Bohemian Rhapsody – why Prague and Pilsen are perfect for a winter vacation
Departing from Prague Airport, I open my in-flight magazine to read a five-page article on the famous Christmas markets in the Czech Republic.
“No self-respecting Czech town would miss the opportunity to visit one,” it says, and it has apparently been since medieval times.
The pages of my magazine are illuminated with a dazzling array of images showing scenes from across the country, one of which depicts Prague’s Old Town Square lit up in a warm, warm glow, crowds of people flocking to jostling between the stalls under an imposing Christmas tree.
This magazine was printed in October of this year. The scene I live in December is very different.
On November 25, the Czech Republic announced a series of measures to stem the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. In addition to ordering the closure of all bars and restaurants at 10 p.m., the Czechs have done the unthinkable by ordering the closure of their Christmas markets.
For a place like Prague, which thrives on tourism and nightlife, these regulations have changed the very fabric of the city. The wooden stalls of the so-called Christmas market are still dotted around the Old Town Square, but tourists now walk aimlessly past them.
The rest of the city is also muted. My room at the Hotel Occidental overlooks Wenceslas Square – usually a hub of activity, it seems rather numb now. The famous Duplex nightclub in this square has a sign above its door indicating: “CLUB STAY OPEN EVERY DAY”, then the opening hours: 7 pm-10pm. Imagine going out to party for just three hours …
Fortunately, there is still plenty to do in the capital of the Czech Republic during the day. My personal highlight is Pragl, where classically trained glassblower Dave Yule teaches me how to make my own glassware.
Glassmaking was very important in Bohemia, the old name of the Czech Republic, and in a typical Czech style the workshop is complemented by a few glasses of local beer. (Workshops start from 600 CZK / £ 20; pragl glass.)
Speaking of beer, my next stop is a town that every discerning drinker will have heard of. About an hour and a half away by car, Pilsen (Plzen) is nestled in the heart of West Bohemia. Known the world over for its pilsner lager, this market town surrounds the Pilsner Urquell brewery, founded in 1842.
It’s a brewery like no other, and with 80-minute tours starting at just 250CZK (£ 8.30), a visit is an absolute must. Visitors are immersed in the incredible and unique history of the pilsner, with the tour ending in the caves deep in town, where I can taste the creamy beer myself.
It is served with a deliberately large head to reduce the amount of CO2 that makes it into beer. The Czechs call this effect “mliko”, which means milky.
Indeed, if Pilsen is pretty on one level, it is in the 13 kilometers of underground caves that we discover the true heart and soul of this city. For 150CZK (£ 5), visitors can don a helmet and go below the surface to enjoy the historic Pilsen underground tour.
Starting from under the Senk Na Parkanu pub – which serves a delicious variety of traditional Czech food (main course from CZK 195 / £ 6.50) – the tour winds through several floors of labyrinthine corridors under the streets.
Originally built as cellars to store and move beer kegs, these hallways have since been cleaned, repaved, and turned into a living museum. Be warned – this experience is not for the claustrophobic, especially when the ceilings start to get very, very low.
Back on the surface, I discover that Pilsen, like Prague, has been hit hard by the new Covid regulations. With the disappearance of the Christmas markets, the town square is much less busy than I expected. Dagmar, who works at one of the few stalls that are allowed to remain open, tells me that she worries for the good of her business. The loss of attendance due to the closure cost her a lot of money, she explains.
Still, there is a lot to do outside of the market. I am fortunate to visit during the Jewish Festival of Lights, which is celebrated at the Old Synagogue with a dazzling technicolor projection. The neo-Romanesque building is tucked away on an unsuspecting side street and recently received a full restoration. Religious worship is something the Covid has failed to interrupt.
On the subject of religious buildings, my next stop is to visit Saint-Barthélemy Cathedral. This beautiful Gothic church dominates Pilsen’s main square, which, despite the closure of the Christmas market, still manages to remain vibrant and bustling.
Entrance is free and I urge any visitor to make at least one quick visit to see the incredible vaulted ceilings, decorated with stunning paintings by Karl Jobst, painted in 1883.
Then, for 60 CZK / £ 2, visitors can also climb the roughly 300 steps to the top of the 103-meter-high tower, from where they can get incredible views of the city.
As the evening approaches, I lament the fact that Pilsen is nowhere near as vibrant as it could have been – yet I can’t help but think that this beautiful city will recover very healthily from the pandemic. . With so much beauty and intrigue to discover, it’s no wonder this city was European Capital of Culture in 2015.
There is just enough time on my trip to experience something quite new. Pilsen is a rapidly growing city, and in the emerging Pilsen 8 district we find Purkmistr, a restaurant and hotel with a very unique health club offering.
After tasting some of the delicious Czech beers they offer, I am driven to their beer spa, where I take a rejuvenating bath in the amber nectar (from CZK 900 / £ 30). As I lie down, drinking the hot beer, I begin to fully appreciate the importance of this drink in the history of the Czech Republic and how Purkmistr is able to honor the city’s most renowned product. with creativity.
It’s an appalling shame that this new variant must have struck so close to Christmas, but the Czechs aren’t the only ones to be shaken by its effects.
My advice would be to put Prague and Pilsen on your to-do list now. As the journey begins to pick up its pace, you won’t find a place on earth more thrilled to express itself through food, beer, history and everything in between.
Log on to the official websites of CzechTourism (czechtourism.com) and Visit Pilsen (visitpilsen.eu) to stay up-to-date with news related to Covid-19 regulations in the Czech Republic and find out how to plan your trip.
British Airways offers direct flights from London Heathrow to Prague with prices from October 2022 starting at £ 68 return.
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