Karlín – Prague’s first suburb

Karlín, photo: City Museum in Prague

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.

Photo: City Museum in Prague
“Karlín was established in a different way than the other Prague suburbs, which grew out of smaller settlements. The Austrian officials at the time simply decided there was going to be a new suburb in 1817, and to call it Karolinenthal, and soon there was a need to name it in Czech as well. Many people assume that, with so many things in Prague named after Charles IV – Charles Square, Charles Bridge, Charles University – that the neighbourhood of Karlín follows suit, but that is not the case at all. It’s named after Caroline Augusta of Bavaria, the wife of the Austrian Emperor and Czech king of the time, Francis I – so Karolinenthal, meaning Caroline’s Valley. But it was difficult to translate comfortably into Czech, and so the easiest, short version won out in the end – Karlín”.

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.

Photo: City Museum in Prague
“You can see here on this oldest illustration, it’s the same territory as today. It was bounded on the one side by the hill of Vítkov, on the other by the river Vltava, one side ended at the fortifications of the New Town, and the other went on to Libeň. When the city walls were torn down in the mid-1870s they left a strip of prime construction land… The walls had become absolutely obsolete, of no use in an age when war was waged in a more modern way, they were an obstacle to traffic, and they were falling apart. So Prague, Vienna, all of the big cities of the Austrian empire at that time had their city walls taken down.”

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.

Nádraží Těšnov
“The project to build Karlín was designed according to strict requirements beforehand, making a system of right-angle streets – three main longitudinal streets with six perpendicular side-streets – a very rational system that was well thought through from the engineering point of view. Karlín was being used to meet needs that Prague – closed off by its medieval planning system – could not fulfil. And so for example a major industry of textile printing was built here, there was a paper-mill and eventually five minor machine works including one of the world’s major tram producers, ČKD and it was in Karlín that the first gasworks were built to light the lamps of Prague streets.”

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.

“When Karlín got out from under the rule of the Knights of the Cross in the second half of the 19th century very quickly became one of the most affluent parts of the Czech lands thanks to the great amount of industry and the cargo dock, now a forgotten arm of the Vltava that has been paved over, a vastly important port that was controlled by the major Prague distributors and bankers. And so even though it was an industrial quarter, Karlín never had the kind of proletariat character of other villages on the outskirts of Prague, like Žižkov, but more of a bourgeois, artisan environment – a middle class.”

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.

Danube House,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“After the last flood of 2002 Karlín recovered very quickly. You can even say that the neighbourhood made money off of it, even though it was a tragic event and the damage was catastrophic in the weeks, months and year following. But life returned very quickly to the streets of Karlín and no one today would recognise that there ever was a flood, and most importantly, the area was modernised tremendously.”

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.