Nuclear Bunkers and Cathedral Spires: Prague, Czech Republic: Part 1

The train to Prague, Czech Republic was gorgeous. On one side, mountainous hills rose from the earth. On the other, the view alternated between a wide flowing river and bright yellow expanses of rapeseed and canola seed fields. Hannah kicked me under the train table more than once to get my attention to look up at the beauty out the window (I was engrossed in Les Miserable on Netflix). We spent a few minutes speculating what careers and industries the riverside locals took part in.

Our visit to Prague was highly anticipated. Everyone we know that has visited had spoken so highly about the city that we were afraid it might have created too high of expectations. To our delight, Prague was charming and lovely.

Prague’s Old Town was authentic and whimsical. A 4 man brass band played old tunes in the middle of the square. Throngs of people congregated outside food stands selling kolbasy sausages, potato dishes, and dessert chimney cakes called “trdelníks”. Inside the City Hall a Paternoster lift moves in a large circular rotation with no stops. It is one of the hidden gems of Prague, and we both took a ride. Feet away, a large intricate, ornate astronomical clock displays the time. We enjoyed the fun and historic atmosphere. Unlike many of the other “Old Towns” we had visited, this one was largely untouched during World War 2. Its authenticity is poignant and well preserved.

The city also did a substantial amount of preemptive preparation during the Cold War. Prague built approximately 800 bunkers throughout the city. They had enough space to provide shelter for 40% of the population and can still be found beneath parks, inside hotels, and, in one case, turned into a bar. During a Google search we were lucky enough to find that one of the major bunkers was free and open to the public one day per month. We toured the Folimanka Bunker on the south side of the city.

A tunnel emerged from bottom of a hill, a popular green park adorned the top. On a normal day, with doors closed, I would have never guessed a bunker was beneath, instead assuming it might have been a small storage area for lawn equipment for the park. For reader reference, Switzerland has enough bunkers to house 100% of its population. In fact, if a homeowner does not install one, they are essentially mandated to pay a neighbor for space in his/her bunker. Sweden has enough bunker space to save 40% of its population.

As we made our way down the ramp, the bunker was relatively empty. A long chalky white hallway stretched back growing narrow to the naked eye. Like a tree, small branches and side compartments grew off the main hallways to house power generators, decontamination showers, extra supplies, and even morgues.

Tunnel to emergency exit/air duct
Decontamination showers

Harsh, yellow fluorescent light bulbs lit the stifling corridors. Brown dirt and red rusty water spots contrasted with the pure white walls. Ceramic electric heaters emitted traces of warmth as we wound our way through the cold halls. The bunker was still fully functioning. In fact, the city keeps all bunkers ready for use at a moment’s notice. Prague still conducts air raid siren drills once per month on the first Wednesday.

One of the final hallways was an emergency exit with a steep gradient, leading up to a surface door. As I climbed the asphalt, all I could hear was the shuffle of my tennis shoes while my quads tightened from the steepness. I brooded for a moment about what this experience would be like in a post-apocalyptic world. I imagined holding my breath with my fingers tightening around the cold metal door, pushing it open to a burnt, devastated world. Turning around, I made my slow descent back to Hannah at the bottom. I was glad that, in times of potential nuclear war, the bunker had yet to be used, and hopefully never will be.

Touring a nuclear bunker was fascinating from the point of engineering and continuity planning. Conversely, it was also a macabre experience. It reminded me of a book I had read recently, called “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die”. The book described declassified details of United States military, civilian, and government permanence in the face of annihilation. Much of this development occurred during the Cold War, and most of the bunkers are still well prepared for use today. At the end of the visit I was ready for a distraction and some fresh air.

Hannah and I left the bunker and could hear loud drumming nearby. At the foot of the park, a local, vibrant festival was taking place. The smell of meat and herb filled sausages grilling wafted through the air toward us. A professional drum line was tapping in unison to an attentive crowd. Participants in wheelchairs navigated the festival. While we did not understand the local language, it was evident it was a benefit festival and concert for disabilities. Hannah and I threw ourselves into the crowd. One delicious sausage later, we enjoyed the music before moving on to the Prague Fortress, Vysehrad.

……Read the rest about of trip to Prague in the next post!


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