The streets of Prague offer up some surprising secrets for the unwary. You do not even have to wander far to come across such delights as the Spider and Torture museum and the wonderfully overgrown Jewish cemeteries, with their gravestones toppling like dominoes. It is one of those cities where you can wander aimlessly for days and always find and experience something quite unlike anywhere else.
All of this walking makes you thirsty, and the fact that you are never far from a drink makes Prague even more appealing. Aside from the usual drinking dens, either a shiny tourist-friendly hangout or the kind of place you expect to get shot in the knees by the locals, the city is packed with absinthe bars. They come in all shapes, sizes and clientele and can be found sometimes, quite literally, squeezed into every available space. During our stay Adam and I explored a good portion of them, from vast underground caverns full of dark corners and even darker characters, to tiny street-side joints with barely enough space for two seats and a table. It was one of the underground dens that we felt particularly drawn to, and on our final night it was decided to give the place one last visit.
It was one of the most difficult bars to find, but that only added to its charm. Hidden down an alleyway so narrow you had to suck in your belly to allow others to pass, from the outside its secrets were not betrayed by a bland frontage. Only the red gleam showing through the crack in the battered door revealed the devilish delights that lay within. Once inside a dangerous collection of sharp, rusty metal did an unconvincing impression of a staircase and delivered us to the basement in a shaken state that required a stiff drink to recover. Luckily for us the stifling-hot, murky bar provided just about every drink available to man, which, the barman assured us could cure all ills, sharpen the mind and put hairs on our chests. How true this was questionable, but at £1 for absinthe we were not complaining.
The barman, his eyes gleaming with joy at the sight of two new foreigners to lead astray, talked us through correct absinthe etiquette, careful not the mention small matter of its mind-bending capabilities. Drink it all in one go, he ordered, and have it hot with and with a spoonful of sugar to take off the edge. We followed his instructions to the letter and sat back and let this emerald poison have its wicked way with us.
On this final night we were once more greeted by our barman, who already had two steaming glasses of the green stuff waiting for us. Once these were dispatched we noticed we were not alone at the bar. At the far end stood a man with slicked back hair, tight jeans and sunglasses despite the gloom of the underground bar. Before him on the counter stood a collection of absinthe glasses all drained of their contents, and every couple of minutes another would be pushed down for him to add to his add to his hoard. How his body was coping with this alcoholic pummelling both fascinated and scared us, as he showed no signs of wilting under its power.
Before long it became clear he was observing us. He called over the barman, whispered something in his ear and we were duly presented with two new glasses. Surprised, we bashfully toasted a thanks to him and emptied them, and he responded with a polite nod before draining his own latest shot.
This little ritual continued for some time, leading Adam and I into a semi-delirious state. Attempts at returning the favour were met with a stern look from our new friend, and we accepted his generosity and marvelled once more at how unaffected he seemed by the stuff he was drowning his and our minds with.
Just as we were beginning to think that we would wake up each missing a kidney, he coolly walked over to us, emptying another glass on the way. Leaning an elbow on the bar he examined us both, drew on his cigarette so that the glow revealed his scarred face properly for the first time and said something neither of us would ever have expected-
“Do you guys, err, like snakes?”
Unsure as to whether this was some sort of trick question all we could do was grin back at him gormlessly. Taking this was a positive answer he then whispered
Back up the Stairs of Death we went, brains melting from the spirits but still functioning well enough to realise that following a strange guy outside was probably not advisable in any situation. Slowed by the drink we shuffled around a street corner, guided by the light of the man’s cigarette. Eventually we saw him opening the boot of a battered car before beckoning to us to come closer. He produced a torch and shone it onto a sports bag which he unzipped with a flourish. Even before he opened it we could see that the bag contained something living, and sure enough inside was a great, writhing snake.
Mouths agape, the man grinned at us as the creature popped its head out of the bag and flicked its tongue into the fresh air.
“It’s a snake” I said, displaying my sharp skills of observation.
“I know what it is” the man hissed, pushing the animal’s head back into the bag “what I want to know is if you want to buy it”
It will come as no surprise that dangerous levels of absinthe and the sight of a snake is not conducive to a calm state of mind. We did not even have to see that much of it to realise that it was huge. It was almost bursting out of its sports bag prison and hissing furiously. Going by its exotic colouring it simply had to be poisonous and would be that willing to clamp its needle-like teeth into one of us at the next opportunity.
Growing tired of our gibbering confusion, the man tried the hard-sell, promising us fame, respect and the hearts of every woman in Prague if we bought this snake. In short, we would be heroes. Adam pointed out that this was somewhat of an exaggeration and that, if anything, taking a snake out on the town with us could only lead to mass panic and our speedy deportation from the Czech Republic.
“What’s wrong with my snake?” the man snapped angrily, with a touch of hurt feelings in his voice.
“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it” I said “I’m sure it’s lovely, but I don’t think I’ll have room for it in my bag. We’ve only just started trav…”
“Fine!” the man spat whilst slamming the car boot, making us both jump as it had been a gunshot. He jumped into the car and sped off, sticking two-fingers up at us through the window as he disappeared into the night.
Expecting some sort of snake-themed mafia repercussion we hurried back to our hostel, spending a sleepless night counting down the time to our train in the morning.
At this point it feels like there should be some kind of moral to the story. Please, don’t let this put you off going to Prague. Despite the throngs of tourists, tatty souvenir shops and psychos trying to offload snakes, it is a beautiful and fascinating place. I do not recommend absinthe, as who knows, the whole bizarre experience may have been conjured up with its help. What I will say is this: what doesn’t kill you whilst travelling only makes for great stories to recount later.