Video highlighting fake Czech “trdelník” tradition draws attention to Prague tourist blight

A recent video by a pair of Prague theatre students has caught the attention of people on social media and sparked a debate about ‘trdelník’ – the sweet chimney or funnel cake which turns on a spit and has become ubiquitous in Prague’s city centre over the past couple of decades. Many of the vendors selling the cinnamon-dusted confection have signs alluding to the long rich history of trdelník as an old Czech tradition – a tradition which, as the video points out in an amusing way, is totally made-up.

In a recent YouTube video which garnered attention and gained further exposure after being shared by popular Czech YouTuber Janek Rubeš on his Honest Guide Facebook page, a person dressed in a giant trdelník costume which bears the inscription “I am not a Czech tradition” walks, skips and dances around Prague’s city centre past tourists eating the sweet hollow pastry. The video, while humorous, at moments zooms in on close-ups of half-eaten trdelníks dumped in rubbish bins or being pecked at by pigeons in the street.

Anna Hubená, a student of scenography at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU), was the person behind the camera, and says this focus on the waste side of the trdelník story was because of another recent school project.

“I recently focussed on public waste in Old Town and I found so many trdelníks in the trash because people don’t like it. They buy it because it smells good but actually it is just sugar and cinnamon.”

Danny Takieddin, a student of acting and Anna’s classmate, is the person in the costume, and says he jumped at the chance to collaborate with Anna on the video.

“One day Anna asked me if I would like to collaborate on this project and when she told me about the big trdelník costume, I didn’t even hesitate.”

Anna made the costume herself out of recycled textile and plastic and she says it took her several hours. But despite all her efforts, the costume, like so many other discarded trdelníks, is now in the bin.

“Now the costume is in the trash – at the end of our performance we went to the recycling centre and threw it away. It was funny because you’re not allowed to film or take pictures there so we didn’t know how to end it, but then we went back there and secretly shot the last scene.”

The pair made the video as part of a school project called ‘Interventions in public spaces’. Anna says that due to the location of their school, the spit cake marketed everywhere as an “old Czech” confection is highly visible.

“Because our school is in the middle of Old Town and we walk past these trdelník shops every day.”

The video certainly struck a chord with Czechs and Prague locals, who are bemused by the trdelník shops and stands that have sprung up in the city centre over the past several years and which advertise themselves as being something traditionally Czech. Many Czechs are also perturbed by the high price point, for the equivalent of which you could buy a full sit-down lunch and a beer, or several truly traditional Czech cakes and pastries.

But what about the tourists who buy it?

“I think a lot of tourists understood – for example, we met a group of tourists with a guide here on Old Town Square, and when they saw us, the guide started talking about the trdelník business in the Czech Republic”, says Danny.

Photo: Jana Myslivečková,  Czech Radio

Anna is less sure.

“We had so many positive reactions from people – especially from Czech people because they understand. Tourists were surprised – they wanted to take a picture with us and they laughed, but who knows if they understood as well.”

The tourists I speak to munching on their trdleníks are mostly indifferent to whether the spit cake is traditionally Czech or not – although some are surprised, they say they would still buy it anyway. And the fact that so many shops selling trdleník have sprung up in the centre attest to the fact that these businesses clearly make a lot of money – so it doesn’t look like they are going away any time soon.

So if trdelník didn’t even arrive in Czechia until relatively recently, where did it come from? The answer seems to be that it originates from a different part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: likely the Hungarian speaking part of Transylvania in today's Romania.

The town of Skalica in Slovakia also has a version of the spit cake which does have a history going back to the end of the 18th century. The original recipe comes from the cook of József Gvadányi, a retired Hungarian general and resident of Skalica. This recipe was then improved by the inhabitants of Skalica to its contemporary form, now known as Skalický trdelník, which has even been registered as an EU protected geographical indication – meaning the entire product must be traditionally manufactured within the specific region. A Skalický trdelník society was also founded in 2004 with the goal of keeping the tradition of the original open-fire trdelník production.

Photo: Ian Willoughby

Since during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Slovakia was known as Upper Hungary, arguably trdelník is really a Hungarian product – but whether it is Slovak, Hungarian or Romanian, it is definitely not Czech, as any Czech person will tell you. So if you want to be a responsible tourist, even if you do chomp down on a sugary trdelník, make sure you also go to a proper Czech cukrárna.