A Pennsylvania Yankee in Czechoslovakia, 1930

Especially in the past when no websites existed such as U Fleku’s in Prague, would-be tourists needed guidance from professional travellers.

Travel guides emerged especially from the 1800s, famously Baedeker, later Michelin, later Fodor, etc. For a literate audience, travel literature, an established genre, was a frequent resort before securing visas and filling luggage.

Pennsylvanian Robert Medill McBride specialized in this area. He was a publisher and author, long-lived (1879-1970). He started his career in magazine publishing, partnering in early years with the legendary Condé Nast.

He also published well-known authors such as Frank Buck and James Cabell.

His 1930s travel output took in Czechoslovakia, and his well-paced, informative Romantic Czechoslovakia is still of interest.

The book mentions beer and brewing, for which the Czech lands have been noted in Western reports since (at least) the 1700s.

McBride on travel makes a good comparison to H.L. Mencken, the irrascible, roving Baltimore journalist, editor, and author.

McBride dealt in similar topics – food, music, architecture, people, but avoided verbal pyrotechnics and grand statements.

He was practical, focusing e.g. on how to communicate – German was often handy in western Czechoslovakia, he said – classes of hotels, what things cost. Paired with a lively style, the work was perfect for his market.

In the Czech volume he covered Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Bohemia, and wrote a multi-page assessment of the legendary U Fleku bar in Prague.

You can read his brewery comments here, a good bird’s eye although McBride’s denigration of his guide’s English is grating. A certain superiority often characterized travel reports of British and American visitors then, although it was not invariable, and likely not limited to those nationalities.

While no beer expert McBride conveyed some good information. From a beer historical standpoint, the nub is, not much had changed from Urquell’s brewing in 1910, which I discussed yesterday.

While McBride doesn’t offer taste notes, we get a good sense overall of Czech brewing expertise.

He seemed a debonair sort (see his image in Wikipedia, linked in note below), maybe beer was not a particular interest, but who knows. He was in fact a “PK”, preacher’s kid, whose father was President of the American Bible Union – perhaps he was indifferent to or abjured alcohol.

Below are his notes on U Fleku, which paint an enticing picture. U Fleku today is a well-organized operation. Judging from online reports, some find it geared to tourist traffic, with related high prices, rushed service, etc., yet a friend who visited last year loved it.

I’m sure I would, too. I always smile to read reports of places spoiled due to excess tourism. The writers are themselves usually … tourists, but the irony eludes them.

All books and reports of travel are, finally, advisory, and reflect personal inclination and opinion. If in doubt, go and decide for yourself.

So now from the peripatetic Mr. McBride in 1930:

Note: for further bio and an image of Robert Medill McBride, see his entry in Wikipedia. I relied on the account for some information above. The textual reproduction is from his book Romantic Czechoslovakia, via HathiTrust as linked in the text.

1 thought on “A Pennsylvania Yankee in Czechoslovakia, 1930”

  1. U Fleku is a really frustrating place. As beer-hall is gorgeous in every possible sense. The beer is excellent, there is no doubt about it, but its price is a problem; Czech aren’t pub crawlers, they generally like to sit down have their session at one place, and Prague has more than enough places to offer. So, the prices either intentionally or unintentionally drive away the locals. It also has a well-deserved reputation as a tourist trap.

    I’ve also heard many people loving it, and others hating it (or probably, liking it and disliking it); mostly visitors. Not surprisingly, the type of visitors that prefer to be taken by the hand in pre-packed seem to make most of the former, while the more independent-minded travellers seem to make most of the former. People living here, on the other hand, many share my feeling of frustration. They would love to see U Fleku become again a proper “hospoda”, a hang-out place for people from all walks of like, as it was back in the day when the Čapek brothers shared a table with other intellectuals, or students, or regular folk. The rest, the majority, simply ignore it, as they tend to do with most places in the centre, which in a way reflects the (very understandable) love-hate relationships Praguers have with tourism.

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