Prague – My introduction to Prague is a little shaky. Our tour bus from Paris drops us off in what is obviously not the centre of the city. There’s no sign of beer-guzzling tourists or architectural wonders, just a graffitied wall, a few rundown buildings, a sandwich stand and a tattoo parlour.
We drop our things in the hostel and decide to grab a bite. Although the stand looks appealingly affordable, we’re looking for something with a little more vitamin content than deep-fried cheese sandwiches. We try a Chinese restaurant with an elaborate picture menu posted outside, hoping that pointing at the photos will make up for our inability to utter even the most basic Czech.
Our waiter instantly thumps down three glasses of draught beer and informs us that no food is being served.
I know that if I add a huge pint of beer to my empty-stomach, bus-ride hangover, my body will rebel in ways I don’t want to imagine. Also, it’s only 11 in the morning and my friend doesn’t drink alcohol under normal circumstances. We make an enemy by leaving the eager pourer behind with his three big jugs.
As it turns out, beer is something you don’t want to refuse in Prague. Once we finally get some food and sleep, I start sampling the national drink and can now say that nowhere in the world does beer taste this good.
At U Fleku, Prague’s oldest beerhall, dating to 1499, you can sit in the wooden dining room with chandeliers overhead and listen to the raucous singing of Russian tourists who agree that this city is where beer is at.
We pace ourselves enough to visit some cultural sites. Must-sees are the castle on the hill and St. Vitus, an awesome 14th-century Gothic cathedral whose earlier incarnations date back to the 10th century, where you can see a vivid stained glass window by Czech art nouveau artist Alfons Mucha.
We also join one of the ubiquitous walking tours of the Jewish quarter of Josefov and learn the sad history and amazing resilience of Prague’s Jewish community.
The central architectural testament to the survival of that community is the fully intact Old New Synagogue, which was completed in the 13th century and is both Prague’s earliest Gothic building and the oldest synagogue in Europe.
Superstition holds that the body of Rabbi Low’s Golem, a creature the rabbi invented to protect the population, is kept in the attic of the synagogue. But a more sobering explanation for the survival of the synagogue is that the Nazis intended to preserve it as part of a museum of an extinct race. Prague’s Jewish community, 100,000 people before the Second World War, now numbers several thousand.
As our stay progresses, we come to see the charm in our out-of-the-way neighbourhood. Our hostel is only a tram ride away from the downtown, and the prices here in Prague 7 are about half those in the tourist districts of the main sites.
But an even bigger score is the Ouky Douky Café just a couple of blocks away. Here is a funky haven with shelves of books, many of them first editions, original paintings by a Prague-based artist on the walls and live music. The Prague Post, an English-language newspaper, is on offer as well.
Even more satisfying to the senses is the Czech honey cake called Medovnik.
On our last night, we make the most of our authentic part of town, sitting around a table at Ouky Douky speaking a mixture of English and French, eating Medovnik and drinking Kelt dark beer.
Next day, after three days of grease and beer, I board the bus understanding Franz Kafka’s feeling about his home city: Prague has got its claws in me.