Saturday, 4 April 2015

Czech Republic – Pouring pilsner in Plzen

April 1st, 2015

Hello everyone!

Easter holidays. Spring. A time when flowers starts to bloom and snow...continues to fall. No, that’s not an April fool. The first two days of April in the Czech Republic saw a deluge of the white stuff crash from the sky. Just the kind of weather that makes most people want to stay inside…

But not me! It’s the holidays, which means adventure time. A desire to save for a bigger, more extreme trip in the summer has meant that I’m staying put in Prague for the majority of our two-week break. However, there was one day trip which I could easily justify. The Czech Republic’s spiritual home of the amber nectar it is famed for across the globe. A pilgrimage to Plzen.

The country’s fourth-largest city is often referred to in negative terms; an industrial cesspit when compared to other, prettier towns in the area such as Karlovy Vary. The weather, a swirl of bitter wind and driving rain/snow, didn't help to dismiss this notion. 

It is famous for two things, both of which are visible around the Czech Republic. It is the home of the Škoda Engineering Works (you may know their cars) and is also the original, undisputed source of Pilsner beer, which is one of most commonly copied types of the product across the world.

Chances are you will have tried a pilsner beer at some point, though not necessarily a Czech variety. It is a type of pale lager which is the basis of many popular European beers, including Heineken, Beck’s and Stella Artois. We were told that 70% of all beer manufactured is derived from the ‘pilsner’ idea. The original recipe, created on October 5th, 1842, is for that of Pilsner Urquell, created in…Plzen!

The main reason to visit Plzen is thus to take a tour of the famous brewery (known in Czech as Plzenský Prazdroj) on the edge of town. A slight lack of planning and definite lack of signposts meant it was actually harder to find than anticipated, to the point that we were too late to get on the first English-spoken tour of the day. In hindsight, this was a good thing, as it allowed us to see Plzen’s main square and large church; more importantly, it allowed us to have lunch and line our stomachs. Oh, and try a Pilsner from Plzen, of course.

The tour itself takes in the history of brewing in the area (lots of people, lots of recipes, all combined together like a modern-day BandAid to make one killer recipe) and the importance of Joseph Groll, the brewery’s first leader who commissioned the first batch of Pilsner Urquell in 1842.

The tour is surprisingly impressive, fun yet informative at the same time. Some of the numbers thrown at you as you walk through machine-led packaging blocks are mind-boggling: 60,000 bottles per hour, the potential to produce in excess of one million litres of the amber nectar over a 24 hour period, and so on. We felt a bit sorry for the one aspect of the packaging which wasn’t controlled solely by machine, a man staring at thousands of recycled green bottles crawling along a conveyor belt and removing any damaged beer holders. 9,999 green bottles, sitting on a wall…

The tour wasn't just a case of walking around and being bombarded with facts; it included a short film (during which you are rotated 180˚ and don’t really notice), the chance to taste different buds of barley and studying microorganisms. These are combined with the water (Plzen’s water is ‘good quality’ apparently) and, over a five to six week period, ferment and mature to create the beer.

The final, most anticipated part of touring the brewery takes place in the damp, chilly cellar, which is 32,000 km2 in area and has numerous dark tunnels. Though it used to house 10,000 oak barrels, it is now almost exclusively used to impress tourists. In the cellar is where you get to try Pilsner Urquell’s most natural beer. Unfiltered and unpasteurised (most beers tick neither of these boxes as they would go off very quickly): delicious.

This was a whistle-stop tour to Plzen, specifically a journey around its most famous export. I'm sure Plzen would seem nicer in sunnier, warmer weather. However, if the result of this is to enjoy and savour more Pilsner Urquell from its original source, I'm more than happy for it to keep snowing. Na zdravi!

Love you all


Friday, 3 April 2015

Must-sees in Prague – Prague Castle

Hello everyone!

My recent Czech-based posts have been outlining the key places to visit in Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in central Europe. So far I've detailed the Old Town, Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square and the John Lennon Wall. There is one more part of Prague which can be described as a ‘must-see’ if you ever visit the Czech capital. Indeed, it is the one which dominates the skyline, day or night.

Many people get confused with what ‘Prague Castle’ actually is. Many mistake the cathedral for the castle itself, yet the latter is actually much larger; the largest coherent castle complex in the world, with an area in excess of 70,000m². If you are looking up from the centre, the castle itself starts at the white stone tower and ends at the gates to the northwest.

These gates are where my own, ‘alternative’ tour of the castle area will start. Many of the interesting facts espoused below were first heard on a free walking tour I was on last year.

The golden gates are an imposing and regal sight to behold, particularly when the resplendently-dressed guards perform their military march on the hour.

If you look up and to the southeast, you may or may not see a flag emblazoned with what look like eagles and lions fluttering above the main entrance. If this is flying high, you can be sure that the not-overly-popular Czech President, Milos Zeman, is in the country.

Though not universally loved in the manner of some of his predecessors, such as Vaclav Havel, Zeman hasn't had to endure the humiliation which is allegedly bestowed upon the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire at the time of the main gate’s construction. It was envisioned and built by an Italian called Filippi. He politely asked for more money to complete the gate area to the best of his ability and was subsequently told to get lost or be executed. Before scarpering (and you’ll soon see that he really did need to scarper), Filippi put the finishing touches to the large date atop the arch…with one intentional mistake. Those of you who know your European languages will surely chuckle when I tell you that, rather than writing ‘anno’ to signify the year of completion, he instead wrote ‘ano’. This made the emperor the ‘butt’ of many jokes.

The architecture of the castle complex is fascinating, a melting pot of different styles. It also has many quirky features. One such example can be found in a small garden to the side of the northern gate. If you stand on the podium, facing north, and start speaking, you will hear a large, resonating echo. Great fun.

Upon passing under the funny gate sign, after looking to the right and admiring the red carpet which world leaders shake hands on and walk up to have meetings, you enter a spacious plaza, surrounded by a shell of buildings. What you may notice, if you look carefully, is that the floor isn’t entirely flat.

Walking under another concrete archway leads you to arguably the most impressive sight in the castle: St Vitus Cathedral. It looms dominantly in front of you, with its dark, gothic spires piercing the bright blue sky. The exterior of the cathedral is fascinating and reflects quite how long it took to construct. It was finished in 1929, which is noticeable if you look carefully at the figures on the front façade. After all, they certainly didn't have bankers when the St Vitus Cathedral’s construction began in 1344…

The inside of the cathedral is cavernous, though you need to pay to see all of what it has to offer. What you can do is admire the stained glass windows (apparently one of them was an advert and isn't purely stained glass, though I can never remember which one), particularly the gigantic floral design which you see from the outside. Inside, however, it is bursting with colour. You can also have a conversation across the narthex by speaking into the wall. The sound travels along the arch to the other side. Well worth a try!

To the side of the cathedral is another spacious area, which is boxed in by grand and stately rooms. One such room has been slept in, for one night only, by Adolf Hitler, who wanted to watch over his latest possession once the Nazis had acquired Czechoslovakia. His main man here was Reinhard Heydrich, dubbed the ‘Butcher of Prague’. His story is also fascinating and intrinsically linked to the castle.

Heydrich was said to have placed the Bohemian crown on his head; the old legends say such a usurper is doomed to die within a year. Sure enough, less than a year later Heydrich was attacked by British-trained Czech paratroopers while on his way to the Castle. The solderies weren't able to assassinate Heydrich on the spot as their guns malfunctioned, but one of them managed to hurl a grenade into the open-topped car before perishing. The subsequent explosion still failed to kill Heydrich, though it rocked him back into his seat, which was kept rigid by a series of iron spokes. These wounds became infected and he died of septicaemia a week later. As punishment, an entire nearby village was razed.

From here, the grounds slowly descend to the white tower which signals the end of the complex. Many buildings here house old Bohemian art and titbits. They aren’t worth visiting, particularly for the fee charged (walking around the complex is free). One final structure of interest before exiting the lower gate is the statue of a young naked boy. It is hard to find a time when this poor fellow isn’t having his bits rubbed by a giggling tourist.

He’s had a tumultuous life, this boy. Originally unveiled in all his glory after World War Two, the communists who took an iron rule over Prague in the late 1950s didn’t take too kindly to this vulgar and free expression of art. The sculptor was told to modify the statue: you can imagine what that entailed. Locals were mortified about the removal of certain parts of the boy’s anatomy and duly began to protest. Incredibly, the vociferate feeling behind the complaint led to the communist government duly reinstating the boy in his true, proud form. Czechs took this to be a victory over the left-wing establishment, so the boy is…ahem…’rubbed’ for luck. Not to mention for photos to startle grandmas everywhere.

The Prague Castle is thus a grand old place, both in size and style. It is particularly enjoyable to wander around if you beat the crowds early in the morning and offers breath-taking views of the rest of the city. A must-see in its own right, though you now know many of its stranger secrets to help separate you from the selfie-stick-wielding tourist armies.

Love you all