A Christmas Market Fiesta.

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Come November and the whole world  seem to spin into a frenzied festive  mood all in preparation for the most magical time of the year, Christmas day, followed by the year end Gala. The twinkling holiday lights adorn the buildings and the trees. Every tiny village, town, and big cities are bedecked, vibrant, and aglow in this holiday season. As a child growing up in Kolkata, I have experienced Christmas at the dazzling Park Street-Chowringhee –New Market area  where the city came alive with the crowd throbbing, shopping,  and gorging delightful treats at Nahoum’s and Flury’s pastry shop.  At night as I lay in bed, I imagined the descriptions of Christmas markets in Europe as read in old classics, and I was enthralled by the vivid descriptions and fairytale like experience.   Even Dickens in his famous “A Christmas Carol” echoed the upbeat moods of the common people at Christmas during turbulent and trying times. There is some magic in the air at this time around.  And one day, as I had envisioned, the picture of Christmas Markets did come alive. The imagination that had taken wing years ago finally flown in to the destination of a Christmas Market in the city of Prague, Czech Republic.

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Landing at Prague was like delving straight into the picture postcard of old European cities seen in my childhood.  Praha is aptly known to be the “City of a Hundred Spires”. It is fascinating with its ancient buildings, castles, enticing architecture, and old world charm. I could indelibly associate with the winding lanes of the Jewish Quarters as read in the novels of the great Franz Kafka. I couldn’t but agree more with the great Mozart for saying, “My Praguers understand me,” while trotting the alleys, admiring the great heritage and architectural ensemble of this intellectual and cultural hub. Walking through the streets of Praha was like going down the pages of some old classic novel. It was a twirling in laid back luxury, in the labyrinth of the middle- ages. The cobble stoned squares and streets surrounded by gothic cathedrals and churches of the medieval era evoked in me the spirit of a travel  back in a time machine as I had read in the innumerable books and  could relate to it right away. But to me, the best way to connect to any culture is to go a few steps beyond the busy, touristy spots, take a little walk off of the beaten tracks, and eat their street food like the locals. A pleasure seeker in food that I am, I have discovered that the best street food is to be found in the Christmas Markets of Prague. 

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I followed the trail of the delicious aura of Czech food that wafted across the streets of Bohemia and landed straight at its heartland, the Old Town Square of Prague. To me it was the Mecca of Street food, with my taste buds salivating and sights and sounds titillating. Set amidst the Gothic Tyn Church, the Baroque styled St. Nicholas Church, the Town Hall and the Rococo Kinsky Palace, a monument of Jan Hus at the center of the Square, it holds the oldest and biggest of Christmas Markets in Prague for more than 500 hundred years now.  Christmas, I am sure, must have centered at this advent market where the romance of the holidays came alive in grand traditions. The sweet smell of ginger bread and roasting sausages drifted along with the crowd through the cold air. Warm apple cider, cold holiday beer and warm spiced wine delighted the senses as one revels in the enchantment of the season.  The pastries and fruit cakes are elaborate and seemed to be straight out of the medieval cook books. Shoppers were abustle, sipping their heavily spiced mulled wine.  Having heard of hot wine for the first time I decided to let my curiosity transpose to experiencing it. Tasting this piping hot beverage of choice, of all Christmas Markets, was definitely an exotic one. The red wine laden with raisin, almond, cinnamon and cloves surely warmed me up for a while as I headed towards the much heard of greasy, noisy sausage stands with hotdogs and frankfurters that sizzle in the griddle with dollops of mustard on them.  I ate my way through the market spoiling myself with the Fried pizza topped with tomato and cheese. The roasted pig on a spit, hogged the limelight with its long queue all waiting to taste the succulent cured and smoked ham.  It was near midnight and there were still tons of food waiting to be tried. Potato stands with huge open pans of differently seasoned potatoes were luring me with their resemblance to the “aloo-chaats” at the road side food stalls back home in Kolkata.  The one with the cabbage, bacon and chunks of pork in it was my spot on favorite. I was excited by this look alike of an “aloo-chaat” with meat, I fell for it not realizing that they are sold by their weight!  Meat could be all you eat in Prague, in the form of ribs, dumplings, pork knuckle soup with ginger, or the Goulash, which is the hearty beef stew with its striking akin-ness to the Bengali “mangsho-aloor jhol” with its light yet flavorful distinctiveness. The place was brimming with vendors as I was browsing stall after stall in search of special finds.  There were decorated glass and wooden ornaments, scented soaps and candles, the Bohemian crystals, hand-knitted woolen gloves, socks and hats, rag-dolls, and homemade colorful candy. There was an abundance of shopping, and the walk kept me hungry enough to discover one culinary treasure after another. The pancake and crepe stands competed with each other in their fruit filled deliciousness. The one singular and spectacular dessert spot to stop were the Trdelnik stalls. It is the local sweet delicacy of Bohemia, the soft dough is wrapped around a metal or wooden stick and baked in an open flame right in front of you. This flaky warm pastry is dusted with sugar and cinnamon to melt in your mouth as you waltz your way to an old world tradition of Christmas Caroling.

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 The Christmas Market seemed to be a truly local affair, the mood is friendly and festive with traditional holiday goodies on display in the wooden stalls.  The scents of the season, of cinnamon and roasting nuts fill the air. Children flock to the stalls with artisans selling wooden toys crafted by hand. It is strange how modern day children are found to abandon their electronic gadgets and discover the enchantment of hand carved toys. The outdoor fiesta here is a far cry from the plush, glittering malls and superstores of city life. Though there is the twinkling electric bulbs adorning the age old ancient fir trees  in place of torches of yester years , the bonhomie and fun of a rustic old world still prevails. It is a living, breathing outdoor market place where every gift is crafted by hand and Santa hasn’t outsourced his workshop to China yet. It is all old and cold, but at the same time, warm and cozy. It took me back in time and made me feel like I was the Alice lost in a fun filled wondrous Wonderland.