A Pennsylvania Yankee Explores Bohemia
Western visitors to Bohemia and the Czech lands, from the 1700s until today, rarely omit mention of the region’s breweries and beer. Visitors were remarking on the beer even before lager emerged there (I’ll return to this later).
Especially in the past when there was no Internet, no websites such as that of U Fleku in Prague, visitors’ reports were essential for the would-be tourist. Travel guides there always were, famously Baedeker, later Michelin, later Fodor, Lonely Planet et al. But for a certain, probably upscale or literary-type market, full-length travel books were a necessary preparation for a “grand tour”.
Pennsylvania-born Robert Medill McBride specialized in this market. He was a publisher and author, long-lived (1879-1970). McBride started his career in magazine publishing and was a partner in early years with the legendary Condé Nast.
McBride also published well-known authors such as Frank Buck and James Cabell.
His 1930s travel output took in Czechoslovakia, and the crisply informative Romantic Czechoslovakia is still of interest today. He is a good contrast to an H.L. Mencken, in that he often treats of similar subject matter – the beer, food, music, architecture – but avoids verbal pyrotechnics and grand literary flourishes. As befits a general audience publisher, it’s all about, what the country is like, how to communicate (German is often useful in the western part), the hotels, what things cost. Practical yet with lively writing, perfect for his market.
In the Czech book he covers the Pilsner Urquell brewery and also offers a multi-page assessment of U Fleku. You can read the brewery tour here, a good bird’s eye although marred a bit by McBride’s denigration of the tour guide’s English. The old Anglo superiority, it comes out not infrequently in older texts.
While no beer expert, McBride gets across some good data, and the nub is, not much had changed from the set-up in 1910 which I discussed yesterday. McBride doesn’t talk about the beer itself, no taste notes, but still a good picture is offered.
Looking at the image of McBride pictured, my sense is he was not a beer man, but who knows. He gives the impression of a man about town or society figure, and if he liked alcohol perhaps his taste ran to Champagne or claret. (One shouldn’t assume a liking for any kind of drink though, McBride was a “PK” whose father was President of the American Bible Union).
Below, I include the pages on U Fleku, and the old place certainly sounds enticing. It is today a sophisticated operation, and judging from online reports, some find it too committed to tourist traffic, with related high prices, rushed service, etc. I did speak to a friend not long ago who was there last year, and he loved it.
I’m sure I’d like it too. I always smile when I read the reports of people who find places spoiled because too many tourists go. The writers are usually … tourists, but the irony eludes them. I feel I don’t have any greater right to patronize somewhere than a fellow-visitor. If it’s no fun anymore, the solution is to find somewhere new.
Fleku seems at any rate to arouse passionate opinions. Many online reports are very positive. Others less so, some quite critical. If I visit Prague again, I’ll try it, on my first visit I just didn’t have the time.
All books and reports in the end are, directory, to use a legal term. In other words, go and decide for yourself. Or go somewhere else in town, it’s not as if there isn’t lots of choice. The great thing about beer is, and this is true for a heartland like Prague or almost any burg you know today, if you don’t like what’s in front of you, in situ or on the page, try somewhere else, there is always an option. An IPA, anyway.
So now from debonair Mr. McBride in 1930:
Note re images: the first image above is from the website of U Fleku linked in the text. The second image, of Robert Medill McBride, is from his entry in Wikipedia, whence some of the information above was obtained. The images of text from his book Romantic Czechoslovakia are via HathiTrust at the link given above. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Images are believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.