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The Ingenious Anarchy of Nightlife in Smíchov

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek

The etymology of some neighborhoods' names in Prague can be funny sometimes. Take ‘Palmovka’, which literally means ‘A Place of Palm Trees’ but looks more like a Junkie Hobbiton, some sort of a Soviet junkyard where the sun never shines. It might be the single biggest misnomer in the history of language, apart from that indie band called Girls where there are no girls.

Smíchov is another example of this. If you translated it, you’d get something like ‘A Place of Laughter’, ‘A Laughter Town’. You know, a place where daisies grow, buildings are inhabited with hippie tofu people, and everybody walks around barefoot to the ever-repeating selection of Bob Marley tunes. But then, there’s the reality.

If you dispatch at Anděl metro station, the first thing you might see are swaths of Peruvian-style flute bands (you know, like in that South Park episode that had giant bloodthirsty guinea pigs in it). They certainly look like they are constantly in a good mood. On the other hand, you have people like our friend, a young musician, who spent his first years in Prague tucked in a microscopic studio apartment and swears he once met a guy waving a gun on the street, in broad daylight. Prague is not supposed to look like a Detroit cliché.

Smíchov, as defined by this article, is bordered by two main points: there’s the Na Knížecí bus station on one side (the area behind we’ve already covered in this article about MeetFactory), and Vítězná st on the other (further north lies Újezd and the Lesser Town, covered here). If you enter Smíchov through the second border, your first recommended stop would be V Sedmém nebi, a café slash cocktail bar for somewhat upper middle class people locked in that sweet spot between punk and fancy.

That’s our Boy’s opinion, anyway; Girl, the other half of our editorial unit, associates Sedmý Nebe with much grimmer memories, such as a date turned disastrous on account of sitting next to the toilets and listening to jokes that wouldn’t know fun if it bludgeoned them over the head. "We drank two glasses of white wine, each," she recalls. "I paid for mine. It was… well… let’s say I wouldn’t recommend it to you unless your wine standards were lower than a Dutch basement."

She adds that for her, a smarter choice would be Kavárna 3+1, located nearby, with its homey atmosphere and a cozy back room that seems custom-built for epic, hours-long German board game quests. (That’s not a metaphor; that’s a thing she did there, along with some of her equally challenged classmates.)

"Or, or, there’s Café Lounge right next door," she says, adding that you could easily cram the two places into a single evening. "We ended there after we got cravings for some food more upscale than 3+1’s pickled Camembert. During the Christmas season, we would go there early and stay for the whole day, ordering breakfast, then some delicious coffee, then lunch, then desserts, then dinner, and, of course, copious amount of alcohol during all that. Their menu is perfect, and they have this beautiful little beer garden tucked inside."

Lately, lots of Prague’s hipper hoods became infested with meticulously designed, minimalist cafés — you know, those with spartan furniture nobody can even sit on comfortably, flowers and gluten-free muffins on display, and a bar stocked with only the finest Guatemalan coffees or whatever. With Smíchov, this is not the case; the cafés here look generally more, well, pub-like. Take the nonchalantly anarchistic ethos of Jarda Mayer, a cult-ish place among locals that’s definitely worth a visit.

Out editors thought that too; that’s why they agreed to meet up there. Alas, Boy’s unique talent of getting lost even at the slightest hint of a turn caused him to end up at Jamajka, a dive bar across the street. In front of the door, there was a group of Dutch punks hauling gear into a disproportionally brightly white Suzuki van, and a chain-smoking lady yearning for the days when it was legal to smoke inside pubs in Czechia. "Is this what I’ll have to do the whole winter? Go outside to smoke? Fuck that, I’ll be permanently cold!"

"Oh my god, where are you," writes Boy to Girl who, meanwhile, fights with the cold by drinking liters of ginger tea over at Jarda Mayer. "There’s a plaque that reads ‘BREWERY NYMBURK FOUNDED 1895 JAMAICA’ and it confuses me. What was founded in 1895?! The pub, the brewery, or Jamaica?!? Help!"

"Stop being dumb and come over to Jarda Mayer, it’s great in here," she writes in return, and so the Boy goes. We have scheduled a meeting with our local Contact there. It didn’t go smoothly — at first, we called him and got an answering machine. In 2017. For he’s a trailblazer, the ultimate hipster, a man who’s so retro that he’s gradually sliding back in time.

The Elite Children, Vegans, and Those Who Remember

Smíchov is an old industrial quarter. Between 19th and 20th century — it was a city on its own back then — its ethos was formed by the looming shadows of three big factories: Righoffer’s Wagon Works, the Staropramen Brewery, and the engine factory at Radlická. During the past hundred years, much has changed, but the notion prevails: Smíchov remains, at its core, a working man’s hood.

It’s evident by the way the streets are arranged: three big, parallel boulevards (Nádražní, Radlická, Zborovská), and a few other streets running between them in right angles. Only the focal point of attention have shifted elsewehere, to the monstrous Anděl metro station, overshadowed by the Nový Smíchov shopping mall.

"Also, you could call it Prague’s Little France," says one of the local girls we interviewed. "Mainly because there’s a lyceum at Drtinova — suitable for kids of all ages, it’s a place where rich people dump their privileged kids to run around and make noise."

People working in offices at the very same street (Prague’s branch of Impact Hub is located there) can heartily attest to that, as the noise from the lyceum’s building blasts their windows with a ferocious intensity of a thousand Rammstein songs. Good thing there’s a nice little park tucked above the street; it’s not easy to find, but once you do, you’re rewarded with a nice look over the whole borough.

"But culturally-wise, Smíchov is awesome," adds Petr, another interviewee. "Not that there’d be a lot of places, but everybody can pick their favorite. Punks, metalheads and the sort have Futurum Music Bar, which is a legendary place, much better than LMB." (Our Girl clarifies that Futurum is, in fact, a multi-genre club, and a suitable option for electronic music fans as well.)

"During the eighties and the nineties, there were legendary video parties being held. Some people still remember that — the old-timey disco, the comfort of having music tuned to just the right volume because there’s no live band present — and will occasionally come on Friday nights, only to be bewildered by the sight of a Canadian post-rock quintet."

"Apart from that, you have Švandovo divadlo, a theater that’s neither too fancy nor overly ‘experimental’, so anyone can pick a play and enjoy it. They do their own stuff, too. MeetFactory is a classic… then there’s Radlická kulturní sportovna, on the riverside you have Loď Tajemství bratří Formanů, and so on. Good thing was that the Fluff Fest crew decided to open Eternia there."

Underdogs' Ballroom & Bar might be the single most progressively curated venue in Prague. For people wearing cigarette-thin jeans, tattoos and earplugs, there’s really no other choice." We add that this applies for others, too; there’s post-rock, industrial noise, EBM, and all sorts of ‘dark’ genres going on, and the performers are selected so carefully you’ll even forgive the owners that half of the restrooms don’t have doors. Even defecating can be a social activity in Smíchov.

A Blood Sausage Story

When our Contact enters Jarda Mayer, he’s childishly happy with his answering machine prank, and as Vypsaná Fixa — a Czech rock band that everyone listened to when they were in high school — blasts from the speakers, he tries to flirt with the bartender using a technique nobody else have thought of in the history of flirting. "Miss! Miss, are you working here?" he asks her, while she’s waiting tables and generally working there. "I was saying to myself: Why does a nice girl like you just randomly run around the restaurant?"

"That’s gotta be the most creative pick-up line ever," snaps our Girl, "but it won’t be much effective. You should try something less… dumb." Contact excuses himself, adding that he’s already hammered as all hell. It’s 6 PM.

As hunger starts to creep in, Boy is eager to tell everyone that one of Smíchov’s best qualities is the abundance of vegan bistros – like Pastva or Jídelna Kuchařek bez domova, a social project that employs homeless women. But since everybody else favors dead animals on their tables, a democratic vote is held, and by two votes against one, we head off to Marjánka, a post-Communist diner characterized by the overwhelming stench of Maggi (a cheap soup flavoring from the Soviet era).

The ceiling is rich with paintings of Heaven (for some reason); it’s Girl who points that out, while simultaneously devouring a plate of goulash. Contact wanted a meat loaf, but since he was already ‘hammered as all hell’, he mistook it for a blood sausage, and it saddened him.

From this point, we have three options: 1) Coming Soon, apparently the only ‘nice’ cocktail place around here. 2) A sightseeing tour around the Synagogue at Anděl and the legendary tattoo parlor called Tribo, ended with a nice coffee and drinks at Kavárna, co hledá jméno. But, given the combination of blood sausages, goulash, and Contact’s sobriety level, the only real choice is to just wander around aimlessly and jump in the first pub we see.

The Chronicles of Chaos

"Smíchov was always a rough place," says Andrea, a local girl who grew up in Smíchov. "Scary buildings, half-empty ruins, evil children… and a lady throwing food scraps from her window directly on the sidewalk. A weird local driving school owned by a guy who helped his students pass. Gypsies living in decaying buildings on Zubatého street… the buildings underwent reconstruction since, I wonder where the people have gone."

Andrea talks of the time where there was no shopping mall, no vegan bistros or cafés; the main attraction was a huge Vietnamese market down at Arbesovo square. At Kinského square, a big new fountain was built to great acclaim. The reason? It overshadowed all the nearby trees. Which, as Andrea explains, wasn’t exactly a shrewd idea.

"A week or so after the fountain was unveiled, somebody put detergent in the water," she recalls. "It was so messy that the whole square got covered with three meters high, thick white cream. Great job, guys! It’s happened several times since, too."

"But the best memory about Kinského square must be that old Chinese restaurant. The meals aren’t bad, but when you don’t like, you get a visit from the owner. She’ll put a fork in your food, taste it, tell you that it’s good and therefore you aren’t entitled to a refund, and walk away."Keep classy, Smíchov.

Another of Andrea’s memories is twinned with Punto Azul – and other respondents agree. "Oh yeah, Punto Azul. Eighties incarnated. Or Phenomen, where they used to play the worst socialist-era eurodance shit imaginable. The place was infested with gold-diggers, jocks in polo shirts, and regularly insane bouncers. Then you have DogsBollocks, which looks like a pub, but every Friday night, it shape-shifts into a disco haven for underage kids who are too young to have a taste in music, so you can blast them with Avicii, Bon Jovi, and everything in between, and they won’t flee. You get the idea."

A Striptease That Never Was

Since it’s too chilly now to enjoy a nice beer garden over at Beer Time, and since Knoflík is a staple everybody knows well (if you don’t, we recommend you go there — it’s a classic dive bar with a great atmosphere), Contact suggests we ‘stop being picky’ and go to a non-stop bar. Preferably the one right there at Anděl, called “Nonstop”. Very well then.

The place is long and narrow, like a corridor leading to some dude’s living room, and the waiter doesn’t know what a ‘small beer’ is. There is a guy sitting right at the door, watching a show on his tablet, and as we sit down, we reckon a women’s volleyball match is being broadcast on a large TV. Toilets are locked, because 'the junkies would otherwise go there', but when we try, the locks don’t work.

"Look, some people just won’t attract you. I mean… you know, sexually. You don’t like their smell. And you won’t sleep with them, unless you’re drunk. Or a conceptual artist," muses Contact, still hammered as all hell.

The next non-stop bar is called Netopýr (‘A Bat’), and we go there on purpose. Local people recommend the place because there are go-go poles connecting the bar with the ceiling, and several people we asked recalled there were girls dancing there. "Yay, a striptease!" shouts Contact, joyously. "Last time I was there, a guy was complaining to his friend that his wife wouldn’t let him go there. After a brief argument, she agreed, but she took his glasses. Poor sap."

"But the poles are so small," says Girl, truthfully, after we enter the pub. "Who’s dancing here? Children? Little people?" Not only that, but the clientele looks surprisingly normal – groups of guys hanging out, girls gossiping over a cocktail, and it even looks like somebody’s having a date there. We reckon that mostly it’s just people waiting for the bus home, since the Na Knížecí bus station is right around the corner.

"Well, it surely is warm here, but they don’t have VLT machines. We are going someplace with VLT machines," decides Contact in a mighty voice of a true midnight beer warrior. And he proceeds to text his Swiss friends that that non-stop bar they’ve once been to isn’t so cool anymore. Then, he heroically concludes that our presence must be felt, and decides to go to the jukebox and swap the generic hard rock with some Roxette.

But he can’t do that. Over next minutes, we hear Queen, R.E.M’s Losing My Religion, Scooter (!), and finally, some atrocious Punjabi disco."You might have two PHDs," says Girl, patronizingly, "but you’re not even able to put Roxette into a fucking jukebox."

And thus our journey ends at Plzeňská, a street that Contact calls 'the last of Prague’s ghettos'. We get off at the Bertramka tram station and our aim is clear: find a pub, go there, and stay inconspicuous. Luckily, there’s one right there 'cross the street: Pyramida.

Contact, who’s just running wild with it at this moment, spends his first two minutes there by checking whether he could smoke inside (he could not) and whether there are VLT machines (there are, but they only accept banknotes). Armed with this information, he turns to Boy and asks for a 200 CZK note to borrow.

"I only have 500, which is too much," he says. Both guys then jump straight into an academic discussion about Game theory, abstract goods, and Nash equilibrium. "You give me 200, I win, take the 200 back, and leave everything else to you," says Contact. "Yeah but if you lose, you’d break even and I’d have lost 200," says Boy. This goes on for several minutes without any significant semantic development.

Meanwhile, Girl texts her Polish friend: "Please come here. I can’t take this anymore. Come meet us in a bizarre pub." Her friend replies: "Is that the pub’s name? Bizarre?" Might as well be.

"I think that Smíchov has took a turn for the better," says Andrea. "It’s generally safer, nicer, much less scary. Some might yearn for the old Yugoslavian video rental stores and decaying buildings everywhere, but it’s definitely more pleasant now. When I was a child, I found it exciting — like living in a Mark Twain novel. But I still wouldn’t go past Anděl. I was afraid. Now, I know I wouldn’t be."

Our evening ends when Girl decides to ditch the rest of the crew and head for Futurum; there’s a Czech industrial band playing tonight, and her Polish friend will meet her there. The guys leave as well. "You know, at some level, I always feared Smíchov," says Boy. "But it’s a neighborhood like any other, if a little rougher. At least it doesn’t pretend it’s something while it’s not." Contact agrees: "Yeah. Let’s go out here sometime soon."

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