I know three things: my legs have never been so restless and cramped in my life, German fried peanuts might just be making me ill and this place smells like something. What is that? No, but really? After seven hours on a sterile bus filled with burly men speaking in some loud Slavic dialect and staring out the window at steely blue countrysides, lilac forests and teensy villages, my nose is as powerful as a Labrador’s. I continue sniffing as the ornery driver passes my backpack from the undercarriage of the double-decker and my nostrils are still flaring absent-mindedly when I hear Jay call my name:
“Zuzana, this is Allison. Allison, Zuzana. Allison! Hey!” I snap back to reality and leave categorizing that scent for later. Bundled in a puffy coat and giant scarf, Zuzana’s eyes gleam from above the woolen knit. She grabs my hand with a firm grip, almost manly.
“Welcome to Prague!” she beams and leads us out of the spitting rain. Within minutes, we stamp a trio of subway tickets and begin a whirlwind exploration of dumplings, pilsner and gypsy punk in the heart of Bohemia.
Jay and I follow Zuzana like a duo of ducklings through graffitied tunnels and down darkened side streets. While our host rambles about fire, trains and beer, we emerge onto Wenceslas Square. Gold ornamented buildings adorn the sides of the massive avenue. Zuzana leads us through gardens, past an immense set of statues and into an alleyway. Before ducking into one of the towering buildings she points in the direction of pulsing pink neon lights and mentions something about prostitutes and night clubs. I think something about being too sober for any of that.
But rather than a rave, Zuzana climbs a curving staircase into Vytopna Railway Restaurant. Model trains and pillars of flames line the brightly lit space. Undoubtedly, this place banks on its childlike novelty. We plant ourselves next to one of the miniature tracks and our host finally lets Jay and me in on the plan: we’re here for beer. Minutes later, our first draught of many arrives. But rather than sloshing on the tray of a waiter, our first Czech brew arrives by train. The little red engine zooms along and comes to sudden halt next to our table loaded with three pints. Childlike novelty, check. Adult vice, check. I jump out of lala-land. I can get on board with this.
I’ve lived in England for five months, so I’ve mastered the art of nursing a beer. After five minutes, I have done some serious doctoring. While taking another tiny sip of the golden, bubbly lager, an empty glass laced with foam slams down on the table. So it’s going to be this kind of weekend! My next gulp is gargantuan and after another minute, I place two empty pints in the caboose of a passing train. Three beers later, we teeter towards the old-school underground train and head back to Zuzana’s. Sleepily, I sniff at the chilly air, still trying to figure out the smell.
The next day we wander through the rainy streets and check out Prague’s major tourist traps. After hours of puddles and icy breezes, we finally stop for a much deserved dinner. This time we eschew flashy model trains and opt for a restaurant unknown to most tourists. We pass through a smoky bar into a simple dining room. Frayed orange and green plaid tablecloths adorn each wooden table. With a single glance at the menu, I know that I’m in for something good. I can only read the prices. In other words, locals only. Luckily Zuzana translates and negotiates with the waiter, who doesn’t speak a lick of English.
He returns with three glass mugs that glitter like yellow topaz. With frozen hands, I raise the Pilsner Urquell to purple lips. Soon after, a steaming plate of roast duck, sauerkraut and dumplings arrives to warm me up. The fatty duck falls from the bone and I shovel forkfuls of the succulent meat with piles of deep violet cabbage. Savory and sour, the combo puts any snooty French confit to shame. I finally begin tackling the medallion-shaped dumplings. Moist and chewy, they are basically lumps of steamed bread. I go from famished to full after a few bites of the dense, duck-soaked dumplings. Zuzana orders a second beer and once again I consider trying to keep up but decide to bask in my pseudo-coma. Astonished, I pay less than the Czech Crown equivalent of $3 for the entire meal.
While Zuzana can clearly rally, Jay and I aren’t quite up for a club after the hearty meal. Once again, we trail her through the evening streets to meet up with her friend Dalibor. Vibrant and energetic, Dalibor knows exactly how to solve the post-poultry slump. We spend the rest of the lingering daylight in search of a hookah joint. At first, I imagine the laser-lit “lounges” I remember from high-school. We have to journey to three separate places, each giving off better and better vibes. The first emits a puff of scented smoke and trendy indie-pop. The next occupies an unassuming basement marked solely by strings of Tibetan prayer flags. The third is empty, saved for a couple seated on a large padded dais. We’ve found our spot.
Ethereal music mingles with the thick bubbling of the lovers’ pipe, which can be heard rumbling across the dim, golden lit room. The shopkeep quickly brings out a large hookah pipe filled with black currant juice and apple and mint shisha. Expecting a meager selection of drinks based on my American precedents, I am shocked to find pages upon pages of loose leaf teas sorted by region. Dalibor explains that in Prague, shisha bars don’t exist: in this town, tea houses reign. I select a 2013 Autumnal Flush out of Darjeeling and Jay opts for a Japanese Genmaicha, a green tea mixed with roasted grains of rice. Our tea arrives on individual slatted, bamboo boxes to catch spills and drips. Both are so delicate they only need to steep for a few seconds. By far, this tiny tea house makes the English high tea tradition look foppish and over-concerned with inferior tea. Between puffs of sweet smokes transformed into rings and little sips of light yellow tea, we discuss stereotypes within western cultures, how the media treats topics like sex and what it means to be “Eastern European.”
Our night ends at Cross Club. Located outside of the city’s center, this multi-floored night club reminds me of an anarchist’s post-apocalyptic haven. In essence, Cross is like a curated junk yard. Arches of hubcaps disguise the doors and booths are built from old bus seats. Readymades coat the walls and everything either spins or lights up. Gears turn, rusty irons zigzag along the walls and windshield wipers rotate about in place of overhead fans. We grab a beer each, chug, refill and make our way into a room decorated by a collage of mother boards. The crowd moves like a turbulent ocean, pulsing to the combined beat of punk and Czech folk. Accordion, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and drums spilt from the back of a gypsy caravan serenade our sips of cheap pilsner. No doubt, this has been the weirdest and most giddy night of my trip.
An hour of jumping around and a beer or two later, the drunchies hit. Zuzana bee-lines a little shack on the outskirts of the scrap metal adult playground. Before I can protest, she orders three all beef hot dogs. I start to get a little queasy thinking about the questionable frankfurters of my childhood. But how could Prague let me down that way? A couple of minutes later, Zuzana passes me a sausage link heaped with grilled onions, spicy mustard and stewed cabbage. Goodbye reservations about red meat, I’m going full carnivore tonight. With dogs in hand, we wait for a late night trolley.
Tomorrow, I’ll hike to the highest point of Prague and stare out over the iconic red roofs of the Golden City. I’ll munch on an outrageous, $6 tuna and egg sandwich. I’ll get a taste of the unpronounceable trdelník, a sugar and walnut coated pastry. I’ll keep wondering about that unforgettable mystery smell. And after that, I’ll board a mid-day train bound for Berlin. But for now, it’s just me, Jay, Zuzana and this hot dog. What more could I need?