Thursday, 10 December 2009

Prelude to Prague 2009

Everything is booked now for my four day break in Prague, which I'll be taking between Christmas and New Year. My wife and son will both be working, so I don't feel guilty about flying off and leaving then for a few days - I would probably end up with cabin fever if I stayed at home!

I've done most of my research into the best beers to drink, and the best bars in which to enjoy them, plus of course I want to do the full tourist bit with plenty of sight-seeing. I've found the box of transparencies I took on my first visit to the city, back in 1984. I haven't been able to publish then online yet as I need to get them scanned. Apart from being slightly scared at how young I looked back then, I was surprised at just how dull and dreary Prague looked in its communist heyday; the architecture itself may have been stunning, but everything else looked so grey and uniform!

Obviously things have moved on and I'm really looking forward to seeing how much things have changed over the last quarter of a century. Although there are some excellent sounding drinking establishments I am determined to visit, there are also a number of places that I want to return to and renew my acquaintance. These include the legendary U Fleku and also U Svateho Tomase, both of which formed part of the itinerary on that initial visit, 25 years ago. There is also U Kalicha (the Chalice), which was the haunt of writer Jaroslav Hasek's, and his literary creation The Good Soldier Swejk. Even in communist times, this pub was being milked for the then limited tourist trade, but even so I would like to check it out again, if the opportunity arises.

None of this, of course, will detract me from some serious beer sampling. My only concern is that with just four days available will I manage to fit it all in?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Czechoslovakia 1984 - Part Two - Pilsner Urquell & U Fleku

The account of my visit to Czechoslovakia 25 years ago continues.

After checking out from our hotel, we were driven the short distance to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery on the other side of town. A brewery visit with its inevitable samples of free beer was the last thing I felt like at the time, but by the time we had been shown round this fascinating birthplace of the world’s most popular style of beer, I was in the mood to try a glass or two for myself.

The late, and much missed, eminent beer writer Michael Jackson captured the essence of Pilsner Urquell in his ground-breaking Channel 4 series “The Beer Hunter”. Aside from the impressive and grandiose brewhouse with its gleaming polished brew kettles, the part I found most interesting were the miles of subterranean cellars. Here, in tunnels hewn out from the soft sandstone rock, the partially fermented Pilsner Urquell was allowed to slowly mature in huge, pitch-lined wooden casks. I say was, because nowadays the brewery has gone all “high-tech” and has embraced Western brewing methods with a vengeance. Today’s Pilsner Urquell ferments and matures in a forest of gleaming stainless-steel conical vessels, which many drinkers claim has led to there being less body in the beer and a somewhat blander taste.

It was an awe inspiring sight to see row after row of these massive casks, kept naturally at a constant temperature all the year round. The only sound, apart from the tramp of our feet, was the gentle hiss of escaping gas, and the constant drip-drip of water percolating through the sandstone above our heads. By this time I was well in the mood to sample the end product, having seen the care and devotion lavished upon it.

The sampling took place in a baronial style hall, complete with dark wood panelling and an impressive amount of cut glass. Waiters bearing trays of foaming tankards of Pilsner Urquell appeared, and we all sat enjoying the beer as we listened patiently to a speech of welcome from a member of the brewery management. This sampling was not to be the end of the morning’s beer swilling. Upon leaving the brewery through its imposing triumphal-arched gates, we were ushered into a tavern virtually adjacent to the brewery entrance - in effect the “Brewery Tap”. Here lunch was provided, unfortunately suet dumpling and pickled gherkins once again. The saving grace was yet more free Pilsner Urquell and, after that the afternoon seemed to vanish in an alcoholic haze!

After lunch it was time to re-board the coach and set off for Prague - the highlight and main purpose of the trip. We travelled through some very pleasant countryside, which became increasingly hillier as we approached the Czech capital. We eventually arrived at our hotel,the modern Hotel Garni Olympik on the outskirts of the city. Checking in again took an age, but we found our rooms’ comfortable, if a trifle on the basic side. We were joined at the hotel by the two members of the party who had opted to fly to Czechoslovakia. Their journey from England had taken a matter of hours, but they had missed out on the Pilsner Urquell brewery visit. To our continued amusement, our Cedock guide kept referring to them as the “two flying gentlemen” for the duration of the trip.

Dinner had been arranged for us that evening at the famous U Fleku, a rambling old tavern which is claimed to be the oldest brew-pub in the world. The pub dates back to 1499, so there may be some truth in this claim! So far as I remember, we were charged with making our own way to U Fleku. One of my friends was a natural when it came to interpreting public transport maps. His German was also better than my own; which was useful as that language was quite widely understood in Czechoslovakia at the time, especially by the older generation. With Mark’s help we successfully mastered the Prague tram system, and before too long found ourselves in the courtyard of U Fleku. Here large numbers of mainly young people were sitting out enjoying the tasty dark lager, called Flekovsky Dark, brewed on the premises. Although it was early October, it was quite a balmy evening so we decided to join them for a while, whilst waiting for the rest of our party to arrive.

Dinner took place in one of U Fleku’s dark, cavernous rooms, decorated in typical Bohemian style with dark wood panelling and plenty of exposed beams. Once again the meal was nothing special but the beer was free, and what's more it was U Fleku’s
world classic, dark lager . We were not the only party of visitors in the pub that night; there were several other parties in the same room as ourselves. When the meal was over, we were ushered out, presumably to make way for the next group of diners.

I have a feeling that the pub may either have closed early, or we just decided to look for somewhere else to drink. As we wandered the streets of Prague, everything seemed eerily quiet, especially for a Saturday, with very little traffic about and not much else happening. In the absence of a suitable guidebook we decided our best course of action was to make our way back to the hotel just in case all public transport ceased running for the night. There was a group of East German girls travelling back on the same tram as ourselves, but our attempts to chat them up met with little success. This was no real loss as they were a humourless bunch who seemed to regard us with a great deal of suspicion. We had however, fared somewhat better than certain others of our party who had been arrested and fined after being caught relieving themselves in the street; their antics having caught the attention of some plain-clothes policemen!

Back at the hotel we met up with some other members of our group who suggested adjourning to a bar they had found earlier that evening. This was but a short stroll away and, despite being very much a locals’ bar, served an excellent glass of beer. One thing we all found puzzling, but very welcoming, about Czech beer was the fact that whilst it all seemed to be served by a pressure system, it didn’t taste at all gassy. I later discovered that this was because it was dispensed by air pressure in a system remarkably similar to that formerly employed in many Scottish pubs. This gives the beer a smooth texture, and a dense creamy head.

I was glad of my bed that night and slept like a log (hardly surprising given the day’s
excesses!). The next day was devoted to site-seeing and culture and will be recounted in a later post.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

What Makes a GOOD B & B?

I've stayed in quite a few Bed & Breakfast places over the last 18 months or so. Primarily this has been due to walking the 100 mile South Downs Way, and needing somewhere to lay my head for the night. Of the seven B & B's my friend and I stayed in, five were excellent, whilst the other two were not so good. All this has prompted the question, "What makes a good B & B?

Basically I want a place where I can feel at home, somewhere that is comfortable, without being too fussy and cosy, and somewhere that is clean. A place where I can get a good night's sleep is also important, especially when I have been out walking all day, carrying a heavy pack. A decent breakfast (full English, of course), the following morning is another essential, and doubly necessary at the start of a long day's walking. I am not quite so fussed about having en suite facilities, although their presence is always a bonus, but what is important is a warm and friendly welcome from the proprietor.

For further information, check out this article below by Matthew Alexander.

Bed and Breakfast. The term started in the UK then spread through Europe, but you can find this type of accommodation almost everywhere now. Oh, no, you're thinking. I've outgrown that bathroom down the hall stuff. Well, most B-and-Bs have too.

"B&Bs" started with people inviting travelers into their homes... providing rooms and serving breakfast to earn a little extra money. They all used to have toilet and shower facilities down the hall... sometimes with a sink in the room. That's what your thinking you've outgrown. But Bed and Breakfasts have changed, and it helps to know what to ask about and look for.

More and more now have "en suite" facilities with toilets and showers in the room. Sometimes these have been shoehorned into the room... other times homes have been remodeled with guest's privacy in mind. Be careful of the term "private bathroom".... You may be the only one who can use it, but that bathroom may be down the hall... and you're the only one who has a key.

There are still some places that have "standard" rooms. That means they have just the sink in the room and a trip down the hall for everything else. If you're not speaking your native language, make sure you are talking about the same thing. Ask to see the room if you are inquiring in person. We've never found a proprietor who will object to that.

Bed and Breakfasts can be small... only a room or two in a home, and you may be the only guests. They can also be guest houses of up to 15 or even 20 rooms. The ones you want to look for are those which have friendly hosts and a good location. Part of the charm of a "B&B" is that friendly host who will give you directions and tell you about their favorite restaurant.

Another plus to B-and-Bs is that you will get that breakfast... and it will generally be a substantial one. In England and Ireland, it will almost be too much to eat it all.... cereal, juice, toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, grilled mushrooms, grilled tomato and baked beans. Tell them if you only want a little... they're happy to serve only what you want. In France you may just get croissants, butter and jam... but they'll be great croissants and lots of them.

Ask when breakfast is served... this isn't a hotel. Breakfast is usually only served for an hour or two, and you don't want to sleep through it and miss out.

Bed and Breakfasts will generally save you money in Europe and other areas, but that is not always the case everywhere. Europeans coming to the United States are surprised to find that B-and-Bs are expensive accommodations... often costing more than hotels, not less.

People who have opened "B&Bs" in the U.S. have transformed the concept, making them into luxury destinations. Many are in historic inns or homes that have been fabulously refinished and decorated.

They may come with wine tasting in the evenings and a gourmet breakfast, but they don't often come cheap. They are certainly charming and well worth what they cost, but you need to be aware that they are not usually budget accommodations in the U.S.

Bed and Breakfasts can be like having a home away from home when you travel. Just make sure you know what you're getting.

Discover this Cheap Travel Blog Full of Travel Discount Holiday Accommodation Strategies and get your own Free Departure Check List.

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Monday, 9 November 2009

Czechoslovakia 1984 - Part One - Pilsen

I've booked myself a short break to Prague between Christmas and New Year. My wife Eileen will be working during that time so, hopefully, will son Matt. The company I work for shuts down over this period, meaning we have to take a few days annual leave. Rather than waste these days, and sit at home twiddling my thumbs or, worse still, decorating (what I've been doing these past few weekends!), I'm off to re-visit the Czech capital after a gap of over 25 years!

Back in 1984, what was then Czechoslovakia was ruled by a hard-line Communist government and was well and truly in the Eastern Bloc. At the time of my visit it was impossible to believe that just five years later the Communist Party would be ousted from power and the country would be taking its first tentative steps towards democracy and a free-market economy. What follows is an account of the visit I made in 1984, before all these changes took place.

For a short period during the early 1980’s, CAMRA ran its own travel subsidiary called CAMRA Travel. One of the places featured on their 1984 itinerary, was a trip to Czechoslovakia.. At a time when the Iron Curtain was still very much in place, Czechoslovakia was a country shrouded in mystery For myself in particular, the trip was the culmination of a long held ambition to visit this beer lover’s paradise.

I had first been made aware of its attractions by the writer, Richard Boston, who described in his excellent book “Beer and Skittles” (published 1976) how he had visited Prague during the mid 1960’s, and how he had been smitten by the city’s charms. He described the setting of the city as magnificent, and the architecture as grand without being intimidating. Its streets were not choked with polluting automobiles, and the eye was not constantly assaulted by advertisements. Most of all though he was smitten by the beer. He had only intended to spend a couple of days in Prague, but instead he stayed nearly a week, going from place to place and drinking “this wonderful beer”.

Towards the end of the 1970’s, during a CAMRA social in Westerham, I was introduced to a chap called Ron Smith. Although somewhat advanced in years, Ron was a real character; a life-long socialist and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Ron also appreciated a decent drop of beer. Together with a handful of local CAMRA members, Ron had organised a trip to Czechoslovakia. That night in the pub, he enthralled me and my companions with his tales of the trip, backing up everything Richard Boston had said, and more, about what a beautiful city Prague was and how superb Czech beers were. That set the seal on it; I was determined to visit the country at the earliest available opportunity.

A cold and dreary afternoon in early October 1984 therefore, saw myself and two friends boarding a specially chartered, luxury coach at Farthing Corner Service Station, on the M2 motorway. The coach had left from London earlier in the day with the main part of the group, en route for Dover, on a trip that was to include a stop-over in Pilsen, followed by a couple of days in Prague. CAMRA Travel had organised the visit through Cedock - the state-owned Czechoslovak tourist office, and whilst coach or plane travel options were available the bulk of the party had opted for the former. Not only was the coach some £50 or so cheaper than flying, but the three of us from Maidstone also thought that it would afford us the opportunity of seeing a bit of Europe, en route. We would also have the chance of getting to know our travelling companions better.

Our coach boarded the 21:00 hours sailing from Dover, where we enjoyed what was to be our last decent meal for sometime. Arriving in France we sped on through the night, (so much for seeing something of Europe!) passing through Belgium and on into Germany. By the time it was getting light we stopped for breakfast at a service station on the autobahn somewhere near Frankfurt. By eleven o’clock we had reached the West German - Czech border.

The border was everything the Iron Curtain was cracked up to be, with row upon row of barbed-wire fencing stretching away on either side of the crossing, through a thick swathe cut in the dense pinewoods which abound in this part of Europe. Imposing watchtowers formed a grim reminder that we were about to cross from Western Europe into the totally different and, at the time, politically hostile Eastern Bloc.

The crossing seemed to take an age as the free passage of people and goods was something that was totally alien to the communist authorities, but an hour or so later we were inside Czechoslovakia. The contrast between the latter and West Germany that we had just left behind could not have been more striking. Looking back though the small, isolated rural communities through which we passed did possess a charm all of their own, something I did perhaps not fully appreciate at the time.

Having travelled this far we were by now gasping for a drink. We had with us two tour guides, one employed by Cedock, and the other a professional courier, on secondment to CAMRA Travel. The former directed our coach driver to stop at a modern-looking, alpine-styled establishment where we were able to sample some Czech beer for the first time. I don’t remember what beer it was apart from the fact it was a pilsner style beer, but after being cooped up in a coach for the best part of twelve hours it proved very welcome and refreshing indeed. After this impromptu stop we continued our journey, arriving in Pilsen in mid-afternoon.

We located our hotel, a grandiose Baroque-styled building that had seen better days, and after checking in (a process that seemed to take forever!) we dumped our luggage in our rooms and set off to explore. Pilsen is an industrial city, which at the time of our visit still bore the scars of World War II. This was the result of Allied bombers trying to knock out the tank-making Skoda works.

Before we could buy a drink it was necessary to find a bank and change some of the large denomination Czech banknotes we had obtained, for some smaller units of currency. If the reception desk in our hotel was slow, then the bank was doubly so. The situation was compounded by a group of Russian visitors in front of us in the queue, trying to do the same thing. Eventually we accomplished our task and found a functional modern-style bar that was all stainless steel and chrome. Here, for the princely sum of 15p per half litre, we were able to enjoy a few glasses of beer brewed by Pilsen’s other but less well-known brewery, Gambrinus.

Suitably refreshed, we returned to our hotel, where we sat down to the first of several unremarkable and instantly forgettable Czech meals. Richard Boston had written about Czech food, describing it as “stodgy, low in taste and protein”, and comparing it very unfavourably with Czech beer. Nothing appeared to have changed much in the intervening years, and thick slices of suet dumpling, served up with every meal (including breakfast!), seemed to be the order of the day. Fortunately, the hotel management had supplied copious quantities of Pilsner Urquell to wash down the rather tasteless food, and what’s more it was “on the house”!

It slowly dawned on us that the evening’s entertainment, which was billed as a “Bohemian Beer Festival”, would be taking place in the hotel’s restaurant - hence the free beer! It seems that we had been a little naive in expecting to be whisked off to participate in the Bohemian equivalent of the Munich Oktoberfest, so despite the rather austere surroundings we settled down to enjoy the excellent draught Pilsner Urquell. The trip’s Cedock organisers had thought that the inclusion of a healthy sprinkling of national folk dancing and singing would be a good idea - this was a Communist country at the time after all! We dutifully applauded a succession of such acts, one of which was a dance troupe from the local Skoda car works!

Most of the party though, took the opportunity to get to know each other a bit better. The group included a member of CAMRA’s national executive as well as the Campaign’s then press officer, Danny Blyth. My companions and I had met Danny the previous year, when he had been staying at the same Reading hotel as us during the CAMRA AGM. As the evening wore on and the beer showed no signs of ceasing to flow, many of us decided to call it a night. I'd certainly had more than enough, as I must have consumed a gallon of Pilsner Urquell that night!

Strangely enough I didn’t feel too bad the following morning; I even managed breakfast. What came as more of a shock was the bill for the phone call made, the previous evening, to the girl who is now my wife. She had related, in graphic detail, the events that had occurred back home that evening; it being the night when the IRA had nearly succeeded in wiping out the entire British Cabinet with the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton. We of course, had heard nothing of this event, as there was no TV in our room and no English newspapers on sale in Pilsen.

To be continued...........................

Sunday, 8 November 2009


Those of you who are regular visitors to Paul Bailey's Beer Blog will know that one of the things I like doing best is travelling to new or different places, especially when I know there will be some interesting beers to be had at the other end. Alternatively, re-visiting favourite places where the same holds true, also has a strong appeal for me.

I've always enjoyed visiting new pl;aces, but circumstances haven't always allowed me to do so. For the best part of six years I ran my own, successful Real Ale Off-licence. It was fun, but also very hard work. Some evenings, after re-stocking and carrying out the cellar-work, I wouldn't get home until midnight, or even later! And being an off-licence meant having to open 7 days a week, leaving precious little time for family and friends, or indeed any form of home life.

Opportunities for travel were therefore strictly limited, and mainly consisted of invites to trade shows or events such as wine tastings. Getting away meant finding someone reliable to literally "mind the shop", plus also finding the means to pay them. Small wonder then that apart from the aforementioned activities my only breaks from the shop during this time were a 3 day visit to Norfolk, plus a couple of 3 day breaks in first Munich and later on Salzburg.

When my wife and I eventually sold the business, to allow me to return to a more lucrative position in industry, I made a vow to make up for those "lost" six years, and also the years that preceded them when the responsibilities of raising a family didn't always fit in with my desires to go off "beer hunting".

This blog not only describes some of my travels, but also gives tips for the "beer tourist" wishing to cast his or her net a bit further afield. Read on and hopefully enjoy, but also feel free to post comments, either flattering or critical (I can take it!), or tips of your own.