My Prague Horror Story
It’s long, but it’s true.
“Prague is a magical place,” said my family and friends. I thought by magical they meant fairytale-like structures… and weed. Apparently there was something else too.
Some people claim not to believe in the supernatural, yet you see them going to church or reading their horoscope. Not me. I’m an empiricist through and through. So when I encountered the supernatural in Prague last week, I exhausted all the logical explanations first before I concluded that “maybe”, just “maybe” the natural is not the only thing there is.
One evening in our hotel room, I heard my friend watching a YouTube video about local restaurants. The host said, “In the city center, a bottle of Coke costs 100 crowns. But in these restaurants, your 100 crowns will buy you a full meal!"
We just finished a tour, so I was preparing to take a nap. Before I fell asleep, the last thing I heard from her phone was, "This place is such a hidden gem that not even all the locals know about it. It’s very hard to find, but once you’re in the area, it will draw you in.”
Later that night, my friend, her map and I, along with two other guy friends, set out to find it.
When we got to the area, there was a huge red restaurant with swings outside. The guys and I were already debating whether we should eat outside or in. (It was 3 degrees Celsius.) But my friend with the map led us instead to the adjacent alley… which was the first red flag. Because in addition to her map, my friend had screenshots of the YouTube video on her phone, and they clearly show the red place with the outdoor swings, which was lively, with lots of people. Not this quiet, abandoned alley. But since I knew my friend did the research while I just slept, I thought it was unfair to question her authority. Maybe she watched more than one video and took more than a few screenshots.
It was a basement-style restaurant. The signage wasn’t in English so I didn’t bother to read the name. When we were outside the second door (vs. the main entrance), the two guys were hesitant to go in. “Looks like a tavern, not a restaurant,” they said. They were right. All I could see inside were people holding beer. But I was so hungry, so I told them, “For sure there’s food on the menu too.” I was right, of course. Nobody sells just beer.
As we were walking inside, everyone was looking at us. Which back then I thought was fine. We’re obviously tourists, while they all looked Czech to me. It must’ve been a “local” place. Plus, it’s only natural instinct to steal a look at the new group whenever you’re at a bar or something. It was a young crowd. Men and women in their early 20s.
There was a short origin story printed on the back of the menu. The place did use to be a tavern. It was supposedly owned by a very beautiful woman murdered by her husband, who mistakenly thought she’d been serving her customers more than just beer, if you know what I’m saying. The story said that if you touch the woman’s portrait in the restaurant, she’ll help you with your romantic problems. The piece was badly written, in my opinion. It didn’t help that the accompanying image looked like an edited photo of Angelina Jolie. “How amateur,” I remember thinking.
The food was okay. I’d say it’s bland, but maybe Czech food is just like that — not fatty, not salty. So instead of bland, I’ll just call it different. Looked healthy, though. And I liked it. Not as much as I like steak and pasta, but I liked it enough.
A few minutes later I started feeling dizzy and weak. I was afraid that maybe it was all that Trdelnik (local dessert) I’d been eating. I ate like three in a day every day, each time we passed by a stall while touring the city or shopping. My mom had diabetes. I thought maybe I was on the verge too.
Then I was like, “No, you’re just sleepy. It was a long flight, followed by hours of walking tours.” I almost convinced myself. But then I remembered that I just napped for three hours, from 8 pm to 11 pm. (It was around 11:30 pm.) Besides, sleepiness is gradual. This was sudden.
In front of me, one of the guys was frowning, massaging his head. “Are you okay?” I asked. He said he was dizzy too.
The other guy started taking off his jacket. “Why is it so hot in here? And my neck hurts!” he said, sweating. But like I said, the food wasn’t fatty. It couldn’t have been hypertension, for him, the other guy or me.
And so it was that with our plates still half full, my friend with the map suggested, “Let’s get the bill?”
While leaving the restaurant, I wanted to go straight back to the hotel and lie down. But the moment I stepped out of the main entrance, my energy came back to me. Suddenly I wanted to walk around Old Town and eat another Trdelnik.
The frowning guy started telling jokes again, and the sweating guy started freezing again.
Our friend with the map, who up until then said nothing about how she felt, finally spoke. “We had to leave,” she said. “They were all staring at us. Didn’t you notice? One person per table was always staring at us. And whenever that person looked away, another took his place.”
The rest of us were like, “What the fuck?!”
“And I don’t know if it was just psychological,“ she continued, "but the moment you (she pointed at one of the guys) said you were dizzy, I felt dizzy too.”
“I was feeling dizzy even before he said he was,“ I replied.
The guy who was sweating said, "I started feeling weird after I noticed that everyone at every table was wearing greenish jackets and drinking the same beer. Like, what the hell?”
Realizing it too, I butted in, “Fuck, they were all so quiet. None of them was talking. If they were, they must’ve been whispering.” Everyone agreed. The other diners were big groups of friends, drinking beer. You’d expect laughter and yelling. There was absolutely none of that.
The rational person that I am, I said, “Yesterday, we had hot chocolate with rum, and pork ribs with beer. Maybe our food had alcohol too?” My friends all disagreed. The menu always states if there’s alcohol in the food. Besides, we all knew that alcohol makes you feel good (at least in the beginning), not sleepy and weak. It doesn’t make you hallucinate either.
Couldn’t have been weed too, because weed makes you feel even better than alcohol. That much we knew. Besides, Prague isn’t Amsterdam. There’s weed, but you have to find it. They don’t serve it in cafés and bars. Plus, why would a restaurant be lacing their food with weed, when they sell a meal for less than 200 crowns? Weed is not that cheap in Prague. It’s not legal either.
But we were in an exquisitely gorgeous city, and the wind was cool, and the night was young, so we left it at that. We didn’t know what happened, and at that moment, we didn’t really care much. There’s more to eat, more to see and more to enjoy. And all that we did.
On the flight back home, I was sitting beside my friend who found the restaurant. I finally said, “You know, your screenshots showed the red restaurant. Why did you lead us to the other one?”
There was a pause before she replied, “I don’t know. We were there in front of Restaurant Mustek, but something inside me felt empty.”
“Empty how?“ I asked.
"You know that feeling when you’re reaching inside a bag of chips, and it turns out you’d already eaten the last piece?”
“Well, I felt like that when I saw the red restaurant. It’s like, there was disappointment. I craved more, and something inside me told me to turn right and keep going.“
I felt a chill run down my spine. I remembered the YouTube video. "This place is such a hidden gem that not even all the locals know about it. It’s very hard to find, but once you’re in the area, it will draw you in.” I didn’t find it weird when I heard it. But it’s taking on a new meaning now.
It seems something led us to it. Could it have been the Angelina Jolie look-alike? Was she even real? If I ever set up a restaurant, I’d make up a fake origin story too. It’s Marketing 101.
I asked my friend to show me the video she had been watching on YouTube. (The airline offers a limited amount of free Wi-Fi during the flight.) The restaurant we went to wasn’t in the video. The line I overheard right before sleeping, about a bottle of Coke costing 100 crowns, was there, yes. But the line about the hidden gem was not. Could I have imagined that? I mean, three agnostics and an atheist are an unlikely group to be inventing a synchronized supernatural story.
My friend and I had no clue about the name of the restaurant. We shouted over to our two other friends who were seated three rows in front of us. They didn’t remember either. So we searched instead for Restaurant Mustek on Google Maps, and from there, traced the one we dined in. It’s called Restaurace U Provaznice. The Google description on the side says “Classic Czech beer restaurant serving traditional dishes in a historic, supposedly haunted space.” The caption on the map itself says “Traditional restaurant steeped in myth.”
But we didn’t know that. So we couldn’t have constructed a supernatural experience subconsciously, based on that information. We couldn’t have based it on the Angelina Jolie look-alike story either because I was the only one who read the back of the menu (and I thought nothing of it).
Who was it then that I heard on my friend’s phone talking about a hidden gem of a restaurant that will draw you in? What was it that led us astray from the place we were actually looking for? Why were we feeling dizzy, sweaty and weak? How come the other diners were all wearing similar jackets, drinking the same beer, staring at us systematically, and not making a noise? Were they waiting to hurt us, or like the back of the menu said, to help us? …At least for now, it seems like I’ll never know.
I’ve had seven hours of sleep last night and a good meal this morning, but I’m feeling very sleepy and slightly weak as I write this. I’m sure I’ll be fine afterwards.