Where Beer Is Cheaper Than Water – Prague
Originally I was going to combine my Czech Republic and Slovakia posts. In fact, I never intended on traveling to Slovakia on this trip. In order to save money every bus, plane, and train ticket for my trip was bought and paid for months ago. Every hostel was booked. A fortuitous meeting in Budapest changed everything, and I’ve learned that sometimes you just can’t beat good company. So I canceled everything and spent a week traveling with a new friend. In the end, it added another sixty dollars to my trip expenses-sixty dollars spent to have just a shred of intimacy with someone I got on well with while navigating the sometimes starkly lonely (and sometimes starkly gratifying) road traveling solo. No regrets there. Back to what I was saying though, I never intended to go to Slovakia and as such my time in Munich, Amsterdam, and Prague were all cut short one day each. With just two nights in the Czech Republic’s capital I thought there was no way I’d retain enough information or do enough in Prague to warrant an entirely separate post. Boy, was I wrong.
Old Town Square
Much of Slovakia and the Czech Republic’s history is written in the same book-they were after all one country for nearly half a century. Sidenote: apparantely they changed the name to Czechia recently. “Gretchen, stop trying to make Czechia happen, it’s not going to happen.” Seriously though, no one calls it Czechia. Anyway, I’ll spare you all the details but one difference I found fascinating between the two countries was on the topic of religion. Slovakia is pretty devout with roughly 85% of the population declaring themselves Catholic. The Czech Republic is the exact opposite and one of the most secular countries in the entire world-85% declared themselves atheist, agnostic or “of nothing in particular” in the last country-wide investigation into the matter. Many Czech people believe the government has no business asking them about their religion at all, and a hilarious 15,000 people legitimately wrote down “Jedi” on this survey.
Given the outrageously cheap beer prices and generally cheaper everything Prague is a notoriously wild party city. Everyone’s caught on to this it seems, with Prague being the fifth most visited city in Europe probably a little bit because of this. Prague is especially popular with “stag groups” (non-American English for bachelor parties) and the Brits (sorry Brits!) have a reputation for frequently getting rowdy around town. When one of my new dorm roomies asked me if I wanted to go on a pub crawl not even thirty minutes after I settled in, I said a big fat hesitant yes of course. To be honest, the 24 euro crawl kind of sucked and I spent four hours going to empty bars with 30 other tourists getting ripped off with “free” shots of 7 UP before stumbling to a McDonald’s alone at 2 because I was so over it. I know, I suck.
Instead I should have spent more time around the beer halls. Night number two I learned my lesson. Did you know that the Czech Republic consumes more beer per capital than any other country in the world? At 145 L per capita per year it outranks even its neighbors Germany and Austria (numbers two and three). In the Czech Republic beer is literally cheaper than water. If you go to a pub and water is less expensive than the beer it is likely a tourist trap. Just make sure while you stumble around the city wasted you watch out for the trams as they probably won’t hesitate to hit you. In Prague, if a tram driver hits you they get three days paid leave, because just think of all the trauma you caused OTHER PEOPLE by getting yourself hit by a tram-doofus. At a little over a euro per half liter of beer, I guess it’s not an entirely unbelievable risk.
Czech potato pancakes. Pro tip: here it’s rude to leave money on the table as a tip, you just tell the waiter how much change you’d like with the tip included or give them exact cash!
Svíčková: Marinated sirloin steak with root vegetable and cream gravy, dumplings, and cranberries. Other popular Czech dishes include roast pork, duck, goulash, and fried cheese.
Even with all the beer and rowdy tourists, Czechs are remarkably peaceful people. My tour guide emphasized this time and time again. She wasn’t kidding-the Czech Republic is actually the sixth most peaceful country on Earth. Consistent with the duality seen in a lot of aspects of Czech culture the country is also famous for coining the term defenestration-the act of throwing someone or something out of a window. The word came about around the year 1618 after an incident in Prague Castle that led to the Thirty Year’s War. This act was performed in “good Bohemian style” referring to another defenestration that occurred in Prague’s City Hall 200 years before that led to the Hussite War or Bohemian War.
A with many statues, it’s good luck to rub a certain spot-guess where this one’s is.
Many Czech’s would probably argue for the defenestration of their current president, Miloš Zeman. Elected in 2013, in just a few years Zeman has managed to build on an already-existing reputation for being quite a drunk. “He’s a drunk oaf!” my tour guide Lana exclaimed. “At one event, he was so pissed he stood up and cried, ‘Death to vegetarians and abstinence.’” This actually happened. It was during a meeting with winemakers at the presidential castle in Prague. Recently he called for the liquidation of all journalist-just a joke, of course, one that few laughed at. He is regularly accused of showing up drunk to various engagements, stumbling and tripping over nothing. He’s also been criticized for his contacts with a powerful Czech lobbyist (previously his chief adviser) who used to frequently consult with a man named František Mrázek, then known as the “Godfather of Czech Organized Crime”. Mrázek was assassinated in 2006. In leaked wiretapping records, he nicknamed Zeman mlha (“fog”) and claiming that Zeman “could not be bribed, and wanted only a sandwich, three pickles and for people to like him.” I don’t think he’s doing too well in that last department, but hey, at least he’s honest.
St. Martin’s Cathedral
Mustering up a little stamina after the “late night” I did a walking tour the next day at 11 beginning in Prague’s iconic Old Town Square. Just around the corner we stopped by the Astrological Clock-voted second most disappointing tourist attraction in Europe! Can you guess what the first one is? It’s the Mona Lisa, given the paintings tiny size and legendary crowds. Every hour there’s a show on the clock where some figures move around and it makes a bunch of interesting sounds. Lana said the better show is standing facing away from the clock so you can see the disappointed faces of 600 people holding their phones and cameras up waiting for the perfect shot that never comes. The clock has been such a large tourist attraction for so long that actually the man who built the astrological clock had his eyes poked out and tongue cut off by Prague city officials. They did this so that he couldn’t make another one elsewhere. I think they seriously overestimated the attraction of this clock.
The John Lennon Wall
We checked out the hospital where Czech author Franz Kafka was born-now a tourist trap cafe of course in his namesake. Kafka’s status as a Czech author is debatable, given he actually wrote in German and the Czech Republic was one of the last places where he rose to fame due to Nationalism. Unsuccessful as a writer, when he died of tuberculosis he asked his friend to burn all of his belongings. Like any good friend would, his buddy published everything, and Kafka became Kafka. How Kafkaesque.
This nationalism prevented most Czechs from reading his works until the 90s-an oft anti-Semitic nationalism at times. Like many other cities in Europe and specifically Central and Eastern Europe Prague has WWI and WWII remnants, both tangible and intangible, everywhere. My tour also walked through Prague’s Jewish Quarter-largely unaffected by the war because Hitler liked the neighborhood’s architecture. He liked it so much that he planned on using it as a museum to the Jewish race once it became extinct. Fortunately that didn’t happen. Ironically, there is a Hugo Boss headquarters still in the neighborhood (Hugo Boss designed the Nazi’s uniforms).
Also located in the neighborhood is Prague’s Holocaust Museum. I didn’t have the chance to visit this time unfortunately, but I did learn the fascinating story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Terezín children. When the Holocaust was devastating the lives of Europeans and especially European Jews the Nazis sought to eliminate young, able adults first. As a result many children were left behind-sad, angry, confused, and alone. As a form of therapy she had the children paint how they were feeling, rip up the paintings and then paint how they used to feel-when their lives were whole and without such tragedy. When her husband was taken away to a camp she volunteered to go so that she could be with him-a decision that cost her life. She was gassed, and in a terrible and tragic twist her husband ended up being liberated shortly afterwards. He dug up the 4000 plus paintings she buried in a secret location, powerful paintings you can view at the museum today. Sadly, very few of the Terezín children survived-the vast majority were deported to Auschwitz.
The tour ended at Charles Bridge, a bridge that’s claim to fame is that it’s still standing since the river floods so much. It’s over 700 years old. The much beloved King Charles consulted numerous astrologers, alchemists and numerologists that were trusted at the time and pretty much said, “Build me a bridge that will last forever.” They said “Cool Charles, but don’t lay a single brick until we say so on a blue moon that occurs 37 months from now and then don’t lay down another until 71 days later but only if it’s November. You’re a Scorpio.” Not really, but the timing of the construction of the bridge was a palindrome-135797531-so that’s pretty neat. Whatever they did you can’t argue it-it’s still standing. Maybe you really only did lose your job because Mercury was in retrograde, Sag.
There are no moats or walls at Prague Castle. It was just a summer house and the royal family never thought anyone would get far enough to take it (the Swedes did once, and apparantely still have a ton of Czech stuff they won’t give back). Feeling like no one took the castle seriously because of this, they built this gate-Titan Gate, to instill just a little fear.
Make sure you check out the Strahov Monastery while walking around the castle area-there’s an awesome brewery there. Yay monk beer!
After my typical walking tour I enjoyed and adored my tour guide so much that it didn’t take much to convince me to sign on for another one thirty minutes later-this time to Prague Castle. Combined with my pub crawl the night before, my morning tour, and going out again that night this put me at over 28,000 steps in a little over 24 hours. When I say to some of my begrudging friends and family members working honest 9-5 jobs right now that traveling is hard work, this is exactly what I mean. The castle is gargantuan by itself and you could probably spend a few days there (and according to Lana 500 euro to see every exhibit) and still not cover all of it. The castle holds the Guinness World Record for the largest complex of medieval buildings at roughly 70,000 square acres and it is absolutely breathtaking. Apparently Mick Jagger thought so to, and paid $87,000 so that the castle’s magnificence could be enjoyed at night. That, they say, is why the Stones are officially better than the Beatles in Prague.
One of my absolute favorite places I visited in Prague-Grotta is unusual artificial cave built by a millionaire in the 1800s.
I know I try to be pretty positive about every city I’ve been to because I really just love to travel, but seriously, I really loved Prague. It was like the best city I feel like I never really went to, with such little time and all. The people have a stunningly dry sense of humor, it was peaceful, welcoming, and the beer was cheap. The next time I set foot on the European continent I promise you I will return. As always, thank you for reading. I hope I’ve convinced you on what an amazing place I found Prague to be in my brief time there.
Until next time,