By James Clasper
“You do want to see the real Bohemia,
don’t you?” purrs the drag queen opposite me, with
a lascivious smile and a raised eyebrow. It’s midnight,
and here in Chateau, a sleazy bar in central Prague,
college kids loaded on cheap absinth are running riot.
Brawny men in baseball caps and
penny loafers are downing pints and eyeing up ladies;
a sorority girl shrieks; tinny rock splutters out
of the stereo. All around me, corn-fed preppies are
spending their inheritance trying to capture the mythical
bohemian life. So, when the drag queen tells me about
Le Clan, a dive bar in Zizkov, I’m happy to go along
for the ride.
Zizkov is Prague’s most exotic district.
Traditionally working class and home to the city’s
large Romany population, Zizkov is popular today with
students and artists drawn to the cheap accommodation
and the neighborhood’s leftfield bars, clubs and restaurants.
Lying due east of central Prague, Zizkov is easily
to reach by bus, tram and metro.
But it is changing fast: the transformation
from blue-collar neighborhood to hipster hangout and
finally to over-priced yuppie hell is underway. Prague’s
bohemian spirit will soon have moved elsewhere.
My guide tonight is Jan, a six-foot-four
performing artist who says he practises black magic
and has promised me a bacchanalian descent to Hades.
Our first stop, Le Clan, is a discreet
hole in the wall. An unimposing door marks its entrance.
Inside, smoke curls up toward the ceiling, plush sofas
line the walls, and shadowy figures flit behind dark
Eschewing absinth (ever the tourist’s
favourite) for slivovice – a local plum brandy – Jan
tells me how much Prague has changed. He’s been here
for over a decade and remembers when the first wave
of expatriates came. The Berlin wall had barely fallen
when the hustlers and tycoons started pouring in.
And they’ve never really stopped. They have helped
turn the city from a sleepy, historical town to a
bustling, modern metropolis.
Stylish shops, bars and restaurants
are sprouting up every day in Prague’s ancient cobbled
streets and alleyways. For the city’s self-professed
bohemians, though, this gentrification has a downside.
“Some people can’t stand the somber
skies of the Prague winter or the throngs of tourists
in the summer”, says Jan. “But what saddens me is
that it’s getting harder to find those traditional
Czech pubs where you can get a pint for 20 Kc (80¢)
and meet painters, writers and musicians just trying
to get by.”
A short tram ride away is Hapu,
a much-loved Zizkov watering hole. It is one of Prague’s
smallest and shabbiest bars. There are few seats in
this threadbare venue, but what it lacks in size and
décor, it makes up for at the bar. Hardy Czech
beers vie for attention with a cocktail list that
ranges from potent classics such as mojitos and Manhattans
to house specialties made with fruit juices.
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