The Hectic Scenery of Underground Libeň

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek

Palmovka, the focal point of the neighborhood of Libeň, translates roughly to ‘A Place of Palm Trees’, but nothing could be further away from reality. It consists of a bizarre bus station, a hellish crossroad where trams regularly encircle swaths of jaywalking junkies, a metro station (of similar fame), and some buildings thrown in for good measure. Lots of people say it’s better to avoid it. Thus, naturally, we went in.

The streets of Libeň are bruised and battered, but there’s a good chance this won’t last for long. Given that Libeň is not far away from the city center and it’s really easy to reach it (all public transport options are readily available, 24/7), would you be really surprised if the Gentrification Army annexed it sometime soon? We probably wouldn’t. In the meanwhile, though, let’s savor the underground chaos that still reigns supreme here. For Libeň is basically an urban equivalent of that guy who goes to parties wearing nothing but a washed out Guns’n’Roses tee, cargo shorts, a live rat, and a bag filled with forty bottles of random alcohol.

On the day of our trip, the sky greeted us with anger. To clarify, we’re not some snowflakes who’d get annoyed with a little rain — but an endless stream of ice cold water filling every inch of space around us felt a tad hindering, especially as we wanted to explore the lost workers' colony of Kotlaska, which was now impossible. We could still try Divadlo pod Palmovkou, one of Prague’s better theatres (especially after the recent reconstruction), but Boy, the male half of our editorial unit, felt his dresscode wasn’t enough.

It’s not that Divadlo pod Palmovkou would require you to wear anything fancy. It’s that his outfit of the day, which he dubbed ‘black bloc against Libeň’, would fit better for a bouncer at a small town discotheque than any sort of theatre. Or, perhaps, a particularly unfashionable Arctic explorer. When Girl first saw his huge, boxy Gore-Tex anorak, black hoodie, and equally unshapely pants, she proposed to call a local contact and head for the pubs instead.

Part One: Memories of a Bygone Era

The quarter of Libeň has an interesting history, tied with many famous people. First of them is Bohumil Hrabal, one of the greatest writers in Czech history, who used to live and work on Na Hrázi St. A few metres over on Zenklova St, Operation Anthropoid (the assassination of Nazi Germany’s mastermind Reinhard Heydrich) took place during World War II. Then, after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the whole country fell headfirst into hilariously sadly unregulated capitalism bonanza, best represented by enterpreneur Ivan Jonák and his majestically awful Discoland Sylvia on Primátorská St.

Of course we wanted to breathe in Libeň's famous history from the get-go, so our editorial unit (Girl and Boy) met up at Palác Svět, a legendary behemoth left over from the era where every visual element of every Eastern city looked distinctively Soviet. This one has great architectural value, too; located at the junction of Zenklova and Elsnicova streets, it used to house apartments, a cinema, and a pub where Hrabal would go have a beer with Egon Bondy, a famous poet and activist.

Sadly, the future of Palác Svět looks bleak, as the building falls apart and the owner’s intentions are unclear (which is a thing that usually doesn’t end up well in Prague). This also means that googling pictures of the place yields results that differ from reality pretty wildly — Boy, armed only with one picture downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, completely missed the whole building and started walking somewhere towards Kobylisy while Girl waited for him, killing time chatting with the homeless and trying to avoid 10-year-old gangstas with plastic water guns. When they finally met, the Contact, an expert on was already drinking in the first pub.

"I got the leash, but I forgot the dog," he points at the table, as the waitress automatically assumes we’d have beers; Girl wants to drink something non-alcoholic, though, which is a concept she’s apparently never encountered before, like going to Florida and asking when the next snowstorm’s gonna hit. You can also bet on sports inside the pub, or buy cigarettes and newspaper, and if you want to go to the toilet, good luck finding them — in spirit with the "who gives a shit" attitude that permeates the place, there is literally nothing written on their doors. You just have to try some doors and hope there’s a toilet in there.

It’s a famous pub. The aforementioned Bohumil Hrabal used to drink here a lot.

We were a little surprised that the place looks so quiet at 8 PM, but Contact told us not to worry: around eight, the party people of Libeň are still only warming up. Thus, we have enough time to admire the names of local WiFi networks ("virus, little pear, chicken") and point out that this pub doesn’t have a name and doesn’t look like a pub from the outside. How do people know it’s there?

"They have a clever strategy of opening at 9 AM," Contact lectures us, as if being in Libeň in the morning was a legit excuse to start drinking. We want to know whether they at least serve breakfast. "Of course! Beer!" is the obvious answer. "The rush hour is usually around 10 AM."

It doesn’t take us long to realize that locals are not fans of long, fancy names for things: the Palmovka metro station is just "metro", this pub is just "pub", and when we ask where to go for a walk around here, we’re being told that the best option would Thomayerovy sady, or "park". As Contact puts it: "Why complicate things? It’s a park, so we call it ‘park’. You go to a park. What would you like call it, a train station?"

"The greatest thing about Park is the nutrias that live there," he adds, his eyes glowing with joy. "They don’t belong to Prague, they’re an invasive species… Well, invasive species my ass. Environmentalists are not happy about it, but I ain’t no environmentalist. I am a Nutria Fanboy, as lots of locals are. They go to Park to feed them regularly. Nutrias are so cool, man. They survived the last winter, when it was, like, minus a hundred outside!"

Following this epic rant is a Facebook slideshow of various photos with nutrias, and we must admit that Nutria Fanboy’s enthusiasm got us hooked to the point we wanted to abandon the pub and go to Thomayerovy sady (sorry, Park) to look at some nutrias. Alas, our friend isn’t sure we’d actually find any of them: "Look, they’re always around. Except for the times when they aren’t. It’s fifty fifty. As it stands, they’re there, and they’re not there, both at the same time."

Armed with this knowledge, we forget about Schrödinger’s Nutrias and have another beer instead.

Part Two: The Big Undercover Mission

It is said that within a kilometer and a half around Palmovka, it’s possible to taste no less than 25 beer brands, including such delights as Braník and Polička (our editors' top picks). For example, the Na Palmě pub alone has about six taps. The catch is that it’s really hard to get a seat there — the place is somewhat famous along beer geeks, as is U Jagušky. Nutria Fanboy insists that the draught Pilsen here is absolutely amazing. Sadly, the place is full, so we need to take his word for it and go elsewhere.

"We’ll have this Svijany special microbrew, and after that, we’re gonna continue with the cheapest stuff you have here," Nutria Fanboy tells the tender at U Rokytky, a popular local pub. We sit at a table next to two bored teenagers playing Trivial Pursuit, and Fanboy, a well-known local patron, muses about how it’s not really alcoholism when you just, you know, go to a pub every day, but for cultural reasons, which may vary, but they’re definitely always there, because fuck you, they are. Also, he was eating head cheese, a typical pub snack of the olden days before avocado toasts and tacos were a thing.

Alas, we need to leave soon; the night ain’t endless and the article ain’t gonna write itself. Fanboy, scared of his reputation, promises the waitress he’ll be back soon. For cultural reasons.

Rybárna, a small, easy-to-miss secret pub that doesn’t let you in unless you know certain people, is an instant hit. We got in only thanks to Nutria Fanboy’s intimate knowledge of Libeň pub scene, and also because he knew the password. That’s right. There’s a password.

The pub itself is really small, but its population density could rival Hong Kong — there’s a massive wooden bar, around a dozen drunk barflies, a huge map with different species of fish, and also several statues of fish, all crammed into a space no larger than twelve square meters. You’d expect that a place like this would play either that oldschool Deliverance-y country music or some fish-related Rammstein-esque industrial onslaught, but you’d be wrong — that’s Jump In the Pool by Friendly Fires emanating from the speakers, filling the air with jangly, upbeat memories of decades old British chillwave indie pop. Bizarre.

It takes a while for others to notice you, because everyone’s smoking everything at the same and the general visibility is thus somewhat obstructed, so to speak. But when the patrons did notice us, it was a lot friendlier than we expected — they shook our hands, welcomed us to their little underground paradise den and asked how the fuck did we find them.

"We are writing an article about Libeň," we explain. This explanation isn’t enough for the patrons. "An article? Where can I read it?" "Online," Nutria Fanboy jumps in. The patrons are dazzled: "Okay, but… what do you do? Where do you work?"

"This is work," we answer, but we don’t think they believed us. "What?! You’re telling me you’re getting paid for coming to a dump like this and getting drunk with me? How do I apply for a job like that?! Vodka all around for the kids!!"

Rybárna has one nice local custom: leftover change are being tossed to the toilet. People do that voluntarily. This way, when you really need a drink and don’t have any money, you can circumvent this unpleasant obstacle by fishing them out — but you’ll be publicly shamed in the process, because dude, did you just dive into a fucking toilet for coins? Ew.

Seems like a well balanced system.

Part Three: Urban Legends, Checked

Even though it starts to get late and we’d definitely stay around Rybárna for several more hours, Nutria Fanboy urges us to get up — there’s still some legendary hangouts to check out. Styx, an underground club that’s been shut down and replaced by a chill-out café, was so famous that everyone, including Fanboy, has lots of stories about it. Sadly, nobody wants to share them, so we are forced to assume they violated every Old Testament rule at least twice.

Instead, we opt for Hudební klub Palmovka, a country club where the average age of patrons is higher than the average summer temperature. "Yeah, it’s a dive bar for old people, basically," shares Fanboy. "I’ve seen a senior citizen puke their lungs out there once."

Alas, when we go inside, there’s no shitfaced octogenarians around; just a fifties-era-styled rock’n’roll band, a bouncer who asks for 100 CZK, and several pairs twitching around the dancefloor. "These people look like their haircuts were created by a malevolent mobile app," Fanboy points out. The only exception would be an old-school gentleman with so much swag we’d swear he was a Playboy model in the seventies.

At midnight, the band finishes their last song (Johnny B. Goode); the party’s over. Well, for Hudební klub Palmovka it is — we’ve still got Error.

If you ask locals about Error, they’ll tell you it’s kind of a nomen omen. Probably no other pub / venue in the whole city has such a terrible reputation. It’s a metal pub, which should be a giveaway, but still — Google it yourself if you want to delve further into the Error world (we won’t, as we don’t want to be on a watch list somewhere).

On our way to Error, we pass Club 161 – that’s a brothel, but "a pretty good one, with a distinctively Libeň vibe". We don’t know what that means.

Error is, at first glance, surprisingly calm — once you get past the locked door, climb the ominous staircase and get used to the dark lights (or lack thereof), it’s really just a dirty pub with several metalheads quietly drinking their evening away. We’re a little sad. We thought this place was more… intense.

Then, suddenly, came Manfred. A huge Nazi guy. With a knife.

"Swear on the Reich!" he shouted, waving his knife around. "I swear!" "From now on, every secret I tell you has to stay between us Germans. But I don’t know. Your blood is not very pure." "Manfred, for fuck’s sake, shut up," his friend tries to cool the situation down. It works, but nevertheless, we still feel mildly terrified. Jarda, a random guy shouting that he’ll show everyone a picture of this dick, doesn’t help either.

The toilet is marked with a plaque that reads: "Defecation Salloon."

We need to get the hell out of there.

At another pub, a bartender tries to woo some girl by telling her how he held his wife’s hand during childbirth. It’s after midnight, and Libeň officially lost all the decency and subtlety she might have left. "I know how to treat women. Dude." The girl is intrigued: "And where’d you stand, at the head or at the toes?" "I was everywhere. I saw everything," the answer echoes, and it’s starting to feel like we did too, now.

"So. Cheers to the genius loci," Nutria Fanboy parts ways with us a few minutes later, and even though this phrase is certainly being overused to the point it doesn’t really have any meaning anymore, with Libeň, we have to admit it makes sense. The genius loci is really strong with this one.

Really, really strong.

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