“I’ll never run into anyone I know,” I said to myself while packing my suitcase for a trip to Prague. Indeed, I had never even heard of the Czech Republic being touted as a trendy destination: all the glory seemed to belong to the other countries of Western Europe. By the first afternoon of my little holiday, I had met a couple of Gujarati-speaking girls who had scoped out every vegetarian eatery in town, a businessman from Delhi and his wife who had come to buy up as much Czech crystal chandeliers and tableware as they could fill their private jet (yes!) with before heading home and an excitable family of four who were trying to find a way of taking a picture of themselves with the famous clock of the town hall and without anybody else in the frame (I could have told them that it was impossible). By the middle of Day Two I had stumbled upon an ashram run by a Czech Krishna-bhakt. Complete with courtyard where a (Czech) swami sat before an awe-stricken audience, it was like any other house in Paharganj, except that this was on the steeply sloping hill that led to the Royal Palace in a European capital!
I’m not suggesting that Gopal (as the ashram was called) was typical of Prague, but to see such an offbeat entity on the venerable Mala Strana, a short walk away from Prague’s enormous royal palace complex, showed a certain willingness to bypass the conventional. The thinking out of the box could be clearly seen in other spheres too, notably jazz. The chief impression I have of Prague is music virtually spilling out of the most unlikely of places. Walk by an old church near the iconic Charles Bridge and you’d hear a double bass being tuned. Double bass in a church? Yes, and that’s because of the Czech propensity to think laterally. No place to perform music? Not enough worshippers to fill up the pews in church? Well, what could be more natural than to make the connection. And the retirees that you see all over the city, holding microphones, guitars and trombones – they’re jazz musicians. Depending where the mood takes them, you could either see them at the irresistible Old Town Square from where there was a 360 degree panorama of churches, private houses, public buildings and the Old Town Tower with its Astronomical Clock. Or you could see them performing on the Charles Bridge. The average age of the musicians might 70 but there was little comparison between them and a bunch of dadajis sitting on a Mumbai park bench wiling away the way the hours between lunch and dinner.
Jazz appeared to be the music of choice in Prague much to my delight; in fact, what struck me forcibly was the quality of music that even street musicians turned out. Many of them had instruments that defied classification and appeared to be made of auto spare parts or metal objects of unknown provenance. However they were made, the artiste playing them could extract their fullest potential. The senior citizen band that I grew to love because of the chutzpah with which they occupied the most prime locations in the city had what looked like a car radiator which emitted musical notes. Another lad with the trademark unkempt curls and scruffy sandals of a street musician used what looked like a hub cap of a car tyre to enthral passers-by at one end of Charles Bridge.
If you find Rome and Paris quintessential walking cities, you should find Prague child’s play. Within a five kilometre radius is almost everything a tourist will visit. On one side of the Vltava River is the Old Town, parts of which date back to the 11th century. On the other side, sprawling up a hill is the ‘new’ town, called so only by comparison: it is well over a century old, but compared to the other side of the river, it does seem brand new. You don’t need to walk very far or very fast: beer bars, street cafes and outdoor eateries can be found every few steps in case you need liquid refreshment. Pilsner and Budweiser are the two most common styles of beer. “Had the Czechs been half as savvy as we are, there would have been no question of us having used the Budweiser label back home,” said a lanky American to me and my friends. We were sitting at the table with the best view in a Rick Steves-approved café on top of the same hill as the Royal Palace. My friends and I were taking our time capturing the “Facebook moment” when we noticed the American couple trying hard not to look impatient for their turn at the table. It was the most coveted table in Bellavista, the most attractive garden café in the entire city, and we were not about to relinquish it without a fight. So my two friends and I invited the couple to join us at the table, which is when we learnt that the American was a lawyer who specialized in patents. He sounded slightly apologetic that his country had the patent on the Budweiser label when, by rights, it belonged to the Czech Republic. He felt even more strongly about the label ‘London Pilsner’ which he insisted was a “malafide juxtaposition of misleading names”.
Pilsner is a town in the Czech Republic. It was where a world-famous style of beer has been made for over ten centuries now. The micro breweries and the occasional monastery around the country are throwbacks to that tradition. Moravia, a province known for its wineries, makes a perfectly good easy-drinking wine, but it’s nowhere in the category of the country’s beer. Hundreds of gallons get consumed in the restaurants on Wenceslas Street, in the outdoor eateries of the Old Town Square and in local watering holes where tourists never get to. The one charming aspect of the country is the patent pride they take in showcasing their food and drink. You’ll see the tagline outside many of the restaurants that dot Prague “Authentic Czech cuisine”. Some of it is regional; some celebrates the cold cuts and delicatessen products that are sold everywhere. Others just showcase the hearty, unpretentious food of the country: generous cuts of meat, primarily beef and pork, smothered over with a sauce and a couple of dumplings to round things off. Then, there are the farmers’ markets with their accent on carefully tended fruit and vegetables.
There’s only one thing you won’t find in Prague: and that is pretentiousness.