Skating beneath Vysehrad


Winter in Prague has all sorts of charms: snow-dusted roofs in the Minor Town, an almost-magical carpet of the white stuff covering the ancient Charles Bridge that takes you across the river to the Old Town, and I can't forget the mulled wine sold on nearly every street-corner. When the cold-spell arrived from the east with added gusto a couple of weeks ago, even the Vltava River froze, creating a beautiful outdoor ice-rink underneath Vysehrad, the original seat of Czech kings. If the setting sounds like something out of a fairytale, it could have been—only I didn't recognize the danger.

Sundays in Prague mean different things to different people: some sleep in, others meet friends and family, venture to their country cottage, or see an exhibit or a film. When I'm in Prague at the same time as one of my good friends from Toronto, Sundays typically mean a morning visit to one of the city's many churches—my wise professor taught me that church services are a window into the culture of any society. After church, the hours always pass quickly as we wander through the cobble-stoned streets talking about the history and politics of central Europe, and life in general. We also never forget the Moravian wine. I have many fond memories of these Sundays in Prague, but last week I changed the routine and paid a price.

It all started out just fine, new friends and old traditions. After lunch we went to church, to St. Salvator's to listen to Thomas Halik, one of this country's most well-known philosophers who also happens to be a Catholic priest. [I've been reading Halik's essays about modern religion in Europe, about the need for dialogue in society...and so hearing Halik 'in action' is part of my new chapter in Prague.] After church we hit the frozen Vltava near Vysehrad, and I laced-up men's skates for the first time in my life.

The fairy tale setting was there: kids playing tag, our new Chechen friends learning to skate underneath a medieval cathedral in the city that's given their lives new hope, a huge box of left-over Christmas cookies for everyone to share, and of course the obligatory thermoses of tea and mulled wine. Maybe it was the wine, or some strange Czech-Canadian gene that suddenly gave me the impression I could pretend to be Wayne Gretzky, or Martin Rucinsky. After all, I've always been a hockey fan and my up-bringing merges two great hockey powers: the Canadian, and the Czech. You wouldn't guess it now, but when I was a kid I played a lot of street hockey—growing up with boys in suburban British Columbia, I even got pretty good at the game. So when my Czech friends asked me to join in on a game of ice hockey, it sounded like a great idea. Less than a minute into the game, I was lying on the cold ice, with a terrible pain shooting up my arm. Some lessons you learn the hard way. Last Sunday nearly ended with a broken wrist, but when I looked up and saw Vysehrad I had few could call it the magic of Sundays in Prague.

When the winter Olympics begin in Turin, Italy, I'll be as loyal a fan of Olympic hockey as ever, cheering for both the Czechs and the Canadians. In the meantime, I've heard that the river between Karlstein Castle and Prague is frozen solid, and if I leave the hockey stick at home, skating the 40km. into Prague sounds idyllic.