Prague, A Tangible Christmas Wonderland

When the chance arises, choosing where to go in Europe for Christmas can be a daunting (but wonderful) prospect. But wherever you decide, note that for a mere four extra days you can squeeze in most of the sights and sounds of Prague, and it’s worth it. As one friend put it, “It's Paris, Munich, and Vienna all rolled into one fabulous, compact package!” And I couldn’t have said it better (hence the quote). My husband and I spent seven days over Christmas 2011 exploring all that Prague has to offer. Our objective in choosing Prague had been merely to find some place to meet up with my mother in Europe for the holidays; so when I Googled “Christmas in Europe,” I could just have easily searched under “Magical winter wonderland” and come up with Prague both times.

When visiting, there are some definite highlights that should not be missed. First is the Prague Castle, which encompasses an enormous complex and is believed to be one of the largest castles in the world. Within the castle walls there are museums and galleries, fantastic armor displays, an old torture chamber, and an area called “Golden Lane” with the tiny original houses of the castle employees renovated and restored.

It also houses St. Vitus’ Cathedral, a fantastic Gothic enormity built in the mid 1300s, with stunning stained-glass windows and all the requisite pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and endless flying buttresses of any Gothic-inspired structure. Behind St. Vitus is the, even older, Romanesque Basilica of St. George, built around 920 AD. In terms of decoration and adornment, it’s the polar opposite to St. Vitus, with minimalism as its guide. One of the best things about Prague is its walk-ability. Especially once you get your bearings (typically on day two of jetlag), you can almost always find your way through the twisting alleys and cobblestone streets. The walk to and from the Prague Castle is highly recommended, weather-permitting. You can walk over the famous pedestrian Charles Bridge, checking out the artisans selling their artwork or jewelry, or walk across any of the traffic bridges spanning the Vltava river which bisects Prague. The castle sits high atop the hill to the west, overlooking Prague, and the streets around it are full of quaint shops and restaurants and even if you’re not looking to spend a dime, the architecture is seemingly Disney-inspired. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Dopey or Pinocchio heading out from their cute little homes to do some shopping for the day. The other major site on the west side of the river is Petrin Hill, which can be walked up or you can ride the funicular (like a street car), which might be worth it just to be able to say, “I rode the funicular.” At the top is a tower, slightly reminiscent of another tower in Paris (but I don’t want to offend anyone on either side, so I won’t mention any names). We actually did not end up doing this, so I can’t further comment, other than to say that it’s one option for a clear sunny day.

The majority of sites within Prague are on the eastern side of the river. These include Old Town Square, with the Town Hall tower and astronomical clock, Wenceslas Square, the Jewish Quarter, the Spanish Synagogue, and some stunning churches and fantastical architecture hidden in back corners and down side streets. During our visit, both Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square were fully decked out in Christmas cheer (and hot wine sellers, candied nuts and gingerbread sellers, various sausagey-thing sellers, and kitschy ornaments and Christmas decoration sellers, to name a few). And whether we were drawn by the winter wonderland feel of it, or because we kept walking in circles, or just because the Christmas tree in Old Town Square was probably the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen, there wasn’t a night in Prague that we didn’t find ourselves meandering through Old Town Square’s Christmas stalls and gazing in delight at the lights. But, once you’ve got your feel for the city, these two squares can be handy reorientation spots. In addition to the amazing tree and the twinkling lights and the hot wine (which to me tasted just like it sounded, hot wine, but my husband and mother liked it a lot), there are a few other reasons to wander through Old Town Square. There are two churches off the square, Tyn Church and St. Nicholas Church, both of which are worthy of a stop. I loved the stunning crystal chandelier in the ornate baroque St. Nicholas Church, which was built in the early 1700s, replacing a parish church that had stood there since the 13th century. The Gothic Tyn Church (officially Church of Our Lady Before Tyn), built in the late 1300s, is entered by walking down an alley, between the shops that have been built up around it. At night, it’s lit up and bears a striking resemblance to the Disney castle, despite its asymmetrical spires and lack of Tinkerbell. The other reason to swing through the square, is to check out the Town Hall tower and astronomical clock. The latter is quite famous in Prague, and rightly so. It was built in the 1400s and is the oldest still-working astronomical clock in the world. There are actually three clock faces, of sorts. At the top of the tower is the actual clock. Lower, are two more dials, one being an astronomical dial, which charts the positions of the sun and moon, and a calendar dial representing the months. In addition, if you time it perfectly (and I say that with all seriousness, because it took us four attempts until we “caught” it), at the top of the hour, you can see "The Walk of the Apostles" show. In addition to the bells chiming, you’ll see a skeleton standing by the astronomical dial suddenly come to life and ring its bell, and the other three figures move jerkily. Then, two wooden doors open above the dial and if you’re positioned correctly (note, don’t stand right under the clock), you can see wooden figures moving past and pausing to look out the window. Presumably these are the Apostles. We heard a horrific story from our cab driver, who said that it’s rumored that when the artist finished carving the figures, the town’s elders gouged out his eyes so he couldn’t recreate it elsewhere. Even if it’s false, how horrible is it that someone even thought up the rumor? Prague’s Jewish Quarter has tremendous history packed into a very compact area. For one fee, we were allowed entrance into the museum, cemetery, Jewish town hall and ceremonial hall, and six synagogues. Prague has been at the center of European Jewish history, reaching as far back as the 10th century. In the early 18th century, there were more Jews living in Prague than anywhere else in the world. Throughout the centuries, though, there have been multiple periods of expulsions from Prague. Then, during World War II, more than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered. More than fifty years later, there are only approximately 3,000 Jews registered in the Czech Republic, with just 1,600 living in Prague.

The Jewish Museum was originally started in 1906, with the intent to preserve artifacts from synagogues in Prague that were being demolished. According to :

[In 1939, the] Nazis decided not to destroy the museum, but instead use it as a “Museum of an Extinct Race.” In fact, Hitler intended the entire Jewish Quarter of the city to become a museum to the vanished race. The Germans hired Dr. Karel Stein, historian and founder of the museum, to catalogue tens of thousands of confiscated items from more than 153 destroyed Jewish communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia. The wartime Jewish staff of the museum during Nazi rule devoted themselves to preserving this legacy, amidst constant threat of deportation and death, having already lost their families to the Nazi concentration camps. The staff only survived while they could prove that they were useful to the Nazis. The vast majority lost this fight and were deported to Terezin and Auschwitz. One survived however; Hana Volavkova returned to Prague after the war and became the director of the Jewish Museum. The museum became a storehouse for over 200,000 objects, books and archival material from all over Central Europe.

In addition to a moving display of the names of those lost to the Nazis, the museum also had a heart-wrenching gallery displaying children’s artwork recovered from the concentration camps.

Following the museum, you walk through the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It dates back to 1439 and remained open for 400 years, during which time it’s believed that more than 200,000 people were buried, some as many as twelve layers deep because of severe space restrictions. Currently there are 12,000 tombstones remaining, with many leaning on each other or lined up around the walls. It’s an amazing sight to see so many moss-covered stones, listing heavily, reaching all the way to the wall, then glance up to see the city of Prague just on the other side of that wall. The six synagogues included in our ticket were the Maisel, Spanish, Pinkas, Klausen, High and the Old-New Synagogues. We did not get to visit all six, but I believe we saw five. The Spanish synagogue was mouth-gapingly beautiful. But unfortunately no photos were allowed, so just trust me and go. It was stunning in its design, detail and adornment. The Maisel synagogue was converted to a museum and had excellent displays (though I would suggest they increase the lighting, for those of us over 40 (sigh)). The Old-New synagogue has two claims to fame. First, it’s the oldest active synagogue in Europe, and second, it’s the oldest medieval synagogue still standing. This synagogue had some curious little wooden boxes along the wall, and my husband attempted to ask the woman taking tickets what they were for, but we learned she only spoke Czech and German. So, grabbing my mother we asked her to muster up her German and inquire for us, which she did. Apparently the boxes were for individuals attending services. (I can’t say how nice it is to travel with folks who actually retained some of their language studies.)

Some good additional sites to see in Prague, depending on your time and interest, include the Mucha museum (trust me, you'll know who Mucha was as soon as you see his art nouveau prints from the early 1900s), and the Kafka museum (which we tried several times to see, but apparently the hopelessness was overwhelming and they just couldn’t open day after day). And if you happen to get the chance to be there during Christmas (which I highly recommend for anyone who wants to be awash in twinkly lights and merriment), then definitely check out one of the many Christmas concerts being put on all over the city. Some have vocalists, some are just instrumental, some are in churches, some are in halls. Flyers will be everywhere, so just pick one and go. However, if you're still not intrigued by the amazing history, the flying buttresses, or the shaking skeleton at the astronomical clock, also note that Prague has some fantastic restaurants, the architecture is picturesque at every turn, there’s some fun shopping to do (especially if you like marionettes, as they seem to be the city’s mascot), there's always the chance to see a dwarf out shopping, and if you’re there in winter, you can try the Trdelnik, a delicious rolled cinnamon pastry they cook right in front of you. Our best advice is bring some good walking shoes, get a good map or guidebook, don’t worry about having to know Czech (our ignorance proved to never be a hindrance), it doesn’t hurt to have a husband, or travel buddy, addicted to the GPS on his SmartPhone (providing he keeps an eye on it to make sure you’re heading in the right direction), and explore anything that looks interesting, which we have found has rarely led us wrong; or at the very least, has provided an amusing tale.