Kolbenova Flea Market, Prague

Largest flea market in Europe

The website for the Kolbenova flea market asserts the area covers 50,000 square meters and is the largest flea market in all of Europe. The latter is a difficult claim to substantiate, but the variety and oddity of the items on display do seem to place Kolbenova in a class apart. It isn’t the loveliest spot: There isn’t any grass, the only trees are far away, and the surrounding neighborhood is industrial. But it would be a shame to discount Kolbenova because it fails to match the aesthetic grandeur of Prague’s center.  On the contrary, visitors should make a point not to miss it. You might happen upon something valuable or simply curious, and you will bear witness to a fascinating intermixing of past with present.

The flea market opens regardless of weather every Saturday and Sunday at 7am, and closes at 2pm. Peak hours fall early in the morning, around 9am. There’s a 20kc entrance fee, which you pay by feeding coins (only 20 or 10kc coins are accepted) into one of several turn-styles located a three minutes’ walk away from the Kolbenova Metro station. Once you’re in the lot, you’re free to poke about for as long as the market remains open, although many vendors don’t stay until the official closing time. You will find quite a few have packed up and left by noon or 12:30pm.

The vendors who typically set up nearest the entrance and within the numbered “reservation” section of the market sell food, cleaning supplies, clothes, and many twittering, blinking toys. It costs between 250-350kc a day to reserve a spot at Kolbenova. Vendors with a reservation are allotted prime real estate in the center of the vast lot, while those who have not reserved space pay between 150-700kc to sell along the market’s edge.

At Kolbenova, goods are priced at a slight discount that is yet significant enough to encourage many regulars to shop there in bulk. A large jar of Nutella that retails for 70kc at a potraviny in Vinohrady, for instance, is available at Kolbenova for 65kc.

But the “ordinary” items visible near the entrance are merely the preface to a substantial and overwhelmingly dense body of work. Consider this brief list of things for sale:

Chandeliers, mounted antlers, oil paintings, colorized daguerreotypes, war medals, political medallions, old currency, power tools, sex toys, oriental rugs, analogue alarm clocks, dial telephones (one cut from a single slab of marble), 19th or early 20th century metal water heaters, spools of wire thick as the width of your thumb, old baby dolls, crucifixes, Buddha statues, mounted boars’ heads, books no longer in print, maps, lanterns, perfume, remotes, fishing rods, underwear, gyros…

If, admittedly, one can find many of these goods in many other flea markets around the world (originals and copies alike), the cumulative effect of such a large supply and variety makes for an awesome, in the sense of awe-inspiring, display.

One British vendor has had a stall at Kolbenova for the past five years. Although Jason works as a drug-store supplier during the week, he says the business he does at Kolbenova is good enough to render it his main source of income. He sells perfume and cologne from the time the market opens every Saturday and Sunday morning at 7am, until roughly 12:30pm. Saturday is often much busier and can yield double the business he does on Sunday.

His most popular item is a men’s cologne called Blue Stratos. Under the former Communist regime, Blue Stratos was one of several foreign goods that were only available in special stores called “tužex.” As these stores accepted foreign currency but not Czech crowns, one had to be a high-ranking official, or else have ties to someone so influential, in order to patronize them. Today, “a lot of older guys still see something, like, exclusive,” in goods that used to be sold in tužex. “It makes them think of their youth again.”

There are many vestiges of Communism at Kolbenova. One can find medallions emblazoned with the regime’s symbols, for instance: workers in matching clothes, a clenched and raised fist, sickle and hammer framed within a star.

But the ties between the past and the present appear even more complex the closer one looks. Both Jason and another vendor agree there is a large contingent of Ukrainians at the Kolbenova flea market. They are sellers as well as customers. Both vendors separately stated more Ukrainians shop at the market on Sunday, because many of them work six days a week and Sunday is their only day off. They visit Kolbenova to do the week’s shopping. This may help explain the sight of so many women walking about with large blue Ikea bags hanging from the crooks of their elbows.

“When you only make 60kc an hour,” Jason points out, you can’t afford to always pay full-price.

In 2014, according to an article from The Economist published that year and which cites official census data, Ukrainians comprised the largest group of foreigners living in the Czech Republic. There were 120,000 in the country, and over 50,000 in Prague.

At Kolbenova, then, one bears witness to history in motion. The past can be read in many of the items on display and in the concentrated presence of a foreign people whose homeland is currently locked in crisis with the country whose rule once so resoundingly affected this one. Or, put more simply, at Kolbenova, the region’s history is visible in both the faces and in the things surrounding you.

The Kolbenova flea market is not pretty. Even in summer, when the sunlight will provide a measure of visual as well as literal warmth, it will be no rival of Charles Bridge. But for anyone who enjoys a good treasure hunt, who is interested in glimpsing contemporary Prague culture outside the city center, who is curious about modern European culture, in modern world politics, in the ties that bind and circumscribe us, Kolbenova is a sight to behold.

More information: www.blesitrhy.cz (ENG)

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