For Karen and I, Prague has long been a dream of ours. Nearly twenty years ago, my graduate program in Poetry went to Prague in the summer, but I wasn’t able to go due to my job responsibilities. At the same time, Karen has long been enticed by the magic and romance of Prague as seen through photographs, and all of this made our voyage over the holidays incredibly exciting for us.
Now, I am not sure if traveling with our sons connoted the type of romance we might have envisioned. But you can’t be too picky when you wait two decades! Although the tourist season in Prague is in warmer parts of the year, we specifically wanted to visit during the Christmas Holiday. We had seen pictures of the truly spectacular nature of the Christmas market in Old Town Square, and this was the time of year we wanted to experience this historic city. So what was Prague like?
Karen said Prague is like stepping into a pastry. And that is the perfect description for this charming city. At surface level, streets snake their way in every direction from the Old Town Square, while tower after tower soars overhead! The city of spires is indeed just that, and there is a fairy tale quality to Prague. Add to those innate charms one of the most magnificent Christmas markets in all of Europe, and Prague transforms into a real life wonderland of lights and food and music and spirit that is unrivaled. Horse drawn carriages abound, and it is simply impossible not to be swept away in the Christmas magic.
As many of you know, Christmas time also signifies Cassius’ birthday, as he was born in the waning hours of New Year’s Eve. Since we were going to be on the road, we opened material gifts at home and celebrated other, more experiential ones, in Prague. These consisted of a trip to drive go karts in the Czech Republic, his annual blood burger (a burger where ketchup renders the meat invisible), movie tickets to Assassin’s Creed (Prague has theaters with movies in English) and, as always, cake for breakfast. However, the biggest surprises were delivered from people in Prague. We spent our first night in a hotel on Old Town Square before moving to our apartment, and the hotel staff delivered an incredible Champagne bottle filled with candy on the 24th to celebrate Cassius’ birthday. Not to be outdone, Prague City Apartments had prepared a gift bag for Cassius when we moved in the next evening. It isn’t easy to make a foreign country feel like home on your birthday, but these things helped.
Christmas Day in Prague was equally special. We went to Prague Castle, stood inside the glory of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, rode in a carriage, and took in a Christmas concert at a church near Old Town Square. Pretty special.
Over the week in Prague, we found Prague to be both exceptionally modern and ancient all at once. Glossy, high end stores sit comfortably alongside historic landmarks–from the Old Jewish Cemetery to the stunning National Theater. And just as the iconic Charles Bridge linked Eastern and Western Europe, Prague links the past and the present. In an effort to embrace all of Prague, we went to a Sparta Prague hockey game one night at the glistening O2 arena and ate crepes in Old Town Square under the lights the next. We walked in the rain to see the resplendent kaleidoscope of the John Lennon Wall, climbed Perrin Tower, and marched up Wenceslas Square where tanks once lined the flanks during WWII. Prague really was everything we had hoped–the preservation of a complex past coupled with the insatiable, romantic beauty of a now thriving, modernized
city. These offerings allowed us to reflect on this special time in Europe–which is so markedly different from the United States.
In Prague, the stores weren’t teeming with people–the streets were. People spent their time enjoying the Christmas market rather than hustling through malls in search of last minute gifts. And while the holiday season in the US is often punctuated with precious moments spent indoors, in the comfort of homes filled with family and friends, Europe celebrates outside. The entire focus is on a collective interaction, out on the streets, amidst the carolers, sipping hot chocolate, appreciating strangers as much as friends, joined together in a joined hope that the positive spirit that soars so majestically this time of year might extend itself beyond these fleeting, wondrous, wintry days.