TRAVEL / The indelible lightness of Prague: Backpackers are swarming into the Czech Republic now but, as Patrick Miles finds out, nothing can spoil the charms of its capital

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The Independent Culture
THE TAXI bumped to a halt on the cobblestones at the end of Rybna Street in Prague's Old Town and the driver indicated that he could go no further. A battered traffic barrier stood in the path to our hotel; further down the street, immediately in front of the nondescript facade of the Hotel Central, two Soviet tanks, their barrels pointing towards us, provided our first impression of the capital of the Czech Republic beyond the characterless half-hour ride from the airport.

A dozen or more bored and angry-looking soldiers were draped about the tanks cradling guns as we approached tentatively on foot. A few yards from the entrance to the hotel, a glance into the lobby revealed the chilling truth: dozens of bored and angry-looking civilians, a disproportionate number of polystyrene cups and three people with clipboards, arguing. As the crowd fell back and the way to the front desk was cleared reluctantly, the obliging hotel manager explained: 'Sorry for the inconvenience. They are making a film about the Prague Spring.'

Autumn is worth seeing as well. In September, the fares and hotels are a bit cheaper, the crowds of summer - the continental Europeans who are quickly discovering the charms of Prague - are diminishing and the weather is perfect for a compelling five-hour stroll. The city - and its gentle, helpful inhabitants - is a revelation: unquestionably one of the most beautiful in Europe, a constant source of historical and cultural interest, a peaceful place with very few scars from its recent wars and revolutions - and, to be blunt, cheap, clean and convenient.

The endless fascination of the city lies in its varied architecture, and one of the great attractions is that its landmarks and areas of interest huddle close together. Gothic, baroque and art nouveau can be side by side; around any corner awaits an aesthetic surprise: pink walls with gilded trimmings next to huge, elaborate wall paintings, next to a grand old church with a steepling tower. It works. It's not overdone, and everywhere are signs that the municipality maintains its wonders with care and pride.

A reasonably priced ( pounds 30- pounds 40 per night a double) hotel in Stare Mesto, the Old Town, such as the Central, which provided nothing fancy nor unpleasant, offers a great base for walking, the best way to take in Prague on a long weekend. A meander from the Old Town Square, through the shopping district, across the Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle, with a meal in the middle, can make up the best part of a leisurely day.

The Old Town Square is as good a place as any to begin and finish a day. It has far greater charm than the city's best-known spot, Wenceslas Square; it is also properly a square, whereas Wenceslas is actually a very wide street, inclining slightly up to a statue of the king on horseback. Good King Wenceslas - the Christmas carol persists in looping around your head for days - was neither a king, nor particularly good, and nor was his name Wenceslas. Apart from that, the carol is extremely accurate. His Czech name was Vaclav, he was a prince and he was virtuous only in comparison with his family, who murdered one another and included in their number Vaclav's younger brother, Boleslav the Cruel.

The Old Town Square is surrounded by beautiful buildings, lined with hawkers, stalls and horse-drawn carriages for hire, and set with outdoor cafes. Jazz bands and buskers provide a varied accompaniment, competing with the hum of an artist's kiln in the middle of the crowds of tourists and shoppers.

Wenceslas Square is 10 minutes away and this is where the visitors take over completely. The most expensive hotels, the best restaurants, bargain shopping, a permanently packed McDonald's, cheaper-than-duty-free alcohol, a couple of dodgy-looking discos and the odd streetwalker draw the most people to a place of little real interest, except for studying humans and having dinner.

Through a maze of streets and alleys from the Old Town Square lies the River Vltava, crossed by the Charles Bridge, which is a magnet for tourists and souvenir sellers. There are a lot of fairly rubbishy things on sale, and nothing very tasteful. The best things to buy in Prague are pieces of Bohemian crystal (a superb spirit decanter costs pounds 9), leather goods and wooden toys, of which there is a very appealing selection. Food and drink are cheap: a three-course meal with wine in a white-linen, silver-service hotel restaurant costs about pounds 10, while a standard meal of, say, duck and dumplings, can be had for about half that. Caviar, of which I had a good bowlful, is delicious and inexpensive. But Prague, being populated by dedicated carnivores, can present dietary difficulties. It's OK for fish-eaters but fairly hopeless for vegetarians.

After battling across the Charles Bridge, which thankfully does not carry vehicles, there begins a pleasantly calf-straining climb to Prague Castle; almost a small town in itself, the castle contains within its walls St Vitus's Cathedral and towers, churches and halls from every period of the city's history. It requires a good hour or two to absorb. Take five, too, to enjoy the glorious view of the city across the river before returning to sea level for a Russian vodka or a real Budweiser.

To borrow meekly from one of the world's greatest living authors, there is a lightness of being in Prague and a palpable sense of freedom which, at risk of trivialising the momentous, defy the oppression the city has suffered this century. Milan Kundera is one of several Czechs in the vanguard of European culture and it is a long, unbroken line in which the people of the Republic take pride. Mozart, though Austrian, has become an honorary citizen and Kafka's legacy is everywhere, even on T-shirts (just the gift for an angst-ridden relative: 'My brother went to Prague and all I got was this Kafka T-shirt'). Art exhibitions, well- patronised book shops and daily performances of classical music in churches of every size and description indicate the preferences of the people and the nature of what is after all the capital of Bohemia.

Big-city characteristics, some good and some depressing, are gradually entering Prague's atmosphere. There are two McDonald's restaurants, there are bad pizzas, beggars, bootleg cassettes, and the occasional whiff of marijuana smoke on a sunny autumn afternoon. But it still feels good and relaxed.

For its wealthier neighbours, like Germany and Austria, the Prague secret is out and the weekenders and backpackers are moving in. In Britain, it remains something of a novelty and air fares have yet to come down in line with greater demand. But it cannot be long before we, too, discover that there is a city as beautiful as Paris but more relaxing, closer than Rome (only an hour and 40 minutes away), and so warm in its welcome. -

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: BA (081-897 4000) offers midweek flights starting from pounds 165, in cluding one Saturday night. Campus Travel (071-730 3402) has flights to Prague for people under 26 for pounds 129 return throughout September. STA Travel (071-937 9921) provides flights to Prague throughout September/

October starting from pounds 149 return.

TOUR OPERATORS: Made to Measure Holidays (0243 533333) offer a two-night trip to Prague including flight, transfer and b & b starting from pounds 350 per person during September. The Czechoslovakia Tourist Board (081-343 4659) will arrange flights and varyingly priced accommodation in Prague as well as giving general information.

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