BEER TRAVELLERS: PRAGUE

Adrian Tierney-Jones explores the Czech capital and discovers simple pleasures

I am in Prague, a city that I fall in and out of love with, a city that brings joy, but can also frustrate, but on this Sunday morning it is a city with which I am very much smitten. And when the stars come out and the planets strive to influence my moods, I love to walk the streets of Prague without purpose, to stroll with no ambition of arrival, to be a flâneur, to be an observer, to vanish into the beauty of its cityscape. The joy of this urban-based wandervogel is that I never know what I will find but I do know that I always build up a thirst, and so on this grey Sunday morning the end result of my aimless amble in the Holešovice district on the north bank of the Vltava is Klášterní Pivnice.

I had heard its name before, old school, smoky, an authentic corner pub and an antidote to the city’s craft beer joints that look like coffee shops and where IPA is the lingua franca (not that there is anything bad about this, I love Zlý časy, Pivovarský klub, Illegal and Ale! Bar, for instance, but sometimes I just want to drink a Saaz-ravished světlý ležák — and lots of it). So there I was, taking time out from my travels, outside the pub, along with a couple of smokers, a thirst continuing to build up like an array of buses stuck on Oxford Street. Before I went through the door, I played a little game and tried to imagine Klášterní Pivnice as a person — perhaps a gruffly-spoken, take-no-nonsense bar tender, male or female, the kind of person that turns even the biggest of mouths into timid people-pleasers.

After all, it’s an unremarkable looking place, located on the ground floor of an apartment block, maybe built under the communists and tarted up in the last few years, but then I noted the three windows, each of which was stuffed with odds and sods such as old typewriters, empty bottles and a lone laptop from the age of steam. Instead of being unbearably quirky (like children’s TV presenters who shout out that they are ‘WHACKY!’), this felt more like a let’s-put-some-old-tat-in-the-window-for-a-laugh kind of thing, which I rather liked (though I could be wrong and maybe the typewriters represent some kind of literary crusade).

Inside, there was a silence reminiscent of a church before the service begins — the odd laugh, the murmur of conversation, and a sense of tranquility. It was 11am but there were only a few drinkers about. In the back room where I took my pint of Klášter Ležák (crisp and refreshing, an ideal companion for this first sip of the day), there was an harmonious balance between the silence of several drinkers reading their newspapers and the occasional clunk of glass mugs as a group of four guys toasted the morning once more (though I did wonder if they had been to bed yet, as a couple had the look of the swiped, slack faced pot-valiant about them). Meanwhile the bar tender was unceasing as he roved the back room looking for who wanted their glass replenished.

If you’re interested in such trifles, there were four draft beers on (none of them an IPA): as well as the one I was drinking, there were beers from Chotěboř, Primátor and one other, whose name I couldn’t be bothered to record. I think the mood of the pub affected me, got me to forget my constant rattling around the taxonomy of beer and join in the sheer joy of this unpretentious boozer, where time seemed to stretch and turn in on itself. As I gulped my beer (it started as sips, but it was soon apparent that this was a beer to gulp), an elderly man came in and sat at a table, his face like a map of a distant fabulous land. Up sprung the bar tender once more with a pint and a chaser, and the man with the face of a world we shall never see sat with his magazine, silent and still, each gulp (the gulping was infectious) of the beer like a soliloquy to his place in the world of this pub.

The back room had the feel of a hideaway, a cave perhaps, a wooden, panelled cave, painted green, while the tables and chairs were brutalist brown. As if to demonstrate the room’s communal aspect, a bench travelled along the three walls. Old faded prints of local football teams lined the wall alongside scarves and – curiously – a pennant for West Ham. Once more the sense of local was emphasised.

A dog (a French Bulldog called Rocky), who’d come in the company of the four revellers, roamed the room and settled beneath a table where a man in reflective clothes, his night shift finished perhaps, sat with a friend and ate his lunch (a robust, meaty menu, old school). The man surreptitiously slipped the dog scraps and I continued diving deeper into my beer (24 crowns for a pint if you’re interested in that sort of thing, which makes it about 90p). It wasn’t the best beer in the world but it was perhaps the best beer in the best pub in the world at that moment in time. There was an informality and a homeliness about the place even if I didn’t share the language and the life choices on display.

If you want to see the Czech love for beer before craft took over or away from the PU, Staro and Budvar pubs, then somewhere like this is an essential place to visit. It’s a boozer’s paradise, a hiding place, an easy place to write and a lair where enough time might make you part of the crowd. Which is sometimes what beer and pubs are all about: belonging.

Meanwhile Rocky continued to scout across the room and the bar in search of fallen titbits and his human companions kept carousing.

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