My Prague – Evan Rail

12-10-2013

An American writer and journalist specialised in travel and food and drink (in particular beer), Evan Rail has been living in the Czech capital since the year 2000. For the last half decade, he’s called the city’s Petrské náměstí home; in this edition of My Prague, Rail shows me around his neighbourhood, which despite being only five minutes’ walk from Náměstí Republiky is still somewhat off the beaten path.

Evan Rail, photo: Ian WilloughbyEvan Rail, photo: Ian Willoughby “We’re in Petrská čtvrť, Peter’s Quarter, which is an area of Prague 1 that is in the centre, it’s very conveniently located, but it’s still very residential.

“It’s not at all a touristic area. There aren’t really any attractions to see here. It’s just a living, vibrant part of Prague where people actually live and work.”

What are the upsides and downsides of living in an area like this?

“The upside to living in an area like Petrská čtvrť is that it’s very enclosed. It’s a lot like an island, in a way.

“Among districts in Prague it’s one of the few that has very clear delineated boundaries. On the north it’s the river – you can’t go anywhere there. On the south it’s Na poříčí. To the west, it’s Revoluční and to the east it’s Těšnov, which is the old railway ground.”

One thing I noticed looking at the map today before coming here was how a lot of the streets leading off Petrské náměstí have names linked to trades. I think Soukenická is from “drapers”, which isn’t really a trade, but it’s an area of work. There’s Truhlářská, which is “joiners’”. There’s Barvířská, “dyers’”…

“That’s right. And there’s Zlatnická, which is an area linked to goldsmiths. In fact this area even today… you’d think that after so many years so many things would have changed, but in fact there are still many goldsmiths in the area.

“And down this street, Soukenická, there are shops that do the business of just selling equipment for making jewellery and handling gold. That’s got to be a very specialised trade.”

Have you any idea why this area is associated with the jewellery business?

Petrské náměstí, photo: Ian WilloughbyPetrské náměstí, photo: Ian Willoughby “Not really. I do know that like many areas of old Prague it was a Jewish area, once upon a time.

“There were also a number of brewers here. I like to write about beer and read about historical brewing, and it turns out that one of the great hop dealers of Prague in the 19th century lived down that street, on Zlatnická, just a few feet from where we are now.

“And my own building, which was built in the late 1930s at one point was actually a functioning brewery.”

Also you were telling me earlier that there’s some connection between this area and a famous Czech book for kids, or a series of books?

“That’s right. It’s connected to a bunch of comic books that were written in the middle of the 20th century called Rychlé šípy, about a gang of boys, righteous, really good kids…”

Boy scouts?

“Boy scouts, basically, Boys Own… who go on adventures and have snowball fights and get lost and rescue cats and things like that.

“And they live in a really particular neighbourhood called Stínadla, [meaning] Shadowville or something like that. Stínadla is known among all young Czech people as the place where the Rychlé šípy kids live – and some people have said this neighbourhood was one of the possible models for Stínadla.”

One thing also that this area is known for is schools. There are three schools, I believe, within, I don’t know, 50 metres of where we’re sitting.

“There are three schools and several pre-schools and things for children to do as well.

Petrská čtvrť, photo: archive of Radio PraguePetrská čtvrť, photo: archive of Radio Prague “One of the things that changes the way I look at the city is having kids. You start noticing that there are a lot of resources for families in Prague that you simply do not care about when you don’t have a family of your own.

“There are loads of really great parks. There are some really good schools. There are great after-school activities for children. And Prague is actually a wonderful place to raise a family.

“A lot of people look at it as the Las Vegas of Europe or a place to party, or what happens in Prague stays in Prague, that kind of thing.

“But if you have a family, Prague can be a wonderful liveable, cultured city that is a great place to raise your children.”

A short distance from Petrské náměstí Rail’s neighbourhood meets Těšnov, a small area distinguished, if that’s the word, by a tiny park, a McDonald's under a motorway and the rather bland City of Prague Museum. We stop for a bit at the entrance to a tiny street where the two districts converge.

“Right now we’re on one of the backstreets of Petrská čtvrť. This is called Půtová. It’s a tiny little lane, it’s just an alley.

“You can get an idea of how this might have been like Stínadla back in the ‘30s or ‘40s, that kids might have run around here, little street urchins might have had snowball fights or whatever.

“Around the corner there’s another little street that almost no-one ever knows about: Helmová, which doglegs around the corner here towards Těšnov.

“It’s just part of the area’s character that you have all these little…mouse holes that go basically nowhere, and that most people have never heard of.”

We’re just by Těšnov and I know that there was a train station here, but I don’t know exactly where it was. Do you?

TěšnovTěšnov Yeah, it used to stand right over there. Where the park is today was one of the wings, which stood out this way.

“This was the main train station for all of Prague. It was the original train station built in around 1850 or so. It functioned off and on, I think, through the 20th century and it was finally shut down for good in the year that I was born, in 1972.”

Was that in connection with the building of the magistrála [motorway that runs through the city]? Because that runs across here.

“That’s exactly right. That’s how there was that space to put in the magistrála – the train lines used to run that way.

“The other thing that’s strange about it is that you’re still in Prague 1 and you have this gigantic open space that you wouldn’t really expect. But it’s only because it used to be a train station and a train yard.

“It’s kind of nice in a way. It’s kind of an eyesore because of the freeway just behind it, the magistrála. But it’s also nice that there’s a big opening, whereas the rest of neighbourhood is a bunch of tight little buildings and narrow lanes.”

But I guess that’s also characteristic of Prague – you have a lot of areas where you will walk for some distance through narrow streets and then come out on an open space or a square.

“Yes, I think Frank Lloyd Wright might have enjoyed that – it’s sort of the birthing feeling of passing through a tight enclosure and then coming to some gigantic, open, wider world.

“There’s a lot of that around the neighbourhood as well, because we have a few squares that are big and then these tiny streets. And then on the other side, where the river is, there’s again a gigantic amount of space.”

Do you know when this area was built? Or at least when these buildings around us here would have been built? I guess the ‘30s or ‘40s?

“Well, the area is a mix of buildings. There’s a lot of functionalism from the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s. Where I live it’s also a functionalist building.

“But there are also buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries that are still here. So there’s a mix of things. There’s a lot from the late 19th century and then there are these futuristic buildings that you can see are from the ‘40s or ‘50s…”

Now in a bad state.

“Yes, a little bit of a bad state. And there are some wonderful buildings as well. In one sweep of the eye you can see gothic buildings, baroque buildings and modernist, minimalist, functionalist designs. They don’t really clash – they all seem to go together.”

Photo: Ian WilloughbyPhoto: Ian Willoughby For the final part of our tour of Evan Rail’s Prague, we grab a beer on, of all places, the roof of Kotva, once the city’s premiere department store. And it’s entirely fitting that we wrap things up with a pivo, as Rail is the author of such works as Why Beer Matters and the definitive Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic.

“A lot of people know the Kotva department store as a real eyesore. Its architecture is brutalist architecture from the 1960s, ‘70s, and a lot of people would think it’s not very pretty.

“But at the top of the building they’ve installed a new beer garden with a big deck and some views that are among the best in the city.”

The view here is fabulous. We can see the Týn church and the whole way across the Old Town.

“That’s right. And right next to us you can see the super deluxe suite at Hotel Paříž, where you have a little room up in the tower. It’s all covered with glass and it’s got 360-degree views.”

And its own gargoyles.

“And its own gargoyles, that’s right. It’s basically at arm’s length. I think we could probably yell over there if someone were in the room. You can see all over the rooftops of the Old Town and down on Jakubská as well.”

Would you come here for the beer, or just for the view?

“I come here because my kids like it. There’s a swing set and it distracts my kids for long enough for me to have a couple of beers.

“I come here for the beers as well. I drink beer fairly regularly but I have specific tastes and I don’t like to drink just anything. And this pub has very good beer, usually.”

I’ve got to ask you, Evan – what are your favourite pubs of all the hundreds of pubs in Prague?

“It seems like there must be even thousands of pubs in Prague. I’m a big fan and a regular at Pivovarský klub. It’s close to me, which makes it easy to walk there and walk home…”

Photo: Barbora KmentováPhoto: Barbora Kmentová That’s by Florenc station?

“Yes, it’s on Křižíkova 17, very close to the Florenc bus station and metro station.

“I like Zlý časy a lot. That’s out in Nusle. It’s expanded and gone from strength to strength. They, I think, started with really bad beer, industrial lager, and they’ve expanded to having a few craft beers and then a few more and then they got up to 20.

“Now they have three different levels and they have something like 47 or 48 taps or great beer.”

Where would you recommend to people coming to Prague looking for the old school beer experience? The places you mentioned are both quite new.

“That’s a bit of a trick question, because the place that I would recommend for the old experience, the classic old school Prague pub, traditional cooking, Pilsner Urquell… the place I would recommend is Lokál.

“Now it looks like it’s an ancient establishment from 20 or 30 or 100 years ago, but in point of fact it’s only a few years old.

“There’s one over here in Old Town, there’s one in Malá Strana and they’ve kind of expanded – I think they have four in Prague at this point.

“They serve wonderful, wonderful goulash and dumplings. And the beer is simply the best version of Pilsner Urquell you’re going to ever find.”

I find those places ersatz – like a kind of imitation of an old school Czech pub.

“It’s an imitation in a way for the better. They cook their food from scratch. They don’t use pre-mixes for anything, they don’t use pre-made sauces.

“They serve their beer in a way that is very forthright. They mark the date when they tap it on the container itself.

“In terms of old school pubs, there were a lot of things that were charming, but there were some things like pre-made food and a sort of vague ambiguity about the freshness of the beer that we might be better off without.”

And awful toilets.

“And awful toilets. Yes, that’s right.

12-10-2013