Sunday, January 17, 2016

Christmas is Over

Another Christmas has come and gone. We have to wait almost another year before we can go through all of it again. For some that might be just fine, for others not so much.
Last year I actually bought gifts for people as I traveled during the year, little trinkets here and there but things I knew people would enjoy and couldn't get anywhere else. I think that might be grow-up gifting. However, I can't be sure.

My last Christmas-type post was from Hungary two years ago. I went back to Budapest this last summer to watch the Formula 1 Grand Prix. It was hot and I was so busy with the race that I didn't even make it to Buda. I might write about the trip at some point. I'm already trying to figure out which race I should go to next. My biggest tip is this: If you are going to the Hungarian Grand Prix, take a car.

So, Christmas.

For a population that claims to be one of the least religious in Europe, not even the least religious but the most atheist in fact, the Czechs really enjoy their Christmas. I think the largest religion counted at the last census here was "Jedi Knight" if that tells you how seriously the Czechs as a whole take religion. Things have changed a lot since Jan Hus was burned as a heretic, sparking a religious war.

They do it differently than we do in the U.S. and I suppose that is just fine. Everyone does things a little differently and it seems in some instances the Czechs stick to the true meaning a little better. That isn't to say they don't commercialize the holiday here. Czechs don't have that pesky "Thanksgiving barrier" when it comes to the acceptable time to start gearing up for Christmas.
As such you will start to see shopping malls and store starting to decorate in the middle of November and a little earlier. Things don't really kick off until the last week of November though. That is when all the Christmas markets start to spring up.

Markets of all variety appear to be a European thing. This year in Prague I saw what I thought was a higher number of markets than usual. I'm used to seeing three. This year it looked like I was seeing them everywhere.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

This one is at Namesti Miru, it means "Peace Square" and it really close to my apartment. I passed it every day on my way to and from work. We don't always get colorful sunsets here so this was a treat. It is a pretty large market and it is there every year.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

As my morning tram ride to the Metro, then on to work, continues I passed this little market too. It's at I.P. Pavlova. There is a little square there which usually has a small farmer's market. This was was pretty local and basically a place to get some svařak. Svařak is mulled wine and it's good especially when it's cold outside. It also gets progressively weaker and more expensive the closer you get to tourist areas, so for the best stuff a local market like this one is usually the best bet. This is the first year I had seen this market.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

I think the market in the photo above was my favorite. It was basically a few svařak booths and some klobasa stands. It was at Jiřiho Z Podebrad and was also super local. Jiřiho Z Podebrad, or Jiřák as the locals call it, is also the site of another very small farmer's market. It is a very popular square for other little festivals too and most of the time the place is a bit too hipster for me. This time it was not. If you needed a tree and some svařak this was the perfect place to go. Again, this was the first year I saw this market too. This square is even closer to my apartment than Namesti Miru, but it's also a lot smaller and less visited.

It's been a few years since I visited the Castle at Christmas time. The last time I did so there was a tree behind St. Vitus Cathedral and that was about it. This year though:

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

There was a lot of Christmas market goodness nestled in behind the cathedral and the dozens of booths were totally set up for tourists. That's all fine and good. As far as I know Prague doesn't really have a reputation for having an impressive, or many Christmas markets like Vienna or Nurnberg, but the Prague Castle is a brilliant place to put a tourist-centered market. There all those tourists are there anyway, why make them go through the hassle of walking all the way to Staromestke Namesti? Of course just outside the castle there were some more localish booths.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

I suppose this one counts as a market. It was maybe 10 booths. It didn't have a homey, local feel but it was a lot more intimate that some of the giant tourist markets.

But if you were one of the tourists who decided to take the arduous walk to Old Town Square, you would have passed another small market at Kampa.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

This market was basically under the castle side of the Charles Bridge, which if you're walking from the castle to old town, or vice versa, is the way to go. I can't believe I hadn't seen a Christmas market here before, but maybe I just missed it. There is usually a market here for Easter and then another one in the fall for something. There might also be one in the middle of the summer, but I'm not at Kampa much so I can't say.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

The photo above is of the market on Old Town Square, Staromestke Namesti, it's by far the biggest one. As you can see, of the left of this photo, there is a giant Christmas tree. It's a real tree and I think it is the nation tree or something. Every year it is decorated with a different theme. I wasn't particularly fond of this year's theme and I'm not even 100% sure what it was. The market is so big I took several photos and even one during the day.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

As you can see it is also really really crowded. I'm not a huge fan of large crowds so I didn't stay there very long. I also think I took the night photos on a Saturday evening, which if you're trying to avoid tourists is a huge mistake.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

The best way to see the size and scope of the Old Town Square Christmas market is to climb the tower and shoot down. I thought about it, but I decided against it and just continued on with my walk.

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas markets

The other large market is on Vaclavske Namesti, Wenceslas Square. It is hard to say how large it is because it is not as compact as the one on the old town square. The Vaclavak, another local term, is spread out and included booths in the center of the road up to the nation museum.

That is pretty much if for the Christmas markets. I'm sure there were more, but I will stick a map here so you can see where the markets were. They are gone now. Euros tear down their Christmas markets pretty quickly. None of this leaving your lights up until June stuff here.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the markets in Prague. There may have been more I just didn't see them.

As I said, for an atheist country the Czechs do get into the spirit in a nice way. Sure one could make the arguments that the markets are commercial and the Czechs are worshiping the almighty Crown, but I think there is more to it than that. If that were strictly the case you wouldn't have things like this:

Prague, Czech Republic Christmas carols

This is the second year I've seen this. It is caroling in the main train station. If you look closely you can see some people with sheet music. I honestly don't know who it is doing it, maybe the national opera company or something. I think there are a few volunteers, but the music was definitely professional. It's nice, it's free and it's not something you would expect atheists to do. As you can see this portion of the train station was packed and everyone stopped what they were doing to enjoy it. That is beautiful Christmas spirit in my eyes. I hope I don't miss it next year.

Otherwise Christmas was very mellow for me. I took a walk on Christmas Eve and a few other things. I was mostly out to "see" and take some photos. So now I'll provide some themeless random stuff I shot on my walk.

Prague, Czech Republic

This one was actually before Christmas Eve, but I liked it so it's here. I personally enjoy the light and how that yellow window seems to be the only thing not monochrome. I do not think this photo would be as good in black and white. I generally despise selective desaturation when it's done in photoshop, but to me, since this was a real scene I quite enjoy it.

Klobasa open fire cooking

There was this little restuarant on Kampa I passed on Christmas Eve. It was occupied mostly by Russian families doing this DIY klobasa thing. Russian Christmas is in January. I had some svařak and sat by the fire. If I'm going to pay full price for klobasa it's going to be cooked. I'm not that romantic anymore, I don't think that lady is either.

Klobasa open fire cooking

Come on, open fires are cool. Why not have a tight shot of fire and sausage?

Prague, Czech Republic Prague Castle Charles Bridge

My trip took me to Karlovo Lazne where I could see the Karluv Most, Charles Bridge, and the castle.

Prague, Czech Republic Prague Castle

I experimented with an HDR photo or two. This one turned out the best. Or, rather, this is the one I put the most work into. Yes, there was some color in the sky. No, there was not THAT much. It's a blog, not a newspaper.

Street lamp in Prague and Pertin Tower

Okay, last one. Evidently I have a thing lately for photographing street lights. I don't know why. I think two is the max I can get away with per post unless they are superb. I think the first one really is.

I debated explaining how Czechs do Christmas with Ježiček, Mikuláš, Anděl and Čert as well as how the tree is adorned with sparklers (because what is Christmas in any country without a serious fire hazard) but mostly sparkers are taken outside these days.

Maybe next year I'll try and go in depth about all those traditions. As for this year a walk and some markets will have to do.

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