My Prague – Janek Rubeš

Janek Rubeš, photo: Ian Willoughby

Thanks to his Honest Guide videos, Janek Rubeš is THE face of Prague for many people around the world. The Honest Guide shows warn visitors about all kinds of scams in the Czech capital – but also reflect their presenter’s clear love of the city. Our tour of “Janek Rubeš’s Prague” begins on a bench by the park in the picturesque Kampa district.

Janek Rubeš,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“If Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, I consider Kampa to be the capital of Prague.

“I just like to grab a lemonade here when the sun is out and lay down on the grass.”

Generally how does Prague treat parks? Looking around here I can see that this one is not really manicured as you might see in some cities – it looks very lived on.

“See, I don’t really care that it’s not manicured, as you said. Because people don’t mind.

“They throw Frisbees, sit around, play – I don’t think you need special things in parks to make them habitable, or to make people enjoy them.

“I just think a big place with grass will suit just fine.”

Who comes here to Kampa, to this park?

“I hope a lot of people. I hope all of the people from Prague. But I think it’s mainly young people.

“There are very few tourists – that’s also why I like the park [laughs].

“The reason is that when they cross Charles Bridge to this side of the river they just follow the path up to the Castle and they don’t go this far – even though it’s literally three minutes from Charles Bridge.

“So I kind of like to enjoy a place in Prague where there are no tourists.”

Do many regular people live in this area, do you think? Is it possible?

“It is pricey. I think it is possible. Actually my best friend lives just on the street over here [on Nosticova].

“But with the prices of apartments getting higher and with Airbnb having a serious effect, in my opinion, on the prices of apartments, it is getting more difficult to live here.

Kampa park,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

“But I think the city should be the one who should help people so that they would be able to live in the city, as in buy apartments and pay for rent.

“Because if we only give it to rich people and tourists, we’re going to lose the city.”

Your Honest Guide is huge. You have over 150,000 subscribers on YouTube [in fact it's over 160,000]. For many people around the world I guess you are the face of Prague. Do you feel a kind of responsibility to present the city in a certain way?

“I do. I do, very much. And I’m worried sometimes that I’m the strongest voice in many cases.

“So I try to do my best.”

Am I right in thinking, from watching your videos, that ultimately you’re trying to put a positive spin on Prague? Even if you’re critical of something, you end up saying something positive.

“You’re absolutely right. Even with the worst scams or thieves that we show, we still try to put a positive ending to it.

“So we’re not saying, Do not come to Prague because there are crooked taxi drivers. We’re saying, Guess what? You can walk around Prague and you don’t need to use them around the city.

“Believe it or not, there are viewers of our show who’ve said, I only came to Prague because I saw your scam videos and now I know what to avoid.

“So it’s not like people would say, There are scams so I’m not going to go there. They will say, Wow, somebody actually pointed out the scams so now I know which places to avoid.”

In your videos you cover all kinds of stuff, including exposing scammers but also introducing people to kind of hidden spots in Prague. Has working on Honest Guide changed your relationship to the city?

“Absolutely, 180 degrees. I start to see things that I’ve never seen before. I start to notice new places. I start to look at every menu in every restaurant.

Building by Jean Nouvel at Anděl,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

“How clean my mind was, looking back at the time when I didn’t know all these bad things in Prague.

“It’s hard for me now to walk through the city and ignore all these things.”

What part of the city do you live in yourself?

“I live in Prague 5, in the area called Smíchov.

“In Czech that would translate to ‘laughter’ but it actually means ‘mixture’, because it was a new part of Prague where new people had mixed from other parts.

“I like it very much. The area of Anděl, where our offices are, I really like.”

That’s changed hugely in the last 25 years, 20 years.

“Absolutely. That used to be a very bad area, but since Jean Nouvel built his corner building at Anděl, and the pedestrian zone was introduced, I think it turned out very well.

“They should maintain it more, but, yeah, I’m happy with what Anděl looks like now.”

It seems to me that all of these areas that are quite near the centre, like for example Vršovice or Letná, have come up and been to some degree gentrified, or at least changed. Is that something you welcome?

“I do welcome it. I’m happy that Vršovice and Letná are changing and becoming a better place to live.

“But at the same time, I would love this to happen to Old Town Square. Or to the actual city centre.

“I think we should not be moving people out.

“So whenever I try to have a meeting or go for a beer, I can go to Smíchov, where I live, where there are plenty of places.

“But I rather take the tram into the city centre. Because I just don’t want to give it up. I still want to use it.”

From Kampa it is no more than a five-minute walk to Malostranské náměstí, the main square in the red-roofed Malá Strana district beneath Prague Castle. It's part of a well-trodden route that draws millions upon millions of tourists every year. But despite the crowds, it’s one of Janek Rubeš’s favourite spots.

“I really like this side of the river. Malostranské náměstí and especially Újezd have, I think, the most hidden spots that I know and that I visit quite often.

Malostranské náměstí,  photo: Jorge Royan,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

“There are still many touristy spots that are overpriced or cheat people, but I always say that next to a trap there’s always a hidden gem in Prague.

“So I like this area here.”

Tell us about some of the hidden gems in this part of the city.

“Right here, literally steps away, is Pivnice U Hrocha, which is probably the most famous place to get a beer…”

It’s quite near the Parliament, right?

“It is. I was told that many politicians like to visit, quite often. I hope it will stay there forever.

“Also nearby is Café Roesel, which is an amazing place on Mostecká. Once you walk in you will be amazed what it looks like.

“The thing is that you’re on one of the main tourist path, everybody goes through here, and these tourists have no idea they can hop into this local atmosphere pub where they can actually experience how Czechs live.”

Still we’re very much in the tourist centre of Prague.

“Yes, we are. And it’s due to the bad marketing of Prague. Because they only advertise the Castle and the Bridge – and I think those are the least interesting things here in Prague.

“I mean, they’re nice to look at. But I think Prague has so much more to offer than the Bridge and the Castle.”

There’s been a lot of talk in the last year or two about overtourism in various European cities. Is it an issue here?

“For me, it’s a huge issue. We have to deal with it. The city has to deal with it.

“I was told by an ex-director of Prague City Tourism that what I’m saying is not true, that Prague can still handle many more tourists.

Pivnice U Hrocha,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

“I do not think so. I try to be in the centre of Prague every day and there are days when it’s hard to move around on the street.

“Just right now we are being passed by a hop-on, hop-off bus which has probably a couple of people on it.

“It makes no sense. They are destroying our streets.

“A bus should never be riding on the streets of Prague. It’s only made for tourists and it gets permission from the city.

“But we have trams. Use the trams.”

I really hate to admit this, but about two months ago I found myself just randomly walking along what’s called the Royal Way – which runs from Celetná, across the Charles Bridge and up to the Castle – and possibly for the first time I found myself thinking, I really don’t like Prague any more. The centre of Prague has kind of become horrible and garish, with all these brightly lit shops and so. Is that a feeling you think a lot of people have?

“Well, I do have that feeling. But I would like to correct you.

“When you said, I don’t like Prague – that is not Prague. The streets that the Royal Way of Prague goes through have nothing to do with Prague.

“I am ashamed that tourists walk on these paths and think, Oh, this is Czech.

“They sell matrjoshkas, they sell masks of Adolf Hitler, they sell Donald Trump statues. That has nothing to do with us.

“But if you just take a step onto another street you will find a different Prague.

“The city should be telling people, Discover new places, discover Vyšehrad, go out of the centre.”

Royal Way - Karlova St.,  photo: ŠJů,  CC BY-SA 3.0

You probably interact with quite a few tourists. What’s their reaction when they come here and see all these glass shops and, from my perspective, awful places?

“I’m not going to speak for all 10 million tourists that come to Prague every year, but I think there are very different groups of tourists that come here.

“Usually couples, who I mostly interact with, are happy that they can discover a different face of Prague and not just the mass tourism.

“But then there are these big groups and stag parties coming here and I don’t think they really care.

“All they care about is to get drunk, to buy drugs, and they feel like they’re just going to party here.

“Prague has become the Las Vegas of Europe, I’m afraid sometimes.”

‘What happens in Prague stays in Prague’?

“Please don’t come for that experience. Please don’t [laughs].”

Just by the Malá Strana end of Charles Bridge is a place where Janek Rubeš if often to be found: the pub Lokál U Bílé kuželky. The hostelry on Míšeňská St. is one of a number of Lokáls, with the brand having proved a success in recent years for a top Prague restaurant group. Janek and I borrow a couple of cushions and sit on the curb.

“This place, Lokál U Bílé kuželky, is probably by far my favourite place. I consider myself a ‘local’ at this Lokál [laughs].

“The reason is they have good beer and I like to meet with friends here.

“But also, where we’re sitting right now, on the street, on the road… we’re probably breaking many laws by sitting on the road and drinking outside… but this is kind of Prague I love.

“On Friday evenings there are tens of people just sitting around here and the atmosphere is absolutely amazing.”

Lokál U Bílé kuželky,  photo: Jolana Nováková / Czech Radio

I guess that’s also possible because it’s a very small side street?

“Yes, and it’s sort of a dead end. It actually isn’t, but somebody’s parked their car there, turning the street into a dead end.

“So sometimes you see a lost tourist looking for a hotel and he has to back up through people here.

“But yes, this would not be possible in Dlouhá [where the first Lokál opened] or some other places, because there is a lot of traffic.”

This is Lokál U Bílé kuželky. Does that mean that before there was a normal pub here called U Bílé kuželky?

“I do not know that, to be honest. But I do know that they actually have got a white pin, which is a bílá kuželka.

“I also know, thanks to my friend Adam Gebrian, who is an architect, that this house that the pub is in was actually built by the architect Dientzenhofer, who built the church on Malostranské náměstí [St. Nicholas Church] and also on Old Town Square [also named St. Nicholas Church].

“I do not know where it was the son [Kilian Ignatz/Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer] or the father [Christoph/Kryštof Dientzenhofer], because I know both of them were architects.

“But I like to say I drink beer in a very unique building.”

I think there are now five of these Lokál pubs in Prague, including one in Karlín and other parts of the city. What do you think they’re doing right?

“Well, they’re doing it very simple. They don’t try to make things complicated.

“They serve one beer. It’s the best beer. They only use Czech products to make the food.

“And I really think that they manage to bring back the old atmosphere that we were used to from pubs, back in the day – they’ve brought it to nowadays.”

I know some people are critical of these Lokál pubs. They say they’re like a fake, sanitised version of an old pub that basically charges you more.

Lokál in Dlouhá St.,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I’ve actually never heard this argument. But no, I don’t think so.

“Yes, to a certain point they are fancier. But it’s the quality I want to pay for.

“In other words, yes, there are still pubs like these in Prague that I can to go.

“But I like to have my guláš made from quality meat and by a good chef and that’s what you pay for here.

“In all honesty, I think a fried cheese for CZK 160 is a rip-off – and I always tell them that – because that’s the price they sell it for.

“But they claim it’s the best cheese. I don’t know – I’ve never had it here.

“I usually come for the beer and I think the price, considering where we are, what kind of beer we’re drinking and who serves it is fine.”

I should point out that the kind of beer is Pilsner Urquell, which for many people is still the greatest Czech beer.

“For me definitely it is [laughs].”

Apart from this pub, what other pubs, or even cafés or bars, do you like in Prague?

“U Malého Glena, which is a small Irish pub with great sort of Tex-Mex food, which is funny, in a bar.

“But to me that brings, even though it's an Irish place, a sort of American pub feeling.

“Mlýnská [kavárna], by where we started our walk.

“And of course a place I always like to mention, which is on Old Town Square: Skautský institut.

“And another place on Old Town Square that I quite like is the restaurant Mincovna.

“It’s the only one breaking the stereotype of expensive beer, expensive food, because they try to keep the prices as low as possible.

“So if somebody argues with me and says, Oh, everything is expensive in the centre, here on the square, I always say, a beer over there is 35 crowns and over there it’s 49.”

Of all the places you mentioned, the only one I hadn’t heard of was Skautský institute. What is that?

“It’s a boy scouts’ institute. The address is Old Town Square 1.

Pilsner Urquell

“It’s a beautiful place. They have a little coffee sort of place there and you can get some small foods.

“There’s a beautiful inner courtyard and they will always treat you with a smile.

“We send many tourists there and I think they get the idea that they should treat the place with respect, always tip them well.

“And if they walk in smiling, they will always receive a smile back.”