Germany and Austria reign supreme among Europe’s best traditional Christmas markets, however Prague is consistently a top ten pre-Noël destination in part for its atmosphere, market food, and Bohemian crafts, but more-so for the quaint picturesque city that has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ever since I saw Tom Cruise dashing through Prague’s postcard framed streets in the film Mission: Impossible, I planned to visit the city that seemed to have captured an aura of romance, elegance, and beauty of a by-gone era. Prague does not disappoint.
The Czech Republic has a variant and tumultuous history for such a young European country. For quasi-historians like myself here is a very brief romp across the centuries. The area known as Bohemia was settled by and named after a Celtic tribe called the Boii. From early Slavic dynasties to the fourteenth century’s Golden Age, Prague developed into an important cultural centre and capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Wars, upheaval, Catholic Church versus Protestant Reformers, and the subsequent 300 years of Austrian-Habsburg Emperors. After World War I Czechoslovakia became an independent country in 1918 however the freedom of this first Republic ended abruptly in 1939 with German occupation. Nazi Protectorate then post-war communist Republic until 1968 when political liberal reforms known as “Prague Spring” (and I thought CNN coined that phrase this year) resulted in Soviet invasion and occupation. Not until 1989’s Velvet Revolution did Czechoslovakia’s dissidents defeat communism and democratic presidential elections followed. After an amicable “Velvet divorce” from Slovakia on 1st January 1993, the Czech Republic was born – the country is not old enough to legally drink alcohol in the US.
Six million tourists a year visit the Czech Republic. According to guidebooks (Lonely Planet’s Encounters by Brett Atkinson was my favourite this trip) Prague has something for everyone – history, culture, art and architecture, music, clubs, and the famous Czech beer. Despite Prague’s recent reputation for a bit of debauchery, wild stag and trashy hen nights courtesy of cheap beer and budget airlines, it is not seedy and being mistaken for a working girl by taking a solo late-night stroll in Wenceslas Square is easily avoided. The four quarters that comprise central Prague each have a distinctive character; the historic Castle District (Hradčany), Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město), and New Town (Nové Město). Buildings, bridges, and spires aplenty paint the town Gothic to Baroque, Renaissance to Art Nouveau. Everything is accessible via bus, tram or metro, but provided you have decent walking shoes it is better to wander through the cobblestone streets and explore hidden alleyways on foot.
Prague Christmas Market
Spring and summer are probably stunning and mid-winter with a blanket of snow must be magical but take the city centre– a European Norman Rockwell meets Thomas Kinkade painting– add decorative lights, Christmas trees, festive market faire and you have the charming Christmas markets in Prague. There are two main markets, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas came out on the feast of Stephen” (oh you know it) was in fact a Duke and a Czech patron saint. Hum that tune for a minute and already you’re in a festive mood. Shops and stalls sell all kinds of local crafts in varying levels of quality as you’d expect. I bought multi-coloured Bohemian crystal wine goblets and several bottles of Becherovka, a bitter-sweet herbal drink served as an aperitif or liqueur. If you like duck or pork based dishes, you are in for a real treat in the Czech Republic; roast pork served with dumplings and red cabbage is a national favourite. I opted for street stall dining; dinner for two cost less than £10.00 at the Old Town Square –including grog and mulled wine. For dessert a tubular sugar-crusted cake called trdelnik or trdlo. This special pastry is made by ever-so-carefully wrapping dough around a long wooden pole or “trdlo” and then roasted golden brown over an open fire. The hot tubes of crispy-outside-soft-inside baked cylinders are then rolled in a mixture of almond, sugar, and cinnamon powder. For an extra ten crown you can have Nutella spread around the inside. Delicious. To end the day, many churches and venues like the Municipal Building host classical concerts during the holiday season. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
Enjoy a little of Prague at home – Have a Pilsner Urquell. Czech’s consume more beer (pivo) per person than any other country. Listen to Mozart and wish for someone to invent time travel. Mozart himself conducted at the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787 and the legendary Casanova attended. Wish I was there. Be inspired to read or re-read The Trial by Franz Kafka, a Prague hometown literary hero.