A very Prague Christmas

To celebrate the big 3-0, we semi-spontaneously planned a trip to meet my parents in Prague.

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In between my Sophomore and Junior years of college, I spent the summer studying studio photography in Prague. Ten years later, I was curious to see if Prague had changed.

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That’s me in Prague in 2004

We arrived to a grey chilly Prague greeted by my tired parents who had been waiting for us at the airport for an hour. We got in our van and headed towards the Deminka Palace. As we drove, I was like an excited kid, pointing and shouting at my very tired jet-lagged parents, regaling them with my vivid memories of tram 22 and pivo and cobblestones… I hadn’t forgotten the city, and was glad to be back.

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As with almost every holiday I take, I was sick and holed up in bed for a day – but I promised everyone, and myself that no cold could hold me down. So off we went….

There were Christmas markets everywhere selling delicious sugary cinnamon-covered bread that is rolled onto a metal rod and cooked over hot coals. The daily search for Trdelniks (which we pronounced turtlenecks) became a running joke, as my dad wouldn’t touch them claiming that they were like donuts on steroids. My dad has a superstitious distrust of donuts – which meant, more for us!!

We stopped at practically every Christmas market, just to try the Trdelniks. But truly it was just an excuse to breathe in the scents of baked goods and stewed meat. The Christmas markets in Prague are slightly different then their western cousins. The stalls were mostly attached to one another, and mulled wine was almost always served in a paper cup – but there were some special surprises as well, such as honeyed wine, which seemed to be a specialty, and chocolate cookies filled with liqueur.

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When we weren’t searching for Trdelniks and mulled wine, we were searching for music. Prague is a city with a long history of classical and operatic music. We spent an evening at a jazz club that was so small it felt like we were in a cave. We also listened to a “best of” chamber music in a medieval church inside Hradcany Castle. The sound quality was amazing, and the soprano’s voice echoed off the freezing stone walls, and warmed our hearts – although we still had chattering teeth, because as you would imagine, medieval churches don’t have heaters! Later that week we listened to another operatic concert on the steps of the National Gallery. I thought I was over the music, but found it amazingly beautiful.

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We planned on seeing one big thing a day. So for our first big day, we started at the Hradcany Castle. We took tram 22 up the hill towards the castle. It was crowded and chilly and very very pretty. The main church, the St. Vitus Cathedral,  in the center has beautiful stained glass, the most famous having been painted by Czech artist Alfons Mucha.

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St.Vitus

Later in the week, we went to the Mucha museum. Alfons Mucha was an Art Nouveau painter most active at the turn of the 20th Century. He is most well known for theatrical posters featuring the actress Sarah Bernhardt. His style is very distinctive and the size of his work was impressive.

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Most evenings we went to a gastropub for traditional Czech food – gulasch, roasted duck, bread dumplings, cabbage and beer. I’m typically not a huge Pilsner Urquell fan, but straight from the tap is a totally different experience.

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But, my food highlight was lunch that I had at our hotel. I had a special Czech soup. When we asked the waiter what it was, he couldn’t describe it to us – “it’s a special soup” he said. We asked, “Does it have meat?” “It’s just special, it has tail” – So tail was actually dill. And this dill soup became my favorite meal of our trip. If you’re ever in Prague, don’t be afraid to try the Kulajda.

We spent a day wandering through the old Jewish quarter, bouncing in and out of old synagogues and reading about the history of the Jewish people of Prague from the time of the Spanish Inquisition through the Holocaust. Prague is home to one of the oldest preserved Jewish cemeteries. While we were combing though the headstones, we came across some from as early as the 1470s – that’s before Columbus even sailed for America! It definitely makes you realize how much history there is that precedes everything that we know.

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Cemetery

So what has changed about Prague – well the buildings and streets are all the same. A lot more people speak English than they did 10 years ago, and there are a lot more Western stores and restaurants smattered throughout the city. And pivo is definitely more than 1 Euro now!

By the end of our trip, we were walking in circles – Prague is definitely a city one can conquer by foot. We walked to the baby tower, strolled along the river, crossed the Charles Bridge, stumbled through the castle and saw Wenceslas Square a few too many times. My parents even had time to go to the opera to see a proper performance.

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In the end, it was just nice to be together – with some turtlenecks/Trdelniks!

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