For New Year, my partner and I decided at the last minute to go abroad, having seen in the New Year in Edinburgh for the last three years. We wanted somewhere we could do a bit of sightseeing, somewhere quite chilly (a warm New Year seemed wrong somehow) and somewhere with good beer… Looking at the map of Europe, we decided the Czech Republic was cultural, cold, and definitely full of good beer, so we booked to go to Prague for 4 nights!
What we hadn't researched was how the Czechs celebrated New Year, presuming that they probably had some kind of fireworks at midnight, just like London and Edinburgh. A couple of days after we’d arrived, we decided to ask at the hotel reception where would be a good place in the city to go to see the midnight fireworks from. The receptionist gave us a funny look and then said, “The fireworks are at 6pm”. Expressing our surprise at how early that was to greet the New Year, we repeated our question. Another funny look from the receptionist and, “No, the fireworks are on January 1st at 6pm, there are NO fireworks on New Year’s Eve”. She then proceeded to explain that most people went parties organised by restaurants which had a many-coursed meal and some kind of entertainment, usually live music, and these events cost over £100!
Deciding the restaurant party wasn't what we wanted and cursing our lack of preparatory Googling, we decided that we’d just head out into the city centre and see what people were up to. In the beautiful historic centre of Prague there are a number of squares and open areas with some Christmas markets where we thought people might gather. From around 10pm there were loads of people around, not just in the squares but in all of the larger streets and the many bridges crossing the River Vltava, it seemed the whole of Prague was out! There was a great party atmosphere, people singing, dancing, and in the Old Town Square there was a stage with live music (although we couldn't actually get anywhere near the square, there were so many people!). Cathedral and Christmas Tree 250
We were just agreeing that this was exactly the kind of New Year that we’d been hoping for, albeit without any fireworks, when just ahead of us: fireworks! However, these didn't go up into the sky, they went out of the crowd into a tiny open space which anyone could have been about to walk into and in all directions! And it was only 10:30! Although the hotel receptionist had been wrong about there being no fireworks, this wasn't quite what we’d expected…
In turns out that drunk Czech people set off their own fireworks (think big and loud) whenever they decided they've had enough of carrying them around, try to lob them into a space with a metre radius, and hope for the best. Apparently, Wenceslas Square is more organised, with people walking around the edge of the Square and the fireworks being hurled into the people-free centre, but everywhere else it’s every man for himself!
Deciding that we’d quite like to make it to midnight burn-free, we started heading back in the direction of our hotel. It was slow going, dodging fireworks, exchanging New Year greetings and occasionally getting into conversation with the people around us when the fireworks stopped progress down a street. We ended up seeing in the New Year next to a church tower (for protection) with Czechs and tourists alike, with cries of Šťastný Nový Rok all around and the craziest ‘display’ of fireworks!
With the benefit of hindsight, before travelling for a public holiday again, I will ask other travellers and Google the events so I have a better idea of what to expect, but I don’t think it would have changed our minds about going to Prague if we’d known in advance about the unofficial fireworks. What was important was that when we found ourselves in the unexpected situation, we were able to react in a way that kept us out of harm’s way as much as possible, using our instincts, being aware of the people around us, staying in groups of people so we were more visible, and copying the locals: the (firework-less) calm, observant Czechs were much safer than the jumpy, loud tourists.
Prague is one of my favourite European cities and was a fantastic city to visit for New Year – there are so many tourists that many museums and sights stay open through the whole of the New Year week, there are lots of things going on and, although it wasn't quite what we’d had in mind, it was certainly a New Year that we’re not going to forget soon. (P.S. the official fireworks on New Year’s Day at 6pm were definitely worth it, and at a much safer distance!)