The Schizophrenic Vibe of Prague's Most Famous Street

Text: Editors

Národní třída. The National Avenue. Just writing those words evokes a feeling of something noble, something of historical value, something deeply traditional: a source of national pride and identity. Sure enough, during the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Národní třída played a key role. Nowadays, it serves as an important cultural center of the city. It’s also a place with many different faces, some of them noble and flashy, others… less so.

When we first started to plan this series, we divided Prague into selected areas — and one of the biggest problems was to decide where Národka (colloquial name for Národní třída) and its surroundings ended and the Old Town began. Were we to follow the migration patterns of local barflies, this article would be longer than a detailed essay on contemporary morays of Western society (that is, very long. This article would be very long). So, to solve the problem, we sought help from two experts — let’s call them Artist and Producer, because that’s what they call themselves.

"You can split the Národka / Old Town part according to where actors go get hammered after the show. Those playing in National Theater drink at Národka, those from DISK in the Old Town," Artist initiates, revealing the first big center of Národka’s culture: the Theater, a monumental homage to the richness of Czech art history, still serves as one of Prague’s most prestigious scenes. Then there is its second stage, Nová scéna, a monumental playground for urban bikers and flea market people (and people visiting Café NONA), and across the street, you can go to Kavárna Slavia. Once, at the turn of the 20th century, famous writers, journalists, footballers and other elites used to go there to work, chat and drink. Now, they’ve been replaced by tourists, but the nostalgic vibe of the pre-War era still remains ingrained within its walls.

The second center is situated at Národní 20, where a big Art Nouveau building hosts both Café Louvre and Rock Café. The former is a classy café drowned in beautiful décor, the latter a concert venue famous for its HC and metal gigs. It’s not uncommon to see hardcore guitarists covered in a wide selection of skull tattoos scarf down things like ‘blueberry cake on Linz dough with home made vanilla ice cream’ at 3 PM, nonchalantly sitting along octogenarian ladies with pink felt hats chatting about their most recent trip to Vienna. Hey, they still have a few hours before they’d destroy people with their threateningly industrial riff drops.

Other popular identification signs of Národka, such as a subway station that was closed for like a hundred years before it opened again and everybody suddenly realized it’s a two minute walk away from the Můstek station (not to mention that you have to pass through a giant mall to get out of there), or frequent politically charged meetings / protests, we won’t delve into here. During the summer season and important holidays, things just happen to happen at Prague’s most famous street. That’s why we went there in February. So that we’d have to search for ourselves.

Part One: A Conceptual Beauty

"Do you want it to feel like an apéritif, a digestif, or an energizer?" a lavishly dressed sommelier asks a suit-clad businessman, as the cleaning crew deals with dustbins three inches away. We are at DUP36, a multi-functional building situated close to Národka, enjoying the atmosphere of GinFest 2017. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a hedonistic celebration of Britain’s national spirit, complete with lectures, gin tastings, and overall jauntiness hanging in the air.

The sun hasn’t set yet, but the party is already in full swing; we attribute this to the fact that A) gin has a lot of alcohol, and B) there is a lot of gin. The drunkenness slowly creeps in, creating an amusing patchwork of social situations. It’s one of those places where you can almost physically feel how the formal and informal worlds meet, collide, collapse over each other, and merge into one. Kinda like that town that is in Belgium, but it's also in the Netherlands, and Belgium, and the Netherlands, and Belgium.

Our crew embraces the vibe. Boy talks about the intricacy of Belgian Dutch town, while Girl, obscure geographical trivia not being her idea of ‘fun’, approaches one of the gin stands and earns herself a balloon she proceeds to attach to her wrist. "I’m sixteen again!" her eyes glare with joy.

There are several places like this. Consider Opatovická street, which in itself doesn’t look much fun, but still packs two interesting places within – Super Tramp Coffee, a romantic tiny café tucked away from the surrounding noise, and GRID, an industrial pop-up party spot. But by far the most conceptually interesting thing there is Anonymous Shrink's Office, which stands for a rather luxurious cellar bar where you have to ring a bell to be let in (in case you already knew where the door was, that is). Instead of a menu, you will be then given a Rorschach test; pick a stain, and the bartenders will prepare you a drink according to your unique psyche.

Inside, our crew instantly swaps gender roles. While Boy gets a piňacolada, a drink he’s never even seen before, let alone enjoyed himself, Girl is treated to a furiously masculine-looking smokey whiskey-thingy. Just one sniff and you’re instantly mentally carried away to Havana, presumably while riding a Harley-Davidson. Wearing a balloon on your wrist.

The ambient finesse that surrounds Anonymous Shrink’s Office seems to provoke our Producer. When offered a chance to lay down his coat like a proper gentleman, he snapped: "Don’t strip me, this is my style!" And as such, his coat — which in fact was a cheap, violently fluorescent jacket — bright up the dimly lit place with the intensity of a Prince music video. The place is really quiet; we’re being told that the art people gather elsewhere, like in Divadlo Komedie or Klub FAMU. One of our contacts, an aspiring screenwriter, describes the atmosphere of the latter in a manner that leaves no doubts about its party potential:

"The last Christmas party was the best. Which gig did I enjoy the most? I don’t know, man… like, everything… well, I haven’t seen much of them. In fact, I haven’t seen any gig. I came in at half past seven, climb up like ten stairs and got stuck in a puddle of people I didn’t leave till 4 AM. But it was awesome."

Part Two: So, Where _Do_ the Artists Drink?

While planning out the evening with Artist, we left the details to him — and the first time he opened his (virtual) mouth, we’ve learned something new. "Today, there’s a play in the National Theater. Which means that the actors will be drinking in Becher Bar. Well, not during the play, but afterwards. They like it there, because it’s the closest dive bar there. So I propose to meet up at U Nováka, have a beer or six and the dive on in," he showcased his intimate knowledge of all things Národka. When we arrived at U Nováka at the given hour, we had to wait for him for 40 minutes, because he’s Artist and that’s how artists generally behave.

That leaves us with good forty minutes to embrace the local vibe — and this precious time window gave birth to what will be henceforth referred to as a Yellow Pub Theory. It states that there are places that cannot possibly have their facade painted with a color other than yellow (we don’t know why; it’s just the way around here). They often appear on street corners, garnished with giant signs peppered with CAPITAL LETTERS, and once you step inside, you’ll be greeted with a sea of wooden tables, green sheets, jovial forty-year-old bartenders embalming their every word in associations they find funny, cheap weak beer, and cigarettes being sold right there at the bar.

This description fits U Nováka like a glove; the only disparity is that you can’t smoke inside, bar a small place next to the bar and a designated smoking room which looks like a stable, complete with a wooden fence running all around to keep the barflies locked in their safe space. Girl says it looks like a cellar room where it’s customary to put bikes upon moving in, then never touching them again.

If you’re unfamiliar with Czech painter Adolf Born’s pictures, imagine your typical clichéd Slavic imagery – women in puffy skirts, men with mustaches and red noses, that sort of thing. At U Nováka, not only these images decorate walls, they can also come to life. Three guys standing at the bar looked exactly Born-esque. Alas, our collective nostalgia was dampened by their out-of-place usage of modern language. "Got a smoke, man?" one of them asked, looking at Girl. Then, he asked what’s up with the wrist balloon.

"He jumped on me," Girl explained. "Well I see how anyone would jump on you, but I’m not talking about balloons here."

The radio switched from Beck to Led Zeppelin, which prompted our friend to stop caring about Girl and start mirroring Jimmy Page’s solos with potentially dangerous hand movements. You know — Yellow Pub Theory. It simply holds. There are a few more of those around, like U Balbínů or U Jelínků Producer recalls a story about a guy named Pegy, who left a strong trace in the latter.

"Pegy was a large, burly man, the kind you wouldn’t wanna mess with. He had this thing he called ‘The Two Ashtrays Theory.’ He would say: 'You know, to simply hit someone over the head with an ashtray is LAME. You have to step it up a notch. Take two ashtrays, one in each hand. Swing your left arm to indicate the hit, and when the other guy crouches, bludgeon them with the second one. Bahaha."

To churn thing up a little bit, we decided to swap U Nováka for a more stylish alternative café. The thing is that there are a shitload of those around Národní, so we need to weed them out one by one. Popocafépetl is nice, but there’s hardly a great story potential there. Groove Bar doesn’t fit our concept (although if you fancied a proper drink in a place that’s neither trashy nor too snobby, this would be a good pick). Our favorite stop – Café Jericho – is completely packed. So in the end we’re left with three spots with strangely similar names: Café Rybka (‘a little fish’), Malá ryba (also ‘a little fish’) and Velryba (‘a whale’).

The obsession with fish and other water-related fauna is kinda cute, but if our next stop (we picked Café Rybka) is any indication, it should perhaps be called 'An African Grey Parrot' or some such, because the whole space was sonically raped by two girls at the bar, talking in a pitch that would challenge even the most vocal of all African Grey parrots. Also, there are gay artists, several older men reading books and a distinctively chill-out vibe (bar the parrots). Artist was the one to pick the place, because he has a nostalgic connection to it.

"When I first started going here, it used to be a popular drinking spot among the LARP community," he explains. "They would beat each other with wooden sticks or some shit all weekend and then come here, on Sunday night, to get hammered. Well usually they were already hammered from all that mead they’ve been drinking since three days before, but they’d get even more hammered here. They’d stink like Satan’s asshole and challenge each other with obscure Tolkien trivia."

Around this moment, we parted ways with Artist (he needed to go elsewhere and do art stuff) and Producer proposed a non-stop bar tour. Our efforts to at least try to visit something ‘cultural’ fell apart when we realize that Vagón Club, a local gig venue, was currently occupied by an AC/DC revival band and the tickets cost 150 CZK. "I will not listen to the same three chords forever for a hundred and fifty," Producer claimed fiercely, and given that Girl had lost her balloon by then, it was clear that we needed to wrap the evening up.

Part Three: So, You’re Waiting for a Night Tram…

As the night went by, Producer slowly promoted himself to a chief strategy planner. "I don’t know. There are two legendary non-stops here: Perštýn and Kotva. So we have two options: either go to Perštýn first and then to Kotva, or visit Kotva now and then move on to Perštýn. Sophie’s choice," he mused, wrinkling his forehead.

We chose the first option. Mainly because Perštýn is no longer that place to end the binge at; the pub had some re-decorations done, so instead of a smelly drinking hub with a cult following, it is now officially named Star Casino and the sudden sterility of its atmosphere is best described by the fact that we went there at midnight and were the only customers. Combined with bad Czech pop rock blasting from the late night TV show and a visibly bored bartender demanding IDs, it was easy to fall down the nostalgia trap.

To some extent, same goes for Kotva it too was once a popular ‘deadbeat’ pub and is now somewhat ‘revised’. We put the quotation marks there because unlike Star Casino, the new Kotva is absolutely indistinguishable from any other non-stop diving bar, so if you didn’t knew the old one, you have nothing to worry about. Connecting the two places is a famous patron named Jirka, a gay bus driver, who used to circle around both pubs and give random people valuable life lessons, like "Grab him by the balls and don’t flinch" (which is a thing he said to a girl 40 years younger after her tactful silence following the initial question of whether he could sit down next to her was interpreted as a sign of approval).

Kotva’s main selling point is its location: the pub lies right next to the Lazarská tram stop, which is a central hub for night trams in Prague. Also, it’s two stories, and even though both floors smell the same (like a sandwich made of cigarettes and more cigarettes) and look the same (tidal waves of beer everywhere), the atmosphere sometimes varies to an interesting extent. When we entered the upper floor (located at the ground level), everyone sat silently, except for a couple of fifty-year-olds performing an erotic dance to the tune of Alphaville’s Forever Young, of all songs.

Downstairs, there was ska playing, which is hardly an upgrade (although no more exchanging bodily fluids among people old enough to be our parents was an upgrade). Still, it could be worse. Boy recalls how one time, a group of football hooligans were drinking there, playing some neo-nazi songs on the jukebox. "See, this is strangely serene. These people look like an Edward Hopper painting. This one is asleep. That one thinks about everything he’s done wrong in his entire life. That one over there is hypnotizing the wall. The only thing that moves here is the cigarette smoke," Girl summarizes.

Our tram leaves in twenty minutes, but we already feel like everything’s been said and done. So, naturally, we order a taxi and tell them to stop right there on the tram tracks. Because when you party at the National Avenue, you party like a boss.

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