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Czech the halls Prague is the perfect place to visit to get into the festive spirit


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Prague’s scenic riverfront

Prague’s scenic riverfront

Isabel at the Purkmistr beer spa

Isabel at the Purkmistr beer spa

Musicians entertain the crowd at Wenceslas Square

Musicians entertain the crowd at Wenceslas Square

Isabel at the famous Charles Bridge

Isabel at the famous Charles Bridge

Isabel trying out the local beer

Isabel trying out the local beer

Signature Prague dish white sausage with curry mustard

Signature Prague dish white sausage with curry mustard

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Prague’s scenic riverfront

It is the quintessential Christmas scene in Prague, one of Europe’s magical winter destinations.

Wrapped in heavy coats and woollen scarves, a young family admires a delicately-carved crib, before stopping at a stall laden with handmade Christmas tree decorations.

The daughter chooses a golden-haired angel in a white lacy dress. Her older brother picks up a round purple knitted ball. With crocheted spikes and scary red eyes it is a coronavirus tree decoration. Who knows, in happier years ahead, it may represent a piece of history, a reminder perhaps of what the world endured through Covid-19.

In the basement underneath the medieval Bethlehem Chapel in Old Town, a Christmas exhibition that has run for decades was renamed “the way we used to live” to circumvent the Czech Republic’s ongoing ban on Christmas markets.

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Isabel at the Purkmistr beer spa

Isabel at the Purkmistr beer spa

Isabel at the Purkmistr beer spa

The exhibition showcases bakers, weavers and other crafts, alongside displays of cribs made from unusual materials including bread, charcoal and paper, presents and other festive merchandise, including the handmade multi-coloured coronavirus decorations.

Founder and organiser of the Christmas exhibition Blahoslav Lukavec explains: “We feared our annual Christmas fair would also be forbidden. We were creative, turning it into a crafts event to show the spirit of Christmas”. He dispenses warm grog while we raise a toast to the joys of the festive season.

Church services and cribs are dear to the hearts of Czechs at this time of year. During much of communist rule, public worship was outlawed and Christmas was forbidden. The Soviet Grandfather Frost replaced Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus).

Christmas market stalls in Prague are shuttered yet again this year on government orders to combat the spread of the new Omicron variant. Restaurants and bars operate with a strict 10pm curfew, among other restrictions. Despite the forlorn sight of all those locked-up stalls on squares around the city, locals insist “Christmas has not been cancelled”.

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Isabel at the famous Charles Bridge

Isabel at the famous Charles Bridge

Isabel at the famous Charles Bridge

Wandering through Prague’s snow-dusted cobbled laneways, tree-lined boulevards and squares traversed by red and cream trams, her baroque buildings basking in a honey hued twilight is to step onto a Christmas card.

The absence of Christmas market tourism that pre-pandemic was attracting huge numbers of visitors from abroad may mean there has never been a better time to visit Prague than now. Mala Strana (Lesser Town) and Stare Mesto (Old Town) are packed with shops specialising in glass, Czech-made wooden goods, jewellery and cookies including that perennial Christmas favourite — iced gingerbread men.

Delicious lager enjoyed in the warmth of a pub is much more to my taste than pricey over-sweetened rough mulled wine that seems to be universally served at Christmas markets.

In Prague’s coffee houses and cosy bars a beer costs less than a coffee or a bottled water, and the restaurants are also reasonably priced.

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From Strahov Monastery our guide Eva Vondrusova — who knows the city like the back of her hand — walks us past the important landmarks and districts, stopping at Prague Castle which is empty of crowds, and we meander through the arty district to Charles Bridge, the city’s most celebrated structure with its many statues on either side.

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Musicians entertain the crowd at Wenceslas Square

Musicians entertain the crowd at Wenceslas Square

Musicians entertain the crowd at Wenceslas Square

More fun than picking up some Czech glass in a shop is to try making your own. At Pragl Glass Experience on Male Namesti a skilled glassblower puts us through our paces with great humour.

Dave Yule from Sydney, who has Limerick roots and plays Australian football, came to Prague to work as a master glassblower. Under his patient tutelage, and with much encouragement, I manage to blow and fashion out a passable little pink vase veined with purple, reinforced with special low alcohol strength glassblower beer.

In days gone by all Czech glass factories had a brewery attached to prevent dehydration affecting their workers due to the intense heat from the fire and loss of mineral B through constant sweating. A plentiful supply of the 3.5pc Cvikov Sklar, which I’m not shy about sipping, is still kept in house at factories for the glassblowers and other employees.

We then move on to Pilsen, the country’s capital of lager. It is 95km west of Prague and may be an industrial hub, but is also rich in culture and history with a wonderful Gothic cathedral, St Bartholomew’s, which has the highest tower in the Czech Republic, grand baroque portals and a tradition of prosperity.

Up to 20km of underground tunnels beneath the town are an intriguing leftover from its history of defence

A former European Capital of Culture, world-famous architect Adolf Loos completed precious interiors, some of them restored and open to the public having been seized by the state during communist rule.

The stories of these homes, once owned by wealthy industrialists from the Jewish community is absolutely heartbreaking, few among the families escaping death in concentration camps after the German invasion.

Pilsen’s biggest claim to fame, apart from pioneering Skoda manufacturing, is as the birthplace of lager. It is therefore the centre of gravity for good beer lovers. Pilsner Urquell’s roots stretch back to 1842 when 250 local brewing families banded together and brew master Josef Groll created the world’s original pilsener lager.

After a tour of the brewery and its state-of-the-art visitor centre we find ourselves down in the cavernous cellars at barely 10.30am on a Sunday morning quaffing unfiltered beer tapped from a giant oak barrel.

We also taste mliko (milk) the glass completely filled with creamy beer foam, great preparation for what lies ahead.

Readers who are lager lovers should find themselves in seventh heaven as I did at Purkmistr beer spa, soaking in a large tub filled with hot beer and added hops immersed in the health enhancing warmth with unlimited cold beer from an adjacent tap.

It is necessary to drink enough liquids the attendant explains, inviting me to pull as much beer as I want from my private tap during the bath — to which the only answer was one word… cheers!

FACTFILE:

PRAGUE AND PILSEN
See
www.visitczechrepublic.com
www.visitpilsen.eu

■ Isabel stayed at the five-star Occidental Praha Wilson in Prague, double rooms from €54pp (barcelo.com), and the Courtyard by Marriott in Pilsen (marriott.com).
■ Walking tour, CAT Guided Tour, catguide.cz; Pragl Glass Experience, pragl.glass (€25); Pilsner Urquell Brewery, prazdrojvisit.cz; Purkmistr beer spa, purkmistr.cz/en (€35).

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