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Warm memories of cold days

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‘Prague never lets you go ... this dear little mother has sharp claws’.

Franz Kafka

The witch, wardrobe and the pumpkins have returned to their patches, so it’s time to turn to ... Christmas.

Stores have already started stocking their holiday decorations (far too early for my liking, but I’m not a retailer!) so maybe it’s time to start sorting your holiday plans!

Have you made them? No? Good because that’s exactly what we’re doing for this week’s Rock Fever Column.

Now, I have two reasons for the feature this week: it’s the first week of the month (ie Rock Fever is bringing back its monthly travel plans) and a friend is heading to my featured destination in January.

Where? To Prague, of course. The lovely capital of the Czech Republic is not as cheap as it used to be ie prior to the arrival of backpacker airlines and bachelor parties, but it is still worth the effort.

The city, which was nearly untouched throughout the Second World War and the removal of communist rule during the 1989 “velvet revolution”, has managed to navigate its economy through these pitfalls and its separation from Slovakia (Czechoslovakia) in 1993 to a strong tourism trade.

These changes and the economic empowerment all happened under the leadership of Vaclav Havel, a leading playwright and dissident, until he left office in 2003. A year later, in 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union.

Even though this little, landlocked country joined the EU, the Czech Republic has managed to maintain its crown (koruna) as currency.

And you better make sure you have plenty of korunas on hand when you arrive in Prague at this time of the year because you will arrive smack in the middle of markets, Christmas markets that is.

Filling the central and famous squares of Prague, such as the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, these lovely markets are filled with cute, gingerbread-shaped stalls selling everything from cookies to knitted mittens and tree decorations. The best part is definitely the food stalls. Kielbasa, here I come, not to mention the mulled wine that costs about $1 and is served on every street corner! Warm wine will definitely help you wander through the chilly, cobblestoned streets of Prague well, it helped me!

Which is really my second reason to go to Prague (and probably should have been the first): it is the perfect city to visit when the weather gets cold. The small lanes leading you on adventures, the music spilling from the old wooden doors and eerie gargoyles leaning off the buildings are the perfect background for your winter holidays. Cuddle into your jacket and enjoy the wander around.

And my third reason to plan your trip would have to be the Charles Bridge, which spans over Prague’s Vltava River and was also the only means for crossing it until 1841. It also made Prague an important trade route between Eastern and Western Europe, while the 30 baroque-style statues offer a great setting for every New Year’s Eve here. Without a doubt one of the best ways I have rung in the New Year was standing on the bridge with thousands of people from all over the world, popping champagne and celebrating under the immense fireworks.

When it is not New Year’s Eve, however, the bridge is also perfect for reaching my reason number four: the enchanting castle that fills children’s tales and overlooks the city. Yes, Prague has its very own picturesque castle on the top of a hill that offers a stunning view and the chance to visit the largest, coherent castle complex in the world. But, be warned: Do not enter! Sure the outside is beautiful and parts may be able to date back to 870, but inside is a letdown and for the price of $20 it’s not worth it. Instead use your time to wander through the warrens of the castle that include the Golden Lane, which is filled with small shops that ensure you must duck to enter.

While you are on this side of the Vltava River, why not take in reason number five for Prague [and really the Czech Republic] the beer! You have heard all of the rumours and I am here to tell you they are true: the beer in the Czech Republic is amazing. Yes, I am celiac now and therefore unable to drink the beer, but when I lived here in 2002, I had no idea of my allergy to all wheat, rye, oats, barley or malt and thoroughly indulged. While in Prague you can visit the Staropramen Brewery (http://www.pivovary-staropramen.cz/), which offers tours and a choice of lovely food to help sustain you through your beer drinking! And be warned: beer really is cheaper than water!

Staggering out of the brewery there is one last stop on the Prague Castle side of the river to visit and that is reason number six: the water’s edge. Walk along here from the bridge with trams crossing over it [no name to speak of] to Charles Bridge and you will find John Lennon’s wall, great restaurants and cute cafes. No, John Lennon never visited, but the youth of the 80s were inspired by his message of peace and the Beatles and as a form of resistance against Communism began decorating the wall. Keep your eyes open along this route and you will also see marks of the floods that rose and sank the houses along the water’s edge in 2002!

Head back over the Charles Bridge to reach reason seven and history, especially that contained in the Jewish Quarter Josev. It contains the remains of Prague’s former Jewish ghetto and the Jewish cemetery, as well as the Jewish museum. The museum, was oddly enough filled by priceless, Jewish artefacts thanks to the Nazis during their occupation in the Second World War; the Nazis wanted a ‘museum dedicated to the extinct race’. Disturbing and humbling, this Jewish Quarter will help focus your attention on the vast history that this city has lived through.

From the Jewish Quarter head through the Old Town Square, not for the markets, but to grab yourself some mulled wine and wait for reason eight. When the hour strikes, it’s time to see what you are here for ... the Walk of the Apostles! Noticeably death is also going along for a stroll too! Once you’ve seen the march (and everyone else will be there for it too) wander up the clock tower. You will have a beautiful view of the Christmas Markets, the Old Square and the rest of Prague.

If you walk from here to Wenceslas Square you will wander into a second historical memorial. It was in this square in 1969 that Jan Palech, a Czech student, committed suicide by self-immolation, which led to massive protests against the Soviet occupation. After the ‘velvet revolution’, Jan’s sacrifice was commemorated with a bronze cross in front of the National Museum where he fell. Of course, Wenceslas Square also has the Christmas market, National Opera (a must-see) and a few stores to boot.

Finally, the reason you have to visit Prague this winter is a mixture of activities that will please anyone in the family from the young (the National Museum will keep them intrigued) to the teenagers (there are ice-skating rinks randomly distributed in towns or nightlife is great for the older teen. Try the Bombay Bar and Music Club for a little break from beer) or the older generation that can enjoy the markets, National Opera and even the nightly concerts held in random, architecturally beautiful music halls. Prague is romantic, it’s for bachelor parties and it’s for a family a trip! How many places do you know like that?

Until next week, Nashledanou!

A view of Prague's Old Town Squre from the tower that holds onto the astronomical clock.
Prague's Old Town Square filled with the annual Christmas Market. Photo by Robyn Skinner
Prague's castle all aglow. Photo by Robyn Skinner

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Published November 02, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated November 02, 2011 at 9:36 am)

Warm memories of cold days

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