When the walls had ears

Hotel Jalta, Prague

Between 1959 and 1989, the luxurious Jalta Hotel on Prague’s Wencelas Square literally sat on a secret. Even employees of the hotel were unaware that 20 metres under the building an underground bunker served as a communist listening post, spying on the hotel’s VIP visitors 24/7.

Innocent looking objects like clothes brushes in the guest rooms were bugged to pick up conversations and guests’ telephone calls were constantly monitored at a listening post in the bunker.

The hotel was built in 1945 on the site of a bomb crater, making it possible to include a fallout shelter – and spying facility –   in the plans without attracting attention. Designed to serve as headquarters in the event of a third World War, there was room and provisions for 120 officials and 30 support staff.

In December 2013 the hotel turned its underground bunker into a museum and opened it to the public.  The rooms have been refurnished and equipped as they were with gas masks, beds, a doctor’s examining room — and the listening post..

Tours are given in Czech, texts in English are available. There is an admission charge but hotel guests visit free.


A cave in Slovenia

Some 10,000 caves are listed on the official register in Slovenia. Two of the most spectacular -Postojna and Skocjan… are open to visitors.Don’t leave Slovenia without seeing one.. but which one?. Postojna is the most popular (and the most commercialized). An open electric train transports you through the first two and last three kilometres of underground caverns.In between there’s a steep up and down one kilometre walk which begins in the incredible five-story high cavern that, when used as a concert hall, holds 10,000 people.  The tour takes about an hour and a half. (See website

The Skocjan caves receive only a fifth as many visitors as Postojna although they contain the largest underground cavern in Europe. They are a UNESCO heritage site and are explored on foot.It’s three kilometres of demanding walking after you cover the 500 metres downhill to the cave mouth. I visited the Skocjan caves in February.It was zero degrees celsius and there were treacherous patches of black ice on the steep road down to the cave mouth. At the entrance a sign warns people with heart problems not to enter. That may be because, in addition to the 3km walk you read about, there are 580 steps you don’t read about.

The cave is lit in sections..on my visit an attendant ran ahead switching on the lights for the next stretch as we, two Italians and two English speaking tourists,clustered around the guide at the occasional halts. The cave temperature is a constant 12 degrees and humid. the stops give you a chance to catch your breath, contemplate the surreal underworld scenery and see what lies ahead .. the narrow pathway clinging to the  cave wall and, eventually, the fragile-looking Cerkvenik Bridge spanning the cavern. Crossing this bridge, suspended 50 metres above the thundering Reka River, is an unforgettable experience. Once outside the cave, a climb with dramatic views leads to a funicular which hauls you up the last bit of the uphill journey.