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.

A Quirky Prague Tour: Executions, Prophesies, Good Luck, Bronze Penises and Faceless Babies

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“You have come to Prague at the right time,” our larger-than-life Czech tour guide announced. He wore a Red Bull trucker hat, Nike trainers, sported two-day stubble and told us he had multiple jobs as well as two PhDs.

We were a part of a large tour group that included several New Yorkers, a handful of Californians and a lone Japanese tourist who was, understandably, quite silent.  

We tottered along behind our guide throughout the ancient city. He routinely turned to count us all with a dramatic flourish. He did not want to lose any of the group within this Eastern European city that had, until rather recently, sported the world’s largest representation of Josef Stalin on a hill.

He explained that the Charles Bridge—the Gothic stone structure that connects Prague’s Old Town and Lesser Town, a landmark since 1357, a UNESCO World Heritage Site—had received an “F” rating structurally. It could, in fact, crumble beneath our feet as we walked across it now, plunging us into the deep currents of the Vltava river toward an inevitably painful death. (Not really; it was implied.)

“It is also said that Prague will be destroyed in 2020.” He let that comment set for a bit. We all stood, rapt with attention.

“Poof,” he exclaimed. “No more Prague.”

The Seeress of Prague: He mentioned her several times throughout our tour.

At her death 1658, she had made many dark predictions that were written in poetic, descriptive language. She had spoken of Elizabeth Tudor’s reign (“In the fog-land, a Virgin girl will become Queen and will bring her land Empire and Greatness”), the rise of Adolph Hitler (“In Germany speaks a Man, whose sign is a strange Cross with Arms, and he speaks to his Folk and promises them Might and Dominion”), and smartphones (“I see a small cornered thing in their hands, which will give them information about everything they wish to know. On a white Surface, there appears a small box in which we can see People, Animals, Mountains and Valleys. Beautiful Music accompanies the Figures, and the People are happy over it. But all their joys will mean nothing”).

She also predicted the end of Prague. Its end was described with horrifying imagery, in which the “Earth would be raped” and “God will hold a horrible trial.”

A dragon, she wrote, “who looks gross,” would come out of the East:

“Out of his 9 Tongues and 99 Eyes there will shoot deadly lightning…Prague, my dear Prague, you will find a unique but gruesome End. One Breath dissociates your Walkways, sweet and warm…Thousands of people will lie to rest with horribly twisted Faces, and will freeze in spite of the Warmth. The End is at Hand. Ten dampened blows to the Church are in the air…In the City there is Fire everywhere. The Earth moves, deep Crevices open and draw into them the Dead and the Living. The Cemeteries open themselves and the Skeletons laugh a gruesome laugh. Everything sinks into the black depths.”

I shuddered. I knew where I wasn’t going to be in 2020.

He led us throughout the city, showing us not only the famous sites, but quirky and macabre sites (that would make for interesting blog posts, to be sure), each accompanied with stories that seemed almost too outlandish to be true.

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We passed by the Prague Astronomical Clock, built in 1490. Upon its completion, the clockmaker was blinded, stabbed in the eyes with hot pokers, so he could not make another clock. The clockmaker took his revenge, however: he disabled the clock, making it unusable for hundreds of years. There were throngs of people within this square and I felt claustrophobic. “Hold your valuables closely,” he announced. This was a prime area for professional pickpockets.

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He stood us in Prague’s Old Town Square, which was the site of 27 executions in 1621. These executions were a rebellion against the Habsburg monarchy and resulted in 24 beheadings and three hangings. The heads were hanged from the towers at both ends of the Charles Bridge; eleven of the heads remained on the bridge for the next 20 years. The execution area was marked with a giant “X.” The names of the Bohemian noble men are listed on a plaque.  It reads (translated):

“On the spot here, in pavement marked the execution ground, became a place where, on Monday, June 21, 1621, from five o’clock until nine in the morning, he sacrificed his life to defend the freedom of the Czech kingdom of these martyrs.”

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He told us that the Czech Republic was the most atheist country in Europe. (And that it  had the highest percentage of smokers. Same thought, no lie. Not sure what one had to do with the other…)

Although our Czech tour guide didn’t believe in a higher power, he led us to a cloaked sculpture, Il Commendatore, by artist Anna Chomy. It sat gloomily outside the concert hall where Mozart first performed his opera, Don Giovanni. He told us if we rubbed the left hand of the statue, it was good luck. (I’ve also since read that this Cloak of Conscience sculpture is haunted. Although there is no face visible, a skeleton face sometimes appears when a flash is used.)

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We followed him down the oldest cobblestone street toward the John Lennon Wall. This was the famous graffiti-filled wall that began its colorful journey after Lennon’s assassination in 1980. It soon became the source of angst to the communist regime: much of the artwork was used as a medium of protest. Our guide told us that the police had attempted to paint over the artwork several times. The Lennon Wall, however, was actually the property of the Knights of Malta and the police had no authority to order this space to be painted. Malta apparently quite liked the graffiti.

Our tour included visits to several sculptures by controversial Czech artist David Cerny, including “Piss.”

This water fountain sculpture stands outside the Franz Kafka museum and features two men urinating into a pool—a pool that is in the shape of the Czech Republic. If you text a personal message to the phone number listed near the exhibit, the men will move their bronze penises about to spell out your message. On the day we visited, however, one of the penises was having mechanical difficulties; we weren’t fortunate enough to see this demonstrated first-hand.

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We also visited the giant metal Babies sculpture at Kampa Park, near the Charles Bridge. They can only be described as creepy. The large, pudgy crawling bronze babies are devoid of faces. Instead, they feature digital barcodes. These babies apparently represent the first generation raised within the digital revolution, their growth stunted by the totalitarian rule of the communist party.

(Unfortunately, we missed the sculpture, “Brownnosers.” This sculpture requires a climb up a ladder toward the back end of an oversized naked statue. At the top of the ladder, you can insert your head inside the statue’s giant rectum and watch a video of a former Czech president and the head of the National Gallery, feeding each other to the tune of Queen’s We are the Champions.)

It was chilly day in January. The tour lasted nearly six hours.

We sought refuge in a sparkling gingerbread house restaurant that served traditional Czech food. It was still decorated for Christmas and had portable kerosene heaters. We attempted to warm up before starting our long, mostly uphill, walk back to our Airbnb,  located just under the Prague Castle.