Pilsen is just an hour on the train from Prague, the capital which tends to dominate British perceptions of the Czech Republic. But sometimes trying a smaller city can reap its own rewards, whether it’s a more authentic food scene, less crowds and queues, or just the lack of a bureau de change on every street corner.
Pilsen is definitely one of these places, even if the tourists are starting to discover it. There are no prizes for guessing the beer connection (the clue’s in the name), but Pilsen has a history going back over a millennium.
The walled city repelled three separate sieges from the Hussites when it was a pro-Catholic stronghold, changed hands a couple of times during the Thirty Years War and later became a centre of industry with the sprawling Škoda factory (now largely derelict), while the 20th century brought further disruption with Nazi occupation followed by four decades of stifling Communism. Remarkably, despite this tumultuous history, the architecture and identity of the city remains largely intact.
It would be reductive to say Pilsen is all about the beer, but coming here without a taste for hops would be like going to Disneyland without an appreciation for animated mice. I have 48 hours to quench my own thirst for Pilsen, which is about as much time as you need to see most of the sights, and my first stop is cultural rather than zythological (the study of beer, that is). Brummel House is one of several dwellings designed by architect Adolf Loos in the city. An entirely unassuming building adjacent to the bus station hides one of his surviving apartments, where his utilitarian and minimalist style is on full display. It also contains the most outrageously out-of-proportion fireplace I’ve ever seen.
Having had our fill of modernism, it is time to sample our first beer. In a bath. At the Purkmistr brewery in the historic Černice neighbourhood south of the city some genius had the idea of combining the spa experience with booze. (Actually, I later learn that beer spas have exploded in popularity in the Czech Republic over the past few years, but it still seemed like a brilliant idea). Basically, you soak in a tub, filled to the brim with 50% warm water, 25% beer and 25% herbs, with a self-serve tap within easy reach. Sure, it might be a gimmick, but it’s certainly a relaxing one. Plus, the hops in beer has a detoxifying effect on your skin, if you’re looking for a scientific excuse.
After a hearty lunch at the brewery, complete with a flight of five small beers (including a rich 9.5% imperial stout called Rasputin), we stop at a local cafe to try some of their gingerbread cookies. This is a Czech Christmas tradition which takes painstaking preparation but sees mothers and grandmothers compete over who can produce the most varieties - it wasn’t made clear to us whether the men are helping in this day and age. But if anything tastes like Christmas, it is surely these cinnamonny, iced treats.
I decide to spend Saturday afternoon exploring Pilsen on foot. The huge tower of St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral on Republiky Square dominates the city and acts like a north star for any wayward visitors. I climb its 301 narrow steps for a vertigo-inducing view of the square. At this time of year, in early December, it’s like a picture postcard in all directions. Snow has dusted the church roof, and far below throngs of people stroll around the vast Christmas market, ant-like from up here. Back on street level I get lost in the market myself, which is easily as big as Prague’s, sampling a honey wine to keep warm as the locals chew on an array of foods, from Langos flatbreads to Trdelník, the ubiquitous rolled dough treat that’s also made its way to British Christmas markets as chimney cake. People ring bells, children sing carols on a stage and all generations of Pilsners come together to enjoy the festive atmosphere.
My evening is spent in the Lékárna restaurant on the main square. It’s as much pub as restaurant, with an assortment of characters - including, bizarrely, a man dressed as a 70s Elvis - coming in to be poured a beer by master bartender Míra Nekolný and his team of ‘tapsters’. These guys know their stuff, and will happily explain for the thousandth time the difference between Mliko, which is almost all creamy foam, Snyt, a sort of compromise with slightly more beer-to-foam, Hladinka (50-50 beer and foam) and Na Dvakrat, which maintains a foamy head but is closest to what British drinkers know. The Bavarian-inspired food here too is top notch, and a generous portion of pork tenderloin with roast potatoes is the ideal way to soak up all those Hladinkas.
What better way to conquer any beer-induced hangover you may have in Pilsen than by heading straight to the Pilsner Urquell brewery on a Sunday morning? We join their guided tour, and while the promise of the freshest possible version of their famous beer at the end is keeping us going, the tour itself is fascinating.
The best thing about the place is that as each stage of the brewery was superceded by more modern technology, they didn’t tear it down but instead built around it, so you can see the original foundations of the first building from 1839, the famous main gates that form part of the brand logo, and the old mash tuns right next door to the current brewery. The most atmospheric part of the tour are the underground cellars full of fermenting beer. It’s here that we get our taste of the freshest pilsner in the world, still unpasteurised and tapped straight from one of the huge wooden barrels.
A short walk past the Doosan Arena, home to the Viktoria Plzeň football club, back to the city centre takes us to another subterranean diversion: Pilsen Historic Underground. This hour-long tour takes you down under the streets to a labyrinthine network of tunnels, chambers and wells, with displays of medieval tools and weapons along the way. While it’s not exactly as extreme as caving, the hard hat they insist on you wearing is very much needed - it’s easy to forget how our ancestors were significantly shorter than us.
Another typically filling lunch at the Na Parkanu restaurant leaves us with the rest of the day to wander around the Christmas market and try a few more mulled wines. But the allure of beer is strong here, and it’s not long before we’re back in a pub - Zlatá Kráva (Golden Cow), run by one of the country’s many new breweries. The place is bustling with people clutching glass mugs of the foamy stuff, and I’m now convinced that Pilsen is a must-visit for anyone who’s passionate about beer - in all its foamy varieties.
- The writer stayed at the Courtyard by Marriot hotel in Pilsen (rooms from £70 pp). For more information, go to www.visitczechrepublic.com and www.visitpilsen.eu.