Prague is but one destination on the tourist menu.
However, I cannot offer my tips without offering my thoughts to the victims and survivors of Strasbourg. That City, one of several home’s to the European Union, has suffered the greatest calumny imagined and deserves our thoughts at this time. In writing about Christmas Markets, it seems that I once again have to speak about security. Since 2015, Europe has learnt a very hard lesson about its open borders and the society it wishes to engender. All European countries now recognise that where there are gatherings of people, security to frustrate attacks must always be present. On my travels throughout Europe, this is now evident at any time of the year, but it is also my view that holidaymakers have an responsibility and should investigate the destination they intend to travel to and understand a destination’s trends and security - always keep these issues in mind; understand the strategy for security!
I visited Prague between 10th and 14 December 2018 and the City evidently has such security, from concrete bollards to patrolling police officers and no doubt covert operations. The day after Strasbourg, Prague enjoyed the throng of thousands of people around its sights and Markets, but we should never forget, security cannot prevent the ‘lone-wolf’ or an ‘individual’s’ attention!
My trip to Prague was partly business and pleasure and I travelled there on Easyjet from Bristol, taking advantage of increased baggage allowance, seat selection and speedy boarding. My return flight cost £187 (I booked about 6 weeks in advance) and it offered a good, reasonably ontime service, staffed by friendly, professional crew.
I chose to stay at a hotel no more than 50m from one of Prague’s main attractions, The Charles Bridge, the Hotel U Malvaze. For 4 nights with bed and breakfast for 2, I paid just under €400. The hotel is housed in one of Prague’s many old buildings, where modern contemporary meets the past. The rooms were warm, comfortable and clean with a limited choice of TV channels for english speakers (if you visit Prague, you are not really there to watch television!). Breakfast was served in the warm glass-house restaurant, offering the chance to have a bucks-fizz with a good buffet breakfast. The staff were always attentive and I would mark out the reception as one that is efficient, friendly and always determined to meet your needs.
My trip to Prague took place some 14 days before Christmas and as you would expect, the City attracted many thousands of tourists each day, packing its squares and byways. As you walk around, people are wrapped up for the cold, and yes, it was very cold; no point travelling to Prague in the winter unless you have sufficient layers of clothing you can use!
Joy is how I would describe the atmosphere!
As you navigate the City, be prepared to hear not only English spoken, but French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, American Accents, Japanese, Chinese; all happy; all smiling - what a tonic it is for the soul to experience human joy. The City is as you would expect, decked out for the Christmas season, with lights, decorations, christmas trees, music and the smells of barbecued sausage and open fires roasting famous Prague Hams. Amongst this bouquet, wafting around every street corner, is the smell of Gluhwein or Hot Spiced Apple drinks.
The City is littered with sandwich bars where you will find the most remarkable array of open and closed sandwiches, cakes and biscuits and whatever you want to drink; it is easy to have a good lunch for no more than 200KC (£6.97 - you can eat well for less if you like). One day I decided to have a barbecued sausage, which was served with black bread and mustard, washed down with hot spiced red wine for 140KC (£4.87).
There are plenty of restaurants to choose from where you can have pizza to burgers, but I choose to eat at Czech restaurants. My favourite dishes were a Goulash served within a round hollowed-out loaf along with a litre of Czech Beer for 590KC (£20.56). Another dish, which proved to be very substantial, was half a Duck Confit served with Czech-style potatoes, washed down with several glasses of Hot Spiced Apple 850KC (£29.62). Other options included Pork Knuckle with sauerkraut or street food offered slices of Prague Ham with sauerkraut or freshly made potato crisps. Vegetarians experience more difficulty than most due to the heavy influence of meat dishes, particularly pork. Nonetheless, one of my business colleagues was able to satisfy their needs, but commented that wherever they went, cheese appeared to be the staple on offer for vegetarians. That said, you certainly won’t go hungry in Prague!
My top ‘must-sees’ in Prague are:
- Old-Town Square. This is the main Christmas Market, dominated by a huge Christmas Tree, decorated with thousands of lights, which after dark comes alive through a music and dancing-light show. The stalls within the square are dominated by 50% selling food and drink with the remaining selling hand-crafts and unusual Christmas decorations. I bought a Christmas table centre-piece for a present, beautifully coloured and embroidered and paid 650KC (£22.71). The square is dominated by the Astronomical Clock, the fairy-tale Church of Tyn and the Church of St Nicholas; you can spend hours in this square, bordered by pavement cafes and restaurants and never get bored!
- Charles Bridge. One sight you must visit is the Charles Bridge, one of the oldest medieval bridges in Europe. Thousands pass along its span each day, stopping to admire or pay homage to the Saints Statutes that adorn its walls or to touch the plaques as part of a pilgrimage. The views are stupendous, reaching up toward the heights of Prague Castle or looking back on the Old Town of Prague. The winter haze is ever present, but it is still possible to feel the warmth of the sun through the icy cold; a great place to soak up the views atmosphere and that shimmer of winter sunshine. The Bridge offers plenty of photo-opportunities, local artists and hand-made jewellery sellers; not far from the Prague Castle side of the Bridge is the John Lennon Wall which is a must-see for all music lovers!
- Churches. Prague was once a major part of the Holy Roman Empire and so as you would expect from any religious centre, great Cathedrals and Basilicas litter the skyline of Prague. Evidence of the many Religious Orders that once dominated are everywhere to be seen. My favourite Churches were St Nicholas (on the Castle side of the River), where for 70KC (£2.44), you can marvel at the great space and side Chapels of this great Baroque Church. At the centre of the Church, high above the altar is a beautiful gold-coloured statue of St Nicholas. Not far from Old Town Square, sits the Basilica of St James (no entry cost); it is stunning! I found this to be a more intimate place to meditate or pray with the most beautiful Gothic styling within; watch out for the thief’s hand!
- Prague Castle. High above Prague sits this most fascinating collection of buildings, a testament to a once great power and empire and a Unesco World Heritage site - Prague Castle. Dominating the centre of the castle is the spectacular St Vitus Cathedral. It is possible to visit inside the Cathedral for free, but you will be confined to the rear of the Cathedral. Nonetheless, you will be able to marvel at its high-vaulted ceiling and wonderful stain-glassed windows. You can pay admission fees to enter the whole of the Cathedral and several other attractions in the Castle. There are several tourist routes and attractions and entrance fees range from 70KC to 350KC (£2.44 to £12.18; Note there are concessionary & family tickets; tickets are valid for 2 days; note: there is a 50KC (£1.74) fee for a photography permit. Within the Castle you can also visit St Georges Basilica, The Rosenberg Palace and The Treasury of St Vitus Cathedral and when you tire of all that culture, rest outside and enjoy the stunning views over Prague, marvelling at its spires and domes, whilst sipping on a cup of hot honey wine!
- Concerts. Amongst the many large and smaller Churches of Prague, each evening offers the opportunity to sit within those Churches and listen to small orchestras, ensembles, sopranos play a variety of works from Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi and Albinoni; some locations offer a Christmas fare of music, such as currently to be found in Prague Castle. I chose to spend an hour one evening at the Cathedral of St Clement, not far from Charles Bridge. The Four Seasons from Vivaldi was the main event but the programme was peppered with the Church Organ and many other famous composers. Beware of ticket sellers because they will charge you the most they can. I played the game that I wasn't sure and my price went from €40 to €20 (Prague will accept KC or € in most places - you will often see items priced in both currencies). If you attend any concert, make sure you are wrapped up, because many of the Churches will be cold!
Getting into Prague I decided to take the Aircoach from the airport 60KC (£2.08) and this deposited me at the main railway station in Prague. I then took the Metro to the centre of Prague for 32KC (£1.11 - 90 minutes) but realised afterwards, I could have reached my hotel in about 20-25 minutes from the Station by walking. I decided for the return journey to take a hotel taxi for 750KC (£26.08), simply because I did not want to spend too much time getting to the airport and because I really wanted to spend those last few hours enjoying the ambience of this beautiful City.
As Prague Christmas Markets go, Old Town Square is not the only place to find such Markets, Wenceslas Square has one (the most disappointing), Museum Square (small but good variety), but if Markets are not your thing and you want the convenience of a major retail outlet, then the Palladium Shopping Centre, near to the Museum will satisfy your desires!
I would say that you need at least 3 full days to appreciate this historical City and it should form part of your Christmas Market bucket list; you won't be disappointed!