Prague (really) underground: A tour of Emperor Franz Josef’s favourite Bohemian sewer

Фото: Катержина Гавликова, Архив Чешского Радио

Just to the right of Prague’s famous mediaeval astronomical clock on Old Town Square, where tourists congregate in droves on the hour to see “The Walk of the Apostles”, lies an attraction of an altogether different nature. It’s a mere century old, only open to the public once a year, and rather stinky. I went along on the tour – so you don’t have to.

Photo: Kateřina Havlíková / Czech Radio

Guide: “Welcome to Open Doors Day at the Prague Water Supply and Sewage Company. We are now in the so-called Foreign Entrance, built some 120 years ago by the engineer Lindley.”

Of my own free will, I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon in the dank old Prague sewage network, nine metres below the spectacular Old Town Square.

Photo: Brian Kenety
The modern 3,000 kilometre long network, which serves the needs of some 1.5 million people, is hardly a tourist attraction. But the Cizinecký vstup, or Foreign Entrance, is something special – or at least when built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

As our guide explains, this particular entrance came to be known as the Foreign Entrance because Prague officials liked to show it off to visiting dignitaries, as it was among the deepest and architecturally appealing in Europe.

Guide: “Emperor Franz Josef I had it built so he would have something to boast about to the world. That’s why the ‘Foreign Entrance’. Franz Josef himself never visited here, but high-ranking city and government officials sometimes did…”

Photo: Kateřina Havlíková / Czech Radio
Cizinecký vstup was in fact also designed by a foreigner, the English engineer William Lindley, who together with his sons built the first underground water and sewerage systems in central Europe, and in some 30 cities across the continent, from Frankfurt to St. Petersburg.

Although construction of an underground Prague sewer had begun in 1787, progress was sluggish until 1816, because house owners bristled at paying for stretches that ran along their properties. By 1828, however, some 44 kilometres had been built, with 35 outlets – emptying directly into the Vltava River.

By the late 19th century, with the population rapidly growing, the authorities feared it was only a matter of time before infection and disease engulfed their fair city. On the 16th of July 1884, representatives of the royal capital city of Prague opened a tender to do something about it.

William Lindley, photo: Public Domain
That effort failed, so a special sewerage sub-commission was established, under the governor of Bohemia – later made a prince by Emperor Franz Josef – who chose one of Lindley’s sons, William H., to do the dirty work.

When I signed up for one of the free tours – which were fully booked hours after registration opened– I’d imagined I’d be donning a hard hat, holding a handkerchief to my nose and keeping a wary eye out for sewer rats.

None of that came to pass. The Cizinecký vstup was damp, but surprisingly roomy, and replete with grand brick vaults that wouldn’t look out of place in Victorian London, which stands to reason: construction began in 1896 and finished in 1905.

Although the true bowels of the Prague sewage system were designed less to impress than to get the job done, they are also surprisingly graceful. Lindley’s wastewater treatment plant served for more than 60 years before being largely replaced by newer lines.

William Lindley’s route from Cizinecký vstup to the city’s Sewage Plant by Císařský ostrov in Bubeneč, passes under Old Town Square through to Pařížská Street in the old Jewish Quarter, then underneath the Vltava River at Čechův most, past the Russian Embassy below Korunovační Street, and finally beneath Stromovka Park in Prague 7.