Beyond Prague

Where to slake a thirst for fairy-tale architecture -- among other Czech specialities

THE Czech Republic might be considered passé. It has been half a dozen years since young Americans flocked to Prague for its cheap, dreamy bohemian life. Prague remains the capital of the real Bohemia -- Bohemia and Moravia being the two provinces that make up the Czech Republic. But Prague was discovered by the tour buses and became clichéd, and the young dreamers moved on to Bratislava or Minsk. It has been two years since the balanced-budget, pro-business policies of Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus -- one of the "two Václavs" who ran the country, the other being President Havel -- last allowed Czech investors and economists to look down on the Bulgarians and the Poles. Inflation and corruption drove Klaus from office, and the Czech economy is struggling like others in the region.

Yet during two weeks last summer my wife, Deb, our teenaged son, and I had more exotic, non-passé experiences in Bohemia than we have had since trekking through Asia a decade ago. The key, we came to think, was getting out of Prague and accepting the sort of uncomfortable adventure that a land not quite ready for tour buses provides.

We had advantages on our journey -- one of them anticipated and the other coming as a surprise. The advantage we foresaw was a family connection. Deb's grandparents all came from Bohemia to Chicago early in the century. For a country of ten million people, the Czechs have an amazingly distinct facial look. Think of the supermodel Paulina Porzikova as an arguably representative woman, and the tennis star Ivan Lendl as an unfortunately representative man. On the street Deb kept bumping into people she mistook for Uncle Josef or Aunt Albina. In a country cemetery we saw stone after stone bearing her family's original name, Zderadicka, which in context looked as if it needed another consonant or two. In the village of Mlyny we met a woman in her eighties who remembered hearing, as a child, about the village boys who had just left for America, one of them my wife's granddad.

At least that's what we think the woman said. That we could communicate at all was because of the other, unexpected advantage: Deb had once studied German, which the old woman's neighbor also knew. In Prague, as in many other big cities, if you don't know the local language, knowing English will probably get you through. This principle does not apply in the Czech countryside. Unless you have studied Russian or another Slavic tongue, Czech is simply not a language you can figure out. (The menu offers hovezí or ryby. Sound good? That's beef or fish.) From the episodes of German domination through the centuries and the decades under Soviet control, German and Russian have come to be the second and third languages of Bohemia. If you don't know one of them, or Czech, try to travel with someone who does.

WHY bother? For us, the answer would be because the trip, besides being fun, reminded us of the virtues of avoiding warfare, and the virtues of enjoying beer.

Once, on a trip to Warsaw, I heard a Polish man almost brag about the city's razed, warehousey look. Okay, so we don't have the beautiful old buildings, he said. But that's because we have stood up to fight for our rights, against the hated Russians and Germans, so many times. He went on to belabor the contrast with the neighboring Czechs: each perfectly preserved historic square in Prague, each turret on a castle in the Bohemian countryside, only underscored how often the Czechs had capitulated to conquerors rather than going down in flames, Polish-style, to an obviously superior force. By this Pole's logic, Czechs should be ashamed that Bohemia has been free of large-scale combat for about 500 years -- and that the main military figure in their heritage is the fictional Good Soldier Svejk, who pretends to obey while subtly defying authority. But by the modern visitor's logic, the Czech strategy has been an enormous success. It has left Bohemia with one historical architectural wonder after another, in a profusion that would make them world-famous if they were more easily visited.

For instance: After arriving in Prague, we rented a Skoda, the (perfectly fine) national car, and headed south. An hour out of town we saw a small sign saying KONOPISTE. We swung off the road for family-curiosity reasons -- Deb remembered that her great-grandfather had worked as a gardener at a place with such a name -- and found, at the end of a long path, an enormous castle on a 500-acre estate. (Grandpa Zderadicka apparently did not work alone in the garden.) We spent the next few hours exploring what had been the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's country estate in the years before his assassination. An entire gallery was filled with hundreds of paintings and statues of Saint George and assorted dragons, another with hundreds of swords and pieces of armor. Nearly every other inch of the castle was adorned with antlers, horns, tail feathers, mounted heads, and other relics of wildlife that the archduke had shot for his sporting relaxation -- 9,000 trophies in all. In a small glass-fronted case was the bullet that had killed Franz Ferdinand's wife, the princess Sophie, in Sarajevo. We were relieved not to see her stuffed head nearby on the wall.

By the end of the day our Skoda had taken us farther south, to the medieval city of Trebon. Each morning, as we had breakfast on the terrace of the hotel Bíly Konícek ("Little White Horse" -- see how easy Czech is?), and each evening, as we drank our beer, we looked out on a perfectly proportioned cobblestoned piazza, lined with pastel-colored shops, that would be celebrated on travel posters if it were in the south of France. Between the morning and the evening sessions we went for rides on rented bicycles through the woods. This part of Bohemia has, for some reason, specialized since antiquity in carp farming as a main industry. The ponds are still in action -- when you see kapr on the menu, be forewarned -- and they give the area a man-made but convincing Land of a Thousand Lakes feeling.

In this area the government has established a network of "greenways," or nature trails, that skirt the ponds and wend through woods and have informative signs, in Czech and English, every mile or so. Like the products of most other service industries in formerly Communist countries, the trails are half charming and half absurd. The first few miles of the twenty-five-mile track we followed were paved with big, uneven cement squares, making for a jarring ride. But other portions were smooth and sylvan. At the end of the day, having stopped for several feet of sausage and many hearty hellos to Czech and German travelers, we were glad to have made the journey.

We later stayed in a similar piazza-perfect medieval town, Litomerice, to the northwest of Prague. Its buildings are distinguished by elaborate sgraffito, an etched design heavily used in Bohemian architecture. The town would no doubt seem cheerier were it not the settlement nearest the Nazi concentration camp of Terezín. This was originally a Hapsburg fortress, named after the Empress Maria Theresa, and during the Second World War it was not an outright slaughterhouse so much as a jail and holding area for Jews and other prisoners. It was here that a notorious propaganda film, Hitler Gives the Jews a Town, was shot, in 1941. Clips from the film are shown -- along with equally creepy films made during the Communist era -- in Terezín's imposing "Small Fortress."

The greatest preserved marvel of Bohemia, and one free of ominous historical overhang, is certainly Cesky' Krumlov. I say "certainly" although I had never heard of the place before setting foot in it. Nearly a thousand years' worth of castle-building by successive grand families -- Krumlovs, Rozmberks, Schwartzenbergs -- have given the town a concentrated fairyland effect. The town is built on and around a peninsula formed by the Vltava River as it makes elaborate serpentine loops. For a few dollars you can rent a raft and float for hours down the Vltava (and be brought back, by Skoda truck). In the evenings there are concerts in the rose garden of the Krumlov Castle, which dominates the city from a hill; an international music festival takes place in August. Cars are banned from most of the city. You can walk from tiny boardinghouse to tiny coffee shop to tiny beer hall. This is a major tourist destination for Czechs and other Central Europeans. But when the tour buses roll up, they are stopped by traffic barriers on the outskirts of town, and they let out their passengers at a gigantic feeding hall run by the Eggenberg brewery.

WHICH brings me to my real subject. Not only is the architecture of Bohemia lovely -- so is the beer. All drinking Americans have heard of Pilsner Urquell, the Czech beer that calls itself the best in the world. I had not realized that the name is the German version of what is locally known as Plzensky Prazdroj, or that both names simply mean "original Pilsener." Indeed, to ask for this beer in Bohemia you simply request "a Pilsener."

Bohemia has long had a diversified economy. Its Skoda works have made airplanes, automobiles, and weapons since early in the century. Throughout the country are primitive-looking but effective glassworks in which sweaty men in dirty undershirts blow molten glass into goblet shapes, between swigs of beer. But the heart of the country seems to be the beer. Beer is everywhere -- so abundant and so good that we had to impose rules on ourselves, and not just about daily intake.

Each brewery produces glasses bearing its logo or coat of arms. Each bar pushes the beer of one or two breweries. We started collecting specimens, bribing barmen twenty-five to a hundred crowns a glass ($1 to $4). But we believed in rules! We would not buy a brewery's glass until we had drunk its beer. And so our quest began: Pilsner Urquell, of course, with its famous green-script logo. Bohemia Regent, brewed in the old city of Trebon the old-fashioned way, in open vats -- to my taste, the best of all the beers. Platan, with a logo of plane-tree leaves and an advertising campaign that suggested, as best we could figure from the pictures, that this was Satan's favorite beer. Krusovice, a snooty beer with an elaborate gilded design on its glasses. Gambrinus, named for the Flemish duke Jan the First, or "Jan Primus" of Antwerp, patron saint of beer. And many more. We stopped only when we realized with horror what it would mean to pack everything for the trip home. Twenty-eight glasses all made it, in our admittedly strange-looking carry-on bags.

There was a logical progression to our beer encounters. First, casual tastings of Pilsner Urquell in Prague. Then a glimpse of the Regent brewery, in Trebon. Then to the industrial city of Ceské Budejovice, near the German border. The German name for this city is Budweis, and here, starting in the 1200s, Budweiser beer was originally made. Budweiser is still produced in Ceské Budejovice, at a rate of a million hectoliters, or 26 million gallons, a year. But to the company's chagrin another kind of Budweiser is produced in America at roughly thirty times the volume. Budweiser Budvar and Anheuser-Busch have ongoing legal struggles over who really controls the name. Anheuser-Busch's recent ads in the United States have emphasized the company's nearly spiritual devotion to making fine beer. They will have a hard time competing with the devotion of the Czech company, which in its official handbook (English version) says, "Drinking the beer, as the one originating in Budvar is, you feel like singing and you, suddenly, are full of the most courageous ideas."

From the original Budweiser's home we drove through the hop-growing lands of western Bohemia toward the beer mecca: Plzen to the Czechs, Pilsen to everyone else. (Travel tip: Do not stop and chew raw hops from the vine, though these Saaz hops are the most renowned in the world. The bitter oils that give beer its bite are vile in this form.) Plzen is a grim industrial city, close enough to Germany to have been damaged by American bombing in the Second World War. It has some attractions beyond its beer. For us the most memorable was the Interhotel Continental, a once elegant turn-of-the-century grand hotel. It was posh through the thirties, was bombed in the forties, was redone in hideous Stalinist fashion starting in the fifties, and is now being renovated, verrrry slowly, by an American-raised Czech citizen named George Janecek. Janecek's mother and her first husband had owned the hotel before the war. After the husband was killed in an American bombing raid and the Communists took over, the mother fled to the United States with her new husband, who became George Janecek's father. George, who is in his early fifties and has worked as a photographer for Life and other magazines, came back to claim the hotel when the Communists departed. Some of the rooms are still models of Soviet grimness, with brownish carpet everywhere. But year by year Janecek is renovating rooms with polished woodwork and stunning antique furniture -- meanwhile running around the hotel and bewailing, in a charming, Woody Allenish way, how hard it is to get good help or to import pinto beans for the burritos he wants to serve in his restaurant.

Our excitement in Plzen, whetted by Janecek's story, mounted when we visited the Brewery Museum. The secret of the town's brewing success can apparently be found in the limestone underneath the city. This gives the water a favored taste, which is passed to the beer. In the Brewery Museum the progress of beer since the 1300s is traced. Its modern culmination can be found a few blocks away, in the Prazdroj brewery, where Pilsner Urquell is made. Hour-long tours are given on the hour from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. April through December, and at 11:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. January through March. They start with a campily respectful movie about the miracle of beer, proceed through the brewery and some of the miles of limestone caverns in which the product is stored, and culminate -- thank God -- with a sip of the product straight out of an aging barrel. No doubt it was the power of suggestion and environment, or the effect of an hour's propaganda about the excellence of Plzen's beer. But after I watched the foamy golden liquid spill out of the barrel and into my glass, it seemed to me that this was the best glass of beer I would ever taste. It was so good, in fact, that it became hard to drink Pilsner Urquell when we got back home, knowing how many miles from Plzen those poor bottles had had to come.

On second thought, it's not so hard. Let me get one from the fridge right now and pour it into my official Pilsner Urquell glass.

James Fallows is the editor of and a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; Beyond Prague; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 40 - 52.