Sunday, April 24, 2005


Well with wooden pipes
Woke up this morning, I was feeling a little slow. Absinthe hangover? I only tried one glass, but the stuff was potent (70% ABV!). Headed down the hall for breakfast in the Hotel Contental. What an odd experience. There were three other people in the dining room when we arrived, all Asian (Japanese?) and clearly in Plzen together. All three of them sat at different tables in the room and proceeded to have a loud conversation from their different locations. Why not sit together? Will wonders never cease?

After breakfast we headed out to explore the city. First stop is the Plzen Historical Underground Museum. There are 18Km of tunnels which have been excavated from beneath the city, they were built from the 13th to 19th centuries to provide access to water wells and pathways between residents basements where they brewed beer, stored root vegetables, etc.
Nice hard hat!
As time went on, the wells began to run dry, so the residents filled the wells with trash which has since provided archaeologists with a vast amount of artifacts from the local regions which have been collected and displayed by the museum. The tour itself was very interesting with many displays of the artifacts discovered in the dry wells, wooden "pipes" used to transport water from the wells to resident's homes and interesting historical tidbits. Our tour guide — we named him "One Eyed Jack" — was extremely odd. He spoke English well, when it was on the prescribed tour, but otherwise was limited in his communication skills. And his bad breath and B.O. were quite offensive, thankfully the tour was short, about 45 minutes!

The Great Synagogue
On to our next adventure. We wandered off in search of the Great Synagogue in Plzen, however, it was closed for another 45 minutes so we stopped off in a local bar for a drink. No English spoken here, but they did understand "Coca-cola"! It was still early (around 9:30 A.M.) but there were plenty of people drinking in the bar. One guy was passed out at the bar with a full beer in front of him. He woke up, took a big swig and passed out again! Others were drinking shots of Bacardi 151 and chasing it with beers. They are clearly adherent to the thought that its "5 P.M. somewhere!" — Central Asia, to be exact!

Gate to the
Pilsener Urquell Brewery
Time for the Synagogue to open, so we walked a few blocks and took some exterior pictures while we waited on the doors to open. We're a couple of bad Jews, it was the beginning of Passover and the Synagogue was closed for the holidays! No tours given today. So we wandered back across town to a small museum of 20th century Czech art. A children's choir and band were having a morning recital, they were all dressed up in traditional clothing and singing what were probably traditional songs. Unfortunately my Czech prevented us from grasping exactly what was going on.

Pilsener Urquell Brewhouse
And now what I've been anxiously awaiting: a tour of the Pilsener Urquell Brewery! We walked over to the facility and right through the brewery gate which is on every Pilsener Urquell label. We joined an tour given by a dreadlocked local girl who spoke very good English. There were a few Americans on the tour, a nice older couple, very bitchy couple from San Francisco that is our age, a few Norwegians and an older man from El Salvador. The gentleman from El Salvador could not keep his mouth shut! He lectured us all on the history fo Pilsener Urquell and its ties to El Salvador's locally brewed beers. The tour guide was clearly getting annoyed with him, as were the rest of our group. Steph and I laughed when he said, "I come from a small humble country..." There was nothing humble about this guy!

Lagering Barrels
Anyway, the tour was lots of fun! First you walk to the brewhouse, the sweet smell of mashing grains is thick in the air. Inside the brewhouse they show you some demos of how the beer is brewed and you get to check out the old copper brew kettles as well as the newer, stainless steel systems. From here you go down into the lagering cellars, a network of 9Km of tunnels hand carved out of the limestone rock underneath the brewery and surrounding countryside. Traditionally, beer was brewed in the brew house and then the wort (sweet, unfermented beer) was pumped into large open white oak barrels in the lagering cellar where it underwent primary fermentation. It was then pumped into barrels for secondary fermentation (lagering) for up to a month in the cellars. I learned that the brewery covered the inside of the barrels with pine tar (pitch) to prevent the beer from acquiring any flavors from the barrels, the pitch is replaced in every barrel after fermentation is complete. Since 1993, the brewery has stopped using barrels for primary and secondary fermentation for the most part. Only a small percentage of the beer is still produced in this way for quality control and tours, the remainder is strictly fermented in stainless steel conical fermenters. Of course no tour is complete without tasting the final product. Somehow everyone figured out that I was the beer geek in the crowd, so a few people gave me their beers. Drunk and happy, once again!

Primary Fermentation
After the tour we headed into Na Spilce, the brewery restaurant located in a converted lagering cellar. Lots of good food for very reasonable prices. The beer was dirt cheap too, 15Kc (~$.75) for .5L! After lunch we headed back to the bus station for a most unpleasant, hot and crowded trip back to Prague. We had a few hours to kill before our train left for Krakow, so we sat around Wenceslas Square people watching since we didn't feel like toting our backpacks everywhere!

We headed to the train station and bought some beer, cookies and water for the trip. While having dinner in the station Steph saw a man push a woman down to the ground and take a running kick at her! She turned white as a ghost, I didn't see a thing because it was behind me. The local cops were within 15 feet, but they did nothing to help her out. Steph didn't feel comfortable hanging out there, so we headed to the platform for our train.

The Beer Meister
All aboard! Found our sleeping compartment, it was TINY! Two beds were stacked up and there was a small place for our luggage. We got settled in and met a few Americans, a Canadian and his Ukrainian girlfriend. As the train started down the tracks we spent some time trading travel stories and shooting the shit. One of the guys is from Chicago but lives in Krakow where he has been teaching English for three years. He was very helpful to us with restaurant recommendations and some lessons in speaking Polish which will come in handy. In the morning. Time for bed, we have a 2AM wake up call from the Polish border control.

"First Class"
Sleeper Car

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