Day 13: Pilgrimage to Plzen

Today we woke up a bit later than usual (9:00), went downstairs for breakfast, and then stopped to chat with Radim, a front desk worker at our hotel with whom we’d chatted a lot.  Our aim today was to get to Plzen, the home of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery and a day trip I had looked forward to the most.  Before we left town we stopped at the Tesco grocery store near our hotel for some lunch provisions.

To get there we took the yellow metro line from the Mustek stop (near Wenceslas) all the way to the end station, which is Zlcin.  There is a big bus station at the top of the Zlcin metro stairs, so we found the Student Bus Agency office and purchased 2 bus tickets to Plzen (95 CZK/person, one way) for the noon bus that would take one hour.  Everything left according to plan (the bus was very comfortable, a similar set up to Orangeways with the stewardess and free coffee drinks), and we arrived in Plzen at 13:00 pm.

It was fairly cold and windy in Plzen when we arrived, and dark clouds loomed overhead with the threat of rain.  Along with that, the walk from the bus station into the Old Town section introduced us to a seedy, scruffy side of town that was filled with strip clubs, liquor stores, and sex shops.  Welcome to Plzen.  I suppose when your main (and most famous) export is beer, this should have been expected.

World’s third-largest Synagogue

Our walk to Old Town took us past the third largest synagogue in the world, a sight we were excited to see after having seen the second largest synagogue in the world in Budapest (number one, in New York, will have to wait).  Despite its size status among Jewish synagogues, it was closed until April, begging the question:  where do the Jewish people worship until then?  There were also questions lingering about how the third largest synagogue in the world came to be situated on a busy, sex club-filled street in the middle of the Czech Republic, but as the wind was really starting to pick up, we didn’t stick around to ponder that one too much.

We finally made our way into Old Town and found the main square, where there was a giant cathedral plopped in the middle of it all.  After looking around for a few moments, we determined we needed of a better mappy so we popped into the TI on the square and a girl hooked us up.  Man, it felt nice and warm inside the TI away from the wind.  Grudgingly, we went back outside again to sit on a bench and eat our picnic lunch, fighting with the wind for each bite.

The weather was becoming seriously dour and so we opted to make a beeline for the Pilsner Urquell Brewery.  I mean, we’d had enough bad weather on this trip and were a little tired of this nonsense.  The walk over to the brewery took about 10 minutes (from the square) through more scruffy bits of Plzen.  Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was because we were cold and getting tired from our travels, but Plzen just isn’t a very attractive town.

The Pilsner Urquell brewery

We arrived at the brewery (or, rather, blew in) around 13:45 and purchased our tickets for the 14:15 English tour (cost 150 CZK per person; lasted 1.5 hours).  While we waited we wandered around the visitor’s center a bit, I hemmed and hawed about spending an additional 100 CZK for the pleasure of taking pictures on the tour, we sat and watched a video for a little while, Jim hemmed and hawed about getting a locker to store his backpack, and in the end, we decided to purchase the photographer’s pass AND get a locker.  Ok, we were finally ready for the tour.

The tour started promptly at 14:15, and I dare say we were the only native English speakers on it.  I had seen a tour in Czech leave a few minutes before ours, and there had to have been 30 people on it.  We were lucky, as our group was only about 8 people.  The tour guide was a sweet young woman who spoke English with such an accent that it was very difficult to understand her.  For instance, a word that came up more times than any other on this tour was the word “brewery.”  She insisted on pronouncing it more like “brewvery,” so it took a while to catch on.

The bottling process in progress, with thousands of bottles whizzing by

We boarded a brewery bus to take us into the complex where we saw beer bottling in action (arguably the highlight of the tour, and our guide had told us we were “in luck,” as they were bottling that day.  It would have been a serious bummer to come all that way and not see it), watched a video in a movie room, saw samples of barley and hops, got up close and personal with the giant brew tanks (both old and new), watched another video, went into the cellar/tunnels that were used to roll out the beer barrels and keep them cool in the summer, and watched another video.  This was all well and good, but aside from the highlight of seeing the bottling process in action, the next best thing was going to be when we drank the beer, yes?  Well, imagine our dismay when, in the freezing cellar/tunnel depths, we were given a small plastic cup and offered about a 3 oz. sample of unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell to drink while we walked to the next location.  Ok, that was cute, but when do we get the big beer steins with a nice frothy head?  You know, the kind we’ve read that you get at the Heineken or Guiness Breweries?  The answer to that question is a plain and simple:  Never.  The 3 oz. sample was it.

Strategically I believe the tour operators give the sample at the very end so as not to stir a mutiny among the group once they realize that this is it, because shortly after we finished taking both gulps of our sample, the girl announced our tour was over and could we please visit the gift shop?  What?  Over?  You mean…  no more beer?

Giant vats-o-beer

Stunned, we all headed over to the gift shop like ants marching back to their hill just as the skies opened up and it began to pour.  Not just a little sprinkle, but POUR.  Seeking solace inside the shop, we browsed around but realized very quickly that there was no value to buying anything, as the prices were astronomical.  Furthermore, the attached bar/restaurant advertised 0.5L beer prices that were higher than what you found smack in the middle of the touristiest parts of Prague.  Isn’t it usually the reverse?  Feeling used, a little irritated with and insulted by the whole thing, we waited in the store’s foyer until the rain let up a bit, which it didn’t do.  Deliberating whether we should make a run for it and whether or not we should take the train or bus (the Plzen train station was closer to our current location but Prague’s train station was farther from our hotel, and the Plzen bus station was farther but the metro from Prague’s bus station would drop us off a hop-skip from our hotel), we ultimately decided to head back to the bus station.

It took about 30 seconds for the squeak in Jim’s shoe to return, and about 20 minutes later and absolutely soaked (Jim didn’t even have a hat) we got to the bus station and mercifully were able to buy the last 2 bus tickets back to Prague on the 17:00 bus.  Oh, and it stopped raining once we got to the bus station.

Needless to say, our day trip to Plzen was a bit of a bust, but we did manage one small victory:  I made sure to take more than our moneys worth of pictures on the tour.

The bus ride back was uneventful (reruns of Friends were played), and we got back to the Zlcin metro station around 18:00.  Earlier in the day when we were there we had noted there was a huge mall near the metro station.  Wanting to investigate further (and get out of the cold wind for a bit), we took a stroll through this mall that was filled with clothing shops and a food court, the normal fare.  Also in this mall was a giant InterSpar grocery store and we wanted to go in to pick up some more food to bring back to our room (we wanted a change of pace from the Tesco near our hotel that we’d become regulars at).  The InterSpar was huge and had a wide selection of just about everything.  We picked up some yogurts, chipsies (no one had the Riffles, though), delicious wafer cookies, a strawberry juice, and a couple of bananas before heading to the checkout.  It was here we almost had our second international incident, this one being over a couple of bananas.  The crusty woman at the checkout counter started speaking excitedly and angrily in Czech, and Jim surmised from the gestures that he was supposed to have weighed and stickered the bananas before he got to the checkout counter, as she had no scale.  He said fine, take the bananas back, to which she responded by grabbing them and testily cramming them into a cubbyhole near her knees, clearly very agitated about the whole thing.  Jim also wanted to add that they weigh your fruit at Tesco, but the implication was lost in translation.  Annoyed and ticked by our brutish, non-fruit weighing gall, the checkout woman proceeded to refuse us a sturdy plastic bag in which to carry our groceries, instead opting to pointedly give us a flimsy plastic sack, the kind usually used to put greeting cards in.  Oh, well, we had a backpack anyway.  AND a Tesco bag.

We left the mall and headed back to our hotel on the metro (took 30 minutes), dropped off our groceries and went out for dinner.  Years earlier, on my first trip to Prague, Krista and I had eaten at a wonderful restaurant called Universal and the meal stuck out in my head as being so good that I was eager to relive the experience.  We located it on the mappy and set out.  Well, when we got to Universal it appeared the menu had changed quite a bit (prices were higher and the dishes were fancier), but as luck would have it, Universal was but 3 doors down from Kmotra, the pizza restaurant from a few nights before.  We took that as a sign for a return visit, but this time we sat in the cute cellar restaurant as opposed to the bar upstairs.  I again chose to go with the salami pizza (it was that good), Jim went with a spaghetti Bolognese, which he averred was the best he’d had on the trip, and we each had a small carafe of wine.

Not wishing to drink any more after dinner, we strolled around a bit before heading back to our room to watch Jay Leno without commercials and some Funniest Videos clips.

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