Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Christmas Tree of Prague

When I landed in Prague, I stepped out of the plane onto the runway, which was being dusted with a fine coating of snow, then boarded the bus to the terminal.

As the taxi drove my family and I to our hotel, I got my first views of the city I had dreamed of coming to for so long. The headlights illuminated block after block of Baroque architecture.

It wasn’t what I had expected. I’d been told Prague was beautiful, and I’d seen pictures of course, but I had always assumed that I had seen the historic heart of the town. Little did I know that most of the city, aside from what the Soviets built, retains its historic architecture and facades.

We stopped at our hotel, the Pension Green Garland, dropped our luggage off, and walked a couple short blocks to the Old Town Square, dominated by its clock tower and the belfries of the Church of Our Lady of Týn.

The sight would have been magnificent in its own right, but it was made more so by the cluster of low-slung shacks that made up the Christmas market, selling decorations, trinkets, souvenirs and food. Towering over the Christmas market was the best Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.

It wasn’t ostentatious, but it was so well-done that it just looked right at place, and the ornaments weren’t even the focal point. Aside from the bluish lights that occasionally flashed, there were another type of light that I had never seen before, but would see all over France and Germany in the next couple of weeks. They were foot-long tubes of LED lights that scrolled downward. The effect made the tree appear to be dripping light.

At other places around the square, tall wire-framed angels bedecked in lights and playing trumpets added to the festive spirit. As I worked through the crowds under the light snow to scope out some of the food, ranging from sausages to Trdlo (a cinnamon-roll type food I will write about soon), a group of carolers on a nearby stage struck up Christmas songs…in English.

I gazed around and savored the moment. I stood under an overhang out of the snow, sharing the space with a group of Czechs sipping their hot mulled wine and eating sausages. To think that it has only been 20 years since the Communists were thrown out seemed absurd. The city was brightly painted and everyone seemed happy.

My overall impression of Prague on that first night was of a city basking in

its freedom. Though it saw better glory years when it was a commercial center and prospered under the rule of kings such as Charles IV, I think that to be so alive in such a relatively short time after the drab life under Communist rule, the heart of the city makes a statement for itself and the Czech Republic.

As I explored Prague over the next few days, there was always something more I wanted to see. While it doesn’t beat Paris for my favorite city in the world (that’s a pretty tall order), I loved my time there. Unlike much of Europe, it wasn’t ravaged in the wars of the past century, and remains one of the best-preserved capitals in the world.

As I went through Europe after visiting Prague, I traveled to medieval walled cities dusted with snow, larger cities famous for their Christmas markets such as Nuremberg in Germany and Strasbourg and Paris in France, but none of them eclipsed Prague for the feeling of festivity and beauty of the tree. Despite my affinity for Paris, the tree in front of Notre Dame on Christmas Eve didn’t come close to evoking the same sense of majesty as the one in Prague.

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