Anyone with a taste for the arcane has heard of Kutna Hora, the medieval town 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Prague, with its assortment of esoteric treasures – the Gothic cathedral of St. Barbara, the underground labyrinth of silver mines and the ossuary, or bone church,” in the nearby town of Sedlec. But if you’re willing to explore beyond the obvious, there is a more intriguing route through town encompassing a mysterious chapter of the city’s history. The ossuary is only the first stop on a Philosopher’s Walk” that loops into the heart of Kutna Hora to the Alchemy Museum, the country’s only establishment to pay tribute to an ages-old mystical tradition. Located in Palackeho namesti, the museum is operated by Michal Pober, a former shiatsu instructor with a penchant for alchemical history and a flair for storytelling. At the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, alchemy went through a tremendous boom in Europe. The Prague-based Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II was the highest of many noblemen who employed alchemists in the hope of discovering the secret formula for creating gold. According to museum placards, many of the world’s leading alchemists visited the area now known as the Czech Republic, including Swiss physician Philippus Paracelsus, who is said to have acquired his vitriol in Kutna Hora. A museum placard displays the alchemist’s goals as if they were a checklist for those considering signing up for a lifetime quest: first and foremost, to discover the elixir of life,” a rejuvenating concoction that confers immortality. Other goals include finding the secret formula to convert base metals into gold, and the general preparation of remedies of great quality and purity … achieved by separating the pure from the impure to achieve perfection.”
Back in time
The museum’s location – in a grand stone building complete with massive creaking doors, an underground laboratory and a Gothic tower straight out of an Edward Gorey drawing – is no coincidence. Legend holds that Jiri of Podebrady’s alchemist son Prince Hynek – who conducted experiments in a basement laboratory – also once inhabited the place. The building’s architectural layout supports this theory: The tower contains a round, majestic room that appears to be a small chapel or oratory, and the basement harbors a deep pit that could have been used by a black” (illegal) metallurgist sifting through metals for forbidden secrets. All alchemy laboratories contained a separate space for working and praying, as dictated by the Latin phrase Ora et Labora (Pray and Work), which alchemists abided by. Only by balancing their quest for material wealth with spiritual transcendence could they achieve success in their experiments. Walking through the museum corridors feels like a time trip back to King Arthur’s castle library, with framed illustrations from old alchemy books hanging on the walls. In one, representing the fusion of two substances, a tiny bird flutters up from the mouth of a glass bottle where a pair of naked lovers lay intertwined.
Pober is well cast in his role as museum curator and guide. With his shaggy white hair, beard and glasses, he resembles the drawings of alchemists in books. His British lilt echoes eerily as he explains the assortment of objects, meant to invoke an alchemist’s study, laid out on the chapel table: candles, a feather and an inkwell, a first edition of an alchemy book with recipes for various potions, a human skull (no one in particular) and a small, shriveled crocodile the size of a Czech sausage. Reptiles, Pober explains, represent the first stage of experimentation, reflecting alchemy’s ancient Egyptian roots. He admits that the crocodile, given to him by a taxidermist friend, is a bit of a joke and then points to two large metal rings dangling from the ceiling overhead about six feet apart. We have the perfect spot waiting for when we get the real one!”
A spiral staircase winds down into the basement laboratory, where a massive bellows is bathed in artificial red light from a nearby fireplace. The clay pots and vessels crowding the shelves are modern reproductions that have been carefully arranged to tell an ancient story. Pober brings them to life, explaining how each strangely shaped vessel – fashioned after different animals – had a specific purpose . The containers with the long, sloping swan necks, for example, were like ancient cocktail shakers for mixing ingredients. In the next room, rows of glowing glass cases filled with odd-sized bottles bring back memories of biology class and floating gray cow brains. Upon closer inspection, these jars reveal less-grotesque contents – metal instruments, dried lavender, mustard seeds and other herbal treatments. There is only one museum room barricaded from visitors: a prison cell Pober has recreated at the foot of a small stone staircase. Here, with Pober’s thin finger gesturing at the tiny window, you can almost make out the haggard remains of a wizened alchemist who died after stubbornly refusing to reveal his secret formula to his patron.
The Philosopher’s Walk
Begin at Kostnice, or the ossuary, which is an inconvenient 45-minute walk from the center of Kutna Hora. The easiest way to get there is by bus from the main train station. There’s only one bus, so hop on and get off at the Tabak” sign near the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. Walk up Zamecka street to the ossuary and feast your eyes on the chandelier, coat of arms and other creepy sculptures made of human bones. Hop back on the bus or hike into the city center to the Alchemy Museum (Palackeho nam. 377). You can get a map of the city and brochures at the adjacent tourist office. Next, head to the Museum of Medieval Mining (Barborska 28), where you can tour the tunnels of an ancient mine while wearing an oversized jacket and a real miner’s hardhat, complete with headlight. The tour should help you work up a good appetite, which you can satisfy at Pivnice Dacicky (Rakova 8), a medieval-themed Czech restaurant with plenty of outdoor seating. The menu is reasonably priced and includes a special alchemical section,” with dishes reputedly created by alchemist Bavor Rodovsky in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that he traded them to get out of prison. Pober’s favorite is the alchemical chicken, which comes adorned with chopped almonds in a white wine and garlic sauce for 89 Kc ($3). Finish off dinner with Horka laska (hot love), a magical concoction of hot raspberries, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. After dinner, stroll the main streets of Kutna Hora by night and admire the buildings illuminated in subtle blue and gold light. The Gothic Cathedral of St. Barbara, the tall, upright St. James Cathedral, the Italian court and the silver museum all seem to glow with a supernatural light.
“A Mystical Quest” originally appeared in The Prague Post