Sunday, 24 January 2010

Return to Prague - Part Four

My final day in Prague began on a slightly damp note. The previous night's heavy snow had turned to rain overnight, leaving the streets slushy and slippery underfoot. Undeterred I wandered down into the Old Town, pausing to buy some sugared almonds for my wife at the Christmas Market. I then located a shop selling traditional Czech cosmetics that I had passed the previous evening. Here I bought some beer-based body lotions and face creams, alongside some beer soap as further presents for the family.

With the presents out of the way, I walked up to Wenceslas Square and purchased a 24 hour Public Transport Pass for the princely sum of Kc 100 (just over £3.50). Not only would the pass allow me to travel all over Prague that day, but it could also be used for my journey to the airport the following morning! I then boarded the No 22 tram in the direction of Bila Hora, the tram negotiating the steep hairpin bends leading up to the rear of Hradcany castle with surprising ease. I travelled out through the Prague suburbs alighting at the monastery of Brevnovsky klaster. I made my way through the archway entrance to the monastery pub of Klasterni senk, where I was planning to sample some Klaster beers.

Klaster beers are brewed at the monastery brewery of Klaster Hradiste nad Jizerou in Central Bohemia, and Klasterni senk seemed to be the nearest Prague outlet in which to sample them. The pub itself was decorated in a rustic style with lots of exposed, light-coloured woodwork and bare floorboards. A smouldering log fire provided a welcoming and cosy warm feel to the place and after finding a table I settled down and was soon drawing deeply on my mug of Klaster svetle. I ordered a light lunch of sausages cooked in dark beer, accompanied by Bramboracky potato cakes, (excellent). Having sampled the pale Klaster, I then went moved on to the dark beer, which was also very good.

On leaving the pub I caught the tram back into the centre of Prague, alighting at the stop for Malostranska. I wandered up Letenska as I wanted to re-visit the U Svatého Tomáše beer hall. I had fond memories of this legendary establishment from my first visit to Prague, but must admit I was rather taken aback to see that it had been converted into the extremely posh and upmarket Augustinian Hotel. In fact it was only after I returned home and compared photo's that I was able to confirm that this was the same place!

The hotel complex houses its own micro-brewery, situated in part of the former beer hall, but unfortunately I was too early as the adjoining brewery-bar did not open until 3.30pm. A member of the hotel staff took pity on me and directed me to the rather plush main hotel bar. Here I was able to sample one of the in-house beers, a 14 degree dark lager, selling for the exorbitant price of Kc 80 for a half-litre! It was pleasant enough, but unfortunately the complimentary sugared peanuts spoilt the taste somewhat. I wanted to sample the 19 degree, semi-dark Christmas Beer, but it was only available in the downstairs brewery-bar - at least it was slightly better value, selling at the same price as the weaker one! However, I didn't fancy hanging around for opening time, as this opulent, "boutique" establishment wasn't my sort of place. The micro-plant seemed to be brewing at the time of my visit, judging by the amount of steam being vented from the rear of the building, but I just couldn't get over the total transformation that this famous beer hall had undergone.

On leaving the Augustinian I walked up to St Nicholas Church and caught the No 22 tram back into the New Town. What I should have done was re-visit U Kalicha, haunt of that most famous of Czech literary characters, The Good Soldier Svejk. This was the last pub my friends and I had visited on that first trip to Prague. We were more than a little the worse for beer at the time, so I only have very vague memories of it. However, I was feeling lazy, and as it had also started to rain I instead made my way to U Fleku.

U Fleku had been great on the first afternoon of my trip; this time it was less so. The place was heaving, and I struggled to get a seat. What's more the heating had not been turned down to compensate for the rise in temperature outside. The stifling heat, combined with the packed pub, made for a less than pleasant experience, so I only had the one beer. Before I left though I managed to have a good look around the banqueting halls at the rear, and located the Knight's Hall where we had dined on that first evening in Prague, a quarter of a century ago.

I returned to my hotel in order to pack for an early departure the following morning. That task complete, I headed back into town to visit another brew-pub, Novomestsky pivovar. This establishment is much more of a tourist haunt than Pivovarsky dum, and my guide book had warned that the waiters would assume I would want to eat, as well as drink. Despite the inclement weather outside Novomestsky pivovar was packed, but I was shown to a table in the covered upstairs terrace. I sampled a half litre mug of the yeasty Svetly lezak, but after studying the prices on the menu, decided to give the food a miss. Instead I popped round the corner to Kyvadlo, where I had eaten a couple of night's previously. I enjoyed both the pale and dark Bernard beers on sale there, alongside a meal of chicken with vegetables.

The dark Bernard 13 degree Specialni cerny lezak really was the finest beer of the entire trip, and one of the best dark beers I have drunk, so I was reluctant to leave Kyvadlo. However, I had one more place to visit before the evening was out. I caught a tram to one of Prague's most famous pubs, U Medvidku (At the Little Bears) which, although famed for the quality of its Budvar beers, also has a small in-house brewery on the premises. Two beers are brewed, and these are then matured of "lagered" in traditional wooden barrels for a minimum of six weeks. I went for the Oldgott Barrique 5.2% half-dark amber lager, which although good didn't quite compare with the dark Bernard beer I had been drinking earlier.

I was impressed with U Medvidku; it is a rambling sort of place with a myriad of inter-connecting rooms. Like the other pubs that afternoon/evening, it was heaving. I was tempted to stay for another, but I had an early start the next morning, so reluctantly I took my leave of the Little Bears and caught the tram back to my hotel.

All in all it had been a brilliant three and a half days in the Czech capital. I had mixed site-seeing with culture and along the way had visited some excellent pubs and enjoyed some equally excellent beers. I will definitely return again to Prague!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Return to Prague - Part Three

My second full day in Prague turned out to be the best, managing to surpass even the highlights of the previous day. The weather was similar - bright and sunny, but very cold, and I walked into town as before, but this time I headed for the New Town. I stopped to admire the statue of King Wenceslas, in the square (or should I say elongated rectangle) that bares his name, before browsing a few bookshops. I was looking for a book entitled "A Guide to the Beer Halls of Prague", written by László Polgár. I thought that this publication might be similar in scope to the excellent "Beer Drinker's Guide to Munich", which proved so invaluable on my last trip to the Bavarian capital, but although the shops I looked in were full of umpteen guide books to Prague and its charms, my quest for this drinker's guide was not successful. (Have just checked on Amazon and the book is out of stock, with no indication as to when it might next be available!)

Undeterred, I headed away from the square, passing the New Town Hall which overlooks Charles Square. My goal was one of Prague's home brew pubs, a place which one guide described as "looking like a shop selling Soviet kitchen appliances". Pivovarsky dum, does look pretty non-descript from the outside, but inside offers a wide range of beers brewed on the premises; in fact this brew-pub occupies the ground floor of the Czech Research Institute of Brewing and Malting!

Although Pivovarsky dum offers such strange offerings as coffee, banana and nettle beer, I stuck to the two mainstream varieties, confusing the waiter slightly by requesting a glass of both the pale and the dark. I sat in the plainly furnished rear room which, although virtually empty when I arrived, soon filled up with lunchtime diners. I hadn't that long eaten breakfast, so confined myself to just a bowl of chicken noodle soup. This went well with the beers, and of the two I preferred the pale over the dark.

On leaving Pivovarsky dum I noticed the temperature had dropped significantly. I could have done with my warmer hat and gloves which I had left at the hotel, but a brisk walk soon warmed me up. I headed down to the Vltava river, pausing to admire the imposing National Theatre on the way. I had bought a ham and cheese roll in a supermarket en route, and stopped in a park on Zofin Island, opposite the theatre to eat it, before crossing via the Legii Bridge into the area of the city known as Mala Strana.

My plan was to take the funicular railway that runs up Petrin Hill and from there to make my way to the monastery at Strahovsky klaster where there is another brew-pub, that was reputed to be well worth visiting. I made my way to the bottom of the funicular railway, but after standing for what seemed an age in a queue that did not appear to be moving, I decided to walk up the hill instead. I say hill, it was more akin to walking up the side of a mountain! Now I am reasonably fit, but I had to stop several times in order to catch my breath. I was not alone on this ascent, as there seemed to be quite a few people, both visitors and locals, taking the same route.

Eventually I reached the summit which is crowned by the 60m high Rozhledna Tower, built as a tribute to the Eifel Tower in Paris, and completed just two years after the original. The trouble with beer drinking is that the end product needs to be got rid of. On a cold day the need to pass water is intensified by the low temperatures. Fortunately, as I headed towards Strahovsky klaster, there were just sufficient trees, not too many walkers and light that was starting to fade to allow me to stop and answer a most urgent "call of nature" without causing any embarrassment. From the edge of this woodland hideaway I was rewarded with the most spectacular view of Prague imaginable. I could see across the valley towards Hradcany and the castle complex, dominated by the twin Gothic towers of St Vitus Cathedral. There was a slight haze in the air, the sun was starting to go down and the reddish tint to the sky gave the hint of snow to come. Far below, just glinting in the slowly fading light, I could see the Vltava river, slowly winding its way through the city. The whole thing was a magical experience for me, and one of the highlights of the trip.

I was relieved though when I reached the monastery complex and found the Klasterni pivovar Strahov brew-pub in some buildings opposite the impressive church. I was glad of the chance to warm up, and after managing to find a seat, settled down to enjoy the beers (pale and dark), that are brewed on the premises under the St Norbert badge. Whilst there, I studied my "Good Beer Guide to Prague" carefully and learned that there was a pub called U Cerneho Vola close-by, selling beers from the Kozel stable. From the write up it sounded like my sort of place, so I set off to find it.

It was dark when I left Klasterni pivovar Strahov, and was cold out as well. I walked the short distance towards the Loreta Pilgrimage Church, where the Guide informed me I would find the pub opposite. There was no sign of it. I stood for a while admiring the imposing Cernisky Palace, one of half a dozen such palaces in the shadow of the castle. This one was particularly impressive, having been recently restored to full glory; what's more it was floodlit, as was the church. I walked up and down the square in front of the palace, even venturing as far as the road on the other side of the square, but all to no avail. I retraced my steps and was about to abandon my quest, when beneath the arches of a cloistered walkway, to the right of the church, I noticed a faded sign next to a set of wooden doors. I realised that I had walked past these doors earlier, without realising they were the entrance to the pub. The sign itself gave little away and it is only now, after studying the photo I took, that I can just make out the words Pivnice Cerneho Vola.

I passed through the doors and found myself in a lobby area, crowded with drinkers. I noticed there was a room leading off to the right, so after removing my hat, gloves and scarf I entered what turned out to be the bar. It had a high, heavily beamed ceiling and floors of bare-brick. It was sparsely furnished with just a few simple wooden benches and tables, and to the right of the entrance was a free-standing bar counter, complete with a fount for the beer, and a sink for washing up the glasses. Behind the counter was a surly-looking, apron-clad, mustachioed barman, looking like a character from a Bill Tidy cartoon, dispensing the beer. I pointed to the sign for the 12 degree pale and was duly given a 0.5l mug, all for the princely sum of Kc 26.5! This was definitely my sort of pub, even though I couldn't speak, or understand a word of Czech! There was nowhere for me to sit, so I stood over by the coat racks, taking in the goings on in this very local's local of pubs. The air was thick with tobacco smoke (the Czechs haven't succumbed to a smoking ban yet!), and I noticed the barman himself happily puffing away. I of course stayed for another; this time sampling the dark Kozel beer instead.

After the second beer, I decided I had better get something to eat. I reluctantly left this wonderfully unspoilt pub and wandered back towards the Charles Bridge, following the steep road leading down below the castle ramparts. It had been an afternoon and early evening full of superlatives, but now I found myself back in the heart of the Old Town, crowded out with its hordes of tourists. I headed for Ferdinanda, a bar I had visited the previous afternoon. I knew the menu was reasonably priced, and having watched some of the dishes being served, I also knew the food would be good.

On the way, I passed through Wenceslas Square. It had just started snowing, and by the time I reached Ferdinanda, just a few blocks away, there was already an inch or so covering the ground. The notes I took at the time record I ordered a pork fillet cooked with blue cheese and accompanied by french fries. I must confess I don't remember that much about the meal, the day's beer consumption having started to tell on me by then, but I washed it down with a glass of Ferdinand's 11 degree dark beer, followed by a coffee.

The snow was quite thick on the ground by the time I departed, but I noticed an army of local authority workers, armed with snow-shovels, out clearing the pavements. This was in complete contrast to the chaos that had ensued in my home town of Tonbridge, following the heavy snow that had fallen a week before Christmas! Back in Wenceslas Square I jumped on the next No 9 tram, and after a short journey was back at my hotel after what had been a most wonderful day out.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Return to Prague - Part Two

The morning of my first full day in Prague dawned bright and chilly. I had slept well and after a hearty continental breakfast, washed down with plenty of coffee was raring to head out and explore this beautiful city. Prague's Old Town, otherwise known as Stare Mesto was my destination, so after wrapping up properly against the cold I headed off in the direction of this historic part of Prague.

After 20 minutes or so of brisk walking I came to the Powder Gate Tower, an impressive stone structure that forms the entrance to this part of the Old Town. Pausing to admire the ornate, art-nouveau Obecni dum (Municipal House) I was soon in the heart of Old Town Square. The Christmas Market was still on, although being quite early in the morning, many of the stalls were just opening up. Although I was glad to see the back of Christmas at home, here the market seemed to add an almost magical festive feel to the occasion ,with its stalls selling hot mulled wine, roast chestnuts and all sorts of festive goodies.

After a good look around, during which I stopped to admire the famous Astrological Clock, I headed north along Parizska trida, diverting for a short while into the old Jewish quarter - an area known as Josefov. Eventually I reached the Manesuv Most Bridge and the large imposing Rudofinum. This impressive building is a concert hall, but during Czechoslovakia's first republic from 1918 - 1938, was the home of the country's parliament.

After pausing to admire the view of Prague's impressive castle and cathedral complex. I followed the curve of the river bank to the world famous Charles Bridge. I remember walking across this bridge on my first visit to Prague, back in 1984. This time the bridge appeared to be undergoing major renovation, with one side cordoned off at each end by scaffolding and barriers, to allow the stonework underfoot to be replaced. Despite the cold, Charles Bridge was much busier than it had been 25 years ago - I know because I have the photo's to prove it!

My goal for midday was Prague Castle, and after crossing the bridge and passing the baroque splendour of St Nicholas Church, I found a series of steep wide steps leading up to this part of the city - an area known as Hradcany. I thought at the time that this was the route up to the castle my friends and I had taken on that first trip, but with hindsight I believe we had climbed up via Nerudova instead. Whatever the way up, the view from the top was as spectacular and rewarding as ever.

Despite the cold, and the time of year there were hundreds of tourists milling around outside the palace gates. I had just missed the changing of the guard, but fancied a look inside St Vitus Cathedral. One look at the length of the queue though was enough to put me off that idea. It was already well past one o'clock, and I had been on my feet for the best part of three hours. Some liquid refreshment was clearly in order and I had it in mind to try and find the back-street pub my friends and I had visited back in 1984. I wandered out through a courtyard, but found it led to a bridge over the moat at the rear of the castle. I stopped to take a few photo's of the cathedral, but found that the road led past the Castle Gardens and out to the main tram route at the rear of the castle complex. The street housing the unspoilt pub was nowhere to be seen. Undeterred I wandered round in a large loop, back to the font of the palace and then descended back towards Mala Strana Square.

My goal now was an unspoilt pub listed in the Good Beer Guide to Prague & The Czech Republic called U Kocoura. Despite its location in the heart of the tourist district, the pub proved to be good to the guide's word, and was a real down to earth, locals' pub, with two smoke-filled rooms, plain tables and wooden benches, PLUS Bernard beer on draught. I enjoyed a couple of half litres of their tasty 12 degree lager, along with a large packet of locally produced crisps. It was good to sit down, out of the cold, and watch a bit of traditional Czech pub life, before heading back towards the Old Town for a bit more sight-seeing.

When I reached Old Town Square the Christmas Market was in full swing. I had a good look round and tried a plate full of the local potato cakes - a dish known as Bramboracky, served with an accompaniment of sauerkraut. Deciding that the mulled wine would not be a good idea I opted for a mug of hot chocolate instead, which proved just the right thing for keeping out the cold. By this time it was starting to get dark and the whole market area with its coloured lights and huge Christmas tree had taken on a real festive flavour.

From the Old Town I headed off towards the New. I was making for a modern cellar bar called Ferdinanda, which takes its name from the brewery who's beers it sells - Ferdinand. The brewery itself is named after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who's assassination in Sarajevo, on 28th June 1914 triggered the start of the First World War. The brewery's home-town of Benesov was the residence of the unfortunate Archduke - hence the name.

I really liked Ferdinanda as a place to drink; the food looked good as well, and was reasonably priced. However, it was a bit too early for my evening meal, so I sat watching the young, mainly Czech, clientele whilst enjoying Ferdinands pale, plus their 5.5% special, dark amber beer called Sedm Kuli.

I was a bit unsure where to head for next, but armed with my Prague Beer Guide I managed to track down an excellent restaurant called Kyvadlo, just the other side of Wenceslas Square. This cosy, and friendly establishment has four types of Bernard beer on tap. I opted for, and stuck to, the superb Specialni cerny lezak, a 5.5% dark beer, and one of the finest of this type of beer that I have tasted. It was an excellent accompaniment to my meal of pork fillet, stuffed with spinach and accompanied by gratin potatoes and grated carrots. I made a note to return there if I had the chance. After that, it was a quick No 9 tram ride back to my hotel, and bed.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Return to Prague - Part One

Prague is one of the world's top tourist destinations, and it is easy to understand why. This beautiful city, formerly hone to the kings of Bohemia, and for a time capital of the Holy Roman Empire, emerged relatively unscathed from World War Two, unlike many of its Central European counterparts. For the next 40 years the city was stuck in a virtual time-warp thanks to the stagnation that accompanied four decades of communist rule. Now the city has emerged to take its rightful place on the world stage as capital of the revitalised and vibrant Czech Republic. What follows is a short account of my recent trip there.

The tail end of December 2009 saw me visiting Prague for the second time, some 25 years on from my first visit. Obviously much had changed during the intervening years, a process that had begun with the collapse of the communist regime in 1989 and then accelerated with the country joining the European Union in 2004. Along the way the country had split into two in 1993 when the Czech Republic and Slovakia went their separate ways.

Back in 1984 I had travelled by coach over-land to Prague, with a stop-over in the famous brewing town of Pilsen on the way, but this time a short 2 hour flight from Stansted brought me direct to Prague's Ruzyne Airport. From here a 20 minute bus ride, followed by a short journey on Prague's Russian-built metro system took me right into the heart of the city.

The weather was sunny but cold when I emerged into the sunshine of Wenceslas Square, which seemed much busier and bustling than on my previous visit. I had a couple of hours to kill before I could check into my hotel, so where better to spend this time than in a pub! Bredovsky Dvur, a pleasant, modern pub with orange-painted walls provided a welcome respite from the cold outside and, what's more, served a very acceptable half-litre of unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell direct from tanks in the cellar. Unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell is a relatively new phenomenon in the Czech Republic. Being unpasteurised the beer tastes fresher with a fuller and more rounded malty flavour, as well as a more pronounced bitterness but, as it perhaps lacks the stability of the pasteurised version, only pubs with a high throughput of beer are allowed to sell it. I can certainly vouch for its tastiness, as I enjoyed the two mugs I had in Bredovsky Dvur alongside the excellent roast pork with sauerkraut and potato dumplings.

After looking at the map I decided to walk to my hotel. I wasn't certain which tram would take me there and it didn't appear too far, so off I set. About 20 minutes later I was checked into the comfortable Hotel Ariston on the edge of the Zizkov area of Prague, and after un-packing and being acquainted with which tram to take by the hotel's receptionist, I was back out again, eager to explore more of the city.

I soon found my way to U Fleku, Prague's original and legendary brew-pub. Twenty-five years ago my companions and I had spent our first evening in the the city enjoying U Fleku's rich dark lager along with some typical Czech cuisine in one of the brew-pub's sizable beer-halls. Now a quarter of a century later I was back, but this time seated in one of the two smaller bars to the left of the main entrance lobby. As I sat enjoying my glass of U Fleku's 13 degree beer, I was joined by a family group from Baltimore who were staying in Prague over both Christmas and New Year. They too enjoyed the beer and also ordered some food. I refrained from the latter, having not that long eaten, but grabbed another beer from the passing waiter. I had a brief look around before leaving, but was unable to locate the hall where I had eaten and drunk on my previous visit.

Feeling quiet tired after my early morning start, I caught a tram back to the hotel and walked across to a bar listed in Evan Rail's excellent Good Beer Guide to Prague & the Czech Republic. Kure v hodinkach was listed as selling Bernard beers alongside Budvar and Gambrinus. I must have hit it on an off day as only the latter was available. Nevertheless the Gambrinus Premium was quite palatable and I had two mugs of it to wash down my beef goulash with bread dumplings. Kure v hodinkach was a pleasant, modern-style bar and the staff were quite friendly. The place was starting to fill up as I was getting ready to leave, testament to it's obvious popularity with people from the locality. As for me, I was just about ready for my bed and a good night's sleep, before getting ready to explore the city in earnest the following day.

Czechoslovakia 1984 - Final Installment.

This is the final installment of the account of my first visit to what is now the Czech Republic. The visit took place back in 1984 and was jointly organised by CAMRA Travel and Cedock - the official Czechoslovak Tourist Agency. Please note, the photo's illustrating this post were taken on my recent trip to Prague. (I have yet to scan in the transparencies I took on the original visit).

Our first full day in Prague started with a guided tour of the city, by coach, followed by a stroll across the world famous King Charles Bridge. This was followed by lunch at another of Prague’s best known taverns, U svateho Tomase (St Thomas’s to you and I). The pub was formerly renowned for a strong dark beer, but brewing unfortunately ceased during the 1960’s. Nevertheless the beer it did sell was very palatable, and from memory the food was not too bad either, in fact it was probably the best of the entire trip!

From U svateho Tomase, our guide led us, on foot, up towards the Castle District of the city. After a step climb, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city, which looked an absolute picture in the reflected glow of the October sunshine. I could have stayed admiring the scene for sometime; it was certainly a magical moment so far as I was concerned, and one of the highlights of the trip.

My recall of what happened next is somewhat vague. I do know that our guide took us to another pub in a square, opposite a church. There was something significant about both the pub and the church, but by now many of us had seen enough culture for one day. Consequently a group of us gave the guide the slip, and wandered back in the direction of Prague’s imposing Castle. En route we discovered an absolute gem of a pub, complete with stone-flagged floors, low, vaulted stone ceilings and scrubbed wooden tables. A black and white television was showing a football match, and a crowd of excited drinkers were busy cheering on their favourite team. This was a real “locals’ local”, but they made room for us in the cosy back bar and we received a really friendly welcome.

Regrettably I did not make a note of the pub’s name, or the beer that it served, but the two half-litres of Pilsner-style beer I enjoyed there were probably the best I sampled on the entire trip. The time we spent in that plainly furnished, unspoilt pub, followed by our stroll through the quiet, vehicle-free streets of this ancient part of Prague was the second magical experience of the day. As we continued our way towards the castle the only sounds, apart from the tramping of our feet, were the bells ringing out from the nearby St Vitus Cathedral. The bells drew us towards this massive building, and we stepped inside its ancient doors for a look round. As a service was in progress we did not stay long, but wandered back to Hradcany Castle which is actually four palaces rolled into one.

One of these, the Vladislav Hall, is where the kings of Bohemia were formerly crowned. At the time of our visit, most of this vast complex of buildings was closed off to the public. Armed sentries stood guard over what must have been government departments, or perhaps residences.

Fortunately, one member of the group we were with had had the presence of mind to check beforehand the rendezvous point for our coach. We found our driver, plus most of our party waiting for us, and once all were present, we set off for the next stop on our Cedock-arranged itinerary. This was yet another of Prague’s famous taverns called U Kalicha, the legendary haunt of Czechoslovakia’s best known fictional character, the Good Soldier Svejk.

After the wonderful pub we had just visited, U Kalicha was a bit of an anti-climax and something of a tourist trap. Even in those communist times it was being milked for its literary connections, although it is doubtful whether Svejk’s creator, Jaroslav Hasek would have found much that he was familiar with. The Pilsner Urquell beer was very palatable though, even if the food was not. I must admit that with our bellies full of beer our behaviour rather let us down. I don’t know exactly whose idea it was to start a bun fight, but that is what happened. The bemused Czech waiters seemed to take it in good heart, as the bread rolls started flying through the air, although I cannot vouch the same for our tour guide. In a country where food shortages were fairly common, it was certainly not a very tactful or indeed polite thing to do, and twenty-five years on I am not proud of my behaviour that night.

We were driven back to our hotel, but found our plans to visit the bar we had discovered the previous evening spoilt. It was closed, and to add further insult there was no draught beer available in the hotel bar either. We managed to obtain some bottled Budweiser Budvar though, and after a half-hearted attempt to chat-up a group of Swedish girls, we retired to our shared hotel room where we polished off the remainder of the beer.

Before finally turning in for the night, we had taken the lift to the top of the hotel where there was a western-style night club. The idea of this place was to take hard western currency off hotel guests, and consequently there were western night club prices to match. I have never been a fan of such places, finding them both expensive and lacking in any real character. As they never seem to sell any proper beer I have usually given these establishments a wide berth. This one was no exception and, as it did not sell beer of any description, my companions and I did not stay long. Some of the party did however, and had we been paying a little more attention we would perhaps have noticed that the seductively clad female clientele, euphemistically described as “ladies of the night”, were also there to take hard western currency from visitors. At least one member of our tour group succumbed to their charms as we were to find out the following morning.

This was our last night in Prague, and after checking out of the hotel the following morning we indeed discovered that one member of the party was missing. He had last been seen the previous evening in the company of one of the aforementioned ladies of the night! This delayed our departure somewhat whilst he was rounded up, but when he eventually appeared, looking somewhat sheepish, we were able to set off on the long journey back to England.

Our coach parked down by the River Vltava in the centre of Prague, and we were allowed a couple of hours for final sight-seeing or shopping before departing for home. So far as shopping was concerned, we could find little of interest in the shops. The scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables in the shops and street markets was another thing we noticed, and may have accounted for the poor diet that the Czechs endured.

The journey home took us back through Pilsen, and we stopped for lunch (and yet more beer),in the same Pilsner Urquell Brewery Tap that we had visited a few days previously. I had a quick, but abortive look around Pilsen for some suitable presents, but again could find nothing suitable. Instead I purchased a case of Pilsner Urquell beer, as did most of the party. As it was forbidden to take Czechoslovak currency out of the country (not that anyone would want to, as it was worthless in the West), my friends and I pooled our remaining Czech Crowns in order to buy yet more beer, but this time for drinking on the way home!

The border crossing again took an age, although the customs officers found the amount of beer onboard our coach highly amusing. The regulations in force at the time only permitted the export of sufficient beer for “personal consumption”, but after taking one look at us, the officials decided that this was indeed the case! With that we crossed back into the West and had an uneventful journey home, after a most interesting and enjoyable visit behind the Iron Curtain.