8) Kampa Island: Prague’s ‘little Venice’
Prague’s Kampa Island, located on the west bank of the Vltava River, is among the Lesser Quarter’s most idyllic and romantic spots. The verdant oasis is set apart from the historic district by the Devil’s Canal and dotted with historic mills along its edges. Many celebrated Czech actors, musicians and other artists have called Kampa home, no doubt drawn to its tranquil atmosphere, and the waterways reminiscent of Venice.
Zdeněk Bergman, a local boatman, is convinced that the beauty of Prague is best taken in from the water. He organizes sightseeing tours on historic boats and barges in more than 20 languages. The Devil’s Canal – or Čertovka, in Czech – is where he started his business in 1993.
“I got my starting capital by picking apples and grapes in northern Italy. Then I bought my first outboard motors and started organizing sightseeing tours on the Čertovka with my old steam barge, which I had owned since my youth. From the start, the tours included commentary meant to capture the genius loci of Prague.”
“We are standing on the Charles Bridge Dock, underneath Křížovnické Square and the Charles Bridge Museum. From here we can see a long tunnel which we call Old Town’s watery underground. Here you can see some of the oldest landmarks to be found in this part of the city.
“There is the Monastery of the Knights of the Cross with a Red Star, dating back to 1252, and three arches underneath the monastery — the extant arch of the Judith Bridge, from 1169, and the hidden first arch of the Charles Bridge, which connects the Old Town Bridge Tower to the mainland. Between them stands the arch that supports most of Křížovnické Square.”
Part of this long underground area, which boatman Zdeněk Bergman has shown us and is unknown even to many locals, serves as the dock of his Prague Venice Company. The eight boats that dock here are replicas of ones that sailed the Vltava in the 19th century. They are inspired by the simple cabinless riverboats that navigated the river between České Budějovice and Prague since as early as the 16th century.
From the waterway under Charles Bridge to Čertovka
We are now crossing the Vltava on a boat, heading from the Old Town to the Lesser Quarter and Kampa. Although people still call it Kampa Island, it has been a peninsula since 1915, following a reconstruction of the Devil’s Canal.
The 740-metre-long water canal was originally dug to power the local mills by the Knights of Malta. Bergman tells us about the history of Kampa, a place where only fields, vineyards, and gardens used to be.
“All of Prague’s islands are made up of sedimentary sand which migrated down the river. From the 12th century, the Čertovka separated Kampa from the Lesser Quarter and served as the waterway around the court of the Knights of Malta. The canal was called Rožmberská strouha (Rožmberk Ditch) until midway through the 19th century.
“Kampa, which stands on the east bank of the canal, was stabilized after the largest fire in Prague’s history consumed much of the Lesser Quarter, as well as Hradčany, in 1541. The fire destroyed even the buildings which housed the Zemské desky (Land Tables) — the most important legal documents of the time.
“The charred remains of Lesser Quarter houses were taken to Kampa and used to shore up the island. Later in the 16th century, new houses began to be built here, making Kampa the first of Prague’s islands to be permanently settled.”
The Devil’s Canal supposedly came to be known as such thanks to a quarrelsome resident who frequently did her laundry in the waterway. Kampa used to be full of laundresses, millers, and craftsmen, namely potters.
Potter’s markets were also held here, and one ceramic workshop remains today. There were originally nine mills in the area, of which only three were preserved. Of those, the Velkopřevorský Mill is in the best condition. It was still in use as a mill until 1936, and its giant wheel still rotates, albeit only to impress tourists.
The Vltava River and Devil’s Canal are also popular fishing spots, says Zdeněk Bergman:
“The Čertovka is a big breeding ground, and the water around Charles Bridge is a good place to fish. Some of these fishermen are over ninety years old and have been fishing here for more than fifty years. For me, they are the living memory of Prague.”
Bergman also explains how the Devil’s Canal was used for canoeing:
“In the 1980s, the canal was repaired and narrowed by about 2 metres on each side. Until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the canoeing team of the Czech Technical University (ČVUT ) trained here. The water level was fairly high, so they could have equipment, train and even race here.”
“Our boats have a draught of only 38 centimetres. That enables us to navigate small river canals such as the Čertovka as well as to float into the tunnel underneath Old Town.”
The Vltava can get very crowded during the summer. But navigating the calmer Devil’s Canal also has its challenges.
“After designing and constructing all these ships, I had to sail down the Čertovka myself and teach our captains how to go about it. I have to say that navigating these parts requires a certain talent. It is hard even for people who have captained big ships before working for us. The manoeuvres are tricky, and, understandably, one must be on the lookout for large ships.”
As Zdeněk Bergman says, a boat ride on the Čertovka and Vltava has a unique atmosphere. How does it differ from a trip down the Seine in Paris, for instance?
“Paris, like Vienna and London, is flat. Prague is hillier, so a trip down the Vltava is ‘3D’ rather than ‘2D’. Of course, when you add nice wine, beer, and food it is more like 4 or 5D… The hills and towers of Prague give you views you will not find in other European cities.”
Kampa Park and Werich Villa
The tranquil park neighbourhood of Kampa has always attracted prominent figures. Among them were the composers Josef Mysliveček and Bohuslav Martinů, illustrator Adolf Kašpar, painter Zdenka Braunerová, singer Eva Olmerová, and the actors Eduard Kohout and Josef Vinklář.
At the entrance to the park stands a villa bearing the name of its most famous resident: the avant-garde actor Jan Werich. The building was originally a tannery and was reconstructed for Czech National Revival figure Josef Dobrovský by his aristocratic patron, Count Nostitz, when Dobrovský was a tutor for the nobleman’s family.
Werich Villa tour guide Ruth Peterová tells us more:
“The island used to be divided into three gardens belonging to the Michna, Waldstein, and Nostitz families. At that time, Kampa was on the edge of Prague, and this villa was the summer house of the Nostitz family. If Josef Dobrovský was to live here all year round, the villa had to be reconstructed. And so, in 1803, the house was rebuilt in the neo-classicist style by architect Jan Palliardi.”
In the early 20th century, art historian and Prague expert Zdeněk Wirth lived here. So did Han Hung-su, an archaeologist and founder of Korean studies in Czechoslovakia, during his five-year stay in the Czech capital in the 1940s.
Now the villa belongs to the city of Prague but is administered by the Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation, which also runs the nearby Museum Kampa. The building was hit hard by the floods of 2002 and has undergone a significant reconstruction in recent years. Tour guide Ruth Peterová again:
“We are now in the Werich Villa, which used to be made up of two flats: one on each floor. In the upstairs flat lived Jan Werich, and the downstairs area, which is now a café, was the home of poet Vladimír Holan.”
Jan Werich, co-founder of the interwar Osvobozené divadlo (or Liberated Theatre) lived in the villa from 1946 until his death in 1980. His legendary collaborator Jiří Voskovec also lived in the house for a short time before emigrating to the United States. Although it is called the Werich Villa, the house never actually belonged to him, he was only a tenant in the city-owned flat.
The cellar, the oldest preserved part of the house, contains an exhibition about the old Jewish Quarter of Prague and the legendary Golem. That ties in with Werich and Voskovec’s play Golem, as well as the film The Emperor’s Golem, in which Werich starred. On the first floor is Werich’s restored flat, an exhibit dedicated to the Liberated Theatre, and a small room beneath the stairs. Theatrical performances take place in the attic.
“Students from Prague’s film and TV school FAMU built a little chamber with a peephole for us which looks into the pantry. Jan Werich and his wife Zdena frequently hosted guests and always kept a full larder.
“They led a busy social life, as is evidenced by photographs of the time. Actors and other people from the cultural scene would visit, including Karel Gott. Here we have a photograph of Werich with one of Gott’s albums. It must have been a gift from the singer himself.”
The Werichs’ Christmas Eve parties were legendary. All visitors were, of course, closely watched by the secret police, from the windows of the Lichtenstein Palace across the street. One frequent visitor was the legendary animated filmmaker Jiří Trnka, who lived nearby. Trnka’s relatives still live in the blue-and-white classicist villa which the filmmaker bought in 1960.
On the way from the Werich Villa to the Legion Bridge stretches an elegant park dating back to the 1940s. It was originally meant to be a military training ground but was converted into an English-style park after the war.
A walk through Kampa can be made more pleasant by a stop in one of the cafés along the Devil’s Canal. Standouts include Mlýnská kavárna (Mill Café), which has an original interior from the 12th century and Café Márnice (Café Morgue), housed in a former morgue.
The buildings of the old Sova Mills are impossible to miss along the way. They now house Museum Kampa with its unique collection of paintings from František Kupka and others. Another nearby landmark is the Lennon Wall, across the street from the French embassy. Since the 1960s it served as a symbol of protest against the former communist regime.