Despite a turbulent history, including an invasion and occupation by the Nazis and then brutal repression by the Russians in the 20th century alone, there is an aura and allure unique to Prague. Prague’s beauty is difficult to characterize — it’s dark and brooding, a reflection of the people and a testament to the difficult times they’ve endured. The “happily ever after” motif that dominates American culture doesn’t exist in Prague. Czech history and folklore ends in beheadings, hangings, and people getting thrown out of windows (seriously, google: defenestration + Prague).
A perfect example of Prague’s split personality is St. James’ Church, popular with tourists for its baroque styling and intricate paintings. On the far side of the church, however, a mummified human arm dangles from the wall. According to legend, one night a thief snuck into the church. A statue of the Virgin Mary came to life and grabbed him before turning back to stone. The next day, the monks were unable to free the thief from the statue’s grip and were forced to cut off his arm, which they proudly displayed as a warning not to steal from the church. The combination of beauty and suffering is the embodiment of Prague.
Another way to understand Prague is via the tourist-with-an-open-map scenario. In Western Europe, no more than one to two minutes might elapse before someone offers to help you. In Morocco, “help” arrives within one to two seconds, along with the request for a tip. In Prague, you could stand there for hours without making eye contact with anyone. They’re not being unkind, they’re just not volunteering. Unless there is a compelling reason, residents of Prague prefer to be left alone: live and let live. A history of civil wars, brutal repressions, and police states will do that to you.
However, Prague’s history of oppression also spurred a fiery passion for life. It’s the driving force behind their love of the arts, architecture, beauty and family, and the basis for their unique self-identity. Maybe it even explains how Prague ended up with a National Marionette Theater, where we watched a two-hour production of Don Giovanni. Performed entirely by puppets (three-foot tall marionettes), and filled with dark humor, the show has run over 4500 times. Only in Prague.
Prague’s bustling streets invite you to step out and explore the city on foot. To combat the freezing temperatures, we layered jackets over our sweatshirts, Mandy wore her new winter boots, and I finally gave in and purchased gloves. When those defenses failed us, we stopped for hot drinks or a warm meal.
The historic town center is a remarkably well-preserved collection of winding avenues and bustling squares. Across the Vltava River, overlooking the beautiful Old Town, is the picturesque Prague Castle, the largest castle in the world. The castle is connected to the Old Town via the magnificent Charles’ Bridge.
Adorned by decorative statues and protected by an imposing gothic guard tower, this pedestrian bridge is one of the busiest parts of the city. In a moment that was both nostalgic and touristy, as the sun set behind Prague Castle, the night watchman arrived to manually light the lamps on the Charles’ Bridge.
Despite the cold, the Christmas Market was always warm and inviting. At every stall, drinks, food, and desserts were warming over open fires or hot coals, and we did not miss the opportunity to stuff ourselves. On Mikulas Day (the Czech equivalent of St. Niklaus Day), grown-ups dressed as the devil and St. Mikulas worked their way through the crowd. Terrified children were brought before the Mikulas-Devil tag-team to recite a poem or sing, and then report how well they had behaved the previous year. According to tradition, good kids receive a small trinket from St. Mikulas, but bad children are stuffed into the devil’s sack and taken straight. to. hell.
Derek and Sarah, two friends of ours living in Prague, met us at a monastery-turned-restaurant for some delicious Czech food. But that was out-shone by the Czech beer that followed. Prague’s difficult times have also led to a thriving drinking culture, with great neighborhood bars throughout the city.
The night before we left, we went to their Christmas party. After a drink in the cozy hostel bar we were ready to brave the elements. We buried ourselves in our jackets, scarves, hats, and gloves and then set off through the dark and icy streets. As soon as we arrived at their apartment, we were welcomed with hot chocolate + Baileys to warm the body, while Christmas movies and beer advent calendars warmed the soul. Just another icy cold, yet comfortably warm night in the city Prague.
Prague Tip: stay at the Mosaic House, an inexpensive, environmentally friendly hotel/hostel with a great bar and awesome free walking tour.
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