8: Czech Republic
Ahoj from Prague, Ernie and Hads!
Welp, I started my first morning in Prague with a little scribbling in Room 430 of The Arbes Hotel, at Viktora Huga 3, while enjoying an ice cold Pilsner Urquell because, well, why not? When the incredibly overpriced hotel mini-bar charges only a buck-seventy-five for a 16oz Kinger (you can get them at the corner market for less than half that), it’s really just a battle of willpower, and as you both well know, mine is quite weak.
Sure, some among my vast readership might say 10:30 is a little early to be popping a top, but it’s not like I was sitting there all stubblefaced, wearing boxers and a ratty bathrobe while pouring beer into my cereal bowl. I’d already been awake five hours – which is like early afternoon to most of the bums I hang around with – and I’d eaten a nice breakfast, showered, shaved, and put on a fresh set of clean clothes. And besides, raise your hand (paws don’t count) if you’ve never had a Mimosa or Bloody Mary.
I thought so.
Anyway, I’d arrived a bit before 4PM the previous day, and as usual, walked to my hotel, about 45 minutes south of the train station and not far across Jiráskův Bridge and the Vltava River.
If my first impressions of Munich were accurately underwhelming, then I was in for a real treat here in Prague, which was one stunning architectural wonder after another. By the time I got to the hotel, I was already considering extending my stay.
And beyond the architecture, the Vltava, and the vibe, Prague held another promise, that of seeing another friend from back home, this one Eric Salomaki, a URI beer league hockey buddy who’s working in the Czech Republic as a nerdy scientist. But when you’re meeting him and his coworkers in Plzen for beer and killer pizza and then a tour of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery – on a workday for them, no less – well then I’m willing to bet my nerdy scientist friends are much, much cooler than yours.
With intact Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque era gems still intact throughout the city, many believe that Prague was never bombed during World War II. In fact, Prague was bombed multiple times, the costliest being a mistake by American pilots blown off course during bad weather and dropping their payload through clouds onto what they thought was Dresden. Yeahh.
Fortunately, my day would include no reminders of that tragic error. Unfortunately, karma wouldn’t wait long to let me know my decision to have that 16 oz. morning brewski was an error in its own right.
Just fifteen minutes after walking out my door I was at the foot of my first destination, Petrin Hill, about which I’d done exactly zero research, but atop of which I knew stood Petrin Tower, an ode to the Eiffel Tower, and atop that came a sweeping view of all of Prague. One thousand forty-three feet later and my morning shower and my clean, dry clothes were already a distant memory. And at an additional 299 steps, I would end up taking a pass at going to the top of that stupid tower for that stupid sweeping view, and instead I sat on a park bench like a bum who’d just finished his morning can of pilsner, catching my breath and trying to dry off in the sun.
An inauspicious start indeed.
I would regroup, however, and by day’s end would see Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, walk Prague’s parks, its Old Town and Old Town Square, pass by the US Embassy, the Lennon Wall, cross Charles Bridge with its ancient statues and living artists, and so much more.
I would tour the Franz Kakfa Museum, mainly because Margot had told me I just had to see its famous statue. Knowing very little about Kafka and having read none of his work, the main takeaway from my visit, besides the statue, was that he’d spent his professional career making money not as a writer, but as an employee of the Prague Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute, a job he should have known he would hate based on the company’s name alone. He did hate it, and it would heavily influence much of his downtrodden and absurdist take on life. One could argue he wouldn’t have been a famous writer without it, but then he wasn’t technically famous until after he died, so, y’know, a lot of good that did him.
After visiting the museum, I walked the cobblestoned streets and felt reminded of why I’m on this little adventure in the first place. In part, to avoid the fate of Franz Kafka. He’s famous, sure, but he lived and died a largely miserable man. And I’d grown weary of latter-life jobs writing about unnecessary products that really, in the end, offer very little to the betterment of people’s lives, to the world in general. That’s not how I want to exert the remainder of my professional energy. Maybe I’ll make some new discoveries along my journey that will point me in the right direction. But if I don’t, well, then at least I hope it’ll have been a helluva year.
A short while later I would happen upon a familiar Paris bookstore here in Prague, Shakespeare and Company. Well, technically this one was called Shakespeare A Synove – meaning and Sons, but it was a clear and welcome knockoff of Paris’ famous literary stopping point, from the sign to the storefront, even the layout and feel inside. I’d regretted not buying the copy of A Moveable Feast they had in the Paris location, and just the day before had written a reminder to myself to try to find another copy in English somewhere. And just like that, there it was, in Prague’s Shakespeare and Sons, A Moveable Feast, in English, for 299czk. It even came with a custom bookmark, just like in Paris.
Kismet yet again.
I would eat well here in Prague, once again taking to heart the advice of our famous author friend Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field and more – watch for the lovably endearing character of Pud!) to be sure to try the local fare. That, Ernie and Hads, would lead me to Steak Tartare.
Raise your paws if you had any idea whatsoever that Steak Tartare was actually raw lean beef topped with an uncooked egg? You’re probably both raising them high, and I’d call you liars if not for the fact that everyone else I mentioned this to seemed to know it as well. Regardless, I did not, and the Czech menu had given me no clues in English beyond the word “steak,” which I’d been craving for some time. But then, if there’s one thing Dad always said, it was “Peter, my favorite, favorite child, like, by far, if you’re ever going to be so goddamn foolish as to eat raw meat, make sure you do it in a completely empty basement restaurant, in a foreign county, on a Wednesday night.”
The next morning I would take a train an hour or so southish to Plzen, the town from which Pilsner beer gets its name. There, I would meet Eric, Martin, Monika, Pavla, Jeff and Serafim at Da Pietro Pizza, a favorite of Eric’s where the pizza truly is worth the trip. Martin, the lab team’s boss, would very kindly treat us all – myself included – to food and drinks. The conversation was both interesting and hilarious, highbrow and lowbrow. Eric being the scientist that he is, I even got to ask a few questions about parasites from, say, eating raw meat. “Asking for a friend…”
Afterward, we would head for a tour of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery.
One of the best things about brewery tours, obviously, is the tasting. The process is always fascinating to see and hear, but a fresh beer straight from the brewery is like no other you’ll ever taste. And while I’ve always been admittedly indifferent to drinking it back home, the cold unfiltered Pilsner Urquell fresh from the cask was spectacular.
Fun Fact: I didn’t know until then that is this is the only Pilsner Urquell Brewery in the entire world, and that means that whether you’re drinking one in the Czech Republic, or back in Narragansett, Rhode Island, it was bottled right here, right where I was standing, and that means there’s an excellent chance that when I slipped away from the tour, I did something to yours.
After goodbyes to the team, Eric and I would train back to Prague together, bags of various beers in hand, a couple for us, a couple for him, and others for some friends back home. Eric was leaving the next morning for two months in Rhode Island, back to his girlfriend Kristina (a burgeoning hockey phenom in her own right), back to their home, and back to the ice at Boss Arena.
We’d do our best to make his travels as long and painful as possible by dropping his gear at an apartment in town and heading out to the nearby BeerGeek Bar, a very cool local pub, to grab a bite and sample an array of beers, including a couple of locally brewed “New England IPAs.” When we finally called it a night, Eric would walk to his apartment, just up the street, in the rain. I’d walk 40 minutes to my hotel, but if it rained, I didn’t notice.
We would meet up again in the morning, this time for coffee, before saying our goodbyes. And just like that, I was alone in Europe once again.
I’d visit the National Museum, a funny little place, and then casually retrace some steps and make some stops I’d missed on my first few passes.
I would go to dinner my final evening in town at U Flecku, a suggestion of Eric’s, where I would try Goulash for the first time. It was the very definition of comfort food, and it was delicious. At U Flecku, if you want a beer, you get only one choice, their home-brewed Dark, delivered to shared tables fifteen mugs to a tray, while we were all serenaded by their singing accordion player.
As it was in Paris after saying goodbye to Margot and Brooksy, Prague felt a little emptier after having spent a day and evening with a friend from home. I’d seen what I came to see, done what I came to do, and would happily come back again, but I also knew that it was time to move on to my next stop, Budapest.
So that’s it for now, Ernie and Hads. Behave. Be good to Grayson. And please don’t bring any dead (or live) animals home to Jason and Rachel. It’s not as sweet a gesture as you might think.