In today’s Spotlight we don’t have to travel too far. Just a forty-five-minute tram ride uphill from the centre of Prague takes us to one of the largest parks in the city. Not long ago, its greenery was untended and the historic building in the middle of it was inhabited by a commune of squatters. But after a recent facelift, Ladronka, as the park is called, now offers something for everybody.
Ladronka, located on a hill in the smart residential district of Břevnov in Prague 6 is not only one of the city’s largest parks, but also one of the busiest. On a sunny summer weekend its enormous lawns are covered with blankets – people having picnics, reading books or just sunbathing. Hundreds of inline skaters circle the tarmac tracks, some holding hands, others pushing baby prams. Once a forsaken corner of Prague, Ladronka has now become one of the liveliest areas in the city – all thanks to a thorough refurbishment of this picturesque place which has a long and colourful history.
“Ladronka was founded as a farm winery by Charles IV., the future king and emperor, in 1340. There was a wine-press and vineyards were planted on the hill here. We like to say this place exists thanks to Charles’s love of wine. Also, a road to Charles’s Karlštejn Castle went past the farm. That’s why there is a small chapel outside the farmhouse, with stations of the cross. This used to be the main road in this direction out of Prague, or more precisely from Prague Castle.”
Tomáš Kodíček, owner of the company that runs the multi-purpose facility, told me more about the history of the former farmhouse. It was rebuilt a number of times in the past but has been preserved to this day in its baroque form.
“In 1688 Ladronka was bought by the Italian Count de la Crone, hence the name Ladronka. The locals mispronounced his name and it finally stuck. Otherwise the word Ladronka doesn’t mean anything. Later Ladronka was owned by knights from the Sovereign Military Order of Malta until the beginning of the 20th century. After the Second World War, it was turned into a warehouse and later still, into small rental flats. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the premises were occupied by squatters. In 2000, the group was evicted after the building was declared a national monument. At that time renovation of the whole premises began, including the park.”
Renovation of the park, owned by the Prague 6 municipality including the historic farm building, took place in the years 2004 – 2005 at the overall cost of 80 million crowns, shared by the Prague 6 municipality and the city of Prague. In the following year, Ladronka was voted Czech Republic’s best construction of the year.
In 2005 Ladronka opened to the public, offering a number of restaurants, cycling and skating trails and sports equipment rentals. Five years later, two beach volleyball courts were built as well as one beach football pitch – one of only two in Prague – complete with a grandstand for a few hundred people, so various tournaments can be held here. The inline skating track was extended – it is now five-kilometres long with parking spaces on either side of the leisure complex.
For many citizens of Prague, especially those in their thirties and forties, the name Ladronka is still strongly associated with its history of alternative lifestyle and culture. The concerts and other cultural events organized by squatters in the 1990s were legendary. Tomáš Kodíček again.
“We do hear interesting stories. I myself did not visit the squat, but we sometimes have guests here, now wearing suits and ties, who used to come here. There was this young lady recently and she wanted to see a particular room in the building. We told her that we have a kitchen there, in that corner. And she said: ‘Oh, that used to be Pavel’s bedroom.’ Those are funny stories. But I must say I believe that it was partly thanks to those squatters that Ladronka was preserved in a decent state before the renovation. Because they did not do any harm to it. On the contrary. I think that within their possibilities they kept it habitable. Perhaps Ladronka would have been a total ruin if it hadn’t been for the squatters.”
The former illegal inhabitants are very likely among those who now bring their small offspring to the new Ladronka to cycle and roller skate in the summer, fly kites in the autumn or try some cross-country skiing in the wither. From a centre of alternative culture Ladronka has turned into a place of mainstream entertainment.
“There is plenty to do all year round but for us the main season is summer. You can play beach volleyball and football, or you can try bowling, inline skating or pétanque. We will even rent you the equipment. At weekends you can come here, play some sports, have a meal or you can borrow a grill for a barbecue. We provide the grill, the charcoals, matches, even the meat, as well as disposable plates and cups and a blanket. You can have your barbecue in the park and bring all the things back later, we will do the washing up ourselves. And it’s quite affordable. We also welcome children. There is a playground for small kids in front of the building. We offer something for every generation and we have many activities especially for families with children.”
Indeed, Ladronka is a versatile leisure centre. Four restaurants cater to its visitors in the summer, two work all year round, including a bowling alley and a bar with an open kitchen. There is something to please every palate. A posh restaurant upstairs with a new chef who has worked with the British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay offers a fine dining experience. But you can also grab a quick bite to eat in the fast food place downstairs in the summer if you get hungry after having burnt all those calories on the inline skating track. A popular venue for various formal events, Ladronka is going to witness a unique ceremony in the spring, as Tomáš Kodíček tells me.
“Besides company events we like to organize weddings. And we are going to have a curiosity here. On June 8, we will hold the first ever mass wedding in Prague. Fifty couples will be wed here by the mayor of Prague 6. Also, ahead of the ceremony, the engaged couples will be competing in the media to become the Audience’s Choice and the winning couple will get a brand new car. There will be prizes for runners up as well. So we hope that at least for someone participation will be interesting.”
If you are around on June 8 and see a bevy of brides at Ladronka, you don’t need to be afraid that you’re hallucinating. On all other days, Prague citizens and visitors can enjoy cycling, a game of football or volleyball, a quick snack or a black tie dinner at Ladronka park and leisure centre. Or you can just go for a slow walk along the hill and enjoy the magnificent view from its crest, a view which Charles IV. himself might have enjoyed of a city to whose fame and glory he contributed so much.