History? Check. Beer? Check. Rad folklore? Check. Pack your bags; Prague beckons. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018
STORY / Kirill Taranouchtchenko
The Czech Republic has a long and proud beer making and drinking tradition. The region also happens to be home to one of the most influential beer styles: pale lager. A super popular type of pale lager, pilsner, is named after the town of Plzeň, in the west of the country (“Pilsen” in German). Budweiser Budvar is a Czech brand of pale lager originally from a town in the south, České Budějovice (“Budweis” in German). (Due to a trademark dispute with Anheuser Busch InBev, the Czech-brewed brand is marketed as Budweiser Budvar in most of Europe, China, and Africa and as Czechvar in the U.S., Canada, and Brazil.) The brewery says the beer is made with local artesian well water from the remnants of a 10,000-year-old Ice Age lake.
Today, most beers that you encounter in pubs are still lagers. Bartenders will ask if you want a světlé (light/pale lager), tmavé (dark lager), or řezané (red or “cut" lager, a fifty-fifty mix of these light and dark beers). Consider it an excuse to taste them all. A traveler’s bonus: Servings are generous here; draft beer is served in 0.3 liter and half liter (roughly 17-ounce) mugs.
Besides being a major destination for suds lovers, the Czech Republic—and especially its capital city of Prague—has much to offer for any history fan.
(A VERY BRIEF) HISTORY OF CZECHIA
The Czech Republic, or Czechia, as the country prefers to be called, became an independent state in 1993. For the roughly seventy years prior, Czechia was one half of Czechoslovakia; the other half was Slovakia. When Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic (aka Czechia) and the Slovak Republic (aka Slovakia), the breakup became known as the “divorce” because it was so peaceful. (There really must be something in that local water.) The Czech provinces of Bohemia, where Prague is located, and Moravia were independent kingdoms in the Middle Ages. Over time, however, both came under the rule of different countries, primarily Austria (the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart after World War I; Czechoslovakia was formed out of several Austrian provinces).
This created a unique cultural narrative. Native Austrians are ethnic Germans who happen to have their own country, which they call Österreich, or Eastern Kingdom. Czechs are Slavic and are thus closely related to Slovaks, but also Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. For centuries, German-speaking Austrians ruled over Slavic Czechs (often settling among them), which explains why there are so many German-inspired dishes and drinks in the Czech Republic (and why so many Czech names sound German, as opposed to Slavic).
HISTORICAL STOPS IN PRAGUE
THE OLD TOWN SQUARE is in the heart of Prague. Its most prominent landmarks include the Old Town Hall, the statue of Jan Hus, and the Church of Our Lady Before Týn.
THE OLD TOWN HALL is a complex of adjacent medieval buildings, some dating to the 1300s, each bought by the city council at different times to form a single unit. The Old Town Hall tower has a staircase and an elevator; for a fee, you can climb or ride to the top for terrific 360-degree views over the Old Town.
PRAGUE ORLOJ (circa 1410) is a clock located on the south-facing wall of the Town Hall. It is the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world (and the oldest still working). According to one legend, the clockmaker who built it was blinded on the order of the Prague officials so that he could not replicate his magnificent work. In turn, he supposedly broke apart the clock, and no one was able to repair it for more than one hundred years (a cool story, but not true).
There are two pairs of figures on opposite sides of the clock that are set in motion every hour, on the hour. They represent four human traits or states of being that were despised at the time: VANITY (represented by a man admiring himself in a mirror), GREED (a figure of a Jewish man holding a bag of gold, reminding us of the deep roots of anti-Semitic stereotypes), DEATH (a skeleton that strikes the time upon the hour), and LUST (represented by a figure wearing a turban and commonly known as “The Turk”). On the hour, as the skeleton rings its bell, the other figures shake their heads side to side, signifying their unwillingness to leave. Little doorways above the clock open, and mechanical statues of the twelve Apostles begin a procession; every hour a trumpeter, dressed in medieval clothes, walks out onto the observation platform of the tower above the clock and plays his trumpet. Even though the clock’s three partially overlapping dials show three different times (the “old time,” Babylonian time, and what is known as “common time”), none of them tell the actual time we use today (Whoever figures out why first gets a free světlé/tmavé/řezané tasting round of beer.)
Finally, below the tower’s east side, twenty-seven crosses built into the floor of the square mark the spot where the same number of Czech Protestant noblemen were beheaded in 1621 by the Catholic Habsburgs (the German-speaking Austrian dynasty whose rule extended over the Slavic Czechs) at the onset of the Thirty Years’ War. Twelve of the heads were put on public display in metal baskets on a bridge over the Vltava river and remained there for the next ten years as a “don’t-even-think-about-it” message for any would-be rebels.
JAN HUS (pronounced “Yahn Hoos”): On the north side of the square is the statue of Jan Hus, the most famous Czech national hero. Considered to be the precursor of Martin Luther, Hus was a university professor and a priest who, like Luther a century later, wanted to reform the Catholic Church. He was arrested, accused of heresy, and burned at the stake. (This sparked a major revolt that became known as the Hussite Wars, after which a new branch of Christianity, the Hussite Church, was formed by the Czechs.)
THE CHURCH OF OUR LADY BEFORE TÝN is the most prominent building on the square. Its two towers, designed in the Gothic style, appear to be the same size (but look closely; one is considerably wider than the other). To the right of the church’s altar lies a stone plaque in the floor marking the burial spot of Tycho Brahe, a well-known Danish astronomer who lived in Prague in the 1500s. Brahe was the last person to discover a new star in the sky without using a telescope, but he was perhaps as famous for wearing a brass prosthetic nose (he lost his own in a duel with his third cousin, a fellow student at the University of Rostock) and for how he died. Supposedly, Brahe wouldn’t get up from the dinner table to pee while attending a royal banquet (perhaps after drinking a lot of beer) because he thought it was impolite. He died from a bladder infection eleven days later. (Lesson: Get up and pee, folks!)
PRAGUE CASTLE is the largest castle in the world. Construction began in the tenth century and continued on and off through the 1930s (new buildings were built and old ones replaced or repaired regularly). The castle is located on a hill on the opposite bank of the Vltava river from the Old Town and has several noteworthy landmarks.
A NAKED MAN STATUE. Yes, these are not hard to find on the European continent, but WAIT, keep reading... Representing youth, the statue is popular with visitors who rub his penis for good luck. (I DID, and I have yet to win a lottery.)
THE WINDOW from which several Catholic officials were thrown out after an argument with the local Protestant patriots in the 1600s. They fell seventy feet but survived (!) and ran away to tell the story (this became known as the Defenestration of Prague; fenestra is Italian for “window”). The incident led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, which some historians consider to be the actual First World War. It involved virtually all European countries and lasted for a long time (guess how many years?), resulting in massive casualties.
CHARLES BRIDGE, aka Karluv Most, is arguably the most beautiful bridge in the world. The pedestrian bridge was used for both automobiles and people until only recently. According to legend, King Charles IV, after whom the bridge was eventually named, ordered its construction to begin at 5:31 a.m. on July 9, 1357, and personally laid the first stone. The king was fascinated by numerology; this specific time formed a numerical bridge (Get it? Bridge!): 1357 9, 9, 7, 5:31 (with odd numbers ascending, then descending) that he believed would give the structure additional strength.
The bridge has thirty statues (fifteen on each side) mounted to the balustrades. The most famous, St. John of Nepomuk (the one holding a golden palm frond with a “five-star” halo over his head), was thrown from the bridge in 1393 and into the river, where he drowned. Today, visitors rub the plaques at the base of the monument (one depicts Nepomuk being thrown into the river) to bring good fortune and to ensure a safe return to Prague.
JOHANNES KEPLER’S HOME is visible as you walk along Charles Street from the Old Town Square toward Charles Bridge. On the block just before the bridge, a plaque on one of the houses marks where the famous mathematician and astronomer once lived. The first person to completely separate astronomy from astrology, Kepler is still highly regarded today (as evident by NASA’s naming its ambitious 2009 space exploration, the Kepler Mission, after him).
THE OLD JEWISH CEMETERY, just three blocks from the Old Town Square, was reserved for Prague Jews, who were confined to their restricted ghetto in this area of Prague for centuries. The cemetery, only a single city block, contains tens of thousands of people. Jews were not allowed to be buried outside of the ghetto, so when room became scarce, a layer of earth was added on top of the old graves for new burials. Today, the cemetery is more than seven feet above street level and contained by a brick retaining wall.
THE OLD NEW SYNAGOGUE, near the cemetery, is Europe's oldest active synagogue. Built in 1270, it was one of Prague's first Gothic-style buildings. The name Old New is a reference to Prague’s Old Synagogue, which was destroyed, though not on the same site. Golems, those mythological protective ghost “giants” in Jewish folklore, are also interwoven into this site’s story. One of the most famous golems was created by a rabbi in Prague in the late 16th century to defend local Jews from an imminent attack (they were to be expelled or killed). To protect the Jewish community, the rabbi constructed a golem out of clay that he supposedly brought to life through magic. This golem figure was stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, where it could be restored to life again if needed; according to legend, it still lies there today. On the side of the building, look for the ladder that begins halfway up the wall and goes into the attic. (Don’t even think about it. It is strictly forbidden to use it.)
A SCULPTURE OF FRANZ KAFKA is located just one block from the Old Town Square. The most famous writer from Prague, Kafka gave us the word Kafkaesque (a nightmarish and surreal situation in which one feels powerless to resist one’s oppressors). Kafka's life reflects the national and cultural complexities of Europe. He was an Austrian subject for the first thirty-five years of his life, then, without moving across any borders, became a Czechoslovakian national for the last five. (He was never fluent in Czech and wrote all of his works in German, the mother tongue of many Prague natives at the time.) He also came from a Jewish family, and at one point even considered moving to Palestine (this was before Israel was formed). So who can really take credit for Kafka? Germans? Austrians? Czechs? Jews? All of humanity? Would Kafka even care? Maybe after a few liters of lager we can figure this out. Now, take a closer look at that statue of Kafka. Yes, it really does look like Kafka is riding a female body part.
For locations of these and more sights in Prague, visit PRAGUE.EU.
Kirill Taranouchtchenko is a history and ethics teacher, was born in Latvia and currently lives in Chicago, a city with its own inspiring history, architecture, & beer culture.
BARS TO CHECK OUT IN PRAGUE
STORY / Evan Rail
Prague is an amazing destination for a thousand reasons, not the least of which is its textbook collection of ten centuries of architecture. Gothic spires, Baroque curlicues, stately neoclassical townhouses, and zany postmodern constructions turn almost every corner into an Instagrammable moment. But beyond the eye candy, Prague has emerged as one of the best cities in which to eat, drink, and party in the former Eastern Bloc. In part, that stems from the Czech Republic’s history as a beer powerhouse, the homeland of pilsner brewing, and the country that drinks the most beer per capita in the world—a title it has held for the past twenty-five years.
In fact, beer is so ingrained in the culture here that it remains the drink of choice in virtually every setting: at lunch, after work, with dinner, at classical concerts, at opera galas. When you combine the country’s love for beer with the new generation of chefs and restaurateurs remaking Prague’s culinary scene, you end up with a city that lives very well indeed.
With the city’s inexpensive and extensive network of streetcars, subways, and buses, you won’t even need a designated driver. Grab a twenty-four-hour tram, metro, and bus pass for 110 Czech koruna, or about $5, and explore trendy residential neighborhoods like Vinohrady and Dejvice, where you’re unlikely to see other tourists. Or put on a good pair of walking shoes and wander through the cobblestone lanes of scenic Old Town. Wherever you go, another great cold one is just a few steps away.
This sprawling Old Town beer hall serves fresh Pilsner Urquell, the original pilsner from the Czech town of Pilsen, as well as classic Bohemian sausages, goulash, fried cheese, and other hearty fare. The lager served here is tapped from giant tanks, not kegs, with minimal exposure to oxygen, making it the freshest version you’ll find outside of the brewery. Keep an eye out for special pours that you can order, including the all-foam mlíko that eventually settles into a regular beer with a slightly different taste.
The oldest pub in its district, the circa 1873 hospoda U Šumavy on Štěpánská Street underwent a massive renovation a few years back, emerging with even more historic décor and atmosphere. Classic pale lagers—aka “pilsners”—sourced from small, regional breweries pair perfectly with cheeseburgers, pepper steaks, and other modern bar classics. Try the Černá Svině, a rare black lager with notes of bitter chocolate, plums, and licorice.
Across the street from a masterpiece of 1929 modernist architecture, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, this is the current high point for the city’s craft culture. Sample house beers from Prague’s Sibeeria brewery, or any one of the roughly thirty rotating beers on tap from Europe’s biggest craft names. Good American-style chicken wings (courtesy of an Ohio-born chef) are on hand, as well as quesadillas and other light meals.
The first major pub in Prague with rotating taps from regional breweries, the “brewery club” near metro station Florenc also serves excellent traditional food, including beef in cream sauce and a giant roast pork knee you almost certainly won’t be able to finish by yourself. Special reservations-only holiday menus feature roast goose on St. Martin’s Day (Nov. 11). If they’re tapping Benedict, the hoppy pale lager from the ancient Břevnov monastery brewery, drink it.
Ve Smečkách 16
This is one of the coolest small bars on a tiny street just off bustling Wenceslas Square. Stop by on your way to or from U Šumavy and Nota Bene, which makes for an easily walkable three-way pub crawl. Regulars here include local homebrewers, who might offer tips on what to order and where to go next. Taps rotate regularly, but you’ll often find brews from Pilsen’s sought-after Pivovar Raven as well as local favorites Clock and Zichovec.
This high-end restaurant near metro station I.P. Pavlova serves top brews from local heroes like Pivovar Falkon alongside contemporary continental cuisine. Menus change seasonally, but you can be sure to find traditional ingredients like duck breast, pork belly, rabbit, and fresh fish, along with forest mushrooms and root vegetables. Afterward, head downstairs to the Malý/Velký craft beer bar, owned by Falkon, where you can try craft beers from eight taps as well as dozens of cult bottles.
Food, drink, and travel writer Evan Rail moved to Prague in the summer of 2000 for a year abroad; he never left. His first book, Good Beer Guide: Prague and the Czech Republic, was the first guidebook covering all of the breweries and beers of his adopted country. Rail lives in Central Prague with his wife and children.
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