The Fernweh-farer: Prague, Up All Night
“Do you party?”
These were the initial words out of the mouth of my Uber driver as we raced from the arrivals pickup of the Prague airport towards the heart of the old town where my Airbnb awaited. He insisted I place my rolling luggage in the backseat because his trunk was “not good.” I did not ask for further details out of consideration for what it might make me an accomplice too given the recency of our introduction.
I was undecided how to answer his question. Was this an invitation to partake in some sketchy behavior in route to my destination? Was he already mid-party and now I was, quite literally, along for the ride?
Turns out it was neither of my more skeptical initial assumption. Instead, the culprit was his gallant attempts at broken English to establish what was drawing me to this charming city.
“Which party you come for? Yours, or a friend?” he clarified.
As I would discover during my week in Prague, the city has emerged as a favored stop for European stag getaways. Something that did not register in my advance analysis, but became transparent as I stepped out on any evening during my stay. Groups of twenty-something men bouncing down the walkways as they made their path to the initial stop of the night transitioned to the same groups hours later supporting at least a few members as they draped arms over shoulders down the street.
Different individuals are sure to have various inclinations for these types of groups during a holiday getaway. Of note, my encounters with the roaming revelers was consistently polite and extremely jovial but they are inescapable - so be apprised.
As is common of most shared rides when I travel, by the time we arrived at my accommodations my driver and I were engaged in friendly banter back and forth. His name was Marko, and he was originally from a small town outside Zagreb, Croatia. He moved to Prague just under seven years ago and could get across that the city was “big different” from that time.
I found Prague slightly disorienting, but I do not propose that as a negative. In extended travel, it can be a refreshing kick to the senses to be on uncertain footing.
However, even after successfully adapting and navigating the unmarked backstreets of southeast Asia, I was directionally challenged almost my entire stay in this comparatively modern city. Even examining the map now, the complexity and absence of grid logic can leave even the most left-brained onlooker perplexed.
One trusted reference point that always bestows directional bearings is the Vltava River, which bisects the city and divides the Lesser Quarter from the Old Town. Do not let the naming convention of the west side of the river deter you. I found the Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter), which includes Saint Nicholas Church and Prague Castle, to be more picturesque and approachable than its bohemian right bank sibling.
The city marvels with its Gothic backdrop straight out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dark stone accents of ashen shades are practically too perfectly arranged to seem authentic.
Settled into my Airbnb, I awoke the first morning to bitingly cold conditions and showers. A start like this required tucking into the city’s cafe culture and to see if slow-paced indulgence would allow for favorable conditions to triumph. A few short blocks from my accommodations, I walked down the short series of steps to Pekárna Praktika. The bakery took up a subfloor level of one of the many neo-Gothic and Baroque style homes.
The bakery itself has a pure aesthetic that instantly conveys the assurance of the proprietor. They excel at what they produce and demand no "smoke and mirrors” decor. They know they nail it. Expertly crafted espresso pulled and topped off for a superbly balanced flat white. The drink leaving no unpleasant bitterness that trips up lesser shops. Paired with a fennel cream doughnut that subtly scratched both sweet and savory cravings. Similar to locating that hard to reach spot in between the shoulders.
As I took my time with both drink and pastry, I split my thoughts between the persistent raindrops just out the window near the high-top table where I set up and looked on as an unending parade of locals shook off at the doorway of the shop to give their regular orders. Given the modest size of the store, I wanted to show consideration for the limited tables - so I took the final sip of my cup and headed back out to confront the elements.
Mostly, the city is walkable. However, the weather justified hopping on one of the historic tram cars that have been in service since the late 1800s. Packed in with locals who also seemed keen to remain dry, the sounds of Czech conversations produced a white noise that intermingled with the clanking of the ancient railcars.
Like many central and eastern European languages, to the Western ear the Czech dialect is dominated by “hard sounds” and abrupt pronunciation cutoffs. Still, there is a decisive cadence that appeals to my ear. Often, I found myself inspired to nod along in knowing affirmation even though an exact translation was generally lost.
With the romantic tram car shaking and knocking its course back towards the Old Town square, the rain finally eased and more locals exited the train and some elbow room materialized. This afforded a less obstructed view of what is one of the more picturesque cityscapes across Europe. Strikingly tall Gothic cathedrals climbing ever upward and quaint storefronts ripped right off of a Bavarian postcard.
I devoted the next few hours to confronting the throngs that all migrate to the square that serves as a staging ground for views of some of Prague’s more recognizable facades. Dominating the eastern edge of the space is the Church of Our Lady before Týn. A finely weathered structure of charcoal roofs and precisely laid stones of varying tints of brown.
A site requiring slightly fewer degrees of neck strain rests just across the broad public space: the Prague Astronomical Clock. I will be the first to flag an attraction as “hyped” and undeserving of precious exploration time. The clock meets the bar of being worthy. First installed in 1410, it endures as the world’s oldest operational timepiece. Time it so that the hour strikes while observing. This will reveal those elements kept concealed, such as the twelve apostles and a skeletal representation of Death striking the bell - an analogy for the finite nature of time.
All the walking and deep thinking about the passage of time had me ready to pull up a chair and unwind. Luckily, Prague offers variety and relative value in this department. However, as is almost always the case, move out of the more touristed Old Town square and slip into one of the much more authentic establishments with local and more concise menus.
Two locations that connected with me were Blah Blah Craft Beer and the accompanying Blah Blah Bar. Situated a long enough walk to make finding these spots a deliberate endeavor, the experiences at both were damn fine times. While the latter serves more cocktails and limited food sets, the former is pulling some of the better craft beers on draught that I have sipped in Europe. The spot also provided one of the more memorable unspoken encounters while in the city.
I am a sucker for new brewing styles that combine elements of heat with mild hop notes, and Blah Blah offered a smoked chili beer that hit all the right notes. As I was savoring the pint and discussing other recommendations in the city with the bartender, and an elderly woman made her way into the bar. She pulled up to a spot to my right, and the bartender gave me a knowing “wait a moment” motion and retreated to the taps. Pulling a pint of one of the lighter Kölsch styles, he spun a coaster onto the bar top and placed the glass in front of the new (but regular) patron.
He and I resumed our conversation and, not half a minute later, I caught the silhouette of the old woman’s head tilted back as she polished off the pint. Placing the glass back on the table, she gathered her things and looked over in my direction. Her eyes went from my still 3/4 full pint to my face, then back to my pint and then to my seat in the chair. Then she gave what I could have interpreted as either a smirk or a scowl and walked out.
I motioned to the bartender with my hand as if to say “what was that?” His response, “she was not impressed.”
Most my interactions with Czech locals were much more engaging and certainly less judgmental. The Malá Strana neighborhood just across the river became my preferred set of winding cobblestone streets and tight corridors to explore and try my best to blend in. It confounds that so many visitors to Prague venture halfway across the Charles Bridge, only to turn back to the well-explored footpaths of the Old Town core. Malá Strana provides room to breathe and enjoy a more relaxed pacing that one assumes was the mark of Prague before it became a destination for those experiencing their last few unattached days.
The young crowds of Prague can make anyone north of their mid-twenties feel unexciting by comparison. Early morning photo sunrise expeditions to the iconic Charles Bridge setting meant accompanying revelers spilling out of the dance clubs at the foot of the bridge. Many of them shielding their eyes to even the smallest strains of first light like vampires forced from an age old slumber.
None of this company feels threatening and, without exception, everyone seemed in convivial spirits. Most were prone to dramatically sharing their disappointment that the previous night “was over already.” I witnessed impressive displays of hand stands at five in the morning on the 15th century stones of the gothic span. More than a few made sincere offers to serve as a muse for my camera.
I am past the point in my life of pulling an all-nighter, or even a 3/4 nighter to be honest. However, I will also be the first to admit that spending occasional time in the presence of those in a submerged state of the fountain of youth can reinvigorate and be inspirational in itself.
I spent my last day in Prague working my way around the perimeter of the city and taking in some of the remaining vestiges of the old Soviet block. Drab blank-slate government buildings devoid of ornateness touching corners with examples of Baroque Austro-Hungarian lavishness.
As it approached lunchtime, it was time to surrender to the enticing display cases of the Czech lahůdky. These delicatessens exist throughout the more local neighborhoods of the city and harken back to a Cold War era similar to the “milk bars” of Poland. Locals often enjoy the offerings standing at the bar or for takeaway, and there seemed to be minimal social interaction outside of the occasional side conversation.
I slipped into Lahůdky Zlatý Kříž and realized that the most challenging aspect for a first-time visitor, other than no understanding of English, was the vast selection. The main attraction at these Mom and Pop delis are the open-faced sandwiches, called chlebíček. Patrons are greeted with roughly thirty varietals, and each is layered high with variations of egg salad, ham and vegetables. They are as affordable (30czk to 40czk, or ~$1.50 USD) as they are delicious.
My order appeared before me on a flimsy paper plate that effectively communicated that these snacks are not meant to rest for long. Surrounded on either side by locals on their lunch break, I got to work joining in with the grunts of approval as the thoughtful construction of bread to toppings delivered in harmony.
I spent my final night at Blah Blah Bar - a much moodier setting of dark woods and reduced visibility than its craft beer cousin. The type of spot where a date or a deal is going down. The environment and the offerings were a perscription for a day that turned unexpectedly cold and overcast. I gave the cocktail menu a cursory glance, knowing that I had come with a predetermined agenda: Becherovka.
Becherovka is the Czech version of an herbal and medicinal alcoholic beverage. Each country in Europe has their version. Often lazily described as resembling cough-syrup, that is not fair to the subtle cinnamon and ginger notes that define this version. My general recommendation in a new bar in a new city is to describe to the bartender what base alcohol you enjoy and the general flavor characteristics that appeal to you. Then, sit back and allow them to expertly construct something that elevates those guidelines.
Here, it was a Becherovka Old-Fashioned. The signature liquor partnered with rye, bitters and simple syrup. It was complex, aromatic and it called for another. Coupled with green olives soaked in gin and feta (“Goodies in a Jar”) and rosemary nuts with orange peel, my palate was thanking me all the way back to my accommodations.
On the evening walk back “home” I encountered several groups just getting their respective night started. It occurred to me then that visiting a city is what you make of it, and that is rarely in lockstep with what brings most other visitors to it. There is no “right way” to experience or explore a destination - other than to do so with humility, respect and open-mindedness.
Prague enjoys the benefit of being two cities in one. The historically affable daytime version, followed by the lively spirited late night version. Both are worth experiencing. If one rises early enough for sunrise photo missions, sometimes they even blur together unexpectedly.