Tea is a great unifier. It’s a comfort and a problem-solver; it’s enjoyed all over the world with perhaps a greater fervour than coffee. For travellers, taking tea is a way of absorbing local culture, but it can also be a much-needed break in an otherwise packed schedule. The fashion designer Waris Ahluwalia once said, ‘I like the pause that tea allows.’ He’s not the only one.
Today I’m looking back at a not-so-recent trip to the Czech Republic (my memory was jogged by a friend who’s travelling there this summer) and remembering that brilliant pause, at a traditional tea house in Prague.
Tea houses (čajovny) were popular before and after communism hit Prague, but whilst the Iron Curtain was firmly down there was no chance for such places to thrive in the public eye. Instead, the official focus was on making beer affordable to workers, whilst tea was only deemed appropriate for powerful officials. Tea enthusiasts imported their precious cargo in secret, sampling rare blends under the radar.
The Society of Tea Devotees, formed in 1992, cemented tea enthusiasm after the Velvet Revolution. Dobrá Čajovna was founded by the same enthusiasts in 1993; its name shamelessly translates as ‘good tea house’. I saw that name as a bit of a challenge, being more accustomed to British self-deprecation (we’d probably call our equivalent ‘distinctly average’ or ‘sort of alright, if you squint a bit’, rather than ‘good’), but it seemed as good a place as any to tap into the city’s tea trend. There are now several branches around the world, from Budapest to Wisconsin, however this is the original one, so it really sets the bar for the others in the chain.
It took a little detective work to find the building, set back from Wenceslas Square, but I knew I was in the right place when I saw row after row of white porcelain containers at the counter, all laden with tea leaves. The low-lit tea house was divided into several areas, some with cushion-laden platforms and others with wicker tables and chairs, so each corner felt private enough for customers to relax.
There was an element of calm in the air of these dark, low-tech rooms, with their cushions carefully placed (not randomly scattered) on the floor. My robe-clad server looked painfully serious; I worried I’d cause a scene by coughing or laughing. Having attended Buddhist meditation classes and failed to reach enlightenment, I felt very conscious of not wishing to disturb anyone’s equilibrium.
Choosing my brew was a lengthy process; the descriptions on the menu covered the source of the leaves but also hinted at the kind of person or situation they would suit. In the end I picked something that struck a chord with me, because I am easily influenced by descriptions that have taken more than five seconds to write. When someone takes the time to give a back story about their product, I’m hooked.
The Assam Brahmaputra was suitably malty and very palatable. Assam is obviously well known as a tea variety, but the Brahmaputra was specifically labelled as ‘suitable for drinking before a long journey’. I was coming to the end of my time in Prague and it felt appropriate to pick this ahead of my flight home. All the tea was, of course, beautifully served.
Browsing the food options, I bypassed the healthy Japanese snacks and the hummus (pah!) in favour of sugary goodness from other parts of the world. It was a tough choice between baklava or a stroopwafel… so I tried both, in the name of reviewing. Nothing to do with my lack of willpower.
The baklava was exactly as it should be – sticky, almost melting on the tongue, with a crunch of tiny nutty crumbs. The caramel waffle turned out to be less successful as it lacked a kick of vanilla, yet I managed to polish off the whole thing anyway. As you can probably tell, I’m not exactly a high-brow eater or any kind of food critic, and it is rare I will turn down carbs, especially if I’ve already paid for them. Waste not, want not.
What I loved most about my visit was the contrast between the full-on noise and fast pace of life in Wenceslas Square, where C&A and Debenhams jostle for space, and this little haven of quiet. For anyone seeking an authentic tea house in Prague, this won’t disappoint.
No hard selling, no need to rush whatsoever; just take your time to pore over a tea menu or sit back with a book. Talking of which, the Prague-set novel Necessary Errors, by Caleb Crain, deserves to be read here, to really appreciate how far the city has come since the early days of post-Velvet Revolution transition.
Dobrá Čajovna, Václavské Náměstí 14.