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The Un-Prague-Like Aristocracy and Randomness of Troja

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek

Although lots of people probably associate Troja solely with Prague’s Zoo, the neighborhood — located around its main attraction — offers much more. For starters, there are some fourteen hundred residents living there, so that’s that. Most of them hail from the panel housings up above the hill that morph into the bordering Bohnice. But true Troja lies underneath, alongside the river, in a place where there used to be an old fishing village.

Adam, our first contact, suggested we meet up at Nádraží Holešovice metro station; from there, it’s just a few minutes to Troja. Trojský most, the newly built, imposingly monumental bridge connecting this quiet city part with the industrial buzz of Holešovice, is located just behind the station. To get to Nádraží Holešovice and cross the bridge is the quickest way to get there.

There is also a more romantic way: Go to Letná first, then pass through the huge and lovely Stromovka park (and maybe take a break at Containall, a local hangout spot with beer and culture and such), and you’re there. The problem with this route is that Troja used to be connected to Stromovka via a small bridge that infamously collapsed several months ago, and from then on, people need to be carried over the river in a small boat. Which, of course, can carry only a few souls at a time, so huge queues form on both riversides, and to wait for twenty minutes and then cram yourselves like sardines in a tiny vessel only to cross a river that’s, like, thirty meters wide is not exactly a romantic way to enter a neighborhood.

“Troja used to be called Ovenec (something like ‘A Sheep Hood’), because lots of sheep lived here,” says Klára, our second contact. She and Adam both grew up here and know each other since kindergarten.

“Then, a count from Šternberk, decided he wanted a castle, so he built one here. He was not patient enough, though. The castle was built in such a hurry that it’s too wet and dark inside. Although he himself probably didn’t care — it wasn’t supposed to be a residential site, just to blow people’s minds out. And since the count loved Ancient Greece so much, he named the castle Troja (‘Troy’) and filled it with statues of Poseidon & co. It’s told that other noblemen were pissed that Troja was more pompous than their own castles.”

The baroque castle lies in a huge areal that serves an an art gallery, and even a cultural pop-up (sometimes). However, our main focus lies elsewhere: Trojská St is a central vein of Trojan (hehe) life. To reach it, we have to walk a bit. From the riverbank, we can see Císařský ostrov (‘Kaiser Island’, a mostly empty patch of land), and the Troja canal. “This is a seriously well equipped sports area. World championships in canoeing are being held there. European ones, too,” Adam points out before going to pee in an adjacent pub, run by canoeists from Charles University.

Well, pub… Let’s say ‘refreshment station’. You cannot smoke outside on the restaurant’s property, which is super-rare in Czech Republic, and it seems they don’t even serve alcohol there. Turns out they do have beer, but — as Adam puts it — you have to “look very carefully on the menu.”

Right by the river, there is a wooden sculpture of a so-so Trojan Horse, called Trojan Horse (duh). It used to serve as an outdoor cinema, which is closed now, but people still flock by during summer season, chilling out next to a majestic totem and other things that look like Native American decor designed by hippie Slavic tramps (which is probably true).

After we pass Trojan Horse and make a sharp turn away from the riverside and into the neighborhood itself, we reach our final destination — the beer garden of Sokol, the most famous local pub. “When we were younger, it was a pure dive bar — filthy and rich with stories,” shares Klára. “All the employees were members of one family, some of them as young as sixteen. We used to go there all the time. Now, there is a new owner who tries to cultivate the place, they changed the tables (which are actually clean now) and stuff. But it’s still the only place around here where locals will regularly meet for a beer or two.”

“True natives are dying out”

It was the middle of the summer when we visited, and we were the only Czech speaking people in the beer garden. The rest of the patrons were foreigners coming in from the adjacent campsite. “There are three camps on this street alone,” Adam explains. “This one is the biggest. The others are often located in someone’s backyard: a guy lives there all year and opens a makeshift camp for the summer. Visitors park their vans in the garden and shower in the guy’s house.”

“Before WWI, there were community gardens. Afterwards, Troja got cut into parcels, people moved in and built houses there — but those parcels are huge and nobody wants to give up their property, so they turn it into camps,” he continues, and it makes sense — the population density of Troja looks more like Mongolian desert than Prague.

One of the reasons for this is that the parcels right along the river are practically impossible to insure. “Nobody wants to build anything new here,” shares Klára. “During the floods in 2002, Troja was completely underwater. It’s a flat land. All it takes is another such flood, and everything goes down again.”

While it’s true that the disastrous flooding resulted in erecting new safety measures, nobody really know whether they would be enough to withstand similar impact. “Oh year, and if you look over there, you can see a hole that’ll let the water in anyways,” adds Adam, nonchalantly. “So… we’re just kinda hoping that we won’t have to test it anytime soon.”

The low population density can be also explained by the lack of urban planning in Troja — there’s no central square (or any square, for that matter), no natural meeting point, no logically structured dwellings. The locals meet either in front of the school, or at the gym. At Trojská St, the buildings look like they’ve just been hastily thrown at each other over the years: an old fishing hut shares space with a luxurious modern villa, while up above on the hill, people still herd sheep and worry about wild boars.

“Nobody ever thought of Troja as a city quarter. For a long time, it was simply a fishing village: some huts and a farm. Then, the castle was built, followed by a vineyard. Then, people noticed they don’t have anywhere to pray, so it was necessary to add a chapel. With the urbanization of areas around Vltava, fish started to become scarce… and then, suddenly, the fishing village was no more. People would move in here and just build new houses randomly next to the old ones.”

All this urban anarchy means that to simply live there can be a challenge sometimes. The nearest shopping mall is located uphill in Bohnice, whereas down here, you have to do with Žabka, a small supermarket chain that closes at 11 PM. So whenever you come back from the city after 11 and realize you need to buy something, you have no option other than simply suck it up and go back to the city.

While that sounds a lot like your average village, Troja is not like that. In villages, there are usually strong bounds between neighbors; here, not so much. “There’s a group of thirty-year-olds that sticks together… they come from families that have lived in Troja for decades and know each other well. Up there on the hill, locals bond together at their pub, U Špačků – but since the pub is horrible, lots of them will rather go to Kobylisy to have a beer. True natives are dying out, though. It’s not what it used to be.”

Given that the urban planning of Troja looks like somebody played a drunk round of Jenga with buildings, we reckon it’d be hard to find a flat here — but it turns out it’s not hopeless at all. Oftentimes, people will move out to the city after high school, leaving an empty room behind them which their parents will then sublet for twenty or so years. But it’s true that almost no new flats are being built. The parcels are divided between individual people, and even if they weren’t, it’d be stupid to build an apartment complex in a place this prone to floods.

Still, there’s gonna be a new complex uphill, next to the castle, and some of the parcels lying outside of the flood zone are still empty and potentially profitable. Which of course also means they’re gonna be expensive as hell. To live in Troja is a sign of luxury.

There’s a lot of embassies here, which prompted authorities to draft out an ambitious plan: the Diplomatic Quarter was meant to house diplomats from all over the world (and their families). Buildings were built, all sparkling white and futuristic… but the people just wouldn’t move in. Now, the whole quarter is still sitting there, on a place where the old fishing village used to be — and you can totally get a sublet there, too, if you don’t mind putting up with what’s basically ghosts of Communist-era planning.

There are fifty flats there. Tereza spent seven years living in one of them — and the stories she tells are all dramatic, as one would expect from a place that’s basically a stash of steel, angles that don’t make sense outside of a Salvador Dalí painting, and failed Soviet ambitions. “You can see the horizon from there,” she says, cryptically. “There’s a lot of space, and everyone tries to make it their own. It’s joy, freedom, and terror at the same time. If you don’t actively cover yourself, you’ll be seen.”

“It’s a complex that’s inhabited by people driving around either in luxury cars or on bikes that hold together by a combination of duct tape and hope. In our flat, there were three toilets, and I had sixteen windows in my room alone. There’s a rose garden outside, and gardeners would regularly come in to take care of it. You could go to a tram stop through a hole in the fence. Everything looked so clean and planned out, except for the water, which was brown, smelly, and tended to just spurt out randomly from walls. I though of it as a spa.”

“A couple living below us told us our types aren’t welcomed here, and later on, they would call the police on us, throw eggs at us, or shut down our water supply. That’s when we learned that the Battle of Troy (tee hee) won’t be easy.”

“In the flat above us, a spiritual family would do weird rituals. Before that, a group of footballers used to live there. They would knock on our door, asking to borrow bathroom equipment. The other tenants? A fox and a badger.”

When you skim by Troja, you will likely notice the two huge skyscrapers piercing the panorama on the riverbank — those are in fact dormitories, belonging to the oft-ridiculed-and-slash-or-admired Matfyz (a faculty of applied mathematics and physics). They were designed by Karel Prager, a famous architect. But when we try to mine out some juicy stories of students getting all messed up and wreaking havoc upon Troja — you know, normal dorm stuff — it turns out that this kind of thing just ain’t happening here.

“Dude. They’re mathematicians. They need to study. Like, not just tell others they’re studying, but actually sit down on their asses and study. There’s lots of foreigners now, too, so it’s really a calm, quiet dorm. In the nineties, sure, there were some memorable parties… if you count playing a real-life level of Space Invaders by meticulously designing how to switch the window lights on and off as a party. But that shit’s banned now.”

The connection between Troja and the outside world is abysmal. When it’s nice outside, you take a walk; when it’s not, you’re depending on the whims of the 112 bus line. The other public transport option — a tram — just skirts the whole quarter and moves on. That’s an issue especially for the student who reside at the dorm — Adam says that even the bus doesn’t always go there: “If it’s full of people who look like they’re heading for the Zoo, the driver just says ‘fuck it’ and goes straight there.”

In Podhoří, a small part of Troja located below the hill (historically, Podhoří and Troja were separate villages), residents have it even worse. “The villas there are beautiful, though,” says Adam, adding that there are still reminders of the old rivalry between the two places, similar to the one Ořechovka and Střešovice have: “At school, we would make fun of children from Podhoří, because we could go home on foot and they had to wait forever for the bus.” There’s also a boat that connects Troja with Podbaba, but that hardly counts as a meaningful way of transport, especially during winters.

The fact that Troja falls under the spotlight like that has much to do with the fact that it’s divided between two of Prague’s districts — it’s partly Prague 7 and partly Prague 8, but too far from both the seventh’s and the eighth’s center for anybody to give a shit. Also, compared to the adjacent boroughs, almost nobody lives there. Thus, Troja has its own structure, complete with a town office — it’s really unusual within Prague, but while this sounds like a good idea on paper, the reality is that this distinction makes the local politics even less clear than they usually are.

“The only people who care about those who live there are those who live there. That’s tragic. We don’t know what’s gonna happen with Troja because we don’t have a voice. Even the mayor of Troja doesn’t. There are local groups that try to make a difference, but it’s a long run.”

“We made a bonfire, so what?”

“The problem with Troja is that it doesn’t really offer anything attractive for people in their twenties and thirties,” says Klára, adding that this was the reason why she moved to Vinohrady after high school. “There’s just… nothing there. No venues. Not even lame ones. The last pub closes at 11 PM, and that’s the one we’re sitting in right now.”

In an environment like that, culture has to sneak its way in. Under the bridge, a pop-up space sometimes opens, serving as a DIY gig venue, gallery, and/or skatepark; alternatively, there’s always something to see inside the castle. Trojan Horse can also add something to the mix. But most of the time, the biggest truly established cultural venue around here is Altenburg, an old ship anchored right under the bridge — the only problem being that it’s on the other side, so it falls under the district of Holešovice, not Troja.

“Supply and demand. There’s no demand for culture, so there you go,” explains Adam. “Most of the people moving in now are wealthy foreigners who don’t want to go out and make new friends. Au contraire — they’ll rather erect a fence high enough so that they don’t have to talk to anybody. When we were in school, we used to throw parties at home, because where else? There was a clubhouse next to the football pitch, but even if there was a party, it wasn’t advertised in any way. You just had to know the right people who’d know where to go.”

“There was a legendary party which was held at Klára’s. We called it The Pool Party because we got drunk and somebody found one of those baby inflatable pools, so we decided to put it out on the balcony and fill it with booze. The next stop was to go to a supermarket and buy 80 liters of the cheapest wine we could find. Then, there were also movie screening nights, which meant we gathered at school after class, drank like our plane was going down, and watched some movies nobody was paying attention to anyway.”

“Oh, and this one time, we went on a school field trip which took place in our backyard,” adds Klára, nostalgically. “The teacher just… sunbathed for three or so hours, then said she didn’t need to be there anymore, and left. And we, naturally, started drinking.” This all seemed almost idyllic to us, until Adam added his two cents: “At our place, the school parties ended with the moment I woke up and found out that half of my parents' garden furniture had disappeared. I asked what’s up, and my friends told me: We made a bonfire, so what?”

While cultural centers are basically nonexistent in Troja, with pubs, the situation is a bit better — albeit the biggest crowds usually gather in the two places right next to the Zoo (naturally). Locals don’t venture there much, though. “There’s a pizza place next to the post office,” says Klára, “and an almost mystery restaurant named Svatá Klára (Saint Clara) that is almost never open, but huge-ass cars still park in front of it, and soup costs like 450 CZK from what I remember.” (Editor’s note: That’d be a shitload of CZK for one soup, bar maybe a soup served to you on a diamond plate in the sky.)

“We actually went inside once, to find out whether they sold cigarettes. There’s a claustrophobic underground room there which looks like a cave. They threw us out almost immediately. Then, the glass from their windows disappeared, so they replaced it with paper… and that disappeared later, too. But even then, they still charged 450 CZK for the fucking soup. We had a theory that it’s actually a brothel in disguise.”

(As far as we know, it’s not, actually. The cellar was even displayed in some Czech movies. We wanted to test its swag right on the spot, but alas, Svatá Klára is closed now.)

Other places like Salabka and Trojský sklep (two wineries located next to the wineyard), Na Krásné vyhlídce (a restaurant that serves game and has a great terrace that’s often used for wedding ceremonies), Zoona (a hipster chill-out place next to the Zoo), Kavárnička (a café popular with young local mothers), or U Lišků (a garden variety pub) offer a nice getaway from the hectic life, but are not exactly entertaining per se. When we ask what’s the craziest thing that’s happened around here, Adam shoots out almost instinctively: “For me, that would be the moment when my uncle went sledding and broke both of his legs.”

Květa, our friend who boasts an intimate knowledge of nearly all Prague’s quarters, has a more interesting story to offer: “Next to the river, there’s a bike trail. It connects Prague with the towns of Kralupy nad Vltavou and Mělník. But there is literally no bridge over the river between Troja and Kralupy. I went jogging there once and made the ultimate mistake of selecting some cheesy Italian disco as my soundtrack for the occasion. So there I ran, listening to them sugary beats, and before I realized how far I had gone, I was in Kralupy. That’s thirty kilometers, mind you.”

“Oh, and it was in January. So the sun started to set really early, and I didn’t have a flashlight, and there are no streetlights whatsoever on some patches of the bike trail… What should be a pleasant afternoon quickly morphed into a real-life version of Into the Wild: Prague Edition. The trail goes through some pretty brutal places, like there’s a comically narrow strip of unpaved road in between a huge cliff on one side and a steep hill on the other. I managed to mangle my knee there and I still have a big scar to remind me of it. But I still consider this a story of success. I can imagine people fucking tumbling to their deaths there.”

That sounds pretty harrowing, but Květa is not done here: “Oh, and of course my phone battery died, so no Italian disco, no flashlight, or any light for that matter, and I was left stranded in completely another town after just running THIRTY kilometers. The last thing I managed to do was to call a friend and ask her to buy me a ticket back to Prague. I wouldn’t dare running back in the night, what with a shattered knee and all.”

“I highly recommend the tiger. Because he’s a tiger.”

For most people, the district of Troja is automatically connected with the zoological garden (botanical, too, but the Zoo is more famous). It is the most important and well-known local institution, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that locals love it. “The relations grew cold when Zoo changed its management,” shrugs Adam. “My grandmother used to take manure from them, people from Troja could go there for free… but as of now, it’s a little irritating. See, Troja wasn’t built to handle this many people strolling through its streets, especially on weekends. There are regular traffic jams. Emission meters show that the air here is more polluted than the air on I. P. Freakin' Pavlova, so…”

“But you still need a car, because Troja doesn’t meet you halfway. You don’t want to rely on the one bus line, which, by the way, goes to Podhoří twice an hour. And drivers can be crazy sometimes. I remember us standing behind the school while some asshole smashed his car into a wall, literally several feet from us. Zoo could play the Good Guy here. They could tell the drivers: Hey, Troja is not just a ‘highway to Zoo’, so maybe drive responsibly? There are actual people living here, too.”

“Look at the parking lot next to the bridge. Well, it’s less ‘parking lot’ and more ‘a random empty place’, but still. I got that it takes longer to reach the Zoo by foot, but for Christ’s sake, why not leave the car at some place that’s actually designed for it and cross the bridge on foot? It’s just a few minutes. Troja is beautiful for a walk, and locals would not have to wait half an hour in a jam every time they need to get out for groceries or something. Too bad.”

The Botanical garden is more generous in this regard. The thing is that to get from Troja to Bohnice on foot, you have to cross through a part of it; the only other option would be to take a lengthy detour. The garden knows this and allows locals to get a free pass. But you have to be registered as a citizen of Troja.

For the last part of this article, we invited Fanda — a self-described “biggest Prague Zoo fanboy out there”. He’s not kidding, either — not only he has a yearly pass that allows him to basically live within the areal, but when asked for write us a quick tour guide, he responded with a humongous essay we had to shorten significantly to not blow this article into proportions usually reserved for classic Russian novels and Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Thanks, Fanda! Here goes:

“So, how to navigate the Zoo? First, pick the animals you want to see the most. Tapirs are popular, as well as tigers, wolves… Anyway, I recommend to find out the shortest way to ‘your’ animal. The reason is that animals often hide — this way, if you don’t catch it right away, you still have time to come back later.”

“Afterwards, if you don’t have a list of favorite animals, there are several options. You can circle around the big pavilions (African fauna, big cats, gorillas, Indonesian jungle, elephants…), pick the least efficient route possible (because that way, you won’t meet many people), or — and that’s my personal favorite — just wander around the area. The Zoo is large, but you can still cross it in 15 minutes.”

“My favorite route goes counterclockwise. I’ll start with the red pandas, because they’re A) cute and B) positioned right next to the main gate. Then, it’s Indonesian jungle with the orangutans, which I personally consider to be the most fascinating species in the entire Zoo. The route goes on to the polar bears, otters, and then the African pavilion with honey badgers, fennecs and so on. If you suffer from arachnophobia, AVOID this pavilion COMPLETELY.”

“The route then continues alongside the Zoo’s northern border — there’s hippos and elephants (they have babies right now!), then you cross a bridge to see giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and, most importantly, MEERKATS. A nice little bistro is situated nearby, next to the footbridge. You can get some fine Indian food there. Next to it, there’s a kiosk with sausages and beers.”

“Another good place to cool off would be the one next to the watchtower, but I recommend the watchtower itself better. To reach it, take a detour after you see the elephants and head towards wolves, reindeer, elks, bison, and peccaries. Personally I like to visit the elephants once more when I get down and continue to the owls, along the northern line. There’s also tigers there. I highly recommend to see the tiger. Because he’s a tiger.”

“By taking this route, you will reach the Zoo’s hidden gem: the wetlands. There are some rare birds, waders, ducks and the like, but mostly it’s just a great place to chill out. Don’t forget to stop by the kookaburra, a bird that laughs. Shoebills are also fun. After that, the rest of the tour flies on quickly: predators, giant salamanders (those are unique!), gorillas, turtles, birds of prey, vultures, more owls, penguins, sea lions… and you’re out.”

“Some basic tips and hints: Credit cards are usually accepted everywhere, but I’d still carry a little bit of cash in case of any trouble. You can BYOB, but please, don’t get drunk and be an asshole inside the Zoo. Go slowly and look around. Be patient — the animals will show up eventually. Know the map of the area before you go in. If you value any sort of privacy, avoid weekends.”

“And, finally — just don’t behave like idiots. Don’t shout, don’t tap on glass, don’t yell at animals (or other people), and if you see someone who’s being an idiot, just go to them and tell them to knock it off. Prague’s Zoo is one of the best in the world, they take really excellent care of the animals, and we’re incredibly lucky to have it. So cherish it. Thanks!”

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