Vadim Erent runs Insight Cities, a tour company that promises to give visitors a deeper perspective on the cultural and political histories of more than half a dozen cities, including Berlin and New York. The firm began here in Prague, where the Russian-born US citizen has been living for the last 11 years. And our tour of “Vadim Erent’s Prague” begins near his Letná home, specifically on a bench overlooking Stromovka Park by the Místodržitelský letohrádek, or Governor’s Summer Palace.
“Originally this is an old hunting lodge that was built in the Gothic style at the end of the 15th century. Then it went through the process of rebuilding, of renovation, as has happened to so many other buildings in Prague.
“It also served as the residence of the commander-in-chief of the Swedish army, and ultimately became the Governor’s Summer Palace, which is what it’s known as today. Presently it serves as an archive for newpapers and journals.”
You know what’s crazy? Before this week I’d never seen this building and now I’ve seen it twice – I came this way by chance a few days ago. It really is quite something. Also what’s amazing here is the view – we’re at treetop level looking out over Stromovka.
“That’s exactly right. And I think this is one of the rare places in Prague where you can enjoy the view of paneláks. They are very smoothly built into the landscape of the hills – I think they look quite happy.
“You can also see a little over there to the left of us the Botanical Garden.”
You live in this area – how do you find living here?
“It’s an amazing place to live. Especially for families. We’re situated between Stromovka and Letná Park and it’s like living between the two lungs of Prague, the largest park areas.
“It’s quite a decision when I get out of our flat with my daughter, whether to go right to walk through Stromovka or left to go to Letná.”
Which does she prefer?
“It depends on the day and which park she has in mind.”
I know you’re an expert on the history of Prague – tell us something about Stromovka’s past.
“One thing that needs to be said about Stromovka is that it used to be hunting grounds for the royals. And later on – and this I’ve heard on one of your radio shows – a tunnel was dug to bring in water for fishing.”
“It collapsed twice actually. We could see the craters from here and see the areas being roped off.”
But luckily nobody was killed.
“Not that we know of!”
Maybe they covered it up. Or covered them in under the ground.
“Yeah. It would be interesting to drive under Stromovka when the Blanka tunnel opens. If it ever does.”
From the Governor’s Summer Palace, Erent takes me through Stromovka to the adjacent Výstaviště, an exhibition ground and Art Nouveau industrial palace that has perhaps seen better days. Indeed, one wing of the palace was destroyed by fire six years ago and has yet to be rebuilt.
“This is part of our neighbourhood and when we take a walk we end up here. But it also has a very interesting history. This is the ground of the general jubilee exhibition of 1891 – it was celebrating the jubilee of the first industrial exhibition in 1791, which was held at the Clementinum.
“There are lots of very interesting things to see here. For example, this is the Lapidarium…”
Is this where the original statues are from Charles Bridge?
“That’s exactly right. The statues that have survived from Charles Bridge are stored here.”
So that means all the ones that are on the bridge are replicas?
“That’s right. They still try to renovate them. Every year we see a few of them being taken off or renovated right on the bridge. But most of the originals, or at least the originals that have survived, are here at the Lapidarium.
“What’s interesting is that the Lapidarium is itself dilapidating right now. So it’s a good example of the etymology of dilapidation.”
Is the main building here at Výstaviště still used for trade fairs? I know it was until a few years ago but then they had a big fire.
“They did but they are using it for all kinds of exhibitions and fairs. A few years ago, I remember, there as an Expats event.
“It’s a beautiful place. But what’s strange about it is that we’re almost alone here. It feels almost abandoned but yet it’s a functioning complex.”
Where we’re standing now there’s a kind of loop, just by the entrance to Výstaviště, where trams turn around. But you were saying earlier that there was some interesting historical tram that came here.
“That’s right. The very first electric tram in the Austro-Hungarian Empire ran from Letná Park to the exhibition grounds in 1891.”
“It’s my understanding that it used to serve as the congress for the Communist Party.
“And of course the architecture itself is interesting. This is the Prague version of the Crystal Palace, from the 19th century. It’s glass and steel architecture. The façade is made almost entirely of glass with steel frames.”
As we leave Výstaviště, Vadim Erent suggests a beer at the nearby Veletržní Palace, a huge building of similar vintage that houses the modern art collection of the Czech National Gallery. The palace’s high-ceilinged ground floor is today home to Café Jedna, surely the brightest and airiest spot of its kind in Prague.
“There’s so much volume here, so much space, you wonder what else they could have done in this space other than have a café. But it’s very nice sitting here.”
Do you often go to the modern art gallery here?
“My daughter had an art class here during the school year so I would come here every week.”
It seems strangely unpopular for the National Gallery’s modern gallery. No-one seems to like it, no-one seems to come here. Some people also say that is should be free, as its equivalents are in some countries, like the UK.
“The UK, or the United States also has free admission to some of its museums. I certainly think it would be a great service to the residents of Prague.
“Or even, for example, if there was a possibility to have an annual pass that would allow us to visit all the different spaces of the National Gallery. That is something the zoo is doing, for example – you can have an annual pass for the zoo and go there any time you want to. I think that could work very well.”
Also this is the “national” gallery. We pay taxes so we’re funding it in a roundabout way and directly, every time we come here.
“Absolutely. We’re funding it with our taxes. But I think they don’t want the tourists to come in for free. So I think the idea of an annual pass would work very well. Because the locals, the residents, would be able to buy the annual pass and the tourists would still pay the full price of admission.”
But also even letting the tourists in for free mightn’t be so bad. They might buy some postcards.
“That would be extremely progressive [laughs].”
Getting away from the gallery here and getting back to the café side of things, what other cafés do you like in Prague?
“There’s another café that has just got a new owner. It’s called Basama and they serve Matuška beer.”
One of the best Czech beers.
“Yes, and it’s very rare to find it on tap. And of course there are the kind of standard places, like Café Louvre, which I like to visit for the sake of being in the presence of its history.”