Everybody says go to Prague. Friends, acquaintances, enemies, whatever. Nigerian email scammers offer to let you in on this great opportunity to hold their eleven million dollars, and then they extol the virtues of Prague as a vacation destination. Babies in their strollers give it two tiny thumbs up. So?? How’s Prague? Does it meet these outsized expectations? Yep. Prague is pretty damn good.
What’s so good about Prague? Where do I begin? Pick an architectural style and Prague has it in spades – gothic, renaissance, baroque, Art Nouveau, Deco, and even some entertaining but hideous Cold War communist structures. With the exception of a bombing raid that was meant for Dresden but hit Prague, the city made it through World War II almost entirely intact. You could do nothing but wander the old streets, look at the buildings, and be pretty happy.
The Czechs got culture – there are two really beautiful opera houses which also put on classical music concerts, ballet, and theatre. (Remember how I’ve been saying that all the cool old opera houses we’ve been visiting look like something out of Amadeus? Well, Prague is so styling that they have the opera house that the movie Amadeus was filmed in. Take THAT, Buenos Aires and Budapest!)
There are a bunch of funky jazz clubs, a few puppet theatres (could be creepy, but I’ll offer the benefit of the doubt) and something called “black light theatre”, which came out of the sixties, in which the use of black light allows performers to create what can best be described as live-action animation.
They have a really impressive art museum that seems to be all but unnoticed, which is a crying shame because it’s stuffed with all those famous names we’ve come to know and love – Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, Chagall, Klimpt – and a long list of Czech artists that you probably haven’t heard of but who were holding their own alongside many of these folks. It also has a wing of contemporary art that is great once you get tired of looking at all that fancy stuff.
And then there’s the food. Let’s face it, central European food will kill you if used as directed, but that’s usually what makes it so good. As in Hungary, the Czech diet is heavy in soups, stews, massive bread or potato dumplings, sour cream, and huge hunks of pig, usually washed down with copious amounts of beer. This is a terrible place to start a diet, but a great place to end one.
But where to begin? We had been here a day or two when I realized how much I envied Anthony Bourdain. After all, he gets paid to travel around the world and eat and drink stuff, but he also always has some local foodie by his side, holding his hand, and taking him to the best place for blowfish, or guinea pig, or whatever. I believed these folks are called “fixers” in the travel show business. Well, I want a fixer!
Why should we have to make all the arrangements? Why should we do all that web surfing and trial and erroring? Why can’t we have a fixer like Bourdain?
It turns out anyone can have a fixer. Fixers are everywhere. They’re called tour guides. But average workaday tour guides just give tours. Sometimes they’re even counterproductive. They take you to glorified souvenir stands where you’re expected to buy stuff, which is just awkward for everyone. We needed someone better than that. Someone who would take us places, feed us stuff, and who knows what’s really, really good. A person like this would talk to us, laugh at our lame jokes, and be our friend (for a small fee). I guess what we were really looking for was a culinary concubine.
Well, I’m sure you’re all screaming at your iThingys right now, because the solution was so obvious. Just go on an eating tour. Every city has one. An eating tour is even better than a hop on, hop off bus. Some nice person will take you around town, feed you all the best stuff, liquor you up, and unlock all the secrets of your new city. If you’re lucky, they’ll give you their business card and tell you to just send an email if you need any more recommendations during the rest of your stay, and they’ll mean it.
Like the man who discovers the joys of golf on his eightieth birthday, at the end of our long adventure I have finally figured out a dead easy way to get started in a new city. Take a food tour, dumb dumb.
I was doing a little web research on Prague and stumbled upon something called “The Food Lover’s Guide to Prague,” and holy sweet mother of pearl was that a good idea.
Our new best friend, a hip, friendly, voluble fellow named Jan, was just the ticket. He started our tour with a classic Czech dessert, called a hořice, a rolled wafer stuffed with whipped cream which comes with a warm chocolate sidecar for dipping. It was a bit unconventional to start our tour with dessert, but I was game.
Next we strolled through the old part of town a bit and made our way to a place called Sisters, which serves something called chlebičky, which are fancy little open-faced sandwiches. Ours had the first good version of pickled herring I’ve ever had, as well as a very nice whipped beet spread with goat cheese, and a celery root slaw sandwich.
Next door was a butcher shop called Nase Maso, (which translates to “our meat.”) Well, Czechs like meat, but these guys really like meat. This is a post-modern butcher shop where the staff is young and attractive and the butchers visit the farms and go pet the pigs before they are invited to the great beyond (and then your plate). We had two kinds of ham, a spicy sausage, and a delicious thing that was somewhere between a terrine, a meatloaf, and a sausage. They were served with a crusty rye bread, a zingy mustard, and delicious little pickles – all made in house. Damn, make it stop!
Then we were off to a charming, quiet garden café that doubles as a furniture store just off chaotic Wenceslas Square where we had red current wine and pork terrine. The square was the site of a series of anti-Soviet demonstrations and later the Velvet Revolution that produced the Czech Republic’s modern democracy. After that it became infamous for its red light district and British hooligan tourists taking advantage of $20 airfares on Ryanair, but it now seems like just another busy shopping district in a big European city. After that, we headed to Restaurant Zvonice, which sits in the belfry of the Jindrisska Tower. The tower dates back to 1475, and at almost seventy meters it’s the highest stand-alone belfry in Prague. The visit would have been worth it for the view alone, but like geese being fattened for liver-ectomies, the food kept coming. This time it was a vinegary and really delicious sauerkraut soup, an old Bohemian favorite, and I can see why.
By this point we were feeling like that guy in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, but we hadn’t even had our main course yet. For that, we were off to Café Louvre, another old Prague classic, which was a former haunt of Kafka and Einstein, among others. The main course was by far the most unusual of the day – Svíčková, a braised beef served on top of a root vegetable puree, with a cranberry compote, some fluffy Czech bread dumplings, and, strangely, a rosette of whipped cream. It was delicious but I’m still not sure about the whipped cream. After all that they had the nerve to place an aircraft carrier-sized piece of apple strudel with a small pitcher of custard crème on the side, which we ate, of course.
Even though they were serving us what they called tasting-sized portions, by the end of the tour we were all ready to be wheeled home on gurneys. It was some of the most over the top gluttony we’ve done so far, but we got the chance to taste Prague’s greatest hits, and they were pretty terrific. Our new friend laughed at our jokes, fed us the good stuff, and sent us home happy, although if we keep eating like this, we may need to be sent home in shipping container.