Advent in Prague.
The Czech Republic is one of the top Christmas destinations for tourists, mostly because of the unique traditional markets still found here. More than 120 000 tourists travel to the Czech Republic each Christmas holiday, according to the Association of Czech Tourist Offices and Agencies (ACCKA), which monitors the markets.
The markets on Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square attract most of the tourists. Vendors there offer Czech traditional products, as well as gifts from neighbouring countries, and hold many accompanying cultural programmes on a daily basis.
"We try to come up with new enhancements every year, either in special decorations for the booths or by offering products from Slovakia, Bavaria, Italy or Hungary - mostly sausages, cheeses or smoked meats," said Zuzana Uhlikova, spokesperson for Taiko, the company that organises the Old Town and Wenceslas markets. "Children can participate by creating some of the traditional products themselves and can even take part in competitions."
If you are looking to buy a typical Czech gift, Christmas markets are the place to go, with their wide range of traditional homemade products including strawmade decorative gifts, ceramics and wooden toys.
If you feel like sweetening your Christmas trip to Prague, don't forget to taste the traditional trdelnik (sweet dough wrapped in cinnamon and nuts) and svarak (mulled wine). Or if you happen to catch the smell of roasted chestnuts, feel free to succumb to temptation. You won't regret it.
The main markets might be too congested, but you can always stroll a bit further to namesti Republiky, which is still in the very centre of Prague, or even to Vinohrady to namesti Miru, where the smaller markets with a cosy atmosphere, fewer tourists and more locals take place.
At namesti Miru, enticingly named booths like "Rose tearoom" and "Herbal Soap House" reveal what you can expect to find at this market. With 59 booths, you can buy almost any gift - even for the hardest to shop for person on your list. Traditional Christmas crafts are sold in abundance: jewellery from precious stones, ceramic nativity scenes, tin figures, candles, products made from sheep's wool and wooden toys.
In Prague's freezing weather, typical for local winters, you might welcome the always popular rum tea, special "winter crepes" or even fresh cuts of simmering meat hot off the grill. If you feel carried by the Christmas spirit and feel like doing a good turn, a few NGOs helping the needy have rented a booth at the namesti Miru market and will be selling products with the proceeds going to a good cause.
A very specific Christmas market for pottery and handicrafts takes place at the Holsovice exhibition grounds. Besides the traditional gifts and foods also on offer at the markets in the city centre, at the Holesovice market you can watch craftsmen at work making pottery and artists painting canvases. Weekends at Holesovice will be spiced up with appearances by gospel choirs, various fashion and ballet shows and a number of competitions. And of course, there will be plenty of games and entertainment for the kids.
Tomio Okamura of ACCKA says all the Prague markets have improved their offer significantly in the past few years, especially by replacing junk food and cheap novelty gifts with traditional Czech handicrafts and delicacies.
"The situation has particularly improved because the vendors have come to understand that you can attract tourists by offering traditional local products rather than some cheap gimmicks in the form of babushka (Russian Matryoshka dolls) and ushanka (Russian soldier's winter hat)."