“I’ve never seen it more beautiful,” says Sean Newson, experiencing snow in the historical capital of the Czech Republic, after twenty years of visiting the city. Here’s why a snowy landscape elevates it to another level…
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Prague in the snow. It was early December 2016. I’d checked into a hotel in Malá Strana — the Little Quarter of embassies, churches and cobbled alleys that crouches beneath Prague Castle — and, wiped out from an early flight, had taken a nap. I woke to find it was minutes before nightfall in one of Europe’s most ravishing cities, and I had to get outside before darkness fell.
And there it was — the white stuff. Just a centimetre or two, but enough to muffle the sounds of the city and bathe it in a soft, ghostly light. It picked out every detail of Malá Strana’s intricate skyline, set against the brooding purple-grey of the clouds. Baroque domes, Gothic spires, the cathedral’s baubled belltower, each peak and flourish as fanciful as a fairy tale. In the end, I stopped walking and just stood, gawping, as another snow flurry danced through the main square on the eddying wind. It felt like I’d stepped into not just another city, but another century.
Ever since I met my Czech wife 20 years ago, I’ve been a regular visitor to the city, and I’ve never seen it more beautiful than in deepest midwinter, even if it was 14 years before I saw it covered in snow. You’ll love it, too — as long as you wrap up warm. Climate change may have dulled the ferocity of the Central European winter, but Prague’s average daytime temperature barely rises above freezing in December and January. Every exit requires the methodical application of thick overcoat, woolly hat, scarf and gloves. Don’t try to butch it out: you’ll end up in bed with a fever, as I did on my first visit.
But this winter wonderland is worth every ounce of effort — not least because most tourists are put off by the cold. In December, you won’t have to make a dawn raid on the city’s medieval, statue-lined Charles Bridge — in summer, you’d be squirming through a mass of coach parties and selfie-sticks. Nor will you have to queue for St Vitus, the soaring Gothic cathedral that towers over the city. Built in the 14th century, when this was effectively the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, its gemstone-encrusted frescoes become a glittering jewellery box on a darkening December afternoon.
The winter appeal goes way beyond snow flurries and deserted sights, though. Prague is still, in its historic core, a city built to the scale of busy human feet. The tight, secretive streets of the Malá Strana and Staré Město (the Old Town) spin you back hundreds of years — impossible in summer, when sheer numbers kill the atmosphere.
At every turn, bright lights beckon you indoors. Duck into cellar taverns for a bowl of meaty goulash soup, glowing red with paprika and warming as a mother’s hug. Chase it with a fresh, unfiltered Staropramen at the Potrefená Husa on Platnéřská in Staré Město. Then pack on a little more insulation with a Czech cake. My favourite is koláč, a featherlight pastry topped with fruit. You’ll find the best one — cherry-topped — at Cukrář Skála bakery, about a 15-minute walk away on Dlouhá Street.
Follow Dlouhá Street on to No. 37, and a dark archway suddenly looms beside you. What lurks down its cobbles, you wonder? Rabbi Loew’s famous Golem? (Loew was said to have made the Frankenstein-like creature out of clay from the banks of the Vltava before it lumbered through dozens of fanciful 19th- and 20th-century novels.) But no: the passage leads to a pocket-sized Renaissance square, and in its vaulted ground-floor rooms, a wine bar, Bokovka. By candlelight, on a long winter’s evening, there’s no better place to hatch a plot over a glass or two of warming Czech Pinot Noir — even if you’re only deciding which museums to check out the next day.
Carolling choirs also warm the air here, especially during Prague’s Advent festivals. If they tickle your musical ear, stroll on to the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a fascinating spot made magical by its listening posts — few Prague experiences are more romantic than hearing recordings made on its vast collection of instruments. Little by little, the enchantment grows: a cascading Mozart duet played on 18th-century violins, or the twirling Reminiscence of Pilsen by Bedřich Smetana, performed on the piano he owned. At this time of year, the museum’s galleries are deserted, the ghosts of composers swirling around you.
Alongside its fierce warmth and artistic genius, the city has a streak of darkness, too. This you’ll confront at places such as the cemetery that commemorates the Holocaust. In summer, hundreds pour in to pay their respects, but now the snow-sprinkled headstones are a peaceful place to commune with Prague’s past lives.
Afterwards, you may find yourself standing outside on Siroká Street, welling up as you contemplate the grim reality of what you’ve just seen. But that’s OK. Looking back into Prague’s troubled history and feeling its icy touch is a rite of passage here. As is diving into somewhere warm afterwards and shaking off the chill. So grab your loved one by the hand and wander westwards along the cobbled streets of Josefov, towards the buzzing bars and restaurants around Dlouhá Street. As befits a resurgent city at the crossroads of Central Europe, the scene here is cosmopolitan, open-minded and welcoming, and if you’re in the mood to reaffirm shared values, there are few better places. Outside, a snowstorm may be brewing amid the gargoyles and ghosts. But there’ll be no mistaking the warm emotional glow within. Na Prahu: Here’s to Prague.
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