Medieval and human statues in Prague

Prague 1, the city’s historic center, is still one of the world’s great gothic spectacles—and there are ways to escape the crowds and the medieval-themed restaurants

First published in American Way magazine, April 2018. With photography by Tim White

On Prague’s Old Town Square, the sheer level of competition is weighing heavily on the silver human statue, who I meet on a chilly February morning. “There are so many performers here, it can be hard to get their attention,” says the silver man, who is Czech-born Robert Horvak when he takes off the silver facepaint, top hat and jacket. “There are a lot of tourists, but there’s so much for them to see here.”

Horvak’s schtick is to flutter his eyelids and greet passers-by, especially children, with a squeaky bird voice. He’s been here five years, but it’s hard to draw an audience when there’s also a traditional Czech five-piece band on the square, as well as a costumed Olaf from Frozen and a Ukrainian Santa who boasts a very huggable 12-foot tall polar bear.

But Horvak’s primary bête noire is the Slovakian gold human statue, who stands just a few yards away, with his more conventional “stand very still” routine. “We are not friends,” says Horvak, almost wistfully, before snapping into character as a young girl appears with some small change. When I try to talk again, the silver man won’t break character. “Bye bye!” he squeaks, proffering a thumbs-up. “Fantastic!”

It’s true that it’s not easy to stand out in Prague’s historic district, or Prague 1, which includes the Old Town, the New Town, the Jewish Quarter and the Little Quarter. The area is barely more than two square miles, running either side of the Vltava River across the famous Charles Bridge—but it contains perhaps the greatest collection of medieval buildings on Earth.

Ever since Charles IV, the all-powerful 14th-century King of Bohemia, made Prague his pet project, the city has attracted the best Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau architects—who have built marvels like the gothic spires of the St Vitus Cathedral or the extravagantly grand Neo-Renaissance National Theater by the river.

This is a place to wander cobbled alleyways, and gawp, ideally not on a motorised vehicle (Segways were banned in 2016, and locals still grumble about scooters). It’s a district so evocative that you can forgive the fact that there’s one too many Irish bars and a few too many tour groups following guides and lurid umbrellas towards the famous Astronomical Clock.

I stay at the Grand Hotel Praha on the Old Town Square, where the service is on the glum side, the decor is on the kitsch side and it takes about five minutes through dark corridors to find my cavernous and faintly spooky room. It’s perfect.   

On my first morning in Prague, I decide to visit a museum, but am paralysed by choice. The museums here run the gamut from the sensible and place-specific (Kafka, Beer, Torture) to the odd (Miniature, Sex Machines, Historical Chamber Pots and Toilets) and the downright out-of-place. I am dismayed that the Apple Museum is not a homage to Prague’s orchards, but to Steve Jobs.

I settle for the Museum of Communism, which is a humane and surprisingly humorous primer on the old Czechoslovakia’s tricky relationship with Soviet rule, ironically placed in an 18th-century aristocratic palace, next to a branch of McDonald’s. Originally opened in 2001 by an American political science major, the replica classrooms and video testimonies are fascinating—as are the written accounts of the Prague Spring, a brief period of relative freedom and optimism in the 1960s, which was eventually crushed by Soviet troops in the process of so-called Normalization.

I get a more tangible version of the story on the way back to the square, at the tiny Bric A Brac Antiques curio store, packed to the rafters with vintage Czech Pilsner Urquell signs, art deco chandeliers, Communist-era phones and just about every other curio imaginable.

Martin Mičan, the erudite shopkeeper, was a punk in the Communist 1980s, with his mohawk and black-market Dead Kennedys records, who came back from his military service in 1989 to find the world changed. He says that you can piece together a lot of Prague’s history through the more than a million items at the shop, and the larger sister shop a street away. “The 60s here was really like Swedish Socialism,” he says. “But most of the things we sell are from the period between the wars, when Prague was stable and affluent, and the stuff was not only beautiful but built to last. All my cooking pots at home are from the 1920s.”

The 60s here was really like Swedish Socialism

After telling me a story about how charming Matt Damon was when he came to the shop (Prague is one of Europe’s top filming locations), Mičan points me to Pivnice Štupartská, a traditional Czech restaurant just down the road, which he says is cheaper and better than the church-like U Fleků, the famous microbrewery and restaurant which has been trading since 1499.

With its dark wood panels, Art Deco mirrors and copper beer tanks, Pivnice Štupartská looks the part, and has the classic Czech menu: beef goulash soup in a bread bowl, chicken schnitzel and lots of pork. I order the pork knuckle, not quite imagining the massive hunk of meat, which looks more head-sized than knuckle-sized, wedged onto a thick skewer. I manage about half of the rich, tender pork, with crispy crackling, washed down with half a litre of Gambrinus tank beer.  

It is possible to escape the tourists in Prague 1. If you walk in any direction from the Old Town Square, the souvenir shops selling absinthe and college football Matryoshka dolls thin out. Across the Charles Bridge, and west towards the castle, or south past the grafitti’d John Lennon Wall, the evocative streets become quieter, giving way to a more neighbourhood-y feel.  

That evening I head to Mlýnská kavárna, a cafe/bar in a former mill on Kampa Island, on the river’s west side, which is reached via a tiny wooden bridge, past a gently-rotating mill wheel. It’s said to be the social center of literary and artistic Prague—and its most famous regular is David  Černý, the enfant terrible of Czech art, who managed to offend even the art world when he put a wax model of Saddam Hussein in formaldehyde in 2005.

Černý has an apartment nearby, and a few of his iconic faceless baby statues can be seen crawling creepily by the river in the nearby Kampa Park. He created the Pop Art bartop here, with old toy planes and severed baby’s heads built into the Plexiglass, and the barman seems surprised that he’s not in for a beer tonight. Instead, the people-watching consists mainly of well-heeled locals in knitwear, seemingly deep in conspiratorial chat.

If you can escape the tourists, you can also escape the medieval theme restaurants, and the food scene in Prague 1 has become increasingly sophisticated over the years. The next day, I take the ten-minute walk north and east from the Old Town Square to find Naše maso, a buzzing, slickly branded butcher’s shop and eatery. The young staff—who are all smiles and collegiate banter—bring out simple but exquisite, all-Czech plates of steak tartare, meat loaf or tender steak from 70-day aged beef, washed down with beer or vodka from a tap on the wall.

“We get more than 700 guests a day,” says Jakub Picka, a 22-year-old former medical student who decided he preferred the fun of working here. “In the summer, it’s like a big party that spills onto the street.”

The vibe is similar next door at Bistro Sisters, a clean space where a mostly female staff serve delicious Danish-style open sandwiches. The server, Barbora Stejskalova, has a big smile and even bigger life goals. She’s about to run food tours in Prague, while she studies to be a teacher. Then the plan is to open a Czech restaurant in Spain, after which she wants to run her own school in Prague, offering the International Baccalaureate program. She makes me feel old and tired, but also hopeful.

The Scandi thing is is taken to the next level, though, at Field, the Michelin-starred restaurant just up the road. Czech chef/owner Radek Kašpárek takes its ingredients from the Czech Republic but his cues from Noma, Copenhagen’s temple of New Nordic gastronomy. The PR tells me he’s planning to put ants on the menu, though the dishes I try are mysterious and wondrous enough as it is: like a starter that contains the worm-like root of a woundwort, a little-known cousin of the nettle, and a wonderfully tender lamb dish with six types of fennel. Both are undecipherable and utterly delicious.  

Even the beer is getting a gentle update in Old Prague. This, remember, is the centre of a country that drinks more beer per capita than anywhere else; where they serve Pilsner Urquell in McDonald’s (I checked); and where doctors are said to sometimes prescribe beer to patients with stomach and kidney problems.

I get the lowdown that afternoon on a private tour with Jan Macuch, a born-and-bred local who wrote old Czech recipes for the now-defunct Prague Post newspaper, and now runs popular beer and food tours for the Eating Prague tour company.

With his flat cap, big smile and faintly subversive air, Macuch is not your average tour guide—not only can he hold his own on the works of both John Irving and Irvine Welsh, but he is a fount of gossip and cute lines. “What’s the greatest lie told in the Czech Republic?” he tells me over a house pilsner at T-Anker, a modern craft beer pub with a terrace overlooking the Old Town. “Let’s go for one.”

In between gags, he gives me a brief history of Czech beer: from the earliest brewery at Prague’s Břevnov Monastery in 993AD, through the invention of Pils in the Czech city of Pilsen in 1842 to the fact that Communism inadvertently helped local brewers by forcing them to stick to traditional methods. “We’re about light, balanced beers,” he says. “Czech brewers tend to use the so-called Noble Hops, and they’re very clean and drinkable. Maybe too drinkable.”

While Pilsner Urquell from the tank is the king of beers here, more and more great craft beers are joining the fray. Macuch takes me to Lod’ Pivovar (The Ship Brewery), on the northern edge of the Old Town, which opened in early 2017 and claims to be the world’s first microbrewery on a boat. Set over two floors, there’s a restaurant as you enter past vats of brewing beer, and a bar/library on the deck below, with rows of board games and books below the ship’s portholes, just above the water level.

The magnificently-bearded owner Vojtěch Ryvola is sitting by the bar on his beloved creation—all blonde wood and steel vats—which he says literally came to him in a dream. The former property developer spent a year and a half and EUR2 million turning an old Hamburg disco boat into a quality restaurant and brewery; and to prove that he was serious about the craft beers, he had his new head brewer create a beer called Titanic, which is officially the strongest in the Czech Republic.

“This place should be gimmicky,” says Macuch, in summary. “But it’s one of my favorite places in Prague. The food’s brilliant, too.”

That evening I end up staying with my new guide, hearing tales of Czech actors, artists and politicians that aren’t suitable for print. We end up in Bonvivant’s CTC, a neighborhood cocktail bar with a tin Art Deco roof, Jazz-era fittings and no menu. Cocktail guru Tomáš Palička opened the bar four years ago, inspired by legendary New York bartender Jerry Thomas and a love of Czech spirits like Becherovka herbal liquor and Slivovitz. I have a Becherovka Old Fashioned with a giant orb of hand-cut ice, which is seriously good, even if I’m no longer remotely capable of taking notes.

As we stumble along a narrow, cobbled alleyway on the way back towards the Old Town Square, I hear the familiar refrain of an English soccer chant, possibly from one of Prague’s many bachelor parties. “I’m sorry for my people,” I say to Macuch.

“Hey don’t worry about it,” he shoots back. “Socks and sandals as a fashion choice was invented in Czechoslovakia—so we know national shame. But, then again, we also gave this to the world.” He gestures to the Baroque townhouses looming above us. “So, there’s that.”

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