Loving Libeň

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’d planned to cover fall classical music festivals garlanding the Czech Republic like autumn leaves, from Lipa Musica up north to Janaček Brno in the east to Struny Podzimu (“Strings of Autumn”) here in Prague. But on the first morning we hit 3000 new COVID-19 cases, my bag already packed for a musical weekend in Česka Lipa, I chickened out.

               Instead I moped around my flat for a couple days, getting fatter. Finally I noticed my Prague 8 map of my own neighborhood. Gritty old Libeň is normally where I escape from, headed somewhere more exotic. Sure, I have regular hangouts here and dear local friends.  Sometimes, though, familiarity breeds maybe not contempt but at least neglect.  So I looked closer and harder, and found my own neighborhood dotted with history and even beauty. Some places I revisited; some I discovered.

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               I started by turning right out my front door and walking half a block, literally. Rokytka creek begins five kilometers east of Prague’s outer limits and meanders for 31 more before cutting through Libeň and emptying into the Vltava at Libeň Island, which hasn’t been one since the early 20th century.

Rokytka creek by Andrew Giarelli

               The Rokytka’s Libeň stretch is canalized with brick and concrete. That didn’t stop it from overflowing like the Vltava itself during bad June 2013 and devastating August 2002 floods. It’s an old story: the medieval chronicle Kristiánova Legenda reports St. Wenceslaus prayed for God’s mercy when the Rokytka flooded in 938.

               It flowed gently this early October Saturday, though, the only danger an occasional bicyclist zooming from behind on the shared walking-biking path. The stretch nearest my house is almost idyllic, and over these pandemic months even the plastic bottles piling at its embankments are fewer. I imagined this pretty little watercourse before development and channeling – until I hit the highway-railroad overpass bordering Prague 9 Vysočany, a real slice of Prague ugly.

               I turned right, back toward Palmovka neighborhood, no paragon of prettiness itself – but dig deeper. You’ll find pockets. One lies just north of busy Sokolovská street, up a cobbled path to Kotlaska hilltop overlooking Palmovka. A dense web of houses and lanes fill the hillcrest (Nad Kotlaskou), but just below (Pod Kotlaskou) is an inconspicuous little park and the adjoining Kotlaska Community Center and Garden. The latter employs people overcoming criminal pasts and presents public programs, but best of all offers its pleasant outdoor space with gazebo, grill and kitchen for private events (donation required). I’ve had my birthday party there the past two years.

Climb one of the little lanes uphill and then follow winding Na Hajku down to another little park whose name I can’t even find, near Bryknarova street and a fenced storage shed area. You are back near the Rokytka. This my default head-clearing walk, when it’s hard to even leave my bed. I have days like that in 2020; maybe you do, too.

Nameless park near Bryknarova street by Andrew Giarelli

               Other times I found parts of Libeň I didn’t even know existed. One Friday evening I met longtime Prague 8 resident Adela Ripka at Ke Stirce tram stop on Zenklova street atop Kobylisy hill. We descended Vlachovky street, passing a fenced, rocky little rise with faded beer sign. Adela grew excited.

“You don’t know about Na Vlachovce? Oh, you should have seen it in the ‘90s! This was the happening pub!” She thrilled with the memory. “Buses of people came from all over Czechoslovakia and they had a brass band and dancing on Saturday night. Not like an American jazz band, but you know –” here she imitated German-style oompah brass music, dancing in a circle with an imaginary partner.  A little farther down the street she pointed to another closed pub. “I met my first boyfriend here!”

Some big, handsome First Republic houses line Vlachovky street, one with a high floor-to-roof front window, alongside grim ‘80s functionalist ones. I felt like I’d stepped back to when Karel Gott was in his prime and Vaclav Havel held a nation’s dreams, the time of those English-subtitled films I buy for 20 Kc each to practice my Czech.

We descended toward the busy intersection of Zenklova and V Holešovičkách streets. In May 1942 this leafy suburb of German-occupied Prague witnessed bold anti-Nazi resistance: the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich by paratroopers Josef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš. Their ambush almost failed when Gabčik’s gun misfired, but when Heydrich ordered his car to stop to personally arrest the pair, Kubiš threw a bomb that mortally wounded him. They and other Libeň residents paid wih their lives, as did more than 5000 others in subsequent Nazi reprisals.

The Operation Anthropoid Memorial honoring these heroes glowed in the night, the Czech flag fluttering alongside. Three figures, representing the two heroes and their civilian helpers,  stand with spread limbs, like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”. This anatomical position suggests the mission’s name – Anthropoid. The impersonal silhouettes show “the production line approach to humans as a battle product,” the official description notes. “The silhouettes are an innuendo of forgetting real bravery in which only the truly bold step out of the crowd and in time they become the ‘unknown private’ of history.”

               Another fine early fall Sunday I met Libeň friends Pavlina Kalandrová and David Kumermann with their toddler Rivka near Bulovka hospital, best known as the place from which writer and longtime Libeň resident Bohumil Hrabal either fell or jumped to his death.

Fine Fall in Bilá Skála nature preserve by Andrew Giarelli

 I’d climbed to Ještěd in the Jizera mountains under pelting snow with these two when she was pregnant, and nowadays the baby carriage and toddler make them only slightly less adventurous. Still, it was hard to see where any adventure might lead from residential Na Truhlářce street. I was wrong. We stopped at a fence opening, beyond which a barely visible path rose steeply uphill.

               “Do you think we can get up there from here?” asked Kalandrová, a documentary film producer on maternity leave (The Tripoint, 2011;  H*ART ON,  2016) and member of Prague 8 community group “8jinak!” (“8 differently!”).

               “We’ll see,” said Kumermann, a photographer. He disappeared through the fence and returned shortly. “The first part’s a little steep but I think they’ll make it.” He meant not just the baby carriage containing Rivka but also me, I realized. They each took a carriage end, and I followed.

               It was nowhere near as tough as climbing Ještěd, and it led to a great view atop Bilá Skála (“White Rock”) nature preserve. We scrambled slightly off trail to reach that overlook, which is unmarked and unprotected against the sheer drop below.

               “This is the best view of Libeň Island,” Kumermann said. “It’s nice that they don’t develop it and put up a fence.” Though established in 1988, this protected area is largely missed by tourists.

“So there are three Libeň islands?” I asked, surverying the panaroama below. Kumermann conferred with Kalandrová.

“No, just two,” she answered. “The far one on the right is Holešovice island.” We descended back to the official park, another pretty Libeň hideaway with picnic spots and a covered rest area. Guideposts awaiting signs dotted the paths.

“It seems they don’t have anything to say yet about this place,” Kumermann said, smiling wryly. “Maybe just as well.”

Libeň is underrated, though locals at least flock to Thomayerovy Sady, the park following the Vltava past its juncture with the Rokytka. Recent upgrades include an expanded children’s playground and improved uphill walkways. You can spend an entire afternoon here or use it as launchpoint for longer trips downriver to Troja Chateau, the Botanical Gardens and Prague Zoo. Ducks and geese abound below, with views that bring Smetana’s “Vltava” symphonic song from Má Vlast to mind; above, couples cuddle on park benches and oldtimers sun themselves near hillside trails.

Vltava river from Thomayerovy Sady by Andrew Giarelli

Lately Thomayerovy Sady has a new-old attraction. Löwitův mlýn or “mill” was built in 1742, though an earlier mill stood here at least since 1530. By the 1950s it was used to store potatoes and in the 1960s by the local Neumann theatre, now the respected Divadlo pod Palmovkou, to store stage props. Then it fell into disrepair, but this year another community group, Probouzíme („Let’s Awaken“), revived the atmospheric space.

Löwitův mlýn: art where Communists stored potatoes by Andrew Giarelli

I explored the solid old building, ignoring graffiti some idiot had tagged onto its rear border wall. Inside an exhibit by artist Barbora Civínová was compelling, especially in the filtered natural light. Then I heard music. Outside, before a balconied opening and two graceful female statues, the Gaudioso wind quartet was starting. Concerts and another art exbibit had been scheduled through Oct. 18, but check their Facebook page to see what’s still on during restrictions.

“After that, we’ll brink the key back to the town hall,” said Probouzíme member Zuzana Ondomišíová. “Maybe next year….”

I’d never visited that town hall, located in Libeňský Zámek (Libeň Chateau), a charming Rococo mansion overlooking Palmovka at the edge of Thomayerovy Sady. So finally I gave the place and its historic environs an afternoon.

Libeňský Zámek by Andrew Giarelli

A Gothic castle stood here as early as 1363, followed by a small Renaissance chateau, but the current chateau is a rebuild following the 1757 Prussian invasion. Here Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II signed the Peace of Libeň in 1608, securing his Bohemian throne in return for conceding Hungary, Moravia and Austria to his brother Matthias, who finally stripped him of Bohemia too three years later. Now after all that grand history, municipal bureaucrats scurry about with paperwork for parking permits and commercial licenses.

The guard who stopped me asked if I needed directions for some city business.

“No,” I answered. “I live here but I’ve never visited.” He waved me on, saying I was free to explore the courtyards and upstairs but that the chapel and magnificent east wing hall, popular for weddings, were closed. Still, I managed to peek through windows at the chapel’s magnificent 18th century paintings and altar by Ignác Raab and Jiří Prachner, respectively. A noble staircase led to second floor halls decorated with works by students from Prague’s historic School of Arts and Crafts (through Nov. 27, but again check current pandemic restrictions).

I wandered dowstairs, through peaceful courtyards. Nearby more lovely buildings recall Libeň’s history. Somehow I’d also missed the imposing Art Nouveau Sokol Gymnasium, whose grand balcony is supported by four Atlas statues and topped with a beautiful three-piece semicircular stained glass window.  Most of its officials were executed folliowing Heydrich’s assassination or killed during the 1945 Prague Uprising, and then the Communists abolished it. Still it returned, with 2001 renovations and an extensive new children’s program. Next door is the Secession-style early 20th century Kostel sv. Vojtěcha (Church of St. Adalbert) whose unique architecture suffered Allied bombing and subsequent Communist neglect before an impressive 1996-2001 renovation.

Kostel sv. Vojtěcha by Andrew Giarelli

And just behind the church, beyond the Meteor restaurant whose garden overlooks Thomayerovy Sady and the Viltava, elegant Grabova Vila recalls the First Republic wealth and style of Jewish entrepreneur Hermann Grab, and also offers art exhibits (again check pandemic resrictions). Ironically, the villa was confiscated as Jewish property by the Nazis, who used it as Hitler Youth headquarters, and again confiscated as enemy Austrian property by the Communists.

Finally I walked down Zenklova street in Palmovka to the Neo-Romanesque Libeň synagogue, built in 1842 to replace earlier 18th and 16th century ones.

Libeň synagogue by Andrew Giarelli

Libeň once held Prague’s second-largest Jewish community after Old Town’s Josefov. This atmospheric place is breathing new life after decades of neglect ever since Nazis closed it in 1941 and deported most of its Jews to the death camps. An autumn concert and theatre series had just started before pandemic  restrictions closed it again.

Standing before that synagogue, I realized Libeň’s beauty also bears ugliness, and vice versa.

You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book  “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW

Andrew Giarelli

Andrew Giarelli

Andrew Giarelli is senior lecturer in journalism and literature at Anglo-American University, Prague and a two-time senior Fulbright scholar. He founded the U.S. regional magazine "Edging West" in the later 1990s and was contributing editor for "World Press Review" magazine from 1980-2000. He's published several hundred articles on European and U.S. culture, politics, press issues and travel in newspapers, magazines and online media since the 1970s (everyone says he looks younger than he is). He has a Ph.D. in literature and also publishes in scholarly journals. He's lived in Manhattan, Montana, Utah, Malta, and Slovakia. Currently he lives eight months yearly in Prague and four months yearly (pandemic permitting) in Portland, Oregon.
Andrew Giarelli

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Andrew Giarelli is senior lecturer in journalism and literature at Anglo-American University, Prague and a two-time senior Fulbright scholar. He founded the U.S. regional magazine "Edging West" in the later 1990s and was contributing editor for "World Press Review" magazine from 1980-2000. He's published several hundred articles on European and U.S. culture, politics, press issues and travel in newspapers, magazines and online media since the 1970s (everyone says he looks younger than he is). He has a Ph.D. in literature and also publishes in scholarly journals. He's lived in Manhattan, Montana, Utah, Malta, and Slovakia. Currently he lives eight months yearly in Prague and four months yearly (pandemic permitting) in Portland, Oregon.