Travel: From Marx to Marks & Sparks

Since the Russian tanks rolled out, Prague has become a cultural kaleidoscope.
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The Independent Culture
THE SECURITY guard searched my rucksack and found the drugs. As she rummaged through my decongestants, painkillers and throat lozenges the fire alarm went off and Stansted airport was evacuated. Airport staff shouted, "What? What?" into their walkie-talkies. Luckily there was no raging inferno; it was a false alarm, and after standing in the freezing cold for 10 minutes I was able to rejoin my fellow passengers en route to Prague.

I was still feverish and deaf in one ear after a prolonged bout of flu, and keen to sleep on the plane, but it was not to be. On my undeaf side a woman going to Zizkov gave me a detailed account of her daughter's ear operation ...

Despite all this, I was immediately aware of Prague's charms unfolding around me as I headed for my Czech-style B&B. Trams built in the Fifties rumbled gently past as I crossed over the road in front of the 60-year- old curved glass and chrome facade of the Bila Labut department store.

I took a room in a 19th-century apartment block near the Powder Gate, a blackened tower on the edge of the maze-like streets of Stare Mesto.

On the surface Prague is going global: in place of Marxism there is Marks & Spencer, plus a Benetton and a Tesco, and smart Japanese cars mingle their exhaust fumes with the Skodas'.

But the city is full of clues to other times and cultures.

I saw little folded notes placed under pebbles on the graves of ancient rabbis in the overcrowded Old Jewish cemetery. I bought oranges from the bland, modernistic Kotva supermarket where Capuchin monks were doing their shopping. I sent an e-mail from the Terminal Cafe, where young people sipped cocktails as they surfed the net. I lingered over David Gans's mysterious tower drawings in his 16th-century manuscript Pleasant and Lovely in the Meisel Synagogue, and lounged in the Hogo Fogo and Gulu bars where you can drink strong beer - but I uncoolly drank black tea and Disprin.

I resisted an enticing menu (250 crowns/pounds 4.20) at the Spider, which included "ham roll with horseradish foam", and "poultry soup with hidden eggs" - my cold had obviously affected my culinary appreciation - and instead ate cheese buns under chandeliers while listening to such international hits as "The Blue Danube" and "Tulips in Amsterdam", played by the trio at the Municipal House Cafe. (Go down to its wondrous basement and look at a giant waterfall made of azure and sparkly tiles.)

The State Opera, a grand 19th-century building, has to be approached on foot via a dingy subway, as it is marooned on a traffic island. A notice exhorts visitors to wear "festive dress". I sucked hard on lozenges to suppress a coughing fit as some Germans behind me sang along with the music. I decided I loathed Verdi, and couldn't wait for Violetta to stop drivelling and snuff it; I left early in a flurry of Kleenex.

You can cross to the hilly eastern side of Prague over the medieval Charles Bridge, which was designed by Peter Parler, master of Unusual Gothic, and whose stones, legend has it, are bound together by eggs. The bridge is lined with blackened Baroque saints and knick-knack sellers. Over the bridge the Hrad, or castle, looms up on its hill.

After a visit to Kafka's gloomy old hang-out, Malostranska Kavarna, I overdosed on high Baroque in St Nikolas's, dizzied by whooshing gilt cherubs and chilled by all that cold, fleshy marble. Within the Hrad, I let a thick surge of organised tourists whizz me round St Vitus's Cathedral, my feet miraculously not touching the ground as I gawped momentarily at St John of Napomuk's sugar-pink tongue looking like an ice-lolly mounted in the convolutions of his massive, solid silver tomb.

There were outbreaks of delicate white blossom on the steep slopes up to the Straahov Monastery as I wheezed up the dusty cobbles of Uvoz.

Eventually I found my goal. Below the Loreto convent (choc-a bloc with saints and treasure, site of the Holy Hut and home of saintly skeletons in party gear), I found the little cobbled lane of Novy Svet. In one of its tiny 16th-century houses lived Tycho Brahe, who was one of the reasons for my wanting to visit Prague. This brilliant astronomer was a Dane with a silver nose (he had lost the original in a duel), who attended the court of the Habsburg emperor Rudolf II. Rudolf, moody and obsessive, whose best friend was his pet lion Otakar, occupied the Hrad until 1612. He surrounded himself with astronomers, astrologers and alchemists employed to turn base metal into gold (or else). Now that sounded about the scale of the cure I needed.

SALLY KINDBERG paid pounds 208 return for a Czech Airlines flight departing Stansted and arriving Heathrow, through Colletts Travel (0181-202 8101). She paid pounds 17 a night for bed and breakfast, organised by Augusta Trading in Devon (01626 770211). Czech Airlines (0171-255 1898) flies from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester. British Airways (0345 222111) and British Midland (0345 554554) fly from Heathrow. Buses from the airport to the city leave every half hour. Get off at the first stop, Dejvicka, to link into Prague's Metro system, or stay on to Revolution Square for destinations to the east of the city centre. You can travel by bus from London - a journey of 18 hours - on Kingscourt Express (0181-673 7500) for pounds 85 return.