It feels as though I am swimming upstream in a school of fish. I must look down to pay attention to the uneven cobblestone streets, which while romantic in looks, provide an ongoing challenge in balance. I immediately regretted giving in to the handwritten signs for svařak, the hot mulled wine that is available at every corner, as the deep red beverage is splashing against the rim of the flimsy styrofoam cup, staining my white gloves.
I can’t help but wonder where all of these people are going. Was I missing out on some obvious tourist attraction? But, then I shift my attention from maintaining an even stride to see what is in front of me and realize that I am also a part of a stream.
This is Prague. At least, this is the walk from the Old Town Square to Winceslas Square, two of the most popular and populated tourist attractions in this Central European city. During this time of the year, the holiday season, they become host to two of the biggest Christmas Markets in the Czech Republic. They are less than a ten minute walk from one another.
Year Round Tourism
I find Prague to consistently be one of the most crowded city centers I have visited and most of the people seem to be tourists like myself. While the majority of travelers choose to visit in the sunnier months of the spring and summer, the cold, dark and gray months have their own allure. I like to think that this time of the year offers a spicier side of Prague, filled with the smell of cinnamon, Christmas cakes, and roasting meat.
In Your Bucket Because…
• You need to buy holiday gifts for all of your friends and family.
• You enjoy the holiday spirit.
• Eating and drinking is your favorite way to see a city.
The wooden huts that sit on nearly every square offer everything you would expect — ornaments, winter hats and gloves, marionettes, paintings of the quintessential Prague skyline, magnets, key chains, and every other kitschy item your heart could possibly desire.
Since shopping isn’t so much my thing as my wallet is already stressed by my many months living on the road, my head follows my stomach. I look to one vendor and see hunks of pork and cylinders of sausage, served on a plastic plate with a bare piece of rye bread. It is so simple, so hearty, so Czech, but also so unfriendly to my vegetarian diet. So, I look to another and see chocolate filled palačinky, the Czech version of a crepe. Then the bright lights direct my eyes to a young woman scooping heaps of roasted chestnuts. The steam rising from everyone’s cups remind me of the comforting mulled wine that I just drank and is challenging me to try the grog next. And of course there is always the option of a golden and frothy beer, the pride of the Czech people.
For The Photographer
For a hobby photographer, a professional one, or even for someone who is picking up their camera for the first time (maybe it just came as a Christmas gift), these markets offer a great opportunity to practice the craft. That is what I have found myself doing during most of my visits. The short daylight hours and bright lights offer a challenge for composition. And, the subjects are never ending as the mixture of locals, tourists and vendors offer plenty of inspiration.
For a first time visitor to Prague, these markets can offer an insight to some of the defining characteristics of the country. You get a sense of what they are proud of (beer) and what food is typical (pork). And you get to watch and listen to family life, an unlikely insight for many tourists passing through a city for a long weekend. And, my favorite reason to visit, it gives me a chance to spend time outside in the cold, crisp weather.
Don’t just come to Prague to shop and stare at the tree because, to be honest, many of these European Christmas Markets resemble each other. Take advantage of the city. Make sure you join a free walking tour, cross the Charles Bridge, and find a local cafe in some distant part of town. After seeing what is offered at the markets, take yourself out of the stream of tourists and get lost exploring the small, narrow streets seeped in history and culture. This city is perfect for a wanderer.
• The two main markets in Prague are located in the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. They are within a ten minute walk of each other and accessible by the subway and trams.
• The markets are open from November 29, 2014 – January 6, 2015 . Each year the specific dates change.
• Don’t rely on being able to use your credit card. Cash is necessary to shop!