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Travel Image: Zizkov Prague
 Photo: Garth Leach
Travel Image: Zizkov Prague
 Photo: Nicolas Metivie

Prague: Bohemia Lost
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 red curtains.

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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