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Prague's Tearooms

For the unacquainted, Prague’s tea culture can seem as dark as the city itself: in the 10+ years since the Velvet Revolution, the drinking of good tea has become something like the ritual of a religious sect, with its own hard rules and dogma. Naturally, it has various degrees of orthodoxy, which you can witness in Prague’s many hidden tearooms.

The most serious is Dobra Cajovna (Borsov 2, off Karoliny Svetle), located just south of the Charles Bridge and run in conjunction with the shadowy Association of Amateurs of Tea. Going there is a bit like a pilgrimage to a great tea temple: off a 15th-century alley in the labyrinthine Old Town, the building is quite hard to find. The front door is locked, so would-be visitors must pull a long rope to ring the bell, after which they will be evaluated for worthiness through a peephole.

If accepted, you’ll be let into one of the multiple dark rooms and given a menu and a small bell. When you’ve made your choice, you ring again and a tea “initiate,” clad in a black uniform like that of a dervish, will arrive to take your order. The menus, in Czech and English, feature more than 70 teas, with new ones added as they are discovered. The association imports directly from the world’s tea-producing regions and sponsors trips to search out new varieties, like the just-added, wonderfully aromatic Assam CTC. A perfectly prepared, highly orthodox pot of tea will cost between 25 and 70 crowns.

A sister Dobra Cajovna is located in an overlooked impasse off Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske Namesti 14). It’s also hard to find, but there is a bit more light inside, making it feel less like an opium den, and the door is unlocked, making it seem less like a religious sanctuary. You can buy a variety of paraphernalia (books, teapots, cups) as well as all their teas at the tea counter. The most expensive tea is Dragon’s Eyes, a crystalline, clover-like Chinese green tea running 350 crowns for 100 grams, and well worth every heller. At both Dobra Cajovnas the music tends toward trance and hard dub, and the attitude is serious, counter-reformatory, and dogmatic.

In opposition, the Ruzova Cajovna (Ruzova 8, off Opletalova, near the main train station) actually describes itself in its advertisements as “less orthodox” than other Prague tearooms, so novices might feel more comfortable here. “Less orthodox” means that the menu features scented teas (apostasy) and flavored teas (heresy) and even goes so far as to offer coffee and wine (anathema and excommunication). It’s comfortable, well lit, and close to the hostel down the street, but prices here are a bit higher than most of the other tearooms. The list of classic “orthodox” teas is limited to just 23 varieties (though with a number of prized oolongs), and the music tends towards Björkish pop. Fittingly, refined white sugar is served with the tea, a questionable practice for the more doctrinaire.

The in-process Duse (meaning “soul,” Dlouha 33, north of the Old Town Square) should soon be a new source of inspiration for the faithful. Currently just a modest tearoom, the cavernous space will be transformed this summer into a combination teahouse, couscous restaurant, and bazaar on the North African model. Orthodoxy is virtually guaranteed by a partnership with the Association of Amateurs of Tea.

The obscure, earthy U Zlateho Kohouta (“at the golden cock,” Michalska 3, near Narodni Trida) is located to the south of the Old Town Square. Look for the small “cajovna” sign, and enter through the external doors of the medieval courtyard; the tearoom is at the back on the left. The bilingual menu features a large selection of green teas favored by the post-hippie crowd. If there were urban Earth First!ers in Prague, they’d drink top-grade sencha from one of the ceramic pots here. The music lists toward the more random varieties of world beat (chant in Uzbek? Urdu?), and many of the sweets are vegan. The hard-to-find Assam Dejoo makes it well worth the search.

The Czech tea cult follows some rather arcane rules. For example, it’s OK to ask for more hot water for a second infusion, but only if you’re drinking green teas. As a matter of principle, any adulterant — milk, cream, honey, or sugar — is frowned on. And because it destroys the aroma, serving tea with lemon is unacceptable. Most initiates are quite happy to talk about the teas and share their knowledge, so if you do make it to Prague, get a free map from a tourist information office and hunt down a tearoom. After touring the Castle or the old Jewish Quarter, its a calming way to learn about a hidden aspect of modern Czech culture.