First of all, I’d just like to make it clear that I know the title is a really bad pun, but it just had to be done. Now, before we visit any country I always put a post on Facebook stating where we’re going. These are usually met with comments ranging from “Cool” to “Have a nice time”. This time, however, when I mentioned we were going to Prague the comments were “The best place EVER!!!” and “Prague is awesome”, as well as a laundry list of things to do there, courtesy of my friends Glenn Harris and Ben Van Berkel.
This had me perplexed, because in recent weeks we had been to Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels. Those are some pretty gnarly cities to visit, why all the excitement for Prague? Well, for one thing, I found out that The Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world. It’s all beginning to make sense now. We also had a few added bonuses that would make our trip even better:
- The Czech Republic was hosting the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship. Ice hockey is their national sport, everyone is obsessed with it and Czech Republic were playing in the finals in Prague the weekend we were there.
- The Czech Beer Festival was on, as well.
- We went at the right time of year; It wasn’t too cold, but it wasn’t the Summer holidays and over-crowded. Sure, there were a ton of people there for the hockey, but they were just drinking and having a good time, just like us.
As you can see from the points I made, above, this is going to be a blurry weekend to try to piece together, but I’ll do my best…
Our paperwork for our US working visas had come through earlier in the week and Anna, being the control freak that she is, had been stressing about getting it all completed so we could get an interview. The only problem is the sheer amount of information they need. If there were questions requiring me to state all of my Great-Grandparents previous partners or my colonic map I would not be surprised! You then need to attend the interview where you need to explain why you don’t want to stay in the US while they keep your passports for a week or so. Even simple things like the visa photo need to be a different size compared to visas for other countries.
Anna was looking forward to this weekend away, Thursday was yet another public holiday and the hospital had given her Friday off. Time to party, but this time we decided to fly there and take the train back (more on that later). Our 50 minute flight departed from Köln at around 7:15pm, landed in Prague just after 8:00pm and then we took a half-hour taxi ride to our hotel. The only frustrating thing was that our hotel was just up the road from the American embassy, so each time we came back by taxi, the car had to be stopped and checked for explosives under the bonnet, in the boot and underneath the vehicle. For some reason, though, they don’t actually check inside the car! Anyway, Anna has a special knack for selecting hotels and this is what she found this time at the Hotel Sax:
We had seen some amazing sites on the way to the hotel so we wanted to unpack quickly and grab a bite to eat before everything shut. We were to find out that that wasn’t a problem, people in Prague seem to eat really late.
We found a bar and grabbed some dinner as we watched middle-aged people dance to a folk band playing in the corner. I had a pork knee and immediately learnt that you shouldn’t take a huge mouthful of mashed potato, just in case it is actually horseradish. We stuck around for a few drinks, all the while hoping we could be as cool as the people inside when we’re sixty, but the bar started packing stuff up around 11:00pm. We decided to continue our night and ventured around the city for a bit before eventually stumbling upon a pub called Lokál. on our way we saw a chalkboard out the front of a stereotypical Irish pub that said “Thursday, 20:00 – Hockey ¼ Finals: Czech vs. Finland.” “That could be a fun night out”, I said and we made a note of getting to a pub tomorrow at 10:00pm to watch the game. There were ice hockey related ads all over the airport, on TV and tons of people wearing hockey jerseys, there were going to be several games on Thursday night, but the atmosphere here would be crazy for the Czech game! We settled into Lokál, had a few drinks, a bowl of tripe soup and kicked back for the evening.
Prague is such a beautiful city. About a month ago I wrote about our trip to Paris and how the city isn’t really like how it is portrayed. The same could be said about Prague. Actually, Prague is more like what I expected Paris to be and vice-versa. A lot of Paris was cold and grey, but Prague is fun and vibrant, something you wouldn’t expect from the capital of a country that was, until 1989, a single-party communist state under Soviet influence. One of the first things we noticed was how immaculately clean the city was and, despite the huge amount of beer they drink, there aren’t any drunks stumbling about and very few beggars, compared to the rest of Europe.
On Thursday morning we got up, had the free hotel buffet breakfast, grabbed a cup of coffee each and we were on our way for a stroll around the city. We saw a vendor on the side of the road selling homemade sausages, how could I resist? One Bohemian sausage in a bun with sauerkraut and mustard, please. This sparked my curiosity, because the word “Bohemian” gets thrown around quite a fair bit, but we were encountering it more often here. According to Wikipedia:
Bohemia is a region in the Czech Republic. In a broader meaning, it often refers to the entire Czech territory, including Moravia and Czech Silesia, especially in historical contexts: the Lands of the Bohemian Crown. Bohemia was a kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire and subsequently a province in the Habsburgs’ Austrian Empire. It was bounded on the south by Upper and Lower Austria, on the west by Bavaria, on the north by Saxony and Lusatia, on the northeast by Silesia, and on the east by Moravia. From 1918 to 1939 and from 1945 to 1992 it was part of Czechoslovakia; and, since 1993, it has formed much of the Czech Republic.
Bohemia has an area of 52,065 km2 (20,102 sq mi) and today is home to approximately 6 million of the Czech Republic’s 10.3 million inhabitants. It is bordered by Germany to the west and northwest, Poland to the northeast, the historical region of Moravia to the east, and Austria to the south. Bohemia’s borders are marked with mountain ranges such as the Bohemian Forest, the Ore Mountains, and the Krkonoše, the highest in the Sudeten mountain range.
Wow. I guess that just means I’ve never really heard the adjective “Bohemian” used in its correct context until now.
After a few beers in a microbrewery we continued to wander through Praha 1, past a sculpture of Sigmund Freud hanging from a beam several storeys up and into the Old Town. One of the most interesting sites to see there is the Prague astronomical clock. It was first installed on the Town Hall in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still working and how they came up with this device before the digital watch is beyond me. Again, according to Wikipedia:
The clock mechanism itself is composed of three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details; “The Walk of the Apostles”, a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures—notably a figure of Death (represented by a skeleton) striking the time; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months. According to local legend, the city will suffer if the clock is neglected and its good operation is placed in jeopardy and a skeleton, mounted on the clock, was supposed nod his head in confirmation. Based on the legend, the only hope was represented by a boy born in the New Year´s night.
Blimey. And that is just putting it in layman’s terms, if you check out the link it’s a lot more intricate than that!
Walking further around the Old Town area was like stepping back in history to a medieval European marketplace; Blacksmiths making knives on anvils in the street, pork legs cooking over an open flame and more homemade sausages. I bought a plate of the pork, was instantly asked how many beers I wanted and we went over to a standing-room table and ate it. The sausages looked good, too, they looked just like salamis, but I guess I should’ve asked for more information. I bought a wild boar sausage, was told to store it in the fridge in paper, not plastic, and that was it.
That night we went to a restaurant called Mlýnec for a five course dinner. Our reservation was for 7:30pm, the Czech vs. Finland game was on at 10:00pm, should have plenty of time.
The food was great, but the service was quite slow, so it was a bit after 10:00 by the time we left the restaurant. At the same time, there were people entering the restaurant to eat, because, as I wrote earlier, people tend to eat late in Prague. Must not want to watch the hockey. We checked a bar next to the restaurant to see if we had missed much; The score was tied 3-3 with 15 minutes left in the third period! How could this be?!? Oh yeah, “20:00” is 8:00pm, the game started over two hours ago, I guess they’re still doing the old 24-hour thing and not operating on metric time in Prague yet. Just like the rest of the world. We walked down to Lokál again, which was about a five-minute walk across Charles Bridge, hearing a huge cheer as we passed another bar as the Czech team scored. There were less than 10 minutes left when we got to Lokál, but we got to see the Czech team score another goal to beat Finland 5-3 and advance to the semifinals, which were to be played on Saturday. We had a few more drinks with a local couple who looked like they compete in ass-kicking competitions and we discovered that Czech people are really stern when you first meet them, but they are pretty cool once they warm up to you.
Anna had wine paired with each course of her meal, thus she was starting to get pretty hammered. I had bought a couple of miniature bottles of absinthe during the day so we went home, drank them as I ate a huge portion of my boar sausage while watching Judge Judy, then we went to bed.
I felt fine when I woke up on Friday, but when I went to the bathroom I had what is sometimes referred to as severe “ring-sting”, it was like there was a little guy in the bowl with a blowtorch pointing up! “Must be something you ate…”. Elementary, dear Anna, elementary, but what? Oh well, let’s hope it improves over the course of the day.
During this trip we would encounter some celebrities, including Snow White and Martina Navratilova (left). I honestly thought Martina would have been doing better for herself, but she asked me for 25Kč (US$1.04) for taking this photo. I just pulled out a handful of change, placed it in her hand and she smiled. Poor woman.
Friday was to be another day of exploring the city, but first we accidentally stumbled across what we thought was just a beautiful walled-in garden. It turned out we were in the gardens of Wallenstein Palace, currently home to the Czech Senate. We didn’t enter the buildings, just wandered around the gardens with their fountains, statues, feature walls and endless hedges that were almost mazes. The entire time we were walking around we heard a familiar, periodic screeching sound that we couldn’t quite put our collective fingers on. I’d definitely heard it before, it sounded avarian which could be some fun, because Anna is terrified of birds, but what could it be? We kept walking until I heard a slightly different screech, this time coming from Anna. In front of her was a giant white peahen. There were several extremely tame peafowl walking around and you could get right up close to them. Once they’d had enough they would just turn their back on you and walk off. Some of the other sights of Wallenstein Palace:
After Wallenstein Palace we walked around until we settled at a riverside cafe and had lunch and a couple of beers. The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling around looking at the shops and sculptures, however, posting pictures of all of them would make this page take too long to load.
Ben Van Berkel had told me about bars in Prague where you can pour your own beers and get into drinking competitions against the other tables. I thought it sounded too good to be true so I made an agreement with Anna that we had to do it on Friday. We discovered that the place that does it was called Beer Factory, so we located it on Google Maps and tried to find it at around 5:00pm. When we got to the location we looked everywhere, but couldn’t find it anywhere. We pulled into Burger King to use their free wi-fi (if they asked us to buy something we could just grab a beer there (left)) and it turned out that Beer Factory had shut down, however, there was a franchise simply called The Pub that do the same thing and there was one a 10 minute walk away. Let’s do it!
We eventually made it to The Pub, but the location of the particular bar we chose was in a tourist area. We didn’t have a booking, so we could only stay for a fixed amount of time, because the rest of the booths were reserved, but the bartender gave us the one with the latest reservation. We pulled up our seat in the booth and started drinking. There was a leaderboard on the wall that showed how many pints each table had drunk and, with just Anna and myself, we weren’t going to reach the pinnacle. It was at that moment that I noticed that Anna was the only female in the pub. In the booth behind us was a group of American jocks and frat-boys, at least two of whom you could tell were probably named “Chad” or “Chase” or something like that, that were hooting, yelling and banging on the tables while playing drinking games. There was another table of similar patrons across from them, too. A group of girls had come at the same time, but were served by a horrible barman who would only let them sit at the bar. Anna and I thought it would be more fun if we were in a group of people, so I went over and asked them to come over. Eventually, when they came to the conclusion that I wasn’t a sexual predator and felt comfortable that Anna and I were married, but not a new era Fred and Rosemary West, they pulled up a seat and we had a great time. They were four University students from the UK. We managed to make it to about seventh place on the leaderboard in the hour and a half that we had the booth, but admittedly about two-thirds of that was me. We were asked to leave when it was time for the reservation group to arrive; I left with five women, the Chads, undoubtedly, went home alone. We moved onto a pub a couple of doors down, settled in for the night and had a great time chatting with some locals.
Today was the big day in the Czech Republic; Czech were playing Canada at 3:00pm in the ice hockey semi-final, followed by USA vs. Russia. I got the times right on this occasion and I even bought a Czech hockey jersey. There were huge screens in the town square showing the games, surrounded by stalls selling beer, pork and sausages. The atmosphere was electric, but Anna couldn’t see so we went to a pub to watch it. It was a great game, but Canada won. When we walked out of the bar there were grown men crying in the street! It was amazing how much they had invested in this game.
On the way to the town square we had laughed as we passed the Sex Machines Museum and we had to pass it on the way back, so we decided to drop in. As we were getting tickets a man was exiting. He shook his head, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Don’t”. We should’ve taken his advice, this place wasn’t a tribute to James Brown. I’m not going to write about it, because my young niece and nephew see this, so if you’re interested just do your own research.
USA were about to play Russia in the other semi-final so we decided to go to another outlet of The Pub, this time in a different part of town, to watch it. This time The Pub was full of locals and Russians instead of drunk frat-boys, so it was a lot more fun. I asked a Czech guy who he was going for and he said that, normally he would never support Russia in anything, but he had to on this occasion because his Russian friends were visiting.
After the Russian’s win we headed over to Cross Club, a steampunk bar/club and watched an awesome stoner band play, then went back to our hotel for our final night there and ate another huge chunk out of that wild boar sausage.
When I awoke, the ring-sting was back. It must be that sausage. You don’t think I was supposed to cook it, do you? Had I been snacking on raw sausages? It looked like salami, but I guess it wasn’t. Oh well, first world problems.
Sunday turned out to be one of the most surreal days I’ve ever experienced, thanks solely to the Sapa Vietnamese Market. You can walk around in this place and think you are in Vietnam. Where else in the world would you see a Vietnamese girl riding a bike with a bowl of noodles (right)? The first place we went into sold bubble tea and did manicures. It doesn’t get much more Vietnamese than that! Yet again, our friends at Wikipedia state:
Vietnamese people in the Czech Republic, including residents and citizens, form the largest immigrant community in the country (and 3rd largest ethnic minority at all, after Slovaks and Romanies), numbering more than 83,000 people according to 2011 census.
According to the 2001 census, there were 17,462 ethnic Vietnamese in the Czech Republic. The Vietnamese population has grown very rapidly since then, with the Czech Statistics Office estimating that there were 61,012 Vietnamese residing in the Czech Republic in October 2009. Nguyen, the most common Vietnamese surname, is now the 9th most common surname in the entire country.
Vietnamese immigrants began settling in the Czech Republic during the Communist period, when they were invited as guest workers by the Czechoslovak government. Migration was encouraged by the Vietnamese authorities, with the intention that the migrants would return with skills and training.
Following the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia, many Vietnamese decided to remain in the country rather than return home. This first generation of immigrants has traditionally made a living as vendors in street markets or stalls. In recent years, however, a significant number have moved towards establishing their own businesses and integrating more broadly into society, similar to the experience of other overseas Vietnamese in Western countries. However, the small business sector remains the key economic domain of first-generation Vietnamese people in the Czech Republic.
Vietnamese immigration continued in the 1990s and 2000s (decade), with Vietnam being one of the countries targeted by the Czech Republic’s skilled migration programme.
The market itself was amusing, mainly because you could buy anything, but only in bulk. I was looking at underwear, but you could only buy a pack of 24 pairs in mixed sizes. Same with bras, with the sizes ranging from AA to G! But we weren’t there for undies, we wanted food and the Vietnamese food there was pretty authentic. We stopped off for a bowl of fried fish noodles (left), looked around the market for a bit and then came back for a damn good bowl of pho. If we weren’t wearing pants and long sleeves we probably would’ve completely forgotten we were in Central Europe.
It was now time to wrap up our four-day weekend in Prague and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we were returning to Germany by train. The only difference between this and the other train journeys we’ve made recently was that this one was an 11-hour overnight sleeper train that would arrive in Köln at about 6:00am. Why, when the plane is only 50 minutes? As Anna put it, “For the experience”. She never stated whether said experience would be positive or negative.
In hindsight it was cool, but at the time it sucked. We didn’t realise there wasn’t dinner included, only breakfast, but you could order food that made aeroplane food seem like fillet mignon. I could touch all four walls and the ceiling of our cabin at the same time and there was a bathroom I was too big to really use properly with a shower that gave water for 10 seconds at a time. I was also too long for the bed, but if I slept curled up on my side I was to wide for it. Oh, and they woke us up at 5:00am, despite the fact it took me hours to get to sleep in that hotbox. Anna and I started getting cabin fever about an hour into the ride! Check it out for yourself:
We arrived at Köln at 6:15am, caught a connecting train to Bonn, and a bus from the Bonn Station so Anna could go to work and I could go to bed. Seriously, Anna somehow got a decent night sleep on that thing!
Anyway, if you ever get the chance, go to Prague, it’s one of the coolest cities in the world! You know it must be a great town when there is a huge beer festival on and I didn’t even bother going because I couldn’t fit it in. But if you do go, just fly there…