Ghosts of Prague's historic Golden Lane

Kveta Zrustova, 91, can clearly recall the spring day in 1938 when she entered a tiny house in Prague's famed Golden Lane to ask advice from the fortune teller Madame de Thebes.

"I was scared stiff. She was sitting in the corner with a cat on her shoulder," said Zrustova who was 18 and wanted to know how her school exams would go.

Madame de Thebes, who later died during interrogation by the Nazis after predicting the fall of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, was just one of the colourful real-life residents of the historic street.

Closed since early 2010, the revamped lane at Prague Castle, which is one of the city's top tourist draws, reopened at the start of the month and aims to give visitors a glimpse into the lives of the people who once made it their home.

Most of the 20 tiny houses lining the street have been transformed into small museums, detailing the lives of their former residents.

"The goal is to show visitors the dwellings of ordinary people who lived and worked here, as if they had just left their homes," said historian Pavel Jiras, the man behind the transformation.

The houses were built under the arches of the castle fortifications on the basis of a decree issued by German Emperor and Czech King Rudolph II (1552-1612).

"A seamstress, a herbal doctor, a goldsmith.... Each house has its own history," said Jiras.

"There's also a great beauty in the humble lives of those people... a mysterious magic which is in stark contrast to our aggressive and cruel era," he added.

Contrary to popular legend, tirelessly relayed by tourist guides, the alley never served as an address for alchemists employed by Rudolph II to try to transform lead into gold.

Famous inhabitants of the Golden Lane have included Franz Kafka (1883-1924), the Prague-born Jewish author writing in German, who sought inspiration here from 1916 to 1917.

"In the house at number 22, Kafka wrote the narrative that appears in the short story "A Country Doctor"," says Gabriela Cinkova, manager of a bookshop now located there.

"What many people don't know is the fact that Kafka was also an illustrator," she added, pointing at a small book with drawings by the writer, lying next to his famous novels "Amerika: The Missing Person," "The Trial" and "The Castle."

Number 12 was home to historian Josef Kazda, who saved thousands of Czech films from destruction by the Nazis.

Number 15 has been revamped as a goldsmith's house in memory of the scores of goldsmiths who lived in the street which over the centuries was also called the Goldsmiths' Lane.

"You can see a real goldsmith's workshop there with all the necessary tools," said Frantisek Kadlec, head of the tourism department at Prague Castle.

The tools are a gift from a Czech family who heard a radio report on the revamp and decided to donate the instruments they inherited from a family member who died in 2009, he added.

The house at number 26, formerly the home and workshop of a seamstress, also displays a photo of her lover in an Austrian army uniform, taken before he was killed in World War I.

The last residents had to leave the Golden Lane shortly after the communists took power in former Czechoslovakia in 1948.

The totalitarian regime was toppled in 1989, and four years later the country split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

With the advent of capitalism, critics charged the lane had become an overly commercialised tourist trap.

Ivo Velisek, head of the administration office at Prague Castle, insists the Golden Lane is now better than ever after its most extensive revamp in memory.

"For a long time, we had two permanent residents here: a couple of tawny owls. They left five years ago, maybe they felt something wasn't working here," said Velisek.

"But they came back in the spring as if to tell us: the Golden Lane has been reborn," he added with a smile.