Quick pre-Christmas visit to Prague, without any Christmas atmosphere to it, unless you consider tacky lights on any available surface, people rushing like headless chickens from one overcrowded shopping centre to another and ever-present stench of bad mulled wine festive. Weather was mostly disgusting, wet and foggy.
Too many people and no decent light prevented me from taking a longer walk with my camera (I would also have to wake up at a reasonable hour and that was not going to happen after a thorough catch up with my best friend), but I managed a few shots of places that you may not notice or look for when visiting Prague as a tourist. If you are after more insider’s tips, read my blog from last year.
Few words about the photographs:
- The House of the Black Madonna: built in 1911, the first cubist house in Europe, nowadays houses Museum of Czech Cubism, Grand Cafe Orient (the only surviving cubist interior in the world) and a cubist design shop. More info here.
- Palace Koruna: late secession building built in 1914 at the bottom of Wenceslas Square. During communism the building used to house Automat Koruna, our very own concept of fast food, stand-up only dining. The restaurant served delicacies like open-face sandwiches (chlebicky) and mayonnaise-based salads without any trace of vegetables in them. There have been talks about reopening few years ago, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. More info here.
- Na Pernstyne 11: office buiding built in cubist style 1920-1922
- Kotva department store: Prague’s iconic (and generally hated) 1975 shopping centre built in brutalist style to showcase the supposed prosperity and abundance people enjoyed under communism, ironically built by a Swedish construction firm. Brutalism is generally disliked pretty much everywhere, I personally find it fascinating. Modern times expose us to faster architectural development than ever before. If you were living in the middle ages and someone started building a cathedral, not only you would not see it finished in your lifetime, chances were your grandchildren wouldn’t either, so you would not have any opportunity to bitch about ugliness of what the mad architects were building those days. To make space for much-admired secession and cubist palaces in the beginning of the 20th century, gothic buildings had to be torn down. Kotva isn’t even 50 years old, 50 more and it will be celebrated as a pearl of post-war architecture. More info here.
- Head of Franz Kafka statue by David Cerny. Latest (well, 2014) addition to a growing collection of Cerny’s creations in Prague. Other sculptures include the Babies (crawling up the TV tower), the Piss (at Mala Strana), Saint Wenceslas (in Lucerna Pasage), and a walking tour to see all of them may be an unusual alternative to pushing through the crowds in the city centre (more info here, here and here). The infamous (and highly amusing) Entropa is now located in Pilsen.
Customary rant: a year after my last visit home, the stands selling trdelnik and other things Czechs never eat unfortunately multiplied. I have seen stands selling halusky and bramborak and claiming it’s traditional street food. Let’s get one thing straight: street food is traditional to places where (at least in the past) not every household is equipped with a kitchen, like most Asian cities. Such places have usually very hot climate, so people would rather eat out in the open than ignite the stove at home. The only European cities that have some street food tradition are Naples and to some extent Palermo. We traditionally sit at a table while we eat. Especially when the outside temperature drops below 0 (or even 10 degrees), we definitely don’t hastily eat a plate of gnocchi with sheep cheese while walking on a street if every spoonful ices before it reaches out mouths. We are not idiots, and you should not behave as one either. There are hundreds of places in Prague where you can taste traditional food, pick one, sit down and order, you’ll have much nicer dining experience. Our idea of street food are dodgy stands around railway or night bus interchange stations that sell grilled sausages and fried cheese to people who’s had several beers too many. That’s how Czechs do street food: late at night and hammered. Mostly because if you approach those stands without having cleansed your insides with copious amounts of alcohol aforehand, you’ll get a stomach bug and spend the rest of your visit confined to the toilet, uncertain which extremity of your body expose to it first. Apologies for the graphic description, but if you like Prague for its atmosphere, help us preserve it, and do not give your money to establishments that invent fake traditions and most likely launder money for Russian mafia.
And a customary restaurant review.
Preface: The largest ethnic community settled in the Czech republic are the Vietnamese. The first few came in the 70s as war refugees, more joined after the revolution, there were over 60 thousand Vietnamese living in the country as of 2018. The first generation has been typically running corner shops and formed a rather closed community, nowadays their children go to universities, speak Czech without any trace of an accent and pursue careers away from family business. Weirdly, for such a large community coming from a country with a wonderful culinary tradition, for many years Vietnamese restaurants (outside SAPA) were almost impossible to find. That now finally changed. I noticed several pho joints around Prague (in a country where everyone loves a hot soup, I wonder they only started appearing in the last couple of years), but more importantly, we have the first casual fine dining Vietnamese restaurant.
Fairly recently opened Taro restaurant in Prague 5 Andel is a great concept. I wondered if the Czechs were ready for it, but I was pleased to notice that most guests the evening we visited were local. It is a small establishment, they only have 17 spots (therefore, book ahead) placed bar-style around an open kitchen. They do pre-theatre 5 course menu (40 euro pp) at 5 pm and 7 course dinner tasting menu (55 euro pp) at 8.30 pm. The prices may put the restaurant into luxury category in Prague (although, probably not anymore), but it’s definitely cheap in European fine dining context and anyway an excellent value for money. You are supposed to turn up on time as the kitchen continuously prepares the courses for all customers roughly at the same time. You can observe the chefs preparing the dishes in front of you (assembling, rather, as it is of course impossible for a professional kitchen to prepare each course from scratch in front of the customer – you’d have to turn up for breakfast to watch them chop the onions and fry the spices, I am only saying this because I read some delirious review on TripAdvisor, where someone complained about lack of real kitchen drama). The service is very pleasant and professional, they explain and present each dish as it comes to you, they even recommend what to eat it with (to prevent you from attempting to eat a poached egg with chopsticks). Everything was simply delicious. The seasonal menu of course changes often with availability of fresh ingredients. They have a short but carefully chosen wine list that consists of wines suitable for spicy and fragrant Asian flavours. Dining at Taro was a fantastic, relaxed experience, it’s a place worth visiting and revisiting, and if you are a tourist, it may be a welcome break from all the heavy stews and roasts.