Monday, April 2, 2012

A Creepy Museum on Vitkov Hill

This bizarre place is guaranteed to make goose bumps run up your spine

By Yuliya Ni

Some attractions in Prague have not been fully discovered yet, like the National Memorial on Vitkov Hill, with its famous nine-meter tall equestrian statue of Hussite general Jan Žižka. It is one of Prague’s most enigmatic and creepy places, a memorial to statehood imbued with unexpected layers of meaning following a number of dark twists in Czech history.

To get there is not easy, as there is no direct access to the memorial. You have to walk up steep paths through the park, although it is definitely worth it. The park is a great place to relax, especially in the springtime, and at the top you are rewarded with an amazing view of Prague.

The huge monument was built in the years 1928-1938. Originally intended to be a mausoleum, it now houses a museum of recent Czech and Czechoslovak history. Standing on top is the one-eyed warlord Jan Žižka on his horse, and below his statue is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where occasional wreath-laying ceremonies take place.

Behind the statue is an unremarkable, box-like building, although it is like a Pandora’s box – you never know what is inside. In this case, it’s a pleasant surprise to find enormous rooms of marble and granite. However, as Pandora’s box contains many unexpected surprises, it’s worth exploring further.

Ceremonial hall
After you enter, the first thing you will see is a very significant room, the Ceremonial Hall. It was built for important political events, such as a presidential election. The hall is divided by three aisles whose decoration matches the required prestige. Fascinating and somewhat bizarre displays honor the Czech experiences in World Wars I and II, and present a clear Czech political history from the 1920s through the 1980s.

Next, you can go to another pious place, the Columbarium. This was meant to serve for burials of significant Czechoslovak Legionnaires. However, not a single hero was ever buried here. In the 1930s, 10 sarcophaguses and 16 tombstones of noted state representatives were displayed in this hall. And starting in 1951, the Columbarium became the necropolis for prominent representatives of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.

Another precious gem is a lounge whose walls are covered by entirely original brocade wallpaper with a Byzantine pattern.

Control room in the underground lab
Make sure you do not miss the underground laboratory where Communist President Klement Gottwald’s body was embalmed and prepared for public display, as it is the creepiest part of the museum. With sterile white tile, specific odors and a fake body under a white sheet that looks like a real body prepared for embalming, it has a creepy atmosphere highlighted with horrifying sounds that made goose bumps run up my spine.

Gottwald is a controversial figure in Czech history. During the five years he was president (1948-53), 235 death sentences were handed out, and almost 200,000 people were sent to prison and forced labor camps. His name is now indelibly linked with one of Czechoslovakia’s darkest periods. He died on March 14, 1953 after his return from Stalin´s funeral.

A decision was made to embalm Gottwald in order to preserve the body of the first Czechoslovak communist for future generations. However, a problem arose in deciding where it should be displayed. The National Memorial at Vitkov was selected because some urns containing the remains of founders of the Czech Communist Party had already been saved there.

However, it was necessary to adjust the museum so that the body could last. An underground lab was built with rooms for doctors and nurses on duty, changing rooms, a machine room, a control room, storage area and extensive air-conditioning system to keep the body at a constant temperature and prevent it from decaying.

Hall Gottwal's body was displayed
A Mourning Hall was created on the ground floor of the memorial where the body was displayed to the public. In both the hall and the laboratory, the temperature was kept at a constant 15 degrees Centigrade and the air humidity at 80 percent. With the help of several colored filters, the body was lit so that it looked alive. Gottwald was lying in a glass sarcophagus, dressed in a blue general´s uniform. His hands were crossed on his stomach, and on his chest he had a red star fitted with rubies.

A total of 100 people looked after Gottwald’s body. Every night, they took it down to the lab for a fresh embalming. It was kept overnight in a special refrigerator. The body was also maintained with regular injections of a nourishing solution. Even a special wig was created which was regularly soaked in a special solution.

Despite these costly procedures and the work of experts, the body started to decompose after some time. The lower limbs, which had to be replaced by artificial ones, were the first to decompose. The arms and chest followed. The artificial limbs and trunk, which replaced the decomposing body parts, were made at Barrandov film studios. However, due to a botched embalming in 1962, the body started to blacken and decompose. It was then removed and cremated, and the mausoleum was closed. After the Velvet Revolution, Gottwald’s remains were interred at Olšany Cemetery.
Part of underground lab

After experiencing disturbing emotions and feelings, it was a big pleasure to go to the roof of the memorial, where a stylish, panoramic café offers an exceptional view of Prague, and think about that epoch with its mysterious events. Most impressive is the view of the Žižkov district, probably the most beautiful one in Prague. That alone makes a visit to the memorial worth it.

Overall, if you want to have an unforgettable experience only for 60 CZK, the National Memorial on Vitkov Hill is exactly what you are looking for. There are many places in Prague that remind viewers of the bygone era of communism. But this is the only one that will give you the shivers, and make you feel it with all your senses. A visit to this special, fascinating and somewhat bizarre place which will not leave you indifferent.

For more on the memorial, including opening hours and tram and bus connections: http://www.nm.cz/Hlavni-strana/Visit-Us/National-Memorial-on-the-Vitkov-Hill.html

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