Over the last couple of days I’ve seen so many Starbucks. I know the one just off Stare Mesto Namesti has been there for years, and the one over in Mala Strana is not new either. But there are now two on Wenceslas Square, one in Palladium, one at Dejvická and one on Na Poříčí. I’m pretty sure there must be others that I have failed to spot. Have it always been like this, or is Starbucks tightening its corporate grip on the Golden City?
Now, I’m not going to go all moral high horsey. I am as guilty as the rest of you- I have patronised Starbucks in a number of countries. I used to queue with the best of them most days when I worked in London. Even though paying a huge amount for a too-milky coffee with relatively little flavour seems a ludicrous thing to do, it’s a very easy habit to form and a difficult one to break.
I have also provided Starbucks with my custom in New York (on purpose actually – it seemed to me a very NYC thing to do and I felt like I was in Allie McBeal) and in Chang Mai in Thailand. I’m not particularly proud of the Chang Mai Starbucks visit back in 2001. I bought a coffee and a cookie and it cost as much as my previous night’s accommodation. This is not in the spirit of gap-yah backpacking really. In my defence it was a one-off and I was really homesick at the time, having been suddenly ditched by my traveling ‘buddy’ (inverted commas are required here, as the ditching effectively ended the buddy-ness) at 30 minutes’ notice as she wanted to go home to her boyfriend. Seriously.
That was a few years ago though (and I am still a little bit bitter). Maybe a gap-year Starbucks is perfectly legit now. 18 year-old wanderers apparently come equipped with Facebook, i-phones and sat nav when they set off climbing Kilimanjaro, sailing around the world or walking across the Himalayas, so a little battery-farmed coffee is unlikely to ruffle any feathers.
Anyway, I got my comeuppance. There is a reason dairy is not widely available in northern Thailand. A grande cappuccino was a very bad choice and one I regretted fairly regularly for the next 36 hours.
So from a wealth of experience, I can see the pull of Starbucks. You know what you’re getting. It’s smoke free. It’s generally pretty clean and has staff who are likely to speak English. It offers free WiFi. In many countries you will escape without a stomach upset.
But it still makes me cringe whenever I see tourists (and expats) wandering about with Starbucks cups. It just seems like such a pity. Do they not know that they are depriving themselves of one of Prague’s most lovely past times? Sitting in a coffee-house that is part of the city’s history is wonderful: drinking coffee and eating a little pastry that actually has a taste (other than sugar and E numbers), providing custom to a locally run business, or just relishing the fact that you can also have wine or beer (most Kavarnas are licensed), should you so desire. There is such a wealth of wonderful coffee houses all over Prague, each with their own character, charm or quirk. And even the most linguistically challenged can navigate a coffee menu. So many tourists seem to travel half the way around the world, only to end up somewhere they could have found at home. One of the reasons that people come to Prague is that it is so different from other cities – it’s such a shame to frequent a coffee shop chain that is identical across the globe and one that takes custom away from Prague’s unique cafes and tea-houses.
So a message to any tourists reading this: try something new. Try something Czech. Go to Café Louvre, Café Imperial, Café Slavia, Retro Kavarna, Bio Zahrada or any number of the other coffee places that can be found on literally every single Prague street. It would be impossible to list them all. The coffee is better and much, much cheaper, these places have real atmosphere and history. Or at the very least, try Bakeshop.
There really is no excuse, unless of course you too have been abandoned on the other side of the world by an unreliable friend, in which case, I sympathise…