My Prague – Helena Koutná

Helena Koutná at the Botanical Gardens in Prague

Helena Koutná is one of the Czech Republic’s leading interpreters. Many people know her from the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where for decades she has been appearing onstage alongside some of the planet’s biggest movie stars. Koutná lives in the city’s seventh district and our tour of “her Prague” begins at the café and brewery Lajka, on the street U Akademie.  

“I don’t come from Prague, and that may be one of the reasons that I really appreciate living in Prague.

“I always loved Prague, ever since the first time I came here.

“I come from Moravia, from a place called Přerov. I lived there until I was 18, until I finished grammar school, and then I came to Prague to study.

“But at the same time, when I was still studying, I started going to England on a regular basis, because my partner then was English.

“Then eventually I moved to England and I stayed there for about 20 years, I guess.

“Obviously I was coming back to Prague, mainly for work reasons.

“Then eventually I came back, about nine, 10 years ago.”

Why have you taken us to Café Lajka on our tour of “your Prague”?

“Well Café Lajka is in my new neighbourhood, or the neighbourhood which became mine, quite accidentally, I should say.

Café Lajka  | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“Because when I started looking for a place to buy in Prague, to live in Prague, Holešovice, or Prague 7, certainly wasn’t on the shortlist.

“It wasn’t even on the long list [laughs], because I didn’t know much about this part of Prague.

“We just accidentally saw an advert for an apartment which we really liked.

“And it happens to be in Prague 7, so this is an area where I happen to be quite regularly.

“And Café Lajka is across the road from the Fine Arts Academy, which is one of my favourite spots.”

Why is it one of your favourite spots? I must say I’ve never been inside it. I don’t know anything much about the place.

“It is, obviously, full of art students.

“My partner and I really enjoy art and we have some artistic friends –and we enjoy going to the end of term shows at the Fine Arts Academy.

“They happen every term, winter term and summer term.

“It’s a really nice way of seeing new, emerging artists: who there is, who the new people are.

“Sometimes they are not ‘new’, because sometimes they come to study at the Academy when they are a little older and they have already accomplished something.

Café Lajka  | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“So it’s really nice to see what’s around. And we have found some of our favourite people at these shows, in fact.”

Is it a kind of art student district around here? I know, for example, there are studios in some of the buildings just above us here, or along this street and the next street.

“I’m not sure whether the students actually or work here.

“Most of them I think work in the Academy as such, because they have studios there.

“I’m not sure who works in those studios [on the street], but there are cafés and bars where the students definitely tend to meet, including one which is very close to where I live, which is Liberal.”

One fantastic thing about this café, Lajka, is that it has huge open windows onto the street, so you almost feel like you’re literally on the street.

“That’s right, and when there’s something happening at the Academy…

“They had a celebration on the anniversary of the establishment of the Academy not long ago and the café became part of the celebrations.

“It was like one and the same space, almost: It was happening here, in the street and in the Academy.

“In fact this wasn’t always a café. When I first came across it, it was used as a sort of private club of the art students.

“We were brought here by a friend who’s an artist, who had a small, private exhibition that was happening here – and it looked completely different.

Café Lajka  | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“Where we are sitting now – that was the bar; so the arrangement was completely different.

“And it was really private. Only people who were invited had access.”

How long has it been Café Lajka? I must say when you suggested coming here I had never heard of the name even.

“To be honest, I’m not sure. It can’t be more than eight, nine years.

“It’s a really nice space. There’s a big room downstairs and, it’s a silly thing to say, but even things like the toilets are nice and interesting here.”

Nice toilets are always welcome. I also wanted to ask you: Are there any negatives or downsides you find to living in this part of town?

“It’s hard to think, really.

“I was really surprised by how well connected with the rest of Prague this area is: the tram lines, the Metro – it’s amazing.

“We are not in the centre but we are very close to the centre – you hop onto a tram and you are at the Old Town Square in five minutes, which is really amazing.

“What’s quite surprising, and what matters to me, is that the connection to the airport isn’t wonderful, but I think that’s an ailment that Prague has been trying to solve for many years now.

“Funnily enough when I was living in Prague 10 for a while after I came back to Prague it took me almost the same amount of time to get to the airport as it takes me now.”

What about the reputation that that Letná has as being “hipster central”? Does that bother you? Or is it even true?

Metronome at Letná | Photo: Damian Cornette,  Radio Prague International

“To be honest, I’m not sure.

“But what’s a hipster? OK, how do you define that?

“Does it mean that people are wild and unpleasant? Or does it mean that people are lively and try new things and organise events, which is wonderful obviously, and that is happening here?

“There are things happening certainly at Letenské sady, around the metronome where the Stalin statue used to stand.

“There are things happening there during Letní Letná [new circus festival], which is again a wonderful thing.

“Is that hipster? Or is that not hipster? Hard to tell.

“And there are lots of new cafés and little places, little design places. Young artists are trying to open their little boutiques, which is wonderful.”

You were telling me earlier that you lived in London for many years and visited Prague. When you moved back here, was it a hard adjustment?

“No, it wasn’t at all – because when I moved things were already happening.

“Prague had been transformed during the previous years and it was a pleasure to be back.

“There were things that I was used to from London that were coming to Prague, including farmers’ markets and little shops.

“No, it wasn’t hard at all.

“And there were things that were working here, as opposed to what it was like in London, like public transport.”

The next port of call on our short journey around “Helena Koutná’s Prague” is just metres away. Stromovka is one of the city’s biggest parks, and certainly its grandest. We stop to chat by a small pond near a raised area enclosed by trees, right in the middle of the 95-hectare park.

Stromovka park | Photo: Jolana Nováková,  Czech Radio

“It’s a really nice spot in Prague, which happens to be close to where I live.

“It’s actually quite a big piece of nature, in the city, which I find really amazing.

“It has been there for a long time. To be honest, I don’t know the story or the history, I don’t know when it was established – but it was here Rudolph II, I think.

“I think it was originally supposed to be his hunting ground.

“So it was really big – it’s a really, really big park.

“In the past there was one huge pond, as far as I know.”

And now there are many smaller ones.

“And there are many smaller ones. And they have been multiplying over the recent years, which is, again, something quite wonderful.

“It’s something that the city has tried to do – to introduce a lot more water features.”

I lived near here 20 years ago and it’s so long since I’ve been here much, but it feels like it’s changed a lot – has Stromovka been developed a lot over the years?

“Enormously. Stromovka has really enormously developed.

“There are a lot more water features, be they ponds or little fountains, thinks like that.

“And they are also trying to do something about the landscaping; the trees.

“There are a lot of new benches, some of them are quite interesting, designer benches, I would say.

“There are also a few spots where you can do exercise. There’s exercise equipment for people.

Šlechtovka | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

“So it’s becoming really nice. It’s also really nice that you can now, especially in the summer months, meet people with coffee carts or ice cream carts, and things like that.”

Also I see that after many years the wonderful old building Šlechtovka, the Šlechtova Villa [actually restaurant], has finally been renovated.

“It has and it looks beautiful.

“I think it hasn’t been officially opened to the public yet; or rather, it has been open officially, but I don’t think there are many things happening there.

“There’s supposed to be a restaurant, as far as I know.

“But now there’s actually a little modern café sitting next to it, which is also very nice.”

You travel quite a lot for your work. How does Stromovka compare to parks in other European cities, for you?

“I think that it is beautiful. It is definitely beautiful, and it is a place where you want to come and spend some time.

“What’s still missing is more places to sit and have a coffee or have an ice cream or have a lemonade.

“Although there are some new places now, that were opened over the past two or three years.”

How manicured would you say it is? To me it seems just about right. Some parks you go to in some cities are overly manicured, at least for me.

Stromovka | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

“Yes, I think you are right.

“There are a few areas where I think they are trying to apply the principles of permaculture, so they are letting the grass grow wild.

“It’s really nice and dogs can run around and kids can run around.

“And I think that once a year there’s actually this funny event where people come and cut the grass the traditional way, with sickles.”

Do you have a favourite time of year here for coming to Stromovka?

“Probably the spring, because are really becoming to look really nice and fresh, and there are lots of trees in bloom and new flowers appearing.

“And also there are little animals, little ducklings.

“Because there are actually quite a lot of birds in Stromovka, which is wonderful.

“But winter is also nice, especially when it’s really cold.

“Because with the new water features there’s this new thing that you can do, which is ice-skating.

“You can ice-skate on those little ponds.”

Do they rent skates, or whatever?

“No, they don’t, you have to bring your own.

“But people do come and do it and it’s fun. I’ve done it [laughs].”

I was here for the first time in years a couple of weeks ago and I noticed that at the Výstaviště end of the park it seems that the space has been made more open in some way – I couldn’t quite recognise what they had done, but I felt like something was different.

“Yes, absolutely. For several years now the City, or I’m not sure if it’s the City or the council of Prague 7, have been trying to interconnect the two.

“Because they used to be separated by a fence and it was unfriendly and strange and unnecessary, because they are both very nice areas.

“And they have been opened gradually, so you can walk through now freely.

“Also you remember that several years ago one of the wings of the Industrial Palace, at the trade fair grounds, burnt down.

“And now, finally, it’s being rebuilt.”

Our lovely late-morning stroll continues to the other side of Stromovka, across the island Císařský ostrov to the Troja district. It is home to Prague’s Botanical Garden – a spot where Helena Koutná is quite a regular visitor.

“The Botanical Garden is a really nice and peaceful place. You can spend the whole day here, if you are so inclined.

“You can come and have a picnic when the weather is good.

“There a few cafés now where you can buy a drink or a hot dog or whatever; or you can bring your own stuff.

“It’s a modern garden, so there’s even a Wi-Fi hotspot [laughs] – if you need to you can spend the day working here.

“It’s fun to come here all year round, because it keeps changing.

“There’s a lot of work going on in the garden, the plants keep changing, it’s never boring.

Troja Botanical Garden | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“It’s wonderful in the spring – lots of colours. And there are also different colours in the autumn.”

What’s your favourite part of the garden?

“I really like a place with a little pond, with a statue of a giant, leaping frog.

“There are also usually, when the pond is open, some turtles during the summer season, so it’s fun to watch them.

“And it’s very peaceful and shady as well.”

Are you a frequent visitor? When we came in you had a pass, or a season ticket.

“Yes, I don’t come here as often as I should [laughs], given that I have the pass, or as I would like to, I should say.

“But yes, I really like coming here.

“It’s a nice walk from where I live, through Stromovka all the way to here.”

On our way up here we passed [inside the Botanical Garden complex], above the Troja Chateau, a vineyard. Is that a working vineyard?

“It’s definitely a working vineyard and there’s also a little wine bar, which is currently being renovated, as far as I know.

“You can actually drink wine from that vineyard, in that wine bar.”

Also I’ve got to say on our way up here the views are really something.

“Yes, the garden is on a hill. Prague is a city of hills, which I think is one of the things that make it special.

“And the views from here amazing – you can see Prague Castle, you see parts of Prague 6 and the iconic hotel [International]. and you see the new Troja Bridge, which I think is also quite spectacular.

“So the views are really worth it.”

I see some lady over there taking photos and very intently checking out some plant. Do you also do that? Or do you just kind of take in the general vibe?

Vineyard at Troja Botanical Garden | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“I enjoy taking pictures of little things: little leaves, little flowers, little plants.

“It’s also quite nice that they have a lot of labels here.

“You can see what different plants are, so if you want inspiration for your garden and you like something here, you will know what to buy – because you have the name of the plant, or the flower.”

We don’t really have time to go there today, but I know there’s a huge greenhouse here. Could you tell us something about that, please?

“It is enormous. And sometimes they have special exhibitions or shows on, like orchids and butterflies.

“They have exotic butterflies that are born in the greenhouse and fly around and you can go and see them. It can be really interesting.”