Flying nachos platters at Jo’s Bar became the backdrop for every CNN segment on the New Bohemians from Seattle (or was it Des Moines?) and tales of the verses scribbled at The Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse made for more column inches in the Sunday New York Times than the verses themselves ever could have filled.
In flocked the disenchanted, the New Age alchemists, the terminally underemployed, the empowered sisterhood and, for a little color, the occasional purloined plutonium/heroin trafficker.
All these people clamored for organic cilantro, sun-dried tomatoes, wine with a bouquet of oak and buffalo grass, latte, very loud, obscure music, in-your-face art, Jim Jarmusch movies, byzantine underground concert venues with juice bars, old things for their apartments, modem hook-ups for their cellulars.
Something had to give.
It did. Welcome to Prague, post-millennium style, land of fresh gluten free bread at LS Zetis bakery (Hrdlořezská 30/51 190 00 Prague 8 284 827 120) which sells on Mondays at Diana Svět Oříšků (Vocelova 606, Praha 2), he world music festival at Palác Akropolis, the Czech jazz CD rack at AghARTA, the well-served brews of the U Medvídku pub, the ground-breaking modern dance moves at Labyrint, and the Click Internet Cafe. It’s arrived: the glorious future all the men in gray promised on the socialist worker posters.
Now if we can just finish scrubbing off all the soot and surly attitudes they left….
What’s Hot in Prague
Yes, even this far down the free market road the face of Prague is visibly different from week to week. Monolithic hardware shops are reopened as wine and cheese emporiums and cheesy discos are made over as Continental cuisine specialists with long, sleek bars and brushed steel/rough-hewn wood interiors.
The Bacchus gourmet shop and wine cellars and the panoramic Duplex are only the most recent examples. Filmic, gothic, medieval walkways with more ghosts per capita than even London are regularly giving rise to designer ice cream and organic grain shops. By the time this book is printed don’t be surprised to find a virtual sex/custom eyewear boutique on Wenceslas Square. And if service there is sporadically surly, don’t be surprised either: Some old habits are easier to shake off than others.
The Czech sound…
Not Britpop derivative, not grunge, but Czech underground. Often dark, always ironic, rooted in bitter-sweet Slavic folk traditions and sometimes klezmer, it won’t export and its creators don’t much care.
The members of Psí Vojáci have seen their world turned upside down, been lied to about the infallibility of communism, then lied to about the infallibility of the dollar. Their surreal imagery, minimalism and overcast tone (Prague’s annual sunny day count averages 40) rings with painful truth.
So do the sax and vocal anthems of Zuby Nehty or just about anyone else on the Rachot, Indies or Black Point labels. Dub Artillery, meanwhile, mixes Czech, Afrikaans and English in a polemic dub style that uniquely blends Jamaican rage with Bohemian introspection. A thorough indie streak was in place long before 1989 and for a Western artists to really rate, they must dwell among the idiosyncratic and the edgy, regardless of age: Patti Smith, John Cale and Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Zappa, The Tiger Lillies, Tricky and Henry Rollins. Michael Bolton will never play Prague and if he does he’ll have the hall to himself.
The classics are never out of fashion. Bribery is a Central European custom all the rage at least since the Hapsburg Empire two centuries ago and financiers still get arrested almost as regularly as German businessmen visit Central Hotel Prague. But the best part: All this combined with soot-blacked seraphim and crooked cobblestones create the atmosphere of a grainy film noir spy flick minus the danger. For all the black marketeers at Cross Club and the frisson of stormtrooper doormen at Radost, Prague is still a safer city than your average American farming community. (Consumer protection is sometimes another story and it always pays to count your change – and to make sure your menu has the same prices as the one printed in Czech.)
Sufficiently sublime to survive all the MTV/Rolling Stone hype and still pack ’em in grotty pubs night after night. Could make an alcoholic of John the Baptist. The base place to set up as your base bar is the legendary Chapeau Rouge (above). For a breakdown, ask any long-term resident: They will almost certainly possess and encyclopedic knowledge of Žižkovská hospoda’s vs. U Vejvodů’s offerings.
Summer means rowing around Žofín on the Vltava River, fresh dill and parsley at the Havelská trh, flowers for every kitchen table; summer wouldn’t be summer without the outdoor raves, the Talich Quartet with Dvořák variations in a gazebo, fresh Bohemia blueberries, the Summer Writer’s Workshop readings at The Globe and infinite evenings sipping beer under the leaves at Letenský zámeček; autumn is burčák (the first fermentations of wine) at U Sudu, old folks on the metro hauling baskets bursting with mushrooms (the same ones that will end up in your pasta sauce at U Patrona), Dobrá čajovna on a crisp evening and Jan Knop at AghaRTA; winter is svařák (mulled wine) at Bar Bar as the snow drifts down, carp slaughter at the hands of fishmongers around Old Town Square for Christmas Eve dinner and dress balls at Národní dům.
A smash in the 20s as background score for the salad days of Czechoslovakia between the wars, it was put down, but never out, by both the Nazis and the communists. Now it’s back and mad as hell.
Just about anything at AghaRTA Jazz Centrum or U Staré Paní is likely to smolder. The catch, and it’s a big one, is that jazz here, as anywhere, doesn’t make a dime. Which means there are precious few clubs and the same artists have to play constantly, shift genres, and do every venue. Considering the demands of shape-shifting, the shine is quite incredible. The Prague advantage is that its rep in jazz attracts the brightest international acts for festivals like the Teacher’s Jazz series in summer (Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, McCoy Tyner, The Yellow Jackets, Art Farmer, Ray Brown…).
No, it isn’t that there’s a vital and compelling scene of innovators exactly; it’s more that everyday life is spent surrounded by the chiseled atlantes of Obecní dům, the Renaissance sgraffito of Prague Castle, Mozart basset horns pouring from the windows of Nostický palác, and the surreal sculpture of František Skála at the National Gallery’s modern art mecca, Veletržní palác.
Just heading out for a walk your senses will be ambushed by the prizes of nine centuries that were somehow never bombed or (completely) burned: exquisite craftwork like inlaid wood, impossibly intricate clocks, wrought iron worked into shapes no modern fabricator could touch, all just for doorways . If you’re not careful, you’ll be inspired by all this to do something rash like seeing an opera. And just suppose you love it? Then what?
Booming back from the days of state collectives, when fine wine was considered too bourgeois to stand behind, vino from the sunnier southeasterly half of the Czech Republic is winning international recognition. Distribution is still the weakest link, however, and most wine cellars even in Old Town serve mixed dregs from unidentified barrels.
A new wave of wine shops like the Bacchus are fighting to remedy this, as are one or two other serious dealers and restaurants. So if presented with the opportunity, seize on any chance at the 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon from H&B Velké Pavlovice or the Barrique oak-aged Sv. Vavřinecké (St. Laurent) of Vinné sklepy rodiny Špalkovy. Bohemia Sekt, the Czech champagne giant, has also won hearts recently with its highly affordable Chateau radynů. If the Česká vinotéka line is too limited (which it is), try the Bandol Wine Bar’s top-notch collection or the fine vintages stocked at Victoria’s Wine in the posh part of Žižkov. Otherwise it’s looking like a drive down to Znojmo on the Austrian border.
Bargain-crazed Czechs, many of whom survived Nazis deprivations, have thrifting so down that even throwaways are left neatly folded on top of trash cans, lest anyone should pass by who can use a nice holy seersucker. Generally, some ex-pat can and promptly records a moving experience and a cultural breakthrough his journal. Hottest sources: The Prague Thriftshop in Vinohrady has lots of Czech Kitsch and highquality second hand and not a bad CD bin… for vinyl, try Record Junkie. If you’re looking for something new and unique, head over to Hypnose Boutique in Prague’s Slovanský Dům, or for more of an adventure, any of a hundred anonymous shops in Žižkov (try Husitská or Koněvova streets) selling funky imports. You’ll pay about 600 percent less.
What’s Not Hot
Temperance. See above. ‘Nuff said.
Cynics. If Praguers may no longer sit up in pubs all night expecting the worst from a corrupt bureaucracy, then visitors here can’t hide out at NOD or The Globe either, (well, at least not every night) comparing Prague clubs unfavorably with the hippest Bay Area venues. Do your self a favor and break away from the pack: Learn a couple of Czech greetings, meet a few locals and lift a mug – the world will be a warmer, wiser place.
Packaged superstars. The concert crowds aren’t relying on PolyGram to tell them what’s cool. Why should they?
Commie kitsch. Sorry, the red stars and granite Lenins are all in a disused hangar somewhere out in a corn field (which is fitting – that was the designated workers’ victory crop planted in innocent meadows and cleared woods all over Bohemia). Though there might just be a few odd traces of the bad old days here and there, and should you want a victory lap around the dustbin of history, the best place to check them out is at the Museum of Communism and the commie themed bar The Iron Curtain.
Diners and bagels. Gorge yourself before you come: Oddly enough, in the land where red meat rules, the closest thing to a recognizable flame-broiled all-beef patty is served at McDonald’s. Americana has disturbingly been packed into a few country & western bars but no one yet is serving breakfast all day or a grilled cheese, chilli fries and a shake, unless you feel like eating at the Hard Rock Cafe all the time (Malé náměstí 142/3, 110 00 Prague 1-Old Town 224 229 529, www.hardrock.com). And the only decent bagel can only be foundat one of the Bohemia Bagel outlets. (This is exactly the kind of comparison-making you were warned of earlier. It was a test).
Photography by Darren Halls