Born by decree: Zizkov celebrates 125 years

Zizkov TV tower, photo: CTK

Zizkov is one of Prague's most famous neighbourhoods, known for its numerous pubs and working class traditions. It was promoted from village to town status 125 years ago this month, and throughout May celebrations have been held marking that anniversary. Those events culminated in a re-enactment of the day the Austrian emperor officially made Zizkov a town.

'Emperor Franz Josef' and Zizkov Mayor Milan Cesky,  photo: CTK
Not far from the huge television tower overlooking Prague, a brass band and a large gathering at Hlavickovo Square awaits Franz Josef I - or at least the closest thing available to the Hapsburg Emperor: An actor, dressed in a decorated Austrian army uniform, with a grey and white beard covering his full face, save for a clean-shaven chin.

The actual Franz Josef's visit to Zizkov in May of 1881 changed the area forever. Back then it was growing very fast, says Petr Blazek - a spokesman for the Prague 3 district that now contains Zizkov - and that caused the neighbourhood to develop its own character.

In the mid 19th century it grew with the arrival of new residents from all over the Czech lands and the population doubled. It was unprecedented growth: At the time they were building 30 houses a year. People who moved here had to learn to live together. In a sense Zizkov is separated from the Old and New Town by the railway. That meant Zizkov developed a peculiar culture of its own which was seen as being separate from other parts of Prague.

'Emperor Franz Josef' and Zizkov Mayor Milan Cesky,  photo: CTK
The emperor arrives in a horse-drawn carriage and is greeted by singing children and a cheering crowd. They shower him with gifts of flowers and food. Franz Josef enters Prague 3's city hall and from a balcony declares that Zizkov is a city of its own.

Zizkov held this status for four decades before being incorporated into Prague. Even then, Petr Blazek said the neighbourhood kept its unique identity.

Zizkov TV tower,  photo: CTK
Even after 1921, when Zizkov was no longer independent because it became a part of Prague, it still retained a kind of pride. That pride survived forty years of oppression under the Communists and following 1989 is alive and well. Now it is undergoing a renaissance that is very visible in its culture, beer festivals and carnival. The point of these events is not to drink the most but to celebrate the area where people live. The fact that they do this in Zizkov sets it apart from other parts of the city.

Of the 125 years that have passed since Franz Josef's declaration, Jaroslav and Marie Balik have seen almost half of them. They were married in the early 1950s and have lived in Zizkov ever since. They were in the crowd and explained why they've spent their lives in the neighbourhood.

Jaroslav: "Cause we like it here."

Marie: "We were married here 55 years ago."

Jaroslav: "We like old Zikov, we like the old buildings. The whole place is nice, its close to the centre."

Marie: "It's older, an old part of town. It's a good place to live."

After a sip of wine atop a throne, Franz Josef hops into his carriage and - with a burst of confetti - he's off. Behind him the streets are still lined with people waving flags; not the Czech tri-color, but one with horizontal green, white and red stripes - the flag of Zizkov, a city within a city.