Daily Dose of Europe: Czech Out Prague

I’m drinking a lot of Pilsner Urquell at home in Seattle during this crisis. It’s great… but it’s nothing like drinking it in its homeland. It seems when my Czech friends take me around Prague, first we see the sights. And then, invariably, we end up in a pub, where my lessons on the country continue over a few mugs of their beloved pilsner.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I just published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.

Czech pivo (beer) is a frothy hit with locals as well as tourists. After all, the Czechs invented pilsner-style lager in nearby Plzeň, and the result, Pilsner Urquell, is on tap in many pubs. In Czech restaurants, a beer hits your table like a glass of water does in the US. I’ve learned to be careful — it’s stronger than the beer back home. Pivo for lunch has me sightseeing for the rest of the day on what I call “Czech knees.”

Honza — a young yet professorial guide I’ve known for years — has hair I’ve always envied. I always thought it was Albrecht Dürer hair. Then one evening, realizing it was Jim Morrison hair, I got Honza to take off his shirt and stretch out his arms. He looked just like a Doors album cover.

Honza teaches more emphatically after a couple of beers. I’ll never forget how he slammed his glass mug down on a sticky beer-hall table to announce “Czechs are the world’s most enthusiastic beer drinkers — adults drink an average of 150 liters a year! We couldn’t imagine living without this beer…the Czech pilsner.”

I think the hardest I’ve ever laughed in Europe was when Honza explained the three kinds of Czech drunks. “There’s the sleeper,” he said, putting his head down on the table. “There’s the entertainer,” he exclaimed, while flapping his arms in my face. “And there’s ‘at the dentist,’” he demonstrated, reclining way back on his bar chair with his eyes closed and his mouth wide open.

The joy of having a good time in Prague seems heightened by my physical surroundings and by the heaviness of the country’s recent history. Prague is “the golden city of a hundred spires.” Because this vibrant Baroque capital escaped the bombs of the last century’s wars, it’s remarkably well-preserved. But it didn’t avoid the heavy, deadening economic and political blanket of communism.

It’s hard for today’s visitors to imagine the gray and bleak Prague of the communist era. Before 1989, the city was a wistful jumble of lost opportunities. Sooty, crusty buildings shadowed cobbled lanes. Thick, dark timbers bridging narrow streets kept decrepit buildings from crumbling. Consumer goods were plain and uniform, stacked like bricks on thin shelves in shops where customers waited in line for a beat-up cabbage, tin of ham, or bottle of ersatz Coke. The Charles Bridge was as sooty as its statues, with a few shady characters trying to change money. Hotels had two-tiered pricing: one for people of the Warsaw Pact nations and another for capitalists. This made the run-down Soviet-style hotels as expensive for most tourists as fine hotels in Western Europe. At the train station, frightened but desperate characters would meet arriving foreigners to rent them a room in their flat. They were scrambling to get enough hard Western cash to buy batteries or Levis at one of the hard-currency stores.

Today, that’s all ancient history. The people of Prague are as free and capitalistic as any other citizens of the European Union. They wear their Levis oblivious to how they were once the pants of dreams. The city is fun — slinky with sumptuous Art Nouveau facades, offering tons of cheap Mozart and Vivaldi, and still brewing some of the best beer in Europe.

With every visit, to get oriented, I head for the vast Old Town Square. It’s ringed with colorful pastel buildings and dotted with Baroque towers, steeples, and statues. Street performers provide a jaunty soundtrack. Segways dodge horse-drawn carriages crisscrossing the square. At the top of the hour, tourists gather around the towering 15th-century astronomical clock to see a mechanical show of moving figures. With Turks, Jews, bishops, a grim reaper with an hourglass, and a cock crowing, the fears and frustrations of the Middle Ages are on parade every 60 minutes. It must have been an absolute wonder to country folk visiting the big city 500 years ago.

In those days, people were executed for disagreeing with the Catholic Church. The square’s focal point, the Jan Hus Memorial, was unveiled in 1915, 500 years after Hus was burned at the stake for heresy. The statue of the Czech reformer stands tall, as he did against both the pope in Rome and the Habsburgs in Vienna. He has become a symbol of the long struggle for Czech freedom.

I continue a few blocks past the Old Town Square to the centerpiece of modern Prague: Wenceslas Square. Looking around, I realize that the most dramatic moments in modern Czech history played out on this stage. The Czechoslovak state was proclaimed here in 1918. In 1969, this is where Jan Palach set himself on fire to protest the puppet Soviet government. And it was here that massive demonstrations led to the overthrow of the communist government in 1989. Czechs filled the square night after night, 100,000 strong, calling for independence. One night, their message was finally heard and the next morning, they woke up a free nation.

After crossing the much-loved Charles Bridge, which spans the Vltava River and links the Old Town and Castle Quarter, I give it my vote for Europe’s most pleasant quarter-mile stroll. Commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in the 1350s, the bridge is a chorus line of time-blackened Baroque statues mixing it up with street vendors and buskers.

High above, the hill-topping Prague Castle looks out over the city. The highlight of the castle complex is the cathedral, where locals honor Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czechs, who’s buried here. This “good king” of Christmas-carol fame was not a king at all, but a wise, benevolent Duke of Bohemia — and another beloved symbol of Czech nationalism for this country that’s both new and old.

Every evening, Prague offers tempting reasons to be out and about. Black Light Theater, a combination of illusion, pantomime, puppetry, and modern dance that has no language barrier, is uniquely entertaining. Much like the work of hometown writer Franz Kafka — and, many would say, like the city of Prague itself — Black Light Theater fuses realism, the fantastic, and the absurd. I’ve capped other evenings with live opera, classical, jazz, and pop music. Crowd-pleasing concerts are hosted nightly in the city’s ornate Old Town halls and historic churches, featuring all the greatest hits of Vivaldi, Mozart, and local boys Anton Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana.

What to do after a concert? My Czech friends and I always finish our evening with another mug of that local beer. While I haven’t picked up many Czech words, “Na zdraví!” (“To your health!”) is a must. I always remember it by saying, “Nice driving!” My pronunciation isn’t perfect, but that’s OK. After raising their mugs a few too many times, I’ve heard fun-loving Czechs bellowing “Nádraží!” (which means “Train station!”). Good to know that tipsy Czechs stumble on their words, too.

This story appears in my newest book, “For the Love of Europe” — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Prague.