Prague takes 'Golden Lane' back to Bohemian roots

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The Independent Online

Once home to royal archers, artists and fortune-tellers, Prague's historic Golden Lane, a cluster of tiny houses fitted under the arches of the city castle, is one of the country's top tourist draws.

But the picturesque 16th-century alley has fallen prey over the years to its own success, and is now to close for a year for a revamp to take it back to its roots - and reclaim it from the clutches of the tourist boutiques.

"The time is ripe to give the Golden Lane a new image," says Frantisek Kadlec, head of Prague Castle's tourism department.

"Our goal is to make sure tourists learn something about the history of this lane and the castle," he told AFP. "It will cease to be the realm of souvenir shops."

Nestled beneath the castle fortifications, the Golden Lane, or the Goldsmiths' Lane as it is also known, dates from the era of the Bohemian King Rudolph II (1552-1612).

It is lined by two dozen tiny homes, that originally housed the king's archers but later became home to struggling artists.

Popular legend - relayed by most tourist guides - says the miniature buildings served as a dwelling for Rudolph II's alchemists, who were famous for trying to transform lead into gold.

Untrue, say Prague authorities, who hope to use the renovation -- initially ordered to address structural problems caused by rainwater leaking into the lane's foundation - to separate myth from fact.

Alchemists or no alchemists, however, Kadlec says "the Golden Lane has always been a universe unto itself."

"The contrast between its humble dwellers and the pomp of the castle, the royal seat, was always obvious there."

One of the lane's most famous latter-day inhabitants was Franz Kafka, the Prague-born Jewish author, who sought inspiration here from 1916 to 1917.

But the Golden Lane's last residents moved out shortly after the communists took power in the former Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Redecorated in 1955, all but a few of its houses now serve as boutiques and souvenir shops - but that is set to change under the planned revamp.

Tomio Okamura, spokesman for the Association of Czech Travel Agencies (ACCKA), worries the tourism business will be hit by the closure - but accepts the need for it.

"The Golden Lane is a gem. It's so popular, every foreign visitor wants to see it. Therefore the closure will be a loss," Okamura said. "But, as far as we know, its reconstruction is necessary."

Work is due to start on May 3 and will last until April or May 2011, although experts admit a more flexible deadline might be needed because of archaeological research on the site.

Some shops will stay as they are, including the bookshop at number 22, inhabited by Kafka almost a century ago.

But others will be transformed into tiny museums including one - said to be the smallest house in Prague - whose single tiny room will become a model of a goldsmith's workshop.

Next door will recall the stay of a famous fortune-teller, Madame de Thebes.

"She was one of the last inhabitants of the lane and died while being interrogated by the Gestapo after she predicted the fall of Hitler's Third Reich," said Kadlec.

Other houses will be transformed into replica dwellings of a royal archer, a herb doctor, a medieval doctor or seamstress, while another one will evoke the atmosphere of an old inn.

"But there will be no place for alchemists. They had nothing to do with the Golden Lane. We would like to get rid of this legend once and for all," said Kadlec with a smile.