My Travel Map

My Travel Map

12 August 2013

Prague in Winter


December, and back in Prague.  I'd visited the Czech Republic for the first time in September of 2007.  I had a great time there, but I found the capital city so much better in Winter...


First of all, as opposed to my first trip, I was actually able to find myself alone in the beautiful city.  On my first trip, Prague was inundated with tourists.  It was like a horrible zombie plague of endless tour groups and inconsiderate sightseers.  There was practically none of that on my second trip, and I loved it!  Even better, the Czechs seemed infinitely friendlier, probably because they'd had a couple months of peace and quiet, surrounded by a majority of considerate, like-minded locals.

OK, so I'd recommend seeing Prague outside of the main tourist season; enough said.  Now, Prague is a beautiful city, one of the most consistently beautiful I've seen in this awesome world.  The old center is large, and it just goes and goes with these spectacular baroque and gothic and medieval buildings.  Another good thing about visiting in winter was that nothing was being renovated!  I finally got to see "Dracula's Castle" (aka, the cathedral) without an unsightly face-mask of scaffolding!


Another benefit of visiting in December were all the Christmas markets set up around town!  These things were fantastic.  These market stalls were set up in all of the main (and most of the minor) squares around town.  The bigger ones had both food, drink, and craft and souvenir stalls, while the smallest of them had at least some warm food and drinks.  I should emphasize the word "warm", since the weather was anything but.  Hovering a few degrees below zero during the day, and many more below overnight, I was there during a cold spell.  To make it worse, it wasn't dry cold either, but surprisingly humid considering the lack of proximity to any sizable body of water.  Winters like this must be one of the major driving factors for these markets.  Brilliantly, they all served delicious, rib-sticking and filling, hot food and, just as good if not even better, this remarkable mulled wine.  The hot, spiced wine just filled you with warmth and good feeling, regardless of the temperature outside or whether or not it was snowing, sleeting, or the down right the end of the world.  The stuff was good.


And here is a prime example of what the markets can offer: mulled wine and awesome, hearty food.  Rye bread, cheese filled sausage, and this incredible fried cabbage, potato, and pork saussage mix with a styrofoam cup of mulled wine.  A filling and warming meal, with a drink, all for ~6 euro or so.  Good deal.
  

When the cold finally does get to you though, you are never far in Prague from a good place to tuck into to warm up.  Czech pubs are excellent institutions, and their beers are easily the best in the world in my humble opinion.  The one pictured here, Master Special, is one of my top three favorite beers in the world, and it is only available in the Czech Republic from what I can tell.  Many of their beers are like that actually: brewed in small, local breweries that only deliver their kegs and barrels of craft brews to small, local pubs and eateries that they've been doing business with for goodness knows how long.


If you're feeling like something a little more classy, Prague has plenty to offer too.  This place is Imperial Cafe... a proper central European cafe just like something you'd find in central Vienna.  The tile work and interior are worth a visit in themselves, let alone the delectable coffees and assortment of deserts!


Being there in winter, the days were short.  It is not too often that I'm up to appreciate the near-perfect light of a good, clear sunrise.  I had several days of it in Prague though, thanks in part to jet lag and the fact that sunrise was after 7 AM.



I tried not to, but I just had to put in a picture of Pragues (in)famous Astronomical Clock.  This work of practical art was installed in 1410, and it is the oldest functioning of its kind in the world.  Based on medieval astronomy, this clock does it all.  In addition to telling the time, it tells the position of the sun and moon in the sky, the constellations (zodiac), and even tells the phase of the moon.  On the hour, the figures come to life, with the skeleton, representing death, chiming his bell to mark the unending passage of time (and reminding us all of our inevitable mortality).  Death is joined by three others figures that were socially despised around the time of the clocks creation: a man staring at him self in the mirror (Vanity), a wealthy merchant with a bag of gold (Greed), and a jovial Turk (lust and pleasure... and probably something to do with all those crusades too).  Various religious figures appear as well, including all 12 apostles.  During day-lit hours, this place is almost always surrounded by a swarm of photo-crazy tourists, even in December... beware.


A view across the Vltava River.  Did I mention Prague was a beautiful city?  This is a view from the bank near the Academy of Arts.  The Palace Cathedral dominates the landscape, up on the hill.  The old town spills across the river, where more, well-preserved old architecture awaits to be explored.


A recommended crossing point would be the Charles Bridge.  Lined with Statues and for pedestrians only, it makes for a very pleasant stroll, especially when you don't have to worry about being shoved over into the frigid water by swarming hordes of impatient foreigners, mindlessly following some "tour guide" waving an obnoxiously bright umbrella above her head in perfect sunshine.  Seriously though, I love this view... the towers at the end of the bridge frame the clock tower and domes so nicely, and the aged, religious statues just add this extra touch of character.  I was lucky too that it was so cold and so early... I only had to share this magnificent bridge with a few other souls, and winter and higher latitude ensured the perfect lighting lasted for quite some time.


Layered architecture... love it.


And turn around to yet another spectacular view.


I don't know if the Christmas spirit is just extra strong in the old world or what it was, but the city was just very warm and inviting despite the frosty temperature outside.  People seemed to be in a cheerful spirit overall, and the lights at night, making everything all the brighter thanks to the good layer of snow on just about everything with a horizontal surface, just made the whole place that much more friendly.


Prague has a rich history.  I took some time this trip to wander around the old Jewish quarter, Josefov.  There has been a significant Jewish population in Prague for over 1000 years, but as with Jewish life elsewhere, it has not been an easy history.  The first pogrom occurred during the first crusade, in 1096.    Josefov became a walled ghetto, where Jews were allowed to live and go about their business.  Over the centuries, Josefov saw its ups and downs.  It prospered at the end of the 16th century under a Jewish mayor, and it was mostly destroyed around the turn of the 20th century during a city-wide effort to model Prague after Paris.  Nothing, however, could rival the destruction it suffered during Nazi occupation, though the loss wasn't through any buildings or land; it was through the quarter's most precious commodity, its people, and thus, its heart and soul.  The Nazis actually spared much of Josefov, with plans of turning it into a museum for an extinct race, for after their most despicable plan of outright genocide was complete.


So, wandering around Josefov, you still see old Jewish buildings like this old synagogue (left) and clock tower (check out the numerals on the clock).


There is also a large Jewish cemetery in Josefov... it looked pretty cramped in there.


Josefov in Prague is also home to one of the most famous golem legends.  The word "golem" stems from the ancient hebraic word for an unshaped form and is in reference to the Bible, when God is described as having sculpted Adam from dust.  A golem is just that, a model of a person created from mud or clay.  However, legend also has it that only those that are very, very holy can create an animate golem, and any golem created by a holy man is but a shadow of the golem created by God (i.e., Adam).  So, the local legend in Prague is that a rabbi in the late 16th century, Rabbi Loew, sculpted a golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river to protect the people of Josefov from anti-Semitic raids and pogroms.  The golem became animate when a "shem" (one of the names of God written on paper) was put in its mouth or written on its forehead.  By other accounts, the word for "truth" could also be used to animate it and one letter erased to spell "death" to render it lifeless again.  This is why golem images normally have a piece of paper near the heart or mouth and/or some mark on the forehead.  Anyway, the animate golem of Prague supposedly had supernatural powers and protected Josefov, but Rabbi Loew made it inanimate one day per week by removing the shem on the Sabbath (Saturday), so as not to desecrate the holy day.  Of course, this story has been dramatized, with many accounts telling of the golem going on a murderous rampage after the rabbi forgot to take the shem out of it one Sabbath day.  Long story short, the rabbi decided to put the golem down for good, and when he managed to do so he put the remains in the attic of the Old Synagogue, which is pictured above.  Legend has it that the remains still lie somewhere in Prague, to be used to protect Jews again in the future, but it has been confirmed that the attic definitely does not contain them.





Prague really is a beautiful city... the old town is filled with streets like this.  As I detailed in my original post on Prague too, the city is old and there is plenty of visible entrance of how it has grown up over time.  Several buildings have multiple styles of architecture, from multiple different eras, all incorporated into the same structure.



There is very little new architecture around the city center, thanks to it being spared any bombings or major engagements during the World Wars.  The further you go out of the center though, the newer things tend to get.  One of the more visible new structures is the Zizkov Television Tower, which is covered with these bizarre crawling baby statues.  I refer to it as the crazy alien baby tower.  It is kind of creepy and definitely quirky.


There are also plenty of nice, little touches around town... some of the nicest being the building signs, both old and new used to describe with few words what a building is used for (for example a restaurant, inn, music shop, smith, etc.)


Prague is also (in)famous for its nightlife.  Many bars and clubs stay open all night, and there are plenty of different options to cater to most sinful desires.  This, combined with relatively inexpensive prices by European standards, ensure Prague is popular with European youngsters abroad for a weekend or more of bingeing and partying.


The Estates Theater; two of Mozart's operas were premiered here!  It never ceases to excite me to walk in a place where such great characters from human history have also walked.  With buildings and places that have spanned the passage of time, they provide a kind of link between our world and that of those passed.  That connection, as remote as it may be, is one that my imagination never ceases to grasp onto and appreciate and enjoy.

 

Christmas is apparently big in Prague... beyond all those incredible markets, there were also Christmas lights, decorations and full-blown Christmas trees set up all over town! 


Wenceslas Square: the center of Prague's New Town.  Of course, this was also home to plenty of Christmas decorations and a market with food and goods.  This square has served as the heart of Prague in recent times, serving as the principle gathering place for national celebrations and protests.


The architecture along Wenceslas Square is just wonderful too.  It is varied and quite powerful.


New Town offers much more modern architecture, but there is still quite a bit of the old stuff mixed in there too.



Just off of Wenceslas Square lies a network of arcades, serving shoppers while protecting them from the elements.  Several of them are also beautifully decorated.  They are definitely worth seeking out to enjoy some sightseeing while shopping!


My second trip to Prague developed a much deeper and genuine appreciation of the city for me.  The Czech's are really quite friendly; the food was good and the beer excellent; and the city is quite simply beautiful and a joy to explore.  Just avoid tourist season.

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