The Undeniable Swagger of Life in Upper Žižkov

Text: Editors

They say Prague is a city of a thousand towers — which is true, but it should be added that it’s also a city of a ten thousand hills. Case in point: The part of Žižkov leading all the way up from the football stadium to Jiřího z Poděbrad square is no longer than a kilometer, but if you attempt to walk all the way up, you’ll sweat bullets like a lumberjack in a sauna. The good thing is that from the cultural POV, these streets are absolutely packed.

There’s an old saying that goes 'Keep off Žižkov and Libeň for your own good' (it rhymes in Czech, shut up). So, generally speaking, Žižkov is not exactly the crème de la crème of Prague’s neighborhoods. The close proximity to the main railway station may play its part; although strategically important, railway stations (and properties nearby) seldom attract upper-end clientele. So instead of kitsch art cafés and SoDoSoPa-style restaurants you get pawn shops, excruciatingly non-fancy dive bars, people carrying knives, and punks fucking around the Pražačka and Parukářka city parks.

But that’s just the pop-cultural perception of Žižkov, one that is slowly fading away — at least in our selected area, which we dubbed 'Where the Trams Don’t Go'. It’s not as catchy as other nicknames, but it drives the point home with the strength of a million hammers. That is important, because seriously, you have one tram line operating under the hill, one above it, and no public transportation options whatsoever in between, meaning that each and every person living there are forced to exercise every time they feel like visiting civilization.

So this would be ideal for young sportspeople, right? Maybe some marathon runners, given that Prague is seemingly full of city marathons? Not really — the buildings there are old and often in a bad shape (see ‘railway station proximity’, above), which naturally attracts students. Mostly creative ones, because those tend to not have money. And thus, Žižkov doesn’t suffer from lack of authenticity like some newer, flashier city parts do. Au contraire: Žižkov is both punk rock and gentrified hipness, at the same time.

About a year ago, one of our friends laid out a theory about a 'geometrical gentrification process'. According to it, the hip wave would start up above the hill, on Jiřího z Poděbrad square, and then move down progressively, claiming one street after another (but always the next one; skipping streets contradicts the theory). He was not wrong, because that’s exactly what happened there, with Vlkova — the ‘lowest’ street located directly above the tram line on Seifertova — the last victim. Not that it’s wrong or anything; before, Žižkov was that place where you’d go armed after sunset, now, the most dangerous scenario involves you not knowing whether some Dutch producer is more house or tech-house in the heat of a 2 AM argument over ancient whiskey at Bukowski’s. You get the idea.

So anyways, this is it. Our territory. The triangle marked by Prague’s Economics University, parks at Riegrovy sady and Lipanská tram stop. That part of city located directly under the Tower. Off we go.

Part One: Švehlovka, a Building that Radiates Swag

The ‘geometrical gentrification process’ guy does not necessarily think it’s a good thing. "Well, look around. This used to be a working class district. Now, there’s some fucking IT bakery, drowned in oceans of cafés where you can’t even sit down properly," he rants, painting upper Žižkov like some sort of a non-ironic Portlandia. But although he has a point, lots of these places are really cool – if you’re not put off by the very concept of a ‘shared co-working space slash café slash bistro slash bar’, Pracovna will fit you like a glove. Same goes for Pavlač, a cozy café / eatery down on Víta Nejedlého. We started our trip at Sesterna, which is a bar that markets itself by comparing literally every aspect of alcohol and bars to medicine.

Sesterna lies on Slavíkova, a street on the western border of the hill; but it’s not its main focal point. No, that honor goes to Švehlovy koleje, a huge pink-ish building that serves mainly as a college dorm, partly as a creative underground hub. Several years ago, there used to be a bar located in its cellar, called Berlýn <-> Žižkow – notice the haphazard use of consonants and vowels and you’ll get a grip on how non-conformist the place really was. Famous in Prague’s burgeoning alternative art scene, Berlýn — operating semi-legally — was accessible only through the dorm’s official reception, which means that somewhere in the books of Švehlovy koleje, a large number of various artists' ID data is located.

"Once, I almost had a fist-fight with that lady at the reception," a former barfly reveals. "She said I endangered her, that I pulled a knife and a beer bottle, but that was a lie. I was just, like, fucking drunk. Afterwards, we were simply going in illegally via the hostel located on Křížkovského — you can do that, the places are connected. It was actually quite easy, you just had to speak English and look like a tourist."

Another one seconds the sentiment. "At Berlýn, it wasn’t uncommon that a party would go on till 5 AM; after that, you simply don’t wanna go home. So, this one time, I just entered the dorm and fell asleep in the bathroom on the third floor, right there under the washstand. I slept for maybe two hours, until some girl walked in and freaked out that there’s a lifeless body lying on the floor."

Berlýn is defunct now, but don’t worry – Švehlovy koleje found another way to stamp themselves on Prague’s art map. Located right beside the main building, an alternative theater, called Venuše ve Švehlovce, is now opened — the place was closed for decades, but after radical reconstruction, it now houses several of the city’s most entertaining amateur acts. Looking at the pompous purple curtains, decadent styling and cozily lit foyer, you wouldn’t guess that a few years ago, it all looked like a scene from a Cormac McCarthy novel.

"For half a century, the theater was empty," explains one of the actresses. "When we first started rehearsing there, it wasn’t even punk — it was pure grindcore. No heating, everything in constant risk of falling apart, Trainspotting toilets, those things. Now, it looks amazing. Or at least you won’t find any more dead animals while randomly strolling around."

After the program at Venuše is over, it’s common to go to Pivnice U Sadu – a rather typical Czech pub that has, nevertheless, three significant advantages. One: It’s super spacey. With two separate floors (each with its own bar), the risk of not finding a place to sit is slim. Two: The beer selection is on par with far more posh places, but inside you can still smoke, swear and down shots like there’s no tomorrow, which are all things posh places generally frown upon. And three: It’s open till 4 AM.

The one thing you should keep your eye on, though, is the exact name of the pub: you won’t confuse U Sadu with other nearby places such as a nice café called Prádelna or an anti-fascist vegan-friendly burger joint called Belzepub, but there’s a possibility of ending up at U Růžového sadu instead. Both pubs are situated close enough to each other that there are stories of actors / actresses sitting alone at U Růžového sadu, tears slowly watering their beer, their inner selves thinking why everybody abandoned them, while all their colleagues sat at U Sadu, happy, Shane McGowan-level drunk.

Part Two: Bořivojova, a Street that Never Stops

So we decided to follow the ‘geometrical gentrification process theory’ and explore the area systematically, but then we fell at the first hurdle – Kubelíkova street offers nothing interesting. Well, except of Palác Akropolis, known colloquially as ‘Akráč’, which is a place so legendary it doesn’t need much introduction. Our staff used to go there to have lunch; the restaurant is situated on the floor level, while all the gigs are played downstairs, in a large concert hall, and there is also a bona fide underground industrial bar, in case you needed some party time.

(Example: We remember a story where some drunk guy, ehm, positioned himself next to a lady with giant breasts and began exploring them with confidence only gallons of beer can provide. "I’ve never seen anything like that. I know that people sometimes try to touch a girl’s breasts, but this dude had one hand on the surface and the other somewhere inside. She liked it, but her friend didn’t, which was a problem because they’ve been holding hands the whole time. The guy was so mesmerized he didn’t notice.")

Under Kubelíkova, there is Bořivojova, and if the former doesn’t quite cut it, the latter is brimming with action. Two of the most famous bars there are called Bukowski's and Malkovich Bar, and they also look quite similar, which should be obvious from mere looking at their names. Basically they’re both rather upscale chillout bars with dim lights and relaxed atmosphere, which is a rather funny contrast to the fact that lots of regulars use to carry drugs in their pockets. Also on Bořivojova, there are Restaurace Morava and Restaurace Nad Viktorkou. The first one represents your average 90’s style Czech pub, the second one is famous for its musical program — sometimes provided by actual bands, other times by that bartender who owns like twelve harmonicas and doesn’t hesitate to play them.

So far it looks like all you can do in Upper Žižkov is to drink like the offspring of Andre the Giant — but there are also galleries there. A lot of them, in fact: Drdova, Blissfarm, Nevan Contempo, Punctum… as well as a nice post-hipster-ish place called Pivo a párek (‘Beer and sausage’), where you can have a beer and a sausage. We wanted to explore it firsthand, but there was ska playing, so we bailed and went to Herba instead.

In Prague, there is a rather funny tendency to name the most punk pubs confusingly, like ‘café’, ‘art’ or ‘bar’ (or any combination of the above). Whenever you see a place named ‘Café Art XY’, there is a 50% chance that inside, you will find a mohawk-sporting, leather-clad guy who’s like fifteen beers deep and insists you should call him ‘Johnny the Keg’ or ‘Dude’. Café Herba is one of these. Well, our guy went by the name Lukáš, which is kinda boring, but he made up for it the moment he opened his mouth.

"Shit dude, I had a psychosis once. Flowers, man. Herbs. Psychedelic shit. I saw the Universe, dude," he was explaining to his mate as we went in, his eyes rolling wildly, his hands moving around at a pace that would make a javelin thrower jealous. "The power is everywhere, man, not just in LSD, but everywhere. Like, in all flowers and living things. And that’s true. Look at YouTube," he claimed, before adding that he used to study philosophy. "I saw it in an English documentary. Isn’t it great how we all vibe together, here in the pub? Do you feel it too, dude?"

"Sorry, I forgot your name," his mate snapped, instantly draining his energy. "Lukáš," said Lukáš, as the whole situation fell out of pace and we finally had the chance to realize that you can buy both Magners cider (posh!) and a cheap-ass bowl of ramen here. In the TV, a poker game was being played, but the sound was muted — the patrons wanted to listen to Rise Against. The combination of all those poker faces on screen and Tim McIlrath’s raspy skate punk anthems felt mesmerizing. "I used to study logical thinking," said Lukáš.

"So explain yourself logically," his mate snapped again, prompting our philosopher to throw in the towel and leave. But before he did, he walked back to his table four times, like a drunk boomerang. He had a good reason, too: the need to explain that he was, in fact, not local. "I came from Sudetenland," he shouted. "From Ústí nad Labem. Aussig! Dude!"

Part Three: Vlkova 26, a Venue that Oozes Love

Vlkova 26, named rather plainly after the place’s address, is a chillout bar with live music that brings people instantly together. At least our respondent, a girl living in Upper Žižkov who prides herself over the fact that she comes there almost every other night, says so. The venue opened in 2015 and quickly become one of the most sought-after nightlife spots of the area (although you won’t get beer on tap there; this is a place that lives off Prague’s expats' unmatched thirst for cocktails).

"Once, I saw a really good looking guy there. He was leaning towards the wall, looking bored, like he wanted to be somewhere else. That felt sad, so I decided to seduce him," she explains. "I came up to him, told him I liked him, and asked what’s up. He looked at me, smiled, and told me he was waiting for his boyfriend. Who came a minute after. So instead of one lover, I have now two gay friends." Other stories contain lesbians, birthday parties and fashion photographers, so we understand that Vlkova 26 is indeed a place of love. Consider this a recommendation.

Located right across the street, there is Up Bar, a small drinking spot that is yet waiting to be discovered. We’re wondering why, given that the inside of the place looks like a son of Andy Warhol and a nerdy graphic designer ejaculated all over the walls — you simply don’t want to ash your cigarettes in a plain old ashtray, you want extremely big, custom-designed ones. You also want your lamps to look like they’re made from Lego. And on the walls, instead of some stupid-ass paintings and random ‘humor’, you need huge plastics depicting scenes from Star Wars and The Simpsons. Combine that with Rage Against the Machine blasting from the jukebox and a really good selection of drinks, and we have no idea why this place manages to stay so out of sight.

"Is this table free?" we ask right away, because there are only two tables in the front room, one of them is currently inhabited by a lady in a giant fake fur coat and on the other one, there’s a half-full glass of beer. "Yeah, you can sit down here. The guy went to the ATM, but that was like fifty minutes ago, so I’m probably gonna store his beer at the bar," the bartender replies, nonchalantly. We love you, Upper Žižkov, we really do. Please never change.

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