Travel: Welcome to winter wonderland

The capital of the Czech Republic loses most of its tourists at this time of year, but those who do visit are treated to a snowy dreamland of spires and statues.
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS one of those moments when you wake suddenly and can't remember where you are. A large man in uniform was shaking my elbow, and saying something incomprehensible. In some alarm, I looked out of the window. In the moonlight, I could make out a landscape of fir trees, blanketed in snow. Two men in military greatcoats and fur hats stood by a wooden hut, stamping the snow off their boots: it looked like a scene from Dr Zhivago. I must still be dreaming. No, the man was real, and getting impatient.


It dawned on me that he wanted my passport; we must be at a border checkpoint. As my brain emerged from sleep, I realised that the Christmas card scene outside was my first glimpse of the Czech Republic.

Coach travel is rarely romantic, but, having fallen asleep in the dreary plains of Germany, as rain lashed the windows, this was a magical, almost surreal, start to a five-day break in Prague.

The sense of unreality persisted, delightfully, during my stay in the capital. The city, beautiful in any month, looked spectacular in the grip of winter. Elegant bridges arched over a frozen river; domes, spires and statues were powdered with snow.

I immersed myself in the old centre of the city, and forgot such things as inner ring roads and multi-storey car parks. The four old quarters at the heart of the city, with their medieval layout still intact, cry out to be explored on foot: I spent two days simply walking and looking. Emptied of the summer crowds, the streets and squares were a quiet dream of Baroque statues, wrought-iron lamps and Art Nouveau detail.

Dominating the skyline is Prague Castle, the Hrad, built on a high spur above the River Vltava. Here the changing of the guard is a fiercer affair than at Buckingham Palace, with rapid marching and sudden right turns. My taste for romantic uniforms is evidently shared by the poet-president Vaclav Havel who chose the outfits for the presidential sentries from costume designs for the film Amadeus, which was shot partly in Prague.

The third day, as the snow fell gently out of a pale sky, I set out for Petrin Hill. This is the city's largest open space, in summer a leafy park and now a winter wonderland of snow-laden trees. Petrin Hill is steep, and the funicular gives magnificent views over the river and rooftops of Prague, besides having an excellent restaurant at the top. I had underestimated the smartness of this establishment and was under-dressed in leggings and snow boots, but the staff were immaculately polite - and served me with some of the best dumplings I have eaten.

Thus fortified against the weather, I struggled back into my galoshes and set out again in the whiteness, past the copy of the Eiffel Tower, built for the Prague Exhibition in 1891.

Such romantic images even extended to my accommodation. Although there are excellent hotels, I would not have missed for anything the experience of taking private rooms in a Czech home. On my arrival I was taken to what looked like an 18th-century palace. I followed my host through iron gates to the rear. It transpired that I was staying at the Academy of Music and Dance - my hosts lived in the caretaker's flat. Every morning the music of Tchaikovsky came floating through the ceiling, and ballerinas thudded out their pas de deux above me.

My accommodation did not include breakfast, which was a great excuse to visit the Hotel Europa, in the Nove Mesto. Completed in 1904, the dining room offers a sumptuous Art Nouveau experience, and allowed me to start the day in style. Yet on the whole, food isn't Prague's strong point: more often than not you are served large chunks of meat to be washed down with beer.

On my last day, I sat outside a wooden cafe near my lodgings, eating local sausage, along with several Czech office workers. The cafe stood in the shadow of a brand new burger joint where tourists tucked into dinky little portions of chips. It looked a lot warmer and smarter in there, but I wan't tempted. As I got up to leave, the stall-holder grinned and summoned up a few words of English. Jerking her head at the new establishment, she said: "Small food - big money!"

Boarding the coach for London, I found myself hoping fervently that big money doesn't build a fast-food emporium on Petrin Hill before I've had time to see Prague in the winter just once more.

Deborah Grice travelled to Prague by coach with Eurolines (0171-730 8235). Her return ticket cost pounds 89. Coaches depart from Victoria in London at 10am Mondays and Fridays and arrive in Prague at about 9am the next day. Return coaches leave Prague at 7.30pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you want to arrive there rather quicker, CSA Czech Airlines (0171-255 1898) flies from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester to Prague. British Airways (0345 222111) and British Midland (0345 554554) fly from Heathrow. Expect to pay between pounds 150 and pounds 200 return.

In Prague, private rooms and family accommodation can be organised locally through agencies such as Bohemiatour (00 42 02 231 39 17) at Zlatnicka 7, Nove Mesto.

The Czech Tourist Centre (0171-794 3263) is at 16 Frognal Parade, London NW3 5HG