There is a quieter side to Prague, far away from the tourist crowds – when in spring and summer they can become too much. Most of these places are just a 10min tram ride from the city centre and my favourites include the cafes tucked in the back parts of Karlin, Letna park with its expansive view over Prague (and its convenient beer garden) and Olšany Cemetery. Even if you don’t like cemeteries, this cemetery is worth exploring. Its tall trees and overgrown richness together with its historic tombs and gravestones give it a tranquil yet impressive atmosphere.
At one point I had lived in Zizkov and the cemetery was close to my house. I would often go there in the early morning, grabbing a coffee and croissant at Flora Mall before making my way into the cemetery to wander through its various parts. I have a soft spot for the liminality of ruins and forgotten places. I was also teaching myself how to photograph and Olsany seemed like the perfect place to get lost in inspiration. I think that is was in Olšany Cemetery that I rediscovered my love for photography.
The intersection of the old with the constant regeneration of the new – the nature that constantly threatened to take over – gave the cemetery interesting texture. You could feel the roots of the trees pushing up beneath the soil, wrapping itself around the edges of the graves and iron fences, pushing them upwards. And if you looked up you saw the bent branches reaching up to the sky forming arches like church windows.
Then there was the crumbling of the gravestone statues which seemed to bring them back to life. No longer were they stiff and formal. Age and the crumbling stone had softened their gaze and posture making them more human-like. The crows and stray cats would sometimes surprise me and come June, the cemetery would be covered in tiny red beetles that would pair up and take over. I was lucky to have seen the movement of the cemetery through all four seasons. Each season veiled or revealed a part that I hadn’t seen before. Frozen roots and ivy would fall away to reveal stone faces that had been covered and in the spring large ferns would burst open and change the landscape altogether. The cemetery was very much alive and that is what I loved about it.
These photographs that I share with you were taken in the old part of the cemetery – the part closet to the entrance next to St. Roch. The newer part of the cemetery located at the main entrance is also worth a look. There you will find grave monuments in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco style.
A number of famous Czech actors, writer and painters are buried here as well as Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself in protest of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. You may also want to visit the gravesite of Franz Kafka which is located in the Jewish cemetery close by.
Olsany cemetery is completely safe, provided that you keep an eye on your surroundings. It may look abandoned in some parts but there is a tiny police station at its gates. Police do patrol the grounds. I would often see mothers with their napping babies strolling and joggers on their afternoon run. No need to worry if you want to venture in alone.