I stand in Saint Vitus Cathedral in silence, breathing slowly as I share the morning with Alphonse Mucha’s incredible stained glass windows, and no one else. Franz Kafka’s ghost is my only company on the famous Golden Lane, and his tiny blue house is empty except for the clerk and a few copies of The Metamorphosis. The vacant eyes of statued saints on the Charles Bridge grace the River Vltava and keep watch in quiet contemplation while the few passerby stroll towards Hradcany Castle. The stairs up to the top of the imposing Powder Tower are mine alone to climb, and the cafes around Old Town Square offer a choice of tables for a plate of dumplings or wiener coffee. But lunch is to be on the terrace on the top floor of the Hotel U Prince, where the star attraction is not the regional menu but the expansive view of the city. Dozens of black spires direct the chimney smoke up, up; above empty streets which connect the Little Town to Mala Strana, Wenceslas Square to the New Town. Like a forbidden romance a mysterious Gothic aura lays on the city like the wings of a bat, the exhaled smoke of a tortured poet, green-brown moss on crumbling church stones.
Wait a minute though: isn’t Prague supposed to be absolutely jam-packed with tourists and bus groups? Don’t travel writers now advise a trip to Budapest or Dubrovnik instead of the Czech city? Aren’t travelers lamenting the hustle and hawking in the Old Town Square, and that Saint Vitus Cathedral is completely overrun with tour groups, and that Charles Bridge is barely walkable, much less enjoyable? What makes my experience so different from the rest?
I am in Prague in early December.
Off season. Cold weather. Lower hotel rates, inexpensive flights, uncrowded airports, open tables, happy shop owners, and most obviously, no crowds! Traveling in the off season is a “secret” that travel agents and other industry professionals have been taking advantage of for years. The benefits of low season travel are not just financial; I love traveling to Europe in the winter because it feels more genuine and less Disney. When the weather is below freezing, only the locals and real hard-core travelers are out. Very few companies run tours to Europe in winter because many tourists will not travel in cold weather. Yes, Prague is cold. The wind bites, it might snow, and you will probably find yourself hopping into more than one cafe for a cup of svarak (hot spiced wine).
But smart travelers don’t let the weather dictate their experiences; they live by the principle that there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. A few extra layers and gloves in the backpack take up a little more room, but having Mucha’s Art Nouveau stained-glass windows to yourself is definitely worth it. A snow-filled night under the lights of the Tyn Church beats a summer sardine sandwich in the Old Town Square in August, hands-down.
Travel to Europe in exhilarating; pack your coat and long underwear, and when you have that medieval church to yourself, when you stand uninterrupted on stairways, linger at windows with a foreign city spread beneath you, and chat with unhurried shop owners; smile, pull up your scarf and join Kafka’s ghost for another cup of svarak.