Pubs

Gibs Café Bar

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I wandered into Gibs after a disappointing trip to the Wombat Café. From the outside, it looked like a pretty standard Czech pub: Pilsner Urquell sign, low lighting, couple of older gentleman smoking outside. I headed in on a whim, figuring that another beer would help me sleep and get the memory of Wombat Café’s gross decor out of my mind.

As I passed the threshold, I noticed with mild surprise that they’d made the strange decision to have a fan on the step facing inwards, blowing a draft through the bar. Ducking inside and heading to the bar, I smelled something unexpected and familiar.

Did you know that it’s legal to smoke funky cigarettes in certain bars in Prague?

That’s something I recently found out.

Maybe it was because of the mentality that goes with smoking that much, but the atmosphere in Gibs was great: I sat at the bar with a beer and chatted to everyone who came in, working my way through a massive bag of pretzels. The only moment I felt anything less-than-euphoric was when I tripped over someone’s dog on the way to the loo – I actually don’t know how I managed to overlook it, since it was the size of a small horse.

The clientele was almost exclusively made up of expats, so I didn’t get a chance to exercise my extremely terrible Czech; maybe that’s for the best. The owner, a guy called Roman, welcomed everyone personally, making an effort to remember names and backstories – partly to create a friendly, chatty atmosphere, and partly, I think, to check that everyone coming in was cool with being passively hotboxed.

The beer itself was nothing special: just Pilsner on draught and some cans of Kingswood in the fridge. That said, I think anyone who claims to go to that bar for the drinks is lying.

I rate Gibs a solid two joints and one unexpectedly massive dog. The only reason I’m not calling off my search for a local is that for me, weed is like trifle. Nice on your birthday, but I couldn’t deal with it every day.

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Pubs

Wombat Café

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I spent my allotted 64kč beer money in the Wombat Café this week. Once again, despite the hours of research I did before coming to Prague, I found this bar entirely by chance: terrified of missing my step target and facing the wrath of my fitness app, I’d decided to take an evening stroll around my neighbourhood.

[By the way, “hours of research” is a high-and-mighty way of saying I Googled “craft beer Prague” and then marked the results on a map.]

More terrifying than my phone’s hardwired passive aggressiveness, though, was the prospect of doing anything relating to exercise. As soon as I heard the ping in my headphones that indicated I’d reached 10,000 steps, I clocked out. I practically fell down the steps into the nearest bar – Wombat Café.

The first thing I noticed was, unsurprisingly, the overriding theme of the caf – comics. The walls were covered in prints from different graphic novels, including a particularly massive section taken from Sin City. The owners had also set up a series of well-lit shelves groaning under the weight of cartoony action figures; I ignored the fact that all the women depicted had massive chests and not a lot of clothes, as well as the lack of any real women in the bar, and headed to the counter.

Since, as you can see from the name, Wombat is more café than bar, I was unsurprised that they only had the obligatory Pilsner on offer as far as beer went. There were also a couple of slices of cakes on offer and I spotted a coffee machine under a pile of dusty Star Wars merch. Unusually for the Czech Republic, there were far more bottles of whiskey than beer; however, given my refusal to drink anything that tastes that much like your throat is actually on fire, I stuck to the ležák.

The atmosphere in the bar was really strange. The guys in there were all clearly good friends, and I enjoyed listening to them chat to the bartender, who I reckon was also the owner. If you were into comics and were good mates with any of the regulars, this would be an incredible way to spend your weekday nights.

The downside of any bar where you mostly serve your mates, though, is it can be pretty uninviting to anyone else – I felt this very strongly. About halfway through my mediocre beer I happened to glance up and noticed that five of the guys were unabashedly staring at me with a what-are-you-doing-here kind of expression. I couldn’t help but share their feeling: it was a little bit like I’d noticed the door to a flat was open, wandered in, and sat drinking a beer in someone’s living room whilst they hung out with their mates.

I’ll award the Wombat Café a doughy slice of fruitcake and half-arsed pint, with the important asterisk that if you happen to love nerd culture and have an in with one of the crowd, it could be the place for you.

Pubs

Malý/Velký

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I stumbled across this week’s bar of choice, the excellently websited Malý/Velký, completely by chance. I’d run out of change for the bus and, already familiar with Czechia’s punitive public transport authorities, was trying to make it from Náměstí Míru, in the east of the city, back to the centre on foot.

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Honest worker or committed trickster?

Unfortunately for me, my path was obstructed by squadrons of men in high-viz jackets tearing up the road with diggers. They seemed to be building a new tram line – but, thinking back on it now, they could have just been taking a practical joke well too far.

Stymied, I ducked down a side street and, using my very poor internal compass, headed in what I reckoned was the right direction. It’ll probably surprise no one that, when I checked my map later, I’d chosen the wrong turning at every crossroads.

Anyway, I was lost, grumpy, and not at all drunk. I wanted to be found, cheerful, and tipsy – this was not an ideal situation.

As I wandered down a nondescript Prague alleyway, I happened to glance up and notice this sign:

I'm not a talented photographer.

“Falcon Independent Brewery,” I read aloud. “Decent.”

I went through the door: a long corridor that made me think of hotels led through to a courtyard. It was partly covered, and in place of regular bar furniture it had low, bright-coloured armchairs in a style I consider typically Czech. The beer garden was empty except for two women.

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“Are you open?” I asked in my bad Czech.

“Yes,” replied one of the women. There was an awkward pause. “The bar is downstairs,” she prompted.

I went downstairs; after the eclectic ambience of the beer garden, I was surprised by how minimalist everything was here. The woman I’d spoken to had followed me down. “What’ll you have?” she asked.

The selection of beer on draught was great: they had eight taps and had chosen a range of unusual brews – at the bartender’s recommendation, I went for an 11% ABV wheat beer.

I drank the beer in a comfortable armchair upstairs in the garden, covertly trying to eavesdrop on the women’s conversation – my poor grasp of Czech protected their privacy.

Overall, I was chuffed by the whole experience: although it was pretty dead (in fairness, this was a Tuesday afternoon), the atmosphere was decent, and it was the best beer I’ve had in Prague so far.

I will award Malý/Velký six pint glasses and a crisp coaster. A very respectable score – I’ll be back.

Pubs

Gastropub 20 Pip

The first stop on what is sure to be a long journey to find a pub I can call home was Gastropub 20 Pip, a narrow bar on Náměstí Míru boasting an impressive twenty beers on draught.

The word “gastropub” fills me with terror, as does the idea of having to choose between too many similar-sounding options, but, not having had a single pint in the 24 hours I’d been in Czechia, I swallowed my fear and headed in. After all, being sober in Prague after 6pm is practically a criminal offence.

The bar decor is inspired by typical Czech pubs – green walls, dark paneling and furniture – but updated to make the space bright and airy; plus, though the pub is narrow, it’s set over two levels and giant windows stop the place from feeling as stuffy as archetypal Czech beer halls.

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This beer was acceptably tasty.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that my exploration of Czech pubs is as much motivated by a desire to practise my language skills as it by a dependency on alcohol, so I’m keen to avoid places that seem too touristy or where English is spoken more than Czech.

With that in mind, I headed to the bar and attempted to engage in cheerful banter with the bartender.

In her defence, she humoured me as much as she could: when it was obvious from my accented Czech that I was a foreigner, she asked if I’d rather speak English. I clumsily declined, saying I needed to work on my Czech, and, to her credit, she continued to deal with me in Czech, despite the fact that she clearly spoke my language better than I spoke hers.

She also helped me navigate the frankly excessively long menu, picking out a couple of dark beers she recommended and giving me a taste of each. Once I’d paid, I felt too awkward to sit at the tiny bar so I took my pint upstairs and sat down by the window to mull things over.

The beer itself, Albrecht-Marion, a 5.9% ABV Irish Stout, was decent. I’d describe it as “fine” or “alright.”

The setup of tables was definitely more gastro- than -pub, and, perhaps for this reason, there wasn’t a great sense of camaraderie in the bar; it definitely wasn’t the sort of place you’d strike up a conversation with your neighbour.

As you might have noticed, I’m quite firmly set against the concept of gastropubs. It’s not that I think they should be wiped from the face of the earth; I just find the idea of them a little troublesome. I like my pubs to be beer-focused, maybe with some light snacks thrown in as an afterthought. Introducing cutlery into the mix doesn’t help anyone.

Overall, whilst I left 20 Pip feeling that I’d found a slightly-better-than-average place to take visiting relatives, I knew in my bones that this first pub in my Prague Saga was decidedly not a place I could call my own. Impressive beer mat collection aside, it was actually pretty nondescript – it felt pretty mainstream, offensively inoffensive, and definitely not a local.

I award Gastropub 20 Pip two sodden beer mats and a fork with crusty bits on the tines.

The hunt continues…

living abroad

Another Cautionary Tale

This story takes place in Blinders, a bar in St Petersburg that I wrote an incredibly soppy blog about yesterday.

The month was April; the canals had just thawed and I had swapped my thick winter jacket for my very slightly thinner spring fleece. I was, predictably, in the pub, tasting the newest pint they had on draught. It was called Raskolnikov, and it was the second best beer I’d ever tasted.

“Oof,” I said.

I was keen to make conversation with Lyosha, the barman, and to practise my Russian, so I wasn’t content to leave it at that. “That’s really nice.” I realised I could stretch my Russian a little further, so I added, “That’s very tasty.”

“Yeah,” he said. He and I were the only people in the bar. I fiddled with my receipt and started folding a crane. Lyosha rearranged some glasses.

“It really is very… nice,” I said, failing to think of a third synonym. I decided to draw on this native Russian’s experience: “Lyosha,” I said, “what do you call it when something is, really, just very, very tasty?”

“Oh,” he said, “we can say it’s ахуенно [akh-oo-yen-a]. If it’s really good.”

“Cool!” I said. “Well, this beer is ахуенно!”

Lyosha laughed heartily; I was thrilled: making Russians laugh was a personal goal of mine, and not one that I achieved that often – with the exception of at my expense, when my accent crossed the line from bad to egregious. Another customer came in; they spoke in Russian too quickly for me to understand, but soon after a friend joined me and we got to talking.

“How’s the beer?” he asked.

“Ахуенно!”

I kept describing my pint as such, and my enthusiasm was met by smiles every time. This is a great word, I thought to myself. People love it.

I went to university in high spirits the next day: yesterday had been so unexpectedly full of smiles and people asking how much I liked my beer that my spirits were soaring. My teacher, seeing my uncharacteristically bright expression, asked me how my evening was. I was keen to use this fabulous word, to replicate the great reception it’d received the night before.

I replied cheerily, “Well, it was simply ахуенно!”

My teacher’s face dropped. “…Rosie,” she said, “where did you hear that word?”

“In a bar,” I replied, bemused. This wasn’t the response I was used to.

“Rosie, please, don’t talk that way,” she said.

Later, in Blinders, I told Lyosha what had happened, tone full of confusion and wide-eyed with innocence. He burst out laughing, called his friend over and had me repeat the story.

“You told me it meant good!!” I said, watching both men wipe tears from their eyes.

“It does,” he said, “but it’s not the kind of thing you say to your teacher.”

[After careful etymological study, my friends and I have concluded that the closest English translation to ахуенно is the rather charming cuntastic. Remembering saying that to my seventy year old Russian teacher will stay with me to my death bed.]

From that moment until the day I left Russia in June, Lyosha introduced me to friends, and, indeed, strangers, as the girl who said ахуенно to her teacher. The story was met with singular hilarity and disbelief.

Anyway, this is a cautionary tale to anyone who, like me, is stupid enough not to attach context to the words you learn in bars.

Have an ахуенный day, dear readers!

Pubs

The Hunt for a Local

– or: Why It’s Legitimate For Me to Spend 20% of My Money on Beer –

All the photos in this post (and, indeed, most of my other posts) were taken by the very talented TestExplosion.

Recently (read: four days ago) I moved to Prague. Typically disorganised and, if I do say so, almost wilfully scatty, I’d not sorted a job or a place to live before I flew out; the only foreplanning I’d done involved booking a mildly well-reviewed hostel for a week and spending hours getting the font on my CV just right.

As you can imagine, the lack of forethought, combined with my frankly mizerný grasp of the Czech language, as well as general heartbreak about leaving St Petersburg, has left me feeling pretty tiny in a big world. Add to that a less than ideal hostel situation and incredibly hot weather (which, as we all know, makes me grumpy), and you’ve got a Ro feeling like the last Smartie in the tube of Smarties.

What I need is a home away from home. A local.

Thanks to incredibly good fortune and a friend well into craft beer and places where you can smoke indoors, my local in St Petersburg was, and I don’t want to overstate this, heaven on earth. After four months of regular visits and God knows how many roubles, Blinders Bottleshop really did feel like a second home.

Honestly, it felt like my first home, with my actual bedroom taking second place and the café that made incredible pasta a close third.

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World’s drunkest family portrait

We were on ты terms with the barmen (read: tu, tú, ty, Du), they let us stay way past closing, didn’t complain when we (read: I) left origami cranes all over the bar. At a certain point, they told us that if we ever wanted to drink before opening, we should just knock on the shutters until someone let us in.

My happiest memories of St Petersburg, almost without exception, happened in that small, dark, slightly cramped and beer-smelling room. A great deal of my Russian language skills are thanks to the exposure to authentic (and, sometimes, extremely colourful) Russian I got chatting to locals and visitors.

What makes it all the more spectacular is how welcome we foreign students felt in Blinders – and, as a group, we couldn’t be more foreign: gay, black, pink hair… In a lot of parts of Petersburg, we were singularly out of place; but at Blinders we were accepted and welcomed. Honestly, I tear up thinking about it.

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And that’s what I want here, too. A place where misfits of all descriptions can go, enjoy an incredible pint, and talk for hours about absolutely nothing.

It’s a tall order, sure. I’m searching for somewhere to rival my favourite place on earth but, by God, I swear I’ll find somewhere, even if I have to try every pub in Prague…