The Double-Edged Legacy of Náplavka's Ascent into Mainstream

Text: Editors

The summer of 2017 is in full swing now, which in Prague means that for a few precious months, people swap theaters and clubs for hanging outside. Few years ago, it almost felt like a reflex: as soon as June kicked in, swarms of art students, indie enthusiasts, and/or those omnipresent followers of anything “electronic” would infiltrate Náplavka, a narrow patch of sidewalk located on one of Vltava’s riverbanks. It was that long gone era when you could call people ‘hipsters’ without giving a second thought. Everything was easier back then.

Náplavka is in fact a technical term, meaning ‘a lowered pathway alongside the river’ designed for ships to be loaded, unloaded and anchored. The one we’re talking about here, a kilometer-long passage on Rašínovo nábřeží between Jirásek’s bridge and the railway bridge on Výtoň, just hijacked the term because of its sudden cultural importance. There are many a ‘Náplavka’ around the country; even Prague has more of them. But our Náplavka, the one with capital ‘N’, gets the gentrification cake — it’s basically an art scene that has conserved itself in place over time.

While designing these articles, we usually follow the tried and tested method — first, we gather local contacts, sort out some interesting tips, then we head on to the streets, walk around a bit and go for a beer. At many places that have become visibly popular recently, like Krymská, it’s fun to observe how locals are coping with the full frontal attack of the Great Bearded Vegan Army. Náplavka is specific, though. Given that it’s not a neighborhood in itself but rather a strip of the sidewalk, its space is by definition limited — it feels unique, because it’s so final. The only possible way to expand here is to anchor more and more boats to the riverbank, until the whole place completely drowns in shrieks of drunken Spanish tourists sporting sombreros that overshadow the beautiful view of Smíchov’s banks on the other side. Simply put, everything that could have happened here has already happened during past several years. There’s nowhere to go next.

But nevertheless, the place will be, again, completely packed until mid-October or so. The three big galleries – (A)VOID, Mánes, and Cargo – still attract loads of visitors, and rightfully so. In the very center of Náplavka, the pop-up bar Bajkazyl remains open (actually, it does even better now than it did during Náplavka’s hipster heyday), and every Saturday, huge farmers' markets take place there. The people heading for a walk by the river will stop for lunch at Oliva, have ice cream afterwards at Puro Gelato, maybe fancy some higher art inside Frank Gehry’s famous Dancing House. Those who’d rather have a drink (hey, we’re all culprits here) will argue over their beer / wine preferences, then head to U Kalendů (beer) or Na břeh Rhony (wine). Or, at least, go to Žabka, a franchise supermarket at Moráň, and buy canned beer there.

The big change here is that instead of newcomer indie bands, tucked on improvised stages under Palackého náměstí, people can now watch performances of bigger hip hop names, electroswing DJs and EDM. Náplavka has crossed the thin line between hipness and mainstream. It has become the ultimate place where people go because they’re supposed to go there; a place that simply has to be cool, because everyone knows it is.

With all that in mind, our mission becomes more clear — to find out how life on Náplavka, the closest thing central Prague has to a summer beach, has changed since the early days; to map out its transformation from an underground indie hub to an urban equivalent of that guy who storms in to a party at midnight, drinks everything within a two mile radius and leaves with all of the girls, prompting you to hate and envy him at the same time. Fuck that guy, you’d say, in both literal and figurative sense.

The End of an Era

"I used to study for exams here," our first contact recalls — we’ve gathered four of them, and, to add weight to their testimonies, we shall call them Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is Matthew, a guy who was a Náplavka regular between 2012 and 2014, when the place started gaining popularity. "During the day, people just… weren’t there," he adds. "At night, Prague city parks would usually be packed, so we’d get our own booze and head for Náplavka to meet up with friends. When somebody got drunk, we’d bet on whether he would fall to Vltava or not."

"I’ve seen it only once, but it was worth it: Some guy, probably high on some shit, just sat there on the riverbank, drinking boxed wine. It seemed like he didn’t even know which city he was in, not to mention other, more delicate cognitive functions, like being able to walk or stand straight. He got up to pee, and I think he got this instinctive urge to lean towards the wall, but forgot that he’s standing on the riverbank and there are no walls. He started peeing, and almost immediately lost his balance. As he was falling in the river, I noticed he couldn’t even cover his face, because his left hand still kept searching for the wall and his right hand… well, he was holding his dick with it. Ten seconds later, a mobile phone showed up on the surface. It still makes me sad that I didn’t manage to take a photo."

Martin Kontra, founder of Bajkazyl, knows Náplavka firsthand for seven years now — and although he realizes that undiscovered jewels can’t stay undiscovered forever, he’s still disgruntled about what has happened to his scene. "As years go by, the number of our customers is growing. But those are anonymous people, faceless crowds, people who are bringing in factors like violence and vandalism," he explains, bitterly. "Náplavka used to be a hangout spot for friends. Now, it’s slowly becoming the next Old Town Square. People don’t feel the same way about it anymore. It’s just a trendy place now, another one. Lately, we’ve been getting complaints from residents living nearby. That never happened before. I still remember the times when ‘go to Náplavka’ didn’t mean just ‘get drunk’."

Martin feels that one of the main factors in Náplavka’s transition would be the growing number of party boats – all it takes is to get a license, pay rent and anchor your boat at the riverbank. Of course it isn’t cheap, which means that those things are usually commercially well backed, with dozens of different beers, pizzas and Cpt. Morgans luring people in. Bajkazyl can’t compete with that sort of service, and they don’t even want to.

But who the hell visits these places? Mark, our second anonymous contact, knows a thing or two about them. He’s been on a party boat a few times, although when asked why, he told us he didn’t know and wouldn’t tell us even if he knew, which to us seems quite fair.

"You know that kind of random EDM parties, right? The ones where all the boys wear a polo T and bracelets and expensive-looking watches and stupidly bleached hair and fancy sunglasses, even though the party is INSIDE? And all the girls look like they’ve overdosed on beta-carotene and then fell asleep in a tanning bed for three days? This is just like that, but more expensive. Pay three hundred at the door, then lurk around the bar like a jackass because nobody knows you and they all look like they might in fact be The Thing. It’s a genuinely interesting sociological exercise."

B-Grade Celebrities vs Garbage Bin

At this time, Náplavka is waiting for a massive reconstruction: the goal is to install more places like galleries and cafés (that would provide shelter when it rains and could be open throughout the year), but first and foremost, add to the abysmally low number of public toilets. As the number of visitors continues to grow, this is quickly becoming a major problem — nobody likes to watch people splatter their pee across walls, which is moreover a heavily gender-specific issue.

"During hot summers, the place directly under Jirásek’s bridge smells like the Satan’s herb garden," says Luke, one of the few ‘elders’ who still visit Náplavka to this day. "Well the place still has its charm. Five years ago, you could run into really bizarre scenes here: I remember we were visiting a gig, some young indie band, and during soundcheck we met Leo Beránek (a former Czech wannabe rapper who gained fame for appearing in a reality show, being incredibly loud and aggressive, and also being a Neo-Nazi)."

"He was fighting a garbage bin. It was like 5PM, so grandmothers were walking around, enjoying their afternoon, and out of nowhere, this fascist orangutan suddenly appears, waving his arms, shouting something that sounded like drunk Hungarian curses. He was clearly looking for a fight, but nobody paid him any attention, so he approached a garbage bin and hit it with his fist. The bin caved in, which calmed Leo down. Apparently he needed it."

Luke is quick to pinpoint that although Náplavka changed its face, it still has lots to offer. "You’re at a party in the very center of Prague, next to the river, under summer sky, with eight hundred other people — that’s amazing. Those evenings, you can’t get that anywhere else. Poseurs are avoiding Náplavka now, because it’s become popular. Well, newsflash, I think it’s a good thing when there are people at a fucking party. If you want to listen to post-ambient dubstep on vinyl while tasting centuries old Argentinean wine, godspeed then, but do it someplace else. There are literally dozens of such places around Prague. Náplavka might be mainstream now, but it makes lots of people happy, and that’s all that should matter. I personally like it when a party looks like a party."

The Riverbanks Live. Finally

John, a quite well-known local artist, meets us on a Wednesday night at Cargo Gallery. That night, everything felt like before: a group of friends hanging out by the river, drinking beers, not giving a shit about anything. It was warm outside, and although we all had to go to work the next day, nobody really cared. Then, suddenly, John makes it clear that this night is an exception. He doesn’t hang out on Náplavka anymore.

"To me, the biggest gift Náplavka gave to the city is that people have finally realized that there are other riverbanks as well," he says. "That the riverside can be a place to enjoy a nice night out. Some seven years ago, people were drinking in city parks, and that was that. Now, you’ve got another Náplavka at Smíchov, Přístav 18600 at Karlín, Štvanice also gets more coverage, as well as Podolí… it looks like all that fuss about this one little piece of sidewalk prompted people to explore the city again. And I think that’s great. Náplavka is gone for me, but there are other options. And, to be frank, this shit playing here… these Balkan orchestras or whatever… yeah, we’re too old for that stuff, anyway. That’s a circle of life. "

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