12 December 2013

Prague and the Christmas Market

So Prague. I don't really even know where to begin! Prague has been on my travel wish list since high school and it was just so exciting to be able to visit. Especially at Christmas!  But before we get to the Christmas market we must first explore Prague itself. Because any city that randomly has water gnomes hanging out in its rivers is entirely worthy of exploration.

The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square is one of Prague's most well known sights. Every hour crowds gather to watch Death ring out the time accompanied by a parade of the Twelve Apostles at the top of the tower.

Crowds gathering to watch Death ring the hour

Death ringing the hour

The clock is not Old Town Square's only site though. The large Hussite church of Saint Nicholas takes up one corner of the square.

While the spires of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn dominate the center of it. The square is rung with shops, hotels, and restaurants housed in beautiful, colorful buildings.

Prague was once one of the most important cities in Europe and was large and bustling while London and Paris were still villages. Because finding one's way could be very confusing, house signs were added to a lot of old buildings to make finding an address easier. Among the house signs we saw were: a trio of violins (3 generations of violin makers), a unicorn that looked more like a mutant sheep, a mermaid, and my favorite adorns the wall of the first Cubist house; the Black Madonna.

I tried to prepare for the cold in Prague. The week before I left Istanbul was enjoying a pretty balmy November with temperatures as high as 17C/63F. Thanksgiving was pretty chilly at 7C/45F but I hadn't even taken my winter coat out of storage before getting ready for Prague.

You can see everyone's wrapped up!
I was glad that I'd not only got out my winter coat but also packed silk long underwear, two pairs of of leggings, two pairs of gloves, a scarf, and enough socks to keep my feet warm because it was a chill 2-4C/35-39F in Prague! Thank goodness for a sensible city with no open container laws and stands every couple feet selling mulled wine and hot chocolate! I think our favorite mulled wine stand was one near the Charles Bridge where you could garnish the wine to your own taste with sugar and various fruits. Once I feel like making a trek out into the thundersnow Istanbul is currently experiencing to pick up some wine I'll start my own gluhwein production!

And despite the cold I also walked around my last day with several pints of the most delicious (hard) cider I've ever had. I really wish I could get Kingswood cider in Istanbul! Even if not for the bargain price of $2 per pint.

I loved the small square just before the Charles Bridge. The Catholic churches of Saint Francis of Assisi with it's pink and green dome and Holy Savior with all its statues, statue of Charles IV in the foreground, and the Torture Museum off to the right...I think I took about 20 pictures of this square alone. I took a ridiculous number of pictures of the Charles Bridge which gets its own post.

The Prague Castle, i.e. that entire complex on the hill, is the largest castle compound in the world. It contains several palaces, outbuildings, museums, and two churches. Dominating the hill is the Cathedral of Saint Vitus, which also gets its own post because I took something like 260 pictures of it. Only about five are worth anything but it still gets its own post.

View of the Vltava River from the Charles Bridge

Crossing the Charles Bridge gets you to Lesser Town which, kind of ironically, is now the more expensive part of the city. And Lesser Town, much like Mykonos, has its own Little Venice. This water way, now the home of the jaunty water gnome at the top of the post, used to power mills.

They're big fans of John Lennon here. Not only was there a John Lennon pub just after crossing over the waterway, there's also a wall, which actually belongs to a Catholic monastery, that has been covered with messages and art dedicated to him.

The first time we trudged up to the Prague Castle I was feeling pretty ungracious about hills and having to walk up them. In my defense, we were at the tail end of a four hour walking tour and we had already done some pretty serious walking. I went up again a few days later to visit the Cathedral of St. Vitus again and the hill seemed quite innocuous that time.

It's at least a pretty climb. the buildings lining the hill, a couple of them embassies (this the flags) were lovely. And the view of the street down was alone worth the small climb.

Back in Staro Mesto (Old Town) I was completely disturbed to be confronted by an entire theatre devoted to puppets. I may not have full on automatonphobia (fear of puppets) but the freaking creep me the hell out. Marionettes, which you can buy EVERYWHERE here, are only slightly less scary. But if I'm going to see Don Giovanni I'd rather see it sung by opera singers and not acted out by creeptastic marionettes, thank you very much.

Along that vein though, Prague had concerts galore! I'm not sure if that's specific to Christmas market season or not, but we could have attended two-three a day if we really wanted to. In the end I only went to two. I went with my friends to a fantastic concert in the Spanish Synagogue. The Spanish Synagogue was absolutely stunning. Done, apparently, in the Moorish revival style, it was an amazing setting for a string quintet sometimes accompanied by a really good soprano. I also went to a concert at the Saint Michael the Archangel Monastery. While the musicians were equally as good the soprano was a disappointment and had me cringing during her Ave Marie. *Shudder*

Prague State Opera House

One of my favorite sites in Prague was the State Opera House. One of my favorite movies growing up, and still actually, is Amadeus. Which was shot in Prague. It was the first American movie filmed in Prague actually while Czechoslovakia was still under Communist rule. Not only was it shot in Prague, many scenes were filmed in the State Opera House where Mozart's Don Giovanni originally premiered. It was a very geeky excitement I was feeling.

The 'Powder' Tower

What was the main reason for meeting two of my friends in Prague for a long weekend? The Christmas Market! For the last couple years my friend Sarah has visited a Christmas market somewhere in Europe and now that I'm ever so much closer to Europe than I used to be, I met her in Prague for this one.

Mostly we wandered around the market set up in Old Town Square but stalls could be found in just about all the squares around the city. I lusted after a lot of the ornaments but thought better of bringing them home. My cat Sherlock's second favorite activity is to knock anything and everything off tables, shelves, beds, chairs, etc. I can't count how many times I've yelled "Sherlock, you leave the Virgin Mary/Jesus (statues) alone!" So putting out delicate, handmade Christmas decorations was pretty much off the table. Pun intended.

I was able to at least honor the food vendors though! In addition to the cider, mulled wine, and hot chocolate there was barrel bread, sausages, and roasted pork to be enjoyed!

Trdlo-barrel bread

I'm afraid I may have over enjoyed the abundance of pork though. It's not exactly on every street corner in Turkey so when it was literally on every street corner (either in a restaurant or street stall) in Prague I went a little...hog wild shall we say?

That's us in the Christmas bulb!
Prague really turns it out for Christmas too! Not only were the squares done up for Christmas, but so were hotels, restaurants, and streets. There were random Christmas trees everywhere but Old Town Square housed the mother of them all.

You can't really tell from the picture but it was decorated with a clock theme to match the nearby Astronomical Clock!

After having this city on my travel wish list for so long I am happy that it did not disappoint! It's a pretty walking friendly city which I always appreciate but there is a metro and plenty of trams for easy access. People were super friendly and while they speak better English than many of the native speakers I knew growing up, they always seemed pleased when you could break out a 'thanks' or díky in Czech.
I will definitely visit again, regardless of season.

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