Prague

Digging the way to a new market

Prague 9 moves to open city’s underground passageways

For centuries, miners pulled tons of crumbling rock from the veins of sandstone found underneath the Prosek hill in Prague 9. The tunnels lay dormant when excavation tapered off at the end of the 19th century, but in recent years Prague 9 officials have been quietly connecting the intricate web of tunnels that remained.

They now want to put nearly 20 million Kč ($883,000) into a project that would turn the passages into a 400-meter (1,312-foot) tourist attraction and take advantage of a niche that has largely been blocked off to visitors.

The district is moving ahead with plans to reinforce the tunnel walls and build an ornate entrance atop the rock named Amerika I that would also offer a view of the city from the northeast.

Officials have also had to dig through mountains of paperwork to get the project realized. The tunnels are considered a protected natural zone, so Prague 9 needed the approval of both Prague City Hall and the Environment Ministry.

The district expects to break ground on the development in 2007.

Untapped resource

In spite of the thousands of meters of caves and tunnels beneath city streets, Prague’s underground is nowhere near the attraction that Budapest’s is.

The labyrinth of tunnels underneath Buda Castle were expanded to more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) during the 1950s, when it was used as Hungary’s top-secret military defense network. The labyrinth even had a hospital that still operates to this day, according to the Budapest Tourism Office.

While much of the network remains closed to visitors, Budapest officials have opened more than 1.2 kilometers underneath the castle to outsiders, creating a highly visited tourist attraction. Nearby natural caves are also a top draw among adventure travelers.

The Prague Castle underground, also greatly expanded under communism for security reasons, is not open to the public, and there are no plans to do so anytime soon, says Prague Castle Director Ivo Velíšek. And discussion about allowing visitors into the royal tomb below St. Vitus’ Cathedral has been put on hold until after the courts have fully decided whether or not the state or the Catholic Church owns the building above.

The Prague 9 project signifies the first concerted effort by a Prague district to open and market part of the city’s vast underground web of spaces.

“As far as the City of Prague property goes, just about all of the underground remains closed to the public for safety and hygiene reasons,” says Miloš Gregar, Prague City councilor.

Remnants of the past

Jaromír Staněk, director of investment for Prague 9, stands over a pile of maps of the underground and architect’s renderings, now several years old, detailing the district’s plans for the tunnels.

Ancient miners, he explains, broke off chunks of the soft white sandstone to sell as a cleaning agent to people who wanted to scrub their floors and wash dishes with it.

“So they went on mining in this rather chaotic way, creating the tunnels while following the white sandstone veins,” Staněk says. “Once the vein ran out, they returned back and mined in a different direction. This went on for centuries.”

This stopped more than 100 years ago as resources ran out and Prague residents moved in. But the shafts remained open and Staněk, himself a resident of Prague 9 since the age of 6, remembers wandering freely through the caves with friends.

“The local administration showed no interest in the caves, and it was only after a number of accidents and lost children that officials decided to brick up the entrances,” he says.

Sandstone is a relatively soft substance, and the Prosek tunnels have fallen victim to numerous cave-ins, which has left city officials in the dark as to how extensive the network actually is.

“As geologists progressed underground, they came across these sealed entrances and couldn’t continue,” Staněk says. “We can only speculate how long tunnels are in these areas.”

Prague 9 studies show there could be as much as a kilometer of local passages that are partially collapsed.

The tunnels have also suffered wear and tear from uninvited guests seeking shelter from the cold. The ground beneath Prosek remains at a stable 8 to 10 degrees Celsius (46 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough to lure homeless away from temperatures that fell as low as –20 degrees C last winter.

“As you enter the caves and walk deeper, you can see how popular the place is,” Staněk says. “You find empty bottles, plastic bottles, wine boxes, and it is clear they gather there in winter. We seal the door, but the homeless are skilled enough to break in. It’s like fighting windmills.”

Unknown underground

The forbidden access to Prague’s caves and tunnels has led to much misinformation, says Vladimír Vojíř, a speleologist and chairman of the Speleoklub Praha. He also owns Nautilus, a company that conducts geological research.

“People have incredible ideas about Prague’s underground,” he says. “It’s 20 percent fact and the rest is nonsense.”

One persistent myth of the residents of the nearby neighborhoods of Střešovice and Liboc is that their water comes from a cave piped directly from Prague Castle.

It seems there is enough fact in the geology and history of the city’s labyrinths to make expanding access worthwhile.

In just one example, as the city has grown over the centuries, street levels have risen. In the oldest buildings in Old Town, the bottom floors gradually became cellars. During World War II, these buildings were connected to improve emergency access in case of an air raid. But the network remains shut off from the public eye.

Prague officials are currently developing one other project: opening Braník caves to the public, where an underground metro would play host to a mining and paleontology museum. However, this project has been halted due to funding problems.

Discovering underground

The Electrotechnology museum in Prague 6 finished its 100 Years of Prague’s Sewer System exhibit July 1, but there are still several ways to see underground Prague:

  • Old Town’s 12th and 13th century cellars, many of which have been converted into shops, galleries, restaurants or clubs
  • Prague’s historic sewer system, Old Town Hall
  • Petřín exhibition at the Lobkowicz Garden
  • Rudolf’s Tunnel, accessed from Stromovka Park

 

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