My Prague – Luke Allnutt

Luke Allnutt, photo: Ian Willoughby

Luke Allnutt is a senior journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The Englishman’s career will enter a new and exciting phase in early 2018 with the publication of his gripping debut novel We Own the Sky, which has been sold in 30-odd countries around the world. Our tour of “Luke Allnutt’s Prague” begins by the Vltava River, on the embankment known as Naplávka.

Luke Allnutt at Náplavka,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“This part is just somewhere I love. Because I always finish my runs here under the railway bridge.

“I often run on a Saturday morning and then finish here and walk through the farmers’ market.

“And generally I just love Naplávka because it’s been a great example of urban regeneration and how a city can change in the last 15, more now, years that I’ve been here.”

And Naplávka has been transformed by lots of bars opening, and the farmers’ market?

“Yes, exactly. The bars, the farmers’ market, but also people just come and sit down here with wine.

“It’s a kind of egalitarian place. And it’s pretty beautiful, just looking across at the big, tall houses at Smíchov.

“It’s just a really nice place to come and chill out. I don’t come here that much in the evenings – it does tend to be more in the mornings, when I finish my runs.”

Do you always run the same route?

“I have a few, but my main one starts up in Vinohrady and then comes down here to Naplávka and then I run along the river.

“I have various lengths of runs, 10ks and 15ks, but then I do a big circle back and always end up here.”

I was surprised one time when you posted a picture when you had been running on Kampa. I was thinking, Who goes running on Kampa?

“[Laughs] That’s one of my routes. It’s actually quite nice to run through.

“If you go there early in the morning, it’s very nice. But otherwise it’s just horrible with tourists.

“As is the Charles Bridge – brilliant place to run, but you’ve got to go at like 6 or 7 in the morning; otherwise it’s just impossible.”

One thing I’ve noticed here is that sometimes, especially when it’s really busy in the evenings, there’s a bit of conflict between the cyclists, the runners and the people just strolling about drinking.

Kampa park,  photo: Barbora Němcová

“Yes. I have very strong opinions about this. I’m normally a runner but I’m also sometimes a cyclist.

“And I think often the cyclists aren’t very considerate. I think they go too fast, and I’m a cyclist as well.

“For this part, I would make it between certain hours of the day mostly pedestrian and have people walk their bikes. I mean, there are plenty of places to cycle.

“I’m not anti-cycling at all, and if you go further on down towards the [Podolí] maternity hospital, there are plenty of places to cycle.

“But sometimes, especially on summer days, cyclists go way too fast and it’s incredibly dangerous.

“But also there are the pedestrians. Everybody’s guilty of being inconsiderate and, you know, families sprawling across both lanes is also not helpful.

“But they need to manage it somehow, because it can be pretty dangerous sometimes.”

Have you found with running that you’ve kind of learned about Prague? I definitely have. I run out near where I first lived in Prague and I know it now much better than when I actually lived there.

“Yes, definitely. I think when you live in a city you get used to your usual familiar haunts.

“And I think running is one the best ways to discover a city. As is cycling, as is walking.

“It takes me places. Sometimes I run around Nusle and little places I never knew existed. Blocks of houses I’ve never been to, cafés I’ve never seen. It’s a really good way to discover the city.

“I had always run in Prague but I had always lived in Žižkov and tended to do local runs.

“And for me running down by the river is something I’ve only done in the last five years – and it’s been very eye-opening.”

Are the cobblestones a problem for running here?

“Not terrible. I try and run on the little bike tracks, thus annoying all the cyclists that I’ve just criticized [laughs].”

Náplavka,  photo: Annette Kraus

If you don’t come here in the evenings, maybe you haven’t noticed this too much, but it seems to me that this place has become almost over-commercialised. The whole strip along here by the river is full of heavily sponsored boats [housing bars and restaurants].

“I guess that’s always the danger of the popularity of a place. I saw that there was the big Karel Gott exhibition…”

"Gott my life"!

“Yes, 'Gott my life' [laughs], which sort of seemed to be the death of everything, or at least the way perhaps the early people who founded Naplávka and were the early ones here…”

Who were all kind of hipsters.

“Yes, there is always that clash. And probably for the hardcore hipsters Naplávka is already passé.

“But for a 41-year-old man who doesn’t get out that much, it’s pretty cool, commercial or not.”

From Naplávka, Allnutt and I stroll along the river before crossing by the Most Legií bridge to Újezd. There we take seats at the bar in the cosy Cantina Mexican restaurant, which has been a fixture in the district for two decades. Our guide explains why it’s one of his favourite spots in Prague.

“This is a place that has particular significance for me, because it was where my wife and I came on some of our early dates. And it was a place where we would come every New Year’s Eve.

“I’ve always liked it. I think it’s very underrated as a Mexican restaurant in Prague.

“There’s always great service, great food. It’s always busy, always hard to get a table. Just a really well-run place that’s been here for a long time, while others have come and gone.

“But it’s one of those places that just has a special meaning for me and my wife, mostly.”

I’ve got to say I first came here maybe two years ago and previously I had expected it was going to be like a “Czech-Mex” place with bland and boring food. But it’s not at all.

Cantina,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“No, it’s great. I’m no expert on Mexican food at all, so whether it’s Czech-Mex or Tex-Mex or whatever, the food’s always good.”

We had an intern at Radio Prague who was from Texas and she did a report about all the Mexican places in Prague and reckoned this was the best.

“Glad to hear the validation because I sometimes feel I’m a bit of a lone voice in singing its praises. Especially because everyone is quite big on this Las Adelitas place, of which there are a few now.

“But I love it here, it’s great.”

What’s your relationship to this part of the city, to Újezd?

“No relationship, really. I’ve never lived down here but I’ve always loved it down here.

“Back in the early 2000s I always found that you could escape the tourists just by coming a few blocks down from Malostranské náměstí.

“It was always this oasis, especially in the summer, of shade and cool, and it was surprisingly un-busy.

“Cantina added to it. There are some good bars down here. I just think it has a real atmosphere down here.”

Were you ever a regular at the Újezd club a few doors down here?

“I went there a few times, yeah, in my youth, and liked it a lot. And also back in the old days there used to be a Bohemia Bagels here. I remember being fresh and new in the city and going there to hang out and have a bagel and then go up for a walk in Petřín.”

Do you ever come to this part of the city now, or do you often come here? I like it OK here but, living across the river, it’s kind of off my map.

“Yes, I think I fall into that category as well, of just staying and living in Vinohrady. I do try and come across here.

“There’s also the Thai restaurant Noi that we’d sort of come to now and again.

Cantina interior,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“And there’s the Balkan restaurant called Luka Lu, if I’m remembering it rightly, that we came to a few times.

“So I do try and get across here, yes.”

Apart from this restaurant, where do you like to go out to eat in Prague?

“At the moment our standard place is Bruxx on Náměstí Míru, mainly because it’s got a kids’ corner and we can just leave our kids for a couple of hours and enjoy it without being bothered by them.

“Kofein, on Nitranská, is a particular favourite. And U Kurelů. Those would be the three places I probably go to most.”

The final stop on our trip around “Luke Allnutt’s Prague” is the classic Czech pub Pod Petřínem. It’s a block away from Cantina on the corner of Újezd and Hellichova and, as the name suggests, beneath Petřín hill.

“It’s just a very cool, old-school pub that, as far as I remember it, has not changed very much over the years.

“It’s always been a good, cosy little place, a little oasis from the cold outside. I’ve always loved it down here.”

Also it seems to me an unusually down-to-earth or democratic spot, in this area where many of the bars would be more expensive.

“Exactly. That’s why I like it. You could be in a hunting lodge somewhere in the foothills.

“It’s really old-school. It always has a good amount of tourists, but it’s not overrun. Just people coming in for a beer – it’s one of those really nice little neighbourhood places.”

You’ve been here 18 years?

“Yes, I came in 1998.”

The Pod Petřínem pub,  photo: Ian Willoughby

I presume you when you came here you weren’t planning to stay?

“No, not at all. I wasn’t NOT planning to stay here, either.

“I just came. I’d studied Eastern European history at university and wanted to be a journalist writing from this part of the world.

“I came here and like a lot of people did a TEFL course and taught English for a while.

“I then started working for Transitions magazine back in the day and then started freelancing and, yeah, just ended up staying.”

For you, is there any downside to living in Prague? Is there anything you find lacking here?

“Going back to London, what I love is the big city feel. That can get tiring very soon, but it is incredibly unique. And I do miss that.

“You go to London and it’s just so alive and packed with people.

“And sometimes Prague can be sleepy. When you’re outside the tourist centre in the summer in the suburbs, it can be dead, even in Prague 2.

“London’s never like that, so I sort of miss that perhaps.

“But I don’t really see many downsides. The downside some foreigners talk about is that Czechs are unfriendly, and I’ve never really seen much of that.

“I think they can be standoffish and perhaps not the first to come forward, but that’s never equated with unfriendliness for me.”

Also the things you talk about in London, the excitement, are maybe things you might appreciate that more, as a place to live, in your twenties. But when you’re older it’s just nice living in a place like Prague, for me. You can walk everywhere, and from my perspective the pace of life is absolutely perfect.

Photo: Orion publishing

“Yes, I agree. Those downsides that I mentioned – it’s actually nice that it’s a bit slower.

“Also, the problem in a place like London is, logistically, getting anywhere, meeting friends, is incredibly difficult in a city of 10 million people.

“And when you’re in Prague, meeting up is much, much easier, logistically.

“It’s got great public transport and so the size is also a big benefit as well.”

In a few months your first novel is coming out. Is it related to Prague in some way? Does Prague feature in the novel?

“Prague does feature in the novel. I wouldn’t want to say in what way exactly how.

“But the story is about a father whose son has a brain tumour and the father is looking for a way to save his son’s life.

“And part of it is set in Prague. But it’s not really a Prague novel, per se.”