PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The bartender set down two beers on the table. In front of me, a light beer. In front of my wife, a dark one. Instinctively I reached toward the beers to amend what I thought was an honest mistake.
“No switching!” came the command from the other end of the table, where our Czech food tour guide sat. The instruction seemed to come as quickly as my instinct to switch the weighty glass steins, as if our guide knew with certainty what this warm-blooded American beer drinker would do. He was right. Clearly I wasn’t his first American.
“In the Czech Republic, light beer is for men and dark for women,” said Jan, our guide, a tall, skinny native son of Prague with a kind face, good English, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a penchant for story-telling. And, apparently, an extensive knowledge of Western beer culture, which usually dictates that dark beer is for men and light for women. All good qualities for a tour guide whose clients are mostly from the States.
We downed those beers and stumbled out the door onto the narrow, winding streets of Prague, one of the most charming, culturally-emerging cities in Europe.
The beer, by the way, is divine. Both light and dark. Czechs drink more beer per capita than anyone in the world, and natives are proud to flaunt that hard-to-prove yet hard-to-dispute cultural statistic. It’s a badge of honor and there is no shortage of drinking establishments in Prague. Czech Republic mega-brewery Pilsner Urquell made the world’s first pilsner and its first blond lager. So you can thank them for the likes of Heineken, Budweiser and Stella Artois.
Czech bartenders will serve you an ice-cold beer in a short, fat, voluminous glass beer stein. It’s heavy without the beer. Holding it makes you feel a little more manly, like doing a bicep curl every time you take a sip. The glassware makes for a nice addition to the home bar, too, so make sure to buy a pair from any of the local shops hawking tourist-related goods.
Don’t sleep on Czech wine, either. You’ll probably never see a bottle in your local wine market, but that does not negate its quality. The reason you won’t see it stateside is because of the Czech Republic’s inclusion in the European Union. Wine behemoths like Italy and France did not want another European wine flooding the market and mucking up demand for their own products. So the EU put a cap on the amount of wine the Czech Republic can produce every year and the amount of acres on which Czech farmers can cultivate wine grapes, which means you better drink a few bottles when you’re in Prague.
Prague has more going for it than just its drinking scene, even though that is a big part of its cultural identity. One of its best characteristics is something you can find in places like French Quarter New Orleans and an increasing number of American cities: walkability. Skip the mass transit in Prague and hit the sidewalk. There is no better way to get the local experience than at street level.
Prague is perfect for walking. Old Town’s Astronomical Clock to Prazsky Hrad? Twenty-five minutes. There’s a climb, but it’s worth the panoramic views when you get to the iconic castle. You get to walk across the equally-iconic Charles Bridge on the way, with its statues, street vendors, and scenic outlooks of the river and surrounding city. Throw in the added benefit of the calorie-burn, which offsets all of that beer and wine consumption.
All that walking and hill-climbing is good for another thing, too: Working up an appetite. Prague would never have been listed as a food destination 30 years ago under Communist rule. The menus around the country were standardized, the recipes simplified. You’d get food and drink that tasted the same all over the country, no matter how many different restaurants you tried. The food was bland, uniform and uninspired.
Italian restaurants were the first to move into Prague en masse after the fall of Communism and remain a local favorite to this day. For Czechs of the 1990s, it made sense. Italian food was cheap, delicious and different, while also relatively easy to procure, prepare and serve. Flash forward to the present, with Prague’s evolving and experimental food scene, which expands into other international fares as it tries to capture and define a national identity for Czech cuisine.
Chefs in the Czech Republic are playing catch-up with the rest of the Western world, but Prague currently is undergoing a food revolution led by some of its younger chefs. They grew up post-Communism in the mid-to-late 1990s and are emulating the food model of modern America by featuring local, seasonal ingredients and re-inventing comfort foods of the past.
Take chicken schnitzel for example. It’s a simple dish, but painstaking in preparation. Czech mothers would spend Sunday mornings beating chicken into paper-thin strips for the weekly family gathering. Now this comfort food is prepared in the same manner inside Czech restaurants: flattened, breaded and fried, served with heaping sides of mashed potatoes or potato salad and a cold beer. On the same menu you’ll also find dishes featuring pickled herring, lard, pork cracklings and pureed radishes. For breakfast, there are even hot dogs with house-made mustard.
If that sounds like food made to serve with beer, that’s because it is. Beer is the strong, sweeping current that flows through not only the Czech food scene but also its entire societal identity. Prague is littered with beer spas, for goodness sake, which are places where you can soak in vats of beer while you drink—you guessed it—more beer. When a city builds around something as universally enjoyed as beer, it gives it a vibe that is difficult to replicate.
Prague is an ancient city that was spared destruction during World War II and therefore maintains its “Old World” look. But the people of Prague are youthful, full of energy, fashion-forward and trendy. The juxtaposition of Prague’s antiquated, charming infrastructure and its newly-Westernized, upbeat citizenry creates a cultural depth that most cities in the world lack and, quite frankly, might never have.
All of that being said, I actually can think of one good reason to not visit Prague. It goes like this: You’re training for a marathon. Been at it for months, and you’re feeling good about your training so far. But you want to go on this killer trip to Prague. OK, so you’ll just run when you’re on vacation. No big deal, right? Running will be a different, productive way to see a city. And then you lace up your running shoes and …
Cobblestone streets. Cobblestone streets everywhere. Hope you don’t need those ankles to run your marathon. Or you can just play catch-up on your training when you get home. You’ll need it after that delicious, beer-soaked Czech experience.
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• The Taste of Prague is the tour that provided our food and drink experience throughout the city. The four-hour walking tour runs about $100 per person.
• For the meat lovers, there’s Naše Maso, run by Master Butcher Frantisek Ksana. Trendy, busy little spot with sausages hanging from the rafters and butchers carving up hunks of meat at the front counter.
• Lokál features cafeteria-style seating, stainless steel fixtures, overflowing mugs of beer, and Czech comfort foods.
• Chef Paul Day runs Sansho, the kind of place where you don’t question what is on the plate, you just eat it.
• Vinograf Wine Bar, opened by Ms. Klara Kollarova, is a great place to sample the wines the Czech Republic has to offer.
• Tricafe: For the morning, a quiet coffee spot close enough to the Charles Bridge to be convenient, but far enough away not to be overrun. The baristas keep an annual tally of international guests on a large chalkboard below the bar.
Michael McNeil is the founder of Man & Place, a collaborative project set up for cultural geographers to share stories about people and places through photographs and story-telling. Michael is a cartographer and lives in Slidell, La., with his wife and two dogs, Zulu and Zola.