My Prague – Bianca Bellová

Bianca Bellová, photo: Ian Willoughby

Bianca Bellová this year won the top Czech literary award Litera Magnesia for her novel Jezero (The Lake), an honour that was soon followed by a European Union Prize for Literature. The first stop on our tour of “Bianca Bellová’s Prague” is the suburb of Radlice. The writer lived in the district until the age of 10, when the original Radlice village was razed to make way for Metro construction.

Memorial to victims of 1945 air raid on Radlice,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“We’re now sitting in a park where I spent my childhood with my friends.

“The routine, if you like, would be that I’d come home from school and drop my bag and then get out with my friends and collect conkers and stuff.

“So it’s funny to see the people in the bank canteen here. This bank [the headquarters of ČSOB] was built 10 years ago, I reckon.

“It really is a district which has changed totally.”

Beside us here is a church which you said had some significant memorial at it.

“Yes, that’s a memorial to the people who died in the bombing of Prague at the end of the war.

“That was in February 1945 when Prague was bombed by the Allied air force. And Radlice was a part of the city that was hit quite badly.”

You were saying earlier that generations of your family used to live here.

“Yes. Where we’re sitting, about, I don’t know, 200 metres to the right, there used to be a big garden where my grandmother used to work.

“My grandfather was from here and they had a house here for ages. This house doesn’t exist anymore, just like the rest of the district, because it was basically pulled down for the construction of the underground here.”

Where were you and your family moved to from here?

“Our family was, with a bit of pushing, moved to one housing estate in Prague 4.

“I mean to say, we got a good deal out of it. But a lot of the old residents from here got moved to various housing estates around Prague.

“And that was something that was pretty devastating to them, because they totally lost all their social life and everything that they were used to.”

Chapel of Saint John of Nepomuk,  Radlice,  photo: Miloš Turek

Is there anything recognisable here from your days living in Radlice?

“Yes, there’s a few marks that I would say. This chapel of course – this is old and they haven’t managed to pull that down.

“That building over there is an institute or a school for hearing-impaired youth. And further down there is my old school where I used to go as a little girl.”

Also you were telling me that around here there are some wonderful walks. And it is quite green. Well, now it’s autumn so it’s less green, but there are a lot of trees.

“Yes, that’s true. You can see there is a big road going through this area to the new development of Prague 5, like Butovice and places like that.

“But I think the land here is somehow protected so it’s not allowed to build on it, so you see a lot of greenery still.

“If you walk from here to a hill which is called Dívčí hrady you get a really breath-taking view over the river, over the city.

“And the conditions for kiting there are perfect.”

Do you often come here these days?

“Say a few times a year, yes.”

Also you were saying earlier there was an outdoor pub here, in the past.

Radlická metro station,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Yes, there was an outdoor pub which was called U Šlajzů, or Za větrem, and it was a very traditional place where everybody would gather.

“There were exhibitions of rabbits and cats there and I would be send there with a jug to collect beer by my grandfather, if he couldn’t be bothered to go himself.

“And at this time of the year we would collect conkers there. There was a public toilet outside that everybody would walk into in the hunt for conkers.

“That was another place that was a significant centre of the social life of the neighbourhood.”

At what age were you going for the džbánek of beer?

“That’s a good question. From the age of, say, seven.”

So once you were big enough to carry it, basically?

“Basically, yes [laughs].”

Tell us, how was it when you moved from here to Prague 4? Was that a panelák [prefabricated apartment block] area?

“Yes, it was a brand new panelák area, like a housing estate.”

How was that compared to living in what used to be a village?

“Well, very different. But I then moved to a different school, which meant I had to travel across town.

“I meant to say, there’s a swimming pool over there.

“It was built when I was about six, so I started going there to swim. And I was picked out by some scout who said I should start going to a sports school.

Chapel of Saint John of Nepomuk next to ČSOB headquarters,  Radlice,  photo: Miloš Turek

“So I started going to a sports school – and I haven’t told this in an interview before – and I was a swimmer for five years.

“I had to go to that school, which was very far away, and I didn’t have time with all this sport I didn’t have time to spend outside anyway.

“So to me it didn’t matter very much. But for the older people I must say it was quite difficult.”

Was it possible for the older people who left here to in any way maintain contact? Or did they just kind of drift apart and couldn’t see each other anymore?

“From what I know, sometimes they would meet at the cemetery up there [laughs].

“But a lot of them died really early after moving.”

You think because of the shock?

“Because of the stress, yes.”

I was thinking on my way here that the experience of living in a panelák area of Prague must be really different from living centrally. Is that something that you could speak to?

“Oh, definitely. I would do anything to prevent moving back to a panelák.

“Sorry to say that, but living so centrally as we do, which is basically around Jiřího z Poděbrad, means that you are close to everything.

“You somehow establish some sort of social contact with the people in the neighbourhood.

“That is so important – and it never seemed to be possible in the sídliště that I lived in.”

Boho on Ondříčkova St.,  photo: Ian Willoughby

The next destination on our tour of “Bianca Bellová’s Prague” is the Jiřího z Poděbrad area that she has called home for the best part of two decades, and where she and I are near neighbours. Specifically, we’re at the Boho café bar and shop, a relatively new addition to the thriving district.

“It’s my favourite bar. It’s literally next door to my house.

“Also the service is very friendly, or the staff are very friendly, in the way that I imagine them to be – not in the traditional Czech hospitality sense.”

It’s quite new here, right?

“Yes, it’s about half a year old.”

What do you think of the fact that they also have a shop here, selling coats, clothes, books, sunglasses?

“I find it really cool. It’s an expression of their attitude, so it’s perfectly fine with me.”

But do people actually buy stuff here, or is it more for display, do you think?

“I find most of it quite bizarre. There is like, what do you call it, a male clutch [small handbag]?

“I don’t know what the proper name for it is, from the seventies, so you can get one of them here.

“To me it’s a fashion designer’s nightmare, but there you go, the fashion’s back.”

Does it ever occur to you – it occurs to me sometimes – that a lot of these kinds of hipster places are a little bit too similar? They have the same elements, like the chalk board, the exposed wall.

“Yes. I don’t normally visit them very much, but this is my favourite local place to hang out, so it’s fine.

“And I know the owner, who’s a really nice person.”

In general, what makes a good café or café bar for you?

Boho,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Good service, good atmosphere and coffee. Which is a bit of a problem.

“I find it quite irritating when you come to these hipster bars and all the coffee you get is really sour – it’s got really high acidity.

“And I don’t know why or where it comes from, because you don’t get it in Italy, you don’t get it in Spain or France.”

Apart from this café, what bars or cafés do you like in Prague?

“In the neighbourhood?”

Or anywhere.

“Anywhere… I like Kofein, which is not far from here. They make really nice tapas. You can eat well there.

“Sansho is also my favourite. It’s the enterprise of Paul Day, the English cook or chef. And various places, really.”

Just around the corner from Boho is Jiřího z Poděbrad square, transformed in recent years into the very lively hub of the area where the districts of Vinohrady and Žižkov meet. The square – which is filled with market stalls several times a week – is the heart of the increasingly fashionable quarter, says Bellová.

“I think it’s pretty central to the entire neighbourhood as you have such landmarks here as [architect Jože] Plečnik’s church, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord.

“You also have the farmers’ market here, which creates a lot of gathering of people. You’ve probably experienced it on a Saturday morning, when you can’t really walk through very much.

“You have cafés around it and you have an outdoor area, where you can sit and read or whatever and sit on the grass, if you have the courage.

“You have a lot of the local homeless people here. It’s good.”

I’m struggling to remember what it was like here before the farmers’ market. All along this side of the square there are now small businesses and I guess before there was almost nothing here?

“There was almost nothing, yes. Where there’s a bakery now there was a shop selling parts for heaters or something…”

I bought heaters in that place!

Bianca Bellová in front of the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Yeah [laughs]? Now you have two really good bakeries here to choose from and cafés and a juice place, or whatever.”

Do you ever feel like the gentrification is getting a bit out of hand? When I saw there was a doughnut shop I thought, Maybe they’re going a little bit too far.

“Yes, I share your feelings.”

Also, I don’t know why, it seems to have accelerated even in the last year or so. The number of new places is picking up even more.

“That’s true. It’s quite surprising to see that they’re always full. There’s always enough customers to attract, despite the really high prices.”

Also here they have occasional festivals, like the wine festival and so on. Is that something you go in for?

“No. Actually when there’s a wine festival I try to leave the city.”

Tell us more. That sounds wise, but please tell us more anyway!

“It’s very noisy. The streets are full of drunks dropping glasses of young wine and getting very drunk.”

When you come to the farmers’ market, is there anything that you’re looking out for?

“I always go for meat. I always go for vegetables.

“It’s really good – I know all the suppliers by name and they always give me the best meat available and the best discounts.

“So I’m treated well.”

One thing that I think the farmers’ market has done is to make a kind of centre for the area, so not it feels more like a community than it did a few years ago. Would you agree with that?

“Totally, yes.”

In part I think it’s because I’ve been living here for so long, but I think a big part of it is this big concentration of people every Saturday morning.

“That’s exactly what I told the original organisers, the Sedláčkovi couple, about four years after it started I said, You’ve done so much for the neighbourhood and for the social life here.

“And it actually made the wife cry.”

Rajská zahrada,  photo: Ondřej Žváček,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

I know you have three kids. Is there a lot of stuff for kids to do in this area?

“There are parks. There’s Riegrák [Riegrovy sady], Rieger park, and they can hang out there in the playground.

“And there’s a really big facility under it in Rajská zahrada, where they have a football pitch.

“What’s really nice about it is that kids gather there from the entire background and regardless of age or social background they just play together – whoever comes, plays.”

That park is interesting because I think many people don’t know about it – it’s kind of slightly hidden.

“It is. But kids from the neighbourhood certainly do.”

If I held a gun to your head and said you had to leave this part of Prague and move to another part of the city, where would it be?

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to move.”

What if it were a really big gun?

“[Laughs] But I did capoeira!

“I couldn’t tell you. Probably Radlice. I really like it there.”