Glen Emery has been in Prague since the early 1990s and today owns the lively and cosmopolitan bar Bukowski’s in Žižkov. But the Canadian, a font of great anecdotes and with a keen interest in history, started out in the city with Jo’s Bar, just off the main square in Malá Strana, or the Lesser Quarter. In this edition of My Prague, Emery takes us on a short tour of the area, which lies below Prague Castle on the left bank of the River Vltava.
Our first stop is Vrtbovská Zahrada, a gorgeous Baroque garden located through an archway a few metres from the point where Karmelitská and Tržište streets meet. A short climb up the structure overlooking the garden offers a fabulous view across the district’s distinctive terracotta rooftops. Glen Emery describes the scene:
“We’re at the top of the Vrtbovské Zahrady in Malá Strana, some gardens that I think were completely rebuilt about 15 years ago. But back in the day it was all closed, and it had been closed for decades.
“All of these statues that you see here at the time were originals made by [Matthias] Braun, I guess he was from the 18th century, who did most of the statues on Charles Bridge. But you can see that they have all been replaced by models.
“Back in the day I sort of discovered this garden because we were coming down the hill here and we jumped over the wall into the church where the Bambino di Praga is [the Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious], then we jumped over another wall, and then we jumped over this wall and all of a sudden we were in this garden.
“We used to come in here all the time. We had it completely to ourselves. We’d bring a few beers or a bottle of wine and sit at the top here and overlook the city. We had complete quiet.
“The first time I went in there I walked all the way through and everything had been ripped out, including all the wires and everything. I walked in and I turned a corner and over on a window sill I saw a telephone [laughs].
“So I went over and I picked up the phone and of course there was a dial tone. So I called my mom. At the time I had Jo’s Bar over here on [the square] Malostranské náměstí. I talked to my mom and my sister for about an hour. I told a few of the guys who were there from Canada; I said, follow me [laughs].
“So we loaded up some wine and beer and jumped over all the fences, got into here, went in through the door and we sat in there for about three hours and called all of our friends.
“This went on for months. And then one day we came in and of course the phone had been disconnected.”
What’s your own connection to Malá Strana?
“I opened the first North American bar here in 1992, right after the revolution…”
That was Jo’s Bar?
“Jo’s Bar, yeah. I opened another place a few years ago right across the street here, called Napa gallery and bar. And now I’m living here again, down on [Vltava tributary] Čertovka, just next to the Charles Bridge. So I have a long history here.”
What’s it like to live here? For me it seems like tourist city, tourist central.
“The tourists are pretty much concentrated on the square, Mostecká St. and Nerudova up to the Castle.
Do many regular people live here?
“You mean Czechs? No. During Communism they ran most people out of Malá Strana and gave the properties over to the apparatchiks. So there were a lot of really mean bastards in this part of town. There were a lot of StB [secret police] characters and Communist officials.”
Also you had here the embassies.
“And the embassies, yes, all the embassies. Some places that were very famous during the ‘50s and ‘60s for entertainment, including all of Malá Strana, were completely decimated during communism.
“They got rid of all the famous pubs – or they used to be famous pubs and then the Communists turned them into horrible restaurants. And it lost all its flavour.
“And a lot of the places were completely abandoned. Like U Glaubiců was completely abandoned. They sort of ruined the feel.
“In fact, when I opened my place in the early ‘90s we got a lot of these Czech emigrants who had lived in New York for 30 years and come back, and they were telling me all the stories about living here in the ‘50s and the ‘60s and how it was THE place to go.
“They’d start at the Black Bull [U Černého Vola] at the top of the hill and come down – it’d be like a Friday or Saturday night – and end up in the Old Town. But the Communists ruined all that.”
From Vrtbovská Zahrada, Glen Emery takes me perhaps 300 metres to another place I’ve never been before, St. Thomas’ Church. The courtyard of the Augustinian church, which dates back to the 13th century, is a wonderful oasis of peace mere metres away from Malá Strana’s bustling streets.
“It’s sort of hidden down a little backstreet and off of Malostranské náměstí. It has this beautiful courtyard inside as you can see, which is open to the public. But very few people come in here. And there are all sorts of ancient crypts in the walkway around the courtyard.
“When I first came here this place was joined up to this monastery next door. They had the St. Thomas brewery and it made its own black beer. They recently reopened it, but it’s all changed.”
Is it a hotel now?
“Yeah, it’s a hotel. It’s another one of these very expensive boutique hotels. But it used to be part of this complex. I guess the church sold it off for a ton.”
Would you say there are many hidden corners like this in Malá Strana?
“Yes, there are lots. And there are lots I’ve never seen. Because every time I meet someone new who’s living in a different building, you go into the building and they’ve got a beautiful courtyard with a beautiful view. So there are lots of hidden corners like this.
“A lot of them are accessible if you know where to go, but there are also a lot of places that you’ll never see, because they’re privately owned. But if you get to a place like where we were, at the top of Vrtbovské zahrady or at the Castle you can look down at a lot of these places from up high. But yeah, there are tons of hidden spaces.”
Also a lot of the government buildings are around here.
“That’s ubiquitous. I don’t know how one government could take up so much office space in a city. But this country has an incredible amount of buildings that are administration for some sort of office of the government. It’s incredible.”
I’ve got to say I think it’s kind of cool that the government is where it is, in this historic, beautiful old part of the city, not in some modern building a bit out of the centre [the Chamber of Deputies is just off Malostranské náměstí and the Senate is five minutes’ walk away].
“No, absolutely, that’s a good thing. I’ve got no problem with that. It’s nice that the Parliament is just there. It’s funny [laughs] – sometimes you see the government ministers coming out and all the limousines, and then right on the side street is a famous pub and you have all these drunk guys rolling down the hill. It’s a classic Czech situation, isn’t it?”
Also you get some of the politicians going to the pubs, or the wine bars.
“Going to the pubs, exactly. When I had Jo’s Bar we’d get a lot of the politicians coming in after they’d been out drinking somewhere else. They’d come to my place and think nobody could understand them because it was all foreigners.
“But of course a few of us did understand and it was quite scandalous, I must say. Funny stuff.”
After the pretty views and all that talk about quiet corners, it’s time for a pivo, and Emery suggests we grab a couple at a popular spot at the Újezd end of Kampa Island; Mlýnská kavárna translates as Mill Café, though it is widely known by the slangy Mlejn.
“It’s an old mill. It’s a cute little place. You have to walk over a little bridge [across the Čertovka] and there’s a mill turning around. We’ve got the equipment right in front of us here.
“It’s a very popular place in Malá Strana for the sort of younger, cooler set. It’s not open very late. I think they have to close at midnight, but there’s usually something happening till 1 o’clock.”
Isn’t this the place where the unsuccessful presidential candidate, the foreign minster, Karel Schwarzenberg, goes to drink? At least I’ve seen him here.
“Yeah, he shows up quite often. The owner of this place, Martin Kotas, and [artist] David Černy and a lot of the other guys…what’s his name, the economist?
“Sedláček, yeah. They come here and they were all his big supporters. So this was sort of the grassroots… or I guess you could call it the Astroturf group for Schwarzenberg started here.”
You’ve been working and living in this part of the city for 20 years or more, on and off. Are there a lot of the old school bars – or pubs, rather – still in existence in Malá Strana?
“Yeah, there are a few, there are a few. Not so many. I think the only one that’s still in its original form is U Černého Vola, at the top of the hill. Not that that’s necessarily a good thing, because they’re snarly, burly, gnarly old guys and there’s really bad service, but I guess it’s got a certain charm.
“Some of the old school places have been redone, and there are some new places that seem like old places, like the Hippo [U Hrocha], which has been there for 15 years but seems like it has been there for 150 years. Glaubiců has been remodelled and that’s also a good little hangout.”
You mentioned U Černého Vola – does an old school pub like that welcome tourists or people who are outsiders coming in at all? Personally I don’t go to those places because I think they’re not for me.
“Yeah, that’s a problem. You get that xenophobic reaction when foreigners come in and the locals are grumbling. But I’ve noticed that over the years they seem to have grown more accustomed to it. They’re more welcoming. There’s only the one table in the corner, you know, that’s always…”
You daren’t sit at the table where the old guys sit every night?
“Yeah. That’s at the front and the back room is pretty much cool. It’s not that bad any more.”
Otherwise, if we think about the whole of Prague, what are the particular pubs that you go to, or would recommend to people?
“It’s hard to recommend, because everybody likes different things. I don’t like noisy music bars any more. I used to when I was younger, but now I like to go to a place where I can sit and talk with my mates and not have to fight to hear somebody over the music.
“Even the Golden Tiger [U Zlatého tygra] is too noisy and there are too many taxi driver types and sports people.
“But U Medvídků is one of my favourites. It’s an evergreen, always good, the people are friendly, the beer’s good. I like to go to U kata. It’s the same thing – the music’s low, it’s a nice place, friendly staff.
When you mention the noise, I think that’s to do with the acoustics. Even here it’s relatively noisy, compared to a pub in Ireland or the UK, say. Because they’re open spaces, with tiles, there are no corners.
“Yeah, it’s true, they love their tiles. Although, having said that, the Golden Tiger is different and there shouldn’t be bad acoustics. I’ve been there and made notice of it. I was there from opening until close one time, with a friend. As people get drunker, the volume increases. That’s where it comes from basically.
“But you’re right about the acoustics here. There are a lot of tiled floors, there are a lot of brick floors, they don’t use carpets, there’s not a lot of stuff on the walls, and you end up in these sort of echo chambers.”