My Prague – Mark Baker

Mark Baker, photo: Ian Willoughby

Who better to show us around “his Prague” than US author and journalist Mark Baker? After all, the seasoned travel writer has penned a number of guidebooks to the city since moving here at the very start of the 1990s. Our short tour begins in the district that Baker has called home in recent years, Bubeneč, a quiet, leafy part of Prague 6.

Mark Baker,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“For me, when we choose to live in a place in Prague, we try to choose places that we feel some connection to, even some aesthetic or spiritual connection to.

“And for me it was always the 1920s and ‘30s in the Czech Republic. I like the architecture and the styles and things like that. For me, Bubeneč is the district of that period.

“Most of the houses were built in that style around here. I really feel a connection to that – that’s why I chose it.”

Frankly, I don’t know this area very well, but it strikes me as being quiet, maybe too quiet.

“[Laughs] It’s too quiet. We really could use some good cafés, we could use any piece of night activity here. Even a good bar we could use.”

So apart from the architecture, what’s good about living here?

“I like to bike in the summer time and the best trails leading out of Prague are just down this street. They follow the Vltava to the north towards Kralupy. I like to go out there at least once during the weekend on the bicycle.

“And I live just down this street and Stromovka park is just 100 metres away from where I live, so it’s great for that too.”

Before buying your place had you lived in this area previously? Or did you move here after you bought?

“No, I never lived here before, and I didn’t really even know this area, so for me it was a big step.

Bubeneč,  photo: Matěj Baťha,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“But I lived in Prague 7 and I lived on that side of Stromovka and I knew I wanted to stay near Stromovka, but the houses and apartments on that side of Stromovka were more expensive, at least from this neighbourhood, so this is what I could afford.”

What kind of people live here? It strikes me as being quite near the area where all the ambassadors live – or there are some embassies and ambassadors’ residences. Also it’s quite near the headquarters of the Czech Army.

“Yeah, it’s a strange district in some senses. If you go this direction towards the city you find lots of villas, very wealthy people, a lot of experimental villas from the 1920s and ‘30s.

“Pick up a book on Prague architecture from the 1920s or ‘30s, look up Dejvice or Bubeneč and you’ll find 25 examples of historic buildings here.

“There are lots of embassies, and lots and lots of Russians. This was traditionally the Russian part of Prague and many Russians continue to live here.”

You were telling me that the street names here are also interesting.

“I think they reflect a Czechoslovak political situation in the 1980s and the 1970s perhaps, when they were named.

“The street we’re standing on now is called Činská, China or Chinese Street. The next street over is called Albánská, so Albanian Street. And the next street over there is called Vietnamská, so Vietnam Street.”

So all the allies.

“All the allies at that time. Yeah, exactly.”

The former Hotel International in Prague 6,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Our next port of call is the one-time Hotel International, a distinctive Socialist Realist structure that Baker has a good view of from his apartment window. However, his connection to the building dates back a lot further.

“It’s one of the very first places I stayed when I began writing as a guidebook writer. At the time I was working on a guidebook for Fodor’s with my then girlfriend. This was 1991, in February.

“I have very scant memories of that trip, but I remember driving into Prague. It was very, very cold that winter. We decided we were going to stay here because of the architecture. We were expecting a really grand, incredible hotel, and what we found was a Čedok classy hotel, basically; a tourism hotel, in a way.”

But it is a remarkable building.

“Oh yeah, the architecture is what we were drawn by. There are very, very few examples of Socialist Realist architecture in Prague. So from the exterior it was really impressive.

“But from the inside once you’d checked in and got to your room and actually stayed here, it was like an army barracks, actually.”

I see they still have a red star on the roof. You were telling me that the original idea was that Stalin himself might stay here.

“A small correction there – it’s not a red star anymore; it’s a gold star. Because the hotel is now owned by the Crown Plaza, or the Vienna International Hotels Group. In contrast to what I said about it being an army barracks, it’s actually a pretty nice hotel these days.

“But it was a red star. And then when Holiday Inn moved in here they painted that red star green. So it was a Holiday Inn green star, which was also the symbol of their corporation. And now it’s a gold star.”

What about Stalin – was he meant to stay here, do you know?

Lobby bar at the former International,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“That’s a good question. There are a lot of misconceptions about this hotel. One is that it was somehow a gift from the Soviet Union to Czechoslovakia. That’s not entirely true.

“The idea to build a hotel here actually came from the Czechoslovak Ministry of Defence, who wanted to build a hotel that would house army personnel living in Prague after the war.

“Then in the early 1950s as political developments gathered pace and the Communists became more powerful, it became kind of important to build it as a symbol of Communist power.

“Then there was the idea that perhaps if Stalin did come to Prague – I believe he never did – he would stay here, or at least visit this hotel.”

It’s had many names over the years, but the original name was I believe Družba, or Friendship, I guess?

“It may have been Družba, but I believe the square in front of the hotel was called the square of Družba. I have to look that up.

“Yeah, the name of this hotel has changed several times. But, it’s the Hotel International is the one that has stuck somehow. I don’t know why. To this day, even though it’s called the Hotel Crown Plaza, people still refer to it as the Hotel International.

“I don’t live far from here and when I’m taking a taxi and the driver isn’t familiar with my street, I always tell them, it’s next to the Hotel International.”

It’s also one of the most distinctive buildings in Prague, in its own way. It looks like something from Moscow, or what I imagine I might see in Moscow.

“Well, the style was very consciously to mimic the styles that were going up on the periphery of Moscow, that kind of Stalinist Gothic architecture that people talk about.

“Yes, it looks like several buildings in Moscow. But the original design was, I believe, a hotel in Moscow that looks very much like this one.”

We’re sitting here in the lobby bar at the hotel and it’s almost empty at the moment. It seems that many people perhaps don’t know that there’s this great historical kind of resource in Prague 6.

“That’s a really good point. In the last few months I’ve gotten closer to the public relations people at the hotel and I’ve been trying to convince them to publicise this space better at some point.

This tapestry at the ex-Hotel International features a statue of Stalin at Letná,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Because I think there are people, especially tourists, who would love to come here, sit down, have a cocktail or a coffee in this space. It is so evocative of that period of the early 1950s, kind of scary, spooky, but also in a way thrilling.”

Like a Communist Mad Men setting.

“It is a Mad Men setting [laughs]. It’s totally a Mad Men setting. I can easily having a great Czech cocktail here at the time. Definitely.”

Perhaps 10 minutes’ walk from the Hotel International – and right by Stromovka park – is Na Slamníku, a cosy pub with a dark wood interior that has changed very little in the last couple of decades. As we conclude our trip around “Mark Baker’s Prague”, the guidebook author explains why he’s chosen this particular spot.

“Na Slamníku is basically the only real Czech pub within walking distance of my house, so it obviously has a very strong role in that respect.

“But it’s also a pub that I’ve known since the very first days when I came to Prague. It’s a pub that my friends like to come to. And they cook pretty well, too.”

This is my first time in this place for, I think, 20 years. I used to work just down the street – it was my first job in Prague. I’ve got a strong memory of in those days the barmen slapping down a pint in front of you before you could finish your previous one. Do they still do that?

“Yes, they definitely do that still – exactly.”

What I think is cool about this place is that it’s in Prague, but it feels like you’re outside Prague; it’s quite a country feeling place.

“It’s very tricky for people who don’t know Prague very well to find, and in a sense that’s probably part of its appeal. It takes some effort to locate this place and get here, and that means that mostly only local people come here.”

Otherwise, what pubs would you recommend in Prague to people looking for an interesting drinking experience?

Mark Baker checks his mobile outside Na Slamníku,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Well, it really depends very much on what you’re looking for. The traditional Prague pub like Na Slamníku is kind of disappearing. There are people who appreciate it and fight for it, but in my recollection at least – I might be wrong – I feel that there are fewer and fewer of these old, traditional pubs around.”

Apart from this pub or other similar old school ones, where do you like going out in Prague?

“It’s probably not going to be the greatest answer, but I like Vinohradský Parlament, by Naměstí Míru. It’s one of these ultra-clean modern pubs but they’ve done it in a really good way. They’ve put some emphasis on the cooking.

“Unfortunately it’s a Staropramen pub, but some of the Staropramen, like the 11-degree, is pretty drinkable, as is unfiltered Staropramen. I love that place actually.”

I’ve been there and I like it, but it does feel a bit like a factory. It’s so huge and there’s God knows how many people working there.

“Yeah, I understand that completely. It doesn’t have any of the atmosphere of Na Slamníku or an old-school pub. But it’s cleaner. The food is probably better and you know there’s something to be said for it. Also it’s cheap – it’s not that expensive.”

What about cafés? What are your favourite cafés in this city?

“I spend a lot of time in cafés because I work from home and I have to get out of my house to do some writing and to see some people. I have to be sort of alone in public, as they say.

“A café I go to quite often is Liberál in Holešovice. It’s a kind of a pub by night, café by day kind of place. It feels like an old Vienna pub. It’s not very popular, which means you can always get a table. And they have great Wi-Fi there, and pretty good coffee.”