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Visiting Prague, Czech Republic
 by Mary Ann Anderson

Psssst! Want to hear a secret before everyone else finds out? Prague, a snow-dusted, almost mythical, stunningly beautiful city located along the banks of the Vltava River in the heart of Europe, is "the" place to be during the holiday Season.

Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic and the gateway to the Old World, is rich in culture, romance, music, history - albeit a sometimes bittersweet history - and just oozes with winter charm.

Cariage Ride on Pragues City Streets

Prague's medieval streets are awash in a sea of architectural masterpieces, and its panoramic skyline, etched with venerable towers and spires of antiquated cathedrals, monasteries, convents, bridges, and castles, is the idyllic backdrop for crispy winter days when the sky is so blue and clear that it defies the imagination.

Since the Middle Ages, Prague has always been known as one of the most picturesque cities in the world because of its blending of natural beauty with its myriad of architectural styles including Baroque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Romanesque. For the traveler, this means uniquely wonderful places to explore, including:

  • The Mala Strana, the "little quarter" neighborhood that sprang from 9th century market settlements that includes the Charles Bridge - lively with street musicians and vendors - and Prague Castle. The ancient hilltop castle, unbelievably pretty at night as its golden lights dapple the entire city with an ethereal glow, was once home to the royalty of Bohemia.

  • Hradcany, the residential district around the west gate of the Prague Castle became a town in 1320. Cool factor: Mozart supposedly composed some of his music at Strahov Monastery.

  • Petrin Hill, an amalgamation of eight parks with plenty of trails perfect for brisk afternoon walks. It is said that from the top of the Petrin Tower, you can see all the way to the woodlands of Bohemia south of the city.

  • The touristy-yet-fun Old Town Square, the heartbeat of Prague since the 10th century, that is a maelstrom of shops, markets, cafes, and even horse-drawn beer wagons.
  • Josefov, the Old Jewish Quarter that contains the remnants of Prague's former Jewish ghetto, a number of striking synagogues, and the Old Jewish Cemetery, all of which the Nazis once cruelly declared a "museum of an extinct race."

    Prague is especially pretty during the Christmas holidays when the entire city becomes a gift-wrapped wonderland of color decorations, and lights. Toss in the heat of crackling fireplaces and the piquant taste of hot wine sold everywhere by street vendors, and this is winter's charm at its best. But here's another part of the secret: there is no better place to enjoy the warmth of the season than at the Aria Hotel, a hotel that is the essence of Prague itself and absolutely unlike any other in the world.

    The Aria manages to blend together in one neat package all of the elements of class, style, elegance, history, and most importantly, a deep appreciation for music and its importance to Prague.

    Aria Hotel

    The Aria, located in the Mala Strana, is a reminder of the greatest composers and performers of all time. The four guest floors of the Aria are dedicated to a particular genre of music that helped shape Prague into what it is today. Each of the guestrooms features the music and history of a different artist or genre. On the classical floor, for example, there are rooms dedicated to Brahms and Bernstein; on the contemporary floor, the guestrooms highlight the musical styles of British Rock and Bossa Nova. On the opera floor, you can drift to sleep to the music of Puccini and Mozart, or you can opt to sway to the soulful sounds of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday on the jazz floor.

    If it's true that music soothes the soul, then a holiday stay at the aptly named Aria will humble even the most grinchiest of grinches. With distinctive rooms such as the "Music Salon," with its berry-red hued walls, leather furniture, and working fireplace, the sophisticated Aria will feature special holiday programs all throughout the Christmas season. The Aria also has a rooftop garden, which is just right for enjoying a glass of fine wine, and afternoon snowfall, and the jingling of sleigh bells in the distance.

    While music connoisseurs may be hard-pressed to leave the Aria at all, there are scores of other holiday fairs and musical offerings scattered throughout the city. As you wander the cobblestone streets listening to festive music and plundering through Christmas markets, the aroma of gingerbread, cinnamon and traditional Czech fruit pastries like kolache make the season brighter than ever.

    There are outdoor performances with everything from church choirs to professional ensembles. And if you're fortunate enough to be in Prague on Christmas Eve, there is a mass at Old Town Square with performances by the State Opera and National Theatre.

    "There's no place quite as amazing as Prague at Christmas," says Hilda, a transplanted American now living in Prague. "Ti's really exciting and romantic, just like you expect Christmas to be."

    IF YOU GO

    Don't even try to rent a car, as the streets are very narrow and local drivers are quite aggressive. Prague is definitely a walking city, but with its cobbled streets, bring good walking shoes. While Czech is the official language, most local people have basic knowledge of the English Language. But Christmas cheer, snow-filled days, and visions of sugarplums dancing in your head are universal, so language barriers seem to not matter at all.

    For more information, visit www.prague-info.cz.

    Contact the Aria at www.ariahotel.net or call for reservation, toll-free, at (888) 454-ARIA.

    Contact Czech Airlines by visitng the website at www.czechairlines.com or by calling toll-free at (800) 223-2365.

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