I’ve fallen into the quaintest snow globe in the toy shop. Above me and around me, flakes are tumbling onto a jumble of spires and medieval rooftops. They haven’t stopped all day. It’s mid-afternoon in Prague, and on the snow-cushioned Old Town Square, the venerable statue of religious reformer Jan Hus looks out from beneath a comically thick white head-topping.
There’s a muffled, wrap-up-warm hush in the air that you wouldn’t expect from a European capital city, particularly one as tourist-trammelled as Prague. But this is January, and my gloves, hat and mountaineer-style layering are testament to why temperatures of minus 10 don’t tend to coincide with peak season. The Charles Bridge is quiet.
In the early evening, among the lamp-lit back lanes of the Old Town, I walk past a bar just as its door gets pushed open. A gust of noise spills out. There is no English signage outside, and when, on a whim, I turn in and step out of the chill, I find a low-slung, wood-panelled tavern bursting with smoke, beer and loud voices. The communal tables are filled almost exclusively with men.
An aging, no-nonsense barman fills me a glass. The choice is pilsner or pilsner. By the time I finish my beer almost half the drinkers have dispersed. I check the time. 6.15pm – the post-work crowd, heading home after a 5pm cupful or two. When I tread back outside myself, the skies are darker and the cold is colder, but I’m warmer.
The following day, the tombstones in the Jewish Cemetery have me outnumbered 12,000 to one. Each stone has a high cap of snow. I’ve been to this spot once before, on a hot July several years earlier, but surrounded by the crowds and cameras of high summer it was a different place altogether.
Seeing Prague in the depths of winter is like being granted a portal onto your own private city. You’re given the space and time to appreciate what’s in front of you. The number of follow-the-leader tour groups I’ve seen could be counted on no fingers – fortunate too, because I don’t want to take my gloves off.
Even in a cold snap, though, tourism trickles on. The souvenir shops still sell wooden puppets. The cafes on Castle Hill still assume multi-lingual noticeboards. On this freezing January week, however, there aren’t enough of us visitors to go round. There are icicles hanging from the gargoyles that gaze down from St Vitus Cathedral, but I can’t spot them on any of the postcards.
A day later, I catch a tram south and wander up to the old Vysehrad fort, said to be Prague’s first settlement. I walk the ramparts, crunching fresh tracks. It is as muted as anywhere, and as the snow keeps falling from on high onto the fortress, and onto the city, and onto me, I feel lucky to be seeing Prague when it doesn’t know I’m there.