Most city squares serve as logical meeting points, anchors in the ever-changing cityscapes, places everyone knows how to get to and navigate around. And then, there is Prague’s Charles Square. Which, frankly, is more of a universe on its own.
Charles Square, colloquially known as Karlák, owes much of its importance to its size: it’s the single biggest city square in the Czech Republic. You’ll find several bigger ones throughout Europe, but those are generally much more predictable – giant open spaces that take forever to cross, usually with a statue, some monument, a fountain, a tomb, or something like that in the middle. Karlák is not like that. Although it has several monuments as well, it’s less open space and more Prague’s own version of that maze at the end of the Triwizard Tournament.
The place, which was called The Cattle Market until 1848, is geographically divided into two equal parts, each of which has a huge central park. This creates a rectangle that’s more than half a kilometer long on one side — good luck trying to meet somebody there unless you specifically pinpoint the exact location. It’s simply not possible to just “meet at Karlák”.
"I had three couchsurfers from Uruguay asking for a meeting somewhere in the center," says one of our contacts, a guy who has lived here for the longer part of his adult life. (Note: Yes, it’s possible to actually live right at Karlák.) "Then they texted me: We’re at the Charles Square. I shivered. How the fuck am I gonna meet three Uruguayans at Karlák? It was after dark, the weather was impossibly hot, and the Karlák People already started their evening routine, which is drugs. I told them to find the nearest street lamp and stand under it. They said ‘Sure’ and went to Neustadt, where I found them wolfing down vegan sandwiches half an hour later."
Meeting points in the city jungle
Should you find yourself in a similar situation, it’d be handy to know several rules of thumb. There are basically three safe points where to meet at Karlák without having to chase one another through the lands of amphetamine hobbits that inhabit the inner parts of the square. The first point would be the hospital located on the right side of Karlák, right above the Na Moráni St; this is a safe bet because the hospital is big, visible, and hardly anyone hangs out there.
The hospital is also a good starting point for a nice walk to the Botanical Garden, the picturesque Albertov St, or — if you fancy using the public transport without paying for a ticket — the headquarters of Prague’s public transit company (DPP), located on nearby Na Bojišti St, where you can pay your fines and think about what you’ve done.
Another, more pleasant alternative would be to hang around Ztracenka park. This basically translates to ‘A Lost Park’, and it’s a fitting name — located on a steep hill with a great view over the Vltava riverbanks, it’s a cool little hangout place hardly anyone knows about. Usually there’s just a few medics, a security guard, and some friendly hobos. Girl, the female half of our editorial unit, recommends the place; she has fond memories of it, shaped by a date slash picnic with a can of sardines and some surprisingly good wine.
She has lived around there for some time in her childhood and recalls the building of nearby urology clinic as “pretty scary”. "Thankfully, it’s just a few steps away from the delightfully Gothic maternity hospital at U Apolináře," she adds.
But back to the Safe Points of Karlák. The second one lies on the other end of the square — it’s the New Town hall at the beginning of the lively Vodičkova street. This part of Karlák is home to the few local cultural venues, such as Kino MAT (a cinema) or La Loca (a fancy-ish lounge bar with live music). And, of course, the famous Café Neustadt, located inside the town hall building. It’s a rather… schizophrenic place, at least according to its Internet rep. It seems like everybody goes there and no-one knows why. "Neustadt is a shitty café," says some girl on Facebook, as she voluntarily sips coffee in Neustadt. Go figure.
Nevertheless, Neustadt deserves some credit — they have great ciders, good natural wine, homemade lemonades, and delicious vegan wraps (sometimes). Various gigs also take place there, although the biggest hype was in, like, 2014.
Outside the town hall, there is a big fountain; it’s an ideal meeting point because it’s practically impossible to miss, if you hit the right end of Karlák. Fair warning: It’s forbidden to drink beer there (or any alcohol, for that matter). Granted, this is forbidden almost everywhere in Prague, but this fountain is frequently under radar.
"Yeah, cops caught me drinking there. Twice," admits one of local residents. "But I still don’t know what the fine is because I always talked it down. This one time, a cop asked me: What are you doing? I said I’m refreshing myself. 'Well, go refresh yourself to a place where it’s actually legal,' he replied, and pointed at Neustadt."
The third Safe Point lies right at the middle of Karlák, between Resslova and Ječná streets. This is the place where trams go. The bad news is that it’s often a Herculean task to actually cross the street; the location of pedestrian crossings looks like it’s been designed by a sentient battle of moonshine, and given how many cars and trams regularly block the road, most people just say ‘screw this’ and ignore the crossings altogether. As long as you don’t get rammed, it’s fine — this is a principle Karlák shares with places like the Balkans, Southeast Asia, and YouTube comment section.
"You look like a foreigner and your language is weird"
Boy, the male half of our editorial unit, knows Karlák and its surroundings well. Between 2014 and 2015, he lived on Gorazdova St; that’s the street that connect the infamous Gehry’s Dancing House and Palackého Square above Náplavka, the (even more) infamous hipster hangout spot down at Vltava’s riverbank. Gorazdova is not a long street, but it’s still lively — there’s one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town, a Korean supermarket, a cult gay club, a cat café (as in, a place where you can pet random cats while drinking coffee), and also a pub that spent the whole summer of 2014 playing The Best of The Cranberries for the whole neighborhood to enjoy, which Boy says gave him PTSD.
To get to Karlák from Gorazdova, it’s best to take the Na Moráni St; by taking this route, you’ll pass three interesting cafés: first of them is Locál Café & Bar, a nicely kitsch place with great ciders. Hardly anyone goes there, which is surprising; Boy says it’s probably because it’s pretty dark inside, but at least they don’t play The Cranberries on an infinite loop. Then there’s a more posh Café Amandine, and, of course, I Need Coffee.
During Boy’s Karlák days, INC was the place. It was the time where people would still call other people hipsters without being branded as a time traveler — and hipsters would storm the small café, sit on trendy furniture that’s not actually furniture, and enjoy the sourest coffee this side of Ethiopia, all while posing behind the large window pans like parrots in the aviary, but with beards.
Resslova st, the junction between Karlák and Jiráskovo square, is simply impossible to cross — there’s road barriers everywhere, probably because otherwise, people would die (see the Crosswalk Principle, above). There’s a great pub located there, though; it’s called U Parašutistů, and although it’s not special in any way, the potential of overhearing random drunk stories is sky high there.
"After the seventh beer or so, we simply ran out of conversation topics, so we started discussing Azerbaijani grammar. Because why not. A lady sat next to us, asking my friend where does he come from. ‘I come from Jablonec,’ he replied, proudly. ‘But you look like a foreigner and your language is weird!’ My friend told her that he might look a little black, but that’s just the reflection of his soul."
A brief list of things that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else
There are phenomena that are distinctively Karlák. Like the local branch of the Albert supermarket. There are bizarre shopping malls all around Prague — for example, the Billa at Letná looks like Cormac McCarthy’s vision of the future of vegetables — but not one of them could match Karlák’s Albert in the sheer volume of depression that’ll overwhelm you once you as much as take a sneak peek inside. To test this hypothesis, we spent and entire hour there, tucked behind the stand with invisible pastry.
The most fascinating thing was how random the average purchases were. What are things you usually buy at supermarkets? Fruits and veggies? Pasta? Canned food? It’s probably something like that, right? Well, not here — Karlák’s Albert is filled with people buying copious amounts of dirt cheap alcohol, toilet paper, and head cheese. Lots of those are local workers and the homeless, but we’ve seen an upper-middle-class looking gentleman waltz in, stroll through the stands, grab a liter of Režná (a cheap, horrible tasting spirit) and head right to the cash desk where he’d look for coins for three minutes and then pay with a 2000 CZK note.
There’s also a Billa at Karlák, but this supermarket isn’t nearly as bizarre as the Albert one. Outside Billa, though, we met a guy looking for his house keys. We asked him whether he lived there and what would be the place he likes the most about Karlák. "Nothing. Where the fuck are my keys," he replied. After we bribed him with a cigarette, he started talking: "Well, there’s a lot of Vietnamese shops around here, which is good. But not a lot of pubs. Which is worse. I like drinking, but I’m not drinking here. I’m drinking over there. At Smíchov," he added, waving his arms in the general direction of Vltava. Then, he found his keys, fell down, and started to ramble about politics.
Inside both Karlák parks, there are lots of local homeless that basically became celebrities for the people who meet them every day. One of them is an elderly toothless prostitute with a firmly set modus operandi.
"First, she’ll offer you oral sex for two hundred," a local contact lectures us. "Then, she’ll drop the price to one hundred. Then zero. And if you’re still not interested, she’ll at least ask you for a cigarette. And you feel bad for her, so you give her a cigarette." We admit that this looks like a pretty surefire way to get a cigarette. Creative, too.
A French singer-songwriter who, several years ago, performed at Neustadt, described his first clash with the Karlák cosmos as fascinating. "It’s an interesting place," he said. "I feel really good and really weird at the same time. That’s pretty unusual." And with these words, we end this article, for they are 100 % correct.