Thursday, 28 May 2015

First Stop - Prague

The day and a half I spent in Prague, prior to joining the other members of our tour group, represented my fifth visit to the city. I can therefore say I know the city fairly well; certainly the main tourist attractions. Despite this I was determined to make the most of my short stopover in the city by revisiting many of Prague’s best and well-known sights. Consequently on the first evening I caught the No. 18 tram into the city centre at alighted at Národni třida, virtually right opposite my first intended port of call and the place I had planned on having my evening meal.
Beer hall - U Medvidků
U Medvidků, (at the Little Bears), is one of Prague’s best known beer halls, but it is also much more than this as the establishment is home to a micro-brewery, a beer bar, plus a boutique hotel. On my last visit, at the end of November 2013, the beer hall had been bursting at the seams, and my wife, son and I had been unable to get a table. This time though, the place looked half empty, and I had no problem in finding somewhere to sit. I chose a table at the end nearest the main entrance, as this gave me a full view of the rest of the hall. I don’t know if there is some deep-seated reason for this, but I always prefer to sit facing the proceedings, rather than facing the wall and with my back to what is going on. Anyway, on this occasion I was dining alone, so which way to face was not an issue.

U Medvidků is tied to Budvar, and serves their 12˚beer in unpasteurised form, straight from cellar tanks. I feel it doesn’t have quite the character of Pilsner Urquell, but it is still a fine beer, and was definitely tasted all the better for not being pasteurised. I drank my way through two half litres of the stuff as the accompaniment to me meal of pork steak, cooked in beer sauce.

The hall had started to fill up by the time I finished my meal, so I decided it was time to move on. Although I had a list of some of the brew-pubs which had sprung up in the city in recent years, I instead decided to pay a return visit to U Fleků Prague’s original brewpub; an establishment which also claims to be the oldest brew-pub in the world. I am well aware that many beer writers regard U Fleků as something of a tourist trap, and whilst there may well be more than a grain of truth in this, the pub still produces what can only be described as “one of the world’s finest dark lagers”, and a definite world classic.

U Fleků
I had visited U Fleků on each of my four previous visits to Prague, so was determined not to break this record. I have fond memories of my first visit to the pub, back in 1984, when I was a participant on an early CAMRA trip to what was then Czechoslovakia. The place has obviously changed quite a bit since then, and is an obvious port of call on most tourist itineraries, but it still pervades an atmosphere of old world Prague, and its wood-panelled halls, and stone-flagged corridors, convey the visitor back to a bygone age. Also, as I stated earlier, the beer is bloody good and seems to have become much more consistent.

 I wound my way to U Fleků, through the maze of back streets and, as the pub was predictably busy, I decided to sit out in the rear courtyard. There were several groups, who looked to be from tour parties, but they were well behaved and reasonably quiet, so decision to brave the chill of the night air, proved to be a good one. The waiters outside also seemed more relaxed and there was none of the trying to press shots of Becherovka on unsuspecting customers that the pub has become notorious for. The other grouse, which many beer aficionados have about U Fleků, is that the pub serves its beer in 40 cl glasses, rather than the usual 50 cl. 

I sat there enjoying the rich chocolate-like taste of this dark  and malty13˚  lager, reflecting on the fact that it was 30 years ago that I had first set foot in this courtyard, where our CAMRA party had arranged to meet for a meal, plus beers of course, as the highlight of our first evening in Prague. How things have changed, and those die-hard communist leaders in charge of the country at the time would have a blue fit if they could see the place now. Perhaps that should be a red fit?

Two beers at U Fleků on top of the two I’d enjoyed earlier at U Medvidků, were enough for the evening, so I found my way to the nearest tram stop, and then walked the short distance back to my hotel. The next day dawned bright and sunny, and after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, I was ready to go out exploring again. As it turned out, that first full day in the country was by far the warmest and the sunniest of the entire Czech trip, with temperatures approaching the mid 20’s and wall-to-wall sunshine. I set off suitably attired in T-shirt, shorts and sunglasses, determined to do the whole Prague sight-seeing thing; even though I’d done most of it on previous visits. 

Prague Castle - Lower Entrance
I again boarded the No. 18 tram, but this time I stayed on until I reached the other side of the river, alighting at Malostranska. From there I walked short distance uphill until I came to the series of steps which lead up to the castle.  I hadn’t walked up that way before, or at least I don’t think so, as I do remember, back in 1984, walking up to Prague Castle via a series of steps, and my companions and I may well have taken that route. It was already hot in the sun and I was glad to reach the top. As with the steps which lead up to the front of the castle, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the city, spreading out below me. The dozens of other tourists though the same, and at times it was difficult to get close enough to the parapet in order to enjoy the view.

Klášterni pivovar Strahov
I continued up into the castle, and there I decided to bite the bullet and buy an admission ticket. I particularly wanted to see the historic artisan houses which make up Golden Lane - so called because there were alchemists, supposedly capable of transmuting base metals into gold, living there. This part of the castle tour alone was well worth the price of the ticket, as there were steps leading up into passageways between the thick medieval walls of the castle. There were umpteen suits of armour plus various swords on display, and also some rather gruesome torture instruments.

It was whilst walking back from Golden Lane and up between the walls of the former Royal Palace, that I had a real feeling of déjà vu. On that first visit to Prague, some 30 years ago, we had called into a real local’s pub, close to both the castle and the cathedral. On subsequent visits to the city I have never been able to find this pub again, but the high walls and narrow lane running between them felt as though they might once have contained such a pub.

Klášterni pinovar Matŭska
After looking around St Vitus’s Cathedral, I headed off in the direction of the Strahov Monastery, in order to visit the Klášterni pinovar Strahov  brew-pub. En route, and close to the Černisky Palace I passed U Černého Vola, a really basic pub which I had been in on a previous visit to Prague. I decided I would call in again, but not until I’d had something to eat and drink at the monastery. I followed a flight of steps up through a passageway which forms a short-cut into the monastery grounds, but as I made my way towards Klášterni Strahov  I noticed another establishment which I hadn’t seen before, called Klášterni pinovar Matŭska. A large banner beckoned me in; that and the prospect of sitting outside under one of the shady umbrellas. 

Lunch - Klášterni pinovar Matŭska 
I sampled their unfiltered, pale house lager, plus their dark. I much preferred the former, but I had a shock when the bill came, as both were priced at Kr95 per half litre, which was astronomical, even for Prague. The Kr59 I paid the previous night at U Fleků seemed cheap by comparison. To put things in context though, Kr95 is around £3.00, so by UK standards Klášterni pinovar Matŭska was still good value. I also had some more solid sustenance in the form of goulash soup in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. Over lunch I got chatting to an American, sitting at an adjacent table. Like my brother-in-law, he was an ex US Airman. He had been stationed in former West Germany back in the days of Cold War, when countries behind the Iron Curtain were strictly off limits to US service personnel. He was therefore making up for lost time, although he had tagged this short visit to Prague onto a much longer trip to Ireland. It was evident that he liked his beer, so I was able to recommend a few places for him to visit.

U Tři Růži
Having already had two half litres, I reluctantly decided to give U Černého Vola a miss. There was a lot more that I wanted to do on the tourist trail, so I headed back down towards the Charles Bridge and the old town area of Staré Mésto. As expected, this was serious tourist territory, but before heading to Old Town Square I had one further brew-pub to visit, in the form of U Tři Růži; one of Prague’s newest brew-pub and a welcome haven to escape the hustle and bustle of the Old Town.

I perched myself at one of the tall tables in the shadow of the in-house brewery and ordered a 25cl glass of Videnské cervén (Vienna Red 5.7%), plus the same quantity of the house Tmavé  Speciál (Dark Special 5.1%). Of the two, I preferred the Vienna Red, although both beers were very quaffable.

Brewing kit - U Tři Růži
After this all too brief interlude, it was back to the sight-seeing, followed by some shopping. I would be meeting up with my fellow travellers the following morning and leaving Prague for the town of Jihlava,  deep in the central highland province of Kraj Vysočina; right in the heart of the country. Before the day was up though I had time for one final pub visit, which was to a place called Zly Časy; Prague’s premier craft-beer pub which had the added bonus of being just five minutes walk from my hotel.

The “Evil Times” features nearly 40 draught beers, which are offered in three bars, spread over three separate floors. Rather confusingly each bar has a different selection making it difficult, especially for non-Czech speakers to know what is available where. I opted for the cellar bar, which was quite extensive and certainly much busier than the virtually deserted ground floor bar. I was feeling rather tired by this time, so only had two beers; Tambor 11˚ from the town of Dvůr Krájové, plus Uherský Brod Comenius Speciál Světlé 14°. Both were good, and both are brewed by well-respected Czech micro-brewers.
Zly Časy

With a tasty home-made beef burger and chips to help soak up the beer, it was a good end to a long and tiring day spent in the Czech capital. With the thoughts of being off to pastures new in the morning, I made my way back to my hotel for a good night’s sleep.


BryanB said...

It's astounding how much prices can vary in Prague, on my last trip (admittedly a few years ago) there was almost a ten-fold difference between the residential suburbs and the tourist traps. Even getting 200m off Staromestske Namesti down a side street halved the beer price.

Paul Bailey said...

Very true BryanB, but then the tourist traps rely on the sheep-like behaviour of many visitors; especially those unwilling or even too scared, to step aside from the well-worn tourist trails.