Czech points: Fall for Prague in autumn

The magic of central Europe is manifest in Prague, a city of endless indulgence

My last visit to Prague started with poetry and ended with Kafka. The poetry was from around the world – the wild beat rants of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the laconic love lyrics of Brian Patten, the visionary brilliance of Czech scientist and poet, Miroslav Holub – and it was read, recited, or mumbled in a room overlooking one of the most beautiful town squares in the world. Here, at the Prague Writers' Festival, over tankards of fine Czech beer and more cigarettes than you see in London in a day, literature was discussed and dissected.

This, after all, was the country which boasted a dissident playwright as its President. Between literary sessions in the old town hall, I drank coffee in pretty squares, ate dumplings with poets and wandered through golden streets bathed in sunshine.

It was a taste of Bohemia, in this most Bohemian of all cities, and it was perfect. It was perfect, that is, until the last night, until the moment when I realised my handbag had disappeared from beneath my feet, with my money, air ticket and everything else and until I found myself, at midnight, waiting on a bench in a police station. It was Kafka. Of course it was Kafka. No one spoke English. Why should they speak English? It was a long night. It was long journey home.

This time, 11 years on, I left behind a London in a heatwave for a Prague that was wintry and wet. The traffic was at a standstill. The Golden City was shrouded in gloom.

"We are sorry for the weather," said Renata, the guide who picked me up at the airport and yes, I couldn't pretend, I was sorry, too. But when I finally turned into the little courtyard that signalled the entrance to the hotel, and dashed through the rain and inside, I cheered up. The Augustine, Rocco Forte's newest hotel, is, quite simply, gorgeous. Newly converted from a monastery (and a brewery and a government building and a hotel), it feels like the kind of monastery you'd like to stay in if you'd swapped your vow of poverty for one of – well, luxury. But unostentatious luxury. You couldn't say austere, but you could almost say low-key.

The theme, it soon becomes clear, from the chic red-and-black sofas in the foyer, and the tastefully placed sculptures and prints, is Czech cubism. In the corridors there are black-and-white photographs by Czech avant-garde artists from the 1920s and 1930s, and in the rooms there are reproductions of some cubist classics: angular timber chairs by Pavel Janak and chaises longues by Adolf Loos.

Each room is different. One, in the old monastery tower, has a sitting room and bathroom on separate floors and then, after a final winding staircase, a bedroom with panoramic views over the whole of Prague. Mine, a soothing blend of greens and purples, with a massive marble bathroom and a study area (as if!), had views over a pretty garden and the usual Prague vista of terracotta roofs and spires.

Tempting though it was to collapse on to one of those lovely chaises longues, I had sights to see – and quite a few of them were around the corner. The Augustine is in the heart of the Mala Strana (the Little Quarter), Prague's Left Bank, a picturesque (but where in Prague isn't picturesque?) mix of winding cobbled streets, beautiful baroque palaces and magnificent churches. It's also only a few minutes' walk from Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. Started by Prince Borivoj in the ninth century and now a dazzling mix of architectural styles, it has been the seat of Czech rulers ever since. You could spend a day here, but I didn't have a day. Instead, Renata, my efficient but rather toneless guide, marched me around the Gothic splendours of St Vitus Cathedral, whose foundation stone was laid in 1344 by Emperor Charles IV, but which wasn't actually finished until 1953. It's a world in itself: the magnificent stained-glass windows, including one by the art nouveau artist Alfons Mucha; the chapel of St Wenceslas, decorated with exquisite medieval frescoes and semi-precious stones; and the kitsch tomb of Jan Nepomuk, a silver casket, overhung by a baroque awning and overseen by floating angels.

Next door was the Old Royal Palace, first built in 1135 and originally used only by Czech princesses. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, it was the king's own palace. Its vast Vladislav Hall was used for banquets, councils, coronations – and jousting. (On one side you can see a special staircase and an extra-wide corridor for knights and their horses.) Around the corner, there are the offices of the Bohemian Chancellory and the window that triggered the Thirty Years' War. Here, in 1618, a Protestant mob pushed two Catholic councillors and their secretary out of the window sparking a war which consumed the whole of Europe. This, apparently, was the Second Defenestration. The first was two centuries earlier, when Hussite supporters tossed Catholic councillors out of a window in the Town Hall. There are, no doubt, theses to be written on Czechs and windows.

It all looked melancholically beautiful in the rain, but I was quite relieved to be bustled back to the hotel, to thaw out with a long, hot soak in the marble grandeur of my bathroom and then to hit Tom's bar for cocktails. The angel cocktail, the waitress explained, was inspired by the angels in the 19th-century frescoes in the ceiling of this double-height vaulted former refectory. Not quite sure how that works, actually, but if it wasn't exactly celestial, it was certainly very nice.

"It looks much better than it used to!" said Father William the next morning. He was sipping a cappuccino in Tom's bar, where he used to eat his meals as an Augustinian friar. He lives, with four other Augustinian friars, next door. In a complex legal arrangement, the Augustinians, who had their buildings confiscated by the Communists but returned after the Velvet Revolution, have leased a large chunk of their property to Rocco Forte and watched it metamorphose from disrepair to deluxe. "This used to be the cemetery," he announced, as he took us across the courtyard. He opened a small black door and suddenly we were in a beautiful medieval chapel. From there, he took us to a courtyard and pointed at a well. "That," he said, "is the oldest operating well in Prague and it's thought to be St Agnes fountain, the one mentioned in the 'Good King Wenceslas' carol."

Awed by the mix of myth and history, and by the cenotaph for the 16th-century English poetess who composed poems simultaneously in Latin and Greek I was beginning to think I had no awe left. Until, that is, I saw the library.

The words "hidden treasure" don't begin to do justice to this extraordinary vaulted hall of ancient books, and the musty smell, which you just want to bottle and take away. Here ("somewhere" said Father William) there are first editions of Martin Luther and William Harvey, ancient missals and even the original deeds for the monastery from 1378. This room, a gift from Rudolf II (that great eccentric Holy Roman Emperor, who moved the Habsburg capital from Vienna to Prague in 1583), is a like a microcosm of Prague's complicated, embattled, colonised history. It's a miracle it has survived. You can see why Father William believes in God.

It was time, however, for the God that failed. I was booked on a "communism tour" which you'd have thought might take place in a Skoda, but actually involved squeezing into a German car from 1938. My lovely guide, Helena, pointed out the sights as I peered: Frank Gehry's "Dancing House", completed in 1996 and intendedV

C as a cultural centre, and next to it, the house where Vaclav Havel lived for many years, and opposite it, the watchtower where he was listened to and watched. It is, of course, only 20 years since everyone was listened to and watched. And then, round the corner, there's Wenceslas Square, the place where it all ended, where Havel and other dissidents stood on a stage, and rapturous crowds handed them hot drinks from a stall, and where miraculously, finally, the Communist authorities gave up.

I don't think, under Communism, you'd have been able to get the fabulous roast duck and dumplings that I had at the Bellevue Restaurant, overlooking the river and castle. I don't know, either, how the next treasure survived. This was the home of Alfons Mucha, the defining artist of Art Nouveau, and probably the most famous artist to come out of the Czech lands. The posters he designed for Sarah Bernhardt in the 1890s made him the most talked-about artist in Paris. And here, in this 18th-century house a stone's throw from the castle, they were (or at least some of them were) along with his paintings, his books, his furniture, his rugs. And here, too, was his daughter-in-law, Geraldine.

Geraldine met Mucha's son, the writer Jiri Mucha, at a wartime party in 1941 in Leamington Spa. They married and moved into Mucha's house – Alfons had died after the Nazi invasion of Prague in 1939 – and she has now lived there for more than 50 years. It's not an official museum, but this extraordinary, inspirational woman – a composer, still composing at 91 – allows some private visits. It felt like a precious, secret glimpse into another time and another world. It felt, like so much in Prague, like a kind of magic.

Back at the hotel, in the Brewery Bar, I encountered a magical process of a different kind. Here, in this city of alchemy, surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites dating back to the 17th century, I was told about the alchemical process whereby grain becomes a golden nectar that people travel great distances to drink. The monks at the monastery have been brewing beer since 1352. They stopped in the 1950s, but now the hotel has revived the St Thomas beer, a rich, malty, dark lager – and it's delicious. The hearty Bohemian tapas were, however, perhaps not the best idea before an 11-course degustation dinner, with eight wines. The recipes for the Bohemian menu at La Degustation are all from an 1894 cookery book (which the chef passed around) called Good School: For Young Cooks. Just starve yourself first.

On my final day in Prague, I was panicking. I hadn't seen the big museums. I hadn't gone back to the old Jewish cemetery. And I hadn't done my favourite thing, which is to sit in cafés and wonder and wander. So I started round the corner, at the edge of Prague Castle, at the Lobkowicz Palace. This private collection of art, acquired over centuries by a leading aristocratic family, was, like so much private wealth in the Czech lands, confiscated by the Nazis, and then the Communists, but restored to the family after the Velvet Revolution. It's breathtaking: paintings by Breughel the Elder, Canaletto and Piranesi, original scores by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn and, to steer you through, a charming audio guide, full of personal touches from the owner, William Lobkowicz.

From there, I ambled over Manes Bridge, through the Old Town Square, Prague's main square since the 10th century (now full of buskers and tour leaders wielding umbrellas) and found another oasis in the Museum of Czech Cubism, otherwise known as the House of the Black Madonna. Designed by Josef Gocar in 1912, it's the best example of cubist architecture in Prague and has three floors of cubist paintings, sculpture, furniture and ceramics. There's also a delightful café, pretty much unchanged since it opened, where I forced down coffee and a little cake.

I just squeezed in a quick saunter around the real Mucha Museum (not a patch on his house, of course) before joining the throng on Charles Bridge and getting back in time for my facial at the hotel spa. It was stupendous. My skin was glowing days later – and my skin very rarely glows.

It was time to leave the city for the countryside – for Chateau Mcely, in fact, an elegant 17th-century castle, once visited by Mark Twain and the poet Rilke, now restyled as a "club hotel and forest retreat". Each room has been designed along themes such as "Orient", "Africa" and "Southern Seas". There is, I think we can safely say, no shortage of gilded furniture or chandeliers. Owned and run by a Czech property developer married to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (one, strangely enough, with a serious interest in alchemy), it's a tale of the new Czech republic: of entrepreneurialism, aspiration and dreaming the dream.

The chateau provides a beautiful setting, tranquil and soothing after the Prague crowds. It's all very luxurious and, for a honeymoon or anniversary or special weekend away, no doubt fantastically romantic. Yet it all seemed a little laid on with a trowel. Waking up in "The Legend Suite", according to the brochure, "is more than just a pleasant way to start your day, it speaks volumes about who you are". Or perhaps it just means that you're rich.

But I was dreaming of Prague. Artistic Prague. Mystical Prague. Melancholy Prague. Monastic Prague. Medieval Prague. Habsburg Prague. Mozart's Prague. Magical Prague. The Prague that survived occupation by the Austrians and the Nazis and the Communists and stands, a golden, gleaming monument to history and art and architecture – and life.

Travel essentials: Prague

Getting there

* The writer travelled with BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which flies from Heathrow to Prague from £83.70 one-way. Prague is also served by Bmibaby (09111 54 54 54; bmibaby.com), Czech Airlines (0871 663 3747; czechairlines.co.uk), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com).

Staying there

* The Augustine, 12-33 Letenska, Mala Strana, Prague (00 420 266 11 22 33; theaugustine.com). Doubles start at €270, room only

(bookings: 00800 7666 6667; roccofortecollection.com).

*Chateau Mcely (00 420 325 600 000; chateaumcely.com). Doubles start at CZK3,710 (£117), B&B.

Visiting there

* Prague Castle, Mala Strana (00 420 224 373 368; hrad.cz).

* Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle (00 420 233 312 925; lobkowiczevents.cz/palace).

* Museum of Czech Cubism, 19 Ovocný trh (00 420 224 211 746; ngprague.cz).

* Mucha Museum, 7 Panska (00 420 224 216 415; mucha.cz).

More information

* prague-info.cz; 00 420 221 714 444

News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links