Saturday, October 10, 2015

Prague: Come for the Mont Blanc Pens, Stay for the Crowds

The world is full of “you should have been here yesterday” destinations. Who wouldn't want to have visited Arches National Park when the only infrastructure was Edward Abbey's trailer and a dirt road? Run through Yosemite Valley yelling at storms with John Muir? Had the opportunity to be stabbed or beaten with a length of chain outside of CBGB in the late seventies or early eighties? Near the top of this list is Prague. The “yesterday” implied is soon after the velvet revolution, after the fall of communism but before you could find Prada or a Mont Blanc pen for sale on every corner, next to the postcards and t-shirts. No question but that Prague is chock-a-block with all that travelers find romantic about Europe: winding cobblestone streets no more than an arm-length in width that don't lead where you think they ought—don't even head in the right direction—but that still manage to drop you in a convivial cellar pub under arched ceilings dating from the Crusades; the opportunity to see Mozart's Don Giovani performed in the same theater where the opera premiered with Mozart conducting (at the premier—I understand he couldn't make it to the performance we saw); castles and churches; good beer. But these days Prague also offers crowds: world-class crowds.

We arrived at the train station and took a series of trams to our Air B&B in the Mala Strana neighborhood. The Air B&B is its own story... suffice to say we survived and C never filed for divorce. We dropped our bags and headed out for an introductory walk, turning uphill, no destination in mind but pointed towards the castle complex which promised views across the city. We were quickly stopped by a mother and daughter pair.

“Excuse me. Do you speak English?”

“Yes, we do.”

“Do you know where to find the Golden Lane?”

At this point, we hadn't really done any research on Prague and did not have any sense of its tourist draws. We had never heard of the Golden Lane, much less know anything about its whereabouts.

“No. We just got here and don't really know our way around yet. Sorry.”

“Ugh,” the mother muttered, before turning to continue uphill. “Prague. Filled with everyone but Czechs.”

Her observation was not technically true. In our search for a grocery store we later found neighborhoods with what appeared to be actual locals. At least our cashier did not automatically default to English when asking if we wanted our receipt (which we did not), and in fact may have only spoken Czech. But at that moment, on our way to the castle, it would have been hard to rebut her.

We didn't go to the grocery store to verify that real people with real daily needs actually lived in Prague. We went to buy food. Despite our best efforts, we never found a restaurant in Prague worth the trouble of showing up and ordering, although we did find one that smelled strongly of the sewer. Eating picnic style was ok, though, because the Czech grocery stores were filled with delicious breads that became the foundation for most of our meals. The Czech Republic is under ratted as a bread baking country.

The stores were also filled with beer, giving us the real suspicion that the Czechs might collectively have a drinking problem. I was at first impressed that the Czechs deemed it appropriate to sell beer in two-liter bottles. But does anyone really need two-liter bottles by the six-pack? Apparently, yes. Later research confirmed that, indeed, the Czech Republic drinks the most beer per capita of any other country by a significant margin. I suppose it makes sense given the quality of the beer. And its price. That six pack of two-liter bottles? It cost $10. But you really should have been here back in 1990 when you could have taken the whole package home for $2.

(Truly, only a small snapshot of the beer aisle.)

(These two proved there are two strategies for seeing the Charles Bridge without the crowds.  First, set an alarm and get there for sunrise.  Second, stay up  all night drinking.)

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