On this venture I travel to the capital of the Czech Republic and enjoy the city of a 100 spires, meet an enterprising butcher and lawyer couple and have my first and possibly my last taste of Absinthe – the green nectar of the Bohemian generation.
Despite a population of 1.2 million Prague still feels small and compact. Our airbnb was only half an hour from picking up our luggage and it was the flat’s owner who drove us. Retired professional footballer Michel Pospisil (who played for Heart of Midlothian for many years amongst others) along with his wife Gabriella diversified into the modern way to help travellers outwit high hotel bills.
They own a couple of properties and were fully booked up for weeks ahead. We were lucky to get a slot. He charged us the equivalent of £16 – try seeing how far you’d get in a black cab for that? We booked him for our return journey. He was charming, informative and knew where everything was.
We were in the thick of things, right in the Old Town in a large block of converted flats. Think high ceilings, double doors and marble floors. Immaculate and comfortable the flat had everything we could need for our five-day stay, fridge, microwave, cooker, large comfortable bed, and super-cool bathroom, TV etc.
Prague is a treat to walk around. BoHo shops everywhere (well, we were in the centre of Bohemia) and modern stuff too – Tesco round the corner with all we required for our stay and the added bonus of incredibly cheap wine.
We strolled through the old streets with cobbled roads and mosaic pavements to the Old Town Square. The first thing that is obvious is that it’s not a square but very irregular. The main attraction here is the Astronomical Clock – a 15th century masterpiece of engineering. Figures emerge every hour as it chimes. There are always people waiting for this to happen.
Only a short rickshaw ride away (who’d of thought) and we were at the grand Imperial Hotel to check out their Cafe, a fancy affair with an incredible decorative ceiling of ceramic tiles with tall pillars to match. It was here I was to try for the first time the bright green drink from another era, Absinthe. This once banned liquid mind fuel and constant companion of artists, thinkers and bohemians is an acquired taste to say the least.
It is a matter of taste how you drink this fabled tipple. It was served for me by a waiter who was fluent in English in the traditional way with sugar melted on a spoon and then dissolved in the Absinthe and add a little water (you need the water believe me). The nearest comparison I can think of is mouthwash. It has a stringent medicinal note. With the water it was not bad in sips. It did have a rather strange effect on me, a slight giddiness not like alcohol sort of otherworldly. The waiter advised me not to have too many or I would get what he called the ‘mentals’. I’m not sure if I’ll be trying it again in a hurry.
Established over a 100 years ago and once the haunt of Franz Kafka it has been patronized by Elizabeth II and Adolf Hitler even worked here as a youth. Kafka’s visionary writing foresaw the arrival of Communism which the Imperial outlived as it did the German occupation during WWII. After extensive renovations it is open for business; you can admire the Deco interiors and enjoy chic cafe food. Well worth a visit.
Leaving slightly softheaded we meandered west past the national gallery to the river Vltava and of course the famous Charles Bridge. It’s the one that Jon Voight falls off in Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible film. It’s a Gothic beauty with a history that dates from 1357. It has a gallery of 30 statues the most controversial is a depiction of Calvary. On our visit this attracted so many praying worshippers that it was hard to cross to the other side where the castle looks down on to the town.
Dinner turned out to be a modern take on Czech food at Riviene looking across the river to the castle as the sun set. Good food and some excellent local wines will greet you. Served by the impeccable Petra who though my choice of foie gras followed by rabbit a sound choice, it tasted fantastic as did M’s salmon with couscous. The local wine incidentally, was less than £10 a bottle.
The unusual combination of a British butcher turned chef Paul Day and a Czech lawyer Michaela Jorgensen has given Prague a massive boost in the form of a rare breed butcher (the first since before Communism) and not one but two eateries, both with Michelin Bib Gourmands. The butchers, The Real Meat Society specialises in pork although they do sell beef and other meats, it’s proving a real success with the locals. Of the two eateries one is Sansho, a Vietnamese fine dining experience (a nod to the largest Vietnamese community in Europe) that was closed for its annual rest on our visit and Maso a Kobliha (translated as Meat and Doughnuts) that thankfully was open.
It’s a cool laidback all day dining vibe with a casual layout, long sharing tables and a neat little outside space at the rear. My go to point of quality assessment is always a Scotch egg. The duel nationality of this enterprising couple has meant the menu caters for British and Czech tastes. The egg was superb, served cut, crucially the yolk was runny and warm, the spicing gentle yet it had a kick. A clear hit and another part of my assessment is would I have another one – a definite yes.
They sell wines and local craft beers here as well as the Czech staple of Pilsner. M’s salmon and avocado on toast was deceptively simple but tasted fresh and clean, full of flavour. The special I had, porcini on a thick wedge of toast in a creamy sauce was a real treat. The mushrooms were foraged locally. All the food is cooked to order, you can even buy meats, jars of condiments and sauces to take away if you’d prefer to cook at home.
Desserts on offer were too tempting to order just one so we had a toffee ice cream and a burnt salted caramel tart, a confection of pure brown gooey delight. This dynamic duo have been married for over seven years and working hard together for five years on their various food endeavors and have a rumoured cook book on the horizon. There’re definitely ones to watch, who knows what they will come up with next, I’ll be following them closely.
Prague of course has it’s famous 11th century castle which is a sight to behold best viewed from the Charles Bridge early in the morning before the crowds set in. But its most famous modern building is also a head turner. The Dancing House is the brainchild of two architects Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry the Canadian who is best known for The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It is an unconventional mixture of slanted walls and windows that seam to lean in on themselves. It is known locally as Fred and Ginger (also the name of the restaurant inside).
We went up to the top floor where there is a bar that gives you access to an outdoor platform. Splendid views of the river, castle and the Old Town are yours for the price of a cup of tea. A word of warning, the floor of the bar is made of mirrors, so if wearing a dress, skirt or kilt it’s possible you’ll reveal more than you bargained for!
After a slap up lunch at our flat we went to our neatest underground station and travelled a couple of stops to Námēsti Republiky to find the Municipal House, a vast concert hall with restaurants and bars hidden in its bowels. The beautiful Art Nouveau tiles and architecture are a bit overwhelming. There’s so much of it.
Alphonse Mucha the painter and decorative artist had a hand in the design. Everywhere you look is an interesting corner, staircase or tile that deserves another look. And if you visit make sure you descend into the basement. It was here that I found The Americky Bar. Super cool and old school all at once, with leather booths and lots of dark wood. I asked for an Old Fashioned, we watched with amazement as the barman carved a perfect sphere from a hunk of ice the size of a tennis ball. He then mixed the drink, placed a glass with the ice ball inside on a platter, poured the drink and fetched from nowhere a perfect stranded sugar tumbleweed (with consistency of candy floss) to sit next to it. The final touch, a dusting of icing sugar. Brilliant. Class in a glass bar none.
After the refreshments it was time for a stroll past the Powder Tower, a giant structure used to keep the kegs of gunpowder in, through an arch and we were about to carry on walking around the Old Town when we saw what was to be our transport for the hour.
There are a few ‘vintage’ convertible cars in Prague that will take you on a touristic drive of a length of your choosing. We pootled around like film stars with our own private chauffeur paying heed to his commentary when we wanted and just admiring the view when it suited us. Very touristy but enormous fun and not very expensive at £45 for the car – we could have taken on two extra people but that wouldn’t be very film star would it?
Our man dropped us off just in time for a concert we’d booked at The Municipal House. Another tourist attraction, an octet of strings playing Mozart and Dvořák. Like a compilation of music from adverts and famous films the hour passed quickly. It’s amazing how soothing music is. I might have dropped off for a while, it might have been the epic Old Fashioned though.
Grand Cru, a French restaurant had been recommended to us by Michaela and Paul as a great meal experience worth trying. The building is half glass covered and the vibe is very Farrow and Ball (Paul’s description, totally accurate). There is space between the tables, it’s not noisy and the service was impeccable.
This is not a cheap eat so to break you in gently they offered us a couple of amuse bouche – both were very good. The main events though were what this place is all about. My deer Carpaccio with truffled mushroom was bursting with flavour and freshness. I loved it. M’s frozen lolly of foie gras with nuts a work of comic genius. It tasted sweet and smooth with an onion jelly inside and nuts for texture. Very clever indeed.
The staff that all seemed to be called Merek were helpful to the extent that they knew your next move, silently replacing water, topping up glasses etc. Just the sort of service I enjoy. M chose a lamb main with a jus applied at the table – a little theatre in a restaurant is no bad thing. It also was on the perfect side of brilliant. My pigeon was also exemplary, with almond ravioli, foam, and a whole plethora of other techniques on show. The final treat for me was a blue cheese that had been soaked in a dessert wine! A new one for me, but a good one that I’d happily have again. If I start to go on about the marvelous fruit brandies I had as a digestif …. You get the picture.
A fine meal for our last night in Prague, a beautiful city of a 100 spires that amazes at every corner turned. It has it all, history, culture, architecture, epic food and drink. What more could anybody want? Well, apart from wanting to return as soon as possible. Michel was there to pick us up at the allotted time, asking how we like his city but he knew the answer, we couldn’t stop grinning.