plzen & its beer

The city of Plzen (pronounced Pilzen) holds a particular attraction for beer lovers, as it is the home of the first true pilsner beer Pilsner Urquell.  The Czech name for it is Plzensky Prazdroj, which literally means “original pilsner”.  It only contains four ingredients (water, barley, hops, & yeast) and was first brewed here in the mid 1800’s when it became a smashing success for the town.  However, do to both it’s popularity and the unfortunate business oversight of not trademarking “pilsner” soon enough, the word pilsner began to be used to describe lesser-quality beers that carry similar characteristics but none of the unique flavor of the original.  For instance, the American Budweiser (brewed with rice, of all things…) is called a “pilsner” but has very little resemblance to its great-grand daddy. 

The tour of the brewery was interesting, not so much in what we learned, but in how proud they are of their beer.  We walked through a multi-thousand dollar exhibit dedicated solely to the water they use to make the beer.  (It’s water.  You need it to make beer.  We get it.)  The video room where they tell the story of how they make the beer has a 270 degree screen that you watch while standing on a slowly rotating platform. They’ve really put a lot of money into convincing you that they are something special.

As for myself, I was convinced that they’ve got something special before I went. Of all the “pilsner” beers that I’ve ever had, Pilsner Urquell has long been a favorite. The best part was going down into their cellar where they originally stored the beer while it was fermenting. They have over 9km of cellar tunnels and rooms in which they used to age the beer in giant barrels. What’s great is that they still use the cellar for small batches to test and make sure that the current modern process matches the quality that came from their roots. So, they still age small batches in huge barrels which you get to sample on the tour. I have to say that unfiltered, unpasteurized pilsner is wonderful.

There is much more to Plzen than it’s beer… it has a somewhat interesting history with respect to WWII (they have a museum dedicated to General Patton that we visited) and the ubiquitous cathedral (St. Bartholomew in this case, which has the tallest spire in the country).

All together, it was a great day trip which ended with a relaxing evening back at Andrea and Greg’s place. Andrea and I cooked dinner for Andy’s birthday, and celebrated with pieces of a Czech desert (I forget the name at the moment Medovmik) which is a slightly-sweet honey cake.

Karlstejn, Kutna Hora

Yesterday and today we took day trips outside of Prague. The first was to Karlstejn which is a walled fortress built as a summer home for Charles IV.  Construction started in 1348 and like most things that have been around for over 600 years ago it has a history that’s longer than I can possibly remember.  The basics are that it’s big, beautiful, and you can’t go into the more interesting parts of the structure… you know, the beautiful room gilded in gold, encrusted in jewels, etc. etc.

Today we spent the day today in Kutna Hora, after a brief stop at a Bohemian crystal outlet and factory.  There were two major highlights of that trip to me: a silver mine from the 13th century, and a church decorated with bones from literally thousands of human beings. It’s hard to imagine, but the walls and door-frames and ceilings were entirely decorated with human bones.  There was a family crest made from bones. Several pyres (huge piles) of bones. Even a chandelier made from at least one of every bone in the human body.  It’s really hard to imagine what someone had on their mind when they were thinking that these works of art (they really are, in a strange way, beautiful) should be in a house of worship.  This is what happens, apparently, when you run out of space for all of the bodies in your back yard.

Tonight, we hit the town for an evening of local modern jazz and drinks (green fairies, anyone?), which was a welcome relaxation and entertainment after sloughing around in cold, dark mines all afternoon.

As for tomorrow, we’re celebrating Andy’s 24th birthday with a trip to Pilzen, the one-true home of Pilzner beer.

I’ll get the pictures from these day trips up later… the camera is busy charging, and my brain is busy sleeping.

touristically satisfied

Overlooking PragueThe Czech Republic is a country my father could love.  Not so much the walking around everywhere, because Prague is certainly a walking man’s city and my dad is not that kind of tourist.  I’m mainly talking about the cuisine.  It is absolutely made to satisfy the midwestern pallet; it is entirely based off of meat and potatoes and in such a way to require a beer in hand.  To use Andy’s new favorite word, it’s dipsomaniacal

Sure, that may sound boring for some, but the thing about meat and potatoes is that when it’s done right it’s absolutely fantastic.  And every meal I’ve had so far has been great, from street vendor sausage to pub-goulash.  Sauerkraut, pork, lamb, beef, potatoes, and bread are the basis for pretty much every standard Czech dish.  The only thing I’ve seen that was outside of the meat & potatoes genre has been the ‘turdlo’ which is a thin dough baked on wide spinning cylinders, covered with a light dusting of sugar.  And that, my friends, is delicious.

As for what it’s like being in Prague: it’s the history that just astounds me.  Being from America, I feel like I have such a shallow history, at least in terms of how short the history of my country is.  Roughly 230+ years of history are nothing compared to the centuries of culture, history, stories, and lifetimes lived in a country like The Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia, formerly Nazi German occupied, formerly part of Austria-Hungary, formerly…  Realizing that the U.S.of A. has only had 2 major skirmishes on our soil, and that scant few of our buildings are hardly over two centuries old, makes us look like wee babes in the world of geo-politicalness.  So, wondering around castles that are older than my country kinda helps me put it all into perspective.
We have just seen the most beautiful things.  It’s really hard to take it all in when every building looks like a work of art compared to what I walk past every day in the states.  Between the castles, the bridges, the churches, and the museums I’ve had more input than I can really deal with in two days.  And I’m love’n it. Today was a re-tour of the Prague Castle (we missed a lot on the first day) and the Museum of Communism.  Andy and I also got the chance to explore Hradcany, which is the neighborhood around the castle.  It was kind of nice to be on our own for the good part of the day and just explore at our leisure.

(The picture below is from the Museum of Communism: this was propaganda in the late ’50s, inciting fear about possible American chemical warfare on the communists.  Remember, kids, hold hands when you’re running for your life.)

True Love is a Gas Mask