The two castle guards march rigidly across the cobbles on a 35C summer’s day in Prague. Hundreds of heat-baked tourists look on from the shade. The guards clump into position by their sentry boxes then stop, in full glare of the sun. They’re wearing sky-blue jackets, white polo-necks, peaked caps and aviator shades. And there they stand, as upright and unmoving as the castle behind them, while camera-phones click and melting ice creams drip vanilla splotches onto the royal square.
A year ago, Prague Castle — still the official residence of the country’s president — was the subject of a bold piece of activism. Three local artists, masquerading as chimney sweeps, removed the presidential flag from its rooftop pole and replaced it with a giant pair of red boxer shorts. The scarlet undies flapping in the Czech breeze were a rather pointed rebuke to the leader, who, a few months earlier, had also been pelted with eggs. So much for Slavic reserve.
Prague knows all about dealing with the vicissitudes of power. The riverside city — by most measures one of the prettiest in Europe — has experienced life as the capital of both the Holy Roman and Habsburg Empires, and endured Nazi and Soviet occupation, witnessing more overthrows, crackdowns, religious squabbles and ideological struggles than any one place might reasonably be expected to handle. And these days? Millions of visitors continue to converge on its bars and baroque Old Town, but the city still evades an easy label.
“Our mentality is sometimes a little conservative,” says Ales Stevlik, the effervescent chef de bar at the Oblaca Restaurant. He’s just done his best to prove otherwise, by demonstrating his own brand of molecular mixology. On the table around us are sea buckthorn berries, lemonade, vodka-and-clove gummy bears and smoke-spewing cinnamon negronis. “We change slowly. It took a long time to get the communist era out of our system.”
Ales is one of the figures at the sharp end of Prague’s expanding food and drink scene. He’s progressive to the point of obsession (“I won’t have dilution. A recipe is nothing without soul. You have to give it soul. Look — this is my lavender water, prototype five.”). It’s a trait that — once you go beyond the aspic-preserved churches and synagogues that have earned the city so many admirers — is helping to broaden and remould the way Prague defines itself.
The time when the Czech capital was seen as a byword for lads-on-tour weekends is fading. Away from the centre, former mills are becoming private galleries, street-food markets are springing up and one-time warehouses are being reinvented as office space or artisan delis. It’s a familiar story, of course, but can’t easily be dismissed as a fad. Even on the restaurant terraces of the Old Town’s quieter squares, there’s a classier, more relaxed feel than in days
It’s close to one of these handsome, spire-lined squares that I come across an unusual sight one evening. It’s a hot night, and locals are laying flowers at the foot of a huge photograph of a female gymnast. Others are queueing to sign what, it becomes apparent, are books of condolence. The tributes, I learn, are to Věra Čáslavská, who won seven Olympic golds in the 1960s, but was equally celebrated for speaking out against the Soviet invasion in 1968. She was born, and died, here in Prague.
For the love of lager
Ondra Lipar was six years old when the Velvet Revolution took place in 1989. Life in Prague before the famously nonviolent uprising was, as he remembers it, “quite grey”. Ondra’s parents would play rock LPs and tell him it was best not to mention the fact at school. He had a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, sent by a distant relative in the US, but was only allowed to wear it at home. Now Ondra makes a living as a poet, editor and photographer. “The 1990s were a wild time,” he says. “Imagine, everything making the jump from being state-owned to private.”
We’re talking at a wooden table in Lokál Dlouhááá, a cavernous beer hall stretching some 200ft, and to end. Designed to resemble similar venues from the 1970s and 1980s — all the way down to its kitsch wall-print — it plays on the unusual mixture of irony and nostalgia that Prague holds for the period. There’s absolutely nothing ironic, however, about the city’s love of a drink.
“Beer is the one thing the government would never be brave enough to raise the tax on,” Ondra says. The Czech Republic tops the world list of beer consumption per capita by some distance, and the sight of frothing tankards being carried, cradled and chugged is as fixed a part of daily life as the rising and setting of the sun. At Lokál, incidentally, you can order your beer with no fewer than three different foam styles — standard, small or milky (mainly froth) — another remnant from the socialist era.
Ondra and I walk down to Náplavka, the riverside promenade that comes alive each summer evening with drinkers and live music. There are at least five different performances taking place. In a whitewashed storage garage big enough for no more than 20 people, a greying hardcore band thrash crazy-eyed through an eardrum-pummelling set. Outside, locals are throwing frenetic shapes to a punk-polka group, while pop-up bars are doling out beers as fast as they can be poured. Across the water, Castle Hill is fading to purple in the dusk.
After an hour or so, we walk back into town. “Even in the worst times, Prague has always been a magnet for a really active community of creative people,” explains Ondra, as we pass one of the many pianos positioned on the city streets for public use. The city’s cultural lineage includes heavy-hitters like Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera and artist Alfons Mucha, although contemporary attention today tends to fall on David Černý, whose subversive sculptures dot central Prague like naughty scribbles on an Old Master painting.
His most notorious creations are the giant babies permanently crawling up the city’s Žižkov Television Tower but other, no less mischievous, examples are everywhere. A statue of a dangling Sigmund Freud hangs high above an Old Town street, for example, while outside a restaurant in the Malá Strana district, two bronze figures urinate incessantly onto a map of the Czech Republic.
Perhaps the boldest of his works, however, is a piece positioned in a covered passage close to the Old Town. Not far from a large, century-old statue of Saint Wenceslas astride a horse, Černý has recreated an identical sculpture with one major difference — the horse is trussed up by its legs and hanging upside down, reducing the ‘Good King’ of legend to a parody of the powerful. In Prague, it seems, nothing is beyond a little modern reworking.
Even the city’s drink of choice isn’t averse to an overhaul. In the Vinohrady district, a bar named BeerGeek has taken the bold step of setting itself up as a temple to the amber nectar, only without a single Czech pilsner in sight. In Prague, this is quite something. “A decade ago this wouldn’t have worked,” says Leo, the Ohio native working behind the bar. “A craft beer bar in a nation of lager-drinkers? No way. But I’ve been living here for 15 years and, believe me, the way they think is changing.”
The 32 taps behind him feature a zeitgeist-conscious range of IPAs, pale ales and imperial stouts. Leo explains he’s one of a large community of home-brewers now resident in the city — even going so far as to grow hops in his garden. “People take it seriously,” says Leo. “I see Czech guys arguing for three hours about the difference between two identical beers. But like I said, the change has been massive. In everything. When I first moved here, you’d go to the supermarket and you couldn’t even find fresh parsley. It’s a different city now.”
Down by the river
On the banks of the Vltava River, the Saturday morning market is in full flow. Organic juices are being mixed, river trout are being prepared, farmhouse cheeses are being portioned. A few minutes’ walk to the north, meanwhile, the Charles Bridge is heaving with buskers and pedestrian traffic. Sunshine beats down on the scene.
The bridge is one of Prague’s must-sees, a 500-metre span of burnished cobbles, baroque statues and held-aloft selfie sticks. The city’s inhabitants have been flowing over its arches for more than six centuries and, fittingly, the man the bridge takes its name from is still seen by many as the father of the nation. King Charles IV was famed for his patronage of culture and the arts. And having been educated in Paris, he was also responsible for introducing the Czech lands to what is today one of its lesser-known gifts: wine.
“We still have a good vineyard at the foot of the castle,” says Roman Novotny, the young sommelier at Bokovka wine bar, an unadorned hideout tucked away in an Old Town courtyard. “But most Czech wine comes from Moravia in the south of the country. The quality is high, although many people don’t know about it. There are 2,000 companies importing wine into the country — only five export it.”
Wine’s place in Prague culture is firmer than might be imagined. In Vinohrady, a smart residential district whose name translates as ‘vineyards’, stone grape motifs still decorate the grand houses whose wineries once covered the hills. Close by, in the formerly gritty neighbourhood of Karlín, I meet Standa Soukup, a lean, smiley man whose passion for a nice drop is evidenced at his laid-back bar, Veltlin.
“The mentality around wine is still very different to beer,” he says, pouring out a glass of Moravian white. “I was out having lunch once with four friends, all of them drinking beer. I ordered wine and they started saying ‘Really? Alcohol in the daytime?’ — and they were serious! But these days, Prague is moving, new habits are developing. It’s why people are drawn here. It’s very rare now to find someone whose family has been here for more than three or four generations.”
One blessing of visiting Prague in a heatwave is that the city has plenty of green space. Among the urban expanse of high red roofs and gothic pinnacles, various leafy hills erupt out of the cityscape. It’s on one of these — a mellow hump of parkland known as Riegrovy Sady — that I sit and stare back across the city one afternoon. At the next bench, a young British teacher is holding a one-to-one English lesson with a local lady. Below them, half a dozen youngsters are lying on a grassy slope, mandatory beers in hand.
Way off in the distance, meanwhile, it’s possible to pick out a giant red pendulum on a hillside above the river, swinging back and forth. It’s the first time I’ve noticed it. When I ask around, I get the story. It transpires that the Prague Metronome has been in place since 1991 as a permanent art installation. What’s more, it occupies the precise spot where a 17,000-ton statue of Stalin once stood. Today — as it’s done for the past 25 years — it looks over the city, ticking away the passage of time.
Back up at Prague Castle, the guards are still standing stock-still in the fierce sun. They’re doing an admirable job of staying straight-faced as people pose for photographs at their side. But for one guard, it looks like the strain of the weather is starting to take its toll. Behind his sunglasses is the focused expression of a man who, when he knocks off for the day, wouldn’t half fancy finding somewhere for a drink.
Many of the main attractions in and around the Old Town are within walking distance of each other. To visit outlying suburbs, it’s advisable to use the city’s comprehensive and cheap metro and tram system. Taxis are plentiful.
When to go
June through to September are the busiest and warmest months. Spring and early autumn see lower rates and fewer crowds. December and January can get seriously cold, but offer a good chance of seeing the city covered in snow.
The Rough Guide to Prague. RRP: £8.99.
How to do it
British Airways offers return flights from Heathrow to Prague from £99.81.
Buddha Bar Hotel is two minutes from the Old Town Square and offers double rooms from €488 (£435) per night.
Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)