This year we spent New Year’s in Prague. We left Vienna on the train under a cold sky threatening snow, listening to music and reading our kindles while outside, the fallow, dark fields rolled by, drenched in sheets of pale winter sun.
I love Europe in winter. I love Europe always. I love that we can ride the train with our children, and get a beer for 80 cents.
We arrived at Central Station and Ubered through the wintry light, to our hotel near the castle and the Charles Bridge.
A Christmas market was a few minutes’ walk from our door.
Our hotel room had a Christmas Tree, and presents for the boys.
We are home!
For a week we were welcomed at the Hotel Klarov, with champagne and warm smiles, and a constant supply of hot spiced wine and sugar cookies. The concierge knew our names when we came in at the end of the day, and we each had a pair of slippers and our own robe. We watched ski races and read books by the fireplace. For breakfast, we tried fermented farmer’s cheese and smoked fish. I had a cappuccino every day. Boutique hotels are lovely.
I think it would be hard for Prague to be anything but lovely, but the Hotel Klarov made it special. In addition to wine and cookies, we had a 2-room suite with a nice big couch where we watched movies when we were too cold to keep walking. I will remember this as the vacation of Oceans Eleven and The Lord of the Rings. For Jake and Eli, there are more to Christmas memories than Christmas markets!
There is also more to Prague then the Old Town Square.
We’ve been to the Czech Republic enough that our lens on Prague was different this time. When we were asked if we had Czech friends, I was getting ready to say “no” when Jake and Eli answered “Yes!” They have friends in school that are Czech. For them this is the country of the Aqua Palace, and a place where kids go to visit their grandparents They’ve already eaten goulash and have seen hundreds of churches, and are more excited by the idea of a candy store than another astronomical clock.
Being in Prague for a whole week meant we ventured beyond the pork knuckles of the Old City taverns to find burritos, pizza, and Thai food. Seven days of sausage and sauerkraut would be a little bit rough on the gut.
There is only so much beer and dumplings one can take before things start to revolt…
There is also only so much sitting 10-year old boys can do before they start to get distracted!
There may be something a little jaded about looking for Thai food and avoiding the Charles Bridge because of the crowds…
But we saw a side of Prague we hadn’t seen, or looked for, before.
This included the Bone Church, the Prague Zoo, Cafe Savoy, and an afternoon at the Invisible Museum learning what it was like to be blind. Our guide was a blind woman who led us through a dark house, identifying toasters, desks, and bedroom furniture. We felt our way through a forest, and past storefronts with bins of lemons, and crossed an invisible street. We identified statues of the Sphinx and the David with our fingers, and tried to buy drinks in a cafe. I found myself clutching the sugar packet for my coffee to make sure I didn’t lose it! Mike had to count out change, a hard task in a country where we don’t recognize the coins even with the lights on.
It takes a lot of courage to be blind.
And it occurred to me, that blind people don’t have cameras or take pictures. And that maybe, my own camera is a crutch for an immature mind, that lacks the discernment to know which memories to hold onto, and which ones can be thrown away?
I don’t want to throw any of them away.
Vacations with children are not the kind that happen in guide books. When you walk through lamplit streets and trip over cobblestones with children, you don’t feel history breathing from Prague’s medieval walls, or wonder about the centuries of stories whispering from the past. Instead you field questions about dog poop on the sidewalk, and try to explain why people spray paint swear words.
You plead for pictures where everyone is looking at the camera, maybe even smiling.
You ride the tram and the metro even though you’d rather walk, because somebody thinks riding the tram and the metro would be fun.
You revel in the rare but wonderful minutes of your own thoughts. “Mom, those pandas are doing somersaults!”
You buy potato chips for lunch, even though nobody’s eaten anything but doughnuts since breakfast, and rationalize another mug of gluhwein.
You buy trdelniks, warm and rolled in cinnamon-sugar, and think they are just as good as any doughnut.
One subzero night, we walked through the town square eating trdelniks filled with ice cream. Ice cream doesn’t melt when the air is filled with snowflakes.
There is more than one way to stay warm on a cold winter night!
At the Bone Church in Kutna Hora, we marveled at the mind of the artist who decorated this odd and disturbing church.
The chapel contains the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, and the bone artistry was quite incredible. Lots of bones here! We found scapulas and mandibles and pelvises, arranged into words and coats of arms, although Mike noticed that all the ribs were missing.
What happened to those? Did they eat those?
I’m sure in their own way they felt they were somehow honoring God, but wow, it was weird. I would not want to go to church here!
This type of church is much nicer, and you have the option of purchasing fish and chips.
We went to the castle to see the changing of the guard, and actually ran behind the guards as they marched through the castle labyrinth to the courtyard.
A band in full regalia played music from the windows, and drummed Eli when he kicked his can a little too close to their marching path.
And in the cold winter air, we watch people and soldiers and ducks slide on the slippery cobblestones. Evening falls and candlelight glows, in windows strung with Christmas lights and carved wooden stars. It is a busy but quiet chaos, with everyone slowly strolling, looking up. Hoping to capture it all either on cameras or in their minds, and hold onto Prague forever.