The Czech Republic is a country where ano means yes.
There are things I think I can’t do when I am on vacation (or actually in all of my adult life) and have to tell myself that it’s okay to do them. That the taboo is only in my mind. That I am an adult and can make my own decisions. Once I get good at allowing myself these things, I feel incredibly liberated. Eating things from a minibar is one of those things. Another is sleeping in.
But I am on a vacation. I am allowed to rest and, more importantly, sleep in. So despite my big plans of sunrise on Karlovy Most and perhaps a morning run and definitely a stop somewhere for coffee, I found myself rolling over when the sun started turning the buildings pink with dawn and the birds started their birdsong that sounded like the perfect distillation of all birdsong that has ever been chirped, trilled, chirruped, and tweeted and going back to sleep.
The only downside to that action was when I finally woke up to full day, feeling rested, coffee hadn’t suddenly magically appeared. Still, I spent a leisurely morning in my apartment, emailing family and reading. When my hunger and coffee craving finally got the best of me, I ventured out into my neighborhood.
When I get to a new city, I like to orient myself. Get a feel of the neighborhood. Learn a small section well before branching out. So I took myself to breakfast (or more accurately, lunch) on the river in Malá Strana. The restaurant is next to the Kafka museum (something I didn’t intend to see but I liked the sculptures out front), and its outdoor dining was right on the water. There I enjoyed sun (because, yes, it was indeed sunny—which resulted in clothing drama because I soon had to strip the layers I put on before leaving the house when I thought it was going to be cold) and watched people cross Karlovy Most. The Jewish quarter and Old Town were spread out across the river and behind me on the hill, the Prague castle loomed. A perfect setting to my first real exposure to this city.
This restaurant was by no means authentic Czech; it was like any other upperscale museum restaurant: good food, good staff, but not too original. I had a cup of the tom kai gai (told you) and a cup of the potato soup and duck spring rolls that apparently were missing the duck. These treats were joined by espresso and a Pilsner Urquell (apparently the original pilsner from the town of Plzeň). After an hour of just relaxing, soaking up the Prague sun, watching the boats move around the river, and covert map checking, I set out with bulging purse full of sweater, scarf, and beanie to learn Malá Strana better and perhaps see the castle.
Prague is a mix of fairly contemporary places and the very old and quaint. It lacks the gleam and shine of consumerheaven Dresden. Sure there are a lot of shops where you can easily spend your koruna, but they are nestled in old buildings with residences and official offices and situated on narrow streets that meander at whim. So you get the feeling of old Europe rather than long boulevards of shop shop shop.
Because I really didn’t have much of a plan today, I inevitably got lost trying to find the Wallenstein Gardens. But in losing my direction, I got to find fun urban elements that again offer the contrasts in textures and composition that I love. Graffiti is everywhere in Prague. And some is actually quite good. While wandering around the areas a little north and east of the castle, I found little wooded paths and walls equally covered in ivy and art. Eventually, I found the garden and marveled at the large grotto wall—looking so much like drip sand art--and owl aviary.
With much more meandering, I then headed back to the apartment for a quick stop before heading up to the castle. It was during this stop that I discovered my sweater had decided to abandon me for some unknown location in Prague. Apparently, it didn’t like the walking schedule I kept. Because my cool weather cover choices are that sweater or a heavy (and awesome) wool coat—and because I freaking love that sweater (I’m not kidding, love with a passion that borders on idolatry)—I wearily set out to retrace my steps in the hopes that maybe my sweater had just stopped in for a quick pint somewhere and was waiting for me.
There is nothing more depressing than retracing your path in a new city when all you really want to do is find new stuff. Especially when retracing your steps means you also have to look down at the street rather than up at your surroundings. I learned the cobblestones of Prague very well in the next hour and a half.
Plus, when you are looking for something you lost and are secretly convinced that someone has already picked it up, you begin to regard others with suspicion. Was that girl, rooting around in her backpack, actually hiding my sweater at the bottom? Was that grey item draped over a woman’s purse my sweater? Did that man have it wrapped around his head? My sweater was everywhere and nowhere. At one point I may or may have not actually broken into a run when I thought I saw it on a woman’s arm.
Sadly, my sweater has decided it will live in Prague. I’m mostly sad because if it had asked me, I probably would have stayed with it.
It was now 1630 (see how European I can be!). I figured I should actually see some other historical site in Prague besides the gardens. So I bought myself a travel beer and off to the castle I went. Fortuitously, I arrived at the castle at the exact perfect time. I got to see the changing of the guard while I finished my beer on the plaza that overlooks all of Prague and the river. The light from the setting sun turned the stones of St. Vitus Cathedral into warm gold. And the gargoyles—the fantastic gargoyles!—whose blackened faces seemed to still seek out the heat from the sinking sun. These were all wonderful.
But the most amazing thing happened when I entered the cathedral. The setting sun had just started to move down the rose window, and the entire building was suffused in pink, purple, and red light. As the sun continued to move through the stained glasses, the light shifted and changed, dancing along the columns, playing hide and seek along the nave, and skipping across the floor. To the consternation of picture-seeking tourists, I stood in the center of the light, letting it move over me until the last rays of the sun came through the window.
I then followed the creeping light out of the cathedral and onto the terrace gardens where I got to finish the sunset, watching the disappearing sun give the city a goodnight kiss of light.
Food was again in order. I resumed my wanderings in search of a good place to sit and eat and watch the world go by. The only problem is that I have a secret fear that while I might find a good place, I will miss the best place because I didn’t look enough. So no matter how tired and how hungry I get, I will keep walking until I literally cannot go any farther, and then I take the next place which may not even be a good place. Traveling with a partner keeps this trait in check because usually my companion will get fed up with my “let’s just look around one more block” and will choose one of the good options we’ve already passed. However, if I am alone, this trait runs rampant. Growing hungrier and more tired by the second, I despondently roamed the streets of southern Malá Strana for about an hour, convinced that the best place was just around the corner before collapsing in a chair at a corner café on a busy street two blocks from my apartment. And as usual, this place was not necessarily a good place (the beer was standard and the goulash resembled an odd thick gravy with fatty pieces of mystery meat) but the people watching on the busy street was exactly what I needed after my long day of walking.
From goulash, I moved on to pizza and nightlife because I heard that you can’t come to Prague without trying the pizza. There is a little basement bar just down the street from my apartment called the St. Nicholas Café. Here, the muted light turns the walls a rich warm copper and the nonsmoking section offers many table choices in sharp contrast to the packed and boisterous smoking section. I have determined that smoking and nonsmoking sections are a big fat joke in Prague where the token fan that is supposed to be blowing the smoke away is turned off and the windows are tightly shut. It is the equivalent of sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving: you are still covered in smoke but you don’t get to interact with any of the fun grownups. But still, the quiet corner table I chose was perfect for covert people watching. The waitress was a petit attractive girl whose mother never got around to telling her that a gel-filled mullet is not a flattering hairstyle. She brought me a gambrinus and vegetarian pizza (incidentally, there was only one guy making pizzas. The poor dude was chopping and baking nonstop). The gambrinus was the perfect beer for this bar. Its warm red color seemed to have resulted from soaking up the light from the walls. It had a faint fruity flavor without being a sweet beer.
There was live music playing—Mayday, comprised of a Jesus-looking lead and scrungy older man on guitar. Their set list was Seattle circa “Singles” era: Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Stone Temple Pilots, Stone Temple Pilots, and a token Red Hot Chili Peppers. For “Under the Bridge,” they broke out the tambourine and gave us real authentic Czech music.
It was on the whole pretty good. When the band began playing, a man at the bar spontaneously broke into dance. I couldn’t help myself from laughing and to my chagrin, he heard me. I think he might have been the owner or manager of the bar. He kept going behind the bar and seemed to know everyone there.
Because I love the nightlife (and it was only 10pm), I settled my tab (apparently the only thing you can do cheaply in Prague now is drink: my beers were the equivalent of 50 cents while my pizza was the equivalent of $10) and moved on in search of a new pub experience if not of sunrise. My goal was the Vu U Zavěšenýho Kafe that is on the main road (Nerudova) up the hill toward the castle and monastery and a very short walk from my apartment. As usual, I walked right past it because I was too struck by the ethereal white glow and blue-green spires of the monastery against the dark night sky. But my backtracking afforded me a view of the Prague lights across the river, so the extra time was well worth it.
The “kafe” is a tiny little space, thick with cigarette smoke and the whimsical and irreverent art of Kuba Krejci, a local artist. The dominating piece is a large mural of a debauched dinner party that was a drunken parody of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” As one of my friends would say, this place was indeed deep local. Everyone seemed to know each other, and my entrance was received with an askance gaze. The walls of the bar are covered with framed black and white group photos taken on the street outside at different times. Many of the faces were the same and were sitting live in Technicolor next me at the bar. Also featured in photos was a portly Scottie dog (featured on the website. Read their site. I love the concept of the hanging cup of coffee) that exited the bar with his owner a few minutes after I arrived. Pretzels—no doubt soot covered—hung on a rack on the worn raw wood bar and ceramic ashtrays shaped like a polar bear about to plunge to an arctic pool were evenly spaced down its length. In addition to the beverages on sale at the establishment (it’s very European to have both alcohol and an espresso machine behind the bar), there were about ten different brands of cigarettes for sale and stacks of foreign currency pinned in rows along a shelf (an awesome picture of their bar is on their site). Also, where I was sitting, there was a drawer that contained a mac laptop where apparently customers (I am trying to interpret a sign I couldn’t read) can access the internet.
Here the beer tally was kept exactly how the guide books promised: tic marks on a tiny slip of paper. And the bartender would pour another beer when you finished the one you had without asking (luckily for me, I drink beer slowly or that could be dangerous). I stayed until the pub closed (not too hard to do since it closed at midnight), fighting the urge to flee the stifling and acrid smoky air because the social atmosphere was just so much fun. I loved the sound of Czech being spoken in loud voices (again: sound and music) and the apparent, easy camaraderie of the people there.
A warm ending to a good day.
Photos (and videos): http://www.flickr.com/photos/originalkyte/sets/72157616557851643/
The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.
--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History
--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History