Praha, or How I Crammed A Life’s Worth of Activities into Four Days.


If you do not like Prague, you are dead to me. Prague is not an “agree to disagree” city. Prague is my favorite place in the world. Prague is my, as Liz Lemon would say, dealbreaker. I was filled with nervous energy as our overnight train from Budapest rolled into Praha hlavní nádraží [the main station]. What if Shaun doesn’t like it here? What if Prague is his… Munich? What will being a 25-year-old divorcée be like? Why didn’t we come here before we signed the license? I had to gather myself before I hobbled out of the train station and into the city I called home almost five years ago.

I had big plans and long lists for Prague. I wanted [read: needed] to recreate my entire time studying there in four short days so Shaun could see just what makes Prague so special. I wanted him to be impressed; to be as in love with the city as I am. It was clear in the first day that (1) he was, and (2) I can’t do Prague like I could in college. Raging hangover aside, I like to think I was a pretty convincing tour guide. But Prague has also grown so much since 2008 that there were plenty of surprises for me, too – including the best vegetarian and vegan food scene we found in Europe.

But before the new I wanted to revisit the old, starting with Bohemia Bagel. We limped through the city, making a quick stop so I could show Shaun NYU’s Prague campus, and ended at Bohemia Bagel’s Old Town location.

This is the classic ex-pat spot, opened to bring the bagel [and American drip coffee] to Prague.We had a bagel breakfast and relaxed with our bottomless coffee mugs. The bagels aren’t as delicious as I remembered [although the new salad menu kicked ass], but nostalgia is nostalgia and I ate mine willingly. Our current debate is whether Bohemia Bagel is more reminiscent of Yorgo’s or Bodo’s. As the morning passed, young kids with NYU notebooks started to trickle in. I had a hard time resisting the urge to talk to them. As Shaun put it, they would have just thought me some “weird old lady,” but honestly, I wanted them to know that Prague changed my life. But for my semester there, I never would have taken a class with a Czech Constitutional Court justice. He never would have asked me to consider law school. He never would have written me an amazing recommendation. I never would have gone to UVA. I never would have met Shaun. Prague really did change the entire course of my life [imagine being my mom and having your once-a-music-major daughter come home and say “I need to take an LSAT class. I’m going to law school.”]. But I digress. By the time we realized we probably should leave, we were so caffeinated we were jittery. American drip coffee FTW.

We stopped in Staroměstské náměstí [Old Town Square] on the way out of the center of town and took in the view. I think I managed to capture it pretty well even with caffeine hands. Oddly enough, there were a ton of brides there taking photos in front of the famous clock. Must be a tradition?

It’s magical.

And it was a perfect day.

Shaun’s Czech education continued that night with a walk to my old neighborhood, Náměstí Míru [Peace Square]. I showed him where we lived, the ridiculously long metro escalator, and the bar with all of the B-52s. We settled in for dinner at “The Spot,” nicknamed such because it was a few steps from our building and the default dinner destination of choice. It’s actually called Na Kozacce, and it is perfect.

“The Spot”

To my delight, it’s the same waitress as five years ago, and you can STILL smoke indoors. It’s brilliant. Shaun and I were one of three tables inside. The other two were old men, both sitting and smoking with a Staropramen and a shot of Becherovka.** A TV was playing MTV Europe. No one was paying attention. I love this place. I decided to be brave and continue trying to be vegetarian [I wasn’t when I lived there]. I had garlic soup and a broccoli dish that turned out to be a plate of steamed broccoli covered in melted cheese. Yes? Yes. Shaun had goulash at my behest, and we shared bramboráky [Czech potato pancakes]. The Spot was also the beginning of Shaun’s whirlwind Czech beer tour. I tried Müller-Thurgau, a white wine grown in the Czech Republic. The waitress was less mean and scary than I remembered her to be, and enjoyed my attempts at speaking Czech. She laughed. I don’t remember her ever laughing.

But that’s not all I did back in the day, so Shaun and I continued the night at a place called U Sudu. It’s a bar. It’s underground. It’s a labyrinth. It’s incredible. There are multiple bars in the labyrinths that each have a different feel and different drink menu, and if you’re not careful [read: too drunk] you can get lost down there. They had an impressive selection of Czech beers and wines, and we spent hours underground. There was a dog. Shaun continued to sample, and in case you’re wondering, his final Czech beer ranking at the end of our stay was: Master Dark > Fenix > Primator Weizenbier > Kozel Dark > Staropramen > Pilsner Urquell > Kozel > Gambrinus. The Master and the Fenix were two I didn’t know existed and immediately loved. Thumbs up, Czech beer.

But that’s STILL not all I did back in the day, and on our walk [limp] back to the hotel we had to make two more quick stops on Václavské náměstí [Wenceslas Square]: Beer factory and a Smazný sýr stand. We ran into Beer Factory just so I could show Shaun the mayhem that is Beer Factory. In brief: it’s some sort of nightclub/bar amalgamation where there are beer taps on the tables, and a big screen that they project each table’s beer consumption onto to foster… competition? I think he was terrified, but on the upside we befriended the bouncer [hi Jacob], likely because of my ridiculous “we don’t want to drink I just want to show him this place” speech. And I mean befriended. He saw us on the street a few days later and screamed Shaun’s name.

And the night ended like every crazy Prague night should end: standing at a Smazný sýr stand, eating the classic drunk food of fried cheese on a bun with ketchup. Shaun put mustard on his, traitor. It’s probably about 75%-25% absolutely disgusting-completely awesome, but we just had to do it once. For old times’ sake, obviously.

And even though doing Prague like I did in college led to a monster hangover the next morning, we powered through and did some pretty awesome things. Like, hiked to the Prague Castle [SO MANY STAIRS when did those stairs get there?], had Bohemia Bagel brunch [provencale salad FTW], saw the John Lennon Wall, stumbled upon a French street festival under the Charles Bridge, and went to an absintherie. They had absinthe soft serve. A little secret about me: I am a SUCKER for soft serve. I realize it’s bad for me, but I can’t turn it down. Add a hangover to the mix, and you will find me in the corner of an absintherie eating a little dish of absinthe soft serve with a tiny green spoon, huddled over my backpack and trying not to vomit from the smell of alcohol. It was grand.

The next day [fully recovered] involved a hike to Letenské sady [Letna Park – SO MANY STAIRS again] where we set up a blanket in the grass behind the Metronome and wasted the day picnicking and reading. Where did we get the picnic food? TESCO. Oh hey Prague friends, they renovated Tesco since we were there. It’s all new and shiny and fancy. The grocery had a great selection of prepared foods and salads, and it was the perfect excuse to show Shaun another place I spent too much time in [“And this is where I got my groceries… And this is the bus we took back to the apartments…”]. Not only was Letna park beautiful [and full of dogs and families, it was a Sunday], but the view was perfect, too.

That’s the Vltava River.

God I love this city. But onto the new: I read an article in the Prague Post the morning of our arrival talking about how the Czech Republic is becoming more health conscious. The health food movement is actually one of the reasons the dreaded radler is becoming popular there – it’s seen as a “healthier” alternative to beer. How cutting your beer with basically sugar/lemon juice is “healthier” I don’t know, but one of the offshoots of this movement was a huge vegetarian and vegan culture that did not exist in 2008.

We frequented a grocery called Country Life for breakfasts and snacks. Each branch is attached to a vegan buffet where you pay-by-weight for your food, but the grocery itself is killer. Fresh, local produce, a raw nut bulk bar, awesome mueslis, tons of vegan pates, burgers, sandwiches, and snacks, and more vegan food than I had ever seen in the entire Czech Republic. They even had soy yogurt [I have a thing]. We stocked up on foods to make me feel better about my fried cheese sandwich.

But that wasn’t even the best new addition to the Czech food scene. Thanks to a quick search of Vegan Backpacker’s article on vegan food in Prague, Shaun and I discovered Maitrea, which opened up a few steps from Bohemia Bagel’s Old Town location in 2009, less than a year after I left. We made a reservation there for dinner one night, and at the end of our meal that night made a reservation for the next. And then we stopped there once more for a light lunch before catching our train to Amsterdam. I can say without any qualifications that this was the best restaurant on our trip, and all three meals were my favorite meals. I’ve never had vegan and vegetarian food as creative or delicious as the food at Maitrea. Heck, the food was good, full stop, without even using “vegan” or “vegetarian” to describe it. It was just fantastic.

[Photo Source]

For dinner the first night, Shaun and I decided to try their “Czech Specials” [only VEGAN]. For me: GOULASH. “Spicy seitan stew served with bread dumplings.” For shaun: “DUCK”: Marinated “no-duck” breast with cabbage, dumplings, and fried onions. OH MY GOD. I tried to snap photos, but the dim lighting and my iPhone were not friends. The goulash was thick and hearty, and the bread dumplings were like cake. Shaun’s dish was phenomenal, and we still have no idea how they got the faux-duck to not only taste, but look, so much like duck. And at roughly $6-7 American dollars an entree, the dishes killed it on quality and quantity along with flavor and creativity. This is the type of veg scene that is hard to find in the states. We also shared a beet “tartare” and I got a freshly squeezed pear/apple/ginger juice. 

The next night, Shaun stuck with Czech specialties and got the svíčková: a vegetarian version of a traditional Czech stew made with seitan, bread dumplings, cranberries and lime cream on top. Um, drool? I got probably the best salad I’ve ever eaten in my life: a parmesan-crusted tempeh salad with onions and tomatoes in an avocado-honey dressing. The waiter’s recommendation. This was no wimpy vegetarian salad, either. I was stuffed. The salad was so good it was both of our lunches of choice the next day, and our official “last meal in Prague.” I really can’t stress enough how unbelievable this place is. Even taking into consideration the incredible exchange rate, it still felt like a steal for a date night spot, and they did not skimp on flavor when converting meaty Czech foods into their vegan counterparts.

It was almost as if Prague was playing mind games with me. I had spent five years telling everyone how much I loved the city, only to return and find that it was even better than before. “Ha ha, you want to leave again?” I didn’t. I whined on the train. I stared out the window like a puppy as the city disappeared. I made remarks like, “I wish we would have added an extra day here,” and “I hate this I want to go back.” The best part? Shaun shared my sentiments. I loved him for this. It further confirmed Prague’s awesomeness, and avoided some obnoxious paperwork in the Court of Common Pleas, Family Division, upon our return.

Prague has a fantastic American ex-pat culture, rivaled only by Brussels in our experience.

** I went where the old men went five years ago and didn’t even realize it.

 

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Categories: Travel, Wedding

Author:ryesandshine

Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/courtney-marello/1a/375/b30 Tumblr: http://abarrelofoddsandends.tumblr.com/

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