The deep, resounding bells of the new hour ring out from Kostel Nejsvětějšího Srdce Paně – a uniquely modern church with a see-through train station clock, right in the center of Jiřího z Poděbrad park. Instead only the sonorous tune of the bells are heard, which finish to reveal the distant chorus of a bustling market.
The area is devoid of the hordes of loud tourists that litter almost every other historical street of Prague. The market, comprising of about thirty stalls, sits at the edge of the barren park along a blocked-off street. It feels entirely separate from the city that surrounds it, despite the great baronial buildings that tower over it.
The Jiřák market, as it is known to locals, is in Prague’s Vinohrady district, and is one of the many farmer’s markets in town. Opened in 2010 during a push for better fresh produce options, Jiřák is a fairly new addition to the city. As the market and its products are heavily regulated, the quality of produce is higher than that of what can be found in a grocery store. This is just what the Prague natives are looking for.
Unlike other farmers markets, Jiřák is open Wednesday through Saturday, which allows it to change day-to-day. A crop of about ninety-five vendors rotate between this market and others, allowing Jiřák to be a place of variety. Adding to this mix of stalls are the many events that turn Jiřák into a specialty market. Visitors enjoy Easter and Christmas markets here, as well as an Apple Fest and the Festival of Pumpkins and Spirits, among others, throughout the year. Despite daily changes, regulars are familiar with many of sellers, making it feel like a tiny neighborhood market of the past.
The closely packed vendors are around a center of activity that, though busy, remains calm. People move through the stalls casually and intimately, at a pace that mirrors the feel of the late Saturday morning. Some push strollers with stirring children bundled up in colorful blankets and hats. Some pull along their dogs, at least the ones that are on leashes, with their noses in the air, sniffing the aromas of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth bread and cheeses, meats, and rows of fragrant spices. This may be the one place in the city where the oppressive stench of cigarette smoke doesn’t dominate the atmosphere.
Farmers markets are about the feeling of community surrounding local products. You don’t really get that if it’s as busy as any grocery store you walk into.
Though each station is fairly uniform, featuring a standard red and blue awning, the real color comes from what fills the space. There are crisp, verdant vegetables and vibrant jams, each with a uniquely patterned lid. Behind a stand topped with mounds of crispy baguettes, arranged on red and white gingham cloth, stands a woman who despite the chill that sends most visitors to the silver vats of steaming soup, still smiles. She sings on and off, and her cheerful tune fills the market with lightheartedness, even as clouds steal the sun which adds a gloomy shade of gray to the pastel buildings. Accompanying her tune is the constant rustling of plastic bags being filled with the main event of the farmers market – farm-fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Jiřák market is quaint in size compared to the bigger markets that are around the city. It is a nice change from the greatness of markets like the extensive Náplavka market located along an embankment of the Vltava River in Prague 2. Náplavka is only open on Saturdays, and because of its scenic location, is one of the most popular markets in Prague. It features over sixty permanent vendors, and is accustomed to substantial crowds of visitors streaming through the booths. The Jiřák market, on the other hand, never feels crowded or claustrophobic, and its small size lends itself to an intimacy other markets lack. This community closeness is exactly what attracts locals like expat Rachel Hurwitz who is disinterested in the size of markets like Náplavka. “Farmers markets are about the feeling of community surrounding local products. You don’t really get that if it’s as busy as any grocery store you walk into,” she says.
Like others, the little market of the Jiřího z Poděbrad park offers a direct link between consumers and producers – and therefore their products – which is lacking with third-party providers such as Tesco. This direct connection allows consumers to be fully informed on what they buy directly from the vendors. Taking full advantage of this, people stroll slowly down the center aisle popping in and out of the short lines, talking freely with vendors about whatever products are before them, and adding to the chorus of “děkuju, děkuju, děkuju” that punctuates the endless metallic jangling of coins passing through hands and settling in jars. Others sit intimately at small tables along the grass, speaking in hushed tones over rich coffees, or gathered around golden wine, all toothy smiles and flushed cheeks. Each visitor’s movements are languid and relaxed, while children chase after pigeons, that swarm for bits of food dropped absentmindedly by the shoppers.
The bells sound again, and people exit. Bags are bulging with purchases, that are hanging from shoulders and the crooks of elbows. The market remains, but is always changing, emptying and refilling throughout the day, with a constant stream of visitors exploring the booths and experiencing all that the market has to offer.
By Kirby Sandmeyer | Photos Rita Puhto