Prague, Czech Republic: Gingerbread, Trdlník and Haunted AirBnBs

I have always loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book A Little Princess.

The novel is set in the late 1800s and features young Sara Crewe, who is sent to attend an exclusive boarding school in London. On one of her father’s adventures, however, he dies. Now an orphan, Sara is suddenly the responsibility of the school’s bitter headmistress, Miss Minchin. The charity case and servant, as far as Miss Minchin is concerned, is consigned to a sparse attic room and is forced to work for her keep.

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Photo taken from the Prague Castle. The middle rooftop with the light on is our attic Airbnb bedroom.

The attic bedroom of our Prague Airbnb brought back memories of the attic bedroom that was described in A Little Princess. Its north-facing window opened up to a world of red rooftops and a lighted view of the famous Prague castle.

“You can see all sorts of things you can’t see downstairs,” Sara said in A Little Princess. “Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky…it all feels as high up—as if it was another world.”

The rental was in a very old building.  It was located on the very top floor of a multi-floor walkup; the bedroom was perched at the top of a narrow set of creaky wooden stairs in what, at one time, had been the attic.

Our Prague flat was nestled just south of the Prague Castle, on the downward slope that led toward the Vltava river. About 90% of the apartment had been updated; the only space in the apartment that didn’t appear touched was its unheated entry mud room space, which consisted of rustic wooden walls and brick floors. A two-stair entryway led to the cozy kitchen. Throughout the entire space, the ceilings were low and slanted, reminding us just how close we were to the rooftop.

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The world outside our temporary home was decorated for Christmas. An artisanal gingerbread cookie store across the street of the building’s entrance begged us to come, see, taste and featured window displays that could only be described as magical. A hike up the hill led us to the gothic Prague Castle. Its construction began in 870 A.D.; it is the largest and oldest castle in the world and sits on 750,000 square feet.

Around the castle complex, vendors in temporary shops sold glühwein, art, Christmas decorations and warm treats. We bought mugs full of spiced wine from a father and a son from France. The mugs featured the father’s artwork.

We continued down the hill, toward the Charles Bridge.

Warm white Christmas lights lit up the streets, Christmas decorations added to the magic and sweet smells wafted out from the coffee shops. My daughter begged us to try Prague’s famous trdlníks. These street desserts featured cone-shaped donut pastries that were filled with ice cream and achoice of toppings. My daughter chose a chocolate cinnamon donut filled with vanilla soft serve and drizzled with chocolate. Chris chose a donut filled whipped cream and strawberries. Neither one could finish their trdlník.

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Beef goulash, bread, potatoes, dumplings: traditional Czech food beckoned us everywhere, promising comfort, heaviness and warmth. On this chilly night, however, we had filled up on sugar, ice cream and chocolate. We walked back to our Prague apartment.

Later that night, I woke up suddenly. Heavy footsteps were ascending the creaky stairs that led up to the attic. I thought it was my daughter; the ice cream dessert had proved too much for her and she went to bed on the couch in the downstairs family room with a bellyache.

“Margaret,” I called. No answer. “Margaret?”

The footsteps continued up the stairs. They entered the bedroom. They walked over to the bed. I pulled the blankets over my head as the footsteps, recognizing how cliché this move was.

I peeked out from under the blankets to an empty room. There was no one there. I moved closer to my husband.

I thought about this old building and about the buildings, and the history, that surrounded us. If a structure was going to be haunted, it would certainly be here.

Later that morning, we got up early: we had a city tour with a guide scheduled. Chris went for a morning run to the to the castle on the top of the hill and took a picture of our lighted flat below.

We set out that morning for a full day in this favorite, historic city. We stopped by a café for a strong cup of coffee. As we ate our breakfast, I thought how many stunning changes this city had seen; it was full of colorful stories and wonderful characters. Prague was wonder, beauty, brutality, death and innovation all rolled up into one.

This city, full of paradoxes and ghosts, will likely be standing long after we are gone.

Nurnberg, Bavaria

 

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The sky darkened quickly. It felt much like the after dinner lull when we would settle in for the evening. The clock said differently: 3 p.m.

It was the first day of winter, December 21. The festive white lights brightened the darkening streets. Coffee houses transformed into glühwein stands. Christmas decorations trimmed greenery, shrubs, lamp posts, bridges, walkways and streets. The atmosphere was an energized festival, scattered between the gothic and, I dare say, creepy Medieval spires of old churches.

We were in Nuremburg during its not-to-miss time of year—Nurnberger Christkindlesmarkt. The world-famous Christmas market’s first days were recorded in letters written in 1530. It was now 2019 and a dozen generations separated us from the first years of this celebration. The world today would be unrecognizable to those who first sold their Christmas wares, desserts and warm drinks.

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The city came alive now. Wooden stalls were quickly assembled with German efficiency throughout the uneven cobblestone streets of Old Town. Lighted trees were everywhere, each branch wrapped with strands upon strands of warm, white lights. It could only be described as magical.

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We sipped warm spiced wine from our porcelain cups and took bites of drei im weggla, a three-sausage street food sandwich that was sold at nearly every corner. My drei im weggla had been stripped of most of its bread; the finger-sized sausages were loaded with sauerkraut and mustard. I ate this traditional finger food unconventionally—with a fork and a knife.

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We shared the market’s heavy comfort food between the three of us, wishing the beautiful layers of marzipan tasted as good as they had looked behind the glass (although my daughter said it was the best thing she had ever tasted). I longed to buy just a few of delicate and unique Christmas decorations that looked like magic underneath the red and white candy-striped roofs of these rustic, temporary storefronts.

Germany was everything I had hoped it would be. Many of its buildings had seen war, death, unprecedented change:

  • These holes here were caused by the bullets that were fired during a street fight during World War II;
  • Walk up this steep brick-lined street—soon you’ll find Kaiserburg, a Medieval castle built around the year 1000;
  • Next to this, you will see the famous Albrecht Dürer house, once home of Nuremburg’s favorite child. Paintings of the 15th century German painter, theorist and printmaker were scattered throughout the city. I thought he looked a bit like Jesus;
  • Over by the water is the Heilig-Geist-Spital, a former hospital that was founded in 1332. It is now a retirement home and a restaurant. I would have a traditional German meal there later that evening, a meal that would feel much like a grandmother’s hug. I ordered sauerbraten, a tender spiced pot roast, and kartoffelkloesse—round potato dumplings.

Our Airbnb was in the shadow of Nuremburg’s castle. The flat itself was functional, if impersonal. It required an uphill hike to get there but provided everything we needed for the four short days we would call it home. I bought a bag of potatoes and onions. I planned on roasted chicken for our Christmas meal: the pint-sized oven would not hold our usual turkey.

Kaiserburg was majestic and spooky; a German flag flew high overhead. Lights burned in the tower at night; we wondered who was up there and what they were doing. When Chris asked the next day, the shopkeepers said they didn’t know. This further fueled our curiosity.

We huddled together in a frigid, unheated St. Lorenz church for its Christmas Eve service. Treasure surrounded us. From the stained-glass windows, the intricately carved stone and woodwork to the majestic organ and gold statues, we were surrounded by objects that were as old, if not older, than Henry VIII (I mused). Giant chandeliers were lowered from the towering ceilings, and individual white pillar candles were lit for this occasion.

We had bought a tiny portable Christmas tree for the flat. We decorated it with a strand of lights, along with four or five ornaments that had no sentimental value. The Airbnb consisted of two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. We put the small tree in our 11-year-old daughter’s room. She left the lights on all day and all night. She loved the soft glow that, even in this unfamiliar flat and thousands of miles away from home, made it feel more like Christmas.

On the 26th, we tore down the tree and put it outside near the rubbish, hoping someone would see it and rescue it. There wasn’t room for it in the tiny Volkswagen hatchback we had rented, which was now packed and ready to head to Vienna.

We left Nuremberg.

The decorations there were no longer lit. The city seemed dreary. The buzz of Christkindlesmarket was now quiet; the smell of gingerbread and rum punch had faded. The sky was gray, and the streets were wet with the spitting rain that never seemed to turn to snow.

I tried not to let the gloom set in. There was so much more to see, to experience, to do. I felt at home here. Aside from the lone Dutch blood that my father’s mother brought into the mix, my family had all come from Germany. My family names seemed to be everywhere in Germany and throughout Austria—on restaurants, within subway schedules, on street signs, as towns.

We merged onto the Autobahn. Chris stepped on the gas, driving as fast as we could east, toward the signs that said “Wein” and “Österreich.” The sky was low and dreary, but the hills were a brilliant green and sprinkled with castles.