One of the most elaborate portals in Prague leads to a long-closed tunnel complex
Most old European cities have a network of underground tunnels, often now walled up and forgotten. They were made for various reasons, including defensive escape routes, a resting place for collected skeletons, and even cold storage for food.
Some old buildings still have access to a small part of a tunnel, and many use sections as a bar or exhibition space, but most of the tunnels have been bricked up for centuries.
The House at the Two Golden Bears (Dům U Dvou zlatých medvědů) on Kožná Street dates back to 1403 and is rumored to be the entry to all the underground tunnels around Old Town Square and Týn Church, and indeed the ground floor today has many mysteriously walled up stone doorways.
The main entry portal, built in the mid 1500s, is filled with mystical symbols related to esoteric themes. The portal is apparently also the one preferred by ghosts and spirits who live underground in the daytime. The tunnels allegedly connect to crypts in the churches in the area.
The spirits spill out into the streets of Old Town between midnight and 1 am, but they often have a hard time finding their way home. The gold leaf has long been removed from the carved stone bears above the portal, and the spirits are sticklers for little details. They are looking specifically for golden bears, not plain ones, to find their way home. So they wander lost around the nearby streets, blending in with, or even possessing, the tourists on stag parties who fill the center of the city.
A related tale says that in the 1930s a journalist got into the tunnels from the nearby Church of St Gallen (Kostel sv. Havla) and was lost down there for a week, trying to find an exit. He finally emerged with white hair.
The two bears on the portal, which face toward the center, represent the initial stages of alchemy. Bears in nature are black, and that shade is the start of the journey. Bears can also be tamed and taught.
The gold tone they used to have symbolizes the transformation. The bears seem docile, not fierce as in many other depictions, showing they have left their wild and unenlightened nature behind.
Some see the portal as a metaphor for the night sky, which centers on the two constellations of the Great Bear and Little Bear, known now more commonly as the Big and Little Dipper. The tail of the Little Bear has the North Star, the only one that stays fixed in the sky. That makes the portal the center of the cosmic aspects of the city.
The house is also located near the Prague Meridian, which was used to determine noon when the sun crossed it.
There are two rectangles next to the bears. They seem to be mirror images, but one man is young and one is old. The plants depicted with them show new growth and maturation. Both men are feeding the bears from the plants next to them, increasing the bear’s knowledge.
There are other designs. Two spiral floral patterns are at the top of the portal, with a round face that looks like the sun with some lion details in the center. One of the spirals is made of hops, while the other looks like oak or ivy. The hops refer back the building’s early history as a brewery.
The spiral designs can serve as spirit or demon traps. The spirits trying to enter the building get lost in the complex design.
The sides of the portal have more symbols. On each side of the doors is a narrow rectangle filled with more botanical designs. At the base, a bit hard to see, are two faces pointed upward. The stems of the plants sprout from the mouths.
The curved spaces between the pillars and the doors are filled with more botanical designs. The portal, taken altogether, encompass the attributes of the four seasons and motion of the stars.
The House at the Two Golden Bears at Kožná 475/1 has been used by the Prague City Museum for administration since the 1970s, but is not open to the public except on special occasions.
The first mention of the House at the Two Golden Bears is in 1403, when two Gothic houses and a brewery were combined. Gothic elements still exist in the ground floor and basement. The first owner was malt master Mikuláš Bohunek.
The house underwent a Renaissance conversion including the addition of interior arcades sometime before 1567 when it was owned by printer Jan Kosořský z Kosoře. He printed the then-largest Czech book, the Münster Cosmography, in 1554.
It was enlarged again at the end of the 1600s. A final expansion was in 1726 when a third floor was added. Renovations also took place in the 20th century.
The portal with the two bears was built in the late 1500s and some sources say it was designed by Bonifác Wolmut, though that is disputed. Wolmut worked on Prague Castle and Belvedere, among other projects.
Writer and journalist Egon Erwin Kisch was born in the house in 1885, and a round plaque with his image is on the facade.