Cities are forever changing and shifting, reflecting new trends in the global village. In most modern cities, the word ‘gentrification’ is either bandied about with a smile or spat out with vehemence, depending on whether you’re moving in or being pushed out. But however you see it, gentrification seems an unavoidable force of modern city living. Traditionally industrial or low-income areas segue into trendy up-and-coming locales, bringing an influx of developers and young residents, eager to find new spaces to fill with organic coffee shops and artisanal bakeries.
Holešovice, Prague, is a prime example of a neighbourhood in the infancy of such a transformation, slowly being reinvented piece by piece. Historically, this was an area of heavy industrial activity, with warehouses, low-cost housing and even a sewage treatment plant. Globalisation and the decentralisation of industry from the city have led to many factories falling into disuse, and a new breed of residents and businesses are moving in.
A key element in the quarter’s transformation – and identity – is the Vltava River. It surrounds the neighbourhood on three sides, separating it from the city centre and the hub of Prague’s bustling activity. The waterway flooded in 2002, causing a fair amount of damage, and in the course of the repairs Holešovice was given a facelift, with houses being rebuilt and infrastructure improved upon.
Christoph Amthor, a writer and journalist who has been based in Prague since 2003, has lived in Holešovice for many years. “100 years ago, Holešovice was a busy industrial area. Here you could find a myriad of factories, many of which exported overseas, as well as Prague’s main slaughterhouse, railways tracks in the streets and storehouses everywhere.” Walking through the area today, you’ll see traces of this industrial past, although much of it is being repurposed or replaced, and the neighourhood’s commercial history is slowly fading.
Christoph says there are two reasons for this. “Generally, factories moved out of living quarters – nobody wants to have a smoking chimney next to your living room and trucks roaring through your neighbourhood. Secondly, during the time of the Iron Curtain, the Vltava River was disconnected from sea harbours (i.e. via Hamburg) and downgraded to a merely domestic waterway. Then it was only a question of time, until the general boom of Prague would also catch Holešovice.”
Despite the encroaching gentrification, the suburb is still largely undiscovered by both tourists and locals alike. Christoph considers it something of an unknown gem. “There are actually only two places that attract tourists to Holešovice: The Holešovice market area and DOX, which is a gallery of modern art. Both, however, are not located in the core of this neighbourhood… Even friends who have lived here for ten years or more don’t know much about this place.” But the suburb is slowly being brought to attention, as more and more travellers seek to discover the essence of a place, rather than the hotspots: “In my favourite pubs I increasingly see young tourists who probably stay in the nearby budget hostels. People now come for the general atmosphere. Around here is no must-see landmark, like a castle or a centuries-old bridge.”
Christoph is an avid city explorer, eschewing the checklist approach for more nuanced flâneur-like wandering. “Following your instinct and personal interest can lead to amazing discoveries. I love to walk. You can stop anywhere to peek into small alleys and hidden cafés… Prague alone is full of amazing places, enough for a lifetime. While exploring a stream through a former industrial neighbourhood with huge abandoned factory halls, for example, I came across a heritage trail, which again led me to a botanical garden that I had never read about in any tourist guide. It was an unforgettable view of a steep hillside covered by dilapidated greenhouses. I particularly love these mysterious witnesses of the past that just spring up in front of you when you least expect it.”
Christoph also runs a local travel blog called Unterwegs in Tschechien (Traveling in Czechia) in which he documents his short country excursions. “It is not meant to be a travel guide with instructions on how to get there and what to do, but more like a personal report about lesser-known places. It’s like you talk to friends and tell them about a place that you enjoyed visiting.”
To cure citizens and travellers of their ignorance of beautiful Holešovice, Christoph has created a location-aware audio walking tour of this unique part of Prague, seeking to expose its industrial past and burgeoning modernisation through his brand of meandering city exploration. “An audio walking tour is just the perfect way to guide people right to the places that I want to show them. I’m convinced that it’s impossible to feel the atmosphere if you walk in a group, or even drive around in a tour bus. You must be absolutely free to stop any time and explore a place at your own speed. While you walk and listen, you can watch the people who live here. You can learn so much about a place by immersing yourself into the surroundings and moving with the locals.”
His favourite part of the tour is the dock in the former harbour. “Holešovice would not be Holešovice without the river enclosing this quarter from three sides. This has also shaped the concept of how the route was composed: Crossing from the busy market to that dock, which is now surrounded by modern housing projects but still breathes that original harbour atmosphere with the bollards and the crane. This dock forms some kind of peak in the walk, a hidden place where you have the past, the present and the future directly side-by-side. From there we change direction and return to more frequented places.”
Christoph Amthor is a writer and journalist who has been living in Prague for over 12 years. To see Holešovice through his eyes, view and purchase his Holešovice audio walking tour. He has also created an audio tour of Kafka’s Prague and a walk along a 16-century water supply tunnel.
Learn more about Christoph on his website, and read about his Czech travels on Unterwegs in Tschechien and Weird Things in Prague.