My Prague - Alex Went

Alex Went, photo: Ian Willoughby

Alex Went is the man behind the Prague Vitruvius, a very impressive and useful website dedicated to the city’s architecture. Indeed, the Englishman, who works as head of communications at Prague College, probably knows a lot more about the Czech capital’s buildings and history than the vast majority of natives. In the first part of our tour of “his Prague”, Went gives me some fascinating into Moskevská St., the main drag in his Vršovice neighbourhood – beginning across the street from the “Rangherka” mansion.

Alex Went,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“This really is my part of the world. I work in Vinohrady, but this is what they call the poor man’s Vinohrady, Vršovice.

“Once a village, it was incorporated into the city of Prague in the 1920s. And right now we’re really at the hub of the old town.”

This church beside us is the St. Nicholas Church. I guess there are a few St. Nicholas churches in Prague.

“I think there are three altogether. This one is very special, because it has a very old statue of [Saint] John Nepomuk outside, which I think is even older than the rest of the church.

“Rangherka”,  photo: Alex Went

“This church actually features in The Good Soldier Švejk. There’s a humorous scene at the beginning where Švejk tracks down a missing field altar, which he’s supposed to be using in a communion service.

“It was secreted in an old sofa and then sold by a retired teacher to the vicar of this church. So this is our claim to fame.”

I know you also want to speak about this building across the street from us, which is now a Česká spořitelna bank.

“Yes, and it always was a bank. It’s actually one of the most fabulous Art Nouveau buildings.

St. Nicholas Church,  photo: Alex Went

“It was built by pretty much the same team who had just finished work on Obecní dům [Municipal House] on Naměstí Republiky. When that was finished they came and worked on this. It’s pretty splendid.

“And then opposite, on the corner, we have the Vršovice Chateau, or zámek. It was originally a silk factory, which was built by two enterprising Italians around the end of the 18th century.

“When the bottom fell out of the silk market in Prague it was converted and used variously as a town hall and a drying out centre for alcoholics, particularly those returning from the war.

“Now it’s been splendidly restored as, I think, an old people’s home. It’s known as the Rangherka after the Rangheri brothers, who built the original silk factory.”

About 100 metres from the St. Nicholas Church we stop at another, rather different looking ecclesiastical building: the Hus House.

Hus House,  photo: Alex Went

“This was built in the 1930s. It’s a striking bit of Modernist architecture. It was built at around the same time as a lot of the other Functionalist churches in this area. The one in Jiřího z Poděbrad was built in 1928.

"The one at the end of this street that we’ll see later was also built at that time and this one was built in 1930.

“In common with one or two other churches, rather unusually they actually built a community theatre into the church.

“It’s one of the nice things about Prague, I find, is that the community is so well looked after. And perhaps here in Vršovice most of all, because this was, as I said, originally a village in its own right. So this is where people would have come for entertainment.

“The plot of land that the church is built on used to have a smithy, a kovárna, and it’s called Na kovárně still.

“You may have heard some of the trams in the background and this of course is where the first horse-drawn trams used to go from in Prague – right into the town centre from Na kovárně.”

Any particular reason why they started here?

“Absolutely no idea at all.”

Also this church building is unusual in having a bank in the front of it.

Stella Café,  photo: Alex Went

“It does [laughs]. Well there we go: bank, theatre – the whole life revolved around this place.”

Across the street and a little further down Moskevská (Moscow) St. in the opposite direction from the centre of the city, Went points out a rather average inconspicuous building housing an eatery called Stella Café Ristorante. It turns out it was once the home of a famous writer.

“This street used to be called Palackého, before the communist takeover, I guess. The interesting thing about the Stella, which has a pretty unprepossessing look to it, was that at one time it was the number on Palackého where Jaroslav Hašek actually lived.

“He lived here about a year before he started writing The Good Soldier Švejk, so we can imagine that this was probably where the seed was born.”

It’s always my impression that these writers lived in so many places – between Hašek and Kafka they must have had 25 homes between them.

“I think so. You certainly see busts of Hašek all over Prague but oddly enough not here – there’s not a plaque to memorialise him.”

How do you know this?

Church of St. Wenceslas,   photo: Alex Went

“A long time ago I was doing some research on the area for a blog I used to keep about Vršovice called Vršovice Daily Photo. It’s no longer extant, but if you want to look at it the photos are still there.”

Our last stop on Moskevská is at the end of the main part of the street, on the corner with Slovinská and opposite Josef Gočár’s distinctive Church of St. Wenceslas, a bare, concrete structure with a 50-metre tower featuring what look like enormous air vents. But Went first draws my attention to a building at the very foot of Slovinská.

“We’re actually looking at a very unusual and rather hidden building. It’s nowadays a contemporary art gallery, Galerie Deset. But it was built originally by a man called Waldes, so it’s also known as the Waldesovo Muzeum.

“He was, as far as I recall, the founder of the Koh-i-noor company, which still has its factory located around the corner on Vršovická. It’s famous principally because its logo was designed by František Kupka.

Waldes,  photo: Alex Went

“But as far as I know it’s still in production, producing buttons, press studs and fasteners of all kinds.”

Pencils too, or is it just my imagination?

“It’s a different company. Strangely enough. I think the other Koh-i-noor was originally a České Budějovice company that moved here. But as far as I know, they’re not connected.”

And across the street from us is what some I guess would consider a monstrosity.

“Yes. There was originally a very large communal graveyard here for the village of Vršovice. In the 1920s, at the time when the village became part of greater Prague and new buildings extended outwards they moved the bodies, presumably, and decided to build on this sloping land a modernist church, the Church of St. Wenceslas.

“It’s very notable. It’s probably one of the most famous buildings of Josef Gočár, who perhaps is most famous for his Cubist-style architecture: the House of the Black Madonna, for example, in the Old Town of Prague.

House of the Black Madonna,  photo: Archive Radio Prague

“It’s difficult to imagine really that only a few years after completing that commission he created this extraordinary, forward looking slab, or column, of white stone for this community.”

From the corner opposite the Gočár church, we head back towards the city centre to part of the Vršovice district that has become extremely fashionable in recent years. At the centre of that transformation has been one of Prague’s greatest spots for a beer or coffee, Café Sladkovský. Alex Went has been coming here since it opened its doors four years ago.

“It’s what in England I would call my local. I try to come here as often as I can – it’s not as much as I used to, but it’s very convenient for where I live.

“It’s right on the corner – always a good place to have your restaurant or café. And in very many ways, just as Moskevská where we walked is that kind of hub for the community, so this is the real social centre of this little part of town.”

I know they cook in this place – how would you rate the food here?

“I do, I think it’s exceptional. They’re very lucky to have one or two really good chefs over the last few years.

“My girlfriend’s Lebanese and she really enjoys the falafel menu they have. I know everywhere says they have very good burgers, but my burger expert friend tells me that these really are very good.”

What kind of people come here?

“Just around the corner from here many years ago there was Shakespeare and Sons [Shakespeare a synové], which had the great advantage of being an expat bookshop and bar.

Alex Went,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“This doesn’t have the bookshop but it has the bar. It still attracts many of the expat community as well as Czechs.

“That’s one of the great joys of living in this particular area of town – there’s a really nice blend of nationalities and everyone, amazingly, seems to get on really well with each other.”

You’ve been in Vršovice for several years. The area has, as everyone knows, changed a lot over the years. How have you viewed those changes?

“I’ve seen them happening very gradually, incrementally. But there’s still the spirit of the place. There’s still a slightly grungy, slightly down-at-heel feel to the place, which is really good.

“I know Kateřina [McCreary], who runs this place, has said in previous interviews that she feels slightly afraid of encroaching gentrification – and I’m glad to say we don’t feel that too much.”

Apart from Sladkovský where would you go for a drink in this area?

“There’s a good little restaurant around the corner, Tramtarie. There’s Café v lese, which took over from Shakespeare’s.

“Apart from that, almost every street has some kind of drinking hole that’s wonderful to dive into now and again.”

Is it possible to talk about a typical Vršovice denizen?

“Vršovicans tend to be well-educated, interesting people. Outgoing – though half of them would probably disagree with that last bit.

Café v lese,  photo: presentacion official of Café v lese

“There a great sense of welcome that you always get – and always have had in this part of town.

“I think the fact that it’s on the outskirts but yet part of Prague is very important for that.”

I’ve said this before in My Prague – I think many of the areas close to the centre have improved in recent years, like Letná, like Karlín. Would you agree with that?

“Yes. I mean you still fall down the occasional pothole but they’ve kept the cobbled streets here, which is wonderful. I don’t know for how much longer.

“As I’ve said before, I really like that fact that Vršovice combines gradual development with a certain hanging on to the past. There’s a real sense of heritage living around here. It’s a wonderful experience.”