Prague is a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. It had that Eastern Block tinge, plus a brutal and medieval history reflected in its architecture and grand austerity. I pictured snow-swept empty squares like the kind I imagined in Moscow, spies around every narrow corner and underground bars filled with dudes in tweed smoking foreign-smelling cigarettes and drinking exotic elixirs made by bent-back old farmer ladies. It turns out there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about Prague–most of which I bought into.
#1 – “Oh man, you’re gonna have such awesome beers while you’re there. You’re gonna drink yourself silly.”
Verdict: Not true and true.
The city, like a lot of Europe from what I gather seems to be controlled by one or two breweries. Essentially every bar has a Pilsner Urquell sign outside, and that is the beer they serve. We ran into a couple places that served Budvar (Czech predecessor to Budweiser) and a giant brewpub that served some sort of light and dark beer that was either brewed there or was like Pilsner Urquell’s no-name brand. I had a couple other homemade beers and something calledStaropramen Skvely and Bernard Pivo and Krusovice, but those were mostly indiscernible from the other pilsners. The brewpub, U Fleku, was packed to the gills with completely destroyed people–none of whom fell for the “hey, you want a shot?” scam that added like thousands of korunas to our bill. Apparently they make booze out of dodo shit in Prague. Regardless, that was a good time, and stumbling back across the city to our hotel afterwards proved even more fun. We hit all sorts of bars while we were there, including some clearly local joints filled with students (high school by the look of them), bohemian writer/singer types and one underground joint that was pretty much completely filled with cigarette smoke even though we were mostly alone for the first half hour (while the bar filled with Czech locals upstairs rocked). The weird thing we did notice is that most of th bars that we did hang out in were completely too bright. Subtle lighting apparently hasn’t made it to Eastern Europe quite yet.
#2 – There will be mysterious deserted streets with spies lurking in darkened doorways.
Verdict: True and not true
Not unless you count a giant pack of Asian tourists following some dude with a flag or a giant Swiss family and their babbling children mysterious and spy-like. I’ve clearly watched too many Bourne andMI movies, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer number of tourists snaking through the narrow streets and squares. Granted, this was low season, so the crowds were way less than what they could be. Not to say once night fell that we turned down alleys and streets (which were built way before automobiles and in some cases are barely wide enough to walk down shoulder to shoulder) and encountered nothing but nothingness. It was cold and apparently the hordes of tourists went to bed early, because there were periods walking back from bar-searching wanderings without seeing another human for minutes. In retrospect, the New Yorker Spidey sense in us clearly didn’t tingle even when heading down narrow completely dark alleys and streets. Ancient darkness is somehow darker than New York dark. Who knows if that was stupid, but I’m writing this so clearly the spies and shadowy men were inside warming themselves by the fire. And then again the day came and the crowds surged. Strange.
#3 – The city was and is a center of culture and liberal thinking
One day we decided (completely against the norm) to take a walking tour or Prague. I had visions of us and a bunch of gawking French freaks craning our necks at every spire and gothic window frame as others launched and pointed at the lame tourists. Beside that facteveryone there seemed to be a tourist, we lucked out and ended up with a tour guide and just one freakish Canadian woman. She honestly wouldn’t shut the fuck up, and our guide, who turned out to be absolutely awesome, looked at times like he wanted to punch her in her national-health-care-havin’ face. Apparently a sense of humor doesn’t come standard on the middle-aged (probably gay) Czech tour guide. Granted, when she left us before we entered the Jewish quarter (she had paid only for a 3/4 tour), we were relieved to be rid of her know-it-all exuberance. And that brings us to Prague’s history, which seemed to be full of Protestants and Catholics putting each other’s heads on stakes and throwing each other from government building windows and bridges. All the while the Jews toiled away in a ghetto and then came the Nazis. Apparently, and very interestingly, the Czech made a deal with Hitler–thus the sparing of Prague during WWII, one of the few cities not to be shelled by the Germans. Essentially Hitler told the Czech that he really dug Prague. He loved it so much that he promised not to bomb it if they just layed down their arms and didn’t resist and also helped him a little with his “Jew” problem. This involved helping to conspire to fool the Red Cross and others that, by using Prague’s Jews (and gays and cripples) in an elaborate ruse, he could use them to put on a fake show that he was treating them well and not in fact subjecting them to concentration camps, twisted experimentation, starvation and ovens. The Czechs agreed in order to save their city. Makes sense, I suppose. What they didn’t know–and why you should never trust a Nazi–is that Hitler actually planned to eventually move his lovely German citizens into Prague and ship out all of the real residents to a gulag in Siberia. What a guy! So hundreds upon hundreds of years of religious intolerance and murder ended with conspiring with an evil regime so they wouldn’t bomb the pretty buildings. And today there are like 47 Jews in the city and we get a tour of the bridge where dudes’ heads sat dripping blood and churches where Catholics crushed Protestants and vice versa and everyone loves Saint Wenceslaus.
#4 – The architecture is pretty damn cool
We stayed in a hotel that dates back to like 1319. From the outside it wasn’t much. From the inside it was pretty sweet, but not the ancient castle-y thing you’d expect, but when you consider the shitty hotels and motels that dot the country in the US, you realize it’s pretty damn cool. My sense of architectural timing is also a little dicey, so I don’t recall exactly when things are actually medieval and Gothic or actually romance or if they’re “revival,” but the city is stuffed with crazy looking gothic churches and towers and all sorts of nutty palatial pomp. It’s just not the kind of thing you see in the US, and makes my 1912 house look like a crappy condo from the 80s. Granted, on our somewhat long journey from the airport, we passed all those magnificent Soviet era cinderblock apartment building complexes, which couldn’t be more depressing if there were dead puppies hanging from them. The Russians certainly know how to fuck up a landscape.
# 5 – You’ll definitely need more than a few days there.
We were there for three days, which was more than enough. The city, in relation to NYC, is absolutely minuscule. You can walk from one end to the other in like 20 minutes and cover almost every street in a couple nights. After being in Amsterdam, where there are 20 bars on every block, we had to search for places in Prague, and after searching high and low, I feel like we hit at least half of them. Not true, of course, but it certainly felt that way. Any more time there and we might have circled the blocks around our hotel one too many times and had the secret police on our ass – or would have died of goulash poisoning.
#6 – This is not the place one goes for good food
The first night we were there we went to a giant two-story restaurant and bar called U Vejvodu that had pretzels at the table, served beers, potato soup and spicy goulash and dumplings. That was probably the best meal we had there. It was heavy and peppery and hit the spot on a chilly night. Once was enough. Pretty much every restaurant we encountered from there on out would serve some amalgam of Italian or non-descript European fare, but would always have goulash and dumplings, which were labeled “traditional Czech food.” It would be the equivalent of every American restaurant having pizza and burgers on their menu regardless of the main cuisine in an attempt to sell to the tourist mobs. I had goulash at least one or two more times, but the dumplings, which are basically boiled bread, were always too heavy, the gravy too thin or the meat too tough. All in all the food was pretty terrible once you got beyond the traditional food in an actual traditional place.
So, in conclusion, Prague is a beautiful, mysterious city with a violent intolerant history, and is not full of spies or lots of exotic booze and the food kinda sucks.