To define where the center of Prague begins and ends is a thankless task. No matter what opinion you land on, there’s always gonna be somebody deeply offended, because the coolest parts of cities always end just around the corner from where I’M living, god dammit! Nevertheless, the popular opinion on Lesser Town could be described as 'that part of Prague that is inhabited almost solely by tourists, and instead of residential homes, there are bars and hotels and brothels and obscure museums and gift shops that run seven stories up.
Which is precisely why the Lesser Town – or Malá Strana in Czech — stands out so much. The historical neighborhood is cornered by such wretched hives of scum and villainy, yet still remains untouched by the ethos, somehow. The Lesser Town is a serene quarter, far removed from the hectic vibe of untamed capitalism. It feels almost like a village, despite sitting literally in the middle of Prague’s city center. A village inhabited by real people.
Our Contact is a Lesser Town native, born and raised. That is not an uncommon scenario: lots of locals have extremely strong feelings for the neighborhood, a shared sentiment the roots of which we try to uncover. Our idea is that schoolchildren in Czechia get blasted by Jan Neruda all the time; the novelist, a firm part of the nation’s literary heritage, was a famous local icon, firmly ingraining the notion of Lesser Town as a romantic, old-timey haven within his work. Couldn’t it be that young kids therefore see being raised here as an automatic privilege? Contact agrees, to some extent, but adds: “The theory is sound. However, the main reason lies elsewhere.” He rises up, throwing his arms around. "Look at this place. It’s marvellous."
And he continues to show us Prague’s best grocery shop, Prague's best flowery, and, in an admirably sharp attempt on modesty, adds that the butcher is located over there on Smíchov, though. The Girl, who joins us later because she’s traveling from Brno, ironically urged the Boy to wear something nice, because Contact comes from an elite background. That might be true, but he still insists on doing some shots first. In the middle of the day. Superb.
Culturally, the main center of Lesser Town is the town square, where two important scenes are located. The first one is A Studio Rubín, an ingenious combination of an underground pub, a café and a theater / gig venue for some 60-100 people. Then, you have Malostranská beseda – a fancier place, but not too much. We recommend both of them, if only for the fact that you can actually see some great shows there, and at Rubín, shitfaced actors like to gather afterwards. They’re the kind of people theoretical physicists should be studying in their spare time. How is somebody not able to walk, or talk, or stand straight, yet still doesn’t spill any of the eight vodka shots balancing on their arm, is beyond the laws of nature. Moreover, you won’t get cell reception there, so if you wanted to isolate yourself from the enigmatic chaos of the Outer World, Rubín is awaiting you.
During summer season, the focus used to shift to Containall, a cozy pop-up place located on the Vltava riverbank, right under Charles' Bridge. The view there is so romantic it makes cynical people puke. (But don’t worry, the main programme with alternative-techno-whatever themed parties, outdoor projections and exhibitions was moved to their second location at Stalin or Hybernská, so the place only opens temporarily for exhibitions etc.) For Contact, however, those places are too mainstream. "Containall? Meh. Everybody knows Containall. But did you know you can get sandwiches at the hospital diner (Nemocnice pod Petřínem) and eat them right there in the garden? You did not, did you? Ha!"
We thought long and hard about how to divide this article — should we split Lesser Town to separate boroughs? Or should we cover the pub life, the cafés and those irritatingly cute hangout spots for teenage lovers separately? At last, we end up employing the Nusle Method – we’d just go where the wind (and Contact) take us and arrange the article chronologically. Given that we had our first shots at around 5 PM (see: Contact, above), it’s the least obtrusive strategy of them all.
Stories from the Hill (and Right Under)
At Petřín Hill, it’s hard to successfully navigate between all of the tourist traps designed as places to stop for a beer or two. Thankfully, Contact has infinite knowledge of all things Lesser Town: instead of hanging out with the tourists, he comes to the hill to pick up fruit. While other city parks in Prague are often known for their leniency towards littering, Petřín Hill is surprisingly clean. But while the ubiquitous lack of dog shit warrants mention, Contact wants to drink, and we do too. Cue Bistro Nebozízek.
The stylishness of the place is overwhelming. The casual swagger of its beer garden can be matched only by the level of linguistic creativity put into its English menu: “párky”, which means “sausages”, is translated as “pairs”, because it sound kinda similar, so why bother. It’s a genuine piece of art. We haven’t seen such many fonts since the heyday of roadside billboards, advertising tires in 1995. Why, you can buy dog food right there at the stand! It’s almost like if this place stepped out of a time capsule. Case in point: if you order food (which is a thing you can do, if you don’t mind your french fries and potato pancakes swimming in oil old enough to remember literal dinosaurs), the cashier will send you back to your table and then yell all over the place when your order is ready, cementing the notion of Lesser Town as ‘The Place Where Cashiers Behave Like Carnies’. Seriously, if you’re still hesitating to visit, you must have no soul.
On our way to Újezd, where we are scheduled to meet Girl, we pass by the Tyrš house and Museum of Music and end up having a cold one at Klub Újezd (too soon — this place livens up as the evening progresses; it’s not uncommon to stumble upon scores of punkers at around midnight. Upscale punkers, that is; the deadbeat ones drink something cheaper than Budvar for 40 CZK.)
Újezd is a short, yet vibrant street located right under the Petřín Hill; besides Klub Újezd, you can always go to Vedle (a nice café), Popocafepetl (ditto), or Cantina (a Mexican restaurant). Unfortunately, the once great Café Shadow (which, despite its name, was a dive bar) is closed now. Want cigarettes along with your drink? Consider Dobrá Trafika, a spot that looks like a tobacconist, up until you notice the back room where the bar is.
"The bad thing about Lesser Town is that you don’t get meals after 10 PM. Well, you have Burrito Loco at Újezd, but that’s about it, unless you’re okay with McDonald’s. Which I am not. Even stoned," Contact opines, knowingly. "And it’s not only about food, too. Generally, the nightlife here is lacking. Tourists come and go, they’d buy shit during the day and go drink elsewhere."
Our next stop is Kampa, a famous riverside park that dabbles as a well-known hippie hanging spot. Another guy joins us from then on; he is the Local Guru, a honest-to-God Lesser Town hermit who prides himself over knowing lots of local girls, if you know what we are talking about, nudge nudge wink wink.
As our trip carries on, we detour: places like Lennon’s Wall and Kampa Museum (sprinkled with those black Lucifer baby abominations, courtesy of the conceptual artist David Černý) would surely be packed. We don’t want that. What we do want is a somewhat hidden community center located right there in the Kampa park, a place where you can buy beer for any price you want. What’s strange is that the ever-present Kampa hippies haven’t flocked the place yet. We guess they’re too occupied by their aggressively atonal bongo jams.
"You know what’s great? When a charity is also a beer," Girl says, truthfully. "This is the future of marketing. Just add beer, and everything else will follow."
The Village of the Year Award is Underway… and We Have a Tip
Officially, the city parts of Lesser Town and Smíchov divide at Vítězná st, where trams go. For Contact, this is rather arbitrary. "When they closed that non-stop junk food place, Vítězná stopped being a part of Lesser Town for me," he muses. On the right side of the street, obscure places emerge — like the café / laundry Bottega, where it’s open only after lunch, or the street vendor under the bridge, where some street thug dances amusingly, holding a speaker in each hand for maximum effect. And then, you have the forgotten cafés, staying hidden from common sight: places like Roesel, where you can get a great pickled camembert, if you don’t mind it being called by silly Czech colloquialisms that don’t exist outside Roesel.
Within the same category falls Café Club Míšeňská, a rare sight among Prague’s cafés: the outside sitting there not only has power sockets, but also a library. When we ordered some soup, a juvenile pair of lovers were doing their song and dance next to us: the girl, doing her best Lolita impression, stared longingly at the boy, presumably a local high school heartthrob, who we assume was hiding an iPod in his pocket the whole time, and that iPod was packed with the whole discography of all Czech intellectual underground music and nothing else whatsoever. Our topic of conversation — various types of toilet papers and how to deal with clogged toilets — did not please them.
As the evening goes by, we decided to go inside for a beer. When we’re talking pubs, Lesser Town has plenty to offer: one of the best choices would be Malý Glen, but — as Contact reminds us — everybody knows that, so we can’t go there, because CONCEPT. Instead, he flat out goes full Kerouac, name-dropping ‘true’ pubs like there’s no tomorrow. We can’t find a seat at U Hrocha, but U Klíčů (located at Prokopská st) fulfills Contact’s visions perfectly. The place is packed with local fifty-year-olds, some of them visibly rich, some of them not — but everyone gets along, as beer is the most common language of man.
Girl wants wine; she is proud of her knowledge of it, but when she realizes that the options here are ‘white’ and ‘red’, she shrugs and embraces the local customs. "This is a great place, because you can’t find it if you don’t know where it is already," Local Guru lectures us. "You see, Lesser Town is Prague’s last true village. It should win the Village of the Year award," he reminds us, as this is a thing that exists in this country. "Shamefully, it probably wouldn’t meet the criteria. Which is bullshit. Bullshit, I tell you."
Outside the pub, an avant-garde drunk has a performance: he dances around the sidewalk like Elaine Benes at a party, clapping his hands, pouring some oil out of can of sardines into the nearest manhole, because people just be doin' random shit around here. When we step inside U Kocoura, another entry on Contact’s endless list of pubs, the waiter doesn’t even wait for us to sit down; it’s clear we came here to drink, so he takes about 0.02 seconds and yells: "Hi there! So, beers?"
A group of Nepalese guys comes inside, all of them sporting gray kimonos and tropical hats, which is a thing we can’t even.
An Attempt on Proclaiming Vltava the Sea (of sorts)
At Kafírna u sv. Omara, the owner excuses himself the moment we step in: he can’t give us drinks, because he has to protect ‘them girls’ (his waitresses work for twelve hours a day, which is necessary, because the patrons come here every day and are accustomed to seeing the same faces over and over again). But after a few minutes, his heart melts — it turns out he’s going to become a grandfather, which is a thing he’s currently celebrating, fourth day in a row. Before we can cope with the sudden turn of events, shots of herb liquor appear in front of us.
One of the owner’s friends who sits here works as a historian of art. Of course they know each other; we’re in a village, after all. "Dude. I waited for you in Tuscany for like a week. But you never came," the historian accuses his pal. "I can’t be in fucking Firenze when I’m fucking here," the owner returns, then switches his attention back to us and waxes lyrical about his family and coffee. The historian, meanwhile, abducts Girl, and they start talking about Jacques Prévert (in French) and Benito Mussolini (in a mixture of languages, slogans and songs).
"Well, so much for the highlights. Now, let’s move on to the bluelights," Contact concludes: Blue Light is a local dive bar famous for its upscale clientele. Actors, directors, politicians from nearby Parliament and other governemental buildings, and other bearers of swag go there to chug vodka, and sometimes they’d end the party at around It’s-Time-For-The-Third-Cup-Of-Coffee-In-My-Boring-Office-O’clock.
Too bad it’s closed when we go there — a private party is underway. The bouncer is merciless. "Fuck you. Us Jews don’t go there anyway," Contact showcases his diplomacy skills, before we register Ornella Štiková, a Czech lady who became tabloid fodder because she has sex with people, standing right there on the sidewalk next to us. "See? They didn’t let her in," Local Guru says triumphantly. "Makes sense. If I had a pub, I wouldn’t let her in either."
At this point, Contact’s words about how Lesser Town gets sleepy after 10 PM start to ring true. We want to go to Napa, to finish the trip with a nice beer in their pretty backyard garden, but it’s closed already, so we just grab a take-away beer and go to the riverside next to Charles' Bridge and sit down on the cobblestones.
It’s a beautiful Spring evening and Vltava sparkles with thousands of lights. The silhouette of the Prague Castle overshadows the scenery like a stern father who lets you out until midnight, but always expects you to play by his rules. "This is great," says Contact, his eyes gazing at the panorama. "You know, I always thought Vltava smelled like a sea. Kind of like a cheap resort sea, but still."