The smell of cinnamon dough roasting over charcoal—an enticing scent of sweet mixed with smoke—wafted over the Christmas Market in Prague’s Old Town Square. Somewhere a live band played an upbeat tune, giving the already festive air an even happier feeling.
It was Christmas evening and I had just landed in Prague. The darkness combined with my jet-lag made the night feel late, even though it was only 6 pm. The Astronomical Clock chimed right on time, the tiny doors on its tower opening to reveal puppet-like figurines portraying a skit called “The Walk of the Apostles.” It’s the world’s only working astronomical clock, first installed in 1410, that tells the positions of the sun, moon, zodiac constellations and, of course, the time.
Locals and tourists alike mingled and wandered through the square, sipping on svařák (warm mulled wine), munching on Prague ham roasted over an open fire or the charcoal-roasted pastries—a traditional Czech treat known as trdelnik that tasted of sweet cinnamon sugar contrasted with a slightly smoky aftertaste.
The entire scene felt like a dream…. Christmas in Prague.
I was lured to the Czech Republic by the opera Rusalka. The Dvořák masterpiece is one of the most beautiful orchestral works I’ve ever heard. It tells the story of a mermaid who trades her voice for the chance to love a human prince, leaving her underwater family behind for a new world. (Disney fans will recognize the familiarity in The Little Mermaid.)
The Czech opera hooked me, but it was Prague’s architecture and history that inspired me to give up spending the holidays with my family and travel to a new land, much like the mermaid Rusalka. Only I wasn’t looking for love, just excitement and a solo adventure, plus an excuse to avoid my least favorite holiday.
In the days that followed Christmas, I would remain in constant awe of the beauty and history that surrounded me. I saw Rusalka at the State Opera House (opened in 1888), then The Marriage of Figaro in the only surviving opera house that Mozart conducted in (the Estates Theater), followed by the ballet—a combination of the Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol—at the National Theater. Each one was a whirlwind of gorgeousness for both my eyes and ears.
I drank Czech beer in a brewery open since 1402, surprised that I actually enjoyed light beer (although their dark beer will forever hold a special place in my heart) and enjoyed the comfort of Czech cuisine, like a warm bowl of beef goulash on a snowy December day.
I trekked up the hill to the Prague Castle complex, climbing the tower of St. Vitus Cathedral to see the city from its highest point, marveling at the red rooftops and numerous spires that influenced the city’s nickname, City of A Hundred Spires.
I wandered through Saint Wenceslas Square, where the Nazis held mass demonstrations during WWII and where Jan Palach set himself on fire to protest the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1969.
One day I even ventured to the small town of Kutná Hora to see a church decorated with 40,000 human bones. But the Sedlec Ossuary, often called The Bone Church, wasn’t as stunning as the tiny streets or the ancient houses standing since Medieval times.
Each day I’d walk past the Christmas Market and stop for trdelnik or mulled wine to warm me from the inside. I’d marvel at the Christmas tree in the square whose lights never turned off and listen to the dozens of languages being spoken around me.
I went to Prague to avoid Christmas and ended up falling in love with the lights, the decorations, the magic of the season.
Yes, there were awkward moments (after all, I was traveling alone) and language barriers, delicious food and not-so-memorable dishes. There were late nights combined with early mornings with the suffering of hangover headaches. But every single moment was wonderful.
And then in the blink of an eye—as it always goes when traveling—it was time to move on to Vienna to experience Austrian culture and celebrate the new year.