It was going to be a long night at U Fleku…
I had parked myself at the end of a long wooden table, lights reflected on its well-tanned surface like a crooked selection of smiles. It was a mighty, majestic table and as well as bearing witness to the buff brush of thousands of elbows it was pock-marked with all the warts and wattles of age, as were its fellow travelers in the room. For a brief Lord of the Rings moment I thought it carved out of a single tree — but an inner voice whispered (with the treacherous hiss of a latter day Gollum perhaps) that its real maternal home might actually be a warehouse (and associated website) whose owner had made their name in supplying Czech pubs such as U Fleku with suitably Gothic adornments. Meanwhile the bench that the table held dominion over seemed pulled straight from the suffer-the-little-children school of canes, cold baths and compulsory Latin. And yet in spite of the forbidding and elemental appearance of sternness, the furniture was surprisingly comfortable in the chiseled, gravel-voiced, Valhalla-lite ambience of this central European beer-hall.
The table belonged to a family of eight that I counted laid out barrack-square tidy against the wooden panels that reached halfway up the wall on both sides of the room; the pub had eight similarly furnished rooms into which tourists were funneled as soon as they crossed the threshold from the street outside. If you’ve never been to Prague and know nothing about the city, or if you have but shown no interest in its beery heritage, then imagine a place like U Fleku as a beery totem pole standing at the centre of the city’s tourist industry, a station of the cross at which disciples pause and pray, or maybe a place from where the call from the muezzin conjoins the faithful to the evening’s reflection. It is on the map, part of the plan for a Prague stroll, a go-to place and in the top 20 hits that revolve around Prague. I think you might get the idea.
My visit to U Fleku had not been planned when I emerged from the smooth confines of the metro, wary and weary, but eager to catch a wave on the swell of people tramping through the late afternoon September sunshine. I walked amongst them, but not of them, through the canyon-tall streets, gazing upwards at Prague’s fabulous architectural pick and mix of baroque, art nouveau, Renaissance, Gothic and French Imperial styles. A quicksilver decision, a look at a map; there was time enough to take myself off to U Fleku, before an appointment with a brewer at another brewpub (U Medviku if you must know). Carrying on, I had stopped again and looked at my map. A man in a bobble hat, thick coat incongruous in the sunshine, a face like a scrawl on a wall, asked me if he could help. I replied that I was ok, a bit sharply perhaps, suspicious, perhaps, as is my way (years ago I learnt while travelling to reply to anyone I felt might be undesirable in Welsh — that soon had me left alone). No offence taken it seemed, he then asked, ‘do you want to buy some Krona?’ I smiled, said no thanks, flapping my hand in front of me, and carried on, puzzled by the sort of exchange I thought had gone out of fashion when the Cold War had toppled off the catwalk of history accompanied by the mood music of a disjointed model’s fall.
I thought briefly of him as I took my table and wondered what his life was like. A rapid flurry of images of decline fed some inner conveyor belt before I returned to the now and nodded to the couple on the adjoining table, against which I had squeezed, rucksack clamped to my torso with the familiarity of a firm handshake, aware of the ripples of sweat rolling down my back. They were holding hands across the salt and pepper and for a brief moment I thought they looked aggrieved to have a neighbour. I was sweaty, unshaven and wearing worn (but comfortable) climbing boots, dark blue cargo trousers and a combat jacket out of whose numerous pockets poked a variety of pens, notebooks and maps.
Settled in my chair, table flat in front of me like the Hungarian plains across which the invaders of Europe progressed century after century, I opened my notepad and started to write, to record my thoughts on what I saw and felt.
‘Are you a writer,’ asked the man on the next table, ignoring his companion who looked at me with a certain sense of irritation. He spoke uncertain English with a brisk German inflection. He’d probably noted the tiny Union Jack stitched onto the arm of my jacket, a heraldic reminder of its secondhand surplus nature.
‘Journalist,’ I corrected him kindly, ‘yes, also a writer, I’ve wanted to visit this place for a long time, taste the beer, it’s good, I’m told, I write about beer.’
‘The beer,’ he said, ‘is not bad for Czech beer but we have good beer in Germany. Perhaps better.’ He paused. ‘Write about beer? You must have the best job in the world.’
I nodded and smiled, but really wanted to tell him to see my tax returns. Writing about beer isn’t the most lucrative career in the world, but on the other hand… He lifted his glass of beer to me in salute and returned to his companion who gave me a brief tight smile of cold politeness.
The room in which I sat, within the company of a smattering of drinkers, no doubt tourists like myself and my neighbours, unveiled itself to me as a Teutonic-like shrine to dark wood though September’s late afternoon sunlight softened the hardness as it reached in and stroked the stained glass windows. I noted the large metal chandeliers that swooped down from the ceiling, cold, cruel-eyed predators dressed up as a nice interior design feature whose creator perhaps hoped for a touch of the Nibelungenlied. Sadly they really looked like they’d emerged from a job lot in an out-of-town DIY store whose wares were bedded down on an industrial estate. Perhaps it was the same place from where the tables were torn from their womb.
As I waited to be served by waiters who rushed about, their trays held high, leathery, battered money bags hanging like ancient sporrans on their aprons, I continued to look: the floors were tiled, sounding boards against which clicked the waiters’ heels.
The men, and yes, they were all men as far as I could see, were typically European (no New World have-a-nice-day schmoozing here) in their froideur, imperious and the very opposite of idle in the rush with which they scurried about, holding trays studded with glasses of the rich dark lager brewed somewhere else within the building. Somewhere in the building, somewhere near and yet far, somewhere this beer that I hadn’t tried was brewed within the building.
I tried to catch one’s eye.
A chap of medium height stalking the next row of tables, looking about, CCTV on two legs, short stubbly hair, cropped almost to the scalp, saw me. He reached the end of the row, turned left and approached. I was reminded of the waiters in the Alt beer-halls of Dusseldorf — hard faced, attitudinal, fast movers, forever hunting for customers, with the glacial calmness of supermodels, leaving you gratified that they haven’t been rude. I presume they worked on being paid for every beer sold. The law of the jungle, Darwinian, brought to the pub. No matter. At last I was going to try a beer that had haunted me ever since reading about it within the pages of Michael Jackson’s books on beer (that’s the beer hunting guy from Yorkshire who died in 2007, not the former child star who became a man child and died in 2009). This was my fourth visit to the city and with a bit of time and being on my own for once, cut off from the usual press pack I normally turned up with, I was not to be denied.
As I anticipated my beer the evening’s entertainment begun: a scowling, mustachioed accordionist stood in the doorway and started to play the melody from Que Sera Sera. As his fingers jabbed away with a mesmeric fluidity, the newsreel that still existed in one part of my brain uncovered an image of Doris Day singing the same song in some film from the 1950s. It was a surreal memory that I shook away with the natural ease of a large dog shuddering itself after emerging from a dip in the river.
Dressed in Rupert Bear-style checked trousers and wearing a cap of indeterminate shape, it seemed to me that the accordionist had the air of a 19th century Corsican bandit albeit with a general comical air of buffoonish villainy. He was meant for a bad opera.
I had seen a similarly dressed chap with an accordion the previous year in the courtyard at the Museum of Plzen. The musician there was less comically menacing. He was older, slightly comforting in a grandfatherly sort of way, though also dressed in the same style of chintzy, cushion covered furnishings as the man in U Fleku. When the chap in Plzen played away I was struck by the fact that none of the journalists I was with wanted to look directly at him. I certainly didn’t. It was as if we were embarrassed for him, but on another level as the notes squeezed themselves out of the instrument, a flurry of folkloric tunes that sounded vaguely familiar, I made a joke about how we should be in a tavern in Where Eagles Dare. We could have been in Bavaria.
Meanwhile, back in U Fleku the beer arrived. It was creamy and dark with satisfying notes of licorice and mocha coffee, all held together with a sparkling condition that gave it a beautiful drinkability along with a deft dab of bitterness in the finish. As I let the beer transport me into a different state of reverie, the man with the air of a 19th century Corsican bandit finished his song, slung his accordion on his shoulder like it was the sort of bag that usually held shot pigeons and other game and began to root through his pocket. He brought out what I presumed was loose change and looked at it in a meaningful way, occasionally glancing up at the drinkers in the room.
The table opposite me, in the next row, was home to another young couple, Italian I guessed from the few scattered scraps of conversation that came my way. One of the imperious waiters approached them, an approach that I noted was strangely unhurried in its gait though still possessing a briskness that seemed to say ‘hurry up, eat your food, drink your beer, tip me and then leave’. He handed down two plates filled with a bomb-site of Czech cuisine: a mound of dumplings, red cabbage, gleaming and steaming, a monstrous cut of pork with a knife stabbed into the top. The waiter also had a bottle of liqueur and two small glasses on his tray. He poured a tot into each, the liquid as green as the weeds waving in the current beneath the surface of a river that would gladly take any Cordelia into its embrace. The couple demurred but then accepted what seemed like a gift. Did they know that this drink would be added to their bill and was one of the practices of U Fleku that guide books warned about?
Meanwhile, the accordionist was still looking through the coins in his hand. Was this a big hint that the meagre audience should be lobbing money his way? As the waiters continued to roam up and down poking menu cards in the air possibly in the hope of summoning diners out of nowhere while flourishing silver trays of the local liqueur for more victims, I thought that for them and the snarling accordionist it was going to be a long night. Time to leave. I was due at U Medviku very shortly but more importantly I had an early start in the morning.
I finished my glass and covered it with a beer mat (as one does in places like this) and beckoned a waiter. I wanted to pay and leave. The drinking culture of the this part of the world is replete with all manner of symbols and behavioral tics: for instance in 19th century Prague, as Peter Demetz wrote in Prague in Black and Gold, ‘Waitresses made a little cross on the wooden top of the mug, the assumption being that nobody would be satisfied with one beer alone and that it would be difficult later to account for the many consumed (the custom has endured: present day waiters make pencil marks on the round cardboard coasters for the beer glasses).’ So that was why I covered my beer with a beer mat, I didn’t want any more. I had been to U Fleku and it was doubtful I would return on my own again.
So why did I go? Everyone — it was said, I had been told, I had read — must go to this pub at least once on their visit to Prague. The attraction? Beer was obviously one, being brewed on site, while the rumbustious beer-hall nature of the place added another cog in the machine that drives the attraction of Prague. Roll out the barrel in a central European fashion: drink lashings of beer, fill your stomach with meat and dumplings and tell the folks back home where you went (and of course don’t forget to pick up a postcard and jot down the impressions of a city that until 1989 was well off the beaten track).
Then there’s the pull and pause of antiquity: beer has been brewed here since the late Middle Ages. So when you sit down for a beer at U Fleku you are merely the latest in a long shuffling line of drinkers to come through the door.
As I sat at my is-it-antique-or-not table I had read in my Rough Guide to the Czech Republic that 1499 was the date when brewing commenced at U Fleku, a time when Bohemia was under the lock and key of the Polish monarch. It was also a time when the ravage and rage of the Hussite Wars that had gutted the earlier years of the 15th century had finally spent themselves with the finality of a drunk who could drink no more.
1499 was the year when a local man with the name of Vít Skřemenec, a man who made his living malting barley for brewing beer, bought the place. And who was this chap whose footprint on the historical stage of Prague left such a time-shaded mark? He is in good company with the massive majority of folk around this time in that we do not know much about him apart from his name; that has survived but nothing remains of his history. He is amongst a unique club. The overwhelming majority of humanity that has ever lived is well and utterly forgotten.
We can speculate with the idleness that velvet smooth caresses an evening spent chatting in the pub with a glass in front and friends all around. Was he a man in search of a fortune? Or was he just a man, a businessman perhaps (or what passed for a businessman at the start of the modern age — Columbus had ‘discovered’ America in 1492, a date as good as any to announce, retrospectively, as the end of the middle ages), who thought it sensible to combine the first step of beer making with the rest of the process, to have everything under the roof? If it was the latter then this was an early example of rationalisation in the Prague beer market, something of which Czech brewing has known a lot about in the decades since the country rejoined the west.
So with this sense of antiquity it’s not surprising to discover that U Fleku claims to be one of Prague’s oldest pubs and brewpubs, with, it is claimed, I have written, I have believed, over 500 years of brewing the same dark beer (until the 1840s the vast majority of beers brewed in Bohemia would have been dark so the claim for the colour might not be so outlandish). It is a place that with the add-on of antiquity probably welcomed all manner of Czech drinking celebrities down through the years; this is where the great and good all came, it is said, names and fame trailing in their wake, a glass of beer to sate their thirst. Though I cannot help wondering if, before the Czech national awakening of the 19th century, perhaps German would have been the language that people used to ask for beer? And what about the years between 1939 and 1945 — the language of the occupier would I guess have been heard more than not.
Into these rooms, I know for certain that Ema Destinnova came, the great opera singer remembered with a mixture of sadness and joy at the Smetana Museum down on the city’s river Vltava. She apparently would occasionally pop into U Fleku for a cheeky half of Pivo. The idea of her dolled up to the heavens as a Valkyrie singing Wagner with a massive foaming flagon of beer propping up her sense of soprano-laden excellence gathers the imagination and rockets it to some sort of moon where the bars are open all day and there’s Wagner on tap, usually the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde. She was also the owner of a brewery when the congregational clasp of a stroke embraced her in 1930. The death and the silence occurred in Ceske Budjovice, home of the Budvar brewery (the coincidance of a branch falling off the tree and landing a beer connection is not lost on one). So I don’t feel that history won’t crack with the thought of her enjoying a Pivo at U Fleku, Wagnerian outfit or not.
Yet she was long gone, Time in a beer-hall is the same as time in a bar as is time in a pub, as is time spent in any place where people gather — this time well-spent is the engine of thought and 500 years of brewing and serving pivo is well worth thinking about. What did it mean?
1499 is close to the acknowledged start of the modern world in Western Europe, several decades after the fall of Constantinople, when the Ottomans’ cannons breached the walls of the last remains of the old eastern part of the Roman Empire. A new world had opened out to the west, over the ocean, and gold and silver and slaves would soon be kegged into galleons and flowing back to Europe.
Then I thought 1599. Europe in conflict as catholic kings and protestant princes jostled for power. The Defenestration of Prague and the Battle of the White Mountain existed a couple of decades away, bringing with them the decline of Bohemia. And on the throne of England an elderly queen sat while the Spanish empire was about to enter its twilight of decline.
1699. Europe on the edge of the enlightenment though the coming century would still see men being torn apart for crimes that the state deemed beyond the realm of sense, such as in the case of the regicide Robert-François Damiens. He had attempted to assassinate Louis XV in 1757 and after been found guilty was tortured and dismembered by four horses (though it is said an axe helped to sever his limbs). ‘Today is going to be a hard day,’ he is supposed to have said on the morning of his execution. There’s a man with an iron-like sense of fatality, which I can only salute.
1799 was the age of revolution as it ebbed away to the age of authoritarianism, every corporal with a marshal’s field baton in his knapsack. Armies of Europe on the tramp, though Prague was mainly spared from the fires of war.
1899, ah that’s nearer, fin de siecle, Oscar Wilde dying swamped in poverty in Paris, the Czech lands revival. Hold on, in a few years time, who’s that down-at-heel Prague citizen trying to sell dodgy greyhounds before the nations of Europe grasp each other in a strictly balletic dance of death.
In the following years the Czech nation found freedom only to lose it again within a generation and I imagine the people who might have come through the doors, sat down and ordered the beer in those days. And one man comes out of the darkness, the devil’s advocate, an easy reptilian smile, to be extinguished with the throw of a grenade and revenged with the death of thousands and the destruction of Lidice, a village whose ultimate destination was the end. Heydrich, his death’s head cap carelessly flung in a corner with a host of others. And does Patrick Leigh Fermor give us a glimpse of what U Fleku might have looked like then, on a passage on drinking beer in a Bavaria beer-hall in his masterpiece of sore feet and worn leather, A Time of Gifts?
‘I strayed by mistake into a room full of SS officers, Gruppen- and Sturmbannfuhrers, black from their lightning-flash-collars to the forest of tall boots underneath the table. The window embrasure was piled high with their skull-and-crossbones caps.’
And then the German speakers who vanished in 1945/6, an exodus that many still today would speak of as just punishment for their actions.
1999, Havel was still in the Hrad, and communist unitarianism had been driven into the ground, while U Fleku had now struck a commonplace concord with the ravening hordes from the west. It was on the tourist trail, a trail that I was now treading. And the tourist in me knew that I was offered eight lounges and restaurant rooms that if they weren’t in magical Prague would be seen as living breathing suburban rooms decorated with mock Gothic fantasies. But there is still the beer — and if you’re going to go to a tourist trap it’s worth going to one with a decent beer on tap.
Beer has always been big in Prague. Writing in 1967 Joseph Wechsberg recalled that ‘When I lived in Prague between the two world wars, beer was an important topic of conversation: what kind of beer, when to drink it, how to drink it. My friends talked about beer as knowingly as the people in Burgundy talk about their wines. Everybody had their own special beer, in some favourite haunt, where the beer was drawn from the barrel (bottled beer was for people who did not know better).’
Meanwhile, in his perceptive essay Pivo at the Heart of Europe, Timothy O Hall starts off with a quote: ‘A Czech never says that he’s going out to have “a few beers”, and he never counts the beers while he’s having them. You go out for a beer. A beer is like a woman: when you’re with a woman, you never think of women you have been with before, and you never think of the next woman. It would be disrespectful. It’s the same with a beer. You go out and you have one beer… and maybe, when the unfortunate time comes that you reach the end of your relationship with your beer, then maybe you’ll have another.’
And what did I think of beer? I had been drinking it since I was 16, not always enjoying it at first, adding lemonade (bitter top), making it sweeter, making it stronger (a depth charge of Jamesons into a pint of Guinness in a pub in Lower Baggot Street in Dublin); from a bottle, from a glass, from a can, and, latterly as beer writing took hold, from a tank in the brewery, from the source, fresh and alive, the primary colours of beer. So what did I think of beer?
Sometimes the beer in the glass that I drank was brisk and busy, but not too busy, with bubbles drifting to the top, ease in their ascension, an escalator upwards of carbonation and friskiness (a young pup perhaps, eager to play and gain approval); and above them, the place into which they merged and morphed, the snow white collar of foam, a Table Mountain of ultimate achievement.
And the colour of the beer in the glass? Some would say the pale gold of a ring forged in an ancient mine high in the mysterious mountains of a long disappeared people’s legends. Or maybe it was the sum of the egg yolk sun that inched itself, fingers tensed on the ledge of morning, gaining strength and confidence as it emerged into the day. Others will think of an heirloom — an old sideboard willed by a much loved great aunt, the burnish of dark chestnut on its surface, a gleam, but also the dream of childhood’s end.
Then there is a beer that is stygian, the knife of night cutting into the soft underbelly of the day, pray please pay the ferryman for his work in transporting us into the dark where no stars fall and no moon rises. And let us not forget the beer in the glass the colour of a piece of amber that emerged into the light of the world after spending millennia with an insect in its craw, and then by man’s hand was polished and perfected like some jewel in the crown.
So there was the beer, the beer in the glass, a sparkling ring of confidence surrounding and circling, an orbit of sensation, the bite of flavour on the palate, on the tongue and in the mouth; there it was, the thirst quenching draught of beer that covers all the sensory nodes that sit on the tongue, serious scholars in judgment, the Academy in congress about this work of art. The wash of sweetness, but not too sweet, a sweetness restrained, belt buckled in; the splash of fruit — tropical, citrus, soft — the crisp crunch of the malted barley’s influence, a ghost from the field where thousands of stalks swelled beneath the summer sun or shivered and sold themselves dearly when the fret rolled in from the north. The hop? There it was, the essence of fruit, as recalled above, but also the rasp of bitterness at the end of the throat, sometimes a stick rattling on a tin roof, other times, as pithy as a Wildean quote recovered, dusted down and thrown out into the sunlight. Then the beer was finished, Sahara dry perhaps, the return of a bounty of fruit, windfalls in the orchard, just brief, a glimpse, a flash (the green ray perhaps, glimpsed over the still ocean), before the beer vanished into legend.
And if we really think about it; if we really let ourselves think about the beer that we have just drunk, the beer that we have fallen in love with, this is the beer that brings the chimes of midnight closer with every sip or slurp, and every beer we devour and fall in love with must bring us closer to heaven.
So what did I think of beer?
When I think about it, safe in the lounge that is labeled retrospection, my snap decision plan for a visit to U Fleku had started so promisingly. From the outside the look of U Fleku said lager: a homely Bavarian pension, long slung, longhouse-like almost in the Devon style, gabled windows like eyebrows, a massive pastiche of a carriage clock hanging from the marigold yellow facade. This for me conveyed a sort of Mitteleuropa steadfastness perhaps, but there was also a sense of Germanic camp, which was perhaps exaggerated for me at the entrance when a tall chap in a suit, looking suitably officious and a little supercilious (I had a rucksack and it was obviously that I was travelling), said something, possibly good evening, and I blurted out Pivo. I didn’t want to eat, but just try the beer and I was directed into the room where an accordionist lurked with the look of an 19th century Corsican bandit.
For him as I found out, it was going to be a long night… for me it was the start of a journey that I hoped would make the beer I drank more than just the beer I drank.