There is almost never a quiet moment on Charles Bridge. Nor at the Old Town square beside the astronomical clock and neither outside St. Vitus Cathedral. People often do not like this; they say that Prague is ‘nice and all’ but ‘there are just so many tourists’. It’s ironic, in the Alanis Morrissette kind of way.
We have this notion, this fantasy when travelling to a place, that when we get there we are one of the few or the first to discover it. That we will walk through silent streets, with looming presences of magnificently historical or intriguing architecture framing your vision, and the locals like props part of a musical shouting, ‘Bonjour!’ or ‘Ola!’ at you as you smile and wave like a monarch, or be mocked as an oddity like the villagers of Belle’s Villeneuve.
Yes, these are just fantasies, ones shared by most of us and unrealised because of each other.
You are a tourist and they are tourists, and you complaining about tourists is you complaining about yourself. I suppose the only people that truly have the right to complain are the locals, those who’ve lived there for a while and call the place their home. But what is ‘a while’ or ‘long time’ these days? The world is so connected now, blood so variably constituted, that the concept of home joins the list of others that have become amorphous in public consciousness.
Nevertheless, as is testament to the astounding beauty of Prague, one finds moments when the mind suspends time and is absorbed into the space as if caught by a work of art, transfixed as an individual in a maelstrom of bodies and noise, listening to the throbbing heart of the city. Tourist, local, businessperson, it doesn’t matter. Between moments of excitement and tiredness and eventual respite, these spectacular sites command the attention of its visitors in ways beyond mere introspection. As we sat talking on a bench on one of Prague’s small river islands, box of Chlebicky on my lap and a bottle of Rosé in Maddy’s bag to take to the flat for lunch, we felt the city’s symphony in our veins.
It made us wonder about the way in which we take things for granted, how, when we live in a place long enough, we do not appreciate the things that drew us there to begin with. This even more blasphemous for people who were born and raised in such cities as Prague. When one can walk along the riverside, weave through the quaint streets of the market districts or chew on a wonderfully luscious sauce soaked dumplings without feeling a touch of the sublime, there is a terrible injustice being done. Being traveller allows you access to the sheer spectacle of a city, without suspension, until the journey eventually ends.
No, we were not stoned, but we were high. High off good juju, gorgeous weather and the prospect of good food in the near future.
We got a box of Obložené chlebíčky or chlebíčky for short, at this small sandwich bar called Sisters in Old Town. These are effectively slices of bread or crostinis laden with toppings that would otherwise go into a sandwich, though I must say, are not limited to the imagination of mere sandwich making. There are some ingredients or compositions that do not necessarily lend themselves to being sandwiched, Eggs benedict and Avocado toast comes to mind, and it is within this area that the chlebíčky flourishes. It does not seem like the most revolutionary idea, but in Prague it is almost perceived as a signature national innovation. There are restaurant owners that still argue about who developed the idea first, decades after its inception.
There were about ten to fifteen different kinds of chlebíčky on offer at Sisters, significantly smaller than some of the ones we’d seen in bakery windows. They were pretty though: colourful, vibrant and extremely appetising. As consequence of my famous indecisiveness when faced with too many good choices, we decided to purchase six (yes, six!) different kinds of Chlebicky to try: Roast beef, Ham and Egg, Herring Wasabi Mayo, Egg Mayo and Shrimp, Beetroot hummus and a generic Smoked Salmon and Cream cheese. As one could probably tell, we decided to go with a mixture of both slightly adventurous and comfortable flavours just to keep the risk factor in check.
Fortunately, all were brilliant with the assortment turning out to be strangely harmonious. The relatively heavy roast beef and the ham and egg were potently adjusted by the pungent wasabi herring and the sweet tartness of the beetroot hummus. The egg mayo shrimp and the smoked salmon cream cheese were unremarkable but comforting as they almost always tend to be. Every bite of the others we took was exactly like enacting a scene from Ratatouille, seeing like Remy did, the colourful lights of flavour move to the foot tapping music of texture. Of course, there were those we liked more than others, but overall the chlebíčky experience was a special one. Special enough, I might add, that we got another box of them to eat during our train journey to Bratislava.
Whether it is for a picnic, stopover lunch by the river or a pack-up for the travel, a box of chlebíčky is a great meal especially on exhausting days where one needs to keep the energy up. In terms of the rejuvenating quality of food, most menus in Prague tend to work against you, offering up almost literal showstoppers and tranquilizers that make you crave a cool spot under a tree or the warmth of your hotel room to catch a nap. Depending on where you go and what kinds your order, chlebíčky offers a good way out of the cycle. If we’d tried the famous open face sandwiches earlier, we probably would have had them for lunch every day!