Travel Drinking: Eastern Europe - Is that a worm in my beer?

A decade is a long time in Eastern Europe. Vitali Vitaliev picks up a pub crawl of Prague where he left off 10 years ago

U Fleku was easy to find. An uninterrupted line of neatly parked tourist buses led me to its entrance on Charles Square. Just as 10 years before, the place was bursting with tourists, mostly Germans, although this time there were streaks of Americans and Japanese among them. A musician, dressed in the military uniform of the times of Good Soldier Svejk, was playing an accordion in one of the cavernous rooms. Just as I had 10 years ago, I went into the beer garden. It was cold outside, and the long wooden benches were half-empty.

Somewhere from above there came a voice: "Pivo?" ("Beer?"). It was the waiter, and I suddenly realised why in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia they call waiters "Pan Vrchny" ("Mister Upper"). U Fleku's Mr Upper, sporting a short-sleeved white shirt under a black vest, was towering above me, holding an enormous tray with several dozen beer mugs on it.

His question was rather a rhetorical one; why on earth would someone come to U Fleku, if he didn't want beer? To play snooker? To board a flight to Bratislava? Or to scribble away in a WH Smith recycled notebook, as I did?

Thump! A weighty mug with dark brown liquid landed on the table in front of me. It was followed by Mr Upper's dextrous hand which made one quick notch on a piece of paper, stuck under my coaster.

Before I could say "Dekuji!" ("Thanks"), another Mr Upper's hand was stretching towards me with a shot of Becherovka liqueur. But I was well prepared for the trick. Gently pushing his hand away, I told him resolutely "Ne!" ("No!"), as the Pub Etiquette section of the Prague Post newspaper advised.

"Perche?" Mr Upper asked in unexpected Italian. "Because I don't want it!" I replied in English. "But it is very good with beer," the obstinate polyglot insisted.

"I don't think so. Take it away!"

The reason for Mr Upper's persistence was that they charged you 200 crowns (pounds 5) for a shot, the price of a three-course meal (with beer) in a good Prague restaurant, whereas a 0.4 litre mug of beer at U Fleku was "only" 39 crowns - by far the most expensive in the Czech Republic, even though just less than a pound.

Besides, contrary to Mr Upper's assurances, mixing the vomitingly sweet Becherovka with beer was like eating a pickled herring topped with raspberry jam. Ten years ago they didn't do this to unsuspecting tourists. Capitalism can sometimes be pushy.

I took a couple of sips from my mug and found the beer surprisingly pleasant. Its bittersweet taste reminded me of kvass, a drink of my Ukrainian childhood. This is a mildly alcoholic drink made of yeast and black bread. I stopped drinking it when one day I saw a kvass tank break in two and all its contents pour out: the streams of brown kvass were swarming with white intestinal worms.

Meanwhile, my neighbours were busily gulping their Becherovkas, washing them down with beer. Several happy Mr Uppers were hovering above them like butterflies, and the rows of pencilled "notches" on their beer slips were as thick as hedges in Devon. The sugar daddy was quarrelling with his bovine-necked Brunnhilde, whose face was by now pretty bovine, too.

The famous U Fleku, which claims to be the oldest beer pub in the world, was clearly no longer a place where one could find much local colour.

Not far from U Fleku, in Kaprova Street, I spotted a small pub called U Mestkiy Knihovni ("At a Local Bookshop"). What an ingenious name. Imagine an angry wife questioning her wayward husband: "Where have you been all evening?" "At a local bookshop," he answers meekly. I didn't venture in, but through the window I could discern several fat, red-faced men drinking beer. And not a single book.

My next destination was U Pravdu, which translated as "The Truth". My guidebook promised a nice beer garden and a convivial Svejk atmosphere. The beer garden was closed, the pub was totally empty, and this was the whole truth about The Truth.

I was luckier at U Cerneho Vola ("At a Black Ox"). The atmosphere inside the pub was warm and brotherly: under low, beamed ceilings, the patrons were sitting on long dark-wood benches. They were drinking Kozel (Goat) beer and chasing it with traditional "Pivni syr", a strong, spicy goat cheese.

The balance, as I soon discovered, was perfect: my mouth was set on fire after each bite of the heavily peppered cheese, and the only way to put the flames out was to wash them down with a good gulp of Kozel. The man next to me had six notches on his slip already, and was thirstily approaching his seventh. A large mug of beer cost 8.40 crowns (20p) - a big difference from U Fleku.

Through a small leaded window, I could see the palatial Foreign Ministry building across the road. It was there, in the courtyard, that the body of the country's democratically elected president, Jan Masaryk, was found beneath an open window on 10 March 1948. It was officially announced that he had killed himself by jumping to his death.

The death of Masaryk was the final episode in the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. Rather than a suicide, it was the last (so far) case of a centuries-old Czech political tradition of defenestration, which means chucking an undesirable politician out of a window and making it look as if he has taken his own life. The first defenestration, a collective one, was in 1419, when several over-zealous Prague town councillors were hurled out of a window by a group of bullish religious reformers. Since then there have been three more.

It is hard to say who is going to be the victim of the next great defenestration of Prague, although when I was there many Czechs believed it was likely to be Vaclav Havel, beer-loving former dissident, playwright and incumbent President of the Republic. Some time ago, he even won the honorary (if somewhat dubious) title of The-Most-Likely-to-be-Defenestrated Person in Prague.

After a mug of strong, pale Korzel, I started clearly seeing human bodies - in suits and ties - flying out, one by one, from the Foreign Ministry's windows. I needed a cup of coffee. "What will happen if I order a coffee here?" I asked my beer-swilling neighbour, who happened to speak some English. "They will think that you are an alcoholic," he replied, finishing off his tenth mug.

This is an edited extract from `Borders Up!', Vitali Vitaliev's bibulous travelogue through Eastern Europe. It is published next Tuesday by Scribner (pounds 9.99). To get to Prague: Czech Airlines (0171-255 1898) flies from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester, with fares starting at pounds 185 return from Stansted for travel in May. British Airways (0345 222111) and British Midland (0345 554554) fly from Heathrow. Buses from the airport to the city leave every half-hour. Get off at the first stop, Dejvicka, to link into Prague's Metro system, or stay on to Revolution Square for destinations to the east of the city centre. You can travel by bus from London - a journey of around 18 hours - on Kingscourt Express (0181-673 7500) for pounds 85 return

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines