On the Eastern side of the Vltava river, not far from Letná’s booming neighbourhood and Holešovices hustle and bustle, lies a district of Prague that is mainly known for its metro stop. Now, however, Palmovka and Libeň are next up on Prague’s rapid development plan to becoming a major capital city. Many historical legends and tales to uncover, castles and ruins to visit.
A bumpy tram ride over Libeňsky most reveals a whole new part of the city. Only a few years ago, people that stranded over on the other side of the river because they missed their tram stop must have wondered ‘where the heck am I’? Lots of old, badly maintained bistros and shops greeted a visitor upon his arrival. In 2019, however, things are looking up for both Palmovka and Libeň – and they come with an interesting history and many curious sights to discover.
Landing in Palmovka
Palmovka – the name vaguely makes one think of warm temperatures, tall trees and sandy beaches along the river running through Prague. And while a water body and embankments can be found, the absence of beach feeling and exotic cocktails makes one wonder: Why would anybody name this part Palmovka?
The district got its shiny name from a woman that inherited the mighty vineyard towering over the area. Known as Homestead number 59 in Libeň first, the two vineyards were first bought by Adam Fridrich in 1631. He sold his property to the ‘noble and brave’ bishop Matěj Vojtěch Miler of Mildenburk, who at the time was not only a bishop, but also alderman and merchant in New Town. After his death, the vineyard (named Milerka, after its former owner) was splitted between his heirs. His daughter – who was married to Daniel Palm – inherited part of the large property. They and their heirs held the vineyard and property for over 50 years, and so the area became known as ‘Palmovka’.
In 1832, Frantisek Antonin Muller bought the vineyard Palmovka with its buildings, barns, fruit trees and pavillons and errected a soap and candle factory in his house. It became clear that Palmovka would be of industrial worth to the city. In the late 1800s, the network of streets began to form and the old homestead disappeared under it, was replaced by factories, buildings and streets.
Libeň’s History at a Glance
Libeň was – according to archeological findings – inhabited in the early Stone Age already. Several skeletons were found and even traces of the Celtic era in Unetice , Knoviz , Bylanic und La Tène.
The first record of Libeň dates back to 1363. Back then, Liben had two fortresses – one of them looming over Thomayerovo Sady, the other one marking the border to Vysočany,
During the Prussian invasion in 1757, Libeň took heavy demolition. The needed repairs and extension of the fortress in Rokoko-style were planned by mayor Václav Fridrich von Friedenberg – and paid for by emperor Maria Theresia. Von Friedenberg had gotten her approval by telling her, that the newly renovated castles would be used by the be royal family whenever they visited Prague. The castle still stands up to this day and truly makes a picturesque sight, leading into Thomayerovo Sady. It was probably because of the renovations that King Leopold’s coronation procession was held in Libeň.
Not only back in the day Libeň was stage for important, historical events. On May 27th, 1942, the hill Bulovec in Libeň was the death bed of one of the most influencial and gruesome personas in the Third Reich: Reinhard Heydrich. It was in the Kobyliska curve at the crossing of ‘V Holešovičkách’ and ‘Zenklova’ street, that the paratroopers Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš in the operation Anthropoid attacked the Reich Protector. Heydrich was rushed to Bulovka hospital, where he died on June 4th, 1942.
Though yesterday’s traces are still visible in this part of town, improvements have started. And it’s more than the newly erected benches and the street book swap next to the tram stop that are proof of that development.
Discovering Libeň’s and Palmovka’s Treasures
The Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal – often cited as one of the best Czech writers of the 20th century – spent the majority of his life in Libeň. His stories ‘In-House Weddings’ and ‘Gentle Barbarian’ are both staged in Libeň. The works and life of Hrabal ended with him jumping out of the hospital window of Na Bulovce. Though officially named a ‘fall while feeding pigeons’, his doctor did not have a doubt that he had attempted suicide. His memory, however, lives on: In the street, where he used to live. On Na Hrázi 24, three walls were converted into a mural for the writer.
It is a wall full of motives and pictures of Hrabal’s books dedicated to the popular Czech poet. Besides other themes, the artist Tatjana Svatošová painted Hrabal’s typewriter and his 16 cats – which were Hrabal’s company throughout his life. A different kind of Lennon Wall minus the crowds.
We’ve made it to the heart of Libeň: Libeňsky Chateau. Built in Rococo style and surrounded by a well kept garden, it is the successor of a former Gothic castle, which stood at this exact place in 1363. The Chateau next to the river also managed to enter the history books. It was here, that Emperor Rudolf II concluded the Peace of Libeň. Though his brother, Matthias, was planning an incursion in Prague, Rudolf’s claim to the throne was secured by the Czech nobility – even if just for a short time. He eventually had to hand over the rule over Hungary, Moravia and Austria to Matthias.
Significantly damaged through the Prussian Incursion, the nowadays marvellous building needed funds to be renovated. Donations came from no other than Maria Theresia herself, which in exchange used the building as temporary residence during her visits to Prague and Terezin fortress.
The barely altered outside houses a only partially kept up style on the inside. Nonetheless, Libeňsky Zamek inhabits one of the most famous wedding halls since the 60’s! With paintings by Czech artist Ignac Raab, it’s not only newly weds that love to marvel at the interior.
Upon walking up the right hand side of Libeňsky zamek, a green and ivy kissed entrance to a garden greets us. What follows are well kept walkways that lead up the hill. New benches and seating options have been installed by the government recently, which make it an asbolute delight to look over to the Vítkov Monument, the TV tower and Karlín from up here.
Following the path downhill, U Meteoru‘s beer garden greets visitors, inviting them to rest their legs and fill their bellies. The beer garden overlooks the flatter part of the park, which inhabits a playground and also one of Prague’s oldest fountains (Libenska studánka). The park is quiet and only a few other bodies lay in the sun, sip their beer or jog along the Vltava.
Leaving the park through the massive, white gates we know from ferry ports, we spot a community garden that is being looked after by several motivated gardeners and individuals with a green thumb. It seems like the perfect spot for vegetables and flowers to grow: On the embankment by the river, shade provided by the nearby maple trees. Only a few steps further down, a hip outdoor bar called ‘Long Island’ grabs our attention. Open after 4pm, the place serves refreshments in a green area right by another historical sight: Löwitův mlýn.
Church of Saint Adalbert (Svaty Vojtěcha)
We follow the chestnut alley back to Libeňsky Zamek and follow the main street to our left, which leads us deeper into Libeň. After passing the Gymnasium, a darkly colored, big building grabs our attention.
Behind the beautiful Art Nouveau facade of the church between the gymnasium and the Sokol building, lies a trouble-ridden past. Even before it was started to be built, problems arised. First, because the property it was supposed to be built on was partially privately owned, so the bishop had to do his magic to grant the erection of the church.
When finally towering over the Libeň area, the next issue arose: Though they wanted to dedicate the church to Saint Anežka Přemyslovna, they hadn’t asked the Vatican for permission in time. And so it was suddenly dedicated to John the Baptist. Whether it was karma that followed or just the bad luck the church seemed to have; in 1905, due to a heavy hailstorm, 22 big and 6 small windows of the church burst. Water made its way into the inside and damaged the organ.
The unlucky streak continued and only got worse. World War I did its damage to the church and the bells were collected. Worn down, robbed of its important bits and with no money to restore the building, it vegetated for years. It was only in 1967, that the architects and building companies got enough money together for the renovation and stabilisation of the building.
Svaty Vojtěch is one of the most impressive Art Nouveau buildings in all of Czech Republic. Its system of vertical mural construction and the elaborately formed gutters and roof (made from wood), carry small decorative and architectonical elements.
This architectural beauty located East of Košince street, was once owned bew Jewish industrialist Hermann Grab. His family emigrated in the middle of the 19th century to Bohemia, so Hermann could take on the position as director of the family owned company ‘M. Grab Sons’. He and his brother had bought the property in ‘Košinka’ and erected a big wax cloth factory. By the end of the century, Grab’s leather, waxed canvases and carpets factory was the biggest of its kind in the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy. It was his factory that had built huge buildings and living quarters in the city and helped the community to gain financial stability.
The mansion was robbed of its former glory and positive memories of a business man around World War II. The Hitlerjugend occupied the building for their purposes. This, however, a group of patriotic Czechs was not willing to tolerate. And so, in the days of the Prague’s occupation, they opened fire against the intruders. Several young Czechs lost their lives – one of them Jiří Hunal, whose plaque of honor can be spotted on the main gate.
Nowadays, the former mansion is used by the government of Prague 8 – and of course, to be marveled at by the public.
Jewish Syngagogue Libeň
As we meander back to Palmovka’s tram stop, a white, massive building in the middle of the square catches our eye. Libeň used to be home to what was referred to as the “Jewish Town”.
Established in the 16th century, the small city part grew immensely throughout Libeň area, resulting in it being the second most significant Jewish settlement in Prague. It was Jan Hartvik of Nostice, who allowed the local Jewish community to rule themselves and offered them legal safety. It was no other than Maria Theresia that was a crucial (financial) part to the expansion of the area in the 18th century.
The old Jewish cemetery used to lay in front of Libeňsky most, next to the train station Libeň-Dolní nádraží. Sadly, it was diminished in the 60s – along with the Jewish town. Only the Jewish Synagogue – built in Neo Romanesque style – reminds of the Jewish community in Libeň. Sadly, the community never revived after World War II. The Synagogue, however, started to be used for artistic, theatrical and musical events and the mutual connecting of individual fields of art.
Next to historically significant sites that tell the tales of the city, there is lots of little establishments to relax and unwind, shop and marvel at in today’s Libeň and Palmovka. As we stroll back from Grabova Vila towards Palmovka’s metro station, we encounter several lovely bars and coffee places that beckon us to walk towards them.
The lovely and bright roastery, coffee house and bakery ‘Alf&Bet‘ has recently opened in Palmovka. The modern interior paired with the perfect tunes they are playing, makes you want to stay and try their whole breakfast and coffee menu. The modern design, delicious coffee and open space makes you want to sit down and observe Palmovka waking up. If you are feeling more like a cold beer from the tap, Tankovna next door to EMA is the perfect spot to relax and digest the journey through Libeň.
Further up in Palmovka, the Film Legends Museum makes for a fun afternoon, seeing the heroes of comic and action movies, as well as fairytales. He, who pries further towards the O2 arena will also spot Mexicali: THE spot for finger licking good, authentic tortillas, burritos and mexican produce. And if you are looking for freshly poured beer that has been brewed after family tradition, Café VisitInn on Sokolovská pours Hendrych beer and is the perfect place to unwind from a walk through captivating history and ancient buildings. They also serve breakfast and lunch goodies!
Back to the Future: Plans for the Districts
Palmovka was avoided by the public and ignored by the government for many years. It was even known as the ‘main meeting point’ of homeless people, for the longest time. In 2014, however, it was decided that the revival of the district shall be taken on. The district ‘has the potential to become the new center of the Eastern part of Prague‘. And so they started to reinstate, renovate and build in Prague 8.
Though still in progress, the changes in the past few years are visible to the public and there is lots of lovely nooks and crannies to be explored already. Coffee shops, museums and big names are making their way out to Palmovka. Recently, we’ve seen an emigration of well-remunerated companies and names moving their locations to Palmovka and Libeň.
What makes these two districts so interesting is their rich history as well as their ancient buildings, as well as a little grunge that were melted together. Whether you are interested in old sagas and architectural masterworks or modernism and specialty coffee has your heart, Palmovka and Libeň make for a phenomenal local experience.
Libeň and Palmovka are not on your sightseeing list yet? Then you should check out the two districts in Prague 8 and see the remains of a hectic past yourself.
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