Cold crisp Central European nights, the scent of mulled wine filling the air, families wandering around cute cabin-style stalls and beautifully adorned Christmas trees. That was the image ahead of another whistlestop city break – this time to Prague, for the annual Christmas markets.
My last (and heretofore only) visit to Prague was as part of an InterRail in 1995. Back then, it had yet to fully establish itself on the tourist trail, and I remember a picturesque and atmospheric city, easy to get around and with the cheapest and tastiest beer in Europe.
It has become so much busier of course. Queues to go up the Old Town Hall tower, to get into the Cathedral in Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and the castle district, as well as the Old Town Square absolutely mobbed. However, the tales I had heard of a seedy, stag party overrun and over-commercialised pale shadow of itself proved to be well off the mark.
Yes, the city that in 1995 still had the air of a barely post-Communist outpost now has shopping malls that would not be out of place in any major European city. And that can only be a good thing, as it shows a prosperity which could only have been imagined almost 20 years ago. Wenceslas Square is not much to look at, but then it wasn’t then either.
But the heart of Prague – the Old Town – is as preserved as it always has been. Charles Bridge, if I’m being honest, has probably lost something of its charm with halkers every coupld of feet, but the hilly walk up to the Castle District is full of beautiful local craft and chocolate shops, and the Castle District itself is still of an impressive scale – allow yourself time to see it all.
The Christmas markets were the main draw for this visit. While that image I had was largely correct, I’m not sure that they’re necessarily worth travelling for. We enjoyed the turning on of the lights on the MASSIVE Christmas tree in the Old Town Square, and there were a good selection of choirs and other performers daily. However, they weren’t a whole lot different from what you’d find in any city.
Prague still knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to beer though. At about €1.50 in most places, it is still giving it away, and the likes of U Zlateho Tygra with delicious cold drinks and tasty goulash in a cavern type cellar feels unchanged over decades. It’s very easy to fall into a sociable chat with locals or tourists alike. One drawback is the smoke in bars. When you are used to being without it for so long, it really is a nuisance to have to endure the emissions from others nefarious habit during meals and even for a few drinks.
It is not ostensibly a foodie destination, but the hearty fare in bar / restaurant combos hits the spot on a chilly December night. The value does extend to food, as it does to hotels also – our hotel was very well priced and perfectly located.
So overall, while it wouldn’t necessarily be a place to return to time and time again, Prague has retained its charm and its appeal. There’s just an awful lot more people to share it with.