Travelog: Prague – Svíčková and Phoney Service Charges


The first time I heard about Prague was when I was about ten years old, in a conversation where my dad’s friend Simon was telling him about how my brother and I would get bored if we were taken there on holiday. ‘Prague is not for kids,’ he said. ‘The city is beautiful and I’m sure that you and Lorine would enjoy it, but the kids would get bored.’ I’m not sure why this memory has persisted so vividly in my mind. Maybe because at the time it was said, the enigma of this new place that only adults could enjoy intrigued me. I also didn’t like being referred to as a kid, and even though I did tend towards ennui as a child, I didn’t like people thinking they knew what was best for me. Like many children that age, I wanted to grow up and grow up post-haste.

It must be said that I think Simon was correct in his assessment. My ten-year-old self would not have appreciated the amount of walking required to see the city, to experience its history and culture. Ornate cathedrals, picturesque bridges and circuitously compelling city streets very rarely inspire awe in young children, at least for more than a moment. Even the food and drink would have been unacknowledged. Beer was frothy piss that made adults laugh a lot or ones like uncle Johnny violent, and good food would have been devoured in the bouts of cranky hunger or excited enthusiasm that I was prone to on holidays. I am glad we did not visit Prague in my formative years.

Visiting the city a few months after turning twenty-one allowed me to have full access to Simon’s Prague, more so because of the kind of person I’ve become since then. The city, beyond its gorgeous facades, riverside vistas and infectiously patriotic people, justly clinched the award for best food eaten on our 7-week journey – and there were a few great places in contention.

On our Airbnb host’s advice, as soon as we left our bags in the apartment and freshened up, we walked down Žitna, the main street just off where we stayed, and carried on until we reached the towards the Vitava river. This was where we kickstarted our first day wandering. The Vlado Milunić and Franck Gehry’s Dancing House was the first landmark we found, one not on the list given to us by our host who seemed to prioritise clubs and bars over all else. We had studied about the postmodern deconstructivist building on our undergraduate course, and so made a note to make sure to go inside at some point during our stay. As things transpired, we never got down to it. There was just so much else to do.

Although the travel time from Dresden to Prague is only a couple of hours, we were still recovering from all the walking we did in the previous cities. We did not think to prepare ourselves for the walking ahead of us, trusting, perhaps naively, in our ability to adapt. While we did eventually do so, I think Prague was the most difficult because Maddy, since even before our travel, had been having trouble with her knee. The uneven terrain, slopes and cobbled streets, did not help the situation. Credit to her though, she gritted her teeth and pushed through, even on some days walking more than we did in expansive Berlin.

Instead of walking across the famous Charles Bridge on our first day, which was a part of the walking tour we signed up for on the next, we decided to move in search of some lunch, especially since all that we’d eaten since we left Dresden was a croissant at the train station. The crowds were getting more and more concentrated as we got further up Smetanovo street alongside the river. As soon as we turned into Karlova, a ridiculously busy route lined with restaurants, did we started to see what bloggers and guidebooks warned us about: how tourist saturated Prague could be.

Staying close, we manoeuvred through the roiling masses, dodging cameras and constantly excusing ourselves as we nudged past, simultaneously looking around for somewhere decent to eat while keeping tabs on our wallets and backpacks. Due to the intense competition, some restaurants even hired criers and door saleswomen who would try and charm you into their establishment. After passing on a couple of places that looked too full anyway, we decided to go into one that promised ghoulash in a bread bowl and beer for cheap. It wasn’t the best-looking place, but we were on the end of our rope and Maddy was dying to sit down.

We were lead through the empty restaurant and into a beer garden, where a few people were sat waiting for their meals to arrive. One would think that it would be strategically best suited for diners to be placed closer to the entrance to draw people in, but that was apparently not a notion considered by our patrons. There were a few oldies sharing a beer at the bar, but besides them there was no one else in a restaurant situated on a ridiculously busy street, which would have been worrying had I been less ravenous.

After asking for our goulash and free beer, I asked for a moment to consult my list, after which I picked out for us a lentil soup to start and a plate of svíčková to accompany our other main. The latter is a traditional Czech dish that kept popping up when speaking to people about the things to try in Prague. The local cuisine, known for its robust richness, is said to be epitomised by this one plate of food which consists slices of Sirloin steak on a bed of delectable cream sauce and accompanied by bread dumplings. While the soup tasted like it had been reheated out of a can, both the goulash and the svíčková were mollifyingly delicious.

The warm hearty beef stew, seasoned aggressively with otherwise sultry sweet marjoram and muskily anise-esque caraway seeds and cooked low and slow for a few hours, made for tender cubes of meat that frayed easily upon chew and a sauce that comfortably coated the back of the throat as it went down. That ever-recognisable warm feeling in the belly after eating a particularly full-bodied stew was exactly what we felt after polishing away the dregs with our dumplings. The svíčková was no less satisfyingly substantial. The braised beef, thinly sliced, with a couple of little white gelatinous spots of fat, formed glorious partnership with the scandalously sweet velvety sauce. The dollop of cranberry sauce that garnished the plate, adding some vibrancy to the otherwise dull colours, contributed that almost necessary tartness that kept us from keeling over in abject contentment.

After a meal like that, mediocre soup wiped from our memory, we would have paid a lot more than we were asked to. An extra 60czk was at added to our bill for about 220czk, under service charges, which seemed excessive but something we dismissed as being unique to the city. It was only after we were told by our tour guide the following day that we were cheated, did we begin to feel that way. But in the immediate moments after our meal, after tipping the smiley waitress for her hospitality and hoping right back into the deluge of tourists out front, the thorough gratification of our appetites made any money spent unnecessarily seem rather inconsequential.

I would, however, advise travellers to avoid getting meals you can get anywhere in Prague on tourist infested streets. It was a rookie mistake on our part for letting hunger rather than common sense guide us. Although it must be said, we were fortunate at the very least for being compensated with good food.

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