By Annette Brooks
Prague shines brilliantly among Central Europe’s glittering jewels of art, culture, and architecture in any season, but during Christmastime, the city is sheer magic, transforming into a festive winter wonderland. And if you’re lucky enough to find it blanketed in sparkling snow, its romantic charms will dazzle you.
Old Town Square is the main place to be and to see in Prague. Covering around a quarter of an acre and bordered by meticulously maintained historical buildings, it’s a vision that whisks you back in time. Overlooking the whole scene is The Church of Our Lady before Tyn (Tyn Church), with its captivating twin Gothic towers rising 262 feet into the sky. Beneath them in the square, brightly decorated wooden Christmas huts brim with local handicrafts such as jewelry, ceramics, scented candles, tree ornaments, wooden toys, hats and gloves, and puppets dressed in traditional costume. Music fills the air as holiday carolers serenade the crowd, and school choirs and folk groups perform on a stage dressed in traditional costume.
Food stalls also abound in Old Town Square, selling treats such as hot chocolate, roasted chestnuts, and trdelník—pastry dough wrapped around a wooden or metal stick, roasted over coals then coated with sugar and cinnamon. They also offer up a variety of meats (the Czechs are a carnivorous bunch), including an assortment of sausages grilled on huge skewers and large hocks of ham slow roasting over a flame. Order few slices of shaved ham served with a hunk of oven-fresh rye bread and mustard, then wash it down with a mug of Czech beer such as Pilsner Urquell, and you’ll be set.
After a day of walking, shopping, and sightseeing—which included admiring Prague’s world-famous astronomical clock—my husband and I slipped into one of the many restaurants on the square for dinner. Content to sit by a window and people watch, we enjoyed our first bowl of Czech guláš (goulash), a flavorful, beefy, stick-to-your-ribs soup. I ended the meal sipping honey wine, a wonderfully effective antidote to the winter temperature. My husband tried the grog, a mixture of rum, water, lemon, and sugar that tastes far better than the name sounds. Returning to our hotel as daylight waned, the dark, looming towers of Tyn Church were even more spectacular. With my imagination soaring as high as the towers themselves, I envisioned Harry Potter zipping around them playing quidditch. And maybe some flying monkeys, too, a notion no doubt encouraged by the honey wine!
The next morning, we headed to Wenceslaus Square, named after the famed 10th century Bohemian king—the same one in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus.” This shoppers’ haven is more of a boulevard than a traditional square. Clubs, restaurants, hotels, shops, and banks line the streets, making it the city’s entertainment, nightlife, and commercial district. It, too, boasts a huge Christmas tree, music, and holiday market stalls not to be missed.
Indulging in more retail therapy, people watching, street music, and hearty fare, we immersed ourselves in everything Czech, but had yet to experience one of Prague’s renowned church concerts. As someone who grew up playing classical piano music, I was eager to take advantage of Prague’s musical history. Many of Europe’s top composers, including Mozart—one of my favorites—called Prague home at one time or another, leaving an indelible mark on the city’s cultural background. We purchased tickets for an early evening concert held in an ancient church with “good acoustics” located near Prague’s well-preserved Jewish Quarter. Having waited in anticipation to hear the string quintet, we were impressed by the skill, pride, and passion of the musicians and vocalist. Even my husband, a native Texan who prefers country music and classic rock, was moved. And after a heart-stopping performance of Ave Maria, there wasn’t a dry eye in the nave, including our own.
On our last full day in Prague we left the hotel on foot before daybreak to take pictures of the St. Charles Bridge and Prague Castle in the new morning light. We crossed through Old Town Square then traipsed along immaculate cobblestone streets while everything was quiet and still until we reached the banks of the Vltava River, the waterway around which the city has developed over the past 1000 years. The view of the magnificent castle and St. Vitus Cathedral across the river was idyllic, making it well worth our effort to venture out so early. After snapping photos, we sat peacefully nestled together on a riverside bench, witnessing this beautiful city slowly come to life as the sun rose over its landscape of spires. At that moment, life was good, very good, as we marveled at the beauty of Prague, the hospitality of the Czech people, and the message of hope Christmas brings to all of mankind.