by Hank Leukart
February 22, 2013
I can’t wait to get my face burned off!
Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Prague.
Amateur fireworks shows dazzle visitors to Prague's St. Nicholas Church in Old Town Square on New Year's Eve, 2012. (view all Prague, Czech Republic photos)
RAGUE, Czech Republic — “It looks like if we go to Prague, we’re going to get our faces burned off,” says my friend Rich, a good-humored TV producer with a love for good food, beer, and indie music. We’ve just finished watching YouTube videos of New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations in various European cities, trying to decide where we want to start our holiday European road trip.
“Well, then it’s decided!” announces Wendy, an adventure-seeking nursing student who also happens to be both a beer-lover and Rich’s wife. “In and out of Prague! Forever! No changes!”
We’ve been sitting in Rich and Wendy’s apartment in Burbank, California for ten hours straight trying to plan the trip, staring at a sliding door, which we’ve covered in colored index cards representing various European destinations and activities. Though we haven’t totally agreed on all of the details, we’re relieved to have finally settled on New Year’s Eve in Prague, even if the reason doesn’t make any sense.
“I can’t wait to get my face burned off,” I say as we disband our grueling meeting.
Three weeks later, I land in Prague a day before Rich and Wendy arrive, because I’ve already been road tripping in Portugal for the past week. After checking into our hotel, I wander into nearby steakhouse La Casa Argentina, sit at the bar, and order a drink. Before I can take a sip, a small Russian woman named Yuliya asks me why I’m sitting at the bar myself. I tell her that I have no friends in Prague. Soon, I’m in a BMW with her and her Russian friends Max and Anya, heading to Bar and Books, a swish tavern. We spend a couple hours together, mostly discussing America’s strange fixation on guns (non-Americans find our Gun Thing to be nonsensical, probably correctly), until Max drops what, for me, is a bombshell.
“Do you want to do coke with us?” he asks. The imaginary, risk-taking, unreserved version of me then follows the three of them on a legendary and hilarious drug-fueled night that somehow involves Czech porn stars and a Pontiac Trans Am. But the drug-averse, shy version of me — the real me — tells him that I’ve never tried cocaine, and I’m not interested in changing that. In the most anticlimactic ending to the greatest madcap story setup I’ve ever written, our night together comes quickly to end. Sorry.
Rich and Wendy arrive the next day, which is New Year’s Eve. We start by sampling the local Pilsner at nearby pub Lokal and then grab dinner and some Brachokva, a traditional Czech liquor, at famous Prague brewpub U Fleků. With full stomachs, we walk to Old Town Square, which is decked-out for the New Year’s Eve celebration: there’s a huge Christmas tree, a big stage for music acts, a bunch of food vendors, and revelers anticipating the evening’s countdown. As we push our way into the crowded square, we find a booth selling trdelniks — tubular, donut-like pastries cooked over an open flame and covered in sugar, cinnamon, and almonds. We immediately order two.
“HOW have we never eaten these before?!” I wonder aloud, as I gobble down the entire doughy, sugary goodness of my trdelnik.
“I want to eat all the things!” Wendy says, as she shoves the gooey, deliciousness of the trdelnik into her mouth.
“They’re like huge, Czech churros,” Rich notes as he wolfs down the sweet, luscious treat.
“Yes! Let’s start a business selling these at Disneyland and make millions!” I suggest. As we eat, we push our way through the dense crowd toward the stage, trying to get a good view of Cartonnage, one of the Czech Republic’s best-known electronic bands. Blond-haired lead singer Vanda Choco, wearing what looks like Seinfeld’s Puffy Shirt and playing a handheld piano, puts on a peculiar show, singing an apropos song about scrumptious pastries complete with sparse electronic beats, an “Mmm, mmm” chorus, and robot-like dancers. The whole thing feels a lot like Dieter’s Dance Party from Saturday Night Live circa 1990 (thanks, Mike Meyers).
“Ugh,” Rich says. “How much longer until we get our faces burned off?!” Rich asks.
“Not much longer now,” I say. “Not much longer.”
“We must eat more sugary, Czechy churro pretzels,” Wendy demands. There’s no argument. We begin pushing our way back out of the horde, this time passing two dirty-blond, 20-something Czech women with enormous, turquoise eyes, slender faces, and matching white, fur-trimmed jackets. One of them locks eyes with me and seems to be mentally undressing me as I pass. I’m (easily) distracted until Wendy yells from in front of me: “Hurry! It looks like this Czech churro pretzel stand is closing!” I quickly break eye contact with the pretty Czech girl and rush to the trdelnik stand, but, to our intense disappointment, it has already closed. The three of us look around desperately until we spot another booth, still open. We run toward it — in what feels like a Czech-pastry-themed Chariots of Fire spoof — arriving just in time to get the last sticky, mouthwatering trdelniks before closing time.
As we scarf down the cinnamony, scrumptious, dessert, I tell Rich and Wendy about the White Jacket Girl Who Undressed Me in Her Head, insisting that it’s essential that we find her again. “You know, so that we can have a local, Czech-speaking tour guide,” I explain. Showing little interest, they suggest that I find her myself and offer her a piece of my heavenly, delectable confectionary when I do. I walk with resolve back into enormous mass of people, but after spending 20 minutes searching the concert audience systematically but futilely, like a dedicated process server delivering a summons to a criminal who has fled the country, I sheepishly return to Rich and Wendy.
“Oh well,” says Wendy. “She’s about to get her face burned off anyway.” Meanwhile, Vanda Choco continues to whine on stage as we watch.
“Maybe the headliner — the drag queen cover band — will be more entertaining than Czech Moby,” I say. But, when the drag queens finally take the stage, the three of us begin to question the sanity (or at least the taste) of the Czech New Year’s Eve music act booker.
“Please,” Rich pleads. “Let’s get out of here and run to the river to watch the fireworks from there. The White Jacket Girls definitely went there. I can’t take another minute of this Czech music festival.” The three of us argue about the wisdom of this idea for a few minutes, but, as the drag queens launch into a lip-synced, amateur rendition of Boney M’s “Gotta Go Home,” the act becomes so grating and intolerable that our discussion becomes moot.
“Look, there’s two girls in white jackets over there!” Wendy says, trying to get us moving. We turn around and start trying to walk toward the river, but the mass of people is so impenetrable that it takes us ten minutes to move 50 feet of the third of a mile walk to Charles Bridge. Near the Prague Astronomical Clock, a few minutes before the final countdown, we become completely trapped in the jam-packed throng.
“Seriously, there’s really two people in white jackets under the clock!” I say, looking at two white jackets under the tower about 100 feet away. But, we’re trapped in the mob. In yet another anticlimactic ending to a zany story setup, I face the fact that I’ve lost the White Jacket Girl forever. Sorry.
“Tři… dvě… jedna… Šťastný Nový Rok!” yells the crowd at midnight. Suddenly, people all around us ignite and shoot fireworks. A man launches a huge, flaming aerial rocket — the kind used mostly in professional fireworks shows in the US — right next to Rich’s head. It flies less than a foot from his face and into the sky.
“Shit! Shit! No, seriously, we’re going to get our faces burned off!” Rich says. Meanwhile, while I’m trying to participate in a New Year’s Eve Skype video call with a good friend in Los Angeles, a man next to me sprays half of a shaken-up champagne bottle directly into my face. My friend in Los Angeles doesn’t see any of this, of course, because the huge number of people in the Square have overloaded Vodafone Prague’s closest cell tower, ending my Skype call. Or, maybe one of the Fireworks of Death has destroyed it, I think. We can barely move because the area is so packed with people, but we start inching away from the Fireworks Grim Reaper, walking through an obstacle course of broken glass and large piles of trash.
“Look, that Czech fireman is just watching the war zone from above,” Wendy says. “I guess he’ll only take action if someone tries to fire a nuclear weapon.”
“Look, that Chinese sky lantern is about to land on that booth’s awning and set it on fire!” I notice.
“We’re going to die out here,” Rich mumbles, as a group of Czech teenagers just a couple feet away fires bottle rockets into the air. But, making anticlimax number three, we don’t. Sorry.
We eventually make it back to our hotel alive, and the next evening, we venture out just before 7 PM to visit neighborhood brewpub Pivovarský Dům. On our way, we find ourselves trapped, yet again, on a street filled with hundreds people walking toward the Vltava River. To our amazement, a restaurant hostess tells us that there will be yet another, post-New-Year’s-Eve fireworks show happening — in five minutes. This time, the three of us start sprinting toward the River, running past tens of women in fur-trimmed, white jackets (apparently it’s a Czech fashion thing), hoping, this time, to see a professionally-planned show. As we run, a grand orchestral score starts booming from somewhere in front of us for the fireworks choreography. It’s the fireworks-themed sequel to Czech-pastry-themed Chariots of Fire.
When we reach the river’s edge, we again become imprisoned in the mob, some of whom are again shooting fireworks haphazardly into the sky. We watch the show, and when it ends, we meet two Czech university students named Lenka and Karina at the pub. We enthusiastically tell them about our fireworks experiences.
“What is the deal with fireworks here? Are there crazy fireworks shows in the Czech Republic every night of the year?” Wendy asks the women, jokingly.
“And are there absolutely no fireworks laws?! In Old Town Square last night, Rich almost got shot in the face!” I add.
“Yeah, there are fireworks here all the time: for holidays, your birthday, or whatever,” Lenka says, deadpan. “But, I would never, ever go to Old Town Square on New Year’s Eve. Yeah, you’ll get your face burned off.”
Cartonnage, one of the Czech Republic’s most well-known electronic bands, plays in Prague’s Old Town Square on New Year’s Eve.
The road to the loneliest castleI
n September of last year, I found myself stranded on a nearly deserted island off the coast of Fiji in the South Pacific Ocean. I write “stranded,” because work forced me to be there for five weeks, and I write “nearly deserted” because, though I was joined by over 50 coworkers, the island itself was nearly completely swathed in wild pineapple plants and lemon trees, lacking in civilization. Despite being surrounded by 50 people, with my friends and family over 5,000 miles away, I sometimes felt lonelier than if I were actually alone.
Though I was in one of the Earth’s most remote places, every so often, a rickety, wooden longboat with a barely-functioning outboard motor would brave the dense, jagged coral reef surrounding our jungle-covered paradise and drop off a couple backpackers weighed down by filthy, overfilled bags and covered in coconut sunscreen. Lena — a 26-year-old German with wild brown hair who had spent the last year working as a school teacher in New Zealand after graduating from college in Würzburg, Germany — was the first backpacker to emerge from the desolate ocean.
“Thank God you’re here,” I said, hijacking her diary-writing session one night. “I haven’t seen anyone but coworkers for weeks.” Fortunately, she didn’t seem (too) put off by my desperation; every afternoon afterward, during a break from my job, we’d swim together, as far out as felt safe, into the turquoise and aqua-striped waters of the South Pacific. The daily reprieve from the strange loneliness of being surrounded by coworkers helped keep me sane.
So, two months later, when my friend Rich loses his patience after he, his wife Wendy, and I become imprisoned in a mob of tourists at overcrowded Prague Castle on New Year’s Day, I know exactly who to call.
“I’m already tired of big cities,” says Rich. “I don’t want to go to any more!”
“But I want to see lots and lots of castles,” Wendy says.
“Well, my friend Lena lives in Würzburg, Germany,” I say. “If, instead of going east to Budapest, we go west to Germany and drive along the Romantic Road, we’ll get to see small medieval towns, lots of castles, and Lena.” Before the trip, we discussed the Romantic Road, a 350-kilometer German highway route, first popular with American soldiers in post-war Germany, that links 27 medieval towns, beautiful countryside, and fairytale castles. But, during our marathon European road trip planning session, Rich never admitted to wanting to see only small towns, Wendy never demanded a trip full of castles, and I never insisted on visiting Lena. I marvel at how frustrating situations can force people to reveal their true desires.
“Lena! Remember me?! My friends and I are on our way to Würzburg tomorrow morning,” I say on a Skype call with Lena at our Prague hotel. “Do you have time to join us on a road trip?”
“I don’t live in Würzburg anymore,” Lena says. “I’m near Frankfurt.”
“Okay, but if you get on a train, can you meet us at the Würzburg train station at noon tomorrow?” I ask.
“Sure!” she says without hesitation. I’m a little surprised that she’s willing to drop everything and take a train across Germany to join our road trip with no advance notice, but she tells me that she’s procrastinating her search for a new apartment near a new, yet-to-start teaching job.
“Are you trying to delay becoming an adult?” I ask.
“Maybe,” she admits.
“We leave for Würzburg at 9 AM tomorrow!” I announce to Rich and Wendy. “Small towns! Castles! A German girl!” They’re easily convinced.
Though it’s strange to see Lena wearing a winter coat in a German train station instead of a bikini in Fiji, it’s clear that she’s a perfect addition to our road trip group when the first thing she asks us is, “Are you guys hungry for German casseroles?” I know that I’ve been a little bit of a third-wheel on this trip up until now, but Rich and Wendy are good friends of mine; so, I’m surprised by how much I suddenly feel less lonely when Lena jumps into the backseat with me. After bowls of cheesy pasta at Restaurant Auflauf, we take a tour of the Würzburg Residence, a beautiful palace with an ornate main staircase and a fresco-covered dome.
“If you have ears, you must follow me!” exclaims our odd, middle-aged tour guide, who is a cartoon caricature of how an American might imagine a German tour guide. “It iz cold in zis room because of ze marble! If you are out of time, you must exit through that door!” Lena giggles. Apparently, peculiar, middle-aged German men are as strange to her as they are to us. My favorite Residence room is the White Hall, a sumptuous ballroom with walls covered in ornate white stucco designs and a mural of a dog that watches me no matter where I walk.
At sunset, the four of us begin walking up a hill toward Marienberg Fortress, a Baroque-style, red-roofed castle which sits high above Würzburg’s wine vineyards. Lena and I walk together through the lush vineyards, with Rich and Wendy walking a quarter-mile behind. Lena tells me how much she’s dreading having to find a new apartment to live in by herself. “I don’t know what it will be like to live alone,” she says. “It’s a really stressful time, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. But, I guess I have to be.” I sigh.
“I guess we keep getting older whether we like it or not,” I say. “It’s annoying.”
When we reach the fortress, we walk through the stone entrance, below its prison tower, and out to the surrounding protective wall. In 1945, British bombers destroyed almost the entire city, but many of the historically important buildings were painstakingly rebuilt by the city’s unenlisted women. Of course, none of this is obvious now, as we look out at the night view of Würzburg’s dazzling lights illuminating the Main River. “See that hill over there with the phone tower?” Lena asks me mischievously as she points to a hill with the Würzburg Cathedral awash in golden light. “There’s a flying fox in a playground on it, and in university, we used to sneak up there at night to ride it.” Nearby, Rich and Wendy kiss.
After the sun disappears under the horizon, we jump on the autobahn toward Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of Germany’s most well-preserved medieval towns. On the way, Lena giggles in the car as she makes a reservation for us by phone at Hotel Raidel, a guesthouse owned by an eccentric man named Norry. “The owner is an old guy who sounds very cute and very weird,” she explains. When Norry greets us with a ridiculously large, handlebar mustache, it’s clear that she’s right: he looks like he’s a character from a German surrealist comic book.
The four of us head out for dinner and wine to Norry’s recommended restaurant, Mario’s Altfränkische Weinstube, where another strange, middle-aged German man joins us at our table without warning in the middle of our meal.
“I’m Herman the German! Welcome to the English Conversation Club, which I host at this restaurant every Wednesday!” he says. He tells us that American soldiers taught him English during World War II in return for introducing them to his sister. “My wife is from Wisconsin. Once, I starred with one of my cows in a movie filmed here in Rothenburg.” Lena starts giggling again, endlessly entertained by the screwball characters we seem to attract. After our long day and a bottle of wine, it’s almost impossible for any of us to keep our eyes open, but this doesn’t seem to faze Herman the German, who wants to know every detail of our lives. Finally, I carefully tell Herman that we’re exhausted. On our way out, he hands me a tiny business card that reads, “If I had some of your business, I could afford a bigger card.”
Back in our hotel room, just after I’ve turned off the lights, Lena asks me, “Do you ever get lonely from traveling so much?”
“Not really,” I hear myself say. “Sometimes I’m traveling with friends, and when I’m not, I’m always meeting interesting new people. I think it’s often more lonely at home, where every day is the same and I’m not meeting new people frequently.” But, I think of a night seven months before in an empty, rural cottage in the France’s Loire Valley, and the New Year’s Eve just two nights before spent chasing the Czech White Jacket Girls, and I’m not sure I’ve totally convinced myself.
“It sounds like you might be trying to delay becoming an adult,” she says.
“Or redefine it,” I say.
The next morning, Rich, Wendy, Lena, and I walk much of the circumference of Rothenburg atop its well-preserved, surrounding, medieval stone wall. Afterward, we visit the town’s famous, kitschy Christmas stores and sample the town’s signature pastry: schneeballen. Lena and I laugh when powdered sugar covers our faces as we try the pastry, but that’s the only enjoyable part: the schneeball tastes like a cardboard box. Rich, a food connoisseur, is equally unimpressed.
After a quick stop in cute Dinkelsbühl to see gothic St. George’s Minster and the colorful gable houses in the town center, we continue on to the quirky, medieval town of Nördlingen.
“Nördlingen is the home of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in the 1971 movie,” I say, reading from my guidebook as we walk on the town’s cobblestone.
“Look! Guerrilla knitting!” Lena exclaims as she points at a tree covered in yarn. “I’ve heard of this!” The three of us look at her skeptically, but as we continue walking, we find tens of trees covered in beautiful, flamboyant yarn designs. “When I get my new apartment and am living by myself, I’m going to learn to knit,” Lena says.
At Saint George’s Church, we climb to the top of the bell tower, where we see a rich view of the medieval town — blanketed by bright white buildings with grids of small, dark windows and vivid, pointy red roofs — the same one seen below Willy Wonka’s glass elevator at the film’s end.
“Legend has it that in 1440, a pig saved the town of Nördlingen from being attacked by Count Hans of Oettingen,” Wendy says, reading a tourist brochure.
“The US sent astronauts here in 1970 for their Apollo mission because of the nearby, moonlike Ries Crater,” Rich says, reading a wall plaque.
After meeting the bell tower caretaker’s cat upon his insistence (the caretaker’s), Lena giggles while calling another weird German man to make a reservation for us at a hotel in Füssen, home of two of the world’s most famous castles: Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. In our Füssen hotel suite, we set out a picnic of German bread, cheese, and Erdnussflips, a savory German snack that tastes like a peanut-flavored Cheeto. Rich and I pour raspberry jam into a hotel soap dish, and we discover that jam-dipped Erdnussflips taste just like American peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Lena seems unimpressed.
During our picnic, I demand that we watch The Sound of Music in preparation for our upcoming stop in Salzburg, the setting and filming location of the famous American movie musical. I’m shocked to discover that none of my road trip companions have seen it.
“Dating a Nazi is the worst,” I joke, after Rolfe literally blows the whistle on the hiding Von Trapp Family near the end of the movie. For a moment, it occurs to me that watching an American-made Nazi musical with German Lena is somehow inappropriate, but she seems unperturbed.
“I can see why kids like it,” she says after the movie, back in our dark hotel room.
“Well, I’m glad that you’ve finally seen it,” I say while staring at the ceiling. “Watching it reminds me of being a kid. I used to watch it at least once a week.”
“I can’t go all the way to Salzburg,” Lena confesses. “I have to catch a train in Munich. I have to be responsible and find an apartment.”
“I assumed that you would eventually,” I say, trying not to seem too disappointed.
The next morning, our tour guide at Hohenschwangau Castle tells us that Ludwig II, King of Bavaria from 1864 until shortly before his death in 1886, was a zealous benefactor of famous German opera composer Richard Wagner. The two had a very special friendship, and at the very least, Ludwig was romantically infatuated with Wagner: “You are the star that shines upon my life, and the sight of you ever wonderfully strengthens me,” he wrote in one letter. “Ardently I long for you, O my president Saint, to whom I pray! … My enthusiasm and love for you are boundless. Once more I swear you faith till death!” The lavish plans that Ludwig drew up in 1868 for his fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle even included an enormous theater, designed specifically for the production of Wagner’s operas. When we walk into Hohenschwangau’s Music Room, we see the telescope that Ludwig, a notorious hermit, used to watch the builders’ progress on the adjacent, extravagant palace.
But, we learn from our following tour in Neuschwanstein Castle that Ludwig and Wagner had an irreparable falling out when Wagner was publicly accused of cheating on his wife with another woman. Evidently, Ludwig was not impressed by Wagner’s philandering (with women). And, so, having lost his best friend in the world, Ludwig found himself alone when he finally moved into Neuschwanstein after 18 years of construction.
When Rich, Wendy, Lena, and I walk under enormous chandeliers into the castle’s beautiful theater, impressed by a large mural of sparkling mountain waterfalls, we learn that Ludwig lived in seclusion, sleeping during the day and touring the countryside at night. Under the evening sky, Ludwig liked to traverse the mountaintop to Marienbrücke, a nearby bridge that he had constructed, which spanned a high point of the Pöllat River gorge.
There on the bridge, completely alone, he spent hours, gazing at his dream castle.
After leaving the castle, Rich, Wendy, Lena and I decide to walk along the mountain peak to Marienbrücke. With the extravagant palace in the background, the four of us take a photo together on the bridge, before heading back toward our car. The last person to leave, I look out at the serene vista of the fairytale castle, backed by the aqua Schwansee and Alpsee Lakes, and remember that this is Lena’s last day on our road trip before she heads off to become an adult.
Alone on the bridge, I feel a little like Ludwig.
Würzburg, seen here from the Marienberg Fortress overlooking the city, was destroyed in a 1945 British air raid but has since been rebuilt.
The Romantic Road is a 350-kilometer highway route in Germany between Würzburg and Füssen that links 27 medieval towns.
The view from the belltower of Saint George’s Church in Nördlingen, Germany is the same one seen at the end of the 1971 movie musical, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Ludwig II watched the builders’ progress on Neuschwanstein with a telescope in the Music Room of Hohenschwangau.
How to Take a Road Trip on Germany’s Romantic Road
- OVERVIEW: The Romantic Road is a 350-kilometer highway route in Germany between Würzburg and Füssen that links 27 medieval towns, beautiful countryside, and fairytale castles.
- LOGISTICS: Würzburg is a one-hour drive from Frankfurt, and Füssen is a two-hour drive from Munich. The easiest way to see the Romantic Road is to fly into one of these two cities and rent a car, though it’s also possible to take a train or bus between Würzburg and Füssen.
- ITINERARY: While it’s possible (and fastest) to drive the A7 autobahn for the entire length of the trip from Würzburg to Füssen, you’ll miss all of the charm of the Romantic Road by doing so. Instead, follow the “Romantische Straße” signs on the country roads between Bavaria’s small towns. You may also want to purchase a Romantic Road map, which can be found in any town along the route at tourist attractions, gift shops, and gas stations. We had only three days to visit five towns (Würzburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbühl, Nördlingen, and Füssen), three castles, and two churches on the Romantic Road, but there are 27 towns and tens of attractions along the route that could easily fill a week-long road trip, depending on pace.
- DAY 1: Würzburg, a beautiful college town, was destroyed by the British in a 1945 air raid, but, today, is one of the most pleasant cities in Germany. The lovely Würzburg Residence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a sunset walk through the vineyards to Marienberg Fortress shouldn’t be missed. Be sure to get some German bread at one of the bakeries in the town center.
- DAY 2: Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a well-preserved medieval town that will remind any American of Disneyland. Some consider it to be a tourist trap, but the town has a lot of genuine charm: especially if you visit Herman the German on Wednesday nights at Mario’s Altfränkische Weinstube, where the traditional German food is also excellent. If you have the time and energy, walk the entire circumference of the old protective wall to see the entire town. In Rothenburg, we stayed at the reasonably-priced Hotel Raidel, run by the eccentric Norry, who will tell you about his self-invented Norryphone musical instrument if you ask. Dinkelsbühl is worth walking around if only to see its colorful buildings and quaint cafes. The quick climb to the top of the bell tower of Saint George’s Church in Nördlingen is worth it to see the view from Willy Wonka’s glass elevator. The nearby Ries Crater Museum also teaches visitors about the unique geological history of the area.
- DAY 3: Füssen is the jumping off point for Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, two of the most famous castles in the world. Walt Disney used Neuschwanstein as the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. These castles are extremely popular with tourists (even in the winter), so prepare yourself for huge crowds. Buy a single ticket at the ticketing office for a tour of both castles. In Füssen, we stayed in an apartment attached to the Hotel Sonne, which was a bargain for four people, though you can choose to stay closer to the castles in the town of Hohenschwangau if you’re willing to pay inflated prices.
Journey to the center of the Bohemian brew kettleR
ich, Wendy, and I are driving past an enormous white orb with a blue sea dragon painted on it in Gmunden, Austria, near the border of South Bohemia, a region of the Czech Republic. We’ve spent the morning visiting Schloss Ort, a tiny, beautiful Austrian castle in the middle of Traunsee Lake, and, now, I’m in the car’s backseat, on the phone with a stern, middle-aged Czech woman.
“English. Does anyone there speak English?” I ask her. I’m trying to arrange for a private tour of Eggenberg, a microbrewery in Český Krumlov, a small town 140 kilometers away.
“NE! NE! Nikdo tady mluví anglicky,” she says. “Nebude žádné anglické turné dnes.”
“Uh, great! We’ll be there in two hours,” I say, having no idea that she’s telling me that no one at the brewery speaks English and there are no English tours. The only word that I can say in Czech is, “Děkuji,” which means, “Thank you.” I say it and hang up the phone.
“Wow, arranging a last-minute tour of the beer breweries in South Bohemia is pretty much impossible if you don’t speak Czech,” I complain to Rich and Wendy. We’re in the final, two-day stretch of our central-European road trip, and I only devised our tour of Czech breweries as we were leaving our hotel in the morning. I’m doing my best to keep us entertained after my friend Lena’s sad departure from our trip. “If you see a cute, English-speaking Czech woman wearing a white jacket on the side of the road, offer her a ride and we’ll ask her everything the about the breweries here.”
Nevertheless, without Czech assistance, we navigate the maze of narrow streets in the storybook town of Český Krumlov and pull into the parking lot for the Eggenberg brewery. When I request a tour from the Czech woman with whom I spoke on the phone, who looks like she used to be Stalin’s wife, she yells, “Ne! Ne!” Clearly, the concept of friendly customer service still hasn’t made its way to the Eastern Bloc, I think. Fortunately, a young, English-speaking employee serendipitously wanders by and offers to show us around. As he leads us, to the chagrin of Stalin’s wife, through the front gate, he explains to us that almost all of the breweries in South Bohemia brew pilsners, a golden-colored beer named for Pilsen, the Czech city where the beer was brewed first in 1842. He leads us through the brewery’s impressive copper brew kettle room, which, he explains, is where malted barley (known as “wort”) is boiled with hops, herbs, and sugars to add flavor and bitterness to the beer.
Afterward, we stroll through the town and stumble into a fantastic toy shop selling handmade, wooden mobiles, trucks, and trains. Then, we get in our car to drive toward České Budějovice, home of Budweiser Budvar, one of the country’s largest and most successful breweries, dating back to the 13th century. As Rich tries to navigate out of the town center, a Czech police officer stops us and approaches Rich’s window. In broken English, he tells Rich that he has driven into an illegal zone and demands that we pay 500 Czech Koruna (US $25) and sign a ticket, written completely in Czech, to continue our trip. While it’s true that we have unintentionally broken a traffic law, the situation feels like a shakedown. (I assume that when locals accidentally drive into the town’s center, they’re scolded and sent on their way.) Just as I’m wishing more than ever that a Czech-speaking version of Lena were accompanying us, Wendy begins to yell at the police officer.
“We won’t sign anything that we can’t understand!” Wendy yells. “You can’t make us do anything!” She’s nervous.
“Then you’ll all have to come to the police station with me,” says the officer.
Rich and I are silent, unsure of the best way to handle the situation. But, we know that fighting with the cop won’t help our case. Finally, though I’m reluctant to give in to what seems like extortion, I decide that it’s impossible for us to deny that we have legitimately broken the law.
“Just sign it and pay him,” I say. “I think it’s worth splitting $25 to avoid a trip to a Czech police station, and I doubt that signing that ticket will condemn us to a lifetime in prison.” So, Rich decides to sign the ticket and pay up. The officer courteously sends us on our way. There’s a part of me, though, that’s happy that Wendy put up a little fight.
On our way to České Budějovice, I call the brewery that’s our next stop. Another stern, middle-aged Czech woman answers the phone.
“NE. NE. STOP. MUST WAIT,” she says. Then, a man with an important-sounding voice picks up the phone and says in perfect English, “How can I help you?”
“I’m visiting from California and I’d like to arrange for a tour of the brewery tomorrow,” I say.
“Yes, sir, of course,” he says. “What is your business?”
“Uh, we just want to get an early-morning tour at 8 AM due to our busy trip schedule?”
“Yes, I will have my secretary arrange everything immediately.” Suddenly, it occurs to me that I’ve been somehow connected to the brewery president, ostensibly because he’s the only employee who speaks fluent English, and his secretary seems to have given him the impression that I’m very, very important. “My secretary will make sure that our best English-speaking guide meets you promptly in the morning, sir.”
We’re excited to get to České Budějovice, a supposedly vibrant Czech college town, but, when we arrive at night, the sidewalks are dead and most of the town’s restaurants and bars are closed. We eventually wander into the Hammond Café, a bar that, based on the patrons’ greasy-beards, long hair, and funky odors, seems like the off-campus socializing annex for physics, microbiology, and computer science students. Nevertheless, the dive has a lot of seating, a pleasant vibe, and good beer, and a band near the front of the bar treats us to a collection of Czech folk songs, performed by musicians on a piano and a few guitars. They also play a handful of covers of American rock, bluegrass, and folk songs. As we listen to classic American rock songs in the former Communist bloc, I find myself thinking about how small the world seems to be becoming.
In the morning at the brewery, our tour guide, an astoundingly friendly Czech woman named Milada, tells us that she was a school teacher until the fall of the Soviet Union, after which she decided to teach herself (perfect) English. She ushers us into a small elevator with strange glass windows on the floor and walls. “See you soon,” she says. She winks.
Suddenly, the elevator makes an ominous buzzing sound followed by a lurching sound. Through the windows in the elevator, it looks like we’re descending at a rapid rate, through a dark rock tunnel, toward the center of the earth. I feel like we’re in the Czech version of an alcohol-centric Disneyland ride. After about a minute of descent, the elevator looks like it comes to a grinding halt in a deep pool of water. This water, a disembodied voice tells us, is the magic liquid that gives Budweiser Budvar’s beer its unique taste. Then, to the incongruous soundtrack of ethereal piano music, the elevator appears to shoot back to the surface. I’m starting to wonder about whether I accidentally ingested magic Czech mushrooms with the hard-boiled egg that I ate for breakfast.
The elevator then spits us out into a labyrinth of strange museum exhibits, which are mostly beer-brewing scenes from throughout Czech history. Most of this is predictable corporate museum fare, but, near the end of the tour, the museum exhibits take an anti-American twist. We’re shown a bizarre, scripted propaganda film detailing the esoteric story of Budweiser Budvar’s ancient trademark dispute with American Anheuser-Busch over the Budweiser brand. The film centers on the story of a James Bond-like American spy who ruthlessly steals Czech beer-brewing secrets. For an American, the aesthetic here is baffling, because American companies usually work hard to hide their legal troubles from the public. But, clearly, former-Communist nationalism has gotten the better of Budweiser Budvar’s leadership. (Even more interesting, one exhibit concedes that the leadership of Budweiser Budvar officially licensed its brand to Anheuser-Busch in 1938 and then, well, changed their mind. Budweiser Budvar and Anheuser-Busch have been fighting in markets around the world ever since.)
After the sermon on the evils of American, beer-brewing, intellectual property thieves, Milada then leads us on a fantastic tour through the brewery itself. We feel like we’re in a fantastic episode of Discovery’s How It’s Made. She shows us the 300-meter deep artesian wells where the brewery gets its water, the brew house filled with six copper kettles and the smell of fresh hops, the cylindrical fermentation tanks, and, finally, thousands of full beer bottles flying by us on conveyor belts. Milada also treats us to some freshly brewed beer. I can attest that there’s no chance that Anheuser-Busch successfully stole Budweiser Budvar’s beer recipe — the Czech brewery’s hoppy beer tastes much, much better.
After a quick look at the Bohemia Regent Brewery in Třeboň and a stop to buy beer at the Poutník Brewery in Pelhřimov, we finally return to Prague, in time to catch our flights in the morning. When we walk into historic downtown Hotel Evropa on Wenceslas Square, almost all of the lights are off, and we feel a bit like we’re in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The stern Czech woman in her sixties (is there any other kind?) manning the front desk seems unamused by my hardball negotiations for a room. Nevertheless, she accidentally underbids one of my offers, and we end up with an unbelievably good deal for a hotel and parking space in downtown Prague. We walk in the dark, up an epic, spiral staircase covered in aging red carpet, and into a huge, 3,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite that seems fit for a Bohemian king from the 1500s. We seem to be the only people in the hotel; apparently, hotels that feel like a trip into The Shining aren’t very popular during the off-season.
For our last Czech hurrah, before we turn in for the night, we decide to wander out of the hotel, hoping to relive our single favorite Czech experience. At the end of the street, we spot it: a man roasting a kebab of cinnamon- and sugar-covered dough over a hot bed of coals.
The three of us stand there, in the middle of Prague’s Wenceslas Square, savoring the delicious trdelniks like they’re the last ones that we’ll eat for the rest of our lives. WB
Returned bottles sit waiting for recycling at the Budweiser Budvar Brewery in České Budějovice, Czech Republic.
A tour guide explains the beer brewing process to tourists at Budweiser Budvar Brewery in České Budějovice, Czech Republic.
An employee pours a glass of beer at the Budweiser Budvar Brewery in České Budějovice, Czech Republic.
How to Take a Beer Brewery Tour in South Bohemia
- OVERVIEW: With its 100 breweries strewn throughout the country, the Czech Republic is a beer lover’s paradise.
- LOGISTICS: The easiest way to take this trip is by flying into Prague, renting a car, and taking a looping road trip through the country. It’s also possible to use trains and buses, though, obviously, your trip will run slower. Be sure to call every brewery that you plan to visit at least a few days in advance to confirm or arrange for English-speaking tours. Find a Czech-speaking friend to help you, because very few of the people answering brewery phones speak English.
- ITINERARY: Our road trip included Prague, Germany’s Romantic Road, Salzburg, and the Austrian countryside before returning to the Czech Republic, but the following is a condensed brewery-tour itinerary that would work well based on our experience. (Note: “Pivovar” is the Czech word for brewery, which helps when searching for information on the Internet.)
- DAY 1: U Fleků and Dům Microbreweries in Prague: Spend your first day in Prague, drinking and sampling the food at local brewpubs U Fleků and Dům.
- DAY 2: Budweiser Budvar in České Budějovice and Eggenberg in Český Krumlov: If you arrange in advance, you should be able to hit Budweiser Budvar and Eggenberg in a single day. Both of these towns are worth visiting no matter what, and the breweries make them must-sees. You might also consider stopping in Kutna Hora on the way, to see the country’s famous church furnished with decorations made with human bones.
- DAY 3: Pilsner Urquell in Pilsen: Then, take a tour of the Czech Republic’s most-beloved brewery.
- DAY 4: Královsky in Krusovice and Zatecky in Zatec: On your last day, head to Královsky, one of the oldest breweries in the country (1517). Then, head to the rustic Zatecky in Zatec, the town from where almost all of the hops in the country come. Zatec also has a hops museum.
- MORE INFORMATION: Pivovary.info lists the name and address of almost every Czech brewery. Writers for the New York Times and Frommer’s wrote helpful guides for people interested in Czech Republic brewery tours.
Czech Republic Brewery Road Trip