The Unbearable Lightness of Living in Břevnov

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek

Among the neighborhoods further away from the city center, Břevnov is definitely one of the more famous. The first thing you’ll notice when looking at a map is that it’s quite large: it starts at the border with the infamous Lesser Town and spreads all the way to Bílá Hora, a huge park located far away in the city’s outskirts. So, right off the bat, you can see its potential as a melting pot. From the picturesque (and expensive) Lesser Town radiates the sense of something upscale and luxurious, while the parks of Bílá Hora and Vypich are populated solely by hippie-ish student groups and swaths of weekend warriors on mountainbikes, armed with frisbees and permanently excited golden retrievers.

Between those two faraway points, Břevnov feels like a city within a city, an old-timey town swallowed by urban development that, nevertheless, managed to keep its chill up to this day. The most prevalent groups of residents here are A) 60+ year-olds who have seemingly never seen the outside world, and B) hip young families who retreated here after realizing that they want something other from life than just being high all the time. On one hand, it looks like a cool haven for young thirty-somethings who could spend the whole evening talking about coffee. On the other, it’s still basically a village. A village centered around one main street.

Enter Bělohorská, a wide boulevard starting at the Pohořelec tram stop and going all the way up to Bílá Hora. Bělohorská is the center of local life, a focal point around which everything revolves. All tram stops are located here, as well as most of the pubs, so we might as well call this article "The Great Bělohorská Adventure." Well…

The Great Bělohorská Adventure

One of the biggest advantages of life in Břevnov, according to the (surprisingly large) poll of our contacts, is the overall sense of community. The neighborhood is located between two monasteries, and while the people we’re talking about don’t exactly lead a pious life, they still like to spend their time doing something more productive than just drinking and partying; it’s rather a family district, a place where people’s life trajectories end up rather than just pass through. Initiatives like Nesedím sousedím, Pro Břevnov, or various community points (Plivátko, Tejnka, Svobodný statek) paint the picture of a calm, neighborly place.

The list of our contacts reads almost like a phone book: there are several young mothers, a free-spirited designer, a guy who studied law at Charles University and then made a living registering new churches at Czech Ministry of Internal Affairs. Girl (the female half of our editorial unit) also rounded up a few of her former classmates from the local high school. It’s called Gymnázium Jana Keplera and has a wide reputation of being a rather cult-ish place, a posh institution for “better children” (in Girl’s own ironic words) who have evolved past the concept of common humor and thus cannot effectively communicate with anybody but each other. Effective communication here also means reproduction, so, according to Girl’s theory, there is a phenomenon she calls "The Kepler Eugenics" through which the graduates assure that their kind will live on, genes incompromised.

But this blog is, at least formally, still primarily about culture, so we asked the residents to point out some cool local venues — and found out that, again, the appeal of Břevnov lies in the unspoken common agreement that this is where people retreat to escape nightlife, not search for it. There is Kaštan, a large building with a vast garden which serves as a cultural center, but you can’t exactly speak about partying there: the place serves mostly as a folk venue, and is in fact tucked quite far away from the city center, so the chance of just ending up there after a night out is statistically, on an one to ten scale, somewhere between zero and the critical approval of the latest Arcade Fire album.

Another place that calls for a mention is Dlabačov, an old cinema currently being brought back to life, hiding in the shade of the showcase of Soviet era brutalism that is Hotel Pyramida. The hotel, as Girl points out, can also serve as a go-to place in search for weirdly fascinating events, like a parade of purebred cats spiked with the appearance of old Czech pop-stars of the long gone Socialist era casually drinking wine in golden sweaters. Girl swears that nothing in that last sentence is made up.

So, instead of screaming EDM beats and alternative theaters, Břevnov’s cultural life is defined by places like Pož, a little shop / hangout spot focused on fancy alcohol (mainly whiskies), or several galleries – Nativ, Kuzebauch, and Entrance. Or Hudera a syn, which is formally a butchery, but we like to think of it as a conceptual art gallery because the things they occasionally display in their vitrine would make Damien Hirst go green with envy. You know, things like “an installation of a doe riding a sledge while looking at a huge plastic sculpture of a sausage”.

A guy we will refer to as Anonymous (his first reaction was "okay I will tell you things, but don’t you dare publish it", so yeah) isn’t exactly blown by living here: "Man, I don’t know. You force me to think about Břevnov, but there’s not much going on, really. The district is boring. I’d pick a different topic entirely." Then he proceeds to list the local cultural hotspots, Kaštan and Dlabačov, and upon learning we’ve already covered that, he shrugs and says that the biggest event in the history of Břevnov was probably when Kabát, a Czech agro-rock group, played there in the park.

Girl, nostalgically hooked up on her high school memories, offers another POV: "Fuck Kabát. The biggest event here are The Lines of Pi. Every year."

THE LINES OF PI (Is a Name That Warrants Its Own Headline)

Near Gymnázium Jana Keplera, there is a park — soon to be turned into an outdoor cinema (maybe) – where Girl and Boy were supposed to meet up. Too bad that we didn’t get the timing quite right; this article was written in May, a few weeks after Walpurgis Night, which in the Czech Republic is traditionally accompanied by large swaths of people, alcohol, and bonfires. The Kepler kids took this to the extreme with The Lines of Pi, a yearly event dedicated solely to (electronic) music, dancing in mud, and making a large amount of irresponsible actions. (The name actually derives from Czech play on words with the term witch, which is local name for the mayhems happening on April 30. Any resemblance to actual illegal substances abuse, living or dead, is purely coincidental.) A few years ago, The Lines of Pi burst into a bona fide street festival, with professional sound system, VJing and all. Leave it to the successful kids to mix cheap teenage thrills with the level of audaciousness and bombast normally reserved for big-budget international summer parties.

One of our contacts is an avid fan of the event; he co-organised it many times and could talk about it for hours. His first story revolves around a bunch of 14-year-olds who drank themselves to oblivion before sunset and fell asleep somewhere in the nearby bushes, in a charmingly random pile of bodies. Then, he adds, there was a guy who brought an RPG to a party and later (no shit, Sherlock) turned out to be a professional soldier whose story began with "I dare you to bring an RPG to a teenage party" and ended with him succeeding. A group of around 50 American students shaking their heads in disbelief over the fact that something like that is even legal here (it’s not, but hey, party) is just an icing on the cake.

"The most brutal year was 2002, though," he recalls. "It was the year when we decided to stop fucking around and brought a huge industrial PA system. Six bands were performing that night for around 1000 people. Everybody brought their friends and their friends' friends. When the police saw it, they gasped in silent horror and called an impromptu town hall meeting, at 11 PM."

"A professional cleaning company was called the next morning and they filled six large truck with the waste left behind. When we finally woke up, hungover as hell, the park was completely clean. It was like a magic trick: You don’t exactly remember much from the previous night and start wondering whether it even happened. The town hall investigated and the high school principal had to explain everything… not an easy task, if you ask me."

The tradition of The Lines of Pi dates way back to 1995, and although at first glance it might seem like your typical garden-variety high school drinking bonanza, our contact explains that for the students, it has a special meaning. "I don’t know whether the teachers truly understand what’s going on there," he muses. "Lines were always the event that defined us. It’s been sending a message: Hey, after all, we’re not such elitist douchebags as you might think we are. We like to party as much as everybody else. It’s a shame that the future of Lines is uncertain," he adds with sorrow.

The Dead Dinosaurs Parallel

Nearly everyone we’ve contacted shared the same basic viewpoint: to cover Břevnov effectively, we should just stroll through Bělohorská and that’s it. Girl, however, decided to do things rather differently and proposed we start the day off at Kavárna Nový Svět, a cozy little café tucked right under Jelení příkop. Formally, the place lies several meters outside Břevnov’s borders, but — as Girl said — it would be cool to visit at least one place that is, you know, really nice. Nový svět, with its astoundingly romantic terrace full of twittering birds, surely fulfills that. We were sitting a few literal steps from Prague’s hectic tourist center, yet the atmosphere felt completely serene, as Malá Strana does.

"The community here is great," confirms Anonymous. The selection of local shops — butcheries, Greek delis, vegan food stores, wineries — is apparently good enough to circumvent the need to shop at Billa altogether. (It should be noted here that Billa, a supermarket chain, is generally considered a better place that other similar establishments; however, we’ve visited Břevnov’s Billa and can say that… well, it wouldn’t win the Best Supermarket Award, to put it mildly.)

During lunchtime, we recommend to stop at Konecchlumská, a tiny street packing kebab stops, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, and a great little patisserie. "The bourgeoisie dines at Kredenc we’ve been told, whereas Young Mother vouches for Dokola (a newly opened bistro) or Globus, where you can get horseradish-flavored ice cream, which is apparently a thing around here.

Young Mother met us at U Zelené Brány, a cult-esque pub located right at the tram stop Malovanka. She was accompanied by her four-year-old son, because children need to learn early what a pub is. And Zelená Brána is a proper pub, complete with gray-haired men sipping beer slowly enough to last them for two hours. The great thing about the place is that you don’t need an app to tell when your tram is coming — you simply look outside. Zelená Brána sits at the lowest end of Bělohorská, so if you see a tram approaching, you still have time to pack your shit and get out in time. The most no-nonsense patrons will take their beers outside and drink while watching trams pass by. There’s a metaphor hiding in there somewhere.

Girl orders a non-alcoholic beer and offers Young Mother a sip, but Young Mother is baffled with such nonsense and gets a regular beer. She takes a big gulp and her face breaks into Zen-like serenity. "I feel totally calm now," she smiles. "That’s because you’re married. Your testosterone levels are not as high as they used to be," Girl replies. “Could be. Or I'm just happy with my new bag here. It's vegan.” "What? It’s plastic. Plastic ain’t vegan, that’s dead dinosaurs."

The Cult of Drinopol (And What Came Afterwards)

When it’s time to enter a proper pub mode, we reach out to Lawyer (a guy who used to live here during his studies). His first choice? "Has to be Na Závěrce he answers without a blink. It’s a rather normal pub, kinda old-school with its 1920’s atmosphere, rose windows and a huge wooden armoire packed with bottles. Were it not for the luminescent chain of lights and Eric Prydz blasting from the speakers, we’d feel like we’ve just stepped into a time machine. Well, okay, Eric Prydz is still a time machine, but we were at least alive when the man raped Earth’s ears with his subliminal innuendos and brisk lyrical craftsmanship.

"We can visit Marjánka, but that’s just another pub. A good one, but nothing special about it," Lawyer continues, as we march on through Bělohorská. "Somewhere here we should find Starobřevnovská krčma — that’s a delightfully terrible place. Last time I was there, there was a swastika on the front door," he adds; but when we find the place several minutes afterwards, the swastika is gone. Or, to be more precise, swapped for huge SS insignia. Moving on.

The next stop is Drinopol, a pub that exists for 103 consecutive years now; the tram stop Drinopol is even named after it. Boy sends Lawyer inside to get some beers and Lawyer returns with hand full of hard liquor. "I’m sorry. I really wanted to get a beer, but then I saw how huge these shot glasses are, and I couldn’t resist," he explains, as our table disappears under layers of rum and vodka. The Czech national football team is playing Belgium at the moment, but nobody gives a shit. The biggest argument we hear around is two guys holding a yelling contest over which salad is the best. "Tomato salad," shouts one. "Cucumber salad. With rum!" shouts the other. "Or cucumber salad with rum, but without the salad! Bahahaha."

On our way to the next adventure, we meet a group of people outside the restaurant U Sládků. It’s closed for two hours now, so we reckon these guys are probably cooks. All of them were drunk, smoking and making animal noises. Upon further inspection we realize those are indeed cooks, because they didn’t even bother changing back to civil gear.

Our final stop is called L'Atmosphere – which sounds like a pleasant French place where you could get like seventeen different wines and maybe a fancy cocktails. But nobody calls it L’Atmosphere around here. Its colloquial name is "That dive bar over there", which is much closer to reality. Instead of lists of upscale wines, the blackboard on the wall is covered in seemingly random cyphers like BJÖRN BORG and FUTILE. Nobody knows what the fuck that means. Not even the owners.

Dreadlocks, Toilets, and Presidents

"Hey, this is a fine place. Sometimes, there are concerts, even. I remember when 150 people came here for a gig," a local barfly muses. He introduces himself as a former filmmaker who now works as a gardener. When we point out that the pub is smaller than Girl’s living room, so there’s no way for 150 people to get in, he stands up and proceeds to flail his arms around wildly: "No problem. You just toss the tables away. People will squeeze. Once, three black guys were playing here. Man, that was awesome! No guitars, drums or shit — one guy was banging on a fucking pumpkin, one had some handmade guitar-like thingy, and the last one didn’t have an instrument so he kept stroking his arms. Because he wore, like, dozens of bracelets. The best part was that each one of them came from different parts of Africa, but here in Břevnov, they found something common."

The anti-smoking law that’s been in effect since June — you can’t smoke inside pubs in Czech Republic now — forced us to sit in front of L’Atmosphere. Unfortunately, to just take the chairs and sit on the pavement is illegal as long as the pavement isn’t officially a part of the pub, which is the exact case here, so the waitress tells us to knock it down. "What, are we supposed to cuddle here? On the pavement?" Gardener snaps. "Yeah," the waitress replies. "Cuddle."

Our new friend seems eager to introduce us to the L’Atmosphere life. "Yeah, sometimes, fight break out here. It’s not usual, but sometimes, people have too much beer," he shrugs. "I like the sense of community. The owner is 63 years old and has white dreadlocks. I’ve seen people get tattooed right there at the bar. This is a good pub. It used to be popular with poets, educated people… now, the patrons are mostly local drunks."

The sun sets down as we sit on the pavement, watching half-empty trams lazily stroll through Bělohorská. It’s impossible to cover all that Břevnov has to offer during a single night; other places worth discovering, like U Rusů (a nice pub which sometimes hosts country evenings) or Malovanka Non-Stop (called “Public Toilets”, because the building used to house public toilets), had to give way. All we managed during the rest of the night was to climb uphill to observe Břevnov’s most luxurious part – the one where rich people build expensive villas with swimming pools and such. Parkways are littered with Porsches and BMWs, and after 10 PM, nothing ever happens here.

Except U Prezidentů. U Prezidentů is an avant-garde bar that looks like a DIY haven for hippie folk enthusiasts who walk barefoot in the forests and drink cheap rum out of a box. Tucked in the middle of the aforementioned capitalist paradise, it’s so out of place it’s downright bizarre, like meeting a penguin in a Sudanese desert. Good news is that the menu says "Communists not welcome. If you’re a communist, everything is 10% more expensive for you."

"That’s Břevnov in a nutshell," says Lawyer. "Villas, luxury, nice cars, serenity, and then boom, a hippie pub." His face says it all: This is the place you simply don’t want to leave.

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