My Prague – Jana Ciglerová

Jana Ciglerová, photo: archive of Jana Ciglerová

Journalist Jana Ciglerová has held several positions at the top Czech dailies Mladá fronta DNES and Lidové noviny, and now writes for the former’s weekly supplement Magazín DNES. Our tour of “her Prague” soon turns into a very enjoyable trip down memory lane, starting at Velryba (The Whale) on Opatovická St. The café has been one of the best spots of its kind in the city for nearly two and a half decades.

Jana Ciglerová,  photo: archive of Jana Ciglerová

“This is really, really nostalgic for me right now. Velryba was the café of my youth. This is where I would come after school or sometimes even instead of school.

“I loved it here. We would come here with my friends. All we had money for was one Coke, Diet Coke or one coffee – and we would sit over it for hours and drink it for a long time, so they wouldn’t press us to get another one.”

What’s particular to this place? What’s different about it?

“It was one of the first cafés in central Prague. It wasn’t like today, when you had a café on every corner, twice.

“Also the interior is very special. It’s still here. [The wall design] is made of triangles that differ in size, so it kind of creates the feeling of a 3D surface.

“I remember back then we asked, Why does it have this interior?

“And they said, Because its Velryba, it’s a whale, and you’re inside the whale – this what the stomach of a whale would look like if you were inside.”

When you were having the one drink for four hours, I was eating fried cheese quite often in this place. And I believe to this day they have the best fried cheese in Prague.

“They do? Maybe we should have it…

“Another thing I remember is that back then, even famous people would come here, celebrities of the ‘90s would come here.

Velryba,  photo: official website of Velryba

“It was impossible to get a place – if you came later than five, you couldn’t get a table.

“So what they would do is – you don’t see it now, but it would happen very often back then – something called ‘přisednout’: That meant they seated you at a table where there were already people.

“For my foreign friends, that was totally unheard of – that you would not have your table to yourself, no matter how big it was.

“But for us it was unheard of that you had a big table for two people and nobody else was there.”

Are there other cafés in Prague you also like?

“I very much like Café Café on Rytirska, because of the service and because of the quality of the food.

“The owner is my friend so I always get special service there. Plus they have the best cakes in the world.”

Tlustá Koala interior,  photo: Ian Willoughby

The next stop on our journey around “Jana Ciglerová’s Prague” is Tlustá Koala on Senovážná St. Located by one side of the Czech National Bank, the English-style pub is a stone’s throw from the busy square Náměstí Republiky. It’s also just a few metres from the building where my guest started out as a journalist, before Mafra, the owner of Mladá fronta DNES and Lidové noviny, moved its operations to the Smíchov district.

“I started working as a journalist in my first year at the university of journalism. And I started right [down the street], at Mladá fronta DNES

“I was this elév [novice], we call it. And I experienced journalism back in those days that was the best school I could get.

“Working with me in the domestic news department there were Sabina Slonková and Jiří Kubík – they were an investigative duo who became the biggest names in Czech journalism at the time.”

In Ireland, in Dublin, there is a famous pub, Mulligans, where a newspaper had a back room that they used for editorial meetings. Did you guys have meetings here too?

“We had evening meetings that were very informal but lots of things were decided.

“I could take part in those meetings because I was, maybe not single but I definitely didn’t have a family back then, and I could stay as long as I wanted to. Lots of decisions were being made here.

“Nowadays I couldn’t take part in these informal meeting and sometimes my male colleagues can, because they don’t have to go back to their families, whereas I do; I’ve got little kids.

“So no more informal pub meetings for me, today.”

Tlustá Koala on Senovážná St.,  photo: Ian Willoughby

I was reading on the website of this pub that it’s meant to be in an “English Victorian” style. Do you think it achieves that aim?

“[Laughs] You see, to me English Victorian to me is something like posh and proper. And I remember very improper things happening here.

“So not really – I wouldn’t associate it with that.

“But the style is and the beer is [English style]. And they used to serve cider here when it wasn’t as popular as it is now. Now they don’t serve cider any more, even though it’s very popular.”

Mafra moved from here to Smíchov. Do you work there? And how do you find it compares to here?

“I do work there, because I’ve been working for Mladá fronta DNES for the past 11 years, after leaving and going back again.

“It’s new. It’s flashy. It’s a glass building with lots of open space offices.

“It doesn’t really have the atmosphere. If you go down to have a meal in the restaurant it’s like this canteen without anything to it.

“So it never really grew to my heart.

“Plus, a lot of the time I’ve been working with them I’ve been working from home, because I have little kids.

“So really this part [of the city] is like the vibrant, cool journalism, real journalism years, whereas now at the glass building everything is a little bit sterile, I have to say.”

Also here you’re closer to everything. It’s just two minutes to Náměstí Republiky.

“Yes, you’re right. And everything is at Náměstí Republiky…

MAFRA | Photo: Aktron,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“There was this little restaurant. A little tiny place where you first had to go through a cukrárna and then there was this big curtain, and only special people knew about the curtain…”

Is that on Hybernská?

“Yes. You know that place?”

What’s it called, Konírna [actually Vinárna Konírna]?

“I can’t remember. But that was THE hiding place. And depending on what kind of deals you had and what you were hiding from or who you were hiding with, there were lots of hotels around Mladá fronta DNES, back then.”

What were you hiding?

“[Laughs]. I don’t know – people told me!”

The nostalgia continues just around the corner from Tlustá Koala in the large, leafy courtyard at the back of Slovanský Dům. The building, originally built in the late 17th century, now houses a rather high end shopping centre and multiplex cinema. But back in the early 1990s when Jana Ciglerová started coming here it was, prior to a major renovation, home to a large beer garden and lively night spots.

“This is place with these tall maple trees that looks totally different today than it looked back then, when I remember it and when I first started coming here.

“There used to be a beer garden with inexpensive beer here.

“Looking at those years from now, it looks almost unreal that in the very centre of the city, like this is, there was something so inexpensive and so not making a profit.

“There was also a music club – I think it was called Tam Tam. And all young people kind of gathered here.

Courtyard behind Slovanský Dům,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“The locations around here were also very accessible. There was the café at Obecní dům [Municipal House], there was a nightclub, Repre.

“Many people remember those years, but some of them don’t remember some of the parts [laughs].”

My view is that we were lucky to have this kind of window between basically the fall of communism and the renovation and gentrification of these buildings. We were just lucky to have those few years.

“Right. It was very rare. And it was very innocent as well, right? Even though crazy things were happening here too.

“It was before the times when people actually needed to make a big, big profit.

“Now when you look around here you see posh restaurants, a posh café, a posh sushi place. Things you could never dream of back then.

“But I loved those years. They were formative years.

“Nowadays you can’t tell young people what it used to really be like.”

One thing I’m curious is how young Czechs, or young Czechoslovaks, felt about having so many foreigners all over the place in the early 1990s.

“It was great. It was so interesting.

“And you were our best English teachers I have to say, because we got to practice the language.

“Under communism we would always consider people from the West our enemies, right? We were taught to, at least.

“So when the revolution came and you guys turned up here and you were nice and friendly and would talk and ask us things, it felt very special.

Courtyard behind Slovanský Dům,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I really love to think back to those years.”

Generally, how do you view the way Prague has developed over the years since 1989?

“Sometimes I’m really, really proud of how Prague has changed over the years. Because it’s much cleaner; the fact it wasn’t clean bothered me a lot.

“Also you have nice places where you can take your foreign friends and feel like you are part of Western civilisation.

“But when my foreign friends come, more and more often they don’t want those posh places that I would want to show them.

“They want me to take them to somewhere really, really authentic – and there’s fewer and fewer of these authentic places.

“What I don’t like is development regarding administrative buildings. There are way too many and the architecture is like from the 1990s – it’s now new.

“They’re like huge buildings that dominate everything around them and don’t give back to the space. So I don’t like this part.

“But I still like these places like this park, where you can still feel there used to be something special.”