The big smoke: Prague
The Golden City on the seven hills above the majestic Vltava River is one of the top destinations in Europe. Also and above all for aficionados.
Almost everyone has already been here and has seen the Charles Bridge, Old Town Ring, Wenceslas Square and Prague Castle and can justifiably dote on at least the Czech beer, if not the duck with cabbage and dumplings … Those wishing to avoid the tourist masses have to get going early in the morning. The tour begins at the Powder Tower on the border of the Old Town, and follows the coronation route to the Old Town Square, over the Charles Bridge and up to the Prague Castle. While two world wars bombed punctures into time in many European cities, there are no gaps in Prague, and hardly any other cities have such an intact memory set in stone.
One building in this baroque chain of pearls is called La Perle de Prague. This restaurant offers French as well as modern Bohemian cuisine. After dinner, Montecristos, Trini-dads, Cohibas or Davidoffs are dancing out of the humidor. Smoking is not just tolerated here – it's celebrated.
Things are not as easygoing at the Four Seasons Hotel close to the Charles Bridge. Smoking is not allowed in the restaurant, since Vito Mollica, who was voted best cook in the Czech Republic for five years in a row, fears for the fine taste of his white Alba truffles. On the other hand, the large humidor at the bar is always completely filled.
Stricter smoking laws are coming
Since the country joined the European Union in 2004, the tobacco tax has been successively raised to the EU level. And the next increase, scheduled for 2008, has already been decided on. In contrast to this are the smoking bans. The regulation presently in effect is actually quite liberal: in restaurants and bars, premises for smokers and non-smokers merely have to be marked accordingly. However, the Czech parliament is currently preparing an amendment to the so-called anti-smoker law. According to this draft, restaurants, cafés and bars should provide separate rooms for smokers. Reactions within the catering trade are mixed. While some are optimistically expecting that years will have to pass by before this is implemented, others are already presently carrying out the strict separation, whether spacewise or timewise. And some gourmet establishments have completely banished the fine smoke from their conceptions and disposed of their humidors.
Music is in the air
Well-equipped for an anti-smoker law is La Scene. The modern restaurant is situated off the tourist paths and is nonetheless in the Old Town. In the basement, a lounge with a humidor as tall as the wall was installed. In the Champagne & Cigar Club, the head of the restaurant, Adriano Figura, offers me a ristretto coffee and a sigaro Toscano with the flavor of anise. Such "greetings from Italy" are a rarity in Prague. Adriano obtains them directly from his Italian homeland.
Proud and magnificent, the castle premises sits above the Mala Strana district. This part of town on the hillside sitting on the other bank of the Vltava River is undoubtedly Prague's most beautiful spot. The narrow winding lanes are leading up towards the castle and create the mystic atmosphere which made this area a popular location for film productions like Amadeus, Mission Impossible or Blade. Prague is a city of music. Names like Smetana, Dvo_ák and Fibich are omnipresent.
Music is also the topic of the luxury Aria Hotel below the Prague Castle. Its rooms and floors are dedicated to musical genres and performers. The Aria has a cigar lounge with a fireplace, a music library and a humidor with well-selected Havanas to accompany the finest Cognac vintages.
For the new Mandarin Oriental Prague Hotel, only a couple of streets away, a former monastery from the 14th century was carefully altered. In the Essensia restaurant, an Australian chef celebrates with Euro-Asian delicacies. While cigarette smokers have their own separate area in the restaurant, cigar smokers have to transfer instead to the elegant Barego bar-lounge for their after-dinner smoke. This is where a high glass column with several rather inconspicuous humidor boxes can be encountered.
On our excursion to the idyllic Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter) we don't want to leave out the Maltese Square with the ancient monastery of the Order of St. John (Knights of Malta), art galleries and wine taverns under arched passages. The "At the Sign of the Painters" building figures into the culinary history of the square: a restaurant has been there since the 16th century, and even Emperor Rudolf II sometimes visited it incognito in order to dine there. The menu is French, so are the wines. The sommelier is taking care of the quality of the cigars in the humidor.
From the Maltese Square, it is only a short walk to the banks of the Vltava, where the Sovovy Mlyny restaurant, as a part of the Museum Kampa, is offering both modern art and gourmet experiences. A modern interpretation of traditional Bohemian dishes is offered on the terrace at the waterside. There is a humidor in the restaurant with a considerable selection of premium cigars.
Dancing as in Havana or Buenos Aires
Tourism has degraded former places of interest, such as the old brewery U Fleku, the Café Slavia or _vejk's Restaurant, to mere folklore. Others, like the numerous Kafka Cafés, were simply designed right from the beginning to be just that. The same holds true with the restaurant of Bodeguita del Medio, a perfect Cuban illusion. Not only the aficionados of Prague are meeting here. Bodeguita's Cigar Club has turned into a playground of high-ranking politicians of the city and the country. Czech president Vaclav Klaus visits it regularly and Prague's mayor, Pavel Böhm, who has recently climbed Mount Everest, is also a regular customer.
One of the recent additions to the Latino scene is the La Casa Argentina, with tango, and parilla and pampa gastronomy. The theme-furnished restaurant with live music is, no doubt, offering the best steaks on the Vltava and a lot of space for smokers and non-smokers alike. The humidors are large and full. And should this be not sufficient, the neighbouring building houses the Casa del Habano.
Prague for night owls
The scene for night owls starts immediately behind the Old Town Square with Tretters, Bombay and Bugsy's, the last of which is Prague's best-known bar. A couple of years ago, Newsweek had elevated it to the "Top 50 of the World". There are Davidoffs on top in the glazed, wall-mounted humidor, with classic Havanas underneath, as well as Honduran and Nicaraguan cigars. When one of the five barkeepers noticed that with freshly lit cigars we were undecidedly studying the list of beverages, he reached for the shaker and conjured an Almond Cigar, a cocktail that caused his boss, Vaclav Vojir, to win second place at the 1998 Grand Prix Habana Club Internacional in Havana.
In the bizarre angular architecture around the T_n Church, we can find New York City's most recent export: Bar & Books, belonging to the group of New York cigar bars in Lexington and Hudson of the same name.
Whoever visits Prague should experience the once famous café culture, though today it is not as well-kept anymore as that in Vienna or Budapest, for instance. However, one of the major Prague cafés survived the changing times: the Café Louvre in the Národní trída. At the front window in the generous smoking room, all agegroups come together at any time of the day in any season. Surrounded by photos of celebrities who sat here before us, we find daily newspapers coming fresh off the press from Frankfurt, London or Paris, with the cigars coming from the classic Caribbean countries.
From the Old Town Ring, the elegant Paris Avenue (Parízská trída) extends in the direction of the Vltava River. This is where luxury brands like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Dior or Dunhill are at home. The hotel at the end of the most prestigious street of Prague is called the InterContinental. With the Casa del Habano, it was at one time the foremost location for aficionados. And the restaurant Zlata Praha (Golden Prague) with its view of the Castle, as well as Duke's Bar & Café in the expansive lobby, are still popular meeting places today for cigar smokers. For ten years the Casa del Habano was "the city's Top Cigar Store". Madame Noël Levy brought it to Prague in 1995 and immediately after this took on the exclusive distribution for Habanos in Eastern Europe. Together with Peter Forman, she had initiated the age of Havanas in the Czech Republic and established the virgin market – for cigars of other origins as well. "We quickly gained a foothold", says Jaroslav Chylek of TTI (Davidoff), "since we began rather early, not only making humidors available to the restaurants and bars, but also training the personnel in the handling of cigars." A further pioneer is Dr. Josef Stanislaw from the Mostex company in Brno, who has his bargain brand of Stanislaw – with the double-decker on the ring – produced in the Dominican Republic at the Tabacos Don Esteban.
In 2005, the Habanos license for Central and Eastern Europe went to the Tabakinvest group … and with it also the franchise license for the Casa del Habano. The shop in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel operates today as the Casa de Cigars.
The new Casa del Habano is a shop, cocktail bar, walk-in humidor with lockers for club members and a lounge – all under one roof. The selection is perfect, the interior is just right. Nevertheless, most friends of the cigar seem to prefer the neighboring Casa Argentina where there is more going on.
Fine smoke in a luxury hotel
Our last stop is the Carlo IV Boscolo luxury hotel, only a few minutes walk from Wenceslas Square. The fact that cigar smokers are welcome here is, above all, testified by the Premium Cigar Lounge. Already at first glance, heavy sofas, opulent candleholders and a well-stocked humidor are promising a relaxed finishing-off of the evening. However, the true treasures are truly kept under lock and key - the cigar lounge was established in the former vault of a bank. As in a heavily guarded curiosity cabinet, behind armored fittings, there is a breathtaking collection of old Armagnacs, Cognacs, and single malts kept, as well as grappas and selected vintage wines. With a good cigar and an old Armagnac in this impressively elegant ambience, time is standing still for a while.
A sentence from Kafka's diary comes to mind: "Prague won't let you go, the little mother has claws". Or that of the Italian author Angelo Maria Ripellino: "If I would have to find a synonym for mysticism, only Prague would occur to me …"