Traveling for such a long stretch – five months – and staying for at least a week and usually longer in each landing spot changes how we spend our time all over the place and thus what we see.
For example, in Seville, there was only one real can’t-miss tourist destination on our agenda for our entire nine-day stay – the Alcazar – and we managed to miss it. That’s the downside of “we’ve got lots of time”: With so much of it, we kept following our feet elsewhere until we had none left at all. The upside is space for treats like spending a day sailing with Columbus in Cadiz, ferrying to lunch in Cacilhas and training to Sintra twice in the same week, just because we could.
Prague should have been another matter. With barely 72 hours of sightseeing time in the fairy-tale capital city, this was the one destination where we needed to shift into commando-tourist mode and hit the ground early and hard each day.
Instead, we found ourselves so hooked on our newfound serendipity that we kept wandering off the better-beaten path. Sure, we ogled the gorgeous architecture
and wandered through the famous Christmas markets, eating grilled sausage and swigging cold beer with the other bazillion tourists.
But we skipped the cathedral because the line was long and because, with still another month to go in Europe, it’s easy to say, “There’s always another church.”
Which is how we ended up in the Discalced Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious in Malá Strana (pictured at top), gaping at elaborate baby clothes.
We were drawn into the Discalced Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious in Malá Strana – the Church of the Infant Jesus of Prague for short – because we were cold.
Having skipped the cathedral, we had walked a couple miles around the royal gardens, gone to the top of the Petřín Lookout Tower in stiff winds, shivered down the hill in the unheated funicular and then set off in the vague direction of the city center through the Lesser Quarter. Seriously, you only end up in what is literally called the Lesser Quarter if you are off the beaten path. It was literally freezing, and the occasional flake was blurring our vision. When we came upon the Church of the Infant Jesus’s bigger-than-life nativity scene on display, complete with real donkeys and lambs and the promise of shelter, we popped in to warm up.
Being a European church of some age (400 years), the interior was impressive, though in a darker, more somber style than either the gilt churches of Spain, where gold was once more common than running water, or the fanciful confections of Manueline Portugal. We wandered, marveled, took photos, sent an electronic postcard from a snazzy digital station, regained circulation in our fingers and were just about to leave when we spotted a stream of people heading up a narrow spiral staircase just off the altar, with no ticket taker in sight. (Another side effect of traveling for so long: cheap and free attractions take on new allure.)
Joining the stream, the stairs at first seemed merely to wind past a series of photographs of a baby Jesus icon and the occasional Mary or Jesus statue.
Eventually, though, we reached a tiny, darkened room lined with glass display cases, each filled with elaborate clothing, all the same size. Robes, we learned from the excellent signage, robes for the infant Jesus. Those photos on the staircase leading to the display room? The baby Jesus statue in a few of its 300-plus robes.
The Church of the Infant Jesus of Prague, it turns out, is home of a 16th-century wax-coated wooden statue of baby Jesus known as the Bambino di Praga. A gift from Spain, legend has it the 19-inch statue once belonged to Teresa of Avila. It is credited with saving Prague from invading Swedish armies in 1639 and widely believed in the Catholic world to have miraculous powers. Its habitation in the Discalced Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious in Malá Strana has made Prague one of the major pilgrimage centers in Central Europe.
One of the traditions that has grown up around the statue is changing its clothing according to the liturgical season, a ritual carried out by the Carmelite nuns of the church.
Over the years, the baby Jesus’s wardrobe has been expanded by gifts from around the world, including robes embroidered with gold bullion and bejeweled in pearls and diamonds. Empress Maria Theresa, among many other devotees of stations high and low, are the donors. The robe on the right below is nearly as old as the church itself.
In addition to its robes, the icon’s closet includes three crowns. Since 2009, the statue has permanently worn a crown garnished with pearls and garnets gifted by Pope Benedict XVI during a papal visit.
On the first Sunday of May each year, the baby Jesus is dressed in coronation robes and crown in observance of the salvation of Prague and paraded through the city’s streets.
Whenever we are satisfied with straying off the better-beaten path, we congratulate ourselves with the refrain, Ça vaut le detour. Worth the detour. We may have missed the cathedral, but we were content again with what serendipity brought us in its place.
Also in the rear-view mirror:
- Christmas market. The highly touristic market itself was not exactly our cup of tea, but that didn’t stop it from being our mug of grog, taste of heavenly trdelnik (chimney cake) hot off the coals or feast for the eyes.
- Hockey!? Hockey is second only to football in the hearts of Czechs. For a taste of local life, we spent one afternoon off the tourist path at the O2 Arena, watching the HC Sparta Prague lose in a great match against HC VERVA Litvínov.
- Meat! By the time we left Portugal and three weeks of seafood binging, we were ready for some meat. Prague did not disappoint.
Coming soon: For Sports Fans Only