Spotlight Beautiful Letna Park - wide walkways, gorgeous trees, the ghost of Stalin, and the skateboarder's cure

05-04-2006 15:52 | Jan Velinger

There seems to be no end in sight to the rush of cars on Milada Horakova avenue in Prague, one of the main arteries leading through the Czech capital. It is a day when temperatures are soaring to record highs - somewhere in the neighbourhood of thirty degrees Celsius. On the other side of the throughway, Prague's famous Letna park and Letna plain, where Czechs as well as foreign visitors and residents go to rest, exercise, have picnics, take lovely walks and generally appreciate the most outstanding views of the city there are. Let's not stay a second longer on this noisy and dusty street, but escape to Letna - our destination in today's Spotlight...

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Hanavsky PavilionHanavsky Pavilion Letna park. Situated on a plateau above Prague, few sites could be more beautiful, set apart, yet so fully accessible in the middle of the pulsing city. Even a hundred years ago gentlemen and ladies in their best Sunday clothes promenaded its wide lanes, shaded by leafy overhanging branches from the park's many trees. Part of Letna was designed by the one of Prague's most famous head gardeners Frantisek Thomayer, around a Neo-Renaissance chateau that today houses a popular in- and outdoor restaurant where its advisable to get a cold beer on a day such as this one. You'll also feel just as if you were entering the past when walking through the park's western entrance where you will notice a gorgeous gem of a building, the Hanavsky Pavilion, a cast-iron structure built in 1891 in Neo-Baroque style for the Jubilee World Fair. It was later taken apart and reassembled at its present location. Also, a restaurant, its cupola rises up like a rare bird's egg. From there, you can look out at the city, hazy on a day like today, the Vltava river slow moving, sweltering in the heat. A mugginess lies over the Old Town, the far embankment is a mirage of greened bronze roofs and ancient church spires.

Stalin's MonumentStalin's Monument As you move on through Letna, from either side, you will soon find many of its winding paths, spider in to a central pedestal still referred to as Stalinuv pomnik, or Stalin's Monument, a bombastic plateau of marble where a monstrous statue dedicated to the Soviet dictator once stood. Unveiled in 1955, it was the largest group statue in Europe, 15.5 metres in height and 22 metres in length. The great tyrant Stalin was represented leading the way forward, followed by a line of archetypal socialist figures including: the manual labourer, a woman farmer, and of course, a soldier. In those days, those who recognised the Socialist experiment for the period of descending darkness it was, whispered sardonically that the statue was really a line of those waiting for a loaf of bread. Still, Stalin's grip eventually lessened, if only after his death. His monument only lasted till 1962, after which it was blown to smithereens. The cult of the dictator's personality finally unravelled even here.

Today, the remaining slabs of the marble site are mostly untended, a giant metronome has stood above the city since 1991, ticking away the time, and the remnants of the crumbling marble stairs, and metal railings have long been rediscovered, and claimed, by a new sub-culture. If you guessed the culture of skateboarders, you were on the right track.

Alright, and the gentleman in front of me has just done a trick on his skateboard and his name is...

"Tomas Winter."

Do you come and skate here regularly?

"Yeah, I'm here like five times a week, as much as possible, because it's quite good here..."

Why is that?

"It's all marble, that's the main thing. Then like, all the people from Prague are here everyday, I can meet everyone..."

I notice you've got bits of steps that have been taken apart here, you're doing jumps on them.

"Yeah, it's everything here, it's ledges down the stairs, it's stairs here, some curbs, you see, we build it from the things that are here, marble blocks. We use them to skate on them, like to slide and grind."

Obviously the view is quite amazing as well...

"That's why it's so unusual, the place. You can skate, you can sit down, and watch the whole city from here..."

And that's precisely the point. Letna park attracts because it gives visitors the impression of floating above everyday problems, escaping a little while from the daily grind.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK With the such beautiful spring weather, the flowers in bloom, Letna park is truly claimed by Prague's own...

dozens, even hundreds of people on in-line skates,

young couples with baby carriages,

children,

dog owners,

and even the odd Tai Chi enthusiast.

Yet, given the park's size, it never really manages to feel overcrowded.

The head of the Parks Authority that manages Letna, Katerina Vaculova, confirms that since the early 90s the rush back to Letna has been great:

"Although I can't tell you exact figures, it is safe to say that over the last ten years the number of visitors to Letna has increased at least three-fold. Last year, added to that as well with the flooding in August, which affected other parts of Prague. Letna replaced Stromovka in terms of recreational use, and the park was literally bursting with visitors. Also, lifestyles have changed considerably. Less and less Prague residents go away to cottages on the weekends - including both those who are worse off financially and those who spend most of their time at work and can't get a break."

Meanwhile, the Parks Authority has been doing everything within its power to make Letna, and the many other sites it manages, charming for visitors than ever.

Letna park, Photo: http://www.tenzor.cz/praha/letna/Letna park, Photo: http://www.tenzor.cz/praha/letna/ "Just this year, on a meadow near the former Stalin monument, we planted a whole new orchard of apple trees, transported from Prague's famous Pruhonice gardens. It is a beautiful selection, where each tree should bloom differently and even though the orchard is young, I would highly recommend it for visiting."

Even now, most of the people I spoke with, however, are more than happy with how things are run at Letna park:

"I'm going dancing, break-dance here because I'm a 'breaker', and today is nice weather, so I wanna dance."

What can you tell me about this park? What do you like about it?

"I like it. I live nearby, and I'm here everyday. It's a beautiful place for a walk and to be with friends."

So I'm here with...

"Ian Donnegan with his son Ian Donnegan. Two Ian Donnegans!"

I noticed you've got a football, who's teaching who the tricks, in this case?

"I sometimes wonder, I think my son's teaching me!" {laughs}

Alright. How, do you guys like Letna park? An important part of the city, would you say?

Letna park, Photo: http://www.tenzor.cz/praha/letna/Letna park, Photo: http://www.tenzor.cz/praha/letna/ Yeah, yeah, it's good to come up here to relax, to kick the ball about... Ian likes his roller skates, so he does a bit of rollerblading. And he comes to look at the girls too!"

"No. He's joking."

And, in the end, what about that old Stalin site, broken-down and in use only by skateboarders? That site does not come under the jurisdiction of the Parks Authority itself, so it is unclear what the city may decide to do with it in the future. Plans - some of them quite outlandish, including building an aquarium to feature sharks and manta rays on the site - were put forward in the past, but were found either unrealistic, or damaging to the purpose of the park itself - a place to find quiet, and a little peace of mind. The way things stand today, nobody really gets in anyone else's hair. Certainly, the skateboarders hope things will remain pretty much the same. And for that matter, so do probably most of those who have been lucky enough to experience the charms of Letna park.

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