Cycle path shows the hidden side of Žižkov

Photo: Jiří Němec

The rumbling railroad track that used to pass through Žižkov in Prague was completely natural to the gritty-but-chic image of the 19th century proletariat quarter. The main western entrance to Žižkov was arched by three foreboding railway bridges, and the noisy, spray-painted cars passed alongside Vítkov hill to the cargo station. Four years ago the trains were still rattling the plaster off that lower end of the neighbourhood, just as they had been since the late Industrial Revolution, and then the route was cancelled for a higher-capacity alternative.

Photo: Jiří Němec
What remains is one of the most peculiar places for a stroll in all of Prague. Ostensibly a bicycle path, the newly paved track offers a look at a side of the city that might as well have been buried for decades. To take in some of the interesting sights and hear about their history, I went for a walk along the track with lifelong local Pavel Trojan, who runs the website Sitting in his café surrounded by maps and pictures of the quarter’s older glory, he offered a memory of the railway track shared by many a local.

“I remember visiting one of the most popular pubs in the area, U vystřelenýho oka, after high school a few times a month. You would be sitting in the beautiful pub garden outside and the trains would come regularly, maybe once every 20 minutes, which was pretty nice.

“The railroad is old, it was built in 1872. First of all it was the railway from Prague to the town of Kralupy and then it ended in Turnov, so it was the route to the north. At that time it was the route from the Austro-Hungarian Empire nearly to the border with Prussia.”

Behind the famous pub U vystřelenýho oka, or “At the Shot-Out Eye”, there was always some very strange, avant-garde Czech art on the walls in bas-relief, but now they’ve added more to the back to take advantage of the popularity of the new bicycle path.

“Yes, actually the design of this pub is the work of Martin Velíšek, and since it was opened from this side where we’re standing now, that is from the former railway, they made a bit more on the façade. So from here on the side of the building you can see Jimi Hendrix, Václav Havel… and I can’t see the other one…”

But important to note, everything about this pub is related to the Hussites.

“Yeah, that’s why here you can see Jan Žižka on a bicycle, and over here is, I suppose, the emperor Sigmund, who lost the battle on Vítkov here, and looks to be on a skateboard.”

Starting at the more remote end of the cycle path, in Vysočany, you will soon see one of its oddest offerings: the Vítkov track is probably the only cycle path in Europe to run through an old railway tunnel. Shortly past that is another relic, an old footbridge leading over the track. Once it allowed young athletes from the Sokol gymnasium on the one side access to a tennis court on the other side, but now it is just one more antiquated architectural adornment of the path, another being the characteristic terraces on the residential buildings. The architecture of working-class, 19th century Žižkov is typically embellished and beautiful from the street, and pragmatic and humble from the back, where the cycle path offers unparalleled views.

Photo: Jiří Němec
“What you can see here is called “pavlač” in Czech, in English you would probably call it a terrace. Some people think that this is something very special and unique in Žižkov, but you can find a lot of similar terraces in the Prague neighbourhoods of Nusle and Vršovice. These flats usually had around 20 square metres, which means they had no toilets in them. There was one toilet for three or four families on one floor. And so the terrace was part of the social life. People had to go out every so often and so they would talk with their neighbours. It’s funny that you had to live with the others, which means that you could be in a fight with someone but not for a long time. That is something that we don’t know today. Some parts of Prague are ghettos where you don’t know your neighbours and you don’t want to know them.”

You can see lots of these pavlače all along the cycle path, and at this one where we are now the local Green Party has planted an herb garden as some kind of mild protest…

“It is. The Green Party here in Žižkov is pretty unique, because they really show the locals that we have a lot of greenery around, but that doesn’t have to be the case a few years from now. So there is a need to fight a bit and show the locals that the development of this place is just starting.”

This place that we’ve come to now I think has become one of the most interesting places to stand in all of Prague. We’re standing on top of the old, green, steel rail bridge, where there are absolutely beautiful views of some of the first buildings constructed in Žižkov. It’s a bit noisy because you have the dirty Husitská Street below it, but the architecture is absolutely fabulous, and you get a completely different perspective of the borough here.

Žižkov,  photo: Jiří Němec
“This is probably the most beautiful part of the cycle path that has been opened. There was one more bridge here, about 50m more towards the city centre, but it wasn’t as nice and it got torn down.”

Some of these buildings are very peculiar and very beautiful, this one here has a cubist façade.

“Yes, that’s right. These buildings are from the end of the 19th century. If you look at the tower here, it’s just beautiful architecture that, if it were in Vinohrady, everybody would say “wow”, but because this is Žižkov and people who aren’t from here don’t usually come here for walks, you don’t see it. The architecture of some of the buildings is really nice.”

Now we’re standing on top of the road, if we go a couple of metres further then to the left here there’s a strange anomal; there’s a very long set of steps going up from Husitská Street from a walled-off façade covered in graffiti, through this wasteland that was once maybe a garden, and up to the door of a building that’s apparently locked. Do you know anything about this paradox here?

“I cannot tell you what kind of history is here, I just know the entrance to the building is from the other side, so these stairs probably lost their usefulness some 40 or 50 years ago. I cfall this the Žižkov Jungle.

Photo: ŠJů,  CC 3.0 license
“But let me show you something on the other side. There is a large, brick chimney, which is strange. If you see a chimney in Prague it’s usually a brewery, but not here. Do you see the letter “Ž” on the façade? It means that the building belonged to Žižkov, and it was a public building. This was the Žižkov Spa. There was a spa here because people in those little flats didn’t have their own bathrooms. There was everything there that you might know from today’s Karlovy Vary, so there were treatments as well. And Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria also came here once, in 1903 or 1905 if I remember correctly, and had a bath too.”

I’d like to mention one additional view here, towards the end of the track, where there are these buildings that stand almost right at the edge of the cycle track and give this almost post-apocalyptic feeling, it’s very strange. They hover very high – most buildings in Prague are four to five storeys high, these are seven. And so this is really one of the only places in Prague really where you can see seven-storey 19th century buildings which almost seem like 19th century skyscrapers from this perspective at the very foot of them. And several of them haven’t been repaired so they are peeling. Altogether it creates a remarkable atmosphere.

Photo: ŠJů,  CC 3.0 license

“But you know why: if you look from the other side, or on a map, you see that the street on the other side is actually much higher, by about two levels. So this view is the result of the struggle of the architects with the terrain. In Žižkov you can see a lot of stairs. That is also the architects struggling with the fact that Žižkov is in a valley.”