On a rainy Tuesday morning in Berlin, our tour bus pulled away from the hotel and we began the long journey to Prague, "city of one hundred spires." While the thought of hours on a bus may not normally sound appealing, I think we were all looking forward to the chance to catch up on some sleep and to just reflect, in general, on three days in Berlin.
My thoughts were filled with all the incredible sights I’d seen and I was feeling a tad overwhelmed. How in the world could my brain possibly absorb any more information? So I settled down to a few hours of organizing my thoughts about Berlin, and the place that it now occupied in my travel life.
After an oddly tense stop at the German/Czech border, and the briefest of snow flurries which delighted our Australian tour buddies to no end, we found ourselves driving into the Czech Republic. For several hours, we passed through towns and villages that all seemed uniform in appearance thanks to the fog that had descended. Occasionally a curious passerby would look up at the brightly-coloured tour bus rumbling by, but for the most part we passed through empty streets.
As dusk fell, we found ourselves pulling into our hotel and once again we ready to begin the exploration of a new city. After dinner, we headed immediately into the heart of Prague to be greeted by one of the most enchanting sights I’ve ever seen. In and around Prague’s Old Town Square (StaromÄ›stskÃ© nÃ¡mÄ›stÃ), we delighted in yet another lively and bustling Christmas market. It seemed that on this chilly Tuesday night, Czechs were out in full force to enjoy the Christmas cheer.
Perhaps the most popular feature of the Old Town Square is the Astronomical Clock (Orloj) which entertains by telling the time, giving the position of the sun and stars all while showing Saints days and the signs of the Zodiac. At 9:00 in the evening, in a square filled with people and light, we stood beneath the clock and waited for it to unveil its special workings. Magical!
From the clock, we wandered happily through the square and marveled at the monuments and churches. One church in particular, the St. Nicholas’ Church (ChrÃ¡m sv. MikulÃ¡Å¡e) in the Old Town Square, was a sight to behold. On our final day in Prague, as I spent the afternoon meandering through the Christmas market one last time, I was captivated by the sound of music and singing throughout the square. It was coming from St. Nicholas’. I very quietly made my way into the church and joined a crowd of people quietly and respectfully observing the choir and orchestra preparing for an upcoming Christmas concert. In the hushed church, I could feel goosebumps as I listened to that beautiful music ringing out.
As enticing as the charms of the Old Town Square were to me, it was hard to resist Prague’s other charms. While many tourists flocked to Wenceslas Square (VÃ¡clavskÃ© nÃ¡mÄ›stÃ) for the shopping (I’ll admit even I was enticed a few times), I found the constant crowds a bit much. I preferred exploring the secretive streets of the "New World" (NovÃ½ SvÄ›t), following each turn and twist with the faint expectation that a ghost would pop out as we turned each corner.
Memories of the last world war are also buried deeply in Prague’s history. As you walk through the Jewish Quarter (Josefov), you get a familiar feeling, one that we had many times in Berlin where we found ourselves in a modern place so deeply affected by a war-filled past.
The cafes, the stores, the women walking on cobblestone in mile-high stilettos, it’s all so Prague. Completely unique and unforgettable.
Even more amazing are the number of castles each with its own set of legends and myths. But without question the most astonishing of all these places is Prague Castle (HradÄany). Established in the 9th century, this massive place is a feast for the eyes. From the changing of the guard to the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle should not be missed. While I didn’t have the chance to visit many of the other castles, I’m so glad we visited this one.
I must admit, at times it was all a little too dazzling. And time and time again, I found myself drawn to my very favourite spot in the city: the Charles Bridge (KarlÅ¯v most). We first visited the Charles Bridge on the night we arrived when it was shrouded in a mist and dimly lit. It seemed that as you stepped onto it, you were leaving Prague and entering an older place. Spooky yet exciting, by day the bridge provides one of the most incredible views of Prague. My pictures don’t do it justice. With the Vltava River below, figures of saints and martyrs all around and the hills in the background, I could have stayed on the bridge for hours and just soaked it all in.
A number of people have asked me about the food in Prague and while I did visit a few cafes, I have to be honest, what I remember most is the beer. I am not a big beer drinker but even I could not resist the most enticing of Czech beverages. These people make good beer!
Upon returning to Toronto, I wondered what I could make as a reminder of my time in Prague. The Zimtsterne in honour of my time in Berlin were an easy choice. But Prague was more difficult. As I thought about the meals we had, I recalled that bread was present at each one. The bread was simple and wholesome. And always there.
I decided to do some research on Czech breads and came across something called VÃ¡noÄka, which is a type of egg bread with citrus zest, raisins and almonds. Braided like a challah, VÃ¡noÄka is more elaborate in that the bread is made by making three separate braids, each smaller in size, and then layering the braids on top of each other with the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top. While the formation of this bread was unusual and hard work (I’ll admit), it was impressive and so enticing as it came out of the oven.
As I looked at it, I couldn’t help wondering what had made me choose this bread as a tribute to Prague. And then I realized that the bread, like the city, was so warm and golden.
Adapted from this recipe.
- 6 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup (4 ounces) butter, softened
- 1 tablespoon (.5 ounces) fresh yeast (you can also use 2 packages of active dry yeast)
- 1 cup whole milk, room temperature
- 1 large egg yolk
- pinch of salt
- zest of 1 lemon
- 3 tbsp. raisins (soaked in warm water for 15 minutes)
- 3 tbsp. sliced almonds
- 1 egg and a tablespoon of water for the egg wash
- icing sugar for dusting
- In a bowl, combine the fresh yeast and the milk or the active dry yeast and the milk. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and stir. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes to give the yeast a chance to activate.
- After 10 minutes, pour the yeast mixture into the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Add the flour, the remaining sugar, the salt, the lemon zest and the egg yolk. Fit the mixer with the dough hook and mix on low speed for two minutes, until the mixture is well combined. If it looks dry, add a bit of warm water.
- After 2 minutes, increase the mixer speed to medium and begin adding the softened butter, a bit at a time. Between adding the butter, give the mixer a minute or so to incorporate the butter you’ve just added.
- Once the butter has been added, turn the speed to low and add the raisins and almonds and mix for another minute to incorporate the items in the dough.
- Once incorporated, remove the dough from the mixer and place on a well-floured surface. Form the dough into a ball and place in a large, oiled bowl. Sprinkle some flour on top of the dough and cover with a cloth or with plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator and let rise overnight.
- After the dough has risen, place the dough onto a work surface and divide into 9 equal pieces.
- Roll each piece into a rope that’s roughly 10 to 11 inches in length.
- Once all the pieces have been rolled out, take 4 ropes and form a braid. Twist the braid ends and fold them under to ensure the braid does not unravel.
- Take another 3 pieces and form those into a braid. Twist the braid ends and fold them under to ensure the braid does not unravel.
- Take the remaining two pieces and twist them together being sure to pinch the ends so that the twist does not come undone.
- Place the three braids on a parchment-lined baking sheet and cover with a cloth. Let rise for an hour in a warm place.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and place a rack in the centre of the oven.
- When your ready to bake the braids, take the largest braid and place it in the centre of a parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten it slightly with your hands.
- Take the second largest braid and place it on top of the first braid. Flatten it slightly with your hands to ensure that the braids are firmly in place.
- Top with the smallest braid and once again flatten with your hands.
- Combine the egg and water in a dish to form an egg wash. Generously brush the VÃ¡noÄka with the egg wash and sprinkle with a few more sliced almonds if you have them.
- If you’re worried about the braids tipping over, you can insert wooden skewers in the VÃ¡noÄka to keep it in place.
- In my oven, the VÃ¡noÄka took about an hour and 15 minutes to bake. It was deeply golden when I took it out of the oven. I had to use skewers part way through as I noticed that the braids were beginning to tip a bit.
- Place the VÃ¡noÄka on a wire rack to cool completely. Once cool, slice into the bread and enjoy!
Note: The bread should be stored at room temperature, tightly wrapped in plastic or sealed in a large plastic bag. The bread will stay fresh for 2 to 3 days. Stale bread can be used for French toast or in a bread pudding.
This isn’t exactly an easy bread to make and I had to do some guessing as the original recipe wasn’t the clearest. But if you want to give it a try, it’s worth it. In future, were I to bake it again, I don’t think I’d layer the braids. I’d just form 2 larger braids and bake them separately.