Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting OXFORD NEWS to 80360 or email us
Czech out the best
“Nothing ever tasted any better,” wrote the novelist Hugh Hood, “than a cold beer on a beautiful afternoon with nothing to look forward to but more of the same.”
Being Canadian, and having lived most of his life when half of Europe was shuttered behind the Iron Curtain, boozy old Hugh probably never visited Prague.
Yet, his simple philosophy perfectly sums up life in the Czech metropolis - which prides itself as the world capital of beer.
It's fair to say that here, among the gothic spires and turrets of this fairy tale city, the supping of a cool brew is not simply a snatched pleasure; it is life itself.
At any hour of the day, in innumerable shady taverns, vaulted cellars, lofty beer halls and on cafe terraces, you’ll see Czechs of all ages and backgrounds, ordering handled glasses of chestnut-brown ale or honey-toned lager... and sipping confidently knowing that no one does it better.
It’s all a far cry from the pilsner-swilling, stein-waving tourist Prague, beloved of raucous stag (and even louder hen) parties – who rarely stray more than a few hundred yards from the unfeasibly charming Old Town Square. For while the gentle-mannered Czechs still welcome the chaotic gaggles of rowdy lads and lasses, with cheery smiles, raised eyebrows and an armful of English-language menus, they all know this is not how it is done.
With a laid-back temperament, the Czechs take things slowly – and that includes the raising of a pint (well... a half-litre) – which is treated with the same respect that the French reserve for their finest wines.
Which is why I found myself turning my back on the real ales of my beloved Oxfordshire, and doing like the compatriots of Vaclav Havel, Antonin Dvorak and err.. Good King Wenceslas, by learning the Czech for ‘cheers’ (‘Na zdraví’, if you’re interested) and heading out along the River Vlatava in search of the perfect ‘pivo’.
“Czechs only drink the best,” says the widely-grinning manager at the Velke Popovice Brewery, a short bus ride out of the city in the rolling Bohemian countryside, who welcomes visitors for tours of the historic site – now home to a state-of-the-art operation.
“We only make the best,” he goes on, handing out samples, varying in shade from gold to chocolate. “And we have been doing it for 135 years - so we know what we are doing!”
He must be right, because Kozel’s distinctive logo – a rampant billy goat clutching a foaming flagon – is everywhere, along with those global icons Budìjovický (Budweiser) and Pilsner Urquell (named, respectively, I was delighted to learn, after the lager-soaked Czech cities of Èeské Budìjovice and Pilsen).
The sweet malty-smelling Kozel brewery itself is a great place not only to drink one of the world’s great beers – but to eat it.
Its restaurant serves up all manner of hearty favourites, from goulash to sausage, all made with lashings of the foaming stuff. And delicious it is too.
You’d be a fool, of course, to come all the way to Prague and only stare into a stein. This is, after all, one of the world’s most beautiful cities; a place which leaves you breathless which each new vista.
Its immediate beauty lies in its scale – as an unspoilt medieval masterpiece, its skyline punctuated with churches, palaces and its commanding castle. Yet, Prague’s real charm is in the detail – its hidden courtyards, alleyways, crooked tiled roofs and flourishes of ornate art nouveau.
It’s a big place, but divided into distinct quarters, which, along with the conveniently-placed landmarks, make getting lost almost impossible, no matter how many tipples you may have enjoyed with its stoic locals who seem to have effortlessly shrugged off the rigours of the recent past without losing sight of the glories of their proud history at the heart of Middle Europe.
And it is that location which still makes it a great stopping off point for forays further afield, including, beer-lovers, to Germany.
It is with a heavy heart that one leaves Prague. But it is with delight that one arrives in neighbouring Bavaria – and onto the picturebook city of Nuremberg.
This half-timbered treasure house, is one of Europe’s hidden gems, and its medieval cityscape comes as pure serendipity.
Being one of the key cities of the Holy Roman Empire, it is bristling with churches, grand halls and the high-turreted Imperial Castle which is straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale.
Forever associated in many minds with Hitler’s megalamanical rallies before the Second World War, and the war crime trials after, the city retains memories of its darker days.
There is a documentation centre at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, while at the Palace of Justice, which housed the tribunal, you can watch chilling footage of the surprisingly businesslike trials themselves. A visit is a must, and Nuremberg, now designated a City of Peace and Human Rights can only be commended for keeping alive the memory of its past as a memorial to future generations, while moving ahead as a forward-thinking and fun-loving tourist destination. It is also something of a gastronomic capital – home to a much-loved variety of gingerbread (soft, yielding and, well, bready – unlike our biscuit-like confection) and the Nürnberger Bratwurst – a slimmer version of the ubiquitous beer-drinking snack. Oh, and wine, grown in the vineyards of surrounding Franconia. And a very nice drop it is too.
But it is beer, once again, which is the real pull here – and it’s centre lies a short train ride out of the city, in the university town of Erlangen.
With its cycling students and rarefied academic air, Erlangen comes across as a Germanic, cleaner, neater and more spacious version of Oxford. But it is also a town built on hops.
A dreamy concoction of baroque architecture, flowing fountains and formal gardens, this former royal seat was, in the 19th century, the most important beer-exporting town in Bavaria. And that proud beery heritage lives on in its brew-pubs, and the remarkable Burgberg – a sandstone hill hollowed out, like a lump of swiss cheese, with hundreds of miles of storage tunnels and cellars.
The cool caves can be explored with a guide, who lead you deep into the echoing darkness in candle light. It’s all perfect for building up an appetite for a lager and a pretzel.
The hill is the setting, each May, for the Erlanger Bergkirchweih beer festival – a 250 -year-old gathering which attracts a million drinkers, and, insist the locals, is less corporate, and more fun, than Munich’s.
But, to be honest, in the cool beer gardens of Franconia, every day is a festival, and a chance to sing, and clash steins with new Bavarian friends. Just don’t forget to pack some aspirin for the morning after. Because, ouch!, you may well need it.
To quote one of drinking culture’s other great sages, Homer Simpson: “Ah beer. The cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.” Wise words indeed.
Dertour (0207 290 1111 www.dertour. co.uk) specialises in tailor-made holidays and offers trips to Prague & Nuremberg priced from £459 per person to include two nights on B&B basis at the Radisson Hotel in Prague, one night's B&B accommodation at Le Meridian hotel in Nuremberg; flights from London Gatwick to Prague; luxury coach transfer from Prague to Nuremberg and flights from Nuremberg to London Gatwick with Air Berlin Prices are based on twin share and include one item of baggage on flight.