It houses a small particle accelerator, similar to the one located at CERN in Switzerland, explains physicist David Chvátil:

“There are only a few accelerators of this type in the world. Ours has been in operation since 1981 and is the western-most in Europe, so we cooperate with many institutions. Its applications range from material research to the development of detectors for the space industry, radiation resistance testing and the development of new materials.”

The tunnel only got its official name, the Žižkov Tunnel, in December 2013. Four years later, Brno-based artist Timo sprayed a sign “Neboj” or “Don’t be afraid”, above the Karlín entrance to encourage people not to be afraid to use the underpass.

Loners  (Samotáři) | Photo:  YouTube

Thanks to its unique design and atmosphere, the tunnel has featured in many music videos and films, including the iconic Loners, directed by David Ondříček in the year 2000.

The Žizkov tunnel is now part of a major cycling route through the city and with Karlín becoming one of Prague’s most hip districts, it is quite a busy place.

Authors: Ruth Fraňková , Anaïs Raimbault
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