My new 'brand' in the age of coronavirus

The 'Prague Walker'

The map shows the location of the Baba ruin and the 1930s' functionalist housing project in relation to my apartment (in blue). The ruins are 2km northwest of my place and the walk has the advantage (and disadvantage) of including a steep climb. Source: Google maps.
The origins of the Baba 'ruin' are surrounded in mystery. While it looks like some kind of Celtic shrine, the origins are actually more recent: an abandoned villa and wine-making operation from the 17th century. Photo credit: Mark Baker
When I said Baba hill was high, I wasn't exaggerating. This is the view toward the city of Prague to the north from near the Baba ruin. Photo credit: Mark Baker
One of around 35 functionalist villas that were built here in the 1930s as an experimental, early-modern housing project. Photo credit: Mark Baker

Baba (Ruins & Housing Estate)

The name “Baba” refers to a dramatic ridge, topped with fancy villas, that rises above the Vltava River, about 3km (2 miles) north of Prague Castle in the northwestern corner of the city. For years, the closest tram stop to my apartment was called "Podbaba," a name that translates as "Below Baba" (but I never once gave a thought for the "Baba" part of the name). Turns out it’s pretty cool up there.

The most striking object on the ridge is a giant, graffiti-covered wall of an abandoned building that looks a little like a misplaced Gothic church. I’d always thought the structure marked an ancient Celtic burial ground or something (not such a stretch as remains of Celtic settlements have been found north of here along the river), but the building has more pedestrian origins.

It’s apparently what’s left of a summer palace and vineyard from the 17th century. The ruin was given a romantic makeover in the 19th century, when the railroad was built through here to give passengers something to look at through the window. One of the coolest things I learned googling the ruin’s history was that the spot was briefly occupied by marauding Prussian and French troops in 1741 in the “War of Austrian Succession.” That global conflict kicked off in 1740, when Empress Maria Theresa assumed the Austrian-Habsburg throne and greatly rattled the patriarchy (to put it in modern terms). She fought back hard and eventually prevailed.

The other cool thing up here is a small housing development of unique functionalist villas from the 1930s. The Baba Estate is a grouping of around 35 privately-owned, experimental houses built along three parallel streets at the top of the ridge. The estate was modeled after the German Werkbund, and the houses show off those flat roofs and horizontal lines that were so trendy at the time. Unfortunately, the houses are not open to the public and some have been tastelessly restored, but the overall setting remains intact, and the area still feels arty and daring all these decades later.

This map shows the location of the Petřín Gardens in relation to my apartment (marked in blue). Strahov Stadium (not marked) would be toward the left part of the red zone. Source: Google maps.
The view toward Prague Castle as seen from the long, sloping orchard that runs up Petřín Hill. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The hike up Petřín Hill is definitely worth the effort. I took this photo in mid-March, when the trees were just beginning to bud. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Strahov Stadium is still listed on some sources as the world's largest venue for hosting spectator sports. It's sadly dilapidated now, and rehabbing it will pose a huge development challenge. Photo credit: Mark Baker

Petřín Gardens & Strahov Stadium

As you can see from the map, the trek over to the Petřín Gardens takes me out of my immediate neighborhood and I only head here once a week or so as a treat. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the gardens, atop a steep hill just west of Malá Strana, were a favorite among tourists (especially parents with kids). There’s a miniature Eiffel Tower (modeled after the Paris original at one-third the size) as well as a mirror maze and famous rose garden. On my last walk here, the rose garden wasn’t looking too good, but it’s still early in the season. In normal times, you can spare yourself the slog uphill by taking a funicular operated by the Prague Public Transport Authority.

The best part of Petřín, though, has nothing to do with the mirror maze, Eiffel Tower or even the funicular but a scenic walking trail that links the tower to the Strahov Monastery, near Prague Castle, to the north. The trail cuts across the top of a sweeping meadow and orchard, with beautiful views down to the river and Old Town in the backdrop.

Hulking Strahov Stadium stands just behind Petřín to the west and it’s easy to pair a stroll through the gardens with a visit here. The stadium’s capacity is listed as a whopping 250,000 spectators, making it the world’s largest sports venue (on some lists), though these days it serves as little more than a practice pitch for the Sparta Praha soccer club. The stadium was built in the 1920s to showcase the gymnastics events of the Sokol athletic movement, and during the communist period came alive every five years for the international Spartakiad games. The 1960 Spartakiad, the event’s historic high point, featured some 750,000 gymnasts and was attended by around two million people.

In the immediate post-1989 years, the stadium found new life as an occasional concert venue, and famously hosted the Rolling Stones on two occasions (1990 and ’95). I sadly missed both, but I did catch a pretty good Guns N’ Roses concert here in May 1992 in which Axl Rose comically opened the show with the line “Okay, you ex-commie bastards, it’s time to rock and roll!” In 1997, I saw U2 here on their regrettable PopMart (Pop Music) tour, which turned out to be so slick and overproduced that I bailed before the encore and walked home alone that night.

Letná and Stromovka are my main go-to parks and I consider myself fortunate to have them both nearby. A typical 90-minute circuit from my apartment (in blue), taking in both, amounts to 12,000 steps. Source: Google maps.
The view of Prague's Old Town from atop the ridge at Letná Gardens. Photo credit: Mark Baker
One of about 1,000 pretty meadows in Stromovka park. When I hit this part of the trail, along a horse path, I know I'm just 15 minutes or so from home. Photo credit: Mark Baker
A quirky, giant metronome marks the highest point of the Letná Gardens. I'm not a big fan, though it's an improvement over the statue of Stalin that stood here from 1955-62. Photo credit: Mark Baker

Letná Gardens & Stromovka Park

The walk to over to the Letná Gardens and Stromovka Park feels like cheating. The western entrance to Stromovka, by the now-abandoned Bubeneč train station, is just a few hundred meters from my front door. The two parks are located north of Prague’s Old Town, across the river, and are separated from each other by a narrow strip of pretty housing from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Though the parks are relatively close to each other, thanks to Prague’s confusing urban geography, they lie in distinctly different neighborhoods (something I learned only after updating the Lonely Planet Prague guidebook). Fun fact: Stromovka is in Bubeneč, while Letná is part of Holešovice (now you know!)

Both parks are beautiful, but in different ways. Letná occupies a high bluff above Prague’s Old Town, and the views here are the best in the city. There are plenty of cycling and rollerblading paths and a hodgepodge of architectural oddities, including a giant, 23m (75ft) -high metronome that works on some days (and others not).

The metronome, notably, occupies the same concrete pedestal that once supported a giant statue of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The story of the Stalin statue could fill an entire blog post, but the whole thing could easily be described as a case of bad timing. The statue was unveiled in 1955, just a few months ahead of then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech to a closed session of the 20th Communist Party Congress in Moscow. In the speech, Khrushchev exposed many of Stalin’s horrific crimes and unleashed a wave of de-Stalinization across the entire Eastern bloc. Prague’s Stalin statue was suddenly hideously out of fashion and was dynamited to rubble seven years later.

The space below the metronome is equally weird. During the communist period it housed a nuclear-fallout shelter, and then in the years after 1989, a pirate radio station. Most recently, the space was used as a bar and techno-music club, called appropriately “Stalin.” The club was closed down last year over concerns that the space might collapse, and it’s not sure what will happen once fears over coronavirus ease and the city returns to near-normal.

That was more about Letná than I intended to write. To be honest, most people come here mainly to have a beer at the summer beer garden, and that’s usually my reason too. The beer garden, like all other public drinking spots, is closed now for the duration, but you can still buy a take-away beer from a little kiosk on site.

As good as Letná is, Stromovka might even be better. The sprawling park, which was once used as a royal hunting ground, occupies an immense geographic indentation (like a big soup bowl) that stretches north toward the Vltava River and Prague Zoo. Floods that struck the city in 2002 ravaged relatively low-lying Stromovka, and in the years since, the city has lavished money and attention on the park to restore and improve it. These days, it’s a little piece of urbanized Eden, with hiking and cycling trails, a bridle path, playgrounds, grilling areas, a swimming pond and lots of hidden, tucked-away benches and gardens. The Vltava, by this point, is surprisingly rustic, and a makeshift walking trail, that few people ever use, hugs the bank.

This map shows the location of the Lysolaje & Šárka Nature Park. I normally enter the park where the Šárka creek enters the Vltava River north of my apartment (marked in blue). From there, I follow the water upstream until I get tired. Source: Google maps.
The main route of my hike through the Lysolaje & Šárka Nature Park takes me past this beautiful creek-side home. I have no idea who lives there. Photo credit: Mark Baker
One of my favorite walks in the Lysolaje & Šárka Nature Park follows the Šárka creek as it makes its way to the Vltava River. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The unusual and beautiful rock formations of the Divoká Šárka park, not far from Prague Airport and at the far western end of my hike through the Lysolaje & Šárka Nature Park. I only go this far when I'm feeling very energetic. Photo credit: Mark Baker

Lysolaje & Šárka Nature Park

The big find for me during this coronavirus lockdown has been the beautiful Lysolaje & Šárka Nature Park, located 2km (1 mile) west of my apartment. Several years ago, I would cycle the trails here with friends Stewart, Dave and Grant (you can read about those rides here on Grant's old bike blog), but it had been a long time since I poked around the endless hiking paths and roadways that follow the Šárka creek back from where it empties into the Vltava river all the way west to the bizarre rock formations of the Divoká Šárka park, near Prague Airport.

For being so close to the center of the city -- relatively speaking -- the park is much quieter during the day than Letná or Stromovka. The paths here are often empty. That’s a comfort in the age of social distancing. The Czech government recently relaxed the mandatory mask requirement for cyclists and joggers, and I now occasionally feel unsafe walking through crowded parks, as mask-less cyclists and joggers stream by (though I recognize the risk of transmission is low). It’s still rare to find a jogger along Šárka creek, and easy to step off the path if you see one to allow safe passage.

Readers: Scroll past the map for more photos, including pics of the abandoned center of Prague.

*While researching this story, I noticed there's already an outfit called the "Prague Walker" (www.praguewalker.com). Sorry guys, didn't mean to step on your turf, so to speak.

 

As this blog is mainly about Prague, I couldn't resist posting photos of an empty city in lockdown. This is Old Town Square, which by this time in the season would be packed with tourists. Photo credit: Mark Baker
A nearly empty Charles Bridge on a sunny day when normally this structure would be heaving. The photo reminds me of those wistful 1980s' days when tourists were still a rarity. Photo credit: Mark Baker
My walk over to Petřín Gardens & Strahov Stadium often takes me past Prague Castle. Even the castle guards these days are apparently in quarantine. Photo credit: Mark Baker
A view over toward Prague Castle from the eastern end of Charles Bridge on a beautiful spring day in April. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Another of the around 35 functionalist villas from the 1930s that form the historic Baba Housing Estate. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The Troja Chateau, on the northern shore of the Vltava River and north of Stromovka, is still closed for the season. It was looking resplendent on this spring morning in early April. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Emperor's Island (Císařský ostrov), at the northern end of Stromovka, is Prague's biggest Vltava island. At the western end is a sewage-treatment plant, while the eastern end is nearly abandoned and filled with horse stables. Photo credit: Mark Baker
My main route through the Lysolaje & Šárka Nature Park takes me past this little goat farm. Photo credit: Mark Baker
This dirt trail at the northern end of Stromovka park follows the shore of the Vltava River for a few miles. The trail isn't very well known -- even to Prague residents -- and it's quiet on most days. Photo credit: Mark Baker
This is the top of Petřín, with the miniature Eiffel Tower in the backdrop. At the top of the tower is an observation deck, with views out over something like a quarter of the entire country. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The front entrance of giant Strahov stadium. That's some kind of oversized communist monument on the right. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The ponds of Stromovka park. No one told these willows that spring wasn't happening this year. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The walking trails of the Letná Gardens follow a ridge above Prague's Old Town below in the distance. The views up here are among the best in the city. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The vast square in front of the Výstaviště Exhibition Grounds in Bubeneč was almost completely abandoned on this beautiful weekday afternoon in April. That's the 'Industrial Palace' in the background, built in 1891 to stage an industrial exhibition that was attended by Habsburg Emperor Franz-Joseph I. Photo credit: Mark Baker
This is taken from a red-marked hiking trail along a ridge that passes above the Lysolaje & Šárka Nature Park. Even in a lockdown, the trails here are often empty. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Ah, the fabled, much-missed Letná Beer Garden. As you can see, it's still roped off, but should be able to re-open sometime in late May if the Czech government's post-covid plans come to fruition. Photo credit: Mark Baker

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker