Prague to open its technological heritage to tourists

Have you been to Prague a few times and think you've seen it all but you would still like to return? Then you are one of those people that the Prague authorities had in mind when they came up with a new project aimed at both foreign and domestic tourists. Prague is soon going to open its technological heritage to visitors and there is indeed a lot to see.

Prague has now become the first capital city in Central and Eastern Europe to exploit the potential of "experience tourism" on a large scale. The Prague Chamber of Commerce is one of the organisations involved in this initiative.

"The Prague Chamber of Commerce and Industry is ready to open Prague's technological heritage to both domestic and international tourists. It is also ready to provide assistance to both the public and private owners of these interesting objects and sites so that they can open them for tourists."

Jan Hauser of the Prague Chamber of Commerce says the project is financed by EU money, the city of Prague and from the state budget. Although technological heritage sites are open to tourists in many parts of the world, Jan Hauser says Prague is the only place where such a project is coordinated throughout the city.

Historical funicular on Petrin Hill
"I would definitely say it is a unique project although we were inspired by some foreign projects like Scottish whisky distilleries and some other tourist attractions working around the world. But this particular idea of opening up one's technological heritage is Prague's innovation."

Among the sites that are to open their doors to the public are for example the water treatment plant in the Prague district of Podoli and the engine rooms of the historical funicular on Petrin Hill. Prague's utility tunnels are one of the more modern constructions on display. Some of them, as a matter of fact, are already accessible to visitors. Director Otakar Capek is very enthusiastic about the new project.

"On behalf of our company, I decided to join the project because of my experience from travelling. When colleagues from other countries invite us to their countries they always show us something special. For example, the steam museum in London. And we thought if we are interested in these technological monuments, others might be too. So why not try this back home? Not only for the expert visitors but also for the general public."

Prague's underground utility tunnels have been constructed and equipped over the last four decades. They run everywhere underneath the whole city, including its historical centre.

"We want to show people the rare combination of historical buildings and modern technology. For centuries, Prague kept raising its ground level and therefore many buildings in Prague have two levels of cellars - the bottom Gothic cellar, above it a Baroque cellar and on top of them you have an Art Nouveau building. And these beautiful vaulted cellars lead into technical corridors with state-of-the-art technology and security systems. After a short walk through this corridor you find yourself in another historical cellar and passing through different historical periods you end up back on the street."

Otakar Capek says the utility tunnels underneath the Czech capital are unique on a global scale.

"Prague is the only capital city that has nearly completed a comprehensive network of tunnels which serve the most important parts of the city. The overall length is 90 kilometres. Compare it to Berlin - it has 25 kilometres, Paris has around 20 kilometres. It is not a problem to add any new wires or pipes - the system has been built to last for 200 years and to contain networks which don't yet exist today. Also, even before 2001 we implemented excellent security systems - of course, I'm not going to disclose any details. We have practically excluded the possibility of anyone getting into these systems. With gas pipes and so on, they could be potentially very vulnerable. It was an idea that no one else had had."

Visitors to the underground tunnels are equipped with overcoats and hard hats and a tour guide shows them round some of the most interesting parts. I asked Otakar Capek which utilities can be found there.

"Everything from gas pipes, steam pipes, water mains, to pneumatic postal service, high and low voltage cables, data cables, telecommunications cables and also special networks connecting individual companies. We have even been asked to install pipes to draw beer from restaurants."

Otakar Capek says the utility tunnels or "kolektory" as they are called in Czech are a living organism which evolves constantly. In the deepest corridors, some 30-40 metres underground, a special train runs on five-kilometre routes transporting pipes, metal parts and other components. The tunnel is never complete; it is a never-ending process, says Otakar Capek and adds that this system, which he is so proud of, was mostly built during a historical period that tends to be looked down upon - the socialist era.

"Even in those days when there was a group of people who believed in something, who thought they were working on something meaningful, they could make it happen. The construction indeed had flaws of the socialist era. For example, after 1989 we had to renovate everything that did not meet safety standards. Such as fire doors made of cardboard, weak ventilators and so on."

The Prague utility tunnels are looking forward to welcoming more tourists thanks to this new coordinated project, which is opening Prague's technological heritage to the public. And director Otakar Capek says there is more to see than wires and vaults.

"Prague is a tectonically stable area but the geology is very complex. You can find gravel sands here, clay, slate, etc., and all that poses many problems. When we were digging the big tunnel between the Municipal House and the bottom of Wenceslas Square, we basically followed the route of a 13th century ditch. It was full of objects discarded there and remnants of the old city walls which were later demolished. We worked with archaeologists and many of the objects that we found are on display right there in the tunnel."

Individual companies in Prague are now joining the venture which hopes to boost incoming tourism in the capital. When can visitors see the newly opened technological monuments? Jan Hauser of the Prague Chamber of Commerce.

"This would obviously be a question for the owners and the people who are running these sites but we hope that this summer, meaning the summer of 2007, should be the time when the first doors are opened."

So if you still haven't decided where to travel this summer, Prague might be an option because you may see something here that you haven't seen before.

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