Bucket List Worthy
I’m staring at an enormous silver head. Stationed outside the chic Quadrio shopping centre in Prague, it’s Czech sculptor David Cerny’s depiction of legendary author Franz Kafka. Sliced into segments, the head rotates and shifts constantly. Simultaneously, Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” blares from a nearby cafe.
It’s a surreal moment on a warm May afternoon. But the Czech Republic specializes in surprises and contrasts. It’s romantic but quirky, prosperous yet ultra-affordable.
This Central European nation of 10 million produced Kafka, whose tortured, paranoid literary vision became world-famous. However, for hardcore hockey fans, the most famous Czech is arguably happy-go-lucky NHL superstar Jaromir Jagr. Last May, Canada won gold at the IIHF World Championship in Prague, but Jagr was named tournament MVP – at the advanced age of 43. That’s almost as surreal as waking up and discovering you’ve turned into a giant insect, as in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Fittingly, I decided to tour the Czech capital and the neighbouring cities of Kutna Hora and Pilsen in the spirit of the NHL’s fourth all-time leading scorer.
Speaking of things that still function well despite being ancient, the 1410-made Astronomical Clock that graces Prague’s Old Town Square captivated me when I saw it strike noon. Medieval animated figures like a skeleton and a miser came out, amusingly getting applause from the massed tourists.
Yet I craved something more active and Jagr-esque. Growing up, Jagr did 1,000 deep knee bends a day, and I got my quadriceps burning on the 287-step ascent of St. Vitus Cathedral’s bell tower. Photographing the statue-laden Charles Bridge from atop this Gothic cathedral in the heart of Prague Castle, I felt a sense of endless possibilities beneath blue skies.
On a darker note, I visited the hilltop National Monument, guarded by a huge bronze horseman. In the gilt-and-marble Liberation Hall were stark mementos of the country’s troubled 20th-century history. These included the cap, shoes, and ID book of Jan Palach, the 20-year-old student who committed suicide by setting himself on fire to protest the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The “Prague Spring” is why Jagr wears number 68 to this day.
The monument also once housed the body of Communist leader Klement Gottwald, whose unhealthy lifestyle contrasts totally with Jagr and his famous midnight workouts. Gottwald died from a burst artery after attending dictator Joseph Stalin’s 1953 Moscow funeral. A sinister crypt diorama shows how doctors embalmed him for public display till 1962.
Jagr is a true eccentric – a former compulsive gambler who’s now a devout Orthodox believer – and the art-and-music-themed Aria Hotel, where I stayed, was equally eccentric. A giant bronze snail and Salvador Dali artwork adorned the dining room, where guests enjoy complimentary tea and croissants each afternoon. Luxurious rooms have names like “Schubert” or “Crooners.” A sumptuous baroque garden lies behind the hotel.
I took an Arts & Music Travel walking tour of Prague with veteran guide Milos Curik. During the Communist era, Curik was charged with “economic crimes” for setting up tours for Western musicians like Nico and Pere Ubu. Today, he revels in exposing the old regime’s bizarre behaviour. In the Royal Garden, Curik pointed out a hammer-and-sickle logo that was unsubtly carved into the Renaissance-era Ball Games Hall.
Near the Charles Bridge, he highlighted a qurky-looking table attached to a linden tree. It had a quote from the first post-Communist president, Vaclav Havel: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.” That theme continued when we admired the 1980’s-created, graffiti-laden John Lennon Wall, where a young man with an acoustic guitar sang Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”
Jagr’s always been a rock star: his black curly mullet was hockey’s best-known 1990’s hairstyle. And he has a weighty presence, once topping 250 pounds. So after the walking tour, I tried to bulk up at the Kolkovna Olympia restaurant, ordering a platter with roast duck, smoked beer sausage, red cabbage, and dumplings. The classic pub’s dark-wood ambience evoked the post-World War I First Republic, when Czechs got an early taste of democracy.
I went back further in time in Kutna Hora. An hour’s train ride east of Prague, the 20,000-strong UNESCO World Heritage site earned its medieval fortune from Central Europe’s largest silver mines.
Jagr, whose career NHL earnings exceed $120 million U.S., might enjoy visiting the former Royal Mint. There, you can don a traditional red coiner’s gown and (loudly) make your own coin with a hammer. At the Czech Museum of Silver, a claustrophobic but compelling tour of the mines requires you to wear an NHL-strength helmet: I bumped my head (harmlessly) five times.
Kutna Hora’s Church of St. Barbara has brought Gothic splendour to movies like Joan of Arc (Leelee Sobieski) and A Knight’s Tale (Heath Ledger). Yet the town’s grim star attraction is the Sedlec Ossuary. Jagr seldom seems to rest his weary bones, but this “bone church” is chillingly decorated with the skulls and femurs of close to 60,000 people, to remind the devout of their mortality. With 300,000 visitors a year, it’s Central Bohemia’s most-visited site. And yes, you can buy fake skulls at the gift shop.
After that, I needed a drink. I headed west to Pilsen, the birthplace of Pilsner beer, and bunked down at the modern, sleek Hotel U Zvonu, owned by Jagr’s former NHL linemate Martin Straka.
Now, beer isn’t all that makes this 1295-founded city popular. Easily walkable, it was named the 2015 European Capital of Culture. It boasts a professional puppet theatre, with superbly crafted puppets depicting everything from Aladdin to The Hound of the Baskervilles. In addition, Europe’s second-largest synagogue, the Czech Republic’s tallest cathedral, and a new monument commemorating U.S. general George Patton’s 1945 liberation of the city from Nazi forces are all worth checking out.
However, beer has been Pilsen’s calling card ever since town councillors poured out 36 barrels of sub-standard suds on the main square in 1838 and decided to turn the industry around with their own civic brewery. Today, Pilsner Urquell is a global brand.
Touring the gargantuan brewery where bottom-fermented lager was invented, I became quite intoxicated with the product. Fast-paced, fun films illuminated the brewing process. I savoured unfiltered Pilsner Urquell in the chilly tunnels under the facility, and even purchased a miniature souvenir Jagr jersey with the company logo for about $5.
Huge servings of pork and sauerkraut, accompanied by more half-litre glasses of Pilsner Urquell, further pleased my palate at traditional Pilsen restaurants like U Salzmannu and Na Parkanu. The prices were surreally low. Even if I’ll never win an Olympic gold medal like Jagr did in 1998, I felt like a winner while soaking up the sights of his strange, seductive country.