I've been doing a lot of reading about Prague in preparation for next summer's train trip trough Central and Eastern Europe. And frankly, I'm afraid. I'm very afraid.
Prague isn’t all beer halls and sausage stands. Gorgeous old churches and magnificent palaces abound. But at this point in the trip, we’ll no doubt want a break from historic beauty and will be seeking a bit of contrast, which the Museum of Communism is more than ready to provide. Its theme, “Communism – the Dream, the Reality, and the Nightmare,” involves an “immersive experience” in a factory, a schoolroom and an interrogation room. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
And if yet more thrills are needed, we can pop into its competitor, the KGB Muzeum, to view Lenin’s death mask, Trotsky’s murder weapon, the contents of the KGB laboratory where spy technology and weaponry were developed, and a beautiful banner handmade by children in a labor commune for “Grandpa Lenin.”
Just reading about that era makes me understand why the Czechs have some of the highest alcohol consumption in the world. But to be fair, they had a lot of dark years even before Grandpa Lenin. It’s hard to find a bridge or alleyway in Prague that isn’t (allegedly) haunted by beheaded medieval lords, cheated giants, star-crossed lovers or other unquiet souls. The very hottest place for the undead is 45 km outside of town in Castle Houska, which the locals are sure is the real and literal Gate of Hell.
The backstory: After countless reports of a bottomless pit from which half-animal, half-human creatures emerged to wreak havoc on the countryside, a medieval Duke decided to investigate the site. He offered to pardon any prisoner who would consent to being lowered on a rope into the pit and report what he’d seen. One prisoner agreed, but emerged screaming, white haired and utterly mad. Eventually they put a stone slab over the pit and built Houska Castle on top of it, but demonic entities continued to stir up trouble. Human troublemakers, from a 17th century alchemist to the Nazis, have performed various unsavory occult experiments on the site. Today Houska Castle is a tourist attraction, so of course, we’ll drop in. But only during daylight hours, when lots of people are around.
Sometimes, even the food is scary in the Czech Republic.
For instance, there’s a popular bar snack called Upotonek, literally “the drowned man,” which is a bloated, pickled sausage floating, corpse-like, in a pool of vinegar. Yummm....
As the year draws to a close, Czech tradition calls for placing a bowl of garlic under the table to protect your family in the year ahead. Of course, Rich and I have assured each other that this is nothing but superstition. But just in case...
There's a moment in every one of our better journeys when Rich and I have the sensation of stepping off the well-lit path into the unknown. During next summer's train trip through Central and Eastern Europe, I suspect that moment will come when we arrive in the Czech Republic. We'll be traveling without reservations, just a Eurail pass and an iPad full of information about possible destinations, one of which is Prague.
Browsing through articles about Prague, I kept reading about a traditional local libation known as becherovka, which is said to taste like Christmas, being heavily laced with anis and cinnamon. And apparently it packs a wallop like New Year’s Eve. “I got so drunk I forgot where my bedroom was and fell asleep next to the dog,” blogger Katka Lapelosa recalls. Yikes. I hate nights like that.
So when we get to Prague, I’ll most likely be sticking to beer and wine, especially after reading recent horror stories about black market becherovka, absinthe and other spirits being spiked with methanol. This resulted in deaths, hideous injuries and a temporary ban on the sale of all hard liquor, sending a shockwave through the nation that has the world’s second-highest rate of hard-liquor consumption (Moldova holds the top spot). The ban has now been eased to allow the sale of spirits manufactured before January 1, 2012, so it is once again possible to drink enough bechrovka to wind up sleeping with the dog. But I think I’ll give it a miss anyway.
The Czech Republic has the highest consumption of beer in the world (take that, Moldova!) with citizens downing an impressive 161 liters per person per year. With Prague’s beer halls offering pints for the equivalent of under $1, it’s considerably cheaper than bottled water. You can’t afford not to overindulge.
Beer drinking enjoys a long and prosperous history in the region. Monks were brewing it back in 993 AD, and in 1785 Adolphus Busch gave the world Budweiser Bürgerbräu, or Budweiser Bier, in the city of Budweis – or as the Czechs prefer to spell it, Budějovice.
Czech wine isn’t such a worldwide phenomena, but it enjoys a robust local reputation, thanks to the tireless efforts of the man we now know as “Good King Wenceslas.” This noble monarch is credited with launching the region’s wine industry back in the 9th century. No wonder they made him a saint and wrote a Christmas carol about his kindness! And as if that wasn’t enough honor for one man, they also made him the patron saint of sausages. Prague’s Wenceslas Square is filled day and night, with – as the blogger from Czech Please puts it – “crowds of people gathering around sausage stands and paying homage at these altars of indigestion.”
So much to look forward to! Can’t wait to make your acquaintance, Prague!
Header photo by Jitka Erbenová
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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