“Welcome to Prague, the city of towers and ghosts.” The words were spoken by a ghost of my own. Jana Horokivich stepped out of my past to welcome me to her city.
Prague is known as a beautiful city but it’s become popular with stag and hen parties perhaps because of its great pubs and cheap beer, but I was here to check out Prague, Czech style, with my very own local guide.
First the lowdown on my very own embedded guide… and the special relationship, which made us Czech mates!
Jana was only 18 when she arrived in Belfast twelve years ago to work as our au pair. We picked her up from the airport on a rainy autumn day and whisked her away in a battered old Cortina to Holywood. County Down that is. “Perhaps you made a mistake when you chose us and thought you were heading for Hollywood LA.” I teased her later. (She quickly adapted to the Belfast banter).
The aupair business had been a gamble for everyone involved. How must her parents have worried what she was going to in an attempt to broaden her horizons and learn English? Who’d have a gap year in Northern Ireland, a place synonymous with “troubles”? For us, it seemed a solution to cover some of the anti social hours we worked as journalists, though I’d been left slightly terrified by “Fly on the wall” documentaries in which everyone fell out, or the au pair was treated like a slave and went on TV to tell everyone about their horrible experiences.
I resolved that the only way this would work is that if Jana was treated as part of the family. We lucked out with Jana. She was intelligent, thoughtful and kind. She really loved my daughters and they loved her right back. We really did gain another member of the family. When she ended up with the top English qualification in her class we were all so proud. When her year was up we were all heart broken. But we did keep in touch – she joined us for a whole summer when we moved to Donegal where she met her current employer and quickly became a director of the employment agency he set up.
I kept promising Jana I would go see her beautiful city and now at last, the kids nearly grown, here I was.
I arrived at Prague airport with one of my buddies in tow – Thelma and Louise style. Jana met us with a lovely boyfriend who carried our bags and although he had quite good English had to bow out of the conversations as we all gibbered away in Belfasteese. Jana had taken care of my kids in exchange for learning fluent English now she was going to take care of me, hardly seems a good deal for her – but she seemed delighted.
She didn’t even flinch when I said, “I’ve told the kids I’m having a gap year before they do – this is just the first leg.”
WINE, MEN AND SONG
Prague has a good, bad reputation at home – a party place where stag and hen parties can decamp to act the eejit on cheap beer. But my mission was to look beyond the obvious and investigate the city the locals know and love -courtesy of Jana.
Out of all the ghosts stories and myths that reverberate around this atmospheric city there are a few that I was able to debunk straight off. Stags and hens were not omnipresent. The only obvious stag party I witnessed was looking over the Charles Bridge to the river below and on a cruise boat a group of about twenty men dressed in red jumpers with beer in their hands were gazing appreciatively at the architecture. We waved at them politely and they waved back. Yes there are lots of stag parties but this is a city that exhales so many atmospheres you can just enjoy it on whatever stratosphere you happen to be living in.
Another myth is that Prague is all about cheap beer. That’s true actually, but its cheap tasty beer – and girls listen up! – This is also a wine drinkers paradise. Cozy little wine bars have sprung up all over the city – some are even wine and book bars! Is that not the epitome of civilization itself! The one I tried, Winegraf a quaint little establishment in Miens Street very close to Charles Bridge, a little oasis from the throng.
The Czech Republic produces some very good wine, especially the whites and a large percentage of the wine for sale in these wine bars is from the local area. A knowledgeable wine waiter offered us a nip of wine in a taster glass and, because we asked, told us all about it. The idea is that you if you like it, you can then order a large glass or go for a different wine. In Winegraf there was also some wholesome food to go with the wine, chunky cheeses and meats with hunky bread. You can even buy the rest of the bottle and take it home – having been able to taste it first. Genius!
Will someone please open such an establishment back in Belfast? With bars and pubs struggling in the recession can I assure their owners that as a wine drinker I will only be tempted to leave my nice £9.99 bottle of claret and roaring fire to drink something nice. Providing me with one of those quarter bottles of vinegar you call wine is like enticing beer drinkers with slops. Worse – at least the slops started out as something akin to beer.
Prague is truly a place of wine men and song – befitting of the name of the area – Bohemia. Re the men, these are to be found in the many traditional style establishments. All chunky wood, chunky glasses, and chunky men speaking in low murmurs eating marinated meat off the bone.
Jana took us to one such pub close to the old town,Uzlateho Tygra, or the Golden Tiger which was like stepping back in time. The clientele was mostly men in the pub but not a British or Irish stag party member in site. This pub is a serious local watering hole.
Don’t bother wondering what you’ll have to drink. A big black glass of the pub’s signature drink, black beer is immediately slapped down in front of you… My guess is the bar staff don’t speak much English. No matter, you’re here for the beer and by God that’s what you will get! It’s the favourite watering hole of the writer Bohumil Hrabel and former President Vaclav Havel. The former US President Bill Clinton met with the pair here spawning a famous photograph of the three intellectuals.
It’s an eat drink and be merry sort of pub… the pub is laid out with benches around long tables, which means you just find a space and everyone squeezes along to make room. We fortuitously joined a table of men, who with regards to their own dinner, had eyes bigger than their bellies.
Having ordered themselves too much food, they decided to pass on bowls of marinated knee bones to us. I haven’t tasted anything so delicious in a long time. The meat, in a sweet ruby red sauce literally fell off the bone and into our mouths. The donor of the food said (through Jana) that he had a great time in Dublin recently and was pleased to extend hospitality to visitors to his city. I know I am on a girl’s weekend away but I make a mental note to bring my husband here some time. He’d love me forever.
If you need a break from all that beer and wine head on down to the Cafe Slavia beside the national theatre and overlooking the river. What is it with Prague that you can play at being the intellectual no matter what you are eating or drinking? Popular with writers like Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera, watch the world go by while basking in art deco splendor and some pleasant tinkering of the ivories. But the various coffees, hot chocolate’s, strawberry cakes and blueberry pancakes? To die for.
These Bohemians are consummate meat eaters so it’s no surprise that one of Jana’s favourite restaurants is Pastryka – a steak house with a vengeance – just a short taxi ride out of town costing about a £5, its well worth the trip.
Don’t be fooled by the folk music and dancing, this place is so good the locals don’t mind letting the tourists in on it and it is great fun and atmospheric. Dark and rustic with a flaming grill centre stage we are now in serious eating territory.
We watch, mouths watering as the steak is cooked to order before our eyes, Jana bosses the waiters at every turn to make sure everything is perfection. If we order rare then it must be served to us within an inch of its life. They don’t mess around these Czechs when it comes to their meat and getting things just right.
Even if you do want just to go on a pub crawl, the beauty of Prague is such that you would be in danger of taking in a lot of culture just staggering about – but I’d recommend staying off the beer long enough to drink in the sheer architectural atmosphere of the place. Walk along Charles Bridge and make sure you climb at least one of the medieval towers that guard it. Touristy or not its it’s well worth getting a Prague visitors card.
You can purchase a two or three day card with transport that will then give you free access to more than 50 Prague sights with discount off many other events. The Old Town Bridge Tower completed in 1380 forms part of the old fortification system of Prague, for a bird’s eye view of the red roof tops and quirky buildings, take a moment to absorb the view over Charles Bridge, the Vltava River, the Old Town, the Lesser Town and Prague Castle.
Perhaps it is just the weight of history and the atmosphere of the old buildings that give rise to the ghost stories of Prague; or the multitude of conquering invaders and strange deaths during its twelve hundred year history; Prague Castle, standing on the hill over the left bank of the Vltava, was built in the 9th century. A complex of palaces, courtyards and cathedrals, within which are buried generations of the royal family.
It’s in the Royal Crypt, where the four wives of Emperor Charles IV are said to wander the night, fighting jealously among themselves and seeking a last glimpse of their husband. Ghosts and gothic go hand in hand and lo here in the Castle complex looms Saint Vitus Cathedral the oldest Gothic cathedral in Central Europe. Nowadays, the castle is the seat of the President of the Republic and historical and cultural centre of the country.
The first Czech monastery was founded here as well. During its long history, the Castle has undergone numerous reconstructions, including the enlargement after the fire in the 16th century when it was partially destroyed and the redesign after the First World War. Guarded by the warring twins, its violent facade looms over a scene of ultimate civilisation.
Bands playing sultry sax in the sunshine provide the inevitable musical backdrop as we take in the simply stunning views over the city. It’s hard to imagine there was any sort of Iron curtain draped over this open friendly city. The changing of the guard ceremony that takes place every hour is picturesque but hardly formal as the soldiers in costume mingle with the tourists. Hardly a policeman in site both day and night this castle pageantry is the closest I’ve seen uniforms in this incredibly laid back city.
Finish your castle trip by walking back down the hill along the “Golden Mile” a quaint little cobbled street lined by 16th century houses. Their facades and rooms have been preserved and although they are now little shops selling trinkets and gifts. They are fun to browse after the seriousness of all that history at the castle – Eventually you will come to a wonderful restaurant, Pianno Terra – with an open aspect and fabulous views overlooking the city. Left to my own devices I might well have avoided this restaurant thinking it may be touristy and pricey but Jana’s insists it one of our favourite haunts.
Again local knowledge comes up trumps. In spite of being dripping in chandeliers, crisp white table clothes and pristine service, it’s not expensive. There’s some very nice beer and wines at £1.50 a glass. The main dish of the day costs just £7 and traditional goulash soup is only about £2. We certainly felt like Queens of the castle as we wined and dined ourselves with the Castle as a backdrop and the whole city laid out before our feet.
Many people stay in Prague for their visit – maybe because they feel the cheap beer is hard to leave. But only about twenty-five miles outside the city is arguably the Czech republic’s most spectacular monument, Karlstejn Castle.
It’s just a forty-minute train ride and the first glimpse of the castle from the train is magical. Just as you are settling into enjoying the lush woodlands and river views suddenly, through a gap between the trees, looms this magnificent Castle, a fourteenth century gothic monument to the Bohemians. It’s such a treat that the train conductor determines we are not to miss it and seeing us with our camera’s ready insists on waiting to give us the nod just as it appears in sight. Jana is particularly delighted at this extra service. “I never thought my countrymen were so polite and friendly to foreigners.” Jana fell in love with Ireland because it was so friendly and now I can see she’s bursting with pride at the way we are being treated.
The castle is extremely popular with locals as well as tourists, and the prices at the quaint pubs and restaurants are even cheaper than in the city. It’s pleasant to be able to enjoy a major tourist attraction, which has the benefit of being cheap but definitely not tacky. Before we reach the castle we stop off at one such pub and order three bowls of hearty goulash and some beers – It comes to little more than five pounds and is delicious rustic and hearty.
My only worry is that I want to be hungry again when I try out the restaurant Jana has recommended after we see the castle. The castle clings to the hillside leering out of the gloaming “like Shrek’s castle” said my friend all quirky and edgy and different from the architecture of Southern Europe. Unfortunately the castle has closed for the day when we arrived but its so imposing from the outside it was enough to enjoy this feast for the eyes before contemplating another feast for the belly.
The restaurant Jana recommended, pod draci skalou was a pleasant half mile trek downhill from the castle. Having worked up an appetite. We had food fit for a king of the said castle: Wild boar in a ruby wine sauce, venison with asparagus and a more peasant like but wonderfully rustic cheese and pork kebab. Although it was on the beaten track from this spectacular castle there were mainly locals in this pub. Again prices were reasonable, around eight pounds for the venison and wild boar and £5 for chicken and pork dishes. Jana chatted to the proprietor and was able to tell us that the recession was worrying and everyone is hoping for a good summer.
All I can tell you is the food was wholesome, and delicious, a veritable feast – the kind you could imagine Shrek tearing into. We lingered too long over the excellent wine making us late for our train, which was a hearty half hour stroll away. When we asked if we could order a taxi the restaurant owner told us there wasn’t any running just now, but his son would gladly drive us. Well there’s someone who deserved his tip.
Prague is a banquet for music lovers. A bit of jazz at the Castle… some blues by Charles Bridge and of course the obligatory folk band hoping for a few coppers. Around seven in the evening sophistication comes home to roost and the doors of the many churches are thrown open as trumpeters herald the beginning of a veritable musical feast.
Take your pick from the musical menu: Bach, Mozart, Schubert: How about a rendering of Ava Maria and the famous arias? Although I don’t know too much about classical music I’m sorely tempted but now we are running out of time and on this occasion Jana has arranged to take us to one of her favourite hangouts – the appropriately named Jazz Dock.
Hugging the riverbank this place is certainly cool – we join girls in black polo necks with high Slavic cheekbones and get our heads around a challenging set from the very talented, Tomatoesas. As if to prove music erupts from the underground it included some mocking of the former communist regime’s approach to contemporary music.
Although perhaps this set was a little too modern for me – I prefer my music hot and passionate. Jana assures us that this venue caters for all tastes and would usually be hopping in such a fashion. Certainly I have no quarrel with my surroundings and again, a fabulous choice of excellent wine made our taste buds sing.
The lights of Prague’s nightlife twinkled up at us from the darkness of the Vltava River. Then, a huge boat all lit up with the words “Jazz boat” glided by. It stopped awhile alongside our glass walls and as we looked out at that other party it was like watching parallel lives. A veritable ship of cool, it then slipped by into the night.
Prague might be a city for culture vultures but its not for nothing that the Stag and hen parties go here. Actually it is for nothing, partly – the beer is so cheap – and you can go in and out of all the different clubs in the centre of town all night long without paying an entrance fee.
I like a “bop” so that suits me just fine. You can seek out the bar that’s playing your tune without wasting time and paying for the privilege of having your brain drilled by techno.
“Now don’t be going in search of ‘nightclubs’ “ warned Jana as she watched me go off into the night with a worried little frown – same as mine might have been twelve years ago. “They are called clubs here – night clubs are something completely different – not suitable for you at all.” Jana was tired and heading off home with her lovely young man, who’d given us lifts all over town, carried our bags bought us meals.
However as I’m in my gap year I was in the mood to party and I’d bumped into a partner in crime, an old friend of both Jana’s and mine, a Dutchman – who commutes between Donegal and Prague. I assured Jana that I would be perfectly safe and off we went, the Dutchman and I, to explore Prague’s dancing potential. We popped in and out of several bars with some good music. We enjoyed Harley’s, which models itself on the Harley Davidson brand.
It was more easy rider than Hells Angels and this rock chick enjoyed the selection of easy dancing rock classics they were playing that night. Not posy at all, dance if you feel like it, kinda atmosphere. Harley’s bar features resident DJ’s from dawn to dusk and sometimes live music.
Jana thinks Prague is not renowned for its friendliness – but all I can say is all our casual encounters turned out to be warm and extra friendly from perfect strangers inviting us to their dinner, the train conductor doubling as a guide and the waiter who drove us to the station as there were no taxis.
And as for the welcome by the locals… I met Jana’s mother for the first time and she made us the most delicious apple strudel I have ever tasted. Using Jana as an interpreter she thanked me warmly for looking after her daughter when she was in Ireland. I thanked her for providing the earth with such a wonderful daughter, who truth be known looked after all of us.
Then all the “mothers” turned on poor Thom and warned him to take good care of our girl – Everyone was laughing and crying and we were all wiping away the tears when it was time to go…but carrying with us family friendships forged forever.
Oh, and some news just in … Jana and her lovely boyfriend are now expecting a baby!