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Invited into a Vat of Světlé
A SUMMER TREK IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC, PART I
November 3, 2005
The 125 steps up to our boarding room in Prague burdened by our heavy backpacks weren’t necessary at all. Especially if you considered the 10+ hours just spent on planes, in airports, buses and trams. Specifically if you took into account the 6-hour jetlag and the sleepless night on the flight. Needless to say, a 25˚C July morning in Prague felt like 35˚C as the sweat leaked out of our every pore in generous doses. And yes, I am grumpy when I get off a long flight. But an undeniable thirst claimed my beloved Marie and I, trembling from within. And we were in the Czech Republic for the next 3 weeks, what better place to quench one’s thirst!
A quick, cold shower slapped us back to life, and we eagerly headed towards the center of Prague, a brisk 3-kilometer walk or so from our place. Amazingly, very few tourists were met along the way, and even the Old Town Square was at half capacity. Sublime! Walking haphazardly through the maze of narrow cobblestone streets, greeted by the thyme wafts of a native spice shop, we soon found ourselves in the New Town (Nové Město), just south of the picturesque Old Town (Staré Město). And predictably enough, we walk right up to a sign advertising Novoměstský Pivovar, one of the city’s 6 brewpubs. Beer traveller instinct? Ha! Stomachs rumble. Throats dry out in an obvious plea. We hurriedly enter the alley which leads us to the actual entrance of the brewpub, and…brewing kettles! Ah, comfort, at last. The many decorated rooms are inviting, and moreover filled with patrons happily lunching away on meats of all kind. We have to walk down to the last room in the umpteenth basement to find an available table. No longer than 3 seconds later, pints were slammed onto our tables. Immeasurable joy! I had asked for the Světlý, Marie the Tmavý. This is how lagers are divided in this country by the way, first by colour (světlé : pale; polotmavé : amber; tmavé or černé : dark), then by strength. More on that later. Novoměstský’s Světlý had a beautiful herbal, spicy Saaz hoppiness which begged for closer inspection. Dry hay, and agreeable bitterness in a light body which made the pint an extremely easy victim for my voracious thirst. Great for its purpose, and moreover pretty cheap for Prague brewpub standards (28Kč or 1.15$US). The Tmavý was heavy on the caramel, and meek on the roastiness, which got tiring as this one too was supposed to be quaffable. A few fruity esters helped the downing, but ultimately I found it too sweet and watery for my liking. Marie thought it went perfectly with her Old Bohemian platter, consisting of different meats and knedlíkys (dough and/or potato dumplings). My goulash was simple and tasty as well, a fine omen of what was to come in subsequent meals.
For now, meandering through the Old Town, gazing at the charming pedestrian Charles Bridge, relaxing near the Vltava river, and watching the Old Town Square’s astronomical clock ring in the hour with hordes of tourists is all our tired brains are ready to absorb. We’ll have plenty of time for more adventure later. An early night is called, and sound sleep follows. The tolling of some church bells resounded throughout our neighborhood all through the night, sending out its old world charm which is so appealing to us North American concrete dwellers. But so damn bothersome when you’re not used to it at first, and need some rest! The insane chirping of what sounded like fighting bats finally raised my internal alarm clock system to full awakening, and Marie soon joined me in looking through the attic window of our modest love nest. They were flying around too fast to be recognized by this bird-loving neophyte, but they sure helped our street to get that haunting Gothic feel. So off we went in the early morning to explore the rusticity and tranquil magnetism of the Mala Strana, a neighborhood on the left bank of the Vltava.
Soon after crossing Charles Bridge into the Mala Strana, we see on the first little street to our left a sign that says “Beer Shop – Galerie Piva”. One of Prague’s 2 known specialty beer shops, which we would of course visit later. But for now it’s up Nerudova Street towards the Prague Castle and its massive St.Vitus Cathedral. A spectacularly intricate architecture whose beauty was matched only by the Strahov Monastery library which we would see a few hours later further up the hill. Both absolutely soulshaking. And this astonishing library happens to be right in front of another brewpub: Klášterní Pivovar, makers of the Svatý Norbert beers. You will surely understand when I say this neighborhood is a must visit!
After walking through the adjoining buildings of the brewpub, we settled for the terrace, since the smell of boiling wort permeated all other possible subtleties inside. On tap that day was their Jantar (a polotmavé), and the well-rated Tmavé. It is here that we first understood the tradition of serving a pint with a tower of foam crowning the mug. We had seen it too at Novomestský, and were accordingly impressed. We would see this in about 75-80% of all pints served to us during our sojourn in the country. And a marvelous custom it is! The catch though at Klášterní Pivovar is that they don’t serve full pints, but rather 0.4-liter servings. And brace yourselves for the price: 49Kč!! Yes, that is about 2$US only, but for a Czech citizen that is about 3 to 4 times the price he would normally pay for a <U>full</u> pint. Obviously, because of prices and location, this place is filled solely by tourists and business people. But what you could initially perceive as a blaring tourist trap quickly deceives you when you get a taste of their lagers and a look at their menu. Both beers possessed very attractive fruity esters and vibrant carbonation which were strangely reminiscent of Belgian ales. An interesting yeast strain for Czech lager to say the least. The Jantar was simple and hoppy, with a soft and dry finish, made for (expensive) sessions. The Tmavé though is the star of the day beer-wise, with its melodious union of roasted malt and anise-like sweetness, served on a bed of blackberry and blueberry fruitiness. The caramel trickles through this fruitiness in a balanced sequence of flavors which would later prove to be the best tmavé in Prague (for me). The diverse food menu also contained plenty of intriguing beer cuisine, so a meal is definitely recommended if you are beer travellers. Ours were quite tasty and, of course, absurdly filling. Early on, we learned that the 15-kilometer daily walks we would take were going to be almost necessary if we didn’t want to end up like bloated seals at the end of every day.
A pleasant walk down Petřín Hill, an angled park overlooking the Vltava and the southern part of the old town, is then freshened by pouring rain. Not very practical for lying down under a tree on a cool patch of lawn, so we move on down into the old town, in search for a place to hide. This place winds up to be Minipivovar U Medvídků, a 550-year-old restaurant/bar which started brewing their own beer last April only. We escape the crowds in the entry-level restaurant, and seek out the tasting room on the top floor in search of intimacy, which we get. From there, their only beer is served, through a cupboard-style beer engine (I don’t know if there is a proper term for this), and it takes at least 10 minutes to serve us 2 pints. Those towers of foam are pretty important, remember? Expensive pints yes (45Kč or under 2$US for 0.5 liters), but this turned out to be the norm apparently for Prague brewpubs. Novoměstský was cheap then! For comparison’s sake, a typical restaurant or bar in Praha will sell Pilsner Urquell for 20Kč-25Kč (1$US) all around town, which is why a pint in the 40 crowns appears quite expensive when you get used to it. The house beer here is called Old Gott, and is a polotmavé. Luscious caramel fumes lather the fragile hoppiness. Soft, soothing carbonation and round maltiness end up in a simple rendition of the style, if not very well executed. Their website states that they have a beer shop in the basement of the building, which they do, but for now there are barely any bottles to be found. This was mostly a beer mug shop at that moment. Nice collection of Czech brewery glasses, but nothing exciting in the liquid form. Not that we needed any for now. We were headed to a puppet theater version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, held in a creaking wooden attic which reminded me of my grandfather’s old chalet. I had my doubts about this as it was heavily advertised throughout the touristy Old Town, but the performers delivered a stunning comedic and artistic display which we will remember for a long time. Marie was proud of her choice. If you like opera and/or puppets, you will be impressed and amused by these dextrous artists.
So we retired to our room for an evening of hamstring hell. Apparently 12 hours of uphill and downhill strolls will do that to you if you haven’t warmed up properly.
The next morning we almost got used to the shrieking birds. Almost. The early morning walk led us to some chlebíčkys, hearty traditional breakfast snacks which consist of a thick cheese mayonnaise lathered on a slice of baguette-style bread, topped with vegetables, meats, fish, whatever you want. Pretty good stuff, and leagues away from any other cheap breakfast we had had so far. We walked up the Klementinum’s old astronomical observatory, where our quirky guide stole part of the show with his disproportionately huge grey suit, crooked tie, and large yellow teeth in perpetual grin. A funny fellow whose mannerisms and thick, stereotypical Slavic accent made the visit even more pleasurable. Another fantastic Baroque library is shown in the Klementinum, with various astronomical and geographical globes, and superb frescoes. We could have stared at it for hours.
But we had many other things to do of course, like lunching at Pivovarský Dům. Situated in the Nové Město, a neighborhood which has nothing of the appeal of old Praha, its building looked bleak compared to the previous day’s visits. A sign of things to come in other urban centers around the country. The place resembled a North American brewpub in its setup, even reminding me of Davidson Brothers in Glens Falls, New York. Their beer lineup is completely different from the great majority of Czech breweries and brewpubs as well, as they brew a range of experimental lagers, mostly with fruit and added flavorings. That day, apart from the basic Světlý and Tmavý, we could try a coffee beer (Kávové), a banana beer (Banánové), a sour cherry beer (Višňové), a cranberry beer (Brusinkové), a nettle beer (Kopřivové), and a German hefeweizen (Pšeničné). Nothing stood out really quality-wise, as most eclectic offerings felt like a syrup of some sort had been thrown into a basic světlé (or tmavé for the coffee beer). Some even had traces of infection, a wild yeast looming in the back disturbing the quiet interplay of sweetness and drinkability. The nettle beer was somewhat disturbing with its 1970s Kool-Aid alien green colour, but quickly became reminiscent of a spruce beer with perhaps a bolder herbal foundation. They also offer some beer cuisine (like many gambrinal establishments here), but nothing really struck us as being special in all that was served to us. All in all, a peculiar place this Pivovarský Dům, distanced from the crowd in terms of originality, but never branching out in the quality of its beer, food, and overall atmosphere. A first impression sure, but one which will last until the next visit.
And an unleashed puppy stopped to pee in the middle of a busy street.
Idling comfortably around the Mala Strana and on the tiny Kampa Island, contemporary piano chords echoed in the sleepy empty alleys, beckoning our attention. Someone was practising an obscure piece in a second-floor apartment, and the melancholic yet driven notes were rebounding on the stone walls and cobbled streets. We were alone in the twilight obscurity listening to this developing masterpiece, unperturbed by any loud tourists or flashing cameras. We just sat on the curb until the phantom player decided that he had something else to do.
A divine moment has to be followed by a divine meal of course, so we opted for a vinárna, an upscale restaurant where meats are usually more exotic, wine lists expansive, and prices expensive. Heck, if an expensive pint is 2$US, a good restaurant can’t be that much, can it? So a leg of wild boar in red wine gravy with cranberry purée and whipped cream was introduced to me, as delicious as it sounded on the menu. We had some Bohemia Sekt with our meal, the local Czech champagne, which was fruitier, sweeter, and quite refreshing for a champagne. They also had Krušovice Dark on tap, an apt tmavé, very fruity and subtly roasty, a decent and simple accompaniment to my boar.
And an old man sat tearful in the metro with an envelope of x-rays in his hands.
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