There was a time when the people of Prague would spend sweltering days in one place in particular – by the river. While the Vltava continues to function as a natural cooling corridor to this day, we have largely forgotten that it is possible to swim in it and that its banks used to be lined with lidos. Why did people stop swimming in the Vltava, and what rules used to apply to recreation by the water? And what made Prague’s bathing spots stand out from others in Europe?
The first swimmers? Soldiers
Platforms once floated around pools on the river, with cubicles and changing rooms, and often also facilities on the riverside where water enthusiasts could sunbathe or go to a restaurant. The pools for non-swimmers and children had bottoms made of planks, while those for the more proficient merged freely with the river. This is what the traditional Prague lido – still remembered by many – looked like. Originally, however, such places were the preserve of soldiers and their families. Prague’s Military Lido, built in 1809, was the first of its kind in Central Europe, ahead of Vienna, where the first river bathing facility was built three years later, and Berlin, which had to wait until 1817. It was established at Na Františku by Ernst von Pfuel, who had served as an infantry regiment captain in Prague. This lido was a floating raft structure, but unfortunately, it was swept away by floods on several occasions. It later relocated to a site below Letná, near what today is the Straka Academy. It was opened to civilians in 1817.
Locals took such a liking to swimming in the Vltava that they formed a citizens’ initiative and campaigned for a new lido next door. The Civic Lido opened in 1840 on the site where Josef Ondřej Kranner’s neoclassical building still stands today. Following its reconstruction and expansion in 1876, it also offered a restaurant and clubhouse. After the Rudolf Footbridge was built where the Mánes Bridge spans the river today, inhabitants from the opposite bank could also easily reach the venue. Visitors had access to three single-sex pools, paddling pools for children, and a meadow.
The largest on the Vltava and in Central Europe
More and more lidos were built in places such as Na Františku, Braník, Zlíchov, Císařská louka, and at the river islands – Žofín and Štvanice. The lido boom mainly dates to the interwar years of the First Republic. However, two iconic establishments were set up even before then. Slovanka, at Žofín, was the largest river lido in Central Europe, accommodating up to 1,200 people with a boardwalk that lined almost half the island. Over time it expanded even further, and its growth can be seen clearly in aerial photographs from different periods in the app Praha Včera (Prague Yesterday).
Podolí – the only place to be on a hot summer day
Before long, following the example of the Civic Lido, the Vyšehrad river resort was established by Jan Podlipný, the first president of the Czech Sokol movement who later became mayor of Prague. This site lacked the riverside facilities boasted by the lidos further downstream, but, given that there was no sewage system at this time, and wastewater from the city was discharged into the river, this upstream site had the advantage of being much cleaner than other parts of the Vltava. The three pools, changing rooms, cloakrooms, showers and bucket toilets could cater to as many as 800 guests. A plank fence separated them from the surroundings so that the sight of half-naked swimmers would not offend other inhabitants’ sensibilities. The resort inspired entrepreneurial ventures and initiatives to open up further out of the city, beyond the promontory known as the Vyšehrad Rock. Boasting less polluted water and plenty of open space, Podolí soon became a top summer destination.
Three lidos were built here, one of which has survived to this day. In 1910, a citizens’ association established the first Podolí resort, the largest of its kind in Prague, with a capacity of some 10,000 visitors. Sunbathing areas, playgrounds, restaurants, and the necessary facilities complemented the pools. The venue became known as the Yellow Resort after the colour of its fence. Next door, in the same year, railway employees opened the new Podolí resort, which was half the size and tended to target more affluent customers. People referred to it as the Blue Resort because, in this case, the fence was painted blue. The rival businesses were eventually merged by the post-1948 nationalisation drive. The now-bigger Yellow Resort then remained hugely popular until almost the 1990s. Visitors could hire cabanas for the whole season, enjoy the many sports facilities and even bump into film stars, such as regular guest Olga Schoberová.
The swimmer František Mejzlík and his wife, Marie, built another establishment beyond the Vyšehrad Rock. Known as Mejzlíkárna, it descended on terraces to the river behind the Podolí harbour, on the site of what today is the Podolka restaurant. The lido was later operated by the founders’ children until nationalisation took it away from them.
Why did people stop swimming in the Vltava?
From the 1950s and 60s onwards, the number of Prague residents who came to cool off with a dip in the Vltava gradually dwindled. Following the completion of the Orlík and Slapy dams, the water temperature dropped considerably in the summer months. This is because water leaves reservoirs from below, and the temperature at the bottom is much lower (in winter, conversely, it is higher). Pollution in the increasingly industrialised city also had an impact. Not to mention the fact that safer and more hygienic swimming pools began to appear, with the famous Podolí, for example, opening its doors in 1965. Every now and then, however, someone wants to restore the former glory of the Vltava’s lidos. Baden has opened on the bank of Štvanice Island, and the Brainwork studio has also come up with a plan for a modern floating lido.