Introducing the hashtag Prague #RetroMetro

Time Travel On The Metro

A map of the Prague metro system as it stands in June 2020. The three lines (A-green, B-yellow, C-red) are clearly visible. The system has no 'central' station, but rather three main connecting stations where two lines cross. Source: Prague Public Transport Authority
The easily recognizable logo of the Prague Metro system. The 'M' here is in red to show entry to a station on Line C (red line). Courtesy photo.
This bronze statue of Czech 'cosmonaut' Vladimír Remek and his Soviet counterpart, Aleksei Gubarev, the work of Czech sculptor Jan Bartoš, stands near the entrance to the Háje metro station on Line C. The station was originally named 'Kosmonautů' (Cosmonauts) to celebrate Czechoslovak-Soviet cooperation in space flight. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Smíchovské Nádraží metro station on Line B features an oversized platform with a raised viewing area. It was nearly deserted on this coronavirus-lockdown day in early-May 2020. Photo by Mark Baker.

I love public transportation, but I’m more of a tram than a metro guy – at least where Prague is concerned. I even wrote a love letter of sorts to Prague’s trams, an ode to those "whales on rails," a few years ago: Riding the Rails of Prague.

My preference for trams in Prague has to do with the fact that the customs and habits you see on trams here reflect more the city's own traditions, and not simply a mode of transportation. Prague’s metro culture, by contrast, feels not unlike that of any other large city with a subway system anywhere in the world.

The little niceties of daily life you still find on Prague’s trams – like when a man gallantly springs to his feet to offer his seat to an older woman – are only halfheartedly enforced on the metro. It feels more like a jungle below ground. The main metro mores here include informal rules like “don’t make eye contact with strangers,” “don’t talk too much,” “don’t stand in front of the car door when people are getting on and off,” and, whatever you do, “don’t block the escalators.” Prague is definitely a “stand to the right, walk to the left” type of city.

Still, there are enough quirky aspects to Prague’s metro system to make for a fascinating study. The stations and lines were largely planned and built in the 1970s and ‘80s by the former communist regime. If you know where to look and what to look for, the stations remain a repository of history from a time when, in name at least, all was done for the glory of the working class. Prague still lacks a decent museum of communism (the privately run one we have now doesn’t really count). If you’d like a taste of life back then, you could do far worse than buy a metro ticket and spend an hour or so rocketing underground.

This amazing fountain stands just outside the Vltavská station on Line C. The fountain is called 'Faun and Vltava' -- the faun part refers to a mythical Roman character that's part human and part goat. It's the work of the artistic duo Miroslav Hudeček and Olga Hudečková from 1984. Photo by Mark Baker.
The exterior of the space-age-looking Vltavská metro station on Line C. This station is arguably both the most imaginative of the stations in terms of design ambition and the most badly neglected. It got a short-lived makeover in 2018-19. Photo by Mark Baker.
This is the upper-level interior of the Vltavská station on Line C. It partly resembles the command room of a space ship, and reflects the station's design ethos: somewhere between the retro-futurism of the 1960s and brutalism of the 1970s and '80s. Photo by Mark Baker.
This stone mosaic is another reminder of Czechoslovakia's space ambitions in partnership with the Soviet Union. It's called 'Kosmonauti' (Cosmonauts) and is the work of Czech artist Alois Fišárek. You can find it upstairs at the Háje metro station on Line C (which was once called 'Kosmonautů'). Photo by Mark Baker.

Prague’s metro is relatively small by world standards. The system has just three lines (see the map above). The lines are distinguished by both letter and color, and the order goes like this: Line A (green), Line B (yellow) and Line C (red). There’s no central station, where all three lines meet up. Instead, three different stations (Muzeum, Můstek and Florenc) serve as connecting nodes, where two lines cross. It’s very efficient and you can quickly cover a lot of ground.

Confusingly, the letters don’t correspond to the ages of the lines. The system was built up piecemeal, starting in the early 1970s, with parts of Line C being the first to go into service, in 1974. A few years later, the central stations of Line A were commissioned, followed a few years after that, in the mid-1980s, with parts of Line B.

The system has inched outward every half-decade or so since those early days, with the opening of many new stations. The last big extension came in 2015, when Line A was prolonged westward from Dejvická to its new terminus at Nemocnice Motol.

As a short aside, this most-recent build-out had a (temporarily) grievous effect on me as a travel writer (and on every other travel scribe writing about Prague). The extension moved the main arrival point to the city for visitors using the airport bus from the Dejvická metro station (where it had been for years) to a new station, Nádraží Veleslavín. Dozens of guidebooks were forced to rewrite their Prague transportation chapters or risk being out of date.

The three lines have different letters and colors, but more curiously, they also have three distinctly different personalities.

Line A might be termed the grandest (or even haughtiest) of the three. It connects the city’s main medieval attractions, including ancient Prague Castle (metro: Hradčanská), the Lesser Town (Malostranská), Old Town (Staroměstská) and Wenceslas Square (Muzeum). The names of the stations along this line don’t flirt much with excess or propaganda, but rather stick close to historic or geographic reality. A couple of stations even play on Bohemia’s long, rich tradition of religious reform. King George of Poděbrady, the 15th-century Hussite king, is honored at metro station Jiřího z Poděbrad, and Hussite preacher Jan Želivský is remembered by the station Želivského.

The stations along Line A also feature some serious international design cred, including those colorful, Pop-Art-like aluminum tiles (part concave, part convex) that line the underground walls and appear in so many Instagram posts on Prague. These were the inspired work of designer Jaroslav Otruba. Line A is also the deepest of the three lines, and many stations show off impressively long escalators. The station at Náměstí Míru even boasts the longest escalator in the European Union, a whopping 87 meters (285 feet), and has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

Line C, by contrast, is a kind of historical upstart, the radical or the rebel. It’s traditionally regarded as the “communist” line (which might explain that letter “C” or the red color!). Line C was built largely to connect the center of Prague with the sprawling worker-housing projects on the city’s southern edge that, back in the '70s and '80s, were the pride and joy of communist central planners.

The stations along Line C, with a few exceptions like Vyšehrad (the former “Gottwaldova”), are fairly ho-hum from a design standpoint; their respective glories are reflected instead in the lofty names that the communists originally gave them to promote their ideology (alas, most of the stations were renamed in 1990).

To give you a flavor, the metro stop at today’s Holešovice train station was once called “Fučíkova,” after the communist journalist Julius Fučík who was persecuted by the Nazis. The name “Gottwaldova” referred to Klement Gottwald, the country’s first communist leader who assumed power in the coup of 1948. Today’s Pankrác station was simply called “Youth” (to glorify youth, I guess); Opatov station was named “Friendship.” Some of my personal favorites include Chodov, once known as “Builders” (a tribute to those building the metro) and modern-day Háje, which was originally named “Cosmonauts” to honor the Russian space program.

Line B is harder to pigeonhole. It’s the system’s middle child: confused and neglected. Neither grand A nor radical C. For some reason, I can't help but think as I write this (and pardon the American reference) of that epic meltdown by middle daughter "Jan" in the classic 1970s' TV sitcom “The Brady Bunch.” "It's always Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," she cries (referring to her older sister, who was always perfect). Maybe the "B" stands for "Brady"?

There are a couple standout stations along Line B, such as Anděl, formerly called “Moskevská” to honor the city of Moscow. Most of the line, though, is fairly forgettable. I challenge anyone to list off the Line B stations from Smíchov, heading west, to its terminus at Zličín in the correct order (and without looking at a map). It can’t be done.

To make matters worse, the stations along Line B seem prone to a degree of blight that doesn’t afflict the other lines so severely. This is a purely subjective take, but stations like Anděl, Karlovo náměstí, Florenc, Invalidovna, Palmovka and others along Line B are some of the seediest in the system. Even central Národní třída station (National Avenue), which you’d think from the location would be pretty swanky, was awfully dank before they renovated it a few years back.

The Kobylisy station on Line C, which opened in 2004, features an oversized platform that's breathtaking to behold -- and also (pictured here) arguably Prague's saddest water fountain. Photo by Mark Baker.
One of eight socialist-realist bronze reliefs in the Anděl station on Line B highlights Czechoslovak-Soviet cooperation in space exploration. This station first opened in 1985 under the name 'Moskevská' (Moscow). Photo by Mark Baker.
The Vyšehrad station on Line C stands high above the Nusle valley, just south of the center of the city. The station was once called 'Gottwaldova,' in honor of the first communist leader of Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald. Photo by Mark Baker.
This photo shows the big platform at the Můstek metro station on Line B. Můstek is arguably the most confusing of all the stations. It connects lines A and B via a bewildering warren of narrow corridors, stairways, ramps and escalators. Photo by Mark Baker.

My first impression of the Prague metro, from visiting way back in 1984, was that it was a little cold. I’m not talking here about the physical temperature – though the deepest stations along Line A can remain chilly even in mid-summer – but rather the overall impersonal vibe of the place. Maybe it was my frame of mind back then. If you’ve read my blog post “The Case of the Missing Roommate,” you’ll remember that’s the trip I took here with my college roommate, Matt, and the two of us got separated in a comical, communist-era series of crossed wires. For three days, I had no idea what had happened to him, and I traveled up and down the metro lines hoping I’d catch a glimpse of him somewhere.

Back then, I was living in New York and my only point of reference for an underground transportation system was NYC’s shabby subway. By contrast, Prague’s metro was incredibly fast, reliable and clean, but it also felt a little depersonalized and robotic.

By way of an example, I remember a hot summer day in New York sometime in the mid-‘80s. My girlfriend Delia and I had hopped the subway for a trip out to the beach at Far Rockaway in Queens. At each station, the conductor would call out over the loudspeaker in that signature NYC subway sing-song: “All aboard! Watch the c-l-o-s-i-n-g doors! We’re heading for the beach!” It felt like a party train. The trip seemed to take hours as passengers would stick out their arms and legs at each station in order to block the doors -- just because they could.

In Prague, one of the first things I noticed was that there were no train conductors, as such. As the train would prepare to leave each station, instead of a human voice telling passengers to “watch the closing doors,” we would hear a rather stern-sounding recorded warning in Czech: “Ukončete výstup a nástup, dveře se zavírají” (Stop leaving and entering, the doors are closing).” I couldn’t understand a word at the time, but it sounded harsh. The doors would then slam (and I mean slam) shut. No one dared stick out an arm or leg just for fun as they’d be unceremoniously dragged to the next station.

Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, it should be mentioned, the Prague metro has become far more forgiving. They still play that same recorded message (click here to listen to an audio clip), but they’ve since added the word “please” (prosím) to the mix, as in “Please stop leaving and entering …” The voices now include women, and not just men. The doors have been rejiggered to be far gentler if they happen to close in on a late-boarding or -leaving passenger. No one’s going to lose a limb.

The platform at Želivského station on Line A. This was my 'first' metro station, as it was near the hotel I stayed in during my earliest visit to Prague in August 1984. I took this photo at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, in late-April 2020. It was practically deserted on an afternoon it should have been filled with passengers. Photo by Mark Baker.
'Peace Girl' as this statue is affectionately known stands near the entrance to Náměstí Míru ('Peace Square'), on Line A. The bronze statue is called 'Allegory of Peace' or simply 'Girl With a Dove' and was created by the Czech sculptor, Jan Kryštůfek. Photo by Mark Baker.
The platform for Line C at the Muzeum station. The builders had the good sense to place windows at the top of the escalators to allow sweeping views out over the platform. I used this station every day during my time as editor at Radio Free Europe, which had its headquarters directly above the station. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Prague metro in full lockdown mode. This is a very quiet Palmovka station on Line B in April 2020, as most of the city was sheltering in place from home. Photo by Mark Baker.

Over the years of living in Prague, I’ve warmed substantially to the metro and have grown to admire its speed and efficiency. I’ve even adopted several stations as my “home” station, depending on where I was living or working at the time.

My first apartment in Prague, in April 1991, was located directly above Staroměstská, and I quickly became acquainted, by sight, with the clerks working the station’s kiosks and the cast of characters who'd linger, day and night, at the entrances and exits. Some of those guys are still hanging around.

I later moved out to what was still a raggedy-looking Jiřího z Poděbrad station in Vinohrady. This was years before the neighborhood would gentrify into the café-lined, upscale quarter that expats lovingly refer to as “JZP” today.

In the early days of opening the Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse, in the mid-‘90s, futuristic Vltavská station, on Line C, became my regular. After that, when I worked at Radio Free Europe, I got to know every corner of Muzeum station, near to where the radio had its offices. These days, my “home” station is Hradčanská, on Line A.

Anyone who’s ever lived in the same city long enough knows the power of these types of daily associations. In Prague, particularly, the city has evolved rapidly over the past three decades – even become unrecognizable in places – but the metro stations have not changed all that much. For me, they still serve as handy points of reference, and not just to help me negotiate the city’s geography, but to remember its history -- and mine -- over the years as well.

(For more on the history and art of the Prague metro, see the website Metro Art. Author John Bills uses the metro stations as starting points for a history of Prague in his book, "Via The Left Bank of the '90s." Please feel free to post your own photos of the Prague metro to Twitter and don't forget to tag the pics #RetroMetro.)

One of the few communist-era slogans that's still clearly visible on the station walls. This relief is etched into the vestibule of Hradčanská station on Line A. The inscription reads: 'All power in the ČSSR (Czechoslovak Socialist Republic) belongs to the working people.' Photo by Mark Baker.
The beautiful vestibule at tiny Malostranská station on Line A features copies of baroque statuary, including this replica at the top of the escalator from Matyáš Bernard Braun. Malostranská is one of the few metro stations to forge an artistic link with its surrounding neighborhood, here drawing on the baroque origins of Prague's Lesser Town. Photo by Mark Baker.
Jiřího z Poděbrad on Line A is one of two stations to link thematically with the country's long-standing Protestant religious tradition. The station honors the first (and only) Hussite king, George of Poděbrad. The vestibule is lined with amazing -- and long neglected -- ceramic reliefs of 15th-century life, the work of artist Lubomír Šilar. Photo by Mark Baker.
The walls of Roztyly station on Line C are covered in decorative ceramic motifs. These convex and concave tiles -- in warm oranges and browns -- were frequently used in the 1970s and instantly recall for many Czechs those dreary 'normalization' days after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion when communism appeared here to stay. Photo by Mark Baker.
The eye-catching, Pop-Art-inspired aluminum tiling is a highlight of the station interiors along the metro's A (green) Line. The station names are even written out in a special font, called Metron Pro, which was created for the metro in the early-1970s by the Czech designer, Jiří Rathouský. Photo by Mark Baker.
The train station lobby above the Smíchovské nádraží metro stop on Line B is a Socialist-Realist treasure house, with these oversized ceiling lights and the upper walls on one side covered by an extended mural that extols the virtues of the peasants and the workers. Photo by Mark Baker.
The entry to the Anděl station on Line B greets passengers with a startling relief, linking Moscow and Prague. The station's original name, on opening in 1985, was 'Moskevská' (Moscow). True fact: to this day, there's a sister station on the Moscow metro named after Prague: 'Prazhskaya.' Photo by Mark Baker.
This baroque relief was discovered during construction of the I.P. Pavlova metro station on Line C in the 1970s and once marked the entrance to Prague's New Town. Instead of tossing it out, the authorities instead placed it on the vestibule wall, near the ticket counter. Photo by Mark Baker.
The super-long escalator at Náměstí Míru station on Line A is a tourist attraction in its own right. At 87m (285 feet), it's the longest escalator within the European Union. Photo by Mark Baker.
This giant installation sits at the top of the Palmovka station on Line B. It's called 'Soukolí' ('Gears,' Alexius Appl, 1987) and is meant to represent the industrial tradition of the surrounding neighborhood of Libeň. Photo by Mark Baker.
The metro station Jiřího z Poděbrad, on Line A, never replaced its super-fast communist-era escalators. Here's the view heading down to the platform. Photo by Mark Baker.
This neo-primitive piece of artwork stands at the entrance to the Můstek metro station (lines A and B), just off of Wenceslas Square. Thousands of people pass it every day without giving it a second glance. Photo by Mark Baker.
Often the most interesting design elements are not inside the stations, but rather just outside. This brutalist monument outside the Nové Butovice station on Line B commemorates the battle of Dukla Pass in World War II. In the distance, you can see artist David Černý's giant robot installation 'Trifot'. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Staroměstská (Old Town) metro station lies beneath the heart of medieval Prague. Oddly, the station has few overtly decorative elements. The high point is the beautiful red color used in the aluminum wall tiles. Photo by Mark Baker.

Comments

  1. Thank you Mark, I appreciated this trip in the Prague metro, awesome pictures- with some nostalgia and most importantly I also learned a lot things ! Great !

    Coincidentally today was the first time I took it to go to work (to my new job) in 8 years !

  2. Hi Mark…brought so many memories of my life in Prague…thanks for the story and the photographs are really great.

  3. Brilliant article as always, only complaint is that it is too short!
    My home station has always been Cerny Most on the “Brady line”, surely a competitor for the most badly designed and neglected on the network?

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


three × = 12

Photo of Mark Baker
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