Prague is one of those places that was on my “must-go” list of European travel destinations. I don’t know what it is that appealed to me about this city, but the way I discovered the name of the city was through a Mandarin pop song that was released 12 years ago. The literal translation of the song is “Prague Public Square”, and it was sung by Jolin Tsai, a Taiwanese pop artist. When I first heard the song on the radio, I was hooked on its unique style and arrangement, but that doesn’t surprise me now that I know that the melody was written and arranged by Jay Chou. Anyway, we’re not here to talk about music right now. As a 15-year-old kid, the word “Prague” became etched on my mind and when I discovered that it was the capital city of Czech Republic, I was determined to visit it one day. That one day didn’t arrive until almost 12 years later, which brings us to last Christmas.
Ah, yes, Christmas, a magical time. Of course a perfect time for some solo travel too, maybe? As I didn’t manage to find company, I went alone because I wasn’t about to let the lack of a companion stop me from finally going to that place in the song and finding the “Prague Public Square”, if such a place really existed. Prague evaded my plans for two Christmas holidays in a row. I could have gone in 2012, but unexpected circumstances meant that I went to northwestern France instead. Then when my dad visited me in Europe in December 2013, we chose Italy out of several potential options of which Prague was one. So after two tries, nothing was going to stop me from spending my Christmas in Prague in 2014. And one all by myself? Why not?
Perhaps a place with the exact name “Prague Public Square” doesn’t exist in Prague, but there are many public squares in Prague and the Old Town Square is definitely the most well known. The Gothic Týn Church (perhaps the one that Jolin sang about in her song) with a luminous glow while a Christmas tree shone in the centre of the square. The Týn Church was really something, kinda made me think that it was the castle of an evil overlord once upon a time. And the fairy tales begin here…
I arrived in Prague on Christmas Eve to find the streets almost devoid of festivity, finding out later that Christmas Eve is the time when the Czech people go home and spend time with family. That was why the stalls at the Christmas market were shut so early. Yet on Christmas Day, the festivities were back and the atmosphere was much more…Christmassy, for lack of a better description. Going to European Christmas markets has become a favourite activity of mine not just because of the food or the lights or the handmade crafts, but the warmth of Christmas markets always fills me with so much joy, no matter how small the market may be and regardless of whether I had a companion or not.
During a walking tour, my guide told the group that you can’t say you’ve been to Prague unless you’ve done AT LEAST the three classic “touristy” things: go to the Prague castle, walk across the Charles Bridge, and watch a show at the Astronomical Clock, shown here. The show began when the skull figure, representing death (can’t be seen so clearly here), rings its bell and the twelve apostles of Jesus walk by the window one by one. I think the rooster crows at one point, signifying the end of the show. That the mechanical “show” (which was similar to the one in Bern but attracted way more attention) lasted 20 seconds or so and was hard to even see clearly because it was so high up didn’t erase the fact that the Astronomical Clock is an impressive instrument of extraordinary delicacy. The guide explained how it works – I just don’t remember, heh. Go ask an astronomer.
Christmas market food? I actually didn’t try much other than sausages and home-made potato chips. I did see booths selling this interesting item – trdelník, somewhat of a rolled up donut pastry covered in sugar and cinnamon. I’ve never been a fan of desserts, especially very sweet ones, and for some reason I felt that trdelník would not be one that I would enjoy very much. Even though I didn’t taste it, I did enjoy seeing the process of it being made as it was being continuously rolled on an open fire.
Onto the next “must-do” touristy thing, I went up to the Prague castle. The gate that led to the main courtyard of the castle was guarded by two giants who were supposed to protect the castle against its enemies, but to me seem more like two ogres ready to attack its visitors…hah! The clouds looming overhead also seemed to forebode a dark omen…
The sun was setting as I was leaving the castle and as I was walking from the top of the hill where the castle was located back down to the old town, I had a glance of the lovely Prague illuminated in the dusk. In my mind, before visiting the city, this was what Prague was supposed to be like – architecture reminiscent of a forgotten time, an intricate maze of red roofs and scattered lights.
Back in the old town, the view of the Prague castle from a distance was stunning during the night. I actually had some trouble capturing the entire span of the castle, as it was so huge and so wide, and I had to go quite far away from it to be able to fit it entirely into the frame of my camera. As it glowed, the castle looked like an entire empire on its own. Fun fact from the tour guide: the lighting system in the Prague castle was sponsored by the Rolling Stones after they played a concert there in the 1990s. If I remember correctly, the entire system cost around $30000 – don’t quote me on that, but thanks for the lights, Rolling Stones!
If the view of the old town from the riverside at night doesn’t convince you that Prague is a land straight out of the fairy tales, then I don’t know what would. The third and final touristic thing to do was of course to cross the Charles Bridge. The photo above is one OF the bridge itself, along with the Vltava river flowing through the city and typical architecture of Prague in the background.
On the Charles Bridge itself, aside from the many statues that lined both sides of the bridge, what attracted me more were the street musicians that I encountered on that cold winter morning. The group consisted of a clarinet player, a guitarist, a double bassist, and a saxophone player. Somehow the old man playing the clarinet really caught my eye, and his melody was light and happy, making him my favourite musician out of the four. I enjoyed the sound of music more than I enjoyed the bridge itself, which to me was a bit of an overrated hype. So…thank you for the music 😉
I had my Christmas dinner at a restaurant named Deminka that was recommended by the staff at my hostel. It was a typical Czech restaurant that was filled with beer drinkers and loud chatters when I entered. I grabbed a seat by a tiny window facing the street, sat down and observed the customers around me as I scanned the menu. As duck was on the Christmas menu and given how much I love duck from my southwestern French influences, I decided to go for the duck roast with half a litre of Czech beer. When the dish arrived all I could say was…wow??? First, let’s take a moment to appreciate the size of this beauty. The plate was almost the size of a full lunch tray, containing two gigantic duck legs, each the size of ONE duck confit that you’d get in Bordeaux. As if that wasn’t enough, the dish came with fried onions, red cabbage, and three types of dumplings (bread, potato, and another type I’m not familiar with). I certainly over-ordered and this size would have been perfect for two, but I tried my best. And I didn’t have to try very hard because of how amazingly tasty the duck was. I would even go as far as saying that it was better than a confit de canard in Bordeaux, and that says a lot because I LOVE confit. The flavour, the texture, the aroma…heavenly!! The onions and cabbage were great complements to the duck, and while the dumplings were also tasty, there was just waaaaaaaaaaaaay too much. I gave up after leaving a few dumplings untouched and it was one of the few times when I genuinely could not finish my food because of the giant portion. Well done, Deminka. Well done, Czech duck roast.
I had to go find the “Dancing House” as it seemed like such a unique piece of architectural art in comparison with the more “classic” style that Prague seems to be known for. And I see why they called this a “dancing” building. The blue structure on the left was clearly playing the role of an elegant lady whose waist was held by a gentleman. For some reason, though, the two buildings reminded me of flexible and rigid nanopillars on substrates that either were or were not able to bend in response to cellular actions…ugh too much science in my head!
The rest of my time in Prague was spent exploring the quieter streets away from the city centre, going into alleyways and walking the unknown paths to discover authenticity.
On a quiet morning on the streets of Prague with few cars, I strolled along the sidewalks, all the while immersing myself into this city more and more as the time of departure was approaching.
Before I left Prague, I made a trip to the Petrin Tower, a structure which is supposed to resemble the top part of the Eiffel Tower. From the top of the Petrin Tower, the view towards the Prague castle and the entire castle district was quite magical. It really did look like a miniature toy-built model of a storybook setting. I felt like if I stretched out my arms, I would be able to pick up the little houses and rearrange them in whatever way I wanted, the way I did in my preschool days 😉
Let’s end with some silly photos. I went into the Mirror Maze after visiting the Petrin Tower and it must have been the most interesting maze that I had ever found myself trapped in. One wrong step and you might find yourself lost in reflection after reflection of…yourself. If you’re a narcissist, then this might be the perfect place for you, hah!
At the end of the maze, there is a section where you enter a room full of funny distorting mirrors. Perhaps I am at the age where I should not be fascinated by these anymore, but I still am and there is no problem with that 😉 There were ones that compressed you horizontally, made you look like you had two heads, enlarged your eyes so that you looked like a goldfish…and so on. My favourite would have to be this one that stretched you vertically, making you look sooooooooooooooooo much taller than you actually were. Heh, Annie the Giant, that’s got a good ring to it!
I have to be honest – Prague didn’t wow me as much as I expected it to. It was a lovely city, but I would not put it on my list of favourite travel destinations along with cities like Lisbon and Brussels, for example. Of course, only in hindsight did I realize how Prague pales in comparison with Budapest…sorry to those of you who loved Prague! I will justify my love for Budapest in a future post – sorry for the lack of updates lately 😦