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On business in the COVID era, his love of ships and Jan Nepomucký

Fast Confession – Zdeněk Bergman, the ferryman of Prague: The first wave of coronavirus hit us harder than the floods

Karolína Lišková
22.Dec 2021
+ Add on Seznam.cz
9 minutes to read

Zdeněk Bergman is known as the ferryman of Prague, a title he gave himself. In 1993, he started operating a ferry on the Vltava River at the Charles Bridge and on the Čertovka water channel. He became the author of the design and projects of all eighteen wharves of Prague Venice Cruise on the Vltava and Berounka rivers. To this day, he not only takes tourists along the Vltava, but also educates them, as he is also the director of the Charles Bridge Museum. His company, Prague Venice, has also contributed to many charitable causes. For example, the Hermes Boat for the homeless has been operating for 14 years. In an interview with LP-Life.com, this entrepreneur talks not only about his business in the COVID era, but also about the supernatural phenomena that Prague has to offer.

I'd like to ask, since the year is coming to an end, how would you assess these last two coronavirus years. How has that time affected you and Prague Venice?

The first wave that came last year was much worse, because we didn't know how to deal with subsidies and wage compensation yet. We were laying people off and cutting costs. The second wave was better in that the state covered our wages in this difficult situation, so we didn't have to lay people off and we survived. Of course, that was also thanks to the financial reserves we had.

You've been building the company since 1993 and if you've been building something for so long, how does it affect the psyche of the entrepreneur?

I put on 65 pounds because of it. You could say I'm like a slaughterhouse pig, but my rapid weight gain puts even them to shame. (laughs)

You even said in an interview that the coronavirus crisis was worse than the floods...

That's a good point. I experienced two floods, in 2002 and 2013. Our company has been building flood barriers on the Alšovo embankment since then. The 2002 flood was actually economically milder. Even though it was more than twice as big as in 2013 and around 6,000 cubic metres of water flowed through Prague. But the water both came and went quickly. We only had to wait about 14 days before we could set sail again. Tourists started coming to Prague again immediately, and there was a certain sense of solidarity that made them want to help Prague and come here. We are very thankful for that.

Luxusní byt na prodej, Praha 6 -127m
Luxusní byt na prodej, Praha 6 -127m, Praha 6

And now, during the coronavirus, was it slower?

We've been running the Charles Bridge Museum for almost fifteen years now, so the cruises are also connected with a visit to the museum. So a large proportion of the tourists who come with us are history enthusiasts and love Prague. Even before the crisis, we introduced audio commentary on the ships in more than 22 languages today. Moreover, thanks to the disposable headphones on board of our ships, passengers from all over the world get a complete interpretation in their mother tongue, and that is very important. This is why our service is so attractive for foreign visitors to Prague.

In the beginning, we had to lay off captains and had to stabilize the company. We have closed ourselves into a kind of thrifty shell. After the first wave, more than 80 per cent of our passengers were Czechs. This year, as Czechs were able to travel all over the world again, this gradually tapered off, and today, apart from Czech schools, which preeminently visit the Charles Bridge Museum, we have about 95 percent foreign visitors.

In the Fast Confession you said that the crisis gave you the chance to be with people more often. Does that mean that if I buy a ticket for your cruise, I could see you at the helm?

I'm at the wheel on a regular basis and I used to do it more often, but of course, when you're running a business you get sucked in and you're heavier on the administration and organizing side of things. But since we're trying to save on the human capital now, I steer the Nepomuk ship on most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It's a bit of a comeback and a chance to enjoy what I love, which is old Prague, the Vltava River and steering.

Where did the decision to do this business right by the Charles Bridge come from in the 90s?

It has to be admitted that until then, there was nothing in the places where we operate. The 1990s gave us a chance to try it. I studied construction at the Dušní Street Tech Colege in Prague Old Town, I committed myself to hydraulic engineering and water management through my university studies, and I have to say that since my childhood, I have thought of nothing but beautiful ships and history.

One of my grandfathers was a history and Czech teacher and my other grandfather was an architect. I even studied under him in Prague from the age of 14. The other grandfather, the teacher, was also a fisherman, so I grew up on the shores of the Great Pond near Karlovy Vary. So my path has been obvious from a very young age, and I always gave the most thought to the beauty of ships. We also visited a lot of historical sights with my parents, even in Prague. Walking around Prague was always wonderful for me and up until now I don't even need to go on vacation, because Prague itself is the greatest relaxation for me and it is the most beautiful place in the world.

And did your grandparents live to see your success?

One grandfather, the teacher, died when I was a child. But I grew up normally with the other grandfather who lived to see a long time after the revolution. In the beginning, we were a small business for a long time; I only had 2 boats. I earned money for the first boat by working in northern Italy and the second boat I borrowed. It all came gradually after 10 years of work.

My grandfather also taught me all about construction. All the boats we run I designed and built myself. I basically taught and convinced the carpenter that it should be done the way I envisioned it and wanted it done. That was his direct influence and my grandfather was still there.

And I suppose he was happy...

Yes, I'm sure he was. I would add that all my children and I were baptized by the order of the Knights of the Cross, who brought me personally to a deep faith, because faith is nothing but knowledge. And I would wish knowledge on everyone, because suddenly your world changes from that two-dimensional view to a multi-dimensional view, which is not only a thing of deep knowledge of faith, but also a matter of love.

The Knights of the Cross with the Red Star don't just feel like home to me, but they were also essential to my grandfather, whose life was literally saved by a pillar in the archway of the monastery on Křižovnická (Knights of the Cross) Street during the 1945 Prague Uprising. He hid behind it and German soldiers passing by failed to shoot him with a machine gun. For that, I give my thanks to St. Agnes of Bohemia.

So now I'd like to move on to what you're doing. I really like the tradition of the Saint John’s Day Navalis Water Festival.

Navalis is a tradition over 300 years old. The first Navalis was held in 1715. Navalis is a charitable venture celebrating St. John of Nepomuk. Even out of the thirteen years we have done it in modern history, I have paid for three years with my own money. It's an outdoor Prague project on the Vltava River where no one pays any admission. It's the only festival with a historical tradition and the only original Prague folklore.

The first year cost CZK 9.4 million and we learned just a week before the event that the city, despite approving the grant, had eventually withdrawn its support. At that point, I had to decide whether I would keep doing it or call it a day and never do it again. In the end, we managed to organize it, and I think it was a good decision. I don't regret it.

Prodej bytu 1+kk, Opletalova, Nové Město -
Prodej bytu 1+kk, Opletalova, Nové Město -, Praha 1

I have to say that the greatest experience I've ever had in my life – and also the most successful boatbuilding we've done in my opinion – was when we created Bissona Praga for the Venetians in Bohemia, which they spontaneously dubbed Nepomuceno. This is because it has a statue of Nepomuk on the bow. It's a work that 38 carvers from the Czech Republic created in two months and the Venetians were really excited about it. When we first showcased it two years ago, it was like we had won the Olympics. We were the champions of the Venetian world.

Are you fascinated by Venice, Italy?

I think anyone who's been there understands. It's just this water world and it's our big role model. Among other things, Prague and Venice have always communicated and cooperated closely. Also, a lot of Prague and Czech landmarks as well as cultural and artistic monuments are created either with Venetian influence or directly by Venetian artists. For example, the mosaic on the Golden Gate at the entrance to St. Vitus Cathedral was created by a Venetian, which few people know. On the other hand, the only statue that stands on the banks of the Grand Canal in Venice is that of John of Nepomuk. We also gave the Venetians a little push to fix it. That was during the first Navalis, when a hundred gondoliers and twenty boats came here. He is also the patron saint of gondoliers and one of the main patrons of Venice.

I'd like to focus on your philanthropy. What gave you the idea to create a boat for the homeless?

It wasn't my idea. It came from the former mayor of Prague, Pavel Bém, who is the author of the idea and the man behind it all. We won the tender and had to deliver the boat by the deadline, which was set quite strictly at the end of January 2007, and on the first of February the first homeless people were already there. The total capacity is 240 people. And by the second of February the temperature drooped below zero, so it certainly helped people in need, perhaps even saved their lives, but certainly their health.

What other charity projects do you have?

We're rather focusing on survival now, and we're also trying to keep Navalis afloat because it's this touch of the old Prague genius loci and the tradition of our ancestors. Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it, so now we're preparing a book about Navalis, where we have been able to gather interesting information about what happened not only in the Baroque period, but also in the 19th and 20th century. Even the communists in 1948 exploited the huge pilgrimage of people to St John of Nepomuk in Prague and made it a parade of 600 tractors to celebrate a hundred years since the abolition of serfdom in our country. However, this interrupted the Navalis for a long time.

The book also addresses the causes of, for example, St. John of Nepomuk being so widespread in the world, where he happens to be the most widely recognized Czech saint. We have mentions of his being prevalent in China and India as well. There are even cities named after him in America. There is a church of St. John of Nepomuk in Cuba, which we have managed to restore.

You mentioned that you're mostly trying to survive now. I read somewhere that your monthly wage bill is CZK 3.6 million. Is that possible?

That was approximately true before the crisis, when we employed around 100 people. Now we employ less than half the original number of employees. Social and health collections and super gross wages are a great burden on our company.

It occurred to me recently when I was looking at the price of tickets to the Čerti na Čertovce (Krampus in Čertovka) cruise, which came to 670 crowns. That seems a lot to me...

Yes, that's quite a lot. Or rather it might seem like that, when it's taken out of context. We have a complicated situation in that we are simply a service, which is always staff- and therefore salary-intensive. Since our boats are small, we have one captain for a relatively small number of passengers. On top of that, we obviously keep staff needed to check in the ships, and in the case of the Krampus cruises, you have 20 actors that you still have to get ready and cover the production. Moreover, our Charles Bridge Museum operates without any financial support in the long term. So we chose a price that seemed adequate. Given that the event was completely sold out, I believe the price was probably appropriate.

I would also like to ask, since you have such a fondness for history, what do you think of the children's story Chobotnice z II. patra (Octopuses of the Second Floor)?

It kind of went over my head, I was a bit older when it first aired, but I thought it was a great series.

I'm more interested in your opinion on the scene from Čertovka, do you feel any magic or supernatural vibes from that place?

If we're going to talk about miracles, I have to say that I witnessed a personal miracle of sorts when I saw St Agnes at a time when I was having technical and organizational problems building the Hermes Boat for the homeless. I am convinced that Saint Agnes of Bohemia helped me then. Prague is full of miracles, and when you open a museum at the foot of the Charles Bridge, basically at the foot of the Judith Bridge, you get people coming in all the time looking for the esoteric, holding virgules and so on. Nevertheless, I think that Prague has a strong energy and there is a lot of inspiration flowing out of it. But we have to remember that Prague was built by Christianity and our ancestors held a deep faith in God.

What are your plans for the future?

We are preparing the electrification of our ships and getting ready for the European Green Deal. These days, environmental protection is an important task for us all.

What can we look forward to in the coming year?

Next year, historic ships from the Neretva River will come to Prague for the St. John's Day Navalis celebrations. These are boats from the town of Metkovič, where the church of St. John of Nepomuk is located, and it is their main patron there.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Fast confession:

What is or was the idea behind Prague Venice?

Prague Venice has always conveyed and still conveys the genius loci of Old Prague.

Name one difference between Prague Venice and Italian Venice?

The water in Venice of Prague is sweet, and the water in the real Venice of Italy is salty.

Is there any positive thing the coronavirus gave you?

For me it's a return to the basics; we've reverted 12 years in the history of the company, but I'm at the helm more often and spend more time with the people.

If you could have been born in any bygone era, who would you be?

A Prague ferryman at Charles Bridge.

What was the best Krampus on Čertovka year and why?

We try to make each of them the best. We try to improve them every year. So this last one.

What was your most successful charity event?

When we were able to build a boat for the homeless, Hermes, for the capital city of Prague in three months and right at the beginning of February, when it went freezing cold outside, 240 homeless people were able to move in.

Tell me a juicy fact about yourself that no one knows.

The ice swimmers wore me down, and I started to enjoy the cold water.

Is Charles Bridge really built with eggs?

Yes, only they still get it wrong in Velvary, so after each egg harvest, the eggbringers, led by their chairman of the Boneheads Society of Velvary, which is the mayor Mr. Volák, always come and bring us hard-boiled eggs to the Charles Bridge Museum and the Charles Bridge.

Which nation you don't like to see on your cruises?

Years of cruising gave us various experiences, but now we've gotten audio guides for our ships, so everyone gets disposable headphones and they can choose from 22 different languages of the world. So all those nations put their headphones on and listen to information about Old Prague with bated breath.

What does Christmas mean to you in one sentence?

It's the birth of our saviour Jesus; we live on the foundations of the Christian world and the love that I experience is to what I actually owe the home that I have.

Where in the world have you seen the most beautiful nativity scene?

In Bavaria, in the middle of the Kimm See, where the Benedictine nuns are. They have several nativity scenes there, but the most famous and the biggest one is one with a dancing baby Jesus. But I have to say, I think the most beautiful one in the world is the one we have here at the Capuchin monastery in Hradčany.

Who among the current politicians would you describe as a likeable person?

Tomáš Jirsa, the senator and mayor of Hluboká nad Vltavou, who is a visionary and a supporter of the Vltava River being made navigable for tourist and recreational cruises. I am glad that we were able to go through the entire Vltava cascade to Hluboká and České Budějovice by boat.

Which years were most like Christmas for entrepreneurs and why?
It was the nineties; we all had expectations, all of the authorities had their doors open for us. That was the revolutionary time, wild and fast, but it was good for business.

Who do you think should be the next president of the Czech Republic?

An honest, decent person with moral integrity, that's who I would like to vote for. Preferably not one with a negative history that would not be acceptable for us today.
The interviewee asks the editor:

What did you like most in our nativity scenes exhibition at the Charles Bridge Museum?

You!
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