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The Rugged History and Present of Pankrác

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek

There is a rather simple way to divide Prague’s quarters into three groups. The key? Imagine your average Friday evening — there are hoods where you’d party, then there are those where you’d go to sleep, and then, finally, those located in between, connecting the first two. They are often noisy and hectic, seemingly without structure, and subject to constant change. Take Pankrác, for example: Just during the last century, it has gone through more changes that entire cities see in their whole history.

Pankrác is a part of Prague’s 4th district. It starts at Vyšehrad, up there on the hill, and goes all the way down to Kavčí Hory. The area itself is actually not that large, but Pankrác more than makes up for it in its stately, leonine aesthetics — there’s a famous castle, several skyscrapers, lots of glass everywhere, Prague’s majestic Congress center, and, oh, a towering, infamous maximum security prison. And it’s all bisected by a ginormous roadway.

When you first enter Pankrác, you’ll almost immediately realize one ubiquitous detail: As the area is generally flat, spacious, and elevated higher than its surrounding parts, it can get seriously windy up here. "Oh yeah, that’s normal," muses A, a proud local resident whose family has been living here for generations, while we struggle with the piercing windchill and Boy (our editor) must forget about his commitment to a questionable fashion sense and hold his trucker hat all the time like a dumbass.

The Vyšehrad metro station, situated on the C (red) line, is located above ground, which is rare in Prague; on one side, it’s bordered by Nusle’s famous eponymous ‘suicide bridge’ that overlooks the rugged neighborhood. But here, up on the hill, glass and metal reign supreme. Pankrác has a strategically important position, connecting Prague’s center with the southern outskirts — hence the roadway, marked by not one, but three metro stations: Vyšehrad, Pražského povstání, and Pankrác (a focal point of Pankrác proper).

In fact, Vyšehrad is a separate quarter itself, whereas Pankrác overlaps with Nusle and Krč and… you know what, it doesn’t matter. These things seldom make sense in Prague. And nobody living there really doesn’t give two fucks about it.

The roadway is such a large presence that you’re really never too far from the nearest car — you can’t hide from the noise, even while sitting in a local park. That’s right: Pankrác has a soundtrack. It hums, constantly. Wind 24/7 + cars 24/7 = (insert result here).

For visitors, it feels like constantly sitting on a train. For locals, it’s not even a nuisance — it’s a constant of life. There are far more interesting things here than noise, they’d tell you; things like Centrotex, a truly massive Brutalist building from the sixties, looming over the central square called Náměstí Hrdinů. Czech Ministry of the Interior is currently located there.

"The building is awesome! Truly colossal. Like a Soviet castle," admits A. It makes sense — given that A plays in an industrial-noise band, likes experimental theater, studies to be a film director, and nobody has ever seen him in clothes lighter than Harvey Weinstein’s soul.

"Local pubs are for barflies“

Our first stop is U Smrťáka, a pub located next to the Vyšehrad metro station. It’s close enough to the city center that it actually looks already gentrified — it wouldn’t feel out of place in, say, Holešovice or Karlín. Years ago, it was a typical Czech pub / dive bar; the original name was different, but people always called it U Smrťáka ('At Death’s'), so the nickname stuck after reconstruction. A pretty cool nickname, too, if you ask us.

"Pankrác feels like an encyclopedia of architecture during the last sixty years," says A, as we order beer — which, apparently, is not standard here (rum and coke is). "It looks like SimCity. New buildings spring up, but the old ones aren’t going anywhere."

"The skyscrapers are full of offices. Lots of people work here — that’s why you’ll be lucky to even find a parking space. The Congress Centre, well… I don’t go there. Why should I? It’s a place for big fairs, high school proms, Dita von Teese, these kinds of things… like, I know it exists, I know it looks kinda cool, but it’s not like you’d go in to just hang out there. Moreover, I’m pretty sure the place is haunted by ghouls of the Seventies. Or, sometimes, Evanescence."

Pankrác is not an expensive place to live. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, while the neighboring Nusle have already started feeling the thorn of gentrification, nobody really rushes to live here. Social movement is almost nonexistent, and rents stay roughly the same because most of the flats are being held by people who’ve lived there for a long time. "You just couldn’t make this place a new Krymská or something," compares A. "Or maybe you could, but it’d take you forever."

"Most of the pubs, and hangout places in general, cater to their own clientele — and that’s middle aged people who like comfort and things that don’t change. I’ve actually talked about this with my uncle, and he replied: 'What are you talking about? There’s tons of pubs!' Well, he’s 55 years old. That’s exactly the thing I’m talking about."

"Another thing is that wherever a new place pops up — a place ideal for, say, a café, a little shop, or something like that — it gets immediately swept up by some shit like Security Doors Showroom. God dammit. Really? What the fuck am I gonna do with security doors when I’m hungry? I don’t WANT to go to Tesco every time I want a yogurt, but what other options are there? None, that’s it. How could some hip young place even survive here?"

Thanks to this attitude, cultural options are scarce around here. Sure, Café Na půl cesty is an ingenious place — a vegan café / gig venue in the middle of a park that specializes on HC and DIY scene — but that’s pretty niche. There are no theaters at Pankrác, and although you could call the Congress Center an important part of Prague’s culture, it rarely affects day-to-day life.

"Look, there’s still Madona. That’s a bizarre discotheque that’s equal parts ingenious and deeply unsettling," says A, proudly. "On the surface, it can feel like some EDM bar in the Old Town, but this pretend poshness gets mixed up with a distinctively 2001 trashy Euro-dance vibe."

"Last year, me and my friend got drunk there on my birthday, and it felt almost like going on a vacation. Bartenders in white shirts, gigantic bonehead bouncers, happy hours… and countless super-drunk 40-year-old ladies that want to dance, cuddle, or dance and cuddle at the same time. One of them hit my friend by accident and started to apologize — Dear God, I’m so sorry! Then, she softly caressed his cheek, kissed him gently, and pressed her boobs against him. The bar is open till, like, four in the morning."

The central park where Café Na půl cesty is located is a great place for walks and chilling out — and also the only one around here. There’s a small park pressed against the prison walls, but… yeah.

"We go to Na půl cesty all the time. During summers, it’s perfect to just relax outside with a beer. There’s also Vyšehrad, of course, and the castle itself is cool as well, but you have climb your way up. The viewings are great, but not for free," says A. "On top of Vyšehrad, there are some summer restaurants where you can enjoy the views. There’s cultural programme as well — but only during the season. Between October and April, you really don’t need to visit Vyšehrad, because why? To look how grey the city is?"

"Okay, Kytary.cz have a central shop and warehouse located here, at the Pražského povstání station. That’s a strong attraction to some," he adds. (Kytary.cz is Czech Republic’s biggest re-seller of musical instruments of any kind.)

So far we’ve learnt that Pankrác is not very green — that though doesn’t mean that people would have trouble walking their dogs. Because there’s a shit ton of dogs. "Just here, at this corner, I’ve recently met an androgynous person with a little doggo, and they told me a strangely transcendental story about how the doggo found him spiritually. It was all very… astral," recalls A, and the tone of his voice is so blatantly unexcited we realize running into weird people is the norm here.

"Oh yeah, it is. In our building, there’s a Russian guy who once decided to light up a spliff that was thicker than my thigh. He was thoughtful enough to go to the balcony, but forgot to close the doors behind him, so… yeah. The whole building smelled like weed, instantly."

If you focus on these glitches of random weirdness, Pankrác will soon start to appear like a badly render reality in an indie video game — everything’s normal at the first glance, but you still got the feeling that something off lurks just beneath the surface. Case in point: A once found out that an apartment in his building is actually a brothel, or that there’s a porn studio in the basement, or that a guy nicknamed Green Scum, a famous figure in the local punk scene, sometimes walks the streets with an Iggy Pop tee and a small pink stroller for Barbie dolls.

By the way, Green Scum is a frequent patron of Red Hook, probably the most famous Pankrác pub for alternative / underground people. It’s officially a Mexican restaurant, but the reality feels more like a niche dive bar that also serves Mexican food. People will come in to drink themselves to oblivion, and if the mood strikes, they can always get some quesadillas and fajitas (or "mustard gnocchi", which sounds threatening). Red Hook is not visible from the main street, but that only adds to its swag.

But before you get too excited, keep in mind that Red Hook is still a pub at Pankrác — which means it doesn’t react too excitedly to people who aren’t patrons. "When I was here the first time, the waitress threw me out," A remembers. "She said the table was reserved. It was clearly not, but I got the hint. Krušovická chalupa, a restaurant located right around the corner, is friendlier, and it offers a radically different vibe: a huge, wooden, cabin-like space, where they only play country music, booze is cheap and all the patrons are senior citizens who sometimes get drunk and dance."

(Side note: We’ve just now realized that Pankrác sounds almost exactly like ‘Punk rats’.)

"Barbwire fences everywhere"

Our other editor, Girl, prides herself over being able to find something positive on everything. It is her superpower. Thus, she rushes to share her Pankrác experiences with a joyous glee — there’s a great big swimming pool on top of the luxurious Hotel Corinthia (with a terrific view over half of Prague), some nice houses at Kavčí Hory, and a few cubist villas under Vyšehrad. Actually, this is a huge part of what Pankrác really is about — high-end luxury mixed with some post-Socialist depression, but the two worlds don’t interact with each other. They just exist, side by side.

Thus, there’s a cartoonishly pompous restaurant called Vyšehradský kandelábr which comprises almost only of gold and glass (but no customers), and right next to it, a filthy-looking apartment building from the fifties, housing a little Chinese bistro that looks like it shoots salmonella randomly across the street.

"Just make a quick three sixty. It’ll feel like you’ve just visited Hong Kong, a village in Armenia, and all over again," shrugs A. As we stroll down the Na Pankráci St, a central boulevard connecting Vyšehrad with Arkády (a big mall), he points to one building after another, laying down precisely what he talks about: "That’s a café that looks like it sells door handles or some other random shit. That’s a place where you can get your nail done. That’s… a food place, if you want to call it that. Over there, they used to sell fish, but now it looks like everybody’s died there."

"Oh, but the best one is the Original German Drugstore. Some people apparently need their drugs German," he summarizes; Girl, ever the encyclopedia of randomly weird (read: the only kind of useful) trivia, adds that "legends say German detergents are better, as they tend to have more manganese in them." Well alright then.

The aforementioned Náměstí Hrdinů is mostly a huge crossroad. Apart from Centrotex, there’s a monument of Milada Horáková, a famous Czech anti-Stalinist, feminist activist and 20th century martyr. The Supreme Court is located fittingly right next to it. That’s about it… if you don’t count the monolithic glass skyscrapers that surround the place, like hi-tech hutches for corporate rabbits.

"I see them from my window," says A. "I see all the managers, puffing away during their smoke breaks on those shiny balconies, visibly sad that this is their life now, possibly forever. Then, they realize how much dough they’re making, and hop back in. And I just stand on my balcony, hungover, wearing nothing but boxers, and hazily remember how there used to be a park there. I yearn for the times when you couldn’t be half-murdered by a heatwave radiating from a soulless glass capitalistic behemoth."

He lets out a sigh, and continues: "This here is a College of Creative Communication. See that kebab stand? That’s where the corporate Sims feed. This shop used to sell clothes… now, it sells hard liquor. And, finally, this is our house. My grandpa saw people hanging the Germans after WWII from our window. Twenty three years later, my grandma watched the first Soviet tank from there."

These two memories that brutally summarize the darkest parts of 20th century in former Czechoslovakia are not unique to A’s grandparents, but they are somewhat unique to Pankrác — a neighborhood that, during those times, bled more than any other. "The fifties were the era of the worst crimes, and most of them happened here," adds A, and his face turns grim.

"At Kavčí Hory — at the place where the Czech National TV now has its HQ — there used to be an execution site. For centuries. Pankrác is a bloody place. My dad told me that they used to hang Soviet flags from our facade when Brezhnev was in town — the flagpoles are still there, untouched. My great-great-grandparents survived the war hidden in our basement. Shootings were commonplace. The Red Army once shot through our window."

Central to this legacy is, of course, the Pankrác Prison. You can’t see inside, but you know it’s there. Barbed wire doesn’t lie. And the prison lies right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, emanating an ominous, almost creepy feeling. This is a place where Milada Horáková – and countless other heroes — were wrongfully executed; the Nazis even had a guillotine inside. And a few meters away, right across the street, there’s U Klokočníka, a great local hipster pub with a cool beer garden…

You can drink beer in a cool hip Pankrác pub while technically sitting just a few dozen meters away from a convinced murder.

"Ah, you’ll get used to it," says A. "I had a friend who lived right next to the prison, and she thought none of it. Her boyfriend thought she was crazy… but he was not from around here. We just don’t think about it. But it’s true that when you look at the walls for a while, a weird feeling starts to creep in. There’s barbwire fences everywhere. You know exactly what this place is, and at that moment, you realize that it’s not going away. You just have to learn to live with it."

"I like willies"

You can also grab a bite with your beer at U Klokočníka – Boy recommend a great potato pancake with pickled carrots and dill (which costs only 70 CZK). Sadly, that’s about it for the culinary experience. Kebab houses and Indian bistros are cool, but uniform. Pankrác is not a renowned haute cuisine hotspot, is what we are saying.

Pub culture is more lively, although it can at times remind some bizarre tribal society — there are people who go to U Smrťáka, those who go to Na Květnici, those who go to Palouček, and so on. These patrons rarely venture elsewhere. Right next to the prison, there’s a dive bar called Za vozovnou – legends say that this is the first stop for felons when they get out. It certainly does look like nobody asks questions there.

The last stop is Pankrác’s monumental ‘sídliště’ – a residential housing area consisting mainly of panel buildings. It was finished in 1963; by that time, it held the title of Prague’s biggest ‘sídliště’. While that not might be true anymore, it still looks impressive, with old buildings merging with new skyscrapers. Realtors say that this area is particularly popular with rich Asians, as the skyline reminds them of their home cities. There’s even a fancy-ish restaurant named Peking (Beijing) that serves eel for 500 CZK, so… go figure.

As the sun sets, the view over Pankrác’s glassy panorama looks impressive. But underneath it, the gloss quickly withers away. A has a plan — he wants to show us a ‘bizarre dive bar’ where he once encountered a table full of drunk blind men who didn’t know where the toilet was. How symptomatic!

The pub, located in a typical one-story service building that litter every ‘sídliště’ built during the Soviet era, is called Olympie. "How very Antique!" shouts A. "Wait till you go to the toilet."

We didn’t plan it that way, but as soon as we entered, the waitress started her topless happy hour (yeah, that’s a thing in some Czech pubs — waitresses will serve you literally topless). A local middle-aged man approaches us, asking for a lighter… and from then on, the situation slowly evolves into a three-hour rant that started with the phrase "I like willies" and ended with a frustratingly incoherent, psychedelic story about him being a war hero who was forced to drag some communists through some woods, and the communists shitted themselves, and, oh, the guy also trained sixteen horses in a circus.

Thoroughly smitten by this grotesque display of narrative deconstructivism, we opt to start drinking Becherovka (a Czech herb liquor), which, as it turns out, is not a good idea. The place slowly fills with middle managers who have just managed to escape their corporate cubicle hellholes — finally free, they started taking turns sipping tequilas from the waitress' breasts.

"I am here to write an article," says Boy to the war hero / horse trainer / willies guy. "An article about life on Pankrác.""Well… wait… dude, this is Pankrác!" the guy shouts back. "I know, and that’s why I need to know things. Could you tell me something about this place?"

"You’re joking, right? Don’t make fun of me," is the final answer, followed by a barrage of stories about machine guns and how to tame a bear.

The last few sentences we have later found on our recording went down like this:

"I really like Becherovka. Even on Mondays!"

"I do too. I’ll feel like shit tomorrow, but I can manage."

Tuesday morning, Boy had to call in sick and admit that he needs a home office. Because he didn’t manage. And that’s how, ladies and gentlemen, a truly INTENSE neighborhood looks like.

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