Family Travel: Ten Years After

SEPTEMBER 1989: Prague, I was told, was very beautiful. I was sternly warned by my parents and other members of the 1968 generation that Czechoslovakia remained a Stalinist colony unmoved by Gorbachev's glasnost. Nobody I asked wanted to go there, but I went anyway. By myself.

Getting there was a problem. Pan Am saved the day; this meant taking the London to Frankfurt leg on a New York to Bombay jumbo, before transferring onto a shabby old Boeing 727, to an even shabbier Ruzyne airport. This month, Go (0845 60 543210) starts flying non-stop from Stansted for pounds 100 return, rather less than I paid.

Some nifty "unofficial" currency dealing gave me nearly five times as many crowns, reducing the cost of the superb local Pilsener lager to 3p a glass, and a 450-mile rail journey to less than pounds 3 return. In 1999, these have increased by a factor of five, but still represent excellent value.

I more or less had the place to myself. I met four native English speakers in the three days I was in Prague; now there is an English-language paper. I went to Brno in Moravia, to the Slovak capital Bratislava, and on to the High Tatra mountains where brown bears are common and wolves roam. Finally, I ended up in Kosice, a friendly city with a gothic cathedral and large Hungarian and Romany populations, just 50 miles from the Soviet, now Ukrainian, border.

In contrast, Bratislava stands a mere 40 miles from Vienna, but in 1989 it symbolised this separate, parallel Europe which denied its citizens freedom to travel. One evening, I stood on the showpiece suspension bridge over the Danube and looked into the darkness. This was broken by a searchlight: close by lay the Austrian border and anybody attempting to escape to the West risked being drowned or shot by border guards.

Czechoslovaks I spoke to were aware of how Poland and Hungary were moving peacefully to non-communist systems, yet they appeared resigned to their own country not changing in the future.

But change it did just a few weeks later. And Prague's secret, if not the rest of Czechoslovakia, was discovered. But the biggest change of all, of course, is that Czechoslovakia no longer exists.