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The Unkempt Beauty of Working Man's Vršovice

Text: Editors Photo:

Look, we’ll be frank — when we first started pitching the articles for this series, we completely forgot about lower Vršovice. There’s the infamous hipster hivemind known as Krymská St, of course, but else…? The tangled clusters of streets under Vinohrady, where the metro doesn’t go and the cultural scene has yet to sink its teeth into the ragged old buildings, remains largely out of the spotlight. What’s more, Vršovice aren’t even touted to be the ‘next big thing’ (as opposed to, say, Nusle or Libeň). They just sort of… exist.

Which is really not very fair. All it takes is to get lost there for a few hours, and you’ll get the nagging feeling that even a week wouldn’t be enough.

Our local contact — let’s call him Blondie – lives in Vršovice for twenty years. And although his quarter formally swallows quite a large chunk of Prague’s outer center, the ‘real’ border lines don’t work the same way the map does. "The way I see it is that Vršovice lie in a hole," Blondie says. "When you have to climb up the hill, it’s not Vršovice anymore."

Given that Krymská and its surroundings were covered in a separate article, what we’re left with here is a blob-shaped area bordered by Grébovka, a huge city park (on the west), Kodaňská St and Heroldovy sady (on the north), the Eden stadium (on the east), and a railway to Benešov (on the south).

"It’s a little tricky," Blondie admits. "Vršovická, the central street, gradually changes into Otakarova, which lies in Nusle. That’s one border. Then you have Krymská and Kodaňská, which are, on paper, both Vršovice streets, but they both lie on the hill above the hole, so… yeah. On the other side, nobody really knows where exactly do Vršovice change into Strašnice and Hostivař, but nobody gives a shit anyway, because Strašnice and Hostivař are boring as all hell."

The one thing all baedekers, city guides and tips have in common is that when talking about Vršovice, they usually only cover the upper parts, located around the central Ruská St, and generally brush off Blondie’s hole (tee hee) as a random wad of old houses, downbeat working class pubs, and football. While Mexická St, located in the upper part, lures people with places like Osteria da Clara, an authentic Tuscan restaurant, Vršovická, a central boulevard of lower Vršovice, offers little more than an unholy amount of cheap Chinese bistros.

Vršovická is the street you’ll encounter first if you go to Vršovice by tram, because that’s where the trolleys go; elsewhere around, there’s often literally no reason for a tourist to wander in. "Culturally, this hood is mostly dead. It’s a true working class district," says Longie, another local contact. "A working class district that has a few nicer streets up the hill, but that’s because they’re so close to Vinohrady," he opines, and given that Vinohrady are one of the most polished and hip-friendly residential areas in Prague right now, it’s hard to argue here.

"You cross the Moskevská St, go downhill, and it’s a whole different world down there. Cheap, horrible beer, tar pits, you get the idea."

"Hipster Vršovice vs Football Vršovice"

Botič, a small stream, is a symbol of the neighborhood — unceremonious but omnipresent. If you took a walk against the current, you’d actually see quite a lot of Vršovice’s unique genius loci. Botič flows to the quarter from the south, and under the Grébovka park (lying on a huge hill that separates Vršovice from Vinohrady), it takes a turn towards Výtoň and flows into Vltava.

Those ‘few nicer streets up the hill’ that Longie was talking about lie above Botič. Aside from Krymská and its plethora of bars and cafés, there are places like Nofech (a Mediterranean bistro), Moravská cukrárna (a pastry shop), or Miky’s Food (an Asian bistro). Actual cafés that seem like the only reason they’re not right at Krymská is that Krymská is not and endless Moebius strip of cafés include Prostě kafe, Café Jen and Café Buddha.

But just a few steps down the hill, around two main squares (Vršovické and Čechovo), the neighborhood starts to change. Keep walking, and a few minutes later, as you’ll cross over Botič and go further towards the railroad tracks, you’ll find yourself in a true urban jungle.

"Vršovice are small and packed, so everything I need, I have right at hand," says Blondie. "Around Krymská, you have your new hip venues, coffee places and such. The area around Botič is basically a Normcore Kingdom. The more south you go, the more edges appear — wilderness creeping in through the concrete, lonely parks that’ll take you to the end of the city, Soviet-era buildings from all decades sharing place with old churches and residential houses, old villas along the railway where Gypsy families live…"

It is around these places where the single most devastated road in Czechia lies; it goes through the U Seřadiště street. You’re still a few minutes by foot away from the trendsetters and influencers sipping frappacinos somewhere near Krymská, but with each step, the picture of Prague changes more and more. Lots of buildings near the railway have been abandoned and reclaimed by nature.

It’s not just dread and deadbeat romanticism for the residents, though. The more adventurous ones can always stop over at Klub Harlequin, which is an underground billiard parlor claiming to be somehow equipped for both pole dancing and family meetings. "A few meters away, young Vršovice parents have set up a chillout zone," Blondie says. "Basically a shared space on the garden to hang out together."

If the last few paragraphs still haven’t persuaded you that Vršovice are one of Prague’s finest picks for an urban field trip, consider this — a part of it is called Slatiny, and it is a bona fide slum, an authentic colony where people build DIY houses from rusty wagons, scrap wood and metal, and basically anything they find lying around. It’s never been truly legal, yet it continues to exist for almost a hundred years, because nobody really wants to destroy it. And even if they did, Slatiny would probably survive.

Back in the city, under the triumphant stature of Church of St Wenceslas looming over Čechovo náměstí, we find out that even on Saturday evening, everything is peaceful. Nobody simply goes here to party. People want to sleep during nights, and if not, the ‘party hoods’ are practically around the corner. "The only street that would fit the ‘gentrified Prague’ tag would probably be Petrohradská," muses Longie. "This is largely thanks to Ankali, aka Prague’s Berghain, aka 'come anytime, there’ll be techno'. Then you have the Kolektiv Petrohradská initiative which organizes seminars, exhibitions and such, but it’s still very ad hoc, without a clear plan and strategy."

"The story is that young artists saw an empty building, loaned it, put up a bar there, and now they’re trying to bring other people over too."

Unfortunately, when we want to go there for a beer, we find the door closed. You just have to know when to come. A quick online questionnaire proved us, however, that it’d be a good idea to try again. If there’s an exhibition inside, vernissages are usually held in midweek, and during weekends, there is a large atrium with a ping-pong table, a second bar, a grill place and a DJ booth. "It’s super cool to be there and just chill," says one frequent patron of Kolektiv. "What’s more, the people behind it really know what they are doing."

As we were leaving Petrohradská and walking towards some another pub that would hopefully be open, we met a lady walking six Pinschers on six separate leashes. Boy, the male half of our editorial staff, decided that the best thing to do would be to try to get lost in smaller side streets, and headed towards Borodinská – a tiny patch of road overlooked by the Agricola hotel. Across a row of old apartment buildings, there is a cozy restaurant called Gulliver (and also something called Sportbar Magic Planet, so that we wouldn’t forget where we actually are).

It was warm enough to sit on the beer garden, which we did, and in turn, we got to listen to elderly patrons fiercely discussing the benefits of fresh mushrooms over dried mushrooms. "Also, I was in this pub once and had some head cheese, and it was like forty CZK," one of them adds, angrily. "But, on the other hand, it was a lot of head cheese."

"You Can’t Gentrify This"

While it’s true that there’s not a lot of artsy stuff going on here, pubs are still aplenty — as a proper workers' district, Vršovice offer lots of options for local drunks, like Milá tchýně, an underground cocktail bar decorated in a fashion that could only be described as aggressive, like a crossover between a Nu-Metal album cover from the early 2000s and a random disco playing Swedish House Mafia on an infinite loop. Vakuum, a nearby ‘art café’ (because it’s not a savvy business move to officially call yourself ‘a dive bar’), suffers similarly, although at least the patrons are more on the alternative, weed-smoking, drum’n’bass-listening side.

But by far the wildest gem of the local pub scene is Panda, a small bar that both Blondie and Longie hyped up intensively: "Panda is the true Hell on Earth. People there would get completely fucking wasted before noon, so the residents sometimes have to call cops on them. When it was allowed to smoke inside pubs in CZ, you couldn’t really see in from the street, which was a generally good thing. Now you can, but it’s not a nice view."

"Yeah, Panda is great. But it’s no use for you to go there,"Blondie tells us, pointing out that we’re heading to Vršovice in the afternoon. "The peak hours are in the morning. Prime time? Right before lunch. After that, the patrons are already hammered and go home, and the bar closes early." He was right. We went there right before closing time, and it was empty.

"The homeless like to gather in front of Panda," adds Blondie. "One of them used to go to sleep to our building. Then, one time, he pissed in our corridor and smashed all the post boxes."

On the other side, there is a great little café called Moabit. With its distinctive Vinohrady feeling, it’s a favorite hotspot for expats, freelancers, artists, and other hip people that don’t necessarily equal going out with getting wasted. "No stress, vinyls, good beer," Blondie sums up. What’s best is that the place isn’t really that hyped up yet, so there’s a great chance you’ll find a place to seat even during rush hours. Also, you can meet a Portuguese guy who chats with the bartenders about Pink Floyd.

"I don’t think Vršovice will get too fancy. These tendencies sprout around Krymská, but here, under the hill… you can’t gentrify this. I live next to Bohemians Prague’s home stadium for twenty years, and almost nothing has ever changed, except that Moabit opened, so now I go to Moabit."

"Who Do You Support Tonight?"

In front of the giant Eden mall, a group of ten-year-olds chase each other, running in front of cars and trams like they’re in a video game. The mall looks bizarrely out of place there, an overly clean, colorful, bulbous dome located right in the middle of rows and rows of old-timey Soviet panel buildings. The panel blocks are arranged geometrically, right down to the next detail. This is Prague’s USSR-era museum if there is one, and the street names — Tashkent St, Amur St, Krasnoyarsk St, Turkmen St — agree.

In the nineties, local cultural scene was symbolized by Club Eden; it was a legitimately good venue, with Sugarcubes among the artists who paid it a visit. Now, the building is closed, and its decline serves as a stark reminder of early 90’s capitalism going haywire (the close presence of the Koh-i-Noor factory scarily looming over the area would be another one).

The real culture here is represented by football. Vršovice are a proud home of not one, but two of Czechia’s biggest football clubs – SK Slavia Prague and Bohemians Prague – and so the last part of our research was dedicated solely to them. Which one has more fans around here? And what happens if they play each other?

"Fans here don’t fight that much. They shout a lot, yes, but violence is rare," says Blondie. "Vršovice derby, however, is still a huge event. The whole Vršovická St closes. The rivalry between Slavia and Bohemians is very real, but it’s healthy, you know? Fans of both clubs hate Sparta passionately. Bohemians is probably the more ‘local’ club, though. Everybody here loves Bohemians. Even when they were playing in the second division, people would still support them. Their stadium, Ďolíček, is a symbol of Vršovice."

"I know people who don’t even know which league are we playing in," says Bohemák, a Bohemians fan. He swears he never fought anybody, but doesn’t judge those who do. "The hooligans are like that… so what. The rivalry with Slavia can be fierce, but it’s purely about football — we want to defeat Slavia, because then, we are the kings of Vršovice. But us Bohemians fans don’t want to beat up Slavia fans. That’s reserved for Sparta. They are the real enemies here, both for us and Slavia fans."

Slávistka, a Slavia supporter, name-drops two legendary pubs:* U Koziček* (‘At Goats’), named after the facts that there used to be a goat barn there, and Synot Bar, located right at the stadium. "Yeah, that one’s a classic. You can place bets there, watch matches, and on a match day, it’s always full," she confines. "You can even play your own music there. The atmosphere is great."

Sometimes, though, the supporters' scene is not that vanilla. The Bohemka Bar is frequently visited by cops, and fights can sometimes break out even in Synot Bar. "I witnessed a fight between two girls once. They smashed each others' faces with bottles," Slávistka recalls. "Also, during matches, cop patrol the area on horsebacks. Once I saw a cop entering the bar because his horse just wanted to go there, I guess. That was funny as fuck."

In the aforementioned Bohemka bar, the atmosphere is surprisingly calm when we walk in. No hooligans, no cops on horsebacks, just a few ageing barflies loudly singing Africa by Toto, which is, like, Jodorowsky level of bizarre.

The Toto Choir is really the only thing going on there at this hour, save for one other local guy who stared at Boy for almost twenty minutes. It felt like he wasn’t even blinking. Then we got up and walked away, but it was at this point that Boy remembered another similarly uncomfortable episode that happened a few years at Hospoda U Stadionu, a Slavia supporters' pub.

It was Derby day — not Vršovice derby, but the one with the capital D, Slavia versus Sparta. Boy and three other guys went in; two of them Slavia supporters, the other two supporting Sparta. Of course, nobody had any team colors of symbols anywhere, but that didn’t stop the waiter from checking: “Four beers, please.” “Sure. And who do you support tonight?” “Umm… fifty fifty.” "Okay. So, two beers for you two. And you two get the fuck out of here."

The best part about Vršovice is that all this — all of the things mentioned in this article — are so tucked together. Start uphill and Krymská, walk alongside Botič all the way to Eden, and it will take you about half an hour. On foot. That’s basically three cities in one: the first one is modern a trendy, the second one abandoned and wild, and the third one full of workers and football supporters drinking cheap beer in deadbeat pubs.

And it won’t change. There’s no reason for it. Vršovice are perfect the way they are – in their own, unique fashion.

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