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The Two-Faced Miracle of Karlín

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Fifteen years ago, the riverside district of Karlín got hit by a flood so massive it almost completely vanished. The rebuilding process was swift and impressive, but locals — those who remember the old Karlín well — are still torn about their feelings of the new one. In the cold language of economic data, indexes of ‘livability’ and crime rates, it was a huge success. Under the looming presence of the Negrelli's viaduct, a new, distinctly modern neighborhood was born. Lots of people witnessed the ultimate gentrification success story in the making.

Stinky old houses that Vltava had swallowed were replaced by shiny new administrative buildings – with the highest regards about durability and sustainable energy, of course — and it’s generally seen as a sign of wealth to be a Karlín-based businessman now. But yet, it remains painfully obvious that while all the other quarters surrounding Prague’s historical center manage to blend the old and the new, Karlín is nothing but the new.

It should also be noted that the very reason Karlín was destroyed in the first place — that it’s basically a narrow strip of flat land between Vltava’s bank and the foot of the Vítkov hill, which also means that it’s the most bicycle-friendly part of the city — gave the urban planners of early 21st century a great platform to work with. All streets are logically arranged, so basically all that had to be done was to pick up the ruins and start anew.

Even a short walk around is enough to get the idea: clean streets, right angles, no trash, no drunken shadows sashaying through the boulevards of Sokolovská and Křižíkova. Karlín became a place to work and live, not to party: on weekends, after dark, the streets are mostly quiet. The Eastern and Western border points, Florenc Central Bus Station and Palmovka, hold a (rightful) image of something dirty and borderline dangerous, but between them, Karlín lives in serenity. On Florenc, there’s junkies, non-stop bars, and a never-ending cavalcade of noise; a few hundred meters inward, there’s Michelin restaurants, minimalist cafés, and some of the country’s best journalists tapping away in their spacious offices.

Cartographically, Karlín — formerly an independent town centered around a war hospital (see the metro station Invalidovna) – looks almost like a chess board. A brief history lesson: at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, Austrian-Hungarian government hatched a plan to bulldoze much of Prague’s city center to widen the central boulevards, making the city look more like Paris or Vienna. The project was greenlighted, and thus, Pařížská st was born; after that, there were no money left to continue, then came the World War, and afterwards, with no empire around anymore, nobody (thankfully!) picked it up again. If the 'Paris of Central Europe' plan served as a metaphor, you could say that during past 15 years, Karlín transformed itself from Prague’s Clichy-sous-Bois to Prague’s La Défense. What a feat!

The Building That Lived

"Yeah, Karlín was pretty depressing," says Aleš, one of our respondents who remembers the pre-flood era. "It felt like people were afraid, out there on the streets: they would crouch to the buildings, as if to avoid being seen, eyes fixed on the pavement. When the water came, it took everything. Everything from the ground level to three meters up was gone. Brick would fell off houses, streets were filled with ruins and old furniture. The metro collapsed, so the only way to get around was by bus, via alternative routes that dragged you through Pernerova st. The first sign that things are coming back to normal came when Černá kočka opened up again — just a random underground pub, with one guy for a cook and a waiter, but it was something. Although whenever somebody ordered food, you had to wait for half an hour for a beer."

The flood was the biggest one to hit Prague in 500 years; it tore down twenty five houses and damaged dozens more. Even Invalidovna fell victim — the aforementioned metro station, but more notably a block of panel houses of the same name, called Sídliště Invalidovna. Thankfully it survived — which is a huge relief for architecture geeks everywhere, because the block, built in three stages in the middle of the 20th century according to the experimental visions of Le Corbusier, is a priceless example of early Socialist-era housing. Later, the Soviet doctrine would demand more cramped, brutally effective designs, but Invalidovna emerged during that short-lived phase when the regime still actively pushed the panel housings to be as livable as possible, like tiny sustainable cities within cities.

"I got a free room at Invalidovna, a small bunker on the first floor, courtesy of a friend of mine," recalls Aleš. "I was supposed to move in during August 2002, but something came up, so I had to delay it for a week. That next Monday, I put on the TV and saw the news about the flood, and me and my friend joked that we’d better both find some other place till it’s too late. He actually stopped by and picked his stuff, which was a fortune, because a few hours later, the flat was gone. There was water everywhere, and not only water, but also shit. Tons of shit. All that survived was a stack of CDs. We had to clean everything up, and I finally moved in four months later."

Sídliště Invalidovna is not the only reminder of the bygone era; Karlín is also a place where the Olympik hotel was built, back in the times when Czechoslovakia dreamed about hosting the Olympics. The hotel is still working, by the way; funny thing is that its stern, majestic, piercingly dominant facade is now decorated with artwork that looks like flames. The hotel that survived the Big Flood now looks like it’s ON FIRE. Stop provoking the Great God of Earthly Elements, hotel.

We talked about how Karlín was originally built around a hospital for soldiers; there were also barracks there, and although the enormously large building itself is in a dire need of a reconstruction now (it belongs formally to the government), we recommend to wait for the warmer months and take a peek inside. Behind those impenetrably looking walls lies an outdoor pop-up place called Kasárna Karlín (‘Karlín Barracks’, because yeah), and during the summer of 2017, it became a huge hit on Prague’s hip art scene. The disposition of the atrium allows to cram an open-air cinema there, and a bar, and a huge beer garden, and a volleyball court, and an art gallery. Also, the beer is about 1 Euro, so there’s that.

"See this? That’s the biggest sandbox in Prague," points out our Girl, while Boy is too distracted by the cheap beer and anxiety. There’s a Wes Anderson movie screening scheduled in a few minutes, and he didn’t pay the entry fee, because he promised the lady on the door that he’d just pick up Girl and leave. "Not only hipsters come here, you know? Lots of young mothers do too. Because of the sandbox," says Girl, adding that Karlín is indeed a great place to procreate, because there’s also a café called Divoké matky (‘Wild Mothers’) there.

Whatever happens with Kasárna Karlín, it seems that the place will survive. Too bad we can’t say the same thing about a former mazut factory near Invalidovna; it’s a conceptually unique concrete building whose owner is a developer, and nobody knows what they intend to do with it. Currently, there are voices actively fighting for declaring the factory a cultural heritage.

"The current owner says the building is contaminated, but we believe that’s just smoke and mirrors at play," says Petr Zeman, an activist."They want to demolish the building no matter what." Truth is that, given the atypical disposition of the building, the hall could serve as a great gig venue, or a sport arena, or a theater, or a communal marketplace (in similar fashion to Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne, or London’s Borough Market, or Berlin’s Markthalle 9).

How Do You Know Something’s in Karlín? It Tells You.

Do you know that old joke that to spot a vegan in a crowd is easy, because they’ll introduce themselves as vegan? The same thing could be said about Karlín’s cultural scene: it sure as hell looks that everybody in Karlín is proud to be in Karlín, because they all have Karlín right there in the name. Kasárna Karlín is an obvious one, but then you have places like Forum Karlín – which, by the way, is probably Prague’s only good gig venue with A) a great sound, and B) a capacity somewhere in the middle between 100 and 1000, making it an ideal spot for artists who are too famous for the underground but not yet famous enough for the arenas.

Hudební divadlo Karlín is another one, but our editors are not too fond of it. The theater is really nice, but they’re mostly playing musicals, and ugh. Moving on, there’s a gallery called Karlín Studios, an outdoor cinema called Letní kino Karlín, and an ingenious hangout spot near the river called Přístav 18600 – they’re the clever ones, since their name contains merely Karlín’s postal code, not the word Karlín itself, which here is a splendid exhibition of creativity. Also, we bet that by now, the word Karlín lost all its meaning to you, as it echoes rattlingly in your brain right now. Karlín.

"I’m, like, totally confused," were the words of our friend when she saw the crowd of several hundred people during Přístav 18600’s biggest summer party. "I keep meeting people I know, but they’re all so far apart! But at the same time, they’re not! Shit, that’s confusing. I wonder if that’s me, or just the wine talking." By the way, since Přístav lies right there on the riverbank, you can access it by boat from Holešovice. Another one of our respondents calls it a "warm-up before fucking" place. A nearby café, where you can go and freely pet a cat, is also on that list.

Fancy Food, Real Pubs

Whenever we design these articles, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher; between all the people we contact, there are usually dozens of tips, stories, and guidelines, so our tried and tested method is to ditch everything and run for a nearest pub that looks reasonably local. With Karlín, this was not the case. Literally everyone mentioned the same things: fancy, new, post-flood eateries, and three legendary pubs where everything important happens.

Let’s get the first part out of the way. The much-hyped Eska restaurant is a staple on everyone’s radar since last spring, when it was awarded a Bib (basically a Michelin star, but for food that costs less then a Ferrari); foodies of Prague knew the place long before that, though. Our Girl is one of them.

"The Eska crew goes to drink to the pub Na Růžku after work," she explains. "The reason is that most of the local pubs close by midnight now, but Na Růžku does not. It’s pleasant to see a chef who after a long day of serving degustation menus of a thousand little dishes starts drinking cheap peppermint liquor, swearing and playing darts. Then, they threw us out, so we went to a non-stop pub. A Michelin-awarded chef and four girls. The driver looked at the gender profile of our crew and said that the gentleman must be a drummer or something."

Similarly popular is Bistro Garage, a Canadian deli that serves arguably the best poutine in all Prague. Other similar establishments include Proti proudu, a Berlin-style bistro, or Můj šálek kávy, a café that looks like it emanated from an amassed strength of every ironically hipster article ever. To be fair, though, they do have really great coffee, as every coffee-nazi who’s been there would attest to. While you’re at it, try also Tea Mountain for some tea-time, or Veltlin, if you’re more into wine. Both places are decadently retro.

If you’ve spent any time in Prague, you probably know that the go-to lunch option here is Pho now. The Vietnamese soup is so immensely popular around upper-middle-class twenty-somethings that it might be difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the trend; luckily, we have Aleš, who is quick to remind us that the first restaurant ever to serve Pho was in Karlín. "It was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant," he recalls. "But they got a few Vietnamese dishes as well, as nearly all Prague’s Chinese restaurants are in fact run by the Vietnamese. The story goes that one time, an American walked in, ordered the Pho, got it, and wrote about it on expats.cz. And thus the trend began."

"Before that, the Vietnamese had no clue they could make a living in Prague serving their own cuisine." Fast forward a few years, and Pho is an indisputable feature of every hungover office lunch in the city. Talk about how multiculturalism doesn’t work.

Another of our respondents, Tomáš, is more critical of Karlín — for Tomáš is a guy who liked the deadbeat ethos of the old quarter. "Look at Nejen Bistro he points out, crossing another one of the seemingly endless list of Berlin-style minimalist hotspots off the list. "Before the flood, there was a pub there. A proper pub, a real dive bar. When Quentin Tarantino shot Hostel over here, he even got it on camera for a scene. Then, he got drunk as fuck and slept there." Tomáš continues: "There was also a… thing, I don’t know what it was, really. A pub, but an esoteric one, in a weird way. Naked pictures all over the walls. You went in for a beer and spent the whole time staring at dicks and pussies and all that. There was a thick red curtain on the door, so nobody could see in. It opened at 10 PM."

(From that testimony, we reckon he meant Mlsná Tygřice, but our pleas for stories proved unfruitful. Either nobody really remembers going there, or they’re all too ashamed to speak about it.)

The list of lost bars that had to give way to fanciness goes on: "Zion was a bar where everybody was scared to go in, even me," says Tomáš. "Now, there’s a Bad Flash branch standing in its place — you know, the beer bar. Lots of fancy beers with fancy prices for fancy people. Before the flood, there was also Kachna a Koráb, a pub where a former baroness was working, along with her husband. Now, everything has been torn down and replaced. Boooriiing."

Another respondent — a girl who once worked at Respekt, a Czech magazine with headquarters located here — concludes that in 2017, Karlín is a great place to make money. But other than that, almost nothing interesting happens. "The only stories I have are tied to Polívkárna," she speaks about a famous local soup diner. "Which stories?""Well, I often had soup there. They have good soup."

Karlín’s pub life is not that visible, but the aforementioned three pubs' towering presence is heavily felt. Their main selling point lies in the fact that they’ve been there forever; it’s not that there’d be a big potential for something bizarre to happen, but everybody simply knows about them. The first one, located at the main square, is Lokál Hamburk, operating from the late 19th century. In its heyday, it was a hotspot for sailors arriving on Vltava, complete with a brothel directly above the pub; now, the patrons are mostly middle-aged men enjoying fine Pilsner. During the summer season, they’d take the beer outside, enjoying the view of the majestic Church of Saint Cyril and Methodius.

Then, you have Karlínská pivnice at Pernerova street. This is a rather typical Czech pub — nothing particularly upscale, but the atmosphere feels homely and the beer is great. During our visit, the World Championship in Athletics was going on, so Boy — naturally, as he knows nothing about athletics, but still likes to engage in conversations about topics that completely elude him — asked random patrons why so many Czechs seem to know how to throw a javelin really far.

"People who used to live in Karlín were poor," a local girl says. "Now… well, the hood looks nice. But it sucks." The ruthless march of time can be illustrated on U Zábranských, the third big pub — in 1979, it was the place where Czech punk scene started to shape, whereas today, it’s a huge sports bar. Good thing is that it’s incredibly spacious, so chances of not getting a seat are almost nonexistent; also, it lies directly in the middle of Karlín, which means that locals use it as a natural meeting point.

"Right across the street, there was a terrible dive bar, smelling overwhelmingly of weed. You’d pass the main door and the odor alone would get you high. After it was closed and reopened half a year later, it looked like a regular bar — named Popcore Smoking Pub — but they’ve just installed a stronger ventilation, so twenty people could hit a bong inside at the same time and you’d still be able to breathe like a normal person."

"To get inside meant to ring a bell and wait for the bartender to let you in. The upstairs terrace was open, but only dealers and their bitches could sit there. An unwritten rule. Now, the place is called Shadow Café, and you can sit on the terrace regardless of your job status or relation to your dealer." Actually, it’s a really great spot; to sit there under a parasol and eat grilled halloumi is one of our favorite summer pastimes. Alas, the curfew is set at 10 PM, because the new Karlín wants to respect the good manners of a law-abiding citizen.

"This Is How I Suck Dick"

On our way to the central square (Karlínské náměstí), we planned to explore some other place than Lokál or Café Frida, a garden variety hipster-ish café. Thus, we stopped over at Mrtvej pták on Křižíkova st — the name literally means “Dead Bird”, but that’s only a part of why we settled there. The other part would be a group of drunk English guys, sitting outside and shouting over each other, promising a potentially rich story material. By the way, if your surname derives from a bird’s name, you get 20% discount on any meal. Tested it. It works.

On the outside, Mrtvej pták looks like a normal, non-specific Czech pub. But once you step inside, a whole new world unveils before your eyes — it looks like stepping into a two-story cave that is also a discotheque permanently frozen in the mesmerizing vibes of middle 1980’s. Sweet Dreams — the original Eurythmics tune, of course, not the Marilyn Manson cover — is blasting from the jukebox, and the English party acknowledges this by dancing like lunatics, while the other patrons (an elderly couple) get pushed aside.

Well, the lady seems surprisingly fine; she floats through the dancefloor without regards for rhythm or decency, but it’s evident she’s having a great time. Her man, not so much. "I love the pub but I ain’t dancin' with no drunken fags," he tells the waiter, pointing aggrievedly at the English guys. The waiter doesn’t give a fuck, though, so he just nods and leaves him stranded.

"And what are you doing in Karlín, exactly?" Girl asks the English guys, and their answer cannot surprise us — of course they all work here. Also, they’re all gay, so the upset fella got that right. The reason they’re drunk is that since the wee hours, they’ve been enjoying the ongoing Prague Pride party. Oh, and one of them is getting married. "This is how I suck dick," asks the most vocal one, turning to Girl. "Do you suck dick?"

Right at the main square, there’s a pub called U Saní, where we meet a group of slightly crazy people who look like they just came back from an RPG adventure, but it’s really hard to pinpoint anything else, especially since they talk to each other in bizarrely surrealistic quips."You are such a metalhead. Try to be more friendly," says the first, and his friend responds: "Lots of guys told me — hey man, I’m gonna take you by the hand. But they won’t take you like that anymore.""You are drunk.""So what, you thought you’d take a younger brother for a coffee? Everywhere I go, there’s trouble! Dude."

"It’s good to back down. When you back down, you back down. Great job. I’m going for a weewee," he concludes, as a large man in a feathered boa crawls out of the incoming taxi and waves a bottle of champagne in the waitress' face, demanding she drinks with him. At first, we were sad that Pivnice U Fandy, a terribly smelly pub made out of a former public toilet, is now permanently closed down. After U Saní, our confidence in the more dada side of Karlín increased significantly.

The problem with Karlín after 10 PM is that everything is closed. We’re trying to get to Panda, but the door are locked already. Antony, same story. Hospoda u Báby as well. Thankfully, we somehow managed to jump randomly into some friends on the street, and we naturally asked for recommendations. "M.A.S.H.," they say uniformly, without a shade of doubt. "It’s a non-stop bar with good beer. Doesn’t get any better than that, here in Karlín."

"It’s really weird to sit here for a second day in a row," muses one of the guys. "But what’s even weirder is that I also celebrated my birthday here. I have no idea why." Walls are plastered with huge scenes from M.A.S.H. (duh), but in the TV, a Steven Seagal movie is playing, which feels… schizophrenic. We’d ask why is that, but a weird guy checks us out from the next table and we don’t want to get on his bad side.

At Herna Oslík, the tender tells us that she won’t serve us a beer unless we throw some money into a slot machine. "Fuck that," resolves Boy, "we’re going to Florenc. Drink with the nocturnal bus people." It’s 3 AM, and our notes about the evening are almost completely wiped out from that moment on. The only one that survived was that Boy spent a good amount of time talking to some Romanian guys about the tactical nous of Romanian football. Then morning came, the guys left for Bucharest, and Boy presumably went home.

And that’s the thing with Karlín: Yeah, it’s all shiny and new and corporate-friendly, people are earning big money here, sitting in their brand new glass cages and eating food that can be ordered only with a B2 level at French. But the flood didn’t completely kill everything. Shades of the old Karlín still remain, if you go underground. So — if you manage to mix it properly — it really seems like a great place to live.

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