My Prague – Iva Skochová
Iva Skochová has a travel column in the newspaper Lidové Noviny and is also preparing a book about crashing weddings in nearly two dozen countries around the world. But today she’s showing me around “Her Prague”. Our tour begins in the leafy Vinohrady, parts of which we have an incredible view of from the rooftop terrace of the office she shares at the very end of Americká St.
“Maybe it’s going to sound strange, but [Vinohrady] has always reminded me of New York, the West Village to be precise.”
Why do you say that?
“I don’t know, it’s a leafy area with a real neighbourhood feel to it, which is so hard to find in Prague. Prague is not really a ‘neighbourhoody’ kind of place.
“Every part of Prague is more or less the same. It’s hard to find gay areas and hipster areas and all that, though it’s starting to change a little bit.
“But here I feel like there are so many great places on Americká – shops and restaurants and cafés. When I walk down the street, I feel like people actually recognise me, they greet me and they know me. That’s very rare here.”
One thing that struck me coming here today was that this area hasn’t changed that much over the years. It seems to me that many areas of Prague, especially those that are quite near the city centre, such as Karlín, Vršovice, maybe Žižkov, have improved hugely. But here it doesn’t seem to me to have changed that much.
“Well, I think it has changed, but in a less drastic way. You don’t really see the kind of development that you would see in Karlín. There are no chain restaurants moving here.
“What you do see, if you know the area pretty well, is that the restaurants come and go, the coffee shops come and go, but they all tend to be independent little places. Like I said, they have more of a neighbourhood feel. So the development has been very sensitive to the neighbourhood.”
When you talk about community, I have to say that where I live, in Žižkov, near Akropolis, I don’t have a great sense of community. There are no nice cafés. There’s nowhere that feels like a kind of centre of the community.
“Exactly, I think that’s the difference between Žižkov and Vinohrady. The other day somebody from the US asked me…they had a son who is going to be a student here for a year and he is thinking of living in Žižkov, which I thought would be a great area, because that is where all the other students live.
“That is exactly the problem with Žižkov too, because you have all these people who only live there for six months or a year. So the neighbourhood doesn’t really have a chance to develop a great community.
“Whereas here, Vinohrady’s always been a desirable residential area and people have a hard time leaving it. So you’ve had people living here for 20 years.
“When I walk on Americká I’ve got the guy who sells Italian food and really good coffee, so I go and buy my coffee there.
“Then I’ve got this Mediterranean restaurant where the waitress knows what I want to eat before I even know what I want to eat. You’ve got people greeting you on the street, and it’s just really nice.”
Vinohrady means “vineyards” and quite near where we’re standing now is, I think, the only remaining vineyard in the area.
“Yes, I think that’s correct. Actually, Prague used to be a city of vineyards in, I believe, the 16th or 17th centuries. And yes, in Havlíčkovy sady just over here there is a great big vineyard; you can go to the Grébovka villa [the nickname of Villa Gröbe] and sample some of the vines – it’s really nice.”
How are the wines? Have you tried them?
“Well, they’re not bad. I mean, we’re talking about Czech wines. This is not the south of France. But with that in mind I think they’re perfectly nice.”
Skochová next takes me to Holešovická tržnice, which is one tram stop from Vltavská metro station. The complex, built in the late 1900s as the city’s main abattoir, has for many decades been home to one of its biggest markets. Today the place is a riot of colour, with the mainly Vietnamese stallholders peddling a mindboggling array of often garish cheap goods.
“I’ve got a love-hate relationship with this place. On one hand, I think it is the most wasted piece of land in the centre or the outside centre of Prague. Because it’s this huge market of cheap stuff.
“I always wonder, who even buys this stuff? Or, why is there so much of it? And I just think that this place has such great atmosphere, or could have a great atmosphere, so I walk around here and I kind of daydream about what it could be.”
I seem to recall that when I first came to Prague you’d see old ladies travelling halfway across the city to buy eggs a little bit cheaper at the food market here. Is the food market still going?
“There’s a little bit of that still going on. There’s a farmers’ market here at weekends. But no, I think it has lost a lot of that, which is a shame, because it used to be a place where real people would shop for real things. And nowadays I don’t see a lot of that.”
Well now it’s full of garish junk like cheap t-shirts, flick knives, all kinds of crap, basically.
“Exactly. Which, you know, there’s something that I like about that, too. Because Prague is in so many ways a boring white people town. So it is nice to see this hustle of an Asian city basically in the centre of Prague. Because it has a little bit of that going on.”
A couple of years ago I interviewed a guy who told me his company was planning to take this market upmarket. But from I can see around me, that hasn’t happened.
“No, that hasn’t happened, and I think a lot of people have been hoping to do more with this place. I mean, you’ve got Sazazu here, which is an upmarket restaurant, which is very good, and the club. I think a lot of people were hoping that other places would follow.
“And there are a couple of upmarket places, like the Italian restaurant Mercato. But it just hasn’t really happened fast enough.”
You were telling me there’s a “hidden” restaurant here, or a “hidden” food stand.
“Yes. My favourite Vietnamese place in all of Prague is right here, near the Norma meat shop, behind all the shops selling everything from toy guns to cheesy clothes and neon lights. It’s located below the ‘8’, if you’re ever looking for it. It’s got the best Vietnamese soup.”
That’s also a trend in Prague in recent times: Vietnamese restaurants. I think there were only a couple a few years ago. Now there seem to be many.
“Yeah, it was about time. The Vietnamese are I think the third largest minority in the country and really there hadn’t been any Vietnamese restaurants until a few years ago.
“I think all the Vietnamese people who ran bad Chinese restaurants realised that they might do a better job actually running Vietnamese restaurants, which tend to have a lot better food.”
Our afternoon ends on the other side of the city with a beer at Café V lese, a bar and venue in Vršovice. In the last couple of years the cool but unpretentious V lese has been one of the liveliest nightspots in Prague, drawing a mainly young crowd from around the capital. Iva Skochová says its one of her favourite places too.
“It always puts me in mind of being back in the ‘70s. I just love the décor. It’s a late night kind of place and I’m a late night kind of person. This place tends to always be open and I always find people that I know here.”
You were telling me on our way here that this place has an interesting history.
“Yes, from what I understand the first brothel in Prague with running hot water used to be in this building.”
Which must have been great for the ladies who worked here. But in more recent years it had a different history. It used to be called Shakespeare and Sons [actually Shakespeare a synové]. But somehow it seems to me much more lively now here than it was then. What do you think the difference is?
“I think this area really needed this kind of place. Shakespeare’s was great, but it was a little quiet for this neighbourhood.”
Also here at V lese they have a downstairs music venue part, which wasn’t here before.
“Exactly. That’s a great little place, because there’s something going on here basically every night, whether it’s a photo exhibit or a techno club evening. It’s a really diverse set of events that they have here.”
When you don’t come here, where do you go out in Prague?
“I do tend to go out in this area, most of the time, here in Vršovice, or in Žižkov. And sometimes in the centre, though I do try to avoid it. But I have some secret places [in the centre].”
You’ve also spent a lot of time in New York and you still travel there quite often. How you find going out here compare to going out there?
“Well, it’s a lot easier here. There’s not much pressure. In New York you’ve got a choice of 75 event to go to and parties, so you’re always stressed that you made the wrong choice and are meeting the wrong people, or trying to do too much.
“Here it’s a lot more laidback. What I like about going out here, is that the places aren’t so rigid about what they are. You can get coffee in a restaurant, you can get beer in a wine place, and you can basically eat in every pub.”