Karlin - a Prague quarter with a fascinating history

Karlin - Kralovska street

Almost two months ago the Prague district of Karlin was seen on TV screens around the world, when the worst floods to hit the Czech Republic in hundreds of years put the district two or three metres under water. No other district of Prague suffered as much during the floods, and local people are still having to get by without shops, restaurants or public transport. Two houses in Karlin collapsed and others had to be demolished due to the structural damage caused by the floods. Some unfortunate residents are still awaiting a decision on the fate of their homes. Ian Willoughby recently took a very interesting stroll around Karlin with architect Martin Krise, who is a leading member of Klub Za Starou Prahu, which they translate as Club for Ancient Prague.

"Karlin is a very important, classical town. It is the first Prague quarter which was built behind the walls. The houses originally comprised one ground floor and one or two stories, but over time two or three floors more were added to all the houses. So now the houses which are too heavy for the old grounds are in great danger. Among the houses here there are not too many houses that are listed, only a handful, but still there is some interesting architecture, especially in this so-called "new part" of Karlin, which was built exactly a hundred years ago. And this part is in great danger because most of the houses have basements. The monuments in this part right here do not have any basements and therefore are more stable than the more recent houses."

With repair and building work going on all around us, Mr Krise explained that structural engineers have examined all the buildings in Karlin, and put them into different categories.

"The houses are in three classes: A, B and C, and the C houses are in danger and are empty now, and maybe they are going to be destroyed. So far, four houses have been destroyed: two houses collapsed by themselves and two houses were destroyed."

After floods,  Krizikova street
One of the most striking things about Karlin at the moment is the fact that - since the floods - there is no public transport, and residents have to walk everywhere, often carrying heavy bags. How long will it be before life returns to normal there, or will it ever return to normal?

"I think that it will return to normal because it is a very attractive area, it's close to the centre and it is anyway a very beautiful town. There is a beautiful hill on one side of Karlin, and there is also a good connection to the river. So I think that it is one of the best locations in Prague."

Maybe there's too much connection to the river. It could happen again?

"It could happen again, of course, and it's very difficult to say. We will do some technical work to defend Karlin against the flood. If we construct a new embankment, as is planned, the river will be higher and will have a faster speed. Concerning the question of the next flood, the important thing will be to warn people in time that the waters are coming."

Well this place here is interesting, because it's a cheap Chinese restaurant, but it used to be public toilets.

"It was, yes. We are on the main square, which is a park now. Originally it wasn't a park, it was a square with all the business that usually takes place on market squares. And in front of us is the neo-Romanesque church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. And we passed by an interesting house called "Hamburk." It was the public house and hotel for people who were working at the Prague port. The Prague port was just behind that building."

I've been to that pub, "Hamburk," it's not very nice.

"Inside! It's not very nice inside, really. But in comparison to the others that collapsed, this house doesn't show any signs of being in a bad structural state. You see that the other damage which is visible is the damage to the roads, because the soil here is not resistant enough to carry the weight, and there is also a rather huge stream of water in the ground. There are also some caves which are now drying. The streets are therefore in a very bad state."

Karlin has had a long industrial tradition, and many former factories have been converted to office buildings in recent years, as the area has begun to go upmarket. Mr Krise knows a lot about Karlin's old factories, and even has a family connection.

"There were some factories by the riverside. I know the place, for instance, where the first tram was built, and the first steam engine was built here by an Englishman. His name was Evans. My great, great-grandfather had some small factory here."

Making what?

"Making hats, selling them to England and to everywhere in the world."

But before there were ever factories in Karlin, it played a very different role in history.

Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius
"Important battles took place here when any army came to Prague, as it was such a nice, flat piece of land for a battle. The best known battle here was in 1420, when the Holy Cross army came and battled the Hussites. The Hussites won, and they just moved from that hill across this field to the river, and forded the river trying to save their lives. This town is called Karlin after empress Karolina, and it was declared a town in 1817. It grew very quickly because the land here was very good."

The preservationist Martin Krise says Karlin is one of the best places to live in Prague, except for one factor.

"The only thing that is worse here is the local climate. It's in the valley so there is more fog. They said before, when we still used coal or brown coal, that it was difficult for children to live here as the air was very bad, and they got the flu and asthma and so on. But now it has improved."

Before the regeneration of Karlin over the last few years, many Prague residents looked down on the area, where a lot of the residents are Romanies. It was not what the Czechs call a "good address". Yet, if you walk along it's long residential streets, many of the old houses are extremely impressive. Was Karlin - like the inner cities of many of the world's capitals - a rich disctrict at one time?

"It was such an area, and this area was very, very interesting from a social point of view. For instance, it's funny, but between the wars and even before the First World War, the prostitutes from Karlin were very expensive because they knew manners. The bourgeoisie lived here together with workers, and there were no social problems. The whole spectrum of society lived together in Karlin. Of course, after the 1950s new people came here, and at that point social life in Karlin was decaying. But anyway, there were still nice cabarets, there were small theatres, and some good pubs."