Boating along the Vltava river in Prague

Jaroslav Knapp, photo: Rosie Johnston

Forget the Blue Danube, it’s the greeny-brown Vltava which is the watery muse of artists and musicians in this part of the world. The Vltava is the Czech Republic’s longest river, stretching more than 400 km. It is also the main waterway through the Czech capital Prague, and has been most famous in recent years for bursting its banks in 2002. The floods caused billions of crowns’ worth of damage to the capital alone, and put the city’s metro out of action for several months.

Jaroslav Knapp,  photo: Rosie Johnston
But on a summer’s day the river is lovely, and reassuringly low. It’s the perfect weather for boating, and it’s tough work, but someone’s got to do it – in the name of this week’s Spotlight, I ventured out onto the Vltava with Captain Jarda Knapp:

“We will be able to see a lot of things, because we are able to use eight kilometers of river, so if we go in both directions, we will be able to see a lot of buildings and nice places like the Barrandov rocks, Vyšehrad and Podolská vodárna (waterworks) for example. And if we go down town we will be able to see Prague Castle, which we can’t get up close to, but which we will be able to see, so this is really nice boating.”

A lot of cities like Amsterdam and Stockholm have a river which really functions as a central part of that city, and lots and lots of people can often be seen out on boats. Is Prague the same? Do lots of people go boating here?

Photo: CTK
“It is difficult to say that the situation is the same here, because Prague lies on the river, of course, but boating is a lot more common in Amsterdam, because there are so many canals and waterways you can use. But, we can see that a lot of Czechs really like going out boating in Prague, because it is something that they can’t do every day. So, in the centre, in the summer, you can see how popular it is amongst people.”

Jarda Knapp helps run a boat rental service set up by his mother, Helena Knappová. Among other things, the family runs a ferry service between the Barrandov district on the left bank of the river, and the pleasure beach Žluté lázně on the right. You can go on this ferry over the river with a normal tram or metro ticket as it is part of the capital’s integrated transport system. Helena Knappová is no novice at the helm:

“I worked around water and around boats all of my life, and I really enjoyed it, and I wanted to keep on doing something I like.”

Photo: CTK
You said you worked around water all of your life, what did you do?

“I worked at a port, a port for all boats on the Vltava at Smichov and at Radotin.”

And what sort of things were you handling there? Freight or people?

“Everything. There were lots of shippings of coal and building materials in particular.”

Photo: Rosie Johnston
We set out on our tour along the river. Our transport took the form of a home-made raft, which sounds quite Tom Sawyer, but which was actually complete with its own barbecue, roof, lighting system and garden furniture. Still, a speed boat it was not. Here’s Jarda Knapp:

“You can ride at around 20 – 25 km/h. That is if you are not too heavy. It depends on the weight of the people and things on board. The engine is not as powerful as the ones installed on big boats, because you need a license to drive something like that. But it is possible to use this raft as a proper traffic, transport boat.”

Photo: Rosie Johnston
Helena Knappová says that in all the time she has spent on the Vltava, she has seen it improve massively in the last couple of years. Her son agrees:

“It is true and I can understand why, because a lot of changes happened after the revolution. Before, there were a lot of factories and companies pouring their waste into the river, and after the revolution the law was changed, so it is much better now. And also, the number of places in and around Prague to spend time and relax along the river Vltava have increased considerably.”

The Vltava is maybe still not considered to rank amongst the cleanest of rivers, but Captain Knapp insists that it is nonetheless a great place to look at nature:

“If you go out of Prague, maybe not completely out of Prague, but at least in this direction away from the city, you can see a lot of nice situations, like birds diving into the water and swimming 20m underwater before flying out again. It is really common to see things like that. And we are just right now heading towards a place where I have seen for the past two years a cormorant who lives alone all by himself. And it is really nice to see him, just sitting there, everyday. He’s our friend, you know, and we call him Oskar.”

We power our way back into town and it’s my turn to take over the controls. Captain Knapp alerts me to all of the water police boats lurking around Charles Bridge.

What I should be doing in order to drive this boat?

“It’s really not hard to drive this boat because here are only two things you have to do. One is controlling the amount of gas you use, and the other is controlling the direction of the boat. So it’s really nothing difficult to understand”

So, we’re sort of going in the right direction, but if I want to turn a bit to the left, I’m supposed to pull the engine right, is that correct?

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Yes, when you don’t have a steering wheel, you must turn the propeller in the opposite direction from the one you want – because normally a steering wheel would do this for you. It changes the direction, but there isn’t one here, so if you want to turn left now, then you should turn the engine right.”

Oh no, our boat is wobbling! Am I doing alright?

“Yes, I think so, yes, you’re fine.”

And if I wanted to speed up?

“You turn the accelerator to the right in your hand.”

Vltava | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International
Okay, enough of that. I’ve slowed it right down.

“This gulf here, this enclave, it really looks like somewhere in Cambodia or something. Because it is so green, and there are all these old crashed boats, you know. It’s really funny, I think.”

So, how’s my driving?

“It’s really fine, I feel really good.”

So I proved my worth as a deckhand in the end, and sailing down the Vltava in Prague was fantastic. As a displaced Scot, I’d even go as far as saying that its banks were nearly as bonnie as those of the Lomond.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 28, 2008.