Category Archives: Czech Republic

Beyond the Iron Curtain – Two: culture vultures

In a previous article I documented our journey and first discovery of Prague just after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Picture the scene: four backpackers, a few pivo’s and a hearty Czech meal. It was time to work it all off and see the sights!

Coming from a western country with high streets full of the usual chain stores and bright lights it was quite an experience to be transported to a place devoid of designer goods and the trappings of major commerce.

prague castle view

Heading towards the centre of town we strolled along wide boulevards crisscrossed by tram lines, and flanked by tall, quite gracious buildings; somewhat in contrast to the ramshackle area of Zizkov where we were staying. Heading past the main station we entered a small park, the only real greenery around. The stalls set in the park served beers and other stronger drinks to some rougher types occupying most of the benches, but otherwise harmless.

We skirted the rest of the park and crossed over towards Wenceslas Square, where only a short while ago the Czech people had demanded and received the changes they desired. Heading further down brought us to the main old town square, a magnificent open area surrounded by churches, monuments, the famous astrological clock and so much more it was hard to take it all in.

prague old town square

This was the Holy Grail, not too many tourists and so much to see, we spent hours just wandering the winding streets and falling in love with the city.

Arriving at the famous Charles Bridge we were in full market mode. Every vendor there seemed to be selling whatever was left of the Red Army before they exited the country. Military hats, army watches, Fur Hats, bayonets, medals, and Kalashnikovs…okay that last one was may have been made up! We rummaged around and bargained for some souvenirs to take home. I went for a big grey fur officer’s hat that was warm but on later use found that it smelled like an old squirrel once damp from the snow!

Hawkers apart, the bridge was magnificent; spanning the Vltava and leading enticingly to the Mala Strana on the other side from where Prague castle stood gloriously overlooking the city. Recessed statues and benches every few yards offered glimpses of outstanding artistry and gave strollers fantastic views of the river banks. At night the lights of the town, castle and bridge came together to show just why Prague, then and now, is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

old water mill

Did I mention it was cold? The wind seemed to drive straight through our clothes; however some women and many teenage girls didn’t seem to have read the weather forecast and wore very fashionable short skirts oblivious to the elements. We were wrapped up like arctic explorers and could only wonder at the thermal properties of Czech womanhood. About the only time we felt warm was when occupying a seat on a tram, the hot air blowing majestically up the heated seats. We could have spent all day just sitting on a circle line tram nice and toasty, enjoying the view.

One or two oddities distinguished themselves for different reasons:

Shops and stores for the most part were pretty bland and the concept of a large supermarket as we have in the west was novel. One we found had a queue outside so we figured that it was just about to reopen but on closer inspection we could see people inside with shopping carts loading up with the usual fare. The line, it turned out, was for the cart itself. No cart no entry. Therefore with only a few carts the store had only a few shoppers at a time, the rest had to wait outside. It was probably one of the most bizarre aspects of the old system that we had come across.

tower and the end of the charles bridge

Another gem of a find, close to the stations and on many side streets, were the little old ladies serving out Czech street food at next to nothing, our favourites were bramborak, a type of potato pancake and the occasional fried mystery meat in a kind of batter. A couple of these with a beer and the sightseeing could resume.

We finished off our last night with a splurge dinner heading for a small hotel with a reasonable looking restaurant that we had seen during the day. It was difficult to imagine a more contrasting sight as four scruffy (we did clean up a bit) backpackers walked into the smart dining room and were seated by waiters in dinner jackets and bow ties. In truth the meal was no great shakes but we drank some nice Melnik wine and didn’t cause a fuss. The bill USD, $8.00 for all of us, was split and we headed out into the night for some more entertainment…and, of course, some more of that delicious pivo!

Beyond the Iron Curtain – One: The beer hunters

Boundaries for travel are getting pushed back every year, with some exceptions due to political unrest, and more and more of the world is opening up for tourism. This ranges from the once closed Sultanate of Oman to previously war torn Sierra Leone.

In Western Europe we were once locked out from our neighbours in the east by the notorious “Iron Curtain”. It seems hard to believe now, that countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and the then Czechoslovakia were difficult, if not impossible, to visit. Accommodation outside of grotty overcharging hotels was tough to find unless you had the requisite contacts and correct papers.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall all that began to change, it meant that their citizens found it easier to visit the west but it also meant that budget travellers could head east and see what the fuss was all about. The Czech velvet revolution had just occurred in the winter of 1989 and four of us were mad keen to head over to Czechoslovakia and visit Prague, its enigmatic capital.

prague a deserted charles bridge

Our mission started in London at a small hostel in Bayswater where, alarmed at the price of beer, we started a discussion on where in Europe had the cheapest. A fellow backpacker produced a battered set of notes a friend had written down about his recent trip to Prague and in bold was written 10 Cents for a pint of Pivo! At that point I think we were all in, notwithstanding the fact that we had absolutely no idea what Pivo tasted like.

We managed to get flights to Munich (where we easily could have blown all our savings just at the Hofbrauhaus) and secured an overnight seated train for Prague. The trip was routine and uneventful until we reached the frontier where Immigration and border guards came on to the train to inspect our passports. Three of us were British and that presented no problem, our passports were stamped and they moved on. Our other team member was Australian and was dozing in the luggage rack, they gave him a bit of a poke and he woke up and handed over his passport. They examined this for a while and asked where his visa was. This woke him up smartly and he replied that he didn’t need one. That was probably not the wisest move as they hauled him down told him to grab his bags and threw him off the train!

By this time we were all fully awake, the train started to pull away slowly as I leaned out of the window and shouted that we would wait for him at the main station in Prague at midday for the next two days, after that he was on his own!

speeding tram

We arrived at Hlavni Nadrasi, Prague Central Station, the next morning bleary eyed and like lost souls. We had no guidebooks or maps so that was the first thing to take care of as well as change up some money. There were a few tourist info boxes and one set us up with a hotel, The Narodni Dum in the working class area of Zizkov which set us back about USD$10 for the room… a bargain!

My first thoughts of Prague on the way to the hotel were grey, grey and grey! It was freezing cold and damp, people shuffled along the paths and the sky was leaden. Not a welcoming feeling.

Things brightened up when our missing team member turned up at the station at midday, they had held him until the train had left then stamped his passport and made him wait three hours for the next one. He was unfazed by this and as keen as the rest of us to explore.

Food was our priority so we scouted around for a café or something similar. After a short while with no such type of restaurant showing up on our radar we asked a few locals, one spoke reasonable English and directed us to a small shop without any sign and said that would be a good choice.

It was just like the scene in American Werewolf in London where the two backpackers enter the pub on the moor and all talking stopped as the locals stared at them for a while before carrying on as normal. Fortunately a table was free and we hurried over to minimise the fuss.

old town square

This was definitely a neighbourhood café, not catering to any tourist trade, but the waitress was friendly enough and after handing out a stained one page menu said just one word… pivo?

We all smiled and the tension was broken, our first pivo was to arrive but what the heck were we supposed to do about the menu? All in Czech and it may as well have been Greek! Naturally, and we all know this now, the beer was excellent and sure enough it was cheaper than water. We solved the food crisis by wandering around the café, smiling at other diners and looking at their food; they must have thought we were nuts.

Meat, dumplings, gravy and some cabbage looking stuff seemed to be the favourite so we went with that. Happily it was tasty and inexpensive; we were getting to like Prague although we had yet to see any of the old city. That was about to change, time for some culture!

Seven Deadly Sins: A Travellers Guide to national firewaters

As seasoned travellers we are always willing to try new things, be it leaping off of bridges with a bit of stretchy cable lassoed around your ankles or jumping out of a perfectly sound airplane, even being chased by bulls through the streets of Pamplona seems to be okay for some. However one thing that makes me shiver with dread is the after dinner shot that is often served up by well meaning waiters, usually in a plain container with no reference to its origin and strength, or the hooch that is passed around as a local specialty and ends up giving me the mother of all hangovers.

I am currently in Crete dealing with Raki but have endured some equally throat constricting liquors through my travels around the world. What follows is a short guide to some of the more popular firewaters and their origins.

1. Raki /Tsikoudia: Greece, mostly Crete
This awesome kicker is made from the waste products of winemaking and is very strong, served often in little decanters it will give you a good throat burn so is best drunk with the melon or other fruits that accompany it. The Greek/Cretan Raki is different to the Turkish one as it is colourless and has no anise added. It seems that this drink has been drunk in the region though the ages in some form or other which would explain a lot!
Pain factor: 9/10

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