With the sun coming up on a glorious, if slightly bracing October Saturday morning, we bundled into the rented car and headed West out of Prague, to Plzeň (Pilsen in German).
By road the journey takes between 80 and 90 minutes. We went by car because I’d rented one for the whole weekend but I’d recommend travelling by train or coach instead. Trains are every 2 hours from Prague’s main station and take around an hour and three quarters. Coaches from Florenc international coach station take roughly the same time.
A little history
If you’ve ever drunk a Pilsner style beer, you’ll have already tasted the town’s greatest legacy. They’ve been making beer here for centuries but the famous Plzensky Prazdroj brewery, formed with the coming-together of most of the town’s independent brewers and now a flagship of SAB Miller’s global empire, turned out its first batch in 1842.
Plzen is particularly fond of Americans too. The city celebrates its Liberation Day two days before the rest of the Czech Republic. It was liberated by General Patton’s army on May 6th 1945. Since 1990 an annual Liberation Festival takes place, with re-enactments, memorial services and events honouring veterans.
Bird’s Eye Plzeň
The Gothic St Bartholomew’s Cathedral in the main square, Namesti Republiky, has the highest church tower in the country, at 102m/335ft. For a small fee, the nimble and sure of foot can climb the increasingly narrow staircases to the top and enjoy a view over the whole region. A large area of the city is taken up by the Skoda Engineering Works (not the car company), where the hub of London’s Millenium Eye was cast.
European Capital of Culture 2015
Announced last year as the European Capital of Culture 2015 alongside Mons in Belgium, you can expect fervent activity in the area of visual and performing arts. To commemorate this, impressive golden fountains have been installed on the corners of Namesti Republiky.
The Brewery Museum
If you want to know more about the origins of brewing in the city then the Brewery Museum is an essential stop. One of the neatest things in the museum is a working miniature steam brewery, capable of producing thirty litres of beer in one batch.
Years ago I asked an old security guard at the brewery for directions to the Plzen Underground. He spoke excellent English and recognised that I was from London so he explained to me in great detail that Plzen does not have a subway system. The Plzen Underground refers to a network of tunnels, cellars and wells under the centre of the city that connected houses, formed a part of the city’s defences and provided temperature controlled storage for food throughout the year. There is one tour a day in English, at 1pm but you can join any of the 5 other tours a day and rent an audio guide. Having missed the English tour, this is what we did and the audio guide was more detailed than the human one, so you definitely don’t miss anything by doing this.
The Pilsner Urquell Brewery
In all honesty this is why you’re in Plzeň isn’t it? The tour takes you around the brewery, where you’ll see Europe’s most advanced canning and bottling plant (occasionally this is closed for cleaning so if you’re unlucky you won’t get to see it fully operational), the historical brewhouse (not used for production since 2004), get a look at the new brewhouse and experience the “sensory exhibit” where you can taste and smell the raw ingredients. The tour ends with a visit to the catacomb-like cellars beneath the brewery where small batches of beer produced in the old way are fermented in oak barrels, unpasteurised and unfiltered, specially for tour visitors (over 18!). If you happen to able to visit on the first Saturday in October, that’s usually when the Pilsner Fest takes place.
The Gambrinus Brewery
The younger (since 1869) Gambrinus brewery is next door, also owned by SAB Miller. If you’ve not seen enough brewery for one day then you could join one of the less frequent Czech language only tours of the home of the country’s most popular beer (which is rarely exported).
Where to eat?
Plzeň’s dining options have expanded a fair bit since I first went there a decade ago but it’s a good town to enjoy some traditional Czech grub. Na Spilce, the large (550 seat) beer cellar/restaurant at the brewery serves Czech classic with aplomb, washed down with a Pilsner Urquell, of course!
Getting back to Prague
Trains and buses are fast and frequent. If you’ve been enjoying the products of the city’s breweries then driving’s out of the question as the Czech Republic has a zero tolerance approach to drink driving.