My Prague – Steve Gove
Steve Gove is the founder and director of the Prague Fringe festival, which has just got underway in the Czech capital for the 15th time. The Scot has been living in the city since 1997 and is an infectiously enthusiastic guide to “his Prague”. Our tour begins at Malostranská Beseda, an historic venue on the main square in the Lesser Quarter that has been the hub of Prague Fringe since the building’s extensive renovation in the 2000s.
“It’s a late Renaissance building and was built around 1407, apparently. It’s got a really interesting history. It was the town hall for the area and I think it was a political jail in its early days.
“And it’s been a cultural centre for, I think, about 300 years – so what better place to house our own festival.
“It’s beautiful to look at. One of the most amazing things about it is that the roof, which is a red-tiled roof typical of Malá Strana, actually had some beautiful features, including a tower, put on to it only about six or seven years ago, before it was reopened after the reconstruction.
“They found the design of the roof from an old etching, and I’m not sure if anyone really knows if it was like that originally, or if that was what they had hoped to create.
“Anyway, it now looks like that and when you’re passing and you look up you, you would never know that these beautiful features had been put back, or put there, a handful of years ago.
“It was brilliant passing on the tram and walking around the area when they were doing it. These beautiful, huge copper domes were sitting in the carpark across the street and it was fascinating to watch as they were being hoisted up onto the roof.”
Otherwise, how much of the Fringe takes place in this part of the city, in Malá Strana?
“All of it does now. We sort of started to migrate over here about 11 or 12 years ago, and after a period of about four or five years we were entirely housed here.
“So although Beseda, which has the Fringe Club as well, is the hub, we’ve got Divadlo Inspirace, which is in the Music Faculty, across from the church there. It’s a beautiful Gothic cellar.
“We’ve also got another little studio space nearby. But then further down, literally just one tram stop or five minutes by foot, you’ve got a fabulous studio theatre called Divadlo Kampa, on the edge of the Čertovka.
“You’ve got Divadlo Na Prádle, which is a very small proscenium arch theatre.
“And the final one, which is still in Malá Strana but is right on the edge of the district, is a tiny little room in the back of Kavárna 3+1, which apparently has the best hot chocolate in Prague. Or is it tea? I can’t remember now, but it’s one of those two.”
I can only presume that the performers at the Fringe are impressed by these venues?
“Mind-blown! A lot of the performers are from Scotland, England and other parts of Europe, and of course for them Prague is also a fantastic place.
“But when these young, upcoming performers come over from Australia or the States or Canada, they are just blown away.
“And when you’re drinking beer late into the night in the Fringe Club on the first floor and you look across and see the beautiful St. Nicholas Church, I’m sure as a young American who has just travelled to Europe for the first time you would not believe what you were looking at. It is stunning.
“It catches my breath, still, and I’ve lived here for almost 20 years.”
How has the perception of the Fringe changed among Czechs? I presume before you started, many were unfamiliar even with the idea of a Fringe?
“Not at all. I actually had to keep repeating myself: No, no, no, not French, Fringe! And: Not Fridge, Fringe!
“It took a really long time. Creating a Fringe in Prague and calling the event a Fringe was its biggest success, and also its biggest trouble in the early days, because the world over everybody knew what we were trying to do, but it took a little bit longer here.
“But really soon after the establishment of the Fringe there were a number of really interesting articles each August written about Edinburgh Fringe.
“And of course as the years went on Czech groups were visiting Edinburgh more regularly, so certainly within the arts community the word Fringe is not foreign to anyone any more.
“We’re still trying to reach out to wider audiences, but I would definitely say that by comparison to the early days [the word] slips off the tongue much more easily.”
From Malostranská Beseda Steve Gove and I hop on a tram and head across the river, specifically to the area behind the National Theatre. It’s where you will find the bistro-style restaurant Universal. My guide has been coming here regularly for almost as long as he has been in Prague and swears by its steaks.
“Usually when family and friends visit we come here. So looking around at the tables around me I can visualise all my family and friends that have visited over the years: where we’ve sat, the conversations we’ve had, the wonderful red wine that we’ve drunk.
“So it’s a very, very special place to me.
“If I could choose where I would have my last meal on earth, this would be the place – absolutely without any question of a doubt.”
I also remember what this place was like when it opened and my impression is that it hasn’t changed at all. Is anything different from what was here in ’96, ’97?
“Well, they’ve got quite a collection of quirky things hanging on the wall. Right above my head there’s a sort of faux elephant head. There’s various pictures from a number of films that look like they’re from the ‘70s. That might be Jane Fonda over there – I’m not sure.
“But it hasn’t changed much at all, no. Certainly the tables and chairs are exactly the same!”
But it’s still able to compete with these new hipster places that seem to be opening in Prague every other week?
“Yes, I believe so. When this place first opened and we first started coming here, you had to book two or three days in advance. It was chock-a-block.
“Then it went through a really quiet period for a number of years after, where we’d call up and they’d say, Oh yeah, just come along, and the place would be half-empty.
“But it’s picked up again. I’m not sure why that would have been – I think just the fact that it has been around so long and everyone knows it. It does what it says it does, and it does it very well.
“And I believe that the chef who’s been cooking all these fantastic steaks over the years is the same Ukrainian woman who was working here way back when it opened.
“So the food you order today is exactly as the food you ordered last week, or a year ago, or six years ago.
“The quality is brilliant. The staff are friendly. And the price is right, too – it’s not too expensive.”
What other cafés, bars or restaurants do you like in Prague?
“I tend to do a lot of the cafés actually now – there’s such a brilliant café culture in Prague, which also didn’t exist when I first moved here.
“Original Coffee on Betlémské náměstí is fantastic. They do great AeroPress and of course you can buy beans to go as well, which you can grind at your leisure.
“That’s one of my favourites downtown. There are so many now. Almost every area of Prague has three or four of these fantastic coffee places and you can get absolutely high on the best roasted coffee.
“Whenever I go to the cinema, I usually go to the arthouse cinemas like Oko, Světozor and the newly reopened Pilotů up in Vršovice. It’s great to hang out in the bars there afterwards. I kind of tend to prefer that now than actually going to pubs.
“Although, that said, I do like Vinohradský Pivovar. The beer is great. The food is great. And it’s totally smoke-free, which is still a big surprise here in Prague.”
The last destination on our tour of “Steve Gove’s Prague” is Vyšehrad, the historical fort – believed to date from the 10th century – that juts out over the Vltava. The Scotsman lived just beneath Vyšehrad on the street Lumírova for several years – and recalls fondly his introduction to a spot he describes as “magical”.
“I got the tram up and got off a stop early and started wandering through this path, which seemed to be the street but it was a path that went through a beautiful little wooded area, near this ancient fortified wall.
“I came out of this wooded area, which ended up being where I stayed for the next six years.
“And just across the street the door there’s a path that leads into a tunnel through the fortified wall and then up some steps. It’s like a secret entrance into this magical fortified area, which is a park.
“It’s a beautiful, very peaceful place. Equally as nice at night as it is during the day, in the middle of winter when it’s freezing and in the middle of summer when it’s boiling hot. It’s a beautiful place to be.”
When you lived on Lumírova how often would you come up here to Vyšehrad?
“Pretty much daily. I used to tell people – well, I actually used to believe – that Vyšehrad was my back garden. Because literally out the door, across the street and I was there.
“At the weekends I used to come up through the tunnel and go right across the whole stretch of Vyšehrad and go down the far side and walk along the river, which was lovely.
“Being from the northeast of Scotland it’s not hard to imagine that I miss the ocean, and for a long time that was kind of my substitute ocean, walking along the Vltava, along the waterfront.”
I know there’s a beer garden up here. Did you used to go there? And is there anything else up here for people to do?
“Actually, for a good number of years the beer garden became the night after the Fringe hangout zone.
“We used to set aside a time where everyone would gather up here and they’d cook sausages and vegetables on the grill which were to die for.
“There’d always be around 200 dogs running around picking up the scraps as well. But brilliant beer and a great place with a fantastic view.
“There’s no specific thing that you would need to come here for, other than just to be here.
“The church is beautiful, of course, and you should always try and take the opportunity of going in there, if it’s open. And definitely the cemetery.”
I find the cemetery is a great place to take people who have been to Prague a few times and feel like they’ve seen everything.
“Absolutely. Just to be able to walk past the graves of Dvořák, Smetana, Mucha, Destinnová – and the list continues. It’s a magical experience.
“At night in the winter months, when it’s still open but it’s dark, and people come up and light candles on the graves it’s beautiful and eerie at the same time.
“Then during the day, in the afternoon, you’ll hear the fantastic bells ringing out from the church tower Smetana’s Vltava, which is also a magical thing.”