Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Czech Trip 2015 - Cultural Day Part 2. Telč

The most photographed view of Telč
The second and final stop of our “cultural tour” was the UNESCO World Heritage town of Telč; which was a 50 minute train journey from Slavonice. Telč seemed to have a lot more going for it than Slavonice. For a start, its population is twice that of its near neighbour, and on the walk into the own centre from the station, we passed some proper shops; rather than boutiques selling items exclusively for tourists. 

Main Square
Telč has a long and illustrious history, which I won’t attempt to recount here, but one point worthy of note is that most of the current buildings in the town date from the 16th Century, as much of medieval Telč was destroyed by a terrible fire in 1530.  A look on the town’s official websitedescribes its history and development in greater detail; from its 12th Century beginnings up to the present day.
Telč has been described as the "most perfect example of the Italian Renaissance north of the Alps”, and with one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, overlooked by multicoloured houses, it is easy to see why.

Originally created as a moated fortress, Telč today is surrounded by crystal clear fishponds and it against these lakes that some of the best and most memorable photos of the town have been taken.
Main Square

Detail on building
As in Slavonice earlier, most of our party headed for the tourist information office in order to see what the town had to offer. Afterwards, we split into small groups with just me, plus two companions, forming one of them. We followed a narrow lane which ran behind some of the houses fronting the square, down towards on of the lakes. It was here we took several photos set against the backdrop of the picturesque buildings which now house the university.

Unfortunately our visit to the town was marred slightly by the unseasonable cold wind blowing through the town. It was hard to believe that just three days earlier I had been walking around Prague wearing just a T-shirt and shorts, enjoying wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures in the mid twenties. We sought refuge from the unseasonable weather in a rather nice pub called Restaurace U Marušky. Here we enjoyed some Černá Hora beer (Ležák 4.8% ABV), and I broke my fast with a warming bowl of beef noodle soup.

Restaurace U Marušky

I could have stayed at U Marušky longer; it was my sort of pub, pleasantly old with solid wood furniture and the look which is only acquired after many years of trading. There were several groups of locals in the bar, all keeping the friendly barmaid busy with orders for both drinks and food.

My companions though were keen to move on, having noticed earlier, a small cellar bar selling Bernard beers, so we decided to give it a try. I don’t recall its name, but it seemed popular with the town’s younger and possibly student population. I tried the mixed light and dark Bernard beer, plus a smaller glass of the dark on its own. All three of us went for a pizza as well, in order to assuage hunger (in my case) and to soak up the beer in all three cases.

Afterwards, we made our way back to the railway station, from where local and regional buses also depart. We took the bus, which was more comfortable than the train, and also a lot quicker. The journey back to Jihlava took us through some of the most pleasing countryside I have seen; with rolling hills, dark forests and stretches of verdant green pasture. Numerous fish ponds dotted the landscape, providing fresh fish for the villages we passed through on the way, as we travelled along winding country roads, lined by blossom-laden apple trees. It was a fitting end to a packed and fulfilling day out.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Czech Trip 2015 - Cultural Day Part 1. Slavonice

Local train to Slavonice

First, I would like to extend a warm welcome to readers from my main blog who, maybe have not visited this site before. Paul’s Beer Travels is still essentially about beer, but with a little more information about the places I have visited in search of the perfect pint. What follows below is an account of the two “heritage towns” I visited on my recent trip to the Vysočina Region of the Czech Republic. As there is plenty in both towns to interest the reader, I have written two separate posts; one about each town.

The way into town
First on our list was the town of Slavonice, a small town close to the Austrian border, which was once an important staging post on the old coach road between Prague and Vienna. Between the 14th and16th centuries, this strategic position generated enormous wealth for the town, but when the route was relocated to the north, passing through Znojmo, Slavonice’s source of income dried up.
Slavonice is therefore very much preserved in its medieval renaissance look, with buildings dating from the 14th to 16th centuries, the oldest dating to 1545. Many are decorated with Sgraffito; a type of wall decor, produced by applying layers of plaster tinted in contrasting colours to a moistened surface, and then scratching, so as to produce an outline drawing.

Main square, Slavonice
We travelled by train; a journey which took around two hours. On the way we passed through some quite varied, but very pleasant countryside, with our train stopping at numerous rural halts. From the station it was a short walk into the town, via an old cinder track which led us past a cemetery, before emerging into the main town square.

The rain of the day before was replaced by grey skies, with the occasional glimpse of sunshine; but the main problem was the cold wind, which didn’t abate all day. Our first stop in Slavonice was the tourist information centre, then after that we split up either into small groups, or in many cases went off as individuals for a look around. Before going our separate ways we agreed to meet up for lunch at the town’s largest pub, which directly overlooked the square.
I must admit it didn’t take me long to look around. I took a few photos, but I think it’s only now, when I look at them again and see the attractive facades of the houses over-looking the square, that I appreciate the real appeal of Slavonice. The unseasonably cold weather was not conducive to sight-seeing, and to be fair there was very little happening in the town; with few people about and hardly any traffic.

Colourful houses overlooking the square
Reading through a pamphlet I picked up at the tourist office made me aware of the troubled history between the mainly German speaking inhabitants of the town, and their Czech counterparts, which began with the rise to power of a certain Austrian corporal in neighbouring Germany, and culminated with the expulsion of ethnic Germans at the end of the Second World War. The expulsions, which were often unnecessarily brutal in nature, left the town devoid of inhabitants, and whilst Czechs were moved in to fill the void, the communists, who seized power in 1947, were wary of the town’s position relative to the nearby border with Austria. 

 The border of course, was soon sealed with barbed-wire fences, watch-towers and armed guards, but some border villages were completely removed, and the town entered a period of stagnation from which it doesn’t seem to have recovered. No one was allowed to move this close to the border – unless, of course, you were a loyal card-carrying party member, which is why today, little exists outside of the square. There are a couple streets past the town’s thick late-medieval walls, then the town just stops. There are no dreary communist-era concrete block apartment buildings, and none of the more modern houses one would expect to find elsewhere in the country.

It is not surprising then that I soon found my way back to the hotel-like pub. I rather foolishly didn’t take a note of its name, but I remember entering through a large doorway and then ascending the stairs to the upstairs bar and dining room. I found several of my colleagues already there and it wasn’t that long before we were joined by the rest of the group.

One of these buildings was where we had lunch
The majority of the party wanted to eat, so we were moved into the substantial front room, overlooking the main square. This place had obviously been Slavonice’s main hotel at one point, and it had a certain faded grandeur about it which harped back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Our waitress though was quick and efficient and kept the group supplied with ample looking plates of food, plus plenty of beer. I had decided leave eating until later, and so just stuck to the beer- nothing unusual; just some good and well-kept Pilsner Urquell.

 Suitably fed and watered, we made our way back to the station, for the next stop on our “cultural tour”, the UNESCO World Heritage town of Telč.

Friday, 23 January 2015

A Day in Helsinki

I've been meaning to post an article about the brief visit I made to Helsinki, ever since I got back from Tallinn at the end of February. However, lots of other things intervened and somehow I never quite got round to it. Now at the height of summer and on what has probably been the warmest day of the year so far, it seems appropriate to write about walking the streets of the Finnish capital in sub-zero temperatures with snow on the ground!

I only decided to make the trip to Helsinki on a whim. Before going to Tallinn I had looked into the possibility of making the trip, but all the travel sites I looked at said that summer was the best time to make the crossing from Estonia, when I fast hydrofoil completes the journey in just 90 minutes. These craft cannot operate during the winter months, as they run the risk of running into ice flows with potentially disastrous results! I looked on the Viking Lines website and saw that conventional ferries take 3 hours to make the crossing, with a return ticket costing around £20. I decided to forget this idea, but before abandoning it completely, looked at a couple of websites describing the beer scene in Helsinki.

Pack-ice on the approach to the Finnish coast
That was it until on my second full day in Tallinn I took a wrong turning and ended up down at the port. I watched in amazement as coachload after coachload of visitors from Finland was disgorged, with most of them just walking the short distance across the car park to the large, purpose-built shopping complex. This was to be no cultural experience for them, exploring the quaint and historic streets of the Estonian capital; no these people meant business. Stocking up on cheap booze and tobacco was the name of their game, and the port shopping complex had plenty of outlets to cater for their quest.

I walked the other way into the by now empty departure hall and made a casual enquiry at the Viking Line booking office. I was surprised to learn that I could buy a return day ticket to Helsinki for the next day sailing at a cost of just EEK200 (around £12). The only hitch was that it involved catching the first sailing of the day out of Tallinn and the last one back from Helsinki. I had originally planed to visit Tartu, Estonia's second city and the home of the A. Le Coq Brewery, but had done little to arrange this. I therefore opted for the crossing to the Finnish capital instead, paid my money and checked what time I would need to be down at the port.

Forts guarding the ice-bound approach to Helsinki harbour
Having come a bit ill-prepared, research-wise, I found an internet cafe later that afternoon and began some belated research of the Finnish beer scene. Unfortunately I was unable to access the site I normally use when researching these visit, namely Ron Pattinson's excellent European Beer Guide. I don't know why this was, but try as I might I kept getting the message that the server could not be located. I then tried Gazza Prescott's ScooperGen website, and this time had a bit more luck. For the un-initiated ScooperGen gives first hand accounts of Gazza's beer sampling activities, and as someone who has visited and drunk in most of the major European cities, as well as many places further afield, Mr Prescott's site is an impeccable source of information. I wrote down the names and addresses of all the bars close to the city centre that he had recommended in preparation for the following day.

I had an early start the following morning; I had to check in at the port by 7.15am in order to make the 8 o'clock sailing. It had snowed quite heavily during the night, but even as I made my way on foot down to the harbour, there were gangs of people out clearing snow from the pavements. The buses and trams were all running and were full of people off to work. There were numerous gritters out and about all helping to keep the roads clear. In short there was none of the travel chaos that ensues in this country whenever we get a few snowflakes!

Ferry terminal encased in ice
The large passenger and vehicle ferry "Viking Express" left on time. I went up on deck as we sailed out of Tallinn and watched the city slowly recede under a cold grey sky. I was glad to get back inside, away from the biting northerly wind. The 3 hour journey passed remarkably quickly. I had brought some rolls and some cheese with me by way of breakfast, and after eating these I took myself, and the book I had brought to help pass the time, to the large observation deck at the front of the ship. The sky slowly began to clear and eventually the sun came out. Eventually it was possible to make out the Finnish coastline on the horizon, especially a couple of the tall power station chimneys. I also saw what appeared at first sight to be extensive white sandy beaches, but as we drew nearer I realised that the whiteness wasn't sand at all, but pack-ice forming an extensive barrier between us and the coast of Finland. Our powerful, steel-hulled vessel though made short work of ploughing its way through the ice, but even so it was a good twenty minutes or so before we began the tricky approach into Helsinki harbour. For the sea to be frozen so far out from the mainland showed just how cold it was, and with all this ice around I could well understand why the hydrofoils do not operate in winter!

Helsinki Cathedral
We negotiated the approach into Helsinki, passing various forts that had been built to guard the entrance, and eventually the ship docked. I disembarked with the other passengers, and as there was no passport control was soon on dry land. I made my way towards the city centre, my boots crunching on the crisp snow. It was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining and there didn't appear to be a cloud in the sky. Despite the sun, the air was extremely cold and I was glad I had come well wrapped up, but before long I had left the port area and was soon in the centre of Helsinki.

For a capital city Helsinki is not especially large. On the contrary the city is quite compact and is easily covered on foot. Once I had left the ferry terminal it didn’t take me long to reach the centre, but on the way I paused for a while to take a look at Helsinki’s main cathedral. White-painted and built in an ornate Russian style, it was surprisingly quite plainly decorated on the inside.

I didn’t stay long and taking care to negotiate the steep, snow-covered steps leading back down to street level, I continued my journey into central Helsinki. On the way I passed some rather non-descript looking government buildings, before passing the city’s main railway station. I stopped to withdraw some Euros from an ATM, and then found a café just across from the side of the station. I popped inside for a welcome cup of coffee, and an even more welcome free refill. It was also good to be out of the cold for a while.

Black Door pub,  Helsinki
I now had a serious spot of beer-hunting to do. Without too much effort I tracked down an excellent pub called the Black Door. It had lots of bare brick inside with a fair scattering of copper and chrome. The locals seemed friendly, and surprisingly there were two hand pumps on the bar. Both turned out to be selling cider; which is obviously a popular drink in Finland, as it is in neighbouring Sweden.

I tried a couple of halves, well 25cl actually. At €3.50 each they were proof of the high price of liquor in Finland. The first beer as a dark, porter-style beer, whilst he second was a copper-red coloured Märzen. Both were good, but I decided not to stay for a third. Instead I set off to try and find the “One Pint Pub”, as mentioned in the Scoopergen article.

I trudged for what seemed like ages through thick snow and although the bright sunshine was most welcome, it couldn’t detract from the fact that it was bitterly cold. I got lost several times and took a couple of wrong turnings, but eventually found the pub in the middle of low-rise housing estate, close to the city’s commercial harbour. It was a good job the pub was open as I was bursting for a leak; the beer I’d consumed earlier combined with the arctic temperatures had proved a disastrous combination.

Interior- Black Door
The pub wasn’t really worth the effort taken, although the toilets provided some much needed relief, and I ended up just having an expensive half of Krusovice dark lager. There seemed little evidence of the exotic bottles which were supposed to be on sale, so after the one drink I upped sticks and left.

I managed to find my way back into the city centre, this time without too much effort, but thanks to the cold and my lengthy walk I was rather hungry by now. I found a hamburger joint, but again being Finland, It was rather expensive at €7.50 for a burger and chips.

Afterwards I decided to walk up to Finlandia Hall, but the way was blocked by various building works. On the way back I paused for a look at the statue of the Finnish wartime leader, Field Marshall Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who masterminded the defence of Finland following the invasion by the Soviet Union during the Winter War of 1939 – 1940.

Mannerheim was a charismatic figure who successfully managed to keep both Hitler and Stalin at arms length, thereby avoiding Finland being drawn directly into the Second World War, although the Finns did fight against the Soviets between 1941 and 1944 in a bid to recover territory lost in the earlier conflict. The statue of him on horseback, located on Helsinki's Mannerheimintie, is a fitting tribute to a skilled general and clever politician who in 2004 was voted the greatest Finnish person of all time.

Field Marshall Mannerheim
The light was already beginning to fade and the temperature starting to drop further, so in a bid to keep warm I popped inside Helsinki’s imposing department store; Stockmann. The company also have a branch in Tallinn, but the Finnish operation was on a much larger scale. More coffee followed, and by the time I left the store, it was well and truly dark.

I decided to make my way back to the ferry terminal, where I knew it would be warm. There was also a café there. Other passengers began arriving in dribs and drabs and by the time the ship had docked and was ready to board, there was quite a crowd.

The return voyage had none of the spectacular views of the outward journey. Our ship slipped out of Helsinki harbour virtually un-noticed, and soon we were back in the open waters of the Baltic. I treated myself to a meal in the restaurant on the way back, and afterwards sat in one of the comfortable chairs on the aft-deck and read my book. The sea was calm and the voyage uneventful and it wasn’t that long befog we could see the lights on the Estonian coast twinkling in the distance.

We docked at Tallinn shortly before midnight. Fortunately there was a bus waiting at the docks to take passengers back into the city centre. The driver kindly dropped me right outside my hotel and soon I was back in the warm and snuggled up in my nice warm bed.

So ended my first and so far, only trip to Finland, and its capital Helsinki. It had been a long day, but one packed with many memorable sights and pleasant memories. Next time though, I will make sure I visit in summer!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Six Days in Berlin

Almost a quarter of a century after the wall came down Berlin still feels like a city of two halves. Most of the historic and interesting buildings are in the eastern half of the city, ie they were behind the wall! Because West Berlin was cut off from former West Germany, and was totally isolated from both East Berlin and East Germany (the DDR), it developed into something of a provincial back water. Its citizens were even given special status under the West German constitution, and were exempt from things such as National Service. West Berlin was also a centre of radicalism, alternative life-styles and student protests, as well as a thriving centre for the arts.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, we based ourselves in West Berlin; in the Charlottenburg area to be precise.  Charlottenburg, is a pleasant and well laid out part of the city, and was a separate town until 1920 when, like its northerly neighbour Spandau, it was absorbed into Berlin proper. Just around the corner from our hotel was a lovely park, complete with a small lake, and at lunchtime after our arrival in Berlin, we sat out on the terrace of a converted boathouse over-looking the lake, enjoying a few beers, plus a bite to eat whilst soaking up the sunshine and the unseasonably warm temperatures.

About 10-15 minutes’ walk away was the Wilmersdorf Shopping Centre, and an underground stop  away from that was the Schloss Charlottenburg; the summer residence of the Prussian Kings, and later the German Emperors. We weren’t actually that far from the city centre, and on the Sunday, we practically walked the whole way into the city, just taking a bus for the last stretch from Tiergarten to Potsdamer Platz. Tiergarten is the Berlin equivalent of London’s Hyde Park, and like its British counterpart has plenty of walks through alternating areas of trees and open parkland. En route we stopped top browse at what must be Berlin’s largest flea market, stopping afterwards for a well-earned beer at a brew-pub housed in a railway arch beneath the main S-Bahn line into the city.

Potsdamer Platz, on the other hand is all new steel and shiny glass, having been transformed from a wasteland of dereliction and abandonment, due to its position in “no-man’s-land” between the halves of the formerly divided Berlin. During the 1990's it was Europe's largest building site, and now has become virtually a city within a city. One of its most striking developments is the imposing Sony Centre, designed by the architect Helmut Jahn. Of interest to the beer lover is a large brew-pub, called Lindenbräu. On show inside is what must be the world’s only silver-plated brew-kettle! Despite the chill of the late afternoon air, we sat outside, watching the comings and goings.

Apart from what remains of the wall, Berlin’s two “must see” sights are the Reichstag or parliament building, plus that iconic symbol of the city, the Brandenburg Gate. On the afternoon of our first day, we caught the S-Bahn into the city centre and alighted at the newly-built, Hauptbahnhof, or main station. All glass and steel, the station is constructed on several levels, with the new north-south lines running at subterranean level , and the east-west lines at right angles, on the top. All very impressive, and as we came out of the main entrance we turned to view the equally impressive exterior.

We made our way towards the Reichstag, crossing an area of newly created parkland. We could see the parliament building, topped with its large glass dome, ahead of us. It was a sunny afternoon, and there were crowds milling about in front of the Reichstag. We stopped for a few photo opportunities, but decided to leave a tour of the building until another day. Instead we headed towards the imposing Brandenburg Gate, almost round the corner from the Reichstag, and walked through one of the portals into former East Berlin.

On the other side of the gate is the historic Unter den Linden (under the lime trees), once the most fashionable boulevard in Berlin. This area has witnessed much re-building since the fall of the wall, including the reconstruction of Berlin’s best known and most luxurious pre-war hotel the Hotel Adlon. We hung around for a few photo opportunities before passing back through the gate, and headed off in the direction of Postdamer Platz. On the way we stopped to look and reflect at the poignant Holocaust Memorial; a series of hundreds of different sized granite blocks, all laid out in neat rows.

 Later on we walked back into former East Berlin, in search of somewhere to eat, passing one of the few remaining buildings dating from the Nazi era, the former Aviation Ministry which, when opened, was one of the largest office blocks of its kind. We returned a day or so later, visiting the vast open square at  Alexanderplatz and the associated shopping centres. The latter includes East Berlin’s largest department store, Galeria Kaufhof. This massive store, with six levels is well worth a look, but even more impressive is West Berlin’s Ka De We (Kaufhaus Des Westens – Department Store of the West). Ka De We is even larger, selling just about everything, but the most interesting, and tempting, are the numerous food stalls on the 5th floor, where one can indulge in all manner of luxury and gourmet food stuffs, with many equipped with seats so one can eat, and drink the items there.

Returning back to East Berlin for a moment, it is in this sector of the city that trams still operate. In the main square at Alexanderplatz, there is a “shared space” arrangement, where the tram lines are set into the slabs of the square. It takes a bit of getting used to at first, but is fine so long as one keeps an eye out for approaching trams when crossing the lines. One of the most striking sights in East Berlin is the TV Tower, built as long ago as 1968, but still affording spectacular views over the city.

Towards the end of the DDR regime, the authorities spent a lot of money on restoring an historic part of the city, known as the Nikolaiviertel.  The restorations took place to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin. As well as houses and shops, the planners constructed a replica of the city’s oldest pub, zum Nuβbaum. The original, which stood the other side of the River Spree was destroyed during an air raid in 1943. Today, Nikolaiviertel is a very pleasant area to stroll around, and forms a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of Alexanderplatz.
We also had a couple of trips out away from the city. The first was an excursion to the nearby city of Potsdam; home to the Kings of Prussia and their successors, the German Emperors. Potsdam is within Zone C of the Berlin Transport System, and was only half an hour’s ride away by train from our hotel. Our train tickets also covered us on the local buses within the city, so we were able to travel up to Schlosspark Sanssoucci, where the palaces are situated.

Being early in the season, most of the buildings were still closed, but as the weather was fine it was good to stroll through the ornamental gardens and well laid out parkland, admiring the opulence of former times. It would have been worth spending time in Potsdam itself, as there is plenty to see within the town, but unfortunately our schedule did not allow it. There are also areas of lake-land around the city, as well as slightly further back in to Berlin (Wannsee).

Potsdam lies to the south-west of Berlin, but there is also some equally pleasant country on the other side of the city as well. A large lake, known as the Müggelsee, is an equally short train ride to the east of Berlin. We visited the lakeside suburb of Kopenick, home to the recently closed Burgerbräu Brewery. It was here that we had our only ride on a tram, travelling from the S-Bahn station to the Braustübel attached to the brewery. We spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting out in the sun, on the terrace, overlooking the perfectly still waters of the Müggelsee, enjoying a few beers. Just perfect, and totally un-expected for early March!

We covered a lot of ground during our six day stay in Berlin, but our visit only scratched the surface. Apart from the sights mentioned, and the many excellent pubs and bars, there are of course, dozens of other reasons for visiting this exciting and vibrant capital city. Amongst Berlin's many other attractions are a world famous zoo, renowned art galleries and museums, plus all the shops a shopaholic could dream of. A visit  is therefore highly recommended. From the numbers of visitors we bumped into, from the UK, it would seem that many other Brits agree as well.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

First Time in Berlin - Arrival

Touching down the other week at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport was not at all what I anticipated, and was certainly not what I expected of the capital of the richest and most economically powerful country in Europe. Walking across the tarmac and into the tin-roofed immigration and Passport Control building reminded me of arriving in some tin-pot third world capital, and only served to reinforce my sense of bewilderment. Granted I had flown in using a budget airline, but then I have been to several other European capitals using the same carrier without this strange sense of something not being quite right.

It wasn’t meant to be like this, and if things had gone to plan my arrival would have been quite different. A few words of explanation, coupled with some history might go some way to explain this conundrum as to why. Until quite recently the German capital was served by three separate airports; Templehof, the original pre-war airport, and the closest to the city centre, was deemed too small to handle today’s large jet airliners and has now closed. This leaves Tegel and Schönefeld, both of which are post World War II creations. Tegel was hurriedly constructed in late 1949 during the Berlin airlift, to enable essential supplies of food and fuel to be flown in by the Western Allies, in response to the blockade imposed on the city by the Soviet Union. Schönefeld on the other hand, was built by the Soviets as the airport serving the eastern half of the divided city, and for decades after was the principal airport for East Berlin. It shows; the place still has that East European, former Soviet-bloc feel to it.

And yet across from  Schönefeld, and clearly visible from the runway, stands the brand new glistening terminal buildings of Berlin Brandenburg Airport; the state of the art, ultra-modern replacement for all three of he capital’s existing airports. Originally scheduled to open in 2010, Brandenburg was just weeks from its revised opening date of June 2012, when major flaws were discovered in the airports’ safety and communication systems, and was refused a Fire Safety Certificate by the local authority. Plans to move operations by all the airlines using the current airports were hurriedly put on hold, as it soon became apparent the commissioning and hand-over of Brandenburg could not go ahead, and nearly two years on there is still no date given for its opening.

Well an inauspicious arrival was made up for by a most enjoyable stay in a good hotel, situated in the pleasant Charlottenburg area of West Berlin, and by wall-to-wall sunshine coupled with unseasonably high temperatures for early March ; weather that was destined to last all week. In the next post I will be writing about the very pleasant time my son and I had in the German capital, and will be listing reasons as to why you should visit there as well.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

A Visit to Pilsner Urquell

During my recent stay in Prague I made a point of making a journey to the city of Pilsen, in order to re-visit the Pilsner Urquell Brewery. My previous visit had been back in 1984, as part of a trip to what was then Czechoslovakia. The trip had been organised by CAMRA, and consisted of an overnight stay in Pilsen, with a trip around the brewery the following morning, before moving on to Prague where we spent a further two nights. This was my first and, as events turned out, only trip behind the Iron Curtain, and it proved to be quite an eye-opener.

Twenty-eight years ago the communists were still very much in control, but the in-efficiencies of a "command-economy", together with an overall lack of investment meant that Czech  industry relied heavily on traditional ways of doing things. Nowhere was this more evident than in the country's brewing industry where traditional methods, such as open or horizontal fermenters, lengthy lagering times and even dispense from traditional two-holed casks (by air pressure), ensured a pint that was full-bodied, well-matured, nicely-hopped,  free from excess gas and topped by a thick, creamy head. The Czech lands, and Bohemia in particular, were home to a tradition of brewing excellence that stretched back hundreds of years, and nowhere was this more evident than in the town of Pilsen where in 1842 the world's first golden-coloured, bottom-fermented lager beer was produced.

That original trip round the brewery enabled us to see this tradition, and taste the excellence of the finished product at first hand, so it was with mixed feelings that my son and I boarded the 11.07 train to Pilsen to see how much had changed over the course of the last quarter century or so. I was expecting some changes, especially as Pilsner Urquell is now owned by global giant SAB Miller, and knew, for example that the old system of fermenting the beer in open-top wooden vats and then maturing it deep underground in huge, pitch-lined wooden barrels had long been abandoned in favour of more modern, tall, cylindrical fermenters, but having tried the beer at home from time to time, as well as enjoying it on my more recent visit to Prague, back in late 2010, knew it was still a first class pint.

The train journey took an hour and 45 minutes, during which time we passed through some very pleasant countryside which grew increasingly hilly. The sun that had been shining brightly when we left Prague was replaced by dull-grey leaden skies as we pulled into the industrial city of Pilsen, and after alighting from the train and making our way out of the station we eventually found ourselves at the triumphal-arched entrance to the brewery; a place I had last passed under some 28 years previously.

We quickly found our way to the visitor centre and booked ourselves a couple of places on the next English language tour, commencing at 14.15. This left just enough time for a quick bite to eat, plus, of course a well-earned beer. There is a huge, cavernous restaurant situated in the old cellars underneath the brewery and although the place was heaving, we managed to find a spare table and order ourselves a beer, Pilsner Urquell naturally and un-pasteurised at that. We also ordered some soup and bread each, working on the premise that it was a dish that needed little preparation and would therefore arrive that bit quicker.

Beer, bread and soup weer all good, and duly satisfied we arrived back at the visitor centre in good time for the tour. Unlike some of the groups we saw going round the brewery, our party was relatively small. Our guide was from Seattle, and after a short introductory talk about the company, plus their corporate global owner, we were ushered aboard a bus which took us to the far end of the site where the vast packaging hall is situated. Although all hi-tech and costing millions of Euro's, this part of the trip was the least interesting for me Being a Saturday only one bottling line was operating, and whilst it all looked and sounded very impressive I was glad to get this part of the tour over and out of the way
Back on the bus and we were whisked back to the central part of the site, passing en-route the impressive and attractive water tower, completed in 1905 to ensure a constant supply of clean fresh water to the brewery. The tower was built to resemble a Dutch lighthouse; why Dutch, I'm not exactly sure, but the construction certainly is most pleasing to the eye. A full-on audio-visual presentation about the ingredients used to make beer then followed, after which we were led through an area showing examples of the four ingredients used in brewing, namely water, barley, hops and yeast.This led nicely into the old-brew-house which was still in use up to 2005.  There is nothing quite like a traditional brew-house, especially a European one, resplendent with its gleaming copper mashing vessels and brewing coppers;  all nicely tiled as well. Memories of my first visit came flooding back. The adjoining new brew-house looked equally resplendent, with the mash and lauter tuns once again constructed out of copper, and the wort kettles out of stainless steel. Our guide made great play of the fact that the brewery still uses a triple decoction mash, claiming they are the only large-scale brewery still to do so. I'm not 100% certain of the validity of this statement, but it's good to learn that SAB Miller have not been tempted to cut corners in relation to this.

Our penultimate point of call was the museum section of the brewery where, amongst other exhibits, we were able to see the original, oblong, open copper brew-kettle, used to for the very first brew of Pilsner Urquell. We were also shown a number of large goblets, made out finest Bohemian crystal-cut glass made for visiting dignitaries to the brewery. Foremost amongst these was Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria-Hungary whose territory at the time included what is now the modern day Czech Republic.

Finally came the part we had all been waiting for; a trip down into the old cellars beneath the brewery and a chance to sample the finished product. Our guide warned that it would be chilly, and somewhat damp underground, and also advised us not to touch, or brush up against the cellar walls. This is because they are regularly painted with a lime wash, to discourage mould growth. As we began our descent, we could feel the temperature dropping steadily, until it reached a level of around 5 degrees Celsius. We were told that the cellars were once much more extensive; a fact I already knew from my previous visit. Back then, all the beer was fermented in these underground passages, initially in large, open-top oak vats. followed by a lengthy maturation, or lagering, period in huge oak casks. The latter were coated on the inside with a lining of pitch. Wine can be fermented in direct contact with oak, but beer needs the protection afforded by the pitch lining. Once the maturation was complete,and the finished beer emptied out for kegging or bottling, the casks were brought to the surface for the old lining to be literally burnt out, before being re-coated with fresh pitch ready for the next batch of beer. This process, along with a general overview of  just how traditional things were at Pilsner Urquell back in the 1980's,can be seen on this clip taken from the Beer Hunter series, made for Channel Four by the late and much missed father of  all beer experts, Michael Jackson.

A number of the old oak vats, together with some pitch-lined casks have been kept in use, partly to show visitors  how things used to be done, but also to allow taste-matching to be conducted with brews fermented and matured in the new, hi-tech, stainless steel tanks.This is important to ensure the character of the beer remains un-changed, despite the switch to more modern methods of production, but it also allows guests to actually taste beer produced by the old method for ourselves. We were each given a glass (ok not a glass glass, but a plastic one), of beer drawn direct from one of these huge casks. Not only was the beer un-pasteurised, but it was also un-filtered. It tasted absolutely superb, being extremely well-conditioned and  well-hopped. It was a fitting way to end our visit to this pioneering brewery that is the home of  what is now the most popular style of beer in the world, by far.

Unfortunately our itinerary only allowed for a limited amount of time in Pilsen. I would liked to have visited the Pilsner Brewery Museum  and also sampled the un-filtered Pilsner Urquell again. According to the lady in the brewery shop, the beer was available at a bar called Na Parkanu, close to the museum in the centre of town. Unfortunately we had a train to catch, back to Prague, so a visit there will  have to wait for another day.

All in all though, I am glad we went. They say every serious beer lover should make a visit to Pilsen; I am proud to say I have now made two!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A Brief Diversion from Beer Drinking.

My second full day in Bamberg again dawned cold and bright, but after a day and a half of quite heavy drinking (for me), I decided it was time to get some exercise. So after breakfast I headed off to walk up to Altenburg Fortress, the former refuge of the Prince-Bishops; Bamberg's historic rulers.

Altenburg Fortress is situated on the highest of Bamberg's seven hills (386 m above sea level), and can be seen from many places in the city. My son and I had seen the fortress on our previous visit to Bamberg where, sitting in the shady beer garden at the rear of the Greifenklau Brewery, we could see the Altenburg Fortress lit up by floodlights, across the valley. It certainly looked impressive, so I was determined to visit it on this occasion.

It was freezing cold when I set off for the fortress, but as it was a steep and lengthy climb up the hill I was quite warm when I reached the summit. The restaurant was about to open, so I was glad of the opportunity of a coffee, and the chance to rest my legs. After that I had a quick look around the fortress. Many of the buildings were destroyed in 1553, during the War of the Margraves, but the 33 m high keep remains, together with part of the surrounding ring wall.

It was much quicker descending, and I was soon back in the Altstadt and a resumption of the beer drinking!