Jan 06 2008

Christmas in Prague

Published by at 2:48 pm under Prague

The story of Europe goes like this: beautiful, irreplaceable, historically significant buildings and towns stood carefully preserved for 2000 years. Then the Nazis came along and blew everything up during World War II.

The war devastated Europe, and you’re now just as likely to see a war memorial as you are to see an ancient monument or gothic church.

the charles bridge + prague castle + birdsPrague is unique it that it somehow escaped Nazi bombing, making it one of the best-preserved cities on the continent. Wandering the streets of the old town and Jewish ghetto is a remarkable experience – if you’re able to ignore the hordes of camera-wielding tourists, it feels as if you’re walking through a medieval village. Instead of pointing out the site on which the oldest synagogue in Europe once stood, we were able to actually see the oldest synagogue in Europe. On our hike up to Prague castle, we saw a sign on the door of a bar that said, “open since 1492.” Now that’s something you don’t see in America.

Since the country shed communism in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Prague has become a huge tourist destination, and you’re just as likely to run into a fellow English-speaker as you are a native. And because their city is constantly overrun with annoying foreigners, many of the Czech people we did meet were pretty grumpy. If you ever find yourself in Prague, after visiting the typical hotspots, I’d encourage you to turn off of a main avenue and get yourself seriously lost in old town. Either that, or ride the metro to a random stop and get off, without a specific destination in mind. There is always something incredible to see. Our hostel was located across the river in a working-class neighborhood, where the people were friendlier, and the food even better and cheaper.

We could never explore for too long, though, because it is seriously cold in Prague. I don’t know if we were particularly wimpy because we were coming from balmy Southern France, or because we’re acclimated to the coastal climate of Virginia, but I couldn’t stay outside for more than thirty minutes without screaming that I JUST CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE and running through the nearest door. Which is how Ben and I ended up drinking beers throughout the day, as we often and suddenly found ourselves shivering in doorways of random cafes.

On Christmas Eve, we spent an unusually long amount of time outside on an unusual quest: the hunt for the Christmas carp. Before coming to Prague, we had heard that the traditional Czech Christmas dinner includes carp. On Christmas Eve, there are alleged tubs of live carp for sale on street corners. This was a sight Ben in particular was eager to see.

So that afternoon we set out amongst the neighborhoods of Prague to find Christmas carp. We were confused when we’d wandered for a while and there wasn’t a carp in sight. So we started asking people. We’d run up to the nearest Czech and say, “fish? carp??” while doing swimming motions with our hands and make fish faces. We learned the Czech for carp was “capr,” which we unsuccessfully tried to pronounce. Inexplicably, everyone we talked to seemed to think there was a tub of carp right around the corner (well, that, or seemed bewildered and slowly backed away from us, as we screamed “FISH! PLEASE! THANK YOU!”). All we can figure is that there is a wide-scale conspiracy to keep fresh carp out of the grasp of evil tourists, because our exhaustive search elicited no fish, alive or dead.

We selected Sir Toby’s Hostel primarily because it provides a free Christmas Eve dinner. So, hoping to allay our disappointment after our failed hunt for the carp, we trudged back to the hostel in order to be the first in line for the feast.

christmas eve dinnerThe meal helped Christmas feel a little bit more like Christmas for Ben and me, with home-cooked stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, turkey and delicious desserts. Having missed out on all the goodies at home on Thanksgiving, we both appreciated the comfort food, despite Ben being disappointed that carp wasn’t served. There was a Czech spin on the meal, however, as all the food was served with the obligatory abundance of beer.

Our hostel also organized a visit to a midnight mass at the local Anglican church. In an effort to make it feel a little bit more like Christmas at home, we decided to brave the sub-zero temperatures of Prague at night and tag along. I can’t remember too much about the service because 1. I was freezing (the only heat in the cathedral was a pathetic foot warmer beneath the pew), and 2. the preacher was scary. He had a booming, deep voice that resonated loudly throughout the old church as he bellowed his sermon. He stood atop the pulpit with a dim spotlight shining from above creating frightening shadows on his face. I couldn’t pay attention to what he was saying for fear that he was condemning me to eternity in the fiery depths.

Christmas day was a lazy one – we slept in, hung out with fellow hostellers, enjoyed the Christmas markets and talked to our families on the phone. That evening we had tickets to a performance of The Nutcracker at the National Theater. The Nutcracker in Richmond is a Christmas tradition for us, and we are often forced to pay up to $60 per ticket for seats. So we were a bit more than pleasantly surprised when we discovered that tickets for the production in Prague cost 30 crowns, or about $1.50. Granted, the only seats remaining were in the very back row of the gigantic theater. But we had fun playing with the small binoculars provided for those in the nosebleeds.

fun binoculars!The performance was incredible — it was technically a strange combination of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol, so Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit had starring roles. In an inexplicable twist, the dancer who played Bob Cratchit also played a shirtless devil that danced around with demons dressed like mummies. I was confused during that scene.

We returned to the hostel to find the downstairs pub lively with Christmas cheer, and spent the evening teaching Australians a few American drinking games and learning about all the crazy animals they have down under. They have exotic/terrifying animals such as seven-inch wide spiders and yet are amazed that we have squirrels running around our backyards.

NEXT: Christmas Carp Addendum »



2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Christmas in Prague”

  1. Strogoffon 07 Jan 2008 at 2:17 am

    Just to bring another small bit of truth… When you say “Prague is unique in that it somehow escaped Nazi bombing”… yes, but the americans have more devasted Europe in terms of bombing then the Nazi did (Calais, Nurenberg, Dresden…)

  2. Elen Pragueon 07 Jan 2008 at 6:33 am

    Prague escaped bombing ‘thanks’ to the Munich Agreement, where the other European states gave hands away; ok, Adolf, take the Czechoslovakia, they are small anyway.. so the country became the first occupied one in the WWII (before Polland), without any fight.

    But that is sad history, I didn’t want to get myself into. What I wanted to react was your warm Christmas post, which made me really hungry and thirsty :D !

    I myself don’t like carp (kapr in Czech) because there are too many bones, and this tradition brings about 10 people every year to emergency in Prague only, as the treachery bones get easily stuck in one’s throat. But it’s strange you didn’t see the sellers, they are everywhere?!? But maybe not buying the carp saved your evening ;)

    Anyway, If you are still in Prague, enjoy your stay, and hope there will be many positive culinary and other experiences on your travels, as I feel great positive energy from your writing.

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