The trams change, but remain the same
The Prague transport system has always been a two-sided coin of positive and negative. It has spoiled me to the point where I never want to own a car again.
Hello Prague, where Tram 22 takes just over an hour to cross the city, through business districts, neighborhoods and many of the city's famous sights. Take a ride with us as we explore one of Europe's most picturesque and historic cities, former seat of the Kings of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor.
Sixty-seven minutes. That’s how long it takes to ride the 41 stops across Prague on Tram 22. Not that many people regularly do the whole route from one side of town to the other, through business districts, neighborhoods and some of the city’s most iconic tourist sights.
Only one other person boards the second car with me where the route starts at Bílá Hora. There is not much to see up here, apart from the turnaround lot for the trams and a few businesses. Its bleakness belies – or is maybe appropriate to – its importance in Bohemian history. Bílá Hora was the site of a battle in 1629 between 60,000 men that is still fought on a smaller scale every year by military re-enactors. Waiting at the tram stop, though, I see none of this. There is a rundown-looking monastery of sorts, actually the pilgrimage center of the Church of Our Lady of Victory. It was originally built to house the bones of those killed in the battle which marked the earliest years of what became the Thirty Years’ War, and the beginning of the end of Bohemia.
There is not much else to look at as the tram’s horn sounds and my journey begins but, only three stops in, we come to the dual green playgrounds of Hvězda and Ladronka. A former game reserve belonging to King Ferdinand I, Hvězda’s vast size and forests make me feel I am miles from civilization. Partly landscaped and partly wild, it is popular but its size absorbs the crowds, leaving everyone in peace. Indeed it is by far my favorite Prague park. In the middle is the Letohrádek Hvězda, a lovely baroque summer palace built by Ferdinand’s son and now open to the public. Inside, there is a permanent display about the battle of Bílá Hora. On the other side of the tram tracks is Ladronka, a flatter, wider park popular with picnickers and inline skaters.
Leaving the parks behind, the tram winds down past single family homes and apartment blocks. Ahead is another green gem, the Břevnov Monastery, which sits on a small pond and shines with a seemingly inner peace. The monastery’s brewery is one of the country’s oldest.
This tram is my link to town
Past the monastery, grocery stores, banks and restaurants start to appear along the street. At U Kaštanu, Anna gets on. She has lived here since she was three years old – now with her husband and two children. Today she is alone and heading into the city to meet a friend for coffee. “This tram is my link to town,” she says. “There could be more low-floor trams though.”
The 22 regularly uses the Prague transport system’s “old” tram cars – built by Czech firm Tatra and exported throughout the former Soviet Union. The high steps to get on and off do pose a challenge to moms with strollers and the elderly. On the 22, about twice an hour, one of the older cars is replaced with a more modern low-floor car made by Skoda. The newer trams are sleeker and lower and, while the old-fashioned look is lost, the ride is a bit smoother.
Leaving behind the Břevnov area, we start a downward curve towards the Castle district which starts at Pohořelec. Exit here for Strahov Monastery, which also offers its own brew but is more famous for its wonderful library and halls. Prague Castle’s front entrance is also a short walk from Pohořelec, as is the nearby park. This upper part of the neighborhood is quiet and ancient but the vibe changes rapidly only two stops later. Pražský Hrad is the main Prague Castle tram stop and the car fills up with tourists, a babble of languages and maps being waved. One stop further is my preferred Prague Castle entrance – in season, strolling through the royal gardens at Královský Letohrádek.
Jillian gets on here; she’s visiting Prague for the first time. Over the past few days she’s become quite attached to the city’s trams. “It’s so peaceful and quiet to just sit and watch the city,” she says. She clings to a pole as the tram turns a corner. Standing next to her is Klara, a PR professional who considers herself lucky to live and work on the 22 line. “This is the best part,” Klara says, pointing out the window at a peculiar old building. “That’s Bílek’s Villa, I always give it a look as we go by. And then you go down Chotkova street and for two seconds you get an amazing view of Prague, the river and all the bridges.” The art nouveau villa, home and studio of sculptor František Bílek, and now a museum of his work, is indeed a wonderful sight.
The well-trod tourist path up the hill
The steep street and turn is hugged by two parks, Chotkovy Sady and Letná. The tram safely negotiates the hill, bringing us into the traffic nightmare that is Malostranská. This is the first Prague Metro stop on the tram line and many people get off. Instead of crossing the river, the tram turns right, heading into the heart of the Malá Strana district. Embassies, ministry buildings, restaurants and hotels lie in the shadow of Prague Castle – the well-trod tourist path up the hill to the castle is via Nerudova Street; named after the Czech poet, Jan Neruda. The quarter’s main square, Malostranské Náměstí, is anchored by the beautiful, green-domed St. Nicholas Church. About two blocks along one of the packed streets leading off the square and you are on the Charles Bridge.
Prague’s most famous sight draws off many passengers. In the morning, it is often shrouded in mist, haunted by a few joggers or solitary walkers. In the evening, it is a romantic setting for a stroll, as arm-in-arm couples take in the lights of the city. During the day, it is so busy with camera-pointing tourists sharing the space with buskers and hawkers that local people avoid it if they can.
Klara comments that the tram now has to share the road with cars, which often leads to back-ups. It’s true – the tram is packed, the street is jammed and no one seems to be going anywhere. Souvenir shops, cafés and pubs line this section of street as the tram inches its way past the Church of Our Lady Victorious, home to the beloved Infant Jesus of Prague. Finally, the lanes split and we are at Újezd, the last stop on this side of the river. Here you are at the base of Petřín Park, a leafy summer respite for area workers. You can climb the hill to enjoy the beautiful rose gardens at the top; or hop on the funicular to save your breath.
There’s an observatory up here, a mirror maze and a tower resembling Eiffel’s more famous one in Paris. Inspired by the original, members of the Club of Czech Tourists raised the money to build this replica in 1891. It worries me that the Petřín lookout tower was completed in only four months. How safe can it be? You can actually access Prague Castle from here, following the paths that bring you close to Strahov Monastery and the castle’s main square.
It is hard to escape the castle in Prague
As we cross the river, the National Theatre lies ahead but Klara points out the beautiful view of Prague Castle behind us. It is hard to escape the castle in Prague, no doubt why writer Franz Kafka seemed haunted by it. Once the seat of the Kings of Bohemia as well as the Holy Roman Emperors, and now the President, it is the biggest in the world. From the infamous Nazi Reinhard Heydrich during World War II, to Slovak hero Alexander Dubček and Czech poet and politician Václav Havel, it has been central to the country’s history.
Once across Strelecký Island on Národní Street, the atmosphere feels brasher. The National Theatre is majestic of course, built as a venue to showcase artistic creations in the Czech language. Donations were sought to make it happen, making it a true theater by and for the people. The curious building next door, Nová Scéna, came into being in the 1980s. Originally built to house Laterna Magika, a black-light theater troupe, the hard-to-love building still produces black-light shows as well as contemporary dance pieces and other avant-garde programing. The Czech reputation for pushing the boundaries of the arts was only briefly suppressed under communist rule and contemporary art and design can be found in galleries across the city, local flair soon fighting back against the influx of international brands that flooded the market when capitalism arrived.
Turning the corner onto Spálená Street, the bustle continues. There’s a big change here and watching my fellow passengers I get a lonely feeling. Young people are plugged into their music; people are standing and reading; others stare dully out the windows. There’s no talking (except for some chatty woman on a phone) and people seem to have formed cocoons around themselves in the midst of the crowd.
Silvie gets on here with her two daughters. They have just finished having lunch with a friend at Café Louvre, one of Prague’s most storied dining establishments. Hailing from South Bohemia, Silvie has lived in the Vinohrady neighborhood since moving to Prague nine years ago. “If I have to choose between metro or tram, I’ll go for the tram every time for the views,” she says. “Especially up from Malostranská, it’s like a sightseeing tour.”
This is Nové Město, Prague’s “new town” founded in 1348. Its most famed attraction is Wenceslas Square, but the 22 doesn’t go that way. We are still stuck in a commercialized zone, which doesn’t give a great impression of the quarter. It’s a bit grittier here compared to Malá Strana, but walk even a couple of blocks off Spálená or Národní streets and you discover antique shops, tiny cafés, pubs and more.
I can’t imagine living anywhere else
When the tram gets to Karlovo Náměstí, it takes a left, heading up the hill to the leafy district of Vinohrady. Originally covered with royal vineyards, the neighborhood is popular and hip; home to many expats, good restaurants and ethnic food shops. “We didn’t know anything about Vinohrady when we first moved here, we just thought it was pretty and close to the center,” Silvie says. “Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
The gems to be seen from the tram here include the baroque Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, built in 1670, and a quick flash in bright contrast of Frank Gehry’s Dancing House. At I.P. Pavlova, there is a metro stop and another big passenger exchange. This time though, more people get off than on and the car relaxes a bit. The busy commercial area quickly turns genteel, with a farmers’ market off to the right and then refined pastel-painted buildings lining the streets.
Vinohrady is anchored by the towering gothic St. Ludmila Church on Náměstí Míru. The name translates as Peace Square and the atmosphere is appropriate: the elderly sun themselves on the square, most happily relaxing with a dog by their side. At Christmas, there is a popular market here. Riding through, I catch tantalizing glimpses of possibility down every street. This is an area that demands you to explore her side streets.
We are leaving Vinohrady, heading back down a hill towards Vršovice, a neighborhood reminiscent of Břevnov earlier in the ride. Michael gets on. He’s an American who has lived in Prague for the past eight years. “When I think of a tram, I think of the 22,” he says. “I could close my eyes and name almost every stop.” He used to both live and work on the line and still finds himself riding it every week, even though he has moved to a new neighborhood. “I like the feel I get for the city when I’m riding the trams,” he says. “Although they can sometimes be stinky.”
Czech trams are notorious for their odors,
It is true that Czech trams are notorious for their odors, especially in the summer. In 2011, the Prague Transport Company decided to test various scents, including one of cinnamon and lemon, and special “aroma reservoirs” were installed. The smell was spread via the ventilation system but officials decided in the end not to go with it and we remain blessed with eau de sweat.
The Prague transport system has always been a two-sided coin of positive and negative. It has spoiled me to the point where I never want to own a car again. The “classlessness” of the trams and metro is also impressive; nearly everyone takes public transport, from businessmen in suits reading the newspaper to kindergartners out for a school trip.
As Silvie says, the trams are also romantic. “The old trams are a part of Prague. Looking at a bridge with a red tram crossing it, you think it should be there.”
While many historic aspects of the country were neglected under communism, Prague’s transportation system underwent important developments. The metro system began to be designed and built in the 1960s and, while at first it seemed trams were going to be phased out, planners saw the importance of above ground people movement as well. In the 1980s new cars were ordered and new tracks were laid – work which slowed down significantly after the Velvet Revolution. Modernizing both tracks and equipment is the priority now.
The Prague Transport Company has tried to capture that sense of romance at its Prague Transport Museum. A depot at Vozovna Střešovice is home to about 50 vehicles; lined up on the rails, appearing itchy to get out and ride. Historic photos, old ticket booths and former schedules show Prague’s trams are as much a part of her romantic vibe as the Charles Bridge. You can see the progression from the more square style to the rounder ones; all in bright red and somehow more proud-looking than their road-weary descendants plying the streets today.
Advertisements are slapped on the sides of today’s trams; some are even entirely wrapped in the ad – like a moving billboard. This is not a new phenomenon; back in the 1920s, trams had metal signs atop the roof regally advertising coffee and chocolate. There is even a replica 22 from 1948 and its schedule appears to be much the same as today; with Bílá Hora as one end station but ending a bit sooner than today, at Vršovické Náměstí.
The neighborhoods are becoming faceless
Back on our 22, the neighborhoods are becoming faceless. Streets are wider, and we have just gone under a freeway overpass. There are actually gas stations and a car dealership out here; proof we are becoming less city and more suburbs.
We pull into Nádraží Hostivař and my fellow six passengers scurry off in all directions into a maze of pedestrian tunnels. This is unwelcoming; a place to come and go quickly. But I have felt Prague. I have breathed her air from one side of the river to another, viewed her graffiti and experienced her beauty. I have seen Prague with her tourists and at home – from the upscale to the suburbs. She has no secrets – freely sharing her special spots with anyone willing to take a seat and go for a ride.
One of the most quoted lines about Prague came from Franz Kafka: “Prague never lets you go... this dear little mother has sharp claws. One has to yield, or else.” You read about the city’s romantic beauty, architecture, history… and it is there to discover by walking her streets. But riding the tram puts you into Prague’s soul – her people and her places.
The Prague transport system has always been a two-sided coin of positive and negative. It has spoiled me to the point where I never want to own a car again.
The magnificent Prague Estates Theatre feels like the warm living room of a thoroughbred Bohemian town. Prague, the city of Kafka, has a lot of charm but also a colorful history and I wanted to capture some of that here.
Yes, there was a gorgeous building around every corner. Sure, the parks, gardens and bridges proved impossibly romantic. And of course, the beer was rich and cheap and everywhere.
Silvie gets on Tram 22 with her two daughters. They have just had lunch at Café Louvre, one of Prague’s most storied dining establishments. She moved to Prague from South Bohemia nine years ago.
Damianne President has been living in Prague for the last four years, so we asked for her top tips for restaurants and cafés in the city.
Legend has it that the clockmaker of Prague’s famous Orloj, Hanus, was blinded by the town councillors so he could not make another, better one, elsewhere. He then disabled the clock in revenge.
Originally covered with royal vineyards, the leafy Vinohrady neighborhood of Prague is popular and hip; home to many expats, good restaurants and ethnic food shops. Neighboring Zizkov is its no-nonsense counterpart.
On Národní Street, the historic avenue placed on the boundary of Prague’s New Town and Old Town, the atmosphere feels somewhat brash.