Covid has lifted a hangover from Prague. Now the city wants to stop partying

(CNN) – Taking a stroll on Charles Bridge or dining under Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock is not something most locals would consider fun or bearable.

Unless it turns out they’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic.

Travel restrictions put in place due to coronavirus cut visitors to the Czech capital by more than 73% in 2020, according to official city statistics. Although disastrous for Prague’s economy, the tourist exodus has been a revelation to many of its citizens who have suddenly been able to reclaim their city and enjoy its beauty at a slower pace.

Prague’s historic center has become habitable again – and its political and community leaders are trying to find a way to keep it that way even after the tourist crowds return.

“All of these beautiful places suddenly reappeared,” said Matej Velek. “All the glitz, the cheap, cheesy souvenirs, and the flashing signs trying to trick you into spending money, it all vanished incredibly quickly once the tourists were gone.”

Velek, born and raised in Prague, belongs to a growing contingent of locals trying to revive the city’s many forgotten public spaces. He’s part of the team behind Kasarna Karlin, part a community hangout, part a beer garden with an outdoor cinema, a playground, and a cafe in an abandoned swimming pool. The site occupies the huge courtyard of the disused military barracks in Karlin, a district severely damaged during the devastating floods of 2002 in Prague.

This Kasarna Karlin bar was once a garage inside a disused military barracks.

Dorota Velek / Wikimedia Commons

The state-owned building had been deserted for years awaiting a possible renovation at one point when Velek and his team succeeded in convincing the authorities to allow a local non-profit organization to use the place for community and cultural purposes until the redevelopment began. Since opening in 2017, it has become one of the neighborhood’s favorite spots. And while the complex has seen a lot of A bureaucratic back-and-forth involving various government departments over the past few years, Kasarna Karlin has become something of a model for community projects – so much so that representatives from other cities are visiting the site for information.

Kasarna Karlin is far from a lone star in the neighborhood. Within a five-minute walk, another abandoned building recently turned into Bar / ak, an artistic cafe featuring local musicians and performers. By the river, Harbor 18600 now hosts an open-air cinema, music events and lectures in a space that was an illegal dump just a few years ago.

Kasarna Karlin’s success among locals has earned her a place in guidebooks like Lonely Planet. Slowly it has become a place where residents mingle with tourists. This is still unusual in Prague. Locals tend to stay away from the more touristy places, while visitors rarely venture outside the historic center.

This is something the city wants to change. Prague has long been a magnet for tourists. But their growing numbers have become a concern for its residents, who feel overrun with rowdy groups looking for a big night out.

The Dox Center features an airship-like structure used as an event space.

The Dox Center features an airship-like structure used as an event space.

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Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib told CNN last year that the city welcomed nine million tourists in 2019.

“It’s pretty much the same as Rome, which is twice the size of Prague,” he said, admitting that the growing number of tourists, some coming mainly to party, has caused problems .

Like other cities in a similar situation, Prague has set up a “night mayor” whose task is to find a better way to deal with crowds.

Hrib has also stepped up attempts to rid the city of fraudulent tourist traps and eye pollution and to regulate the likes of Airbnb. “These types of services have a very negative impact on the quality of life of residents, mainly because of noise, and they also make housing more unaffordable for young people, so finding a solution is a priority,” said Hrib.

The Hrib team wants to reinvent Prague as a destination much more than a bachelor party.

“We care most about the more conscientious tourists who respect the fact that tourism must not harm the lives of the locals,” he said. “Prague simply cannot be just an open-air museum for tourists, we have to stop the exodus of people from the city center.”

The vast majority of international visitors do not venture beyond the historic city center. But Hrib is keen to show them that Prague has a lot more to offer, which it certainly does.

In recent years, cultural venues and events have sprung up all over Prague. In the past, dark places have been turned into urban hot spots – some with help from the city, others by independent communities and volunteers.

The Rasin Riverside, south of downtown, has grown from near-abandonment to a popular hangout for hipsters to a mainstream tourist destination within a decade. Some locals preferred the place when it was still a bit rough around the edges and complain about its evolution into a more refined space, but the growing popularity of the riverbank gives tourists the opportunity to taste something a bit different.

Holesovice, a residential area across the river from Karlin, was also badly damaged in the 2002 floods. And like Karlin, it has also been unrecognizablely transformed from a run down place to an artistic district with a lot many things to see and experience.

The DOX Center for Contemporary Art has become the epicenter of art in the district since it opened in a former factory in 2008. Other places have multiplied. Vnitroblock, a sprawling industrial chic cafe and design-focused event space is just a 10-minute walk away. Around the corner, Jatka 78, formerly a slaughterhouse, is now the place in Prague to see contemporary circus, avant-garde theater and dance.
Rasin Riverbank has grown from a run down place to a popular hangout.

Rasin Riverbank has grown from a run down place to a popular hangout.

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The venue is currently undergoing renovations, but the show is to – and takes place – in a temporary circus tent erected in the nearby Prague Exhibition Center. Called Azyl78, the place will offer a “haven” to performing artists throughout the summer.

The co-founder and director of Jatka 78, Štěpán Kubišta, is particularly proud of the international character of the institution he helped to build. The venue regularly hosts foreign troupes and is one of the few theaters in Prague that serves locals as well as tourists.

“Culture in Prague is still mainly done for and by the locals, there are not many international events, both for the artists and the audience,” he said. Of the dozen theaters funded directly by the city, all but one currently focus on Czech-language theater and are therefore off-limits to most visitors. “If we want to attract tourists who are interested in culture rather than partying, we need to give them more options,” he said.

It’s a tradition started by one of Prague’s most famous residents, the country’s former president, Vaclav Havel. When he greeted Bill Clinton in 1993, he gave him a tour of the castle and then took the then president to a legendary, if somewhat dirty, jazz club, Reduta.

The art center that has developed in Holesovice over the past decade has become a source of inspiration for other areas of Prague.

“Holesovice is a prime example of a neighborhood that has been redeveloped from the bottom up to become almost an official art district… and although it has since become perhaps too gentrified, it has shown others that these kinds of projects made sense, ”said Marie Kasparova, director of Za Trojku, a non-profit organization that runs two state-funded community cultural centers in the Zizkov district of Prague.

Zizkov, once known as the somewhat rough district under Prague’s famous TV tower, has always had a diverse cultural scene. From the U Vystrelenyho Oka pub which has long been the beating heart of Prague’s underground scene, to independent art galleries and the recently reopened event space in the functionalist Radost building, Zizkov, says Kasparova, has something for everyone. world.

She seeks to follow Holesovice’s lead in bringing more contemporary art to the neighborhood, while maintaining its appeal to longtime residents of the neighborhood. “When people walk into a contemporary art gallery, sometimes they can be a little scared, not knowing what to think. We want to bring art to people in a way that isn’t scary, through themes that they can relate to, ”she said.

To attract more locals to the arts venue, Za Trojku started to organize more community-oriented events. Later this month, it hosts a mini festival of indoor plants and urban gardening. Last year’s event drew millennials and retirees alike. “We want to open up the space for local people so they know it’s there for them,” Kasparova said. “If they get used to coming here for events that interest them, like the exchange of houseplants, they might eventually come to see art that they might have previously dismissed as something that didn’t. was not intended for them. “

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