In the latest entry of the On the Edges of Europe column, travel journalist Thom Brown stumbles upon a sign pointing to a Magical Cavern outside of Prague and ends up overstaying his welcome.
When you’re lonely on the road, there’s only one place to go: student bars. The beer is cheap, everyone speaks English, and outsiders are welcomed in without question. But it can be hard to find the best spots when you’ve just arrived in a new city. Luckily, having a local friend was handy this time, as it had been many times before.
Just landed. Where’s the pub? I texted my friend Matej.
Where are you staying? he replied.
Go to Zázemí 😉
So, it was decided. I dumped my backpack in the hostel, and since there was no one around to invite, ventured alone into the night. I can’t remember what day of the week it was, but in Prague, that doesn’t matter. Every night feels like Friday as the streets become noisier with a friendly mix of locals, expats, and tourists.
The combination of chatter and indistinct dance music drew me closer to the hallowed site of Zázemí. What hit me first was the smell of old stone and dusty furniture. The medieval walls were bare but for thick red rugs that looked like they were taken straight from my grandmother’s house.
It was definitely one of Prague’s more underground bars, but given the hordes of drinkers within, it was a go-to spot for those in the know. In classic Czech style, the bar seemed to have a tap for every day of the year. My eyes scanned left to right and back again, in search of a vaguely pronounceable brand of beer.
“I’ll get a…uh…uh…Pilsner Urquell, please,” I finally blurted out with relief. As it was being poured, I clocked a man next to me, speaking my language with an accent.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m from England. Mind if I join you?”
And, thanks to Matej, that was my night sorted. We left the bar area for a room well-stocked with salvaged second-hand couches and foosball tables. I found myself around a small wobbly coffee table with new friends that I came to know as Canadian Shawn, Italian Dejana, French Adele, and Russian Maria. I took down their numbers and knew I wouldn’t have to spend another second alone in Prague.
Prague’s Hidden Magic Kingdom
Weary and worse for wear, the next morning was my chance to explore one of Europe’s most endearing cities. From the astronomical clock to Charles Bridge, I took it all in. During last night’s drunken chatter, someone had mentioned Petřín Hill, a quiet park with the best views of the city.
From the Kafka Museum, it was barely a 15-minute walk to the park entrance, where I began strolling directionless, musing upon some of Kafka’s existential dread. A fork in the road presented itself. On the corner, a wooden sign simply read “Magical Cavern” with an arrow pointing left. That was settled then – I was going left.
I’d no idea what this Magical Cavern was but assumed it was a children’s amusement park or something. Regardless, there was nothing better to do than track it down and find out. The rocky footpath climbed high above the city, past the funicular railway until I felt increasingly distant from the bar crawls and bachelorette parties.
I spotted what had to be the Magical Cavern. Why? Because it was guarded by a wizard! A young man, early 20s at most, was virtually bouncing out of his long blue cloak with excitement. His matching cone-shaped hat wobbled as I approached. There was no one else around, so he must have been thrilled to see a human being.
“How’s it going man!” the Wizard beamed with wide eyes that suggested either a childlike sense of wonder or the consumption of a dodgy substance. His whole body jiggled like he was waiting outside a public toilet after several liters of Staropramen.
“Uh, what is this place?” I asked with an energy level at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Wizard.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome! This is the Magical Cavern, a whole universe hand-built into the Earth by the Artist. Come in, come in! Or…do you have friends? Bring as many as possible! They’ll want to see this, I promise.”
I did have friends, plenty in fact. So, we agreed I’d come back later with company, ready to explore the secrets of the Magical Cavern. Perhaps, though, I’d misread the eagerness of my new friends to explore with me. None had heard of the Magical Cavern, and they didn’t want to venture so far to see it. I messaged each person and was met with a firm no every time. Only one contact remained: Maria.
Hey Maria, I found this really weird place… you have to come! It’s called the Magical Cavern.
Hey, I’m not sure, that’s an hour from me!
But the man really wants you to come!
Say no more, I’ll be there.
If the Wizard was excited before, he was ecstatic when I returned with a friend. We paid our entrance fee and were set loose to explore this new world. The building has three floors, and you enter on the middle one. We began by heading up the wooden spiral staircase. With every step, the otherworldly tune of Scarborough Fair grew louder, bringing us further from reality and deeper into the land of make-believe.
The staircase was lined with paintings by the Artist, giving us a glimpse into the universe he had created in his mind. They were, to be fair, incredible. Each painting gradually unveiled the land of Argondia, a fantasy world in which, as far as I can gather, the Artist is the creator and ruler.
Each painting told a story set within Argondia, largely revolving around bare-chested goddesses in lakes, with whom the Artist was no doubt intimately involved. Sure, there wasn’t much variety in artistic themes, but the execution had to be admired. The Artist, whoever he was, had more than mastered his craft.
The upstairs area was small, so we headed down to the bottom floor. As we went deeper into the cavern, the sense of entering a new realm took hold. The paintings became bigger and the music louder. The curved walls were made of jagged rocks and were covered by trees with human faces. Plantlife hung from every surface, giving the impression that the countless paintings were leaking out of their frames and coming to life. We weren’t just looking at art but being fully immersed in it, becoming characters within Argondia.
Downstairs there were several rooms to explore. The deeper we went, the spookier yet more alluring the place became. The enchanting songs were like sirens luring us into the unknown. In the final room, we found several comfy-looking brown armchairs and couches. They were occupied by four or five other young travelers, each clutching a plastic cup of red liquid and smirking awkwardly.
“What is this place?” I asked rhetorically.
“I don’t know!” an American woman replied before the whole room burst into unsettled laughter.
On the side of the room was a table with several large jugs of the mysterious red liquid.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Sangria,” the American replied. “Help yourself.”
Me and Maria were planning a night out anyway, so why not begin with a couple of cups of what we’d been told was definitely sangria and absolutely nothing more sinister? We each poured a glass and grabbed a seat. Maybe it was the dreamy music or the psychedelic walls, but this felt like extra-strength sangria. Within minutes, a lightheaded euphoria washed over me.
I didn’t want to leave. No, I felt physically incapable of leaving. Stuck to the couch, this felt destined to be my resting spot until we’d drunk those jars dry. The others weren’t on the same wavelength and left me and Maria to ourselves. We had an intense and intimate chat that evening. You know, those ones where you can’t remember a single detail, but only how it made you feel? The Wizard, who had thus far remained upstairs, entered.
“You guys are still here! Awesome. Yes, yes, yes, please stay as long as you like. Stay all night!”
Me, Maria, and the Wizard sat, drank, and talked nonsense for hours into the night. The Wizard could name every badge of every English football team right down to League 2.
“Oxford United? That’s the blue bull on a yellow background,” he correctly told me, almost convincing my skeptical brain that he might actually be magic.
Then, in an instant, the smile dropped from the Wizard’s face. His whole demeanor shifted as a large bushy-bearded man entered the room.
“That’s the Artist,” the Wizard explained.
The Artist didn’t acknowledge me or Maria but instead spoke to the Wizard in a quiet but deep and threatening voice. Pale-faced, the Wizard looked up submissively, nervously picking at his fingers. The excited boy we’d spent the night with had transformed into a guilty puppy, tail between its legs, being scolded by its owner. The Artist stormed out and soon enough, the thud of his footsteps on the wooden staircase echoed through the cavern. A minute later, without saying a word, the Wizard scuttled out after him.
Maria, who speaks some Czech, broke the awkward silence. “He was being so mean! He said the paintings were dusty and that guy was meant to clean them.”
The music stopped, signaling that we’d overstayed our welcome. We decided it might be better to continue the night at an actual bar and headed for the exit. Still tipsy, we tried our best to remain quiet as we climbed the creaky, crooked staircase. This became increasingly difficult as the upstairs lights had been turned off and all the doors were closed. We reached the front door, and I pulled on the handle. The door didn’t budge.
“Uh, Maria…I think we’re locked in.”
With just a few small windows in the cavern, this door was our only hope of escape. To the right of the door, I noticed a large bell dangling on a rope, so I gave it a tug. It rang loudly, and a hidden interior door swung open, revealing the unmistakable silhouette of the Artist towering above us.
“How dare you awaken the Artist?” he boomed.
He unlocked the door, and we emerged like the Pevensie children falling out of the wardrobe after their adventures in Narnia. The Magical Cavern – Argondia – became a distant dream as we adjusted back to the real world of Prague.