Bundled up in wool hats, scarves, mittens, and about two kilos of extra weight in clothes (and admittedly a "few" added grams from the cheese we've been consuming) we wind our way through the woods behind the 12th-century Strahov monastery. I think of Robert Frost's famous lines, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Like Frost surmised, we probably do have miles to go—and tons to see—before the husband and I settle in for the night at our 1620-built hotel, now part of a UNESCO-world-heritage site.
It's about 3pm and, already, dusk has set in with surprising decisiveness. In the clearing, we spot an unassuming Hansel-and-Gretel-like cottage. The sign outside quietly proclaims that they serve Czech beer—specifically, beer brewed by the monks who still live in the monastery we just passed. Beer-brewing monks? There's absolutely no stopping us now.
Christmas is in the air and store-fronts twinkle with fairy lights, angels and elves. Restaurants with outdoor dining offer fluffy fur seat covers and warm woollen blankets.
Cranking open the door, we walk down a steep stairway into a candle-lit cave hewn entirely out of rock. We're in Peklo restaurant, a 14th-century wine cellar where King Charles IV stored wine made by the nearby monasteries. That experience with fine beverages must have paid off—even today, those monks know how to knock out a good, caramel-y dark beer.
Like the restaurant, Prague in the winter time tells an intriguing story. Our off-season vacation promises to be teeth-clatteringly cold—but also quietly fascinating. We head out of the restaurant to do what every tourist in Prague absolutely has to do— walk down the Charles Bridge.
Usually overrun by tourists, Charles Bridge is mysteriously intimate in the cold night air. Lit by streetlamps, its imposing Gothic statues take turns staring down at us. Ahead of us, the yellow-gold of the spires and domes of the Old Town reflect in gleaming black water of the Vlatva River.
Along the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, centuries-old churches seem perfectly content to sidle up to upmarket restaurants and snazzy boutiques. Christmas is in the air and store-fronts twinkle with fairy lights, angels and elves. Restaurants with outdoor dining offer fluffy fur seat covers and warm woollen blankets.
The streets open up into the Old Town Square where Prague's Christmas market comes breathtakingly alive. With groups of shoppers huddled around small tables, cold hands clutching mugs of steaming mulled wine and rum-spiked hot chocolate, the Christmas market is all about community. And food. Lots of it. There's hunkering hams roasting over charcoal spits and gingerbread cookies shaped like Santas and snowflakes; there's grilled barbequed sausages and towering mountains of unpronounceable cheese written in Czech, the script of which is like English with a healthy dose of Wingdings font thrown into it.
We sample some cheese (by now, you're seeing a pattern here, aren't you?). This time, it's grilled sheep's cheese, served on warm bread and then doused with garlic butter—a perfectly satisfying, creamy yet pungent bite on a cold night. Next on the list is the traditional Czech dessert, trdelník. Ribbons of dough are wrapped around a rolling pin, roasted over charcoal and then made to do a little waltz in cinnamon sugar. The inside of the cone is slathered in Nutella and you've got yourself a snack that's crunchy, warm and chocolate-y with a mild hint of charcoal sneaking up on you at the last minute.
Prague tells stories at every corner. Stories more enchanting on a quiet, dark winter's day.
Quaint little stalls sell every type of Christmas ornament you can dream up. Angels made of corn husks and lace ornaments from East Europe fill up stalls next to classic Czech marionettes of Pinocchio and Charlie Chaplin.
The beautifully lit Christmas tree next to us goes dim for a moment. Then with a sudden burst of classical music, the tree beams up again, the lights dancing in perfect synchronisation to the swells of the music.
With that little sampling of music, we head off to hear the real thing—a concert at the Rudolfinum, a 19th century art gallery turned concert hall. For an hour, notes from Mozart and Bach, Brahms and Vivaldi fill the sumptuous gilded hall. Yes, it's touristy but it's also soul-satisfying music. Long after we leave the concert hall, the music continues to play. It stays with us, much like Prague. A destination that tells stories at every corner. Stories more enchanting on a quiet, dark winter's day.