Exploring Europe

Prague and Salzburg’s Winter Wonderlands

It was not beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  Even though I cherished the warm weather in Barcelona, the winter-themed lights hung around the city streets and the ice-skating rink in the center of Placa Catalunya definitely felt out of place for the beginning of December.  I missed the snow, hot cocoa, mittens, and pea-coats.

But my winter fix was just around the corner- a trip to Czech Republic and Austria.  This was the last trip we planned at the beginning of October, and at that point it felt so far away. We had so many other trips planned, adventures to be had, and test to be taken before it. The trip never felt real until we were boarding the plane to Czech Republic.

After a two hour flight, we finally landed in Prague late at Thursday night. A forty-five minute taxi ride later, we finally reached our hostel.  After previous stays at the Hangover Hospital in Munich (still scarred), my expectations for any living quarters were not that high.  Simply having our own shower was enough for me to be thrilled about. So, Mosaic Hostel surpassed any other hostel situation we had been in this far.  We walked into the foyer and were greeted by music and a security guard.  The downstairs of the hostel was warm and inviting, with a live band, bar, and restaurant.  We were surprised once again when we walked into our room- an 8 person room just for the 7 of us, equipped with our own marble bathroom with a shower, thick comforters, and lockers.

A quick change and small dinner later, we were on our way into the brisk -12 degree Celsius weather to meet our guy friends from Elon at the bar. With fur scarves, hats, mittens, and pea-coats, we wandered the cobble-stone streets of Prague.  The cold did not matter at this point- we were beyond excited at this point to whip out our winter gear, and as we walked, we were kissed by snowflakes- our first snowfall that winter.

Once we navigated through the streets of Prague, we reached our destination.  The bar was small, but each table was equipped with its own tap from underground. Fascinated by the taps erected in the center of the tables, we all enjoyed a mug of beer and catching up with friends.

The next morning, we woke up early to embark on a free walking tour of the city that Bridget had found online (our tourist skills clearly improving). Spoiled after our all-you-can-eat breakfast at the hostel, we braced ourselves for the cold weather.

We clearly had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We were in the perfect moods, invincible from conceivable problem. Our hostel was perfect (in our standards). We had a very nice, cheap, filling breakfast. We thought the cold was, for lack of a better adjective, magical, because we were so sick of the warm weather so close to Christmas.  The night before had not felt cold because we were elated to be in a place that actually felt like the holidays.

Well, this all wore off about 20 minutes into our walking tour. It was -7 degrees Celsius, which to our amazement was an “improvement” according to our tour guide, an Australian who had relocated to Prague after college. After an hour of being outside, I could not feel my ears or nose, and my feet felt like cinder blocks when I walked.

Despite this, we were really excited to finally wander around the city with a tour guide (FOR FREE). We had done little to no research about Prague prior to our trip, and had no idea what we should see in the city (outside of the John Lennon Wall). Guidance was definitely needed, and appreciated . Some highlights of our walking tour included:

  • The clock tower in the main square of the city. I have no idea why this is a tourist attraction. Every hour, little dancing disciples come into the window views to the sound of a trumpet. It was very disappointing given the hype. But apparently the clockmaker was very very famous, and his work was desired by other European countries. The Czechs were afraid that if he built clocks in other countries, theirs would be less special. To prevent this, the city council invited him to a dinner party, where they gouged his eyes out and cut out his tongue.  The clockmaker got his revenge the next day, when he jumped into the technical works of the clock tower, killing himself and breaking inner-workings of the clock.  It was not fixed for centuries.
  • The Jewish Quarter.  This is the only city in Europe that still has the original Jewish synagogue prior to Hitler’s Nazi reign.  Hitler had planned on using this area of Prague as the “Jewish Museum,” so that people could visit the area once the Jews were extinct to see how they lived. It’s really creepy to walk around the area with that in mind. Also, their is a small exhibition of children’s artwork from the concentration camps on display.
  • This small bakery with the BEST hot cocoa I have ever had.
  • A haunted church
  • A theater where Mozart performed

We saw a ton more on our two hour tour, but to be honest, I was so preoccupied with how cold I was that it was difficult to listen.

Prague

Prague

Since this was our only full day in Prague, we decided to do the second walking tour they offered.  This tour was on the opposite bank, exploring the castle district.

As good of an idea as this was in theory, we were the definition of miserable once we were on the tour.  We only had a 45 minute break between our first tour and this tour, so we had maybe ten minutes to go into the nearest Starbucks to warm up before we searched for food and met for our tour.

We journeyed with our new tour guide onto a tram to reach the top of the hill where the castle was located. Once we reached the top, we had an incredible view of the entire city, and all of its 500+ towers (thank you, the crazy man who thought Prague was the spy capital of the world for counting them decades ago).

Prague

Prague

Not to sound like a debby, but this is probably the only part of the tour we enjoyed. We were so cold, I could not even tell you what our tour guide was talking about. I honestly debated if what I was feeling in my toes was hypothermia. Once we actually reached the castle, we were not even able to go in it because they were honoring the guards in a special ceremony for all of their hard work.  It was cool though to see them all standing in lines with their rifles, and some of them on their horses.  Other than this, we were exhausted, hungry, and numb from spending 6+ hours outside. Not to mention, we were thoroughly disappointed that the castle was a building surrounding a cathedral, which from the outside looked identical to the Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona.

Fun tidbit we also learned on the tours: the word “defenestration,” meaning to kill someone by throwing them out a window, was coined in Prague because of an incident at the Prague castle in 1618, when two imperial governors were tossed out the window to their deaths. And the act of defenestration happened multiple times in Prague’s history.

Once our tour ended, we literally raced down the hill, over the river, and to the nearest taxi we could find to fit 7 people.  Let me tell you, when we finally reached our hostel, nothing felt better than sitting in our beds, with all of our clothes still on, heat on high, and our comforters up to our necks. I think it took me two hours to regain full movement of my toes.

We also met our new room companion- a quiet asian boy who did not say a word to use. He put down his bag, took out his phone, texted for five minutes, and then left the room.  We all secretly prayed that he left in such a hurry to switch rooms.  Who would place him in a room of 7 college girls, who were all friends? His dream or his nightmare, we will never know.

After reheating our bodies and resting after a long day of walking, we changed and headed out once more to a late dinner and drinks. We went to one of the best restaurants of my entire European trip. It was very authentic Czech, with long cafeteria-like wooden tables.  We were immediately served dark beer (my first dark brew! which was amazing, and super refreshing by the way, I was genuinely surprised).  I had the best beef, gravy, cranberry sauce, and potato pancakes of my life. After eating a lot of pasta, rice, tapas, and pintos in Spain, it was a relief to have food that felt and tasted like home. It was filling, and it felt a lot like Thanksgiving dinner.

The next morning was our last in Prague, and we had a lot to accomplish before catching our bus to Austria. Some highlights from that morning:

  • The John Lennon Wall. This was probably the only Prague monument any of us could name before our walking tours. It was really cool to see his memorial and the different quotes, drawings, and names people have left in passing, but it was a lot smaller than I had imagined. 
  • The Charles Bridge
  • The Christmas Market in the Town Square. Once again, they were a lot smaller than I had imagined, but it was fun to walk around and see the different Christmas traditions that Prague has in comparison to the United States. I really enjoyed the idea of buying your Christmas ornaments and wooden toys at this outdoor market, enjoying a cup of hot apple cider and goulash.

Our next stop was Austria after our quick stay in Prague.  Once again, Bridget’s tourist skills lead us to a bus trip from Prague to Berlin, where we would then to a train to Salzburg.

I can not rave enough about how much I loved our bus from Prague to Berlin.  It was the best four and a half hours of traveling EVER. The bus was a double decker coach bus with WIFI and bathrooms. Considering there were also maybe 20 other passengers, we each got our own row to lay down and sleep at the back of the second level of the bus. Nothing could be more perfect, especially compared to our RyanAir flights.

Or so we thought. And then we met a three year old (two year old?) German (?) demon child. I am not saying this lightly, he was literally insane. Coerced by one of my friends to poke another one of my girl friends, the child joined in on the game.  All was fun, until he got over confident, and leaped onto my friend, where he preceded to pull her hat over her eyes and sit on top of her, throwing punches the whole time. We tried to stop him- and then he came after us. He tried to pus one of us down the stairs, and at other times he would literally claw at me when I would ask him to be nice. Meanwhile..where was his mom? For the first two hours of this ride, that answer was unknown. We were all so frightened, we slept to make him go away.

Once we finally reached the train station in Germany, our train was delayed an hour.  And then once we ran onto it, we had to switch trains because all of the restrooms were clogged and broken. Once we switched to a different one, the attendants realized that train had the same problem too. This was all said in German, and none of us could figure out why everyone was laughing, or moving, or changing seats, until after our train had stopped in Salzburg.

Nevertheless, we finally reached Salzburg.

Salzburg is like no other city we had visited in Europe.  It was small and quaint, surrounded by breathtaking mountains.  It was a nice break away from big, overcrowded cities.

Salzburg

The remainder of our trip, we stayed at “The Sound of Music Hostel,” which looked more like an abandoned hospital or a school than a hotel. The halls were linoleum checkered tiles, grimy lockers lined the walls, and the rooms were all painted a tainted yellow color.  Despite the initial run in with creepy men (whose wives had gone to sleep) that hit on us while checking in, it was a lot better than what we imagined before our arrival.  It was the last place available online for the days we were in Salzburg, so with slight flashbacks from Oktoberfest and the Hangover Hospital, we had to book it. I would still take that look-a-like hospital hotel over the Hangover Hospital any day.

We devoted our only full day in Salzburg to a “Sound of Music Tour” (aka, my best friend Bridget’s dream tour).  I have not seen the movie in ten years, maybe more, and was not particularly looking forward to a four hour “sing along” tour in -7 degree celsius weather, but it was one of the best tours we had ever been on in Europe.  The tour provided us with a coach bus that took us to several locations including a Christmas market, Nonnberg Abbey, St. Gilgen and Lake Wolfgang, and Mondsee.  Each location felt magical and dreamlike with the snow and swiss alps in the distance.  The route the bus took us on was very scenic, and I was elated we had the opportunity to see such a different part of Europe.  Up until this point (outside of our day trips), the majority of my travels took us to overpopulated and industrial capitals throughout Europe, but never through such quaint back roads and towns.  The view overlooking Lake Wolfgang is something I will never forget, and was totally worth the four hours of singing.

Lake Wolfgang

Lake Wolfgang

After our tour, we spent the remainder of our time in Salzburg relaxing.  We enjoyed traditional goulash, potato cream soup, and wine at a local restaurant, and then wandered through the Christmas markets.

The Salzburg Christmas markets surpassed Prague’s by miles. Rows and Rows of booths circled the town square where an enormous Christmas tree was lit. Each stand overflowed with toys, jewelry, wine, baked goods, hot cider and ornaments. The six of even took a horse-drawn carriage ride around the city center.

Salzburg Christmas Market

Salzburg Christmas Market

After baked pretzels, ornament shopping, and enjoying some beers at a local pub, we trekked home, exhausted from our four days nonstop in the cold.  We climbed back into our beds in the hostel, all anxious to return back to the warm weather in Barcelona and our last two weeks enjoying the city we had grown to love.

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