Saturday, 26 April 2008

České Budějovice

It's a real relief when we arrive at our hotel in the centre of České Budějovice. We've done way too much travelling today. Now it's time to relax.

The hotel, Malý Pivovar, is owned by the Budvar brewery and has a beerhall on the ground floor. In my years of travelling I've stayed in plenty of hotels. Many I wouldn't exactly recommend. Most of my journeys have been on a tight budget. My room here is notable for two reasons:

  1. it's the nicest
  2. it's the largest

Most I've had elsewhere were smaller than this one's bathroom. I'm intrigued as to the size and pace it out. I make it 70 square metres. That's larger the most of the flats my friends inhabit in Amsterdam. Well done, Andy.

Before we go up to check out our luxurious accommodation, Andy arranges for us to meet 30 minutes later in the beerhall. I only pause to take a few snaps of my room to show Dolores.

Budvarka Pivnice
ul.Karla IV 8-10,
370 21 České Budějovice.

Long and low, with a bar counter at its heart, it's reminiscent of many Prague boozers. The copper beer taps gleam cheerfully. At the front booths line either wall. The rear are long tables and benches. It's 16:00 on Saturday, but is already quite full. I immediately notice that there's no smoking ban in the Czech Republic. I've got used to the clean air in Bavarian pubs. The blue air as quite a shock. What will it be like later in the evening?

"I really love faggots." I say. "You better not say that in the US." Jim remarks. In case you're wondering, we've been talking about haggis and we've progressed to talking about offal-based food in general. I really do love faggots. With peas. Or pease pudding.

Just for a change I start with the Budvar Světlé 12º. There's really very little I can say about it. It's wet, the right temperature and has some pleasant hop flavour. The nice spicy Saaz type. Apart from the hops, there's very little to it. So little, I have no other words to describe it. 48 out of 100.

Andy tells us a tale of when he was here researching. He got talking with a couple of locals. Everything started fine, but soon they were knocking back booze at breakneck speed and went leary. "That looks like one of them over there." he said, pointing to an adjacent booth. "I hope he doesn't recognise me." He edges sideways to place Keith between him and his former mate.

Andy's glass appears to have a hole in it again. I didn't realise driving was such thirsty work. He's soon a couple of beers ahead of me. Jim makes a brave effort to keep up. Where does he put it? You could make at least two of him out of one of me.

I try the Tmavé 12º for my next beer. It's quite bitter with roast, chocolate and liquorice flavours. It's a big improvement on the pale. I've not come across that chocolate flavour in a Czech beer before.I give it 59. It's another beer let down by having little aroma.

Small "reserved" signs were one of the most annoying features of communist-era pubs in Eastern Europe. It didn't usually mean that someone had actually reserved the table, just that the staff couldn't be arsed to serve it. Often half the tables were out of commission this way. I didn't expect these signs to still be as common. At least they now do really mean what they say. Then Andy does something that has never occurred to me. He reserves a table for later. The plan is to come back around 19:00 to eat. Reserving a table makes sense. I experience a disturbing sense of Schadenfreude at the thought of other drinkers' frustration at the reserved sign.

Andy has already warned us that the centre of town isn't exactly a pub hotspot. It's not even lukewarm. Only been out of the freezer for about 3 minutes describes it best. I remember the enormous central square from my last visit. It has no more pubs on it now than in 1986. I thought it was crap then. In 2008 that level of boozering is double crap. If this were Holland or Belgium there would be nothing but pubs lining it.

The square is attractive enough, with the cloister-like colonnades and gaily painted houses found in every Czech town. Do you remember me mentioning being here with Little Dave last time? I've managed to dig out some photos. Given how anarchically my photographs are stored, that' s quite an achievement. See for yourself if the square has changed much. The photo from 1986 is the one with Little Dave in it. (I wonder what's happened to him? He always was the friend most likely to be dead. He didn't lead the healthiest of lifestyles.)

You can see many of the same buildings in each photo. (If you can't work out which they are, you shouldn't be reading this blog. Really. Leave now.) Not that different, are they? The same isn't true of the backstreets, which were pretty shabby in the old days.

With nothing doing on the square, we branch off into the side streets, where we find:

Potrefená husa
Česká 66,
České Budějovice.
Tel.: 387 42 0560

Even if you were unaware that this was part of an Inbev-run chain of pubs, you'd realise as soon as you looked at the draught beer list: Staropramen Světlé 10º, Staropramen Světlé 12º, Staropramen Tmavé 12º, Staropramen Granát, Staropramen Velvet, Leffe Bruin, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden. The Stella is 43 crowns, the Staropramen Světlé 12º just 30. What sort of mental deficient would drink the Stella? No, don't answer that question, I already know the answer. A young trendy with neither a sense of history nor tastebuds.

This isn't exactly my taste in pubs. You could find somewhere similar in any city in Europe. Over-designed and with zero charm. It's what the young'uns like nowadays. We were born around 30 years too early to be regulars.

Andy is looking for girls. He likes snapping them sitting amongst his tour groups. He uses the photos in his advertising. To prove it isn't only sad old blokes who go on his tours. No luck here, apart from the podgy lass in the corner (I'm not exactly slim myself). Hang on - another girl's just come in. She has stomach issues, too, but I suppose being pregnant is a good excuse.

The room is deserted apart from us, and the two lasses and their consorts. When I go to the toilet, I realise why: we're sitting in the no-smoking section. The smokers' room is packed. The toilets are an absolute disgrace - modern and spotless. What happened to the dirty toilet competition they used to hold in Czech pubs? (That was I only explanation I could think of for why bogs were so willfully filthy.) This country has gone right downhill since the end of communism.

I'm drinking a Staropramen Granát. It hasn't improved since I last tried it. Virtually flavour-free. 15 out of 100.

Not being too impressed, we go in search of somewhere better. It's much more difficult than I expect. Few of the rare pubs we encounter are open. It was easier to find a beer when the communists were in charge. They had their priorities right. The price of beer didn't increase between 1968 and 1984.

You might be surprised to hear that I have quite a good memory for pubs. That's why I immediately recognise:

Restaurace Masné krámy
Krajinská 13,
370 01 České Budějovice.
Tel.: +420 387 201 301
Fax: +420 387 201 302

It's still one of the few pubs in town selling Budvar. In the old days, that was because it was all exported, being one of the country's best sources of hard currency. I'm not quite sure what the reason is now.

Andy is quite keen to enter when I tell him it's called "Meat Market". He's disappointed when he finds out that's because it used to be a market where meat was sold. What did he think it meant? Why do they use crossed axes as a logo?

In the mid-1980's it was converted to a pub and was pretty posh by Czech standards. A renovation last year has left it posh by any standards. That's pretty tacky. Except for giant TV screens showing ice hockey. Most of the tables are adorned with little "reserved" signs (punishment for my Schadenfreude?) and we're ushered into a corner.

Two couples are on the adjacent table. One of the blokes is groping his girlfriend under the table, unseen by their companions. At least I assume she's his girlfriend. She isn't trying to beat him off. I can see him, but that doesn't seem to bother him. (You can see the girl in question in the top right-hand corner of the photo to the left.)

I order a Budvar Super Strong. It tastes like the tramp juice that the name implies. Another 15 out of 20.

Back at Budvarka, I suck down a few more Tmavé's with my goulash. When we're finished eating, the waiter suggests a Slivovic as a digestif. Good idea. "Could I have a Myslivec instead, please?" I ask. "No. Slivovic." says the waiter, who brings us four Slivovic. You have to admire his self-confidence. There's no use trying to argue. He knows what I want better than I do myself.

I leave at the shockingly early hour of 20:30 and watch "The Big Lobowski" in Czech on the TV in my room. A suitably weird ending to a very long day. It's hard to believe that just this morning we looked around Brauerei Eck.

We have an early appointment at the Budvar brewery tomorrow. I wonder what that will be like? Read the next installment to find out.


Stonch said...

Excellent Sunday morning hangover reading for me, Ronbert. Cheers.

Now I'm glad it isn't just me who thinks Budweis is something of a one-horse town. I visited for a night and a day and found the centre a bit miserable, despite that lovely square. We stayed in a dreadful hotel by the station. We had noisy neighbours. We dined somewhere dreadful. We didn't even visit the brewery - it was closed. The thing that sticks in my mind is the very posh boutique M&S one one of the shopping streets. Sad.

I drank a pint of Budvar last night. It was in Al's Bar. I swirled it around a lot, a la Ron, to release CO2. One of my companions, Juan the Japanesey-Argentinian, asked why I was doing so. I explained it was to make it less fizzy so I could taste the beer. He thought I was crazy, and said the whole point of lager is that it's fizzy and tastless. He sipped his JD and Coke.

I had a Guinness later in the night in a different place. You know, I quite like drinking Guinness in nightclubs. It works at 4am.

Stonch said...

Just noted a Bernard pub sign in that first photo. You should have gone there.

Ron Pattinson said...

I was shocked to find that the refreshment possibilities had got slightly worse since the Communist days. In the town centre, at least. There used to be plenty of Samson about. Now it's a struggle to find Budvar pubs in the centre. The two we drank in - Budvarka and Masen Kramy - were the only two I saw.

Most of the pubs were selling Pilsner Urquell. What's going on? Why no local beers?

Cesky Krumlov and all the countrside was the same. Most pubs had nice shiny new green Pilsner Urquell signs.

Yes, I did notice the sign. The place selling Bernard wasn't open until later.