Joe Hendren

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Travels: Prague

Old Bridges and Absinthe

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Spent most of the day in a bus from Kracow, we arrived in Prague in the late afternoon. After driving past a few sites on the bus, we arrived at our Campsite, Camp Dzban. Many of us were amused by our first impressions of the main campsite building, as the vertical steel bars over the windows made it look like a prison! Thankfully the other side of the building did not have bars over the windows and thus looked a lot less imposing.

The rooms inside the main building slept four people each. Soon after we arrived most of the group arranged themselves into groups. Being one of the last to be able to collect my baggage from the bus I found that only Paul Jeff and myself were homeless, so we ended up sharing a room between the three of us.

After one of Gav the Cook's better dinners our tour group caught the tram into town to experience Prague by night. The centrepiece of central Prague is the Charles Bridge. This dates from 1357 when Charles IV (also the Holy Roman Emperor) commissioned his favourite architect, Peter Parler, to design a new bridge. The bridge was to include two towers and 16 arches, and to be able to accommodate the passing of four horses across its breath. The bridge was not completed until the middle of the 15th century.

Between 1706 and 1714 the most celebrated artists of the day sculpted 26 statues to line the bridge (a few more were added later). The oldest and sole bronze statue on the bridge is of St John Nepomeceno. It has been believed for centuries that touching one of the lower panels of the statue brings good luck. There must have been thousands of people in need of luck over the years, as the panel is now smooth to touch.

The bridge continues to function as one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares in modern Prague, as well as being a key tourist attraction. Even at night we found the bridge bustling with people all along the bridge. The bridge offers great views of the riverbank in both directions.

Lights like old style street lanterns line the bridge on either side, leading to tastefully illuminated gothic style towers at each end. These glow softly in the night, the yellow light giving the stone a greenish hue.

After our visit to the bridge we found a little cafe, with the intention of tasting some of the famous local fare, absinthe. Absinthe is a turquoise blue coloured spirit, renown for its very high alcohol content (80%-90%). It is banned in just about every other country apart from the Czech Republic/Slovakia, largely because it is a lot of fun. Minor exports are possible, so long as you have spare labels for obscurely named toiletries. 

I order a coffee and some of the famous spirit, while others more sensibly order some spirit and some lemonade to wash it down. The instructions were then given to the group as follows. First take a teaspoon of sugar, dip it in the shot glass of absinthe. The teaspoon is then lit, creating a pretty blue flame. As soon as the flame goes out stir the teaspoon of burnt sugar into the shot glass, and quickly skull the contents.

Starting at the table in the far left side of the room, each person lit their flame and downed their drink, half the fun being for the observers keen to see some odd facial contortions in the moments after a drink was downed.

As I like the taste of absinthe I thought it was somewhat of a shame to skull it complete, however I made up for this by dipping my teaspoon for a few tiny tastes as I awaited my turn. As the eyes of the room turned on me I lifted my teaspoon and admired the flame. With the flame nearly out I moved the teaspoon closer to my glass. This was quite fun as it led to cries of alarm from some people in the group as thought I was going to put the teaspoon in the glass before it went out. Now that would have been a very pretty blue flame, with the whole shotglass on fire, if somewhat of a waste as I would have then had to get another drink.

From the cafe we made our way across town to the 'Karlovy Lzn' nightclub. This is one of the largest nightspots in europe, containing 8 to 10 floors of nightclub each playing a different style of music. As we arrived on a Tuesday night, only two of the floors of the club were open. I soon found the classic rock/arrh its the eighties floor (not what its actually called but you get the idea) and got very tired dancing as I waited for the good music to stop. Evil Evil Evil.

Will definitely do the absinthe thing before going to a nightclub again. The headrush you get about an hour after having a shot of absinthe is very cool - it reminded me of the feeling of being happy drunk on a plane. After I had ascertained the effect of the absinthe I cautiously (hah!) started drinking again, including a beer and a vodka and orange. Also drunk some water, only to find that beer was cheaper (a common economic fact in eastern europe)

What was even more evil was going into the bar to find that the dance floor contained a video camera that beamed the dancing back to a TV in the bar. Regarding my dancing comment was positive, or so they said while I was present :)

I stayed at the nightclub until about 2.30 in the morning, venturing only once to the other floor playing techno that was rather bland. Three of us then caught a taxi back to the campsite. 

Catching a taxi in Prague is an experience, largely because the taxis move like rally cars. Moving through central Prague in the early morning at speeds of around 100km/h is quite exchilarating, and being slightly drunk certainly helps as you don't get so worried about it.