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Party palace

Prague’s beauty is its old-world charm—compounded by the cheapest beer money can buy

“Six sips.”

“But it’s not even noon,” I whine to my tour guide, wiping the sleepy dust from the corner of my left eye.

It’s morning of my second day in Prague and my guide, Javier, has bought me a beer. As we sat hunched over a stained wooden table in a pub resembling a miniature version of the Great Hall in Hogwarts Castle, he challenges me to finish my first glass in just six easy sips.

Gulp, gulp, gulp, gulp, gulp, gulp… burp.

By 12:30pm I’m buzzed and that concluded the day’s lesson: Prague has the cheapest beer money can buy. And I’m a cheap drunk.
Cheap beer is just one of the many reasons why Prague has become one of the It girls in European tourism since the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The 1,100-year-old destination has maintained much of its centuries-old charm, surviving wars and modernization alike. For gays in surrounding post-communist countries, it’s a beacon of fun.

Believe it when I say that nothing in Prague is overrated.

The capital city of the Czech Republic, Prague is home to roughly 1.2 million people. It’s situated in the region of Bohemia, once a kingdom in the holy empire, just west of the country’s centre. The Vltava River romantically weaves its way through the city under rows of fairytale-like stone bridges that were built as far back as the 13th century when King Charles IV sat on the throne.

If you’re obsessed with taking selfies—and you know you are—here’s the good news: you can’t take a bad picture in Prague. It’s one of the most photogenic places in Eastern Europe thanks to architecture like no other. A quick look around town and you’ll see buildings from all points of art history, from Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque to Renaissance and Art Nouveau.

The mischievous gargoyles clinging to St. Vitus Cathedral; the hauntingly colossal Prague Castle; the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire-inspired The Dancing House (tancici-dum.cz); the alien-like babies crawling up the side of Žižkov Television Tower. With hundreds of sandstone structures between blocks of old-fashioned churches, it’s no surprise Prague is known as the “Golden City of a Thousand Spires.”

There is no official gay village in Prague, but according to Paul Coggles, a former Londoner who operates Prague Saints (praguesaints.cz), a travel resource company for LGBT tourists, Prague’s Vinohrady district is where the gays live and play. “It’s where you’ll find 15 gay places within a 10-minute walk,” says Coggles, who runs a bar of his own, Saints (saintsbar.cz), a cozy basement space located steps down from a leafy street in Vinohrady.

Vinohrady, which means “vineyards,” is “nothing like Castro Street,” Coggles clarifies, but on a Friday night at Saints, a hub for gay tourists and expats, “95 per cent of locals will live 10 minutes from here.”

But you don’t have to live in the Vinohrady district to be openly gay. “People here are very live and let live,” says Coggles, crediting the fact that religion does not play a major role in most Czech people’s lives compared to neighbouring countries like Poland and Slovakia, which tend to be more conservative.

While same-sex marriage isn’t legal in Prague, same-sex domestic partnership (an unregistered cohabitation) is and has been since 2006. The military doesn’t question sexual orientation of soldiers. Same-sex adoption isn’t legal, but activists are working on it. “Prague is a bit of a magnet,” says Coggles, noting how the city’s liberal attitude and diverse club scene is a draw for gays living in surrounding countries.

That was the case with Gregor.

On my third night in Prague, I fired up Grindr with the hopes of meeting a local who could help me paint the town pink. I agree to meet Gregor, a 19-year-old, five-foot-six med student with slicked black hair, almond eyes and an obsession with Ke$ha. Gregor was from the neighbouring country of Slovenia and my impression was that he came to Prague to get wasted.

“Because there’s nothing gay in Slovenia,” says Gregor in a bitchy (but sexy) Eastern European accent as he flicked the ashes of his seventh cigarette onto the floor whilst we drank beer at Friends (friendsclub.cz), a go-to gay mainstay for drag, dancing and karaoke.

It was here, one night on a weekday, that I witnessed a man sing the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A” in drunken Czech like it was the end of the world.

The glowing-purple venue filled up quickly as Gregor sat cross-legged and upright like a sphinx, puffing smoke circles into the pasty nightclub air (yes, you can smoke in bars; it’s Europe.) I don’t smoke, but five cigarettes later I was blowing smoke circles like Cruella De Vil. I also drank enough beer to burst.

Beer is a recurring theme in Prague because it’s cheaper than water. The most popular being Pilsner Urquell, the first pilsner beer ever made. Ever. It goes for between 35 to 45 CZK ($1.90-$2.50 CAD) a glass, so you’ll drink a lot of it. There’s consistency in beer prices, too, because you just don’t mess with a Czech’s brew. Says Coggles: “One time a bar raised its beer prices and it failed miserably.”

Drinking excess beer around the clock led to many hangovers—a condition I managed to curb by eating at Lokál (lokal-dlouha.ambi.cz), a popular restaurant that resembles an old-school beer hall. The menu has traditional Czech food, such as beef and cream with knedliky (dumplings), fried cheese and potatoes and schnitzel with potato salad. No place for the carb conscious, I know, but you’re on vacation so get over it. The food is irresistible and, like the beer, it’s remarkably inexpensive with mains ranging from 99 to 109 CZK ($5.30 – $5.90 CAD).  

From Lokál you’re only steps away from Prague’s Old Town Square, a romantic district with windy cobblestone roads, pastel-coloured medieval buildings and historical hot spots, such as Prague’s incredible Astronomical Clock (built in 1410 and still ticking!), Tyn Church, with its powerful gothic spires that dominate the skyline and St. Nicholas Church, a Baroque masterpiece.  

Visiting the Old Town is like walking into a painting. No wonder Franz Kafka was so attached to the area. The famed existential writer, born near the Old Town Square, lived and worked in Prague for most of his life, and famously once wrote: “Prague doesn’t let go.

This dear little mother has claws.” (If you’re a fan, visit kafkamuseum.cz.). After one afternoon, I couldn’t shake the little mother’s claws either.

Old Town Square is where Prague’s Pride parade rolled through last August. The city has had just three Pride festivals to date, but it’s quickly becoming a leader in promoting LGBT rights in Eastern Europe. “I’ve been to Pride parades in Budapest, Bratislava and Slovakia and it’s not so pleasant because there are lots of police and neo-Nazis staging counter-demonstrations,” says Willem van der Bas, one of the organizers of Prague Pride (praguepride.cz). That’s what van der Bas was worried about when Prague hosted its first Pride back in 2011. “We had police in helmets and gear. Luckily it wasn’t necessary. About 12 protestors showed up and police handled it perfectly,” he says.

Nowadays, Pride organizers have different problems on their hands. “The city is scared of how big our festival is becoming,” says van der Bas of the week-long festival that includes art exhibitions and an outdoor concert by the river. The first year drew about 15,000 people; last year that number grew to 40,000 people. In 2012 the parade was led by a knight on a horse carrying the rainbow flag (cute considering Prague’s medieval charm).

For a community that has traditionally been apathetic politically, as locals tell me, the parade has paved new ways to get political.

“One year we had a float that had a stork made out of papier mâché on it to address the adoption issue,” says van der Bas.

This year’s Prague Pride will be held from August 11 to 17, with the parade and concert on Saturday, August 17. The theme will be East Meets West. Says van der Bas: “We want to show the former communist communities of Eastern Europe that a Pride festival can be beneficial for a city. And to the West, that there are positive developments in Slavic countries, despite all the doom and gloom we hear on a daily basis from Russia.”

Now that’s something I think we can all drink to.

 

THE DETAILS

HISTORY

Prague Astronomical Clock

Mounted on the southern wall of Old Town City Hall in Old Town Square, the clock was installed in 1410 and it still ticks. Every hour when the bells toll, mechanical skeletons and “sinners” mounted beside the clock come alive while tiny windows above swing open and reveal the 12 Apostles, who do a procession through the doorways. The best half-a-minute you’ll experience in Prague. Starome˘ stské náme˘ stí 1, 110 00 Praha 1.

 

Charles Bridge
An historic bridge that began construction in 1357. It crosses the Vltava River, runs 621m and is decorated with 30 baroque-style statues. Tip: the bridge is so packed with tourists during the day you can’t even move. Go at night. Karlu’   v most, 110 00 Praha 1.

 

Prague Castle
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world, about 570m by 130m. Today it is the residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman, though it has been home to kings from as far back as the ninth century. Most of the grounds are open to tourists.
hrad.cz.

DANCING

Termix
A popular gay dance cave with plush seats, neon lights and a dancefloor where bumping-‘n’-grinding to gay dance anthems is code for hello. A great place to go after sipping Cocaine, an energy drink you can buy in Prague that has twice the amount of caffeine as Red Bull.
club-termix.cz.

SLEEPING

Hotel Josef
This gay-friendly boutique hotel is close to Prague’s Old Town and served as the official hotel for Prague Pride in 2013. From its ultra-chic steel and glass staircase that connects the conference area to the lobby to its Zen-inspired courtyard, the hotel is a design lover’s dream. Need a good gay bar recommendation? The staff know. hoteljosef.com.

GET AWAY FROM IT ALL

Riegrovy Sady
A sunny hillside park in gay-friendly Vinohrady that overlooks the city. Witnessed two blonde Czech guys here sitting on a bench in each other’s laps making out. Sold.  

Stromovka Park
Translates as “place of trees,” Stomovka is a green oasis of trails, bushes, lakes and lots of ducks. It’s far from the tourist areas, so lean back against a giant tree trunk with your headphones on, put on some Goldfrapp and take a time out from the world.

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