I would return to Prague for Christmas period alone.
Admittedly, I could be biased, as it has been exactly a year since I moved to this beautiful city, arriving here just in time to be impressed and fall in love with all the smells, colors and sounds of the winter festivities.
There is no denying that starting in December, Prague dons a Santa Claus suit (or more appropriately for Czech Republic, Mikuláš one) and regales everyone with happiness and magic.
The magic of the period is found especially in Prague’s Christmas markets, traditionally set on the city’s main squares, where one can often get lost amidst numerous wooden huts offering hand-crafted Czech toys, authentic food and demonstrations of the traditional arts of wood-carving and glass-making, all bathed in shiny lights, Christmas carols, and the smell of cinnamon.
Stand selling Medovina, a honey mead wine.
The tradition of Christmas markets has been part of Prague (and Czech) culture for many centuries, as a way to remind families that Christmas was near, offering them a wide assortment of goods, performances by singers, or entertainment such as shooting ranges.
Today, Prague’s markets are recognized as one of the most atmospheric in the world, bringing both locals and guests together to share the festive spirit.
This year, Christmas markets were officially opened 29th November, when an enormous Christmas tree, traditionally brought from Krkonoše mountains in the north of the Czech Republic, was erected and decorated in the Old Town Square, and its lights were switched on.
Unfortunately, due to my work, I couldn’t make it to the opening, but one of my colleagues (lucky guy, Nico, having a day off), sent me photos of the tree to show the Square full with people with smiles on their faces.
I saw it couple of days after though, when I embarked on an adventure to find presents to send back home. I had a plan to visit the markets and get something authentic and quirky, something that will scream “Prague!”.
The city of Prague hosts dozens of markets, bigger and smaller ones, and I decided to visit three of them. The first one was the on Náměstí Míru (Peace Square), a perfect location in the elegant Vinohrady district, known for its elegant Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Pseudo Baroque, and Neo-Gothic buildings, as well as beautiful parks and lively social life found in colorful bars and numerous cafes.
Christmas market at Náměstí Míru.
The market itself is set in a park in front of the Church of St. Ludmila (Kostel svaté Ludmily), an epic neo-Gothic church built in 1892, and consists of warm wooden huts offering wide variety of Czech traditional pastry, such as Trdelník, a cinnamon spiced hot sugar coated cake, and those weird gingerbread cookies shaped like toys. People were queuing to get their portions of sausages with sauerkraut, dressed in heavy clothes and engaged in loud conversations to spite the cold around them, drinking Svařák, hot mulled wine spiced with herbs.
Christmas market in front of the Church of St. Ludmila on Náměstí Míru.
I eyed a couple of oil paintings of Prague, warmed by my own Svařák, considering them as candidates for presents I was looking for, but eventually I archived them in my mind, and left for the next one on my list, the Havel’s Market.
Havelske trziste (Havel's Market) Havelska Street, Prague 1
Havel’s Market is a different animal. It is a permanent one, deep in the Old Town, dating back to 13th century. It stretches for some 200 meters, offering everything from fruits and vegetables to local honey and handmade crystal jewelry.
The first thing that strikes me every time, are the bizarre screams coming from the first couple of stands. High-pitched and ominous, they are produced by traditional wooden toys of Ježibaba (Baba Jaga), an evil character prominent in Slavic mythology that lives in the forest and preys on lost people.
Ježibaba (Baba Jaga) marionettes.
I am not sure she ever gets her dinner though, as there is no way she could stay unnoticed making a noise like that.
Passing by less threatening toys, I finally made my way to what was for me a more interesting part of the market. I can not count the times I got lost in the Prague Old Town’s narrow alleys trying to reach it from the other side, only to emerge on it when I already given up and was on my way home.
Set on the Coal Market Square (Uhelný trh), and dominated by a fountain showing a boy and a girl, this market reminds me more of squatting community area, with wooden stalls selling organic food and a burning barrel being placed in the middle for everyone to gather around and enjoy a warm conversation.
Uhelný trh (Coal Market Square), Prague-Old Town
It is a place where one finds random busking sessions on improvised instruments, and this particular time I found myself in the middle of a performance by an unknown trio playing raw blues on a guitar, trumpet and something that looked like a washboard, giving an amazing performance to a fair amount of people giving a loud applause (and coinage) in return.
I find mulled wine especially tasty here, maybe not so much for the quality, but for the memories and enjoyment I had here in the past. I did not expect to buy anything here. Instead, it is an experience that I like to share with friends who come and visit.
With the band’s music still in my head, I finally set off for the Old Town Square, to stand in front of the famous Christmas tree.
The Christmas market in the Old Town Square is definitely the biggest, both in terms of the space it occupies, and the people it attracts. Set on a large square (with the shiny tree in the middle) and surrounded by old, large and beautiful buildings, it really does feel as if you are sharing a happy mood and spirit with other people.
Christmas market in Prague's Old Town Square.
The architecture here is amazing, consisting of Gothic buildings such as the Church of Our Lady before Týn (Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem), Baroque St. Nicholas Church, and various statues and memorials recording rich Czech history.
Not a big fan of sweet food, I decided to skip the Trdelník once again, and grabbed a traditional Czech sausage and sauerkraut thing, and boy, it was good. Another mulled wine didn’t hurt the experience either. Followed by a local choir singing carols, I strolled between the stands, examining the paintings, bracelets and necklaces, until I finally reached the Christmas tree.
Set in the middle of the Square, the tree is literally the centre of the Prague’s social life during the winter period. It is decorated with blinking lights that give impression of constant waves descending from top to the bottom, as if the tree is putting on a new dress for every new visitor. Families gather in front of it, taking pictures and having loud conversations, children run around it in excitement and awe.
So I took few pictures as well, to send them back home and buy some more time to make a decision on the present. There are so many options in Prague, and I am lucky I live here. If I wasn’t though, I would definitely be back for the Christmas period alone.