My Prague – Rob Cameron
For listeners around the world, Rob Cameron has, as the BBC’s correspondent in the city, been the voice of Prague for many years. The London-born journalist, who moved here in 1993, is a former colleague of ours at Radio Prague. He is also my own oldest friend in the Czech Republic. Our tour of “Rob Cameron’s Prague” starts in the city’s Nusle district, just across the street from the Na Fidlovačce theatre by the Botič river.
“This is the route that I run. I run down through Vinohrady, which is on the top of the hill there, through Grébovka, Havlíčkovy sady, and then I run along the river Botič through Nusle, where we are now.
“Nusle is on the borders of Vinohrady, which is very sort of – as you know – exclusive, bourgeois and beautiful kind of place. And Nusle is not at all…”
It’s rather grim.
“It’s pretty grim. It still feels rather industrial.
“And I brought you here because we’re actually standing in front of what used to be the Nusle brewery, Nuselský pivovar.
“I didn’t know that for 20 years and only found out quite recently.
“Because there were lots of vineyards here in the Middle Ages – this was called the Valley of Vineyards at some point, I think – originally there was a lot of winegrowing here.
“And then they gradually turned it into a brewery, sometime in the 17th century, I think.
“I read that in the 19th century it had grown into the biggest brewery in Central Europe. I find it kind of hard to believe. But the building itself does suggest that it was a pretty major endeavour.”
I myself have passed this place hundreds of times and had no idea there was ever a brewery here. Do you know when it came to an end?
“I did a bit of research actually, and it seems that at some time during the communist period they stopped brewing beer here, I think in 1960, and they turned it into a malt house, a malting facility.
“And at the same time it became the headquarters of Czechoslovakia’s state-owned winemaking enterprise.
“So this is where they made lots of awful wine. I don’t know if you remember a terrible red wine, which you can still buy, called Sklepmistr?”
No, I may have blocked that one out.
“That’s one of my enduring memories of Prague in the early to mid 1990s – this thick red wine called Sklepmistr. It’s sold in very large bottles as well, bigger than regular wine bottles.
“It was quite foul, but very cheap. And apparently it used to be made here.”
Many people who know Prague at least a little will of course know the Vltava, the main river running through the city. The Botič here – currently largely frozen over – isn’t so well known. Do you know where it runs from? I know it principally as the little river that runs along the side of the Bohemians football stadium.
“It starts somewhere in Central Bohemia, actually. It’s 35 kilometres long and is, I think, one of the biggest tributaries of the Vltava.
“It starts way out there and runs through Michle and Vršovice and then Nusle, where we are now, into the New Town and comes out just by the railway bridge at Vytoň. So it’s quite a major stream.
“It obviously forms the valley of Nusle.
“For me, the fact that this river, or this stream rather, is still here, even though it’s been channeled and cemented over and there are tram lines and factories by it and bridges over it and it’s almost hidden – when you walk through here you often have to remind yourself that it is still here…
“The fact that it is still here for me is a symbol of the fact that nature does survive our efforts to tame it, I guess.”
Also not far from here is Nusle Bridge, which when you and I first lived here in Prague was known as the Suicide Bridge. But no longer.
“No, they’ve put up all these elaborate barricades or fences to stop people jumping off it. And I think there are far less suicides than there used to be.”
I think there are none now.
“None, at all? Well, there you go. And there is actually a monument, isn’t there?
“There’s a lamp post, which is a kind of tribute to everybody who’s taken their lives there, points up towards the sky. And it’s either by David Černý or Krištof Kintera, I can’t remember.”
“Kintera, right. It’s well known by most Praguers I guess as a place where people used to come and take their lives.
“I think it’s a bit like the TV tower in Žižkov, where I know you live and where I’m hoping to move to soon.
“When I first came here, I certainly didn’t think it was beautiful, though it was impressive.
“But now I love it. I think most people in the city now love the TV tower.
“And to be honest even the bridge, even though it does loom over you, and especially over the people who live here in the Nusle valley underneath it and the people who walk their dogs and go jogging like I do underneath it, it belongs to Prague now.
“It’s been there since 1974 or whenever. It belongs to Prague. It’s part of Prague.
“It can’t be demolished or taken away – you wouldn’t want to do that.
“It just becomes one of those architectural features that you live with and grow up with, in a sense. And it’s very hard to imagine Prague, and certainly Nusle, without it.”
From the banks of the Botič, Rob Cameron and I head downtown to a spot not far from the banks of the Vltava. The Clementinum is a complex of historical buildings that is an oasis of calm just metres from the bustling Charles Bridge. Indeed, the only real sound you can hear is the low rumble of trams on the street outside.
“It’s a former Jesuit halls of residence for a university, a college, that dates back to the, I think, 16th century.
“But it’s also the home of the National Library, so the great fund of literature in the Czech Republic.
“I brought you here simply because I’m freelance and I work at home. I’ve also got two young kids and working at home is frankly often impossible.
“So I come here for a bit of peace and quiet, basically. And this is just the quietest place in Prague to work.
“You can perhaps hear trams through the windows and the occasional banging of a toilet door, but apart from that it’s quiet. It’s just a great place to come and concentrate.”
So it’s a kind of really high-class, historical co-working centre?
“It really is – one that was founded in the 16th century.
“On the walls are these incredible frescoes showing the life of St. Clement and even students who presumably lived here, ate here and studied here.
“It’s the most incredibly peaceful place to come when you’re on a deadline and have to write an article or a radio script or something.
“Only here are there no distractions. Only here does your phone have to be on silent.
“It promises you absolute quiet and contemplation in the very heart of Prague, a few steps from the Charles Bridge. So it’s just fantastic.”
What are the conditions for coming here and using the space? Can anybody come here?
“That’s one of the great secrets about the Clementinum, that anybody can.
“As long as you have an ID card – I think foreigners with either permanent residence or even just temporary residence can come.
“The annual membership costs are ridiculous. I think 100 or 150 crowns – so it’s really nothing.
“And if you have some history in academia or education... I was a teacher for a while at New York University in Prague and that gives me access to a special study room.
“It’s even quieter than the main ancient library study room, which is where most of the students sit.”
You never find yourself distracted by the fabulousness of the surroundings?
“Not really. To be honest, the study room where I tend to sit and work is not as splendid as this cloister that we’re standing in now.
“The only real distraction in this place is the ‘marvelous’ canteen, which is just round the corner.
“It’s awful but in a kind of great way. It’s the kind of canteen that you would have gone to in Prague in perhaps 1994.
“The food hasn’t really changed much since then [laughs]. The coffee is slightly better.
“And you see all these academics and students clearly relieved to take a breather from whatever academic undertaking they’ve been distracted by.
“But apart from that there aren’t really many distractions at all. So it’s just the perfect place to come and sit and think and read and write.”
The final stop on our short journey through “Rob Cameron’s Prague” is Café Modi. On the corner of Myslíkova St. and Karlovo náměstí, it’s a very cozy, welcoming place with nary a tourist or hipster in sight.
“When you asked me to choose a café, I was thinking of a lot of other places that I imagine a lot of other people have mentioned before: Slavia, Louvre, Kaaba in Vinohrady – all great places that I go to a lot.
“But this place is not trendy or unusual or different – it’s just really nice.
“And it’s symbolic for me of the great transition of cafés in Prague. In the past, as I’m sure you’ll remember, they were often really noisy or really smoky or just had terrible coffee.
“This place is not too noisy, it’s not smoky and the coffee’s great. And the breakfasts are amazing, which is for me is another great reason to come here.
“It’s right in the New Town, just on Karlovo náměstí, Charles Square, so the location is really good.
“It’s good for working but it’s also just good for grabbing a coffee on the way to somewhere else.
I guess when you and I first lived here you could literally know every single place in Prague with good coffee. Now it’s impossible to keep up.
“Absolutely. You could probably count them on one hand, couldn’t you?
“And add to that, the places where you weren’t going to get ripped off, as well. That was another feature of the ‘90s, at least for foreigners living in Prague.
“That’s changed, hasn’t it? Pretty much every café you go to now in the broader centre now will have good coffee, will have good service and will generally be pleasant places to have meetings, to work or to meet people. So yes, it’s been a huge change.
“I’ve actually begun to prefer going to lesser known places and seeking out new places, just to have more options, I guess, especially as your Louvres and Slavias are becoming more popular.
“Those places are in all the guidebooks and on TripAdvisor and it’s often just hard to get a table.”
What about pubs or bars – what are your favourite places in Prague?
“I tend to go to the same places all the time.
“I go a lot to U Kurelů, which is a classic example of a foreign-run Czech pub…”
A former dump.
“A former dump. Now great. It’s stayed Czech – it’s American-run, but still has a fairly mixed Czech-foreign clientele. It still serves great Czech beer for not too much more than you would pay in a dump.
“I think it’s a great example of how pubs can be successfully managed and not lose that special Czech identity that so many pubs here have.
“And I guess unfortunately a lot of the real dumps here – even though they’re smoky and horrible – do at least have character, don’t they [laughs]?
“They are different from the brewery pubs that have sprung up around the city.
“Apart from that, generally I go out to places that are reasonably close to where I live, so either in Vinohrady or Žižkov.
“I don’t really have that many favourites and I don’t really have a local, which is odd. As I say, I tend to go to U Kurelů, which is a 20-minute walk for me.”
You’ve been here since 1993 and for the great majority of that time you’ve been a journalist. How is Prague as a city to report from?
“Well, it’s not as exciting or newsworthy as other places in Europe. It’s a quiet patch, so you have to look hard for the interesting stories.
“But it doesn’t mean that they’re not there. There are a lots and lots of interesting people in this country, so with a bit of local knowledge and persistence then, yeah, you can make a living here as a journalist.”
Are there typical stories that editors outside the Czech Republic are interested in?
“Anything quirky. Anything to do with beer. Anything to do with Havel, when he was alive. Anything to do with the city’s history, I guess. Anything related to the communist legacy, the Hapsburg legacy, the Holocaust.
“So all of that does give you a great spring from which to draw the stories that journalists are constantly looking for.
“But I suppose one thing we have to thank the Czech themselves for – and I don’t think I’ll be insulting anybody by saying this [laughs] – is that they do quite quirky things and quite odd things.
“They love dressing up and reenacting battles and going to enormous lengths to live in this sort of twilight world of otherness that perhaps isn’t the case elsewhere in Europe.”
A big question: Like myself, you’ve spent more or less half your life here, Rob – what has Prague given you, would you say?
“I would literally say everything. It’s hard to imagine how grateful I am for the opportunities I’ve had here, which have partly come through my job, working for the BBC and before that Czech Radio, of course.
“But it’s hard to imagine coming here with no real qualifications apart from English as my native tongue and a degree that I would be where I am today.
“I’m happy in my job. Living in a great city. Living in a beautiful part of the city, which I couldn’t hope to live in if it was, say, London or Paris.
“It would be like having a townhouse in Hampstead or something like that. Insane.
“But you can do that in Prague. I appreciate not everybody can, but if you have a decent enough income, you can.
“The more you stay here, I think the more deeply you do fall for Prague. It’s a love affair that becomes deeper the longer you stay.
“And you constantly find new places to see and new things about the city that make you love it even more.
“There are drawbacks, of course there are. But it’s just a fantastic place to live.”