Prague is one of Europe’s most recognizable cities. It’s long been a favourite of backpackers for its low costs and cheap beer. And it’s firmly on every European tour itinerary thanks to its beautifully preserved UNESCO listed old town.
Strangely enough, I had never been there. The Czech Republic was totally new territory for me. So when an opportunity came up to meet one of my oldest friends in Prague, I leaped at the chance.
Well, I didn’t actually leap… The airplane did that. All I had to do was sit there, drink wine and read books.
What started off as a typical market town sometime around 1100 AD quickly became an important centre of trade and craftsmanship, and by the mid-14th century it was one of Central Europe’s most important cities.
When the Bohemian king Charles IV became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, this beautiful city also became a centre of power and learning (the University of Prague was founded in 1348). And so much of it has been preserved.
You could easily pass several days just wandering around the old town, exploring its streets and alleys and simply soaking up the architecture.
The large expanse of the Old Town Square is a great place to start. You’ll find yourself back there repeatedly, and not just from getting lost. The distinctive Gothic spires of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn (1365) are a convenient landmark. The bones of astronomer Tycho Brahe are interred there too, which adds a note of irony — you’ll be navigating by the grave of a great astronomer rather than the stars.
The other main landmark on the square is the beautiful astronomical clock on the side of the Old Town Hall (1410). It’s incredible to look at, but it’s a bit of an anticlimax when the skeleton starts ringing the bell, prompting the 12 apostles pop out for their brief hourly spin.
One of the highest items on my Prague list was a visit to the historic library of the Klementinum.
This 2 hectare complex next to the famous Charles Bridge is one of the largest building complexes in Europe. Its Baroque library hall was completed in 1722, with a ceiling decoration by Jan Hiebl depicting classical education. The books in the hall were deposited here from 1600 until recently, with several titles present at the time this place was used as a Jesuit college.
I love exploring old libraries, and the photos I saw of this one were promising. Unfortunately, it could only be accessed as part of an obligatory group tour. It didn’t bode well that these left every 30 min.
In the end, this was a predictable disappointment.
The guide was from Spain, and I could barely understand anything he mumbled, given the cavernous acoustics of the room. He spent most of his time telling us what would happen to us if we got separated from the group and were lost in the complex. And even more time letting us know that we were being watched, and if we attempted to take photos, we would be punished.
The tour dragged on and on through several anterooms in the Astronomical Tower, and by the time we finally got a look at the library, we could only crowd together in the doorway for a few minutes behind a velvet rope.
I had visions of wandering the room on my own, like I did at Austrian National Library in Vienna, waiting for the tourists to leave so I could soak up the silence and the smell of book dust. But it wasn’t to be.
The highlight of this excursion was apparently the view over the Old Town from the Astronomical Tower. But this, too, was blighted with instructions.
“Now we will separate the men from the boys,” the guide mumbled into his shirt. “There are a lot of stairs, and they are very steep. This will be a real adventure.”
Two extremely heavyset American ladies opted to wait below. They were also the only ones to take the lift between floors, though they seemed able to get around just fine. And when their companion returned, I heard her say in a thick Michigan accent, “You’re lucky you stayed behind! That was so steep I had to turn sideways to go down!”
It was a fucking set of wooden stairs, not nearly as steep as a ladder. It didn’t require mountaineering equipment, or safety cables, or the balance and steely nerve of a tightrope waker. It didn’t even take very much energy. But these tourists spoke about it afterwards as thought they’d summited Everest.
So yeah, if you’re hoping to spend some time in that library, the Klementinum tour is a disappointment. They charge far too much money for what was essentially a long, condescending lecture about their rules. Give it a miss — or go to the Austrian National Library in Vienna instead.
If you’re of a bookish persuasion, you’ll get much more out of exploring the convoluted, inward-turning word worlds of Franz Kafka.
Your first stop should be the Kafka Museum. You’ll learn about the great writer’s origins — born to a middle-class Jewish family in Prague — as well as his strained relationship with his father, and how the labyrinthine Jewish Quarter of the city shaped the surreal worlds of his fiction.
Best known for his brilliant short story “The Metamorphosis” (the one where Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into an insect), and his novels The Trial and The Castle, Kafka explored themes of alienation, absurdity and existential anxiety.
I love his short stories, but I just couldn’t get into The Trial, which I began reading once long ago in Japan. But I left the museum with a deeper understanding of the formative influences and struggles of this great writer, and a feeling that it’s time to give those novels another try. I suspect that, after living in Malta, their absurdity will resonate on a much deeper level.
We also spent an afternoon in Mala Strana (Little Quarter) getting a taste of art at the Museum Kampa. The highlight was definitely the exhibition “Corporeality 1890 – 1921”, exploring the naturalistic new ways that artists of the period were depicting the human body, and featuring works by the Czech painter Kupka, as well as a few select pieces by Munch, Kokoschka and others.
Unfortunately, the majority of the museum’s František Kupka collection was being restored at the time of our visit, and was not on view. The brief glimpse I had of his work leaves me very curious to explore more.
We followed this intellectual excursion up with a plate of ovocné knedlíky at the Cafe Savoy: fresh fruit dumplings filled with strawberries, and topped with melted butter and curd cheese. I pronounce them delicious, and wish I could eat another plate right now.
So yeah, those were some of the highlights from my first visit to Prague.
I enjoyed walking around the Old Town — the Vlata River setting is beautiful, and it’s streets and monuments are among the best preserved in Europe. But unfortunately it was so overrun with early-July tourists that this wasn’t a terribly relaxing experience. Most of the historical sites charged rather high prices for entry, too. And they often required you to be dragged along on a generic group tour.
In truth, I most enjoyed getting back to the neighbourhood where we rented our flat. It was a busy working class area called Žižkov, with great local bars and restaurants serving massive portions of Czech food.
The food was simple and hearty, and the pilsner was cold and fresh. Everything cost ⅓ of what they were charging in the Old Town. And the quality and service were better as well.
I knew it would be interesting from the moment we landed.
We went straight to a bar around the corner to grab a bite to eat. Once the beers had been poured and that first crisp gulp had cleared the dust from our throats, we addressed ourselves to ordering food.
“What are your specialities,” Tomoko asked the young blonde waitress.
“The knee (pečené vepřové koleno),” she said. “And also the roast pork with bread dumplings (vepřo-knedlo-zelo), and the steak tartar (tatarský biftek).”
I opted for the knee without hesitation.
I’ve never seen such a thing listed on a menu before. And I figured, I’ve got a bad knee, so it couldn’t hurt to try…
Well, it must have been the knee of a porcine behemoth, because everyone in the place turned to stare as they brought me my comically oversized platter.
The joint arrived skewered on some sort of fencing foil. No vegetables, just knee, pickles, horseradish and mustard.
The roasted pork simply fell off the bone at the first touch of the knife. The skin was crisp, and the sauces had just the right amount of bite. It wouldn’t do much to flatter my 43 year old waistline, but I decided to worry about that later. Besides, my glass was empty…
And speaking of beer, this will become a major preoccupation of any visit to Prague, with good reason. The Czech Republic is home to one of the world’s best beer traditions.
Somewhere around 1842, a bottom-fermented golden lager was developed in the city of Plzeň (Pilsen). Today, we know it as “pilsner”, and its spicy hops and smooth clean finish make it an incredibly easy drinking brew. You’ll be surprised at how many you’ll put away on a hot summer day, in a desperate bid to maintain hydration.
One of the best watering holes we came across was right downstairs, next to the entrance of our rented flat. It’s called The Shot Out Eye, and it’s a great place to experience local culture.
We went there for fresh beer, and to eat traditional pub foods in a thick second-hand cigarette haze: potato salad, picked sausage, and pickled herring, soon to be followed by the garlic powerhouse pickled cheese.
The cheese was a standout, both in terms of its intense taste, and for how we both reeked of it throughout the next day. It was a soft cheese in a Camembert style, picked in oil, garlic and spices. It was served with black bread and raw onions. And it’s the perfect dish to chase with a beer.
But as I mentioned earlier, the main reason for traveling to Prague was to cross paths with my old partner in crime, the filmmaker and writer Rob Wilson.
Right from our very first meeting on the first day of school in 8th grade, Rob and I shared a love of books, of mischief and prank phone calls, and of camping and getting out in the woods.
Old friends are important, and you must always make time for them. No matter how far you travel, and no matter how many strange countries you see or new friends you make, no one will ever understand you as well as the friends you grew up with.
Those friends shared the hopes and fears of your formative years. They know where you came from — what your family was like, how cool or rotten your parents were, the dumb stuff you did as kids. And they share the same references, because everyone came from the same small town, went to the same schools, and knew the same people.
No matter how successful or unsuccessful you are later in life, to those friends, you’re still the person you were back in high school. And you will never lose that place.
So that was the highlight of this trip for me. Recounting stories of our 8th grade adventures with Rob as we cleared our throats with regular lashings of excellent Czech pilsner.
Meeting abroad is especially rewarding, because you’re removed from the petty interruptions of adult life: jobs, whining kids, phones and rigid schedules. All those things that interrupt your conversations and cut your evenings short.
We talked about our current work, too. I’m bogged down again on my perpetual quest to finish rewrites of my Mongolia book, and Rob’s finishing up a new book of short stories. Stay tuned for both of those. I’ll let you know when they’re available for your reading pleasure.
So yeah, that’s it.
I thought I might have cut this excursion a bit short, with just 5 days in one of Europe’s most iconic cities. But in truth, I was happy to move on.
I enjoyed my time there, but me and Tomoko were bound for Krakow, and further adventures.
I’ll share some of those with you next time.