Central Europe: Beer and Unexpected Memories
We’re long time believers that no matter where you go, you’ll always find a memorable place to have a beer or two. Sometimes the memories come from the venues. Sometimes they come from the beer. And sometimes it’s the unexpected things you find when you visit. With that in mind, join us for a few out-of-the-way destinations in Central Europe.
Let’s begin in Prague. You’re thinking U Flecku, the 500 year-old landmark beer hall, aren’t you? Well yes, we went the world’s second best-known beer hall and drank the dark beer sitting alongside all the other tourists. It’s even fair to say we enjoyed ourselves. Even at tourist prices, the beer was inexpensive. The staff and crowd were friendly and relaxed.
Elsewhere in Prague, we drank plenty of Budweiser Budvar and Pilsener Urquell as we roamed from beer hall to beer hall, savoring every half-liter. But it was our quest to drink beer with the locals that led us to Branicky Sklipek Pivnice. It’s a workingman’s pub, a vanishing institution in town.
Without a doubt, it was the smokiest place we’ve ever visited; visibility was barely to the next table. The clientele was almost strictly middle-aged, chain-smoking men who had settled in for a long evening. The cold, crisp mugs of Branicky lager were about thirty-five cents. Inevitably, after a few beers, nature called. And that presented us with a problem. Well at least, it presented Maryanne with a problem.
The men’s restroom opened and closed so much that a revolving door would have been more efficient. Not so lucky for the ladies though. First try, the door was locked. Second try, the door was locked. Third try—still locked. Now wait a minute. There are hardly any women in this place. So, is someone in there? Maybe it’s broken? Maryanne could see the bartenders snickering as she looked around.
If anyone spoke English, they sure weren’t letting on. Terrific. Oh well. Suck it up and go to the bar, Maryanne. Both of the bartenders, who obviously pegged her as an American, were now laughing out loud as she approached. And then, they did a noticeable double-take when she asked for the key to the toilet—in Polish.
A handy little secret of traveling in central Europe is that if you speak a language native to one of the neighboring countries, almost everyone will understand enough of what you say. And they’ll cut you a lot of slack.
Mozart and Märzen
Most people visit Salzburg to pay homage to the city’s favorite son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and see the cobblestone streets made famous by “The Sound of Music.” Anyone looking to purchase some beautiful Austrian crystal will enjoy going from shop to shop, and meeting the locals. Needless to say, this tiny town doesn’t lack for visitors. Beer lovers have yet another reason to enjoy Salzburg: Augustiner Brau.
The Augustiner monastery was founded in 1605 by Wolf Dietrich, Salzburg’s prince and archbishop. In 1835, the emperor handed the monastery over to the Benedictine order, which decided to cash in by inviting the public to drink their beer. Beer-savvy residents of Salzburg have flocked there ever since.
Walking into the beer hall was like a trip back in time. Not quite back to 1605, but to New Jersey, circa 1960, where our parents belonged to very ethnic Catholic parishes with large halls used for community activities. For a few brief moments, we were back in the past as we gazed at the high windows, the wood beam ceiling and the long rows of tables.
Luckily, we remembered to do as the locals do. We headed to the serving area, picked out ceramic mugs called krugs; bought tickets from the cashier; and turned in both mugs and tickets at the pouring station, where fresh, unfiltered lager was drawn from a wooden barrel. When it came time for a refill, we rinsed our mugs at the water fountain and began the process again.
Augustiner Brau was offering two beer selections: a Märzen, an amber colored lager; and, because it was Lent, a stronger brew called Fastenbier, which cost a few schillings more. For a city as expensive as Salzburg, the beer was quite cheap: about $2.50 a half-liter.
Only too soon it was time to head back to our hotel. We picked up our krugs and left them in the designated corner of the serving area and took one last long look at the marvelous piece of European culture and history know as Augustiner Brau. As we walked along the river, making our way back into town on that crisp night under the moon-lit sky, we knew our mental photo-album of Salzburg would be pleasant.
The Talking Lion
The next day we left for Munich and the start of Starkbierzeit, a celebration of Bavarian culture and potent doppelbocks. We’ve enjoyed all of our adventures in Bavaria, but our fondest memories are of that trip. The city was in a wonderful mood. The icy winter-chill in the air was gone and everyone seemed to take time to join friends and family to toast the season.
As we made the rounds of the city’s beer halls, each establishment seemed friendlier than the one before. The same was true of the beers, of course. Before long, sharing tables with strangers and singing “Ein Prosit” every fifteen minutes seemed perfectly normal—even though our cynical minds knew the band cued up “Ein Prosit” frequently to boost beer sales.
The high point of our trip came on our last evening in town. We set out for the Lowenbraukeller to watch the folkloric revue that locals and tourists alike fill the hall to see. It’s an easy place to find as it’s right off a subway stop. The building is draped in Bavarian flags and crests prominently featuring Bavaria’s beloved lions. While these majestic creatures never roamed the forests of Bavaria, they have always been viewed as a symbol of strength.
The beer hall itself is a beautiful building. It’s huge and ornate, has Old-World charm, and is soaked in Bavarian culture. Everyone drinks lots of beer and eats plenty of food, but the real reason they come is to toast traditional music and rituals. A band plays German favorites all night, singers in traditional costumes engage the crowd and invite the audience to participate in demonstrations of strength and traditional arts like wood-chopping.
Before we departed the Lowenbraukeller, we stopped to give a big nod and a smile to the enormous mechanical lion near the main entrance. After all, Lowenbreau means “lion’s beer.” After three, or was it four, liters of dopplebock, we were looking for the subway stairs only to hear a deep voice repeating “luf fen brow.” We just stood there, looked up and laughed.
It must have been a real sight: two jolly Americans, laughing uncontrollably, just standing in front of a mechanical lion that said “Lowenbrau” every twenty or so seconds. In retrospect, we’re sure that we weren’t the first, nor the last. On another trip to the Lowenbraukellar we noticed that the lion had disappeared from the corner. Had he been kidnapped and held for ransom? Hardly. One of the staff told us that the lion only comes out for the “fifth season.”
Here’s to a season just for dopplebock!
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.