Karlín – Prague’s first suburb
Prague’s leafy central suburb of Karlín may best be known outside of the Czech Republic for the devastating floods that laid ruin to it in 2002, but much of the world has been using the machines and products born of Karlín factories for more than a hundred years and aside from that it is also Prague’s oldest suburb – a point recalled by an exhibition being held this year at the City Museum in Prague that was created by historian Dr. Zdeněk Míka:
“Compared with other areas that surrounded Prague in the Middle Ages, this area was special, because it was very sparsely inhabited, and based on very sparse inhabitations of prehistory. Archaeologists here have hardly ever come up with anything, unlike in neighbouring Libeň where there are permanent settlements from even the Stone Age. And at least one reason for this was the danger of flooding. People’s experience with this area was that whenever there was a rise in the water level this area was flooded, and so no one settled it permanently. It was used for agriculture, there were meadows, pastures and fields here, but their owners lived in Prague.”
There were major floods in Karlín in 1784, 1845, 1890 and, most devastatingly of all, in 2002. Today there are plaques all over the quarter marking the surface of the Vltava that August, many of them a metre over your head or more. When asked why people continued to build here, Dr Míka says that that is exactly the question reasonable people have been asking for almost 200 years. In the 13th century the land here became the property of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, who controlled it for the better part of the whole of Czech history, until 1848, when it ceased to be a reminder of the medieval feudal system, and Austrian bureaucrats took over its management.
There are some beautiful old illustrations of this part of Prague at the exhibition at the city museum that allow you to explore the many likenesses of an area that has changed radically on a number of occasions. Originally only fields and the Knights’ of the Cross hospital which gave the area its first name - Špitálské pole or Hospital Fields – one dominant feature is the main road that in centuries to come would be renamed Kralovská – “royal”, recalling the coronation procession of Ferdinand V which passed down the street in 1836 – and remains today and Sokolovská. Another feature in the pictures are the beautiful baroque brick city walls that extended to the intersection called Florenc.
The space taken by the walls was promptly used to construct, for one thing, the City Museum itself, and the last of the Prague’s beautiful old railway stations, Nádraží Těšnov. That in turn was torn down in the 1970s to make room for the noisy, smelly and generally hideous central thoroughfare that remains the source of so many city-planning arguments today. But the central part of Karlín has retained much of its own special character - atypical for Prague because it was planned out.
All this makes Karlín today a region of aged brick smokestacks among beautiful 19th century, four-story neo-romantic buildings that served as home and office to middle-class merchants, tradesmen and industrial managers.
Change always seems to move at a rapid pace in this part of Prague, the most evident example of that being the transformation over the last nine years since the incredible disaster left by the flood.
There are many sides to Karlín now, from the sleek new office buildings going up along the Vltava one after the other, to the central Karlín streets that seem to have never changed over the last 100 years - themselves home to many a new restaurant and café – and parks and tree-lined streets that have a particular quietness that no other central suburb can quite offer.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on June 29, 2011.