Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Top 5 Shit Pubs in Prague (Followed by 5 Good Ones)

24/7 Herna Bar

Everyone knows Prague is full of blatant tourist muggery intent on astronomically over-charging currency-baffled, bum-bag-toting Americans for soggy Schnitzels. But those places are obvious, and not only in their shameless cruelty - look out for the burly mafioso types guarding the exits - but also in their relentlessly depressing, would-be glamourous exteriors - all blinking neon, laminated menus, and under-dressed female staff.

This piece isn't about those unsubtle staples of the tourist mile but rather focuses on the seemingly innocuous: those pubs that, from the outside, look like harmless if unremarkable drinking-holes. Yet inside all manner of perils awaits you.

All highly subjective, these choices reflect damning verdicts arrived at after a) multiple duff visits b) one bad experience or c) blind prejudice. Enjoy.

5. U Vejvodu, Old Town

A controversial choice for many, I've just never had a good time there. This massive, soulless hall with its half-arsed stab at traditional decor has apparently been over-stuffing foreigners for 600 years (or something). In that time they've perfected a very Prague-ish brand of weary nonchalance. Sold as a slice of "authentic" Czech drinking culture in the heart of the Old Town, it's basically as awful as anywhere else, only slightly cheaper. Predictably the lower prices hardly encourage the staff to be any nicer. I'm sure working in a bar in the Czech Republic is poorly-paid, and certainly I wouldn't want to do it. That it's what the frustrated, mostly middle-aged service staff do as a career forever is not only upsetting but visibly galling for them. They have my sympathy. But that's not going to make them any less bored or unimpressed at the sight of yet another gleeful Brit requesting an absinth. The whole thing grinds on interminably to a deafening, claustrophobic soundtrack of hissing beer taps and hollering stag-parties.

4. Prague Beer Museum, Namesti Miru

The original branch of this not-really-a-museum museum is so dimly-lit that it's impossible to evaluate. Not so this exciting new addition to Prague's collection of anonymous beer halls. Selling itself solely on the fact it serves 200 beers (or something near that) they've forgotten to decorate the place, install functioning toilets and decent furniture or hire actual people instead of angry, malfunctioning robots. Barely concealed hatred vies for place with the timeless of habit of just ignoring customers. All of which is slightly more excusable when someone has been at it for decades, but this place has just opened and the staff are all young. Not that the depressed jobs market is swollen with exciting jobs for the youth of Prague, but at least they've got the hope of something better ahead of them. Also, there's no need to sell 136 beers (or whatever it is). Why not sell five and change them occasionally? That's not going to happen, however, because that would require some care and forethought, qualities found hopelessly wanting. Also, the mascot - a naked sillhouette which resembles a morbidly obese Mussolini guzzling a beer - is just a bit off-putting.

3. Puerto Rico Cocktail Bar, Vinohrady

This desperate, under-loved den of a 'cocktail bar' in Vinohrady occupies a very special niche: that of the unconvincing pan-South American novelty pub. A couple of pictures of Che, cigars, cars, and wizened old men are apparently enough to 'transform' a typical pub into a carnival of cheap exotica. Always semi-deserted with aggressively loud trance music on the sound system, actually ordering a cocktail is a daunting and disappointing experience. You shout at the server several times, wait fifteen minutes, and eventually a semi-solid slop of ice and glow-in-the-dark strawberry flavouring is delivered to your table. Meanwhile, stray wires dangle ominously from the ceiling, holes are patched up with black duct tape, and one middle-aged woman cackles demonically from her smoky corner. Still, she's the closest thing to joy you'll find here. Less a drinking-hole than a sinking-hole right in the middle of my bloody neighbourhood.

2. Any Herna Bar

It feels slightly unfair to moan about Hernas. Sure, the Czech Republic's unique, 24/7 non-stop pubs are horrific by normal, "human" standards, but who hasn't ended up in one at 5 in the morning, noisily engaged in verbal battle, or quietly throwing up in an ashtray, or shooing away the unwanted attentions of some grizzled local lothario, or even being that lothario? Hernas are banned in the Old Town so you'll have to venture further afield to experience them. After all, why wouldn't you? These are places of true community spirit. It's just that the community in question consists solely of bearded old men and the barely contained sexual frustrations of their younger, randier counterparts. Approach with caution, but don't worry too much: everyone's too hammered to fight.

1. Restaurace Antal, Budejovicka

By some stretch the worst pub I've ever been to. Conveniently, for our purposes, it also represents the apex of all that is shit about Prague pubs. Pleasingly nondescript from the outside, it inhabits a strange limbo between smoky neighbourhood pub and after-work bar. The two worlds clash to dispiriting effect. Men whose poodled haircuts were probably banned in Britain in the 1970s perch upon stools, eyeing all movement with feline curiosity-cum-aggression. The frankly terrifying bar staff make it their mission to impress these watchful, squatting ringleaders by seeing who can be rudest to the unsuspecting non-regulars. The aged, denim-saturated skeletons on stools chuckle mirthlessly to themselves at their minions' shenanigans. The suited after-work types largely get in and out as swiftly as possible. More foolhardy are those, unused to the relentless venom of the oldies, who stick around to get drunk. As the drinks accumulate so does the anger of the bar staff, who take to verbal abuse and deliberately adding extra drinks to the bill. Eventually a sort of pissed Stockholm Syndrome develops in which the victims come to see their treatment not only as appropriate but laudable. You give feeble thanks for their service, go home, and cry yourself to sleep.

Now five of the opposite: places that, for whatever reason, get it right.

5. Duende, Old Town

I hated this place on my first visit, probably because it was full of exuberantly drunk teenagers who insisted on flirting with each other and wearing their baseball hats backwards. Since then they've mercifully been absent, allowing me to appreciate the slightly shabby, messy quality that a few pubs in Prague manage but Duende has perfected. Also, it's right next to Hemingway's, a just-the-right-side-of-posh cocktail bar, and Standard Cafe, a friendly late night coffee shop and bar, so when one is full you can push onto either of the others.

4. The Pub, Old Town

Depending on your perspective this is either a chaotic window into hell itself or a deliriously fun battering ram of the senses. The owners have done everything they can to encourage mass beer consumption - allowing punters to pour their own pints and keeping an international league of beers-per-table on screens around the room (curiously Bucharest always seems to be first). The emphasis is clearly on drunk people's innate tendency to compete like gluttonous feudal barons over who can consume most rabidly: Germans and Americans alike remove their shirts and mount tables in bizarre, highly ritualised displays of drinking prowess. All of which is really quite exciting if you can set aside your, um, dignity, self-respect and intelligence, and just brainlessly enjoy it. It's sort of the drinking equivalent of smashing up old furniture just because you can. If you can't pour a pint of beer at the start of the evening you'll soon be an expert. Drunken idiocy, then, but done right.

3. Cafe Mlynska, Mala Strana

With more hipsters than you can shake a fixie at, this converted water-mill on Kampa island has just the right amount of artiness. It's the sort of place that guide books describe as "relaxed", but is also big enough and gets busy enough to feel lively in the evenings. No one ever shouts at you for mispronouncing "peanuts" in Czech and no one tries to con you out of 30 kc every time you go there, which is at least a relief. The thing that really swings it is the building itself - accessible by a candle-lit bridge over a tributary of the Vltava, it has an unmatchably special atmosphere without being too precious.

2. U Bulinu, Vinohrady

Technically this is a restaurant but so is number one in the worst list. The staff are weird but friendly (one waiter insists on wearing a single white velevetine glove at all times, as if in mourning for Michael Jackson) and for some reason the walls are filled with photos of people with horns. But don't let that put you off: the food's great and the place comes with a bafflingly translated, ludicrously convoluted origin story printed inside every menu. Great fun, and proof that "traditional" Czech pubs can be excellent.

1. V Lese, Vrsovice

So it occasionally gets overrun with earnest looking Magic the Gathering-types, but mostly V Lese gets it right: often-decent bands play in the semi-refurbished basement while people sit around on knackered furniture upstairs. Prague's "older crowd", usually hardy enough to show up anywhere selling booze, are put off by the loud music, meaning there are refreshingly few tobacco-addled, double-denim-rocking snaggle-tooths to be seen (sorry, old Czech men, it's true). Instead nice young people in nice clothes chat amiably and roundly fail to assault each other with the strength of their booze-breath. Call me bourgeois, but it's literally a breath of fresh air.

Monday, 17 February 2014

On Crossing Schengen Borders

Derelict border control point at Bad Schandau

In the strange world of European Union administration, world-altering events take the form of tedious bureaucratic elisions. So it was that the Schengen agreement, almost as an afterthought to a free trade deal, removed all border controls for millions of people. If all the accumulated stuff of Europe was to circulate freely, the functionaries decided with an absurd flourish, people would have to follow. To perpetual amazement, and with more than a hint of wariness, people could suddenly just walk into other countries legally and by the most direct means.

I can remember taking the train from Slovakia to Austria in 2006 (the year before Slovakia entered Schengen; its legal obligation, having joined the EU in 2004). Armed police and sniffer dogs patrolled every carriage, kneeling under seats and checking passports. Two years later I went back to Bratislava (Slovakia's capital) from Vienna, and a friend could carry a bag of weed as freely as he would on the local metro.

On the journey from Posnan, in Poland, to Berlin, you have to change at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. These days the train dodges the old, impervious checkpoints at the border, the crossing of which goes unannounced. You board a more modern train in Germany, and the language of the staff switches. Apart from that there's little noticeable difference. It's all oddly straightforward. Perhaps because I'm from an island, where all countries seem impossibly distant, but this process of switching over - undertaken with the same level of gravity as a change of coat - still amazes me.

From Prague to Dresden, in Germany, the change-over is even smoother. At the Czech-German border station in Bad Schandau, the Czech staff simply hop off and tip their hats to their boarding German counterparts. In turn the Germans nod and clamber up the train stairs. It's a sort of modest Schandau ballet. Announcements are made in German, Czech and English throughout. A pleasant jingle - the same on both sides - blares out before each station. On the approach to Bad Schandau the train runs past the deserted border control point, visible across the expanse of the Elbe/Labe. It is a ghostly thing: overhanging the river bank, it's a reminder of an alternate, long-dead modernity which involved lots of papers, offices, and long car inspections.

Either side of that building there is pleasingly little difference: only the paintwork on the villas that line the river gets a bit glossier on the German side. The people look basically the same. For countries with a history of bitter enmity, there is little today to distinguish them. This is strangely reassuring, as if to suggest that the past can be buried in a new European present of underlying similarity. Then again, similarity is hardly a bar to conflict.

Although it's become incomparably easier for Europeans in the Schengen zone to travel, the authorities still watch over things, and they have their preferences. When my girlfriend first went to Dresden by train the police got on, gave the different compartments the once-over, and ignored everyone except a Vietnamese family, whose passports they then proceeded to check. No one like to be singled out, especially when everyone else goes without questioning. Of all places, the German Military Museum in Dresden contains a stark reminder of what the internal removal of passport controls means for outsiders trying to get in: on display are two ladders cobbled together from thick tree branches, both used by would-be immigrants to scale the fences between Morocco and the Spanish towns of Ceuta and Melilla on the north African coast. These two exclaves, encircled by miles of metal fencing to protect them from local populations, mark the southern borders of the EU. Freedom of movement within the EU has been accompanied by increasingly hysterical concern about who else is coming in from the outside. A reminder, then, that such freedom of movement is only permissible for EU authorities insofar as it is not emulated beyond EU borders. Those who hold up the EU as an example to be emulated throughout the world would do well to bear this contradiction in mind: in a situation of inherent inequality, the benefits that pertain to the privileged few risk being undermined if they are spread too widely.        

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Prague is not the best place in the world...

Our road: Luzicka, Vinohrady, Prague

One problem with expat writing is the tendency to varnish the image of one's adopted home. Few people ever moan about where they've wound up living because everyone ultimately wants it to look appealing. This is one of the major motivations behind writing a blog, after all: to convince the world, and yourself, that everything is just swell. But I can honestly say, despite living here and really liking it, that Prague is not the loveliest place in the world. It's just quite nice. And what most self-affirming blog bilge tries to conceal is that most of us, even the most upwardly mobile, successful and wealthy of us, live in places that are basically just quite nice, and that we happen to live in them largely by chance. For the rare few who have always had a dream place - say, New York or London - you either get lucky or compromise. The rest of us are basically happy if there's a decent pub nearby and good connections to a supermarket. I fall into the latter group: I didn't always want to live in Prague but I do (for now). It'll never be New York, and there's good reason for that.

Near our flat: Part of a city centre or just a village?

Prague has always occupied a peculiar position between the cosmopolitan and the backwater. As seat of the Holy Roman Emperor its splendour was apparently unrivalled. But mythologising this cosy knot in the Vltava proves too easy. Rudolf II might have relocated to Prague in 1575, but this dotty mystic was more an advertisement for eccentricity than raw imperial power. Modern times recall little of Prague's old eminence, instead turning the ancient metropole itself into a nicely fossilised anachronism. Its pre-Hapsburg landmarks - Hradcany, the Radnice, Charles Bridge, the Tyn Church and so on - lie upon it like an ill-fitting suit of armour. Bohemian defeat at Bila Hora (White Mountain) put paid to native religious ambitions, piety subsequently ditched for reasons of national resentment (this long before any atheist-communist put pen to paper). So began the national Dark Ages (doba temna), the conclusion of which - depending on how pessimistic the person you ask - remains uncertain.

On our road

Every year in January Prague briefly renews this national Dark Age. Life retreats indoors, seams of churned snow clog every street, and a fog thick enough to cushion a fall descends on the city. In the long winter, the quiet back streets of Vinohrady (the suburb where we live) linger, empty and without purpose, after the short dusk. Dog walkers tuck their heads inside tufty hoods and rustle through the darkness. By day the sunken murmur of coffee-drinkers defines all interiors; the weary thrum of trams as they accelerate up and down Vinohradska and Korunni does the same for the external world. The drooping pastel apartment blocks blanch beneath the snow and floods of mist. Everything assumes a murky, discoloured layer of browned ice. Shattered faces seek out the reassurance of subterranean cafes. There's something deeply charming about this: the act of exchanging a bruised, mottled world for one of intimacy and warmth. But still, where's the vibrancy? Where's the energy and relish of city life? This, then, is when a place (like a person) has become truly familiar: when its defining quirks are at once annoying and endearing.

Vinohrady with snow

Jiriho z Podebrad farmer's market in February, Vinohrady, Prague
Perhaps it's the tedious reality of all cities: beneath the florid exteriors, all are secretly tethered down by the rigorous monotony of work. It's only in the imagination of the day tripper, off to see the bright lights, that cities are carnivalesque playgrounds. Yet there is a difference between Prague, with its working week austerity and its sleepy, empty weekends, and the bigger European cities. Where can compete with, say, London or Berlin, which in their different ways daily regurgitate the truly vast human energy - financial, industrial, administrative, creative - they draw in from around them and the rest of the world? That, I suppose, is the benefit of being a global entrepot sucking in and redirecting global trade and finance. Though historically it was London which played that role, Berlin's expensive postcommunist make-over, relatively cheap rents, and strong artistic and cultural traditions have led it down a chaotic path to resurgence. Yet chaotic is the key word: Berlin's social contradictions are in fact what make it so appealing, not the success (or indeed lack thereof) of "modernisation" (i.e. liberalisation) of the city's economy. Despite the buzz around innovation (Europe's third "most innovative" region, apparently), the excitement of Berlin comes as much from the opposition to gentrification as the actual process itself. Squats and artistic collectives have fought long and hard to preserve Berlin's cheapness and the right to social benefits and subsidy of the arts. In this sense, Berlin's older - sometimes communist-nostalgist - citizens have something in common with the progressive student-led young: the demand for affordability. There is a certain convergence of tradition and newness in the context of radical changes, making the city's future look open to those who can seize it. The same cannot be said of the deeply polarised society of London.

Wintry quiet: the school on the corner of our road

Neither can it be said of Prague. Although this city's ongoing liberalisation has generated extraordinary concentrations of wealth, an increasingly difficult-to-fund welfare system has tottered into what are seemingly its last days (the previous government only held back because its momentum suffered from corruption scandals; some social pruning seems inevitable, even under the new Social Democrat-led coalition). And while the city has continued to grow - especially relative to the rest of the country - no satisfactory recycling of profits into social welfare has been implemented. The Czech Republic has an apparently investment-pleasing flat tax rate of 15%, making vital maintenance work costly for both municipal governments and private community groups (many apartment blocks remain cooperatively owned but underfunded). Thus the housing-stock is deteriorating, while, increasingly, average-income Czechs are pushed out to the periphery. The Czech economy is finally emerging from a recession of record length. unemployment, low by European standards, still stands at over 8 per cent.

To this observer at least this process has given the centre of Prague an occasionally neglected, stripped-to-the-bone feeling. Lots of the old early 20th century buildings in Vinohrady, where I live, have had expensive renovation work done to them, presumably by private individuals or by co-ops, who have subsequently been unable to afford their upkeep. As such the walls are regaining their famous communist-era layer of grime. Chunks of plaster and paint regularly fall down from the roofs and balconies, requiring whole pavements be roped off to avoid falling debris. And there is a lot of dog shit. What better evidence could there be of continuing alienation and distrust of the capital than the willingness with which people let their dogs excrete on every available surface? Talk about passive protest. To my endless frustration, this means it's risky to ever lower my guard: look up for falling shrapnel; down for fresh droppings.

The not so discreet charm of the bourgeoisie:
Monuments to a vanished class in Vinohrady, Prague 

But Prague still exercises a strange attraction. The city's grandeur is sweetly tempered by its element of the shambolic; its Old Town cannot be beaten for sheer beauty; its skyline is a perfect blend of symmetry and asymmetry. Vinohrady, this twice-gentrified suburb with its uptight, ageing population and suspicious curtain-twitchery, mounts the eastern slopes of the town like some civilisational still-life: the ruins of a vanished kingdom where everyone aspired to bourgeois respectability and kept a cat on a neoclassical balcony. It is the final remainder of the new bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, which built entire city quarters in tribute to itself. The new world of the 21st century stands uncomfortably in its shoes. 

Photos by Siobhan