TRAVEL: Christmas as it should be, wild and wonderful
For fairytale romance, nowhere beats the Czech Republic
Picture Christmas in a village in the Tyrolean Alps, where trumpeters in the church tower call the faithful out into the snowy starlight, torches in hand, to ski down to midnight mass, all incense, plainsong and high gothic enchantment. Then schnapps and waltzing in the snow with lissome blonde girls. Or Christmas in the Italian Dolomites, skiing again, and skating on a frozen pond with dark-eyed girls whose mothers hover nearby, poised between indulgence and disapproval, before at last swooping in to whisk their daughters away. Or a riotous Christmas in the French Canadian countryside, going hell-for-leather through snowbound midnight forest under the moon in a sleigh drawn by two great black Percherons.
But for fairy-tale romance, nowhere beats the Czech Republic. The Czechs invented it. Prague, perhaps Europe’s most beautiful city, comes alive. The cobbled expanse of the old town square, dusted with snow, becomes a series of temporary fishpools filled with fat carp (Czech equivalent of our Christmas turkey) all alive-o. All around rise the pointy gothic roofs of the medieval city. The statues of the saints that line the Charles Bridge have their outlines etched in white, while fiddlers, puppeteers, gypsies, chestnut sellers, ply their trades to the strollers bundled up against the brisk cold.
Each winding alley seems to promise some Kafka-esque adventure. The huddled houses of the old Jewish quarter, the great bulk of the castle atop its riverside hill, the signs that hang outside the old houses (a golden stag, a white horse, an iron cockerel, a two-handed sword) in place of street numbers: all seems poised for the promise of enchantment.
Of course, it helps to be there with a significant other. At the time I was pursuing a romance with a beautiful Czech girl called Iva, who looked like the archetypal blonde fairy-tale princess—all flowing limbs, slender waist and big, long-lashed eyes. I was entranced. We were on our way to spend Christmas with her friends and family in Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, at a place called Rostov, deep in the forested valleys of the Jeseniky Mountains, near the border with Poland and Slovakia.
Prague has, for all its undeniable romance, been catching up with the West since the heady days of the Velvet Revolution. Prices are not far from those of London now, and the old town has been given its long overdue wash and brush-up. But drive a few kilometers out into the Bohemian countryside, and you step back decades. In late summer, we had passed fields still worked with horses, ricks and haystacks still thrown together with pitch-fork and biceps—a European landscape that exists over here only in the collective folk memory. Now, driving through the winter countryside, the fields and forests were imbued with a melancholy beauty relieved by occasional bursts of stark, vivid colour—the sombre green of pines amid bare black tree trunks and white snow, the brilliant gold of sudden sunlight on an icy lake, a village of brightly-painted houses red and blue and yellow against the surrounding white.
Everywhere there was wildlife: roe deer and wild boar at the forest fringes, a red stag, gloriously antlered, puffing across a snowbound field, steam puffing from his nostrils. When at last we arrived at Rostov, a village secreted among pines and dominated by a great, towered castle, it seemed that we had stepped back into another world. And the illusion was maintained. Over the coldly blissful days that followed we drank slivovitz (plum schnapps—lethal, and home-made by Iva’s granny), cross-country skied through the silent forest, ate sugared cakes and biscuits by the dozen, lovingly prepared by Iva’s mother, and every night gathered in the village square for carols, mulled wine and laughter.
On Christmas morning we went out to a local stable, and rode two great Czech warmbloods across the white fields. Two memories stand out—letting the big horses go across a snowy stubble, sitting the great joyous bucks with which they inevitably began, and then just flying. Another of Iva, all slender, concentrated precision, putting her horse through a high-actioned half-pass while a flock of white doves from the distant church tower flapped overhead, like living snowflakes in the cold winter sun.
We even went out to attend a local shoot—a great affair of foresters and beaters pushing brightly-cloloured pheasants out of the forest across the gaunt, bare stalks of dead maize still standing in the frozen fields. I had heard that driven pheasants in Eastern Europe can be a sorry affair. Not in Moravia, or at least not here. Although I am a foxhunter who seldom if ever picks up a shotgun, even I could appreciate the way the birds flew—high and fast between the belts of forest—for the Guns (two Germans and two Americans) to work hard for their bag. That was the morning. After a lunch of cold meats, cheeses and borcak (young wine) in a forester’s hut warmed by an old wood-burning stove, it was on to a different part of the forest for an afternoon of driven boar.
It was the first time I had seen a boar hunt. The brisk, busy, cheerful air of beaters and keepers changed perceptibly to something more serious as people were dispatched to their positions. I soon saw why. The wild boar did not come rocketing out in random, noisy fashion like a pheasant or a panicked deer. They simply appeared, dark and awesome, on the rides, materializing like black ghosts for a moment, before melting off almost faster then the eye could follow into the further trees, kicking up little puffs of snow that hung as a mist for a few brief seconds after they had passed, before settling back to earth.
They were smaller than I had expected—until I realised that these were just the young ones, and a great, razor-backed boar followed by his even larger wife came dashing hard across the open. There was just time for a glimpse of a red, angry eye and a gleam of yellow tusk and then they too were gone, thankfully in the opposite direction of where we stood with the green-clad foresters. Then the crackling sound of gunfire, shouts, whistles—a brief November the Fifth cacophony echoing among the bare black trunks—and silence again.
One American had taken his boar, a medium-sized male who, up close, had tusks almost as long as my thumb sticking up from his lower jaw. They are mighty quarry. Iva had already told me about friends who had been gored and slashed when things went wrong. I reached down and touched his clean, black bristles, stiff and hard like some thin hybrid between wire and straw. The foresters, congratulating the hunter, cut a sprig of young pine and put it in his hat-band. Then it was heigh-ho for the forester’s hut, and the slivovitz, and songs and jokes, winding our way through the forest, the boar suspended on a pole, all of us participants in a scene straight out of a medieval Book of Hours.
We returned to England later that week, suddenly meeting the rushing hurry demanded by the autobahn and its speed-obsessed Germanic drivers. The fairy-tale quality evaporated. It was as if we, as in the old stories, had woken back up again after lying under an enchantment.
A good way to book cheap centrally-located accommodation is to rent a room in an old house or apartment in the old town. There is a real tradition of this kind of private B&B in Prague and the people who run these places often serve as excellent unofficial guides to where to eat and shop. Contact the Czech and Slovak Tourist Centre for a list of names and numbers (with information on the standards of accommodation offered) – 0800 026 7943. Short city breaks in Prague can also be booked.
To experience Christmas in French Canada, book into Montreal’s Auberge de La Fontaine, (514) 597-0166—a stone-built, domed and turreted piece of colonial whimsyFor pheasant and boar shooting in Moravia, contact Hendry, Ramsay and Willcox (01738) 443344. Their packages include accommodation in an old Hapsburg castle 15km from the historic regional capital of Brno.