Our last day in Czech Republic has arrived.. on the agenda a visit to Pilsen (Plzen) and to see the Slavic Epic, a series of paintings.
This morning was a busy morning starting with a visit to The National Gallery in Prague (Veletržní Palace)to see Alfons Mucha Slavic Epic (Alfons Mucha Slovanská epopej). Gerry had been really keen to visit it so we came to the agreement to check it out before heading down to Pilsen. We’d tried to visit the gallery on Monday only to find it closed. Luckily we were able to find a carpark almost across the road.
It’s an interesting story how Alfons Mucha built up a reputation across the globe with his original style of Art Nouveau decorative commercial artwork during the late 19th and early 20th century in Paris and USA. He was to turn his back on it in favour of twenty monumental paintings which centred around the history of the Czech nation and wound in images of Slavic mythology.
Seeing the art close up is just amazing they are larger than any art piece I’ve ever seen with most measuring 6 m x 8 m. He must have used scaffolding to paint them. Some of the haunting faces really touch your soul. When you see them you realise why he worked on the Slav Epic for almost twenty years.
After the visit to the Art Gallery we stopped back at the apartment to pick up Michele (who stayed home as she had a headache) before heading on to Pilsen (Plzen) .
The drive down to Pilsen was quite nice as we passed through lots of farmland and forests. Arriving in Pilsen we found a carpark but couldn’t work out what the signs read. Gerry found a lovely lady who told us that one side of the road was ticket parking and the other side free. He quickly moved the car whilst I blocked a carpark for him.
The main square was only a few blocks away so we headed towards it.
The main square is surrounded by lots of old buildings including the renaissance style town hall which looks pretty quirky and on one side sits the cathedral of St Bartholomew. A service in progress so we quickly retraced our steps.
Also in the main square are interesting water features painted gold. They look like someone had some left over air conditioning trunking and painted them gold but whatever the case they look interesting.
Across the road from the cathedral we noticed a bar with decent prices for lunch so wandered inside. So what do you reckon was on TV? Aussie rules, yep the North Melbourne versus Richmond game was on. So over lunch Gerry and a Deb got an education about our great game.
After the game we decided to get back to being tourists and not far from the main square are two synagogues. The Grand Synagogue was closest so we decided to check it out. Along the way we walked past a sign displaying Real Aussie Pies. Well we just had to ask the question “what are Aussie Pies doing in Pilsen?” It turns out the owner of the shop spent 6 months in Melbourne and decided to bring a little bit of Australia back to Pilsen. Ah yes beer and pies the perfect combination.
Arriving at the Great Synagogue, (Plzeň Velká Synagoga) we were impressed by the facade. The story goes that when the original plans were submitted in 1888 the town council rejected them because the twin towers would compete with the Cathedral in what they described as a little bit of tower envy. The plans were altered and resubmitted two years later dropping the towers 20 metres. The resulting building has Russian Orthodox church style onion domes and is a combination of Romantic and neo-Renaissance styles with a giant Star of David in the centre just to make sure you which religion it is. The synagogue was used by the 2,000 Jews of the city until WWII. It was used until 1973 when it closed under the Communists and fell into disrepair. It reopened in 1998 and since then the main hall has hosted concerts and photographic exhibitions. The local population of about 70 still use a small part of the synagogue. Whilst we were there we were amazed at the grandeur of the inside of the building. It was totally different to our visit to the synagogue in Plymouth, England. They were also hosting a photographic exhibition which included photos of Pilsen under German rule, the Free Czech Army and airforce, also the liberation of Pilsen by American troops.
So what is the number one thing on everyone who comes to Pilsen’s to do list? A Pilsner Urquell brewery tour of course. The brewery is a short walk away from the city centre so we took a nice leisurely walk which led us along the river.
So what’s so special about Pilsner Urquell? Pilsner Urquell has inspired more than two-thirds of all of the world’s beers. Thinking about it, that’s a pretty big claim for any company. Pilsner Urquell brewery started in 1842 and it was the inhabitants of the city of Pilsen that we all have to thank. The story goes that nearly every building in the centre of Pilsen brewed its own beer, about 280 or so. The locals weren’t happy with the taste of it, in 1838 they gathered 36 bad barrels of beer and emptied them in the main square outside the town hall. Well as you could imagine the local brew houses decided that it was time to lift their game and joined together to establish a brewery.
As their beer had been rejected by locals they searched for a brewmaster who they found in Bavaria (of course). Josef Groll, was the brew master to start a new process for brewing and today 170 years later they’re still brewing using his recipe.
The tour was a great mix of old and new with the first stop on the brewery bus being the bottling plant, which bottles 120,000 bottles per hour and 60,000 aluminium cans. The plant processes cans, new bottles, recycled bottles and PET bottles. It was interesting watching the green bottles cycling through the conveyor with scanners checking for cleanliness and faults. It was quite reassuring seeing bottles rejected and sent for re cleaning.
Across the street in another building we caught the largest lift in the Czech republic (however not the fastest) to the new facility where we were introduced to the Pilsen Urquell story by film with an Australian narrator. Along the way we got to see and taste some of the ingredients which go into making the beer, water from deep underground in Pilsen, malt produced from a special variety of Bohemian barley, semi-ripe red hops.(Ron discovered it’s pretty hard to get the peppery taste out of your mouth)
The tour took us into the old brew house with its copper kettles where they triple brew (because of the type of hops). Our old mate again narrated another film about the Pilsner Urquell story. Those shiny brass kettles were pretty impressive and Ron had a chuckle about all the dents in the feed pipes. The guide told us the hops used to hang up and block the feed pipes.The operators would bash the outsides of the pipes to clear the blockages, just like back in the mines said Ron. We also visited the new brewing facility where today’s beer is brewed using the same methods but in a much grander scale with massive stainless steel vats and storage tanks.
We descended into the cellars where in days gone by the barrels of beer were cooled by a drainage system which flowed from the massive ice room and throughout the cellars. It’s interesting that they still brew beer in the traditional way with open topped oak barrels. They said that the brewmaster compares this to the beer that is being bottled so that the taste is the same.
Down in the cellar where the oak barrels of beer are kept we got to taste the
“real stuff” unfiltered Pilsner Urquell beer straight out of the barrel and it was great. A little cloudy but that’s because it’s unfiltered.
A wizened old man slipped cup after cup under the tap in a display of precision. Half beer and half head as the locals like to have it (you’d get shot in Australia if you poured one like that in a pub).
Our last part of the journey was the physical challenge where people get to see if they’re ready to become a cooper (barrel maker) by slipping inside the removable hatch on the barrel. I was able to get my head and arm inside but sadly didn’t make it any further.
Well it was a fun tour and it’s interesting to see what goes into making this beer we’ve been drinking. We might even tour again next time
As it was getting late we headed back towards Prague for a dinner date with some friends of Deb and Gerry’s along the way. It was a great night out and we got to experience life in a little country town complete with the local hoons doing laps past the town hall in hotted up cars. Just after midnight we made it back to the apartment and fell into bed.
Tomorrow we all go our separate ways and it’s kind of sad because we’ve had a great time. Who’d have thought a chance meeting in a Chinese museum would lead us to sharing a holiday together.