Valentines' Special: Prague - a little break with a big heart
Ignore the boisterous stag parties. Prague has plenty to woo your loved one, says Adrian Mourby. And it doesn't cost the earth to travel there
Sunday 12 February 2006
There's smog over Prague this morning. We've come for two days of romantic vistas but at the moment all I can see is a big yellow M shining out from the McDonald's on Vodickova.
Fortunately, by the time we've walked into the Old Town Square Baroque roof lines are emerging out of the gloom, rococo statuary swims into focus on the Golz-Kinsky Palace and I can see signs above each of the hostelries on this side of the street: "At the Stone Ram", "At the Blue Star", "At the Golden Unicorn". In the days before the Czechs realised street numbers were a good idea they used pictograms to distinguish one building from the next. Kafka himself attended a literary salon "At the Golden Unicorn", now No 20.
"Oh wow," says my wife. Being American, Kate is used to any tenement built before 1920 being designated a national monument.
"What do you think?" I ask. After lying awake last night listening as the youth of Great Britain celebrated the cheapness of Czech beer with fights and broken glass, I'd been worried that Prague might not live up to expectations.
"It certainly does what it says on the box," says Kate. And she is right.
Standing in Prague's Old Town Square, listening to the clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages is the complete Mittel Europe experience. You expect a Golem or a Piper from Hamelin to wander by at any moment.
I was last here just after the Velvet Revolution. In those days everyone with a typewriter was flocking to the Czech capital as a way of engaging with big historical events in total safety and nice surroundings. Ever since, I'd resisted opportunities to return because people told me that Prague, like Riga and Talinn, had become stag party central, that its medieval alleyways had been swamped by KFC and Ronald McDonald. Word had got out: those of us who loved Prague in '89 shouldn't go back for fear of heartbreak.
Then the chance for a romantic weekend came up, with every child parcelled out to someone else, and my wife made it clear that I could deny her no longer. Prague may not be what it once was but it still promised compensation for all those teenage years spent in soulless Texas. And she was right to insist. As the city of Wenceslas, Jan Hus, Mozart and Kafka emerges from the morning mist, it still stuns.
The first thing we do is have an argument. In my experience, romantic weekends either start off or end with an argument, so best to get it over with.
We both want this weekend to be perfect. But in different ways. Kate wants to see everything. I want to find a really good café and read Kafka, which is what I did 16 years ago. I lose of course. Sixteen years ago I wasn't married to an American cultural groupie. So we wow ourselves with the Church of St Nicholas, the Jan Hus monument, the fairytale steeples of Our Lady before Tyn, the Powder Gate and the House of the Black Madonna. As we steam down the old fruit market, I try to divert us into the Estates Theatre where Don Giovanni was premiered in 1787 and Milos Foreman filmed Amadeus.
"Why?" my wife asks.
"I want to see if it's changed," I say, though really I'm hoping for that cup of coffee.
"If it hadn't changed from 1787 to 1989 it's unlikely to have changed now. Come on!" Houston, Texas has a lot to answer for.
Now we're bearing down on the Charles Bridge, its 14th-century entrance tower looming over us.
The Charles is like the Ponte Vecchio; you've simply got to do it - not just to get to the other side but to be there, to really feel that you are in this city. What makes it unique, apart from a glorious setting between the Old Town and Little Quarter, is the statuary. Thirty Baroque saints, with unlikely names such as Adalbert, Norbert and Damian, line the broad pedestrian route. A fairytale castle beckons beyond and Kate utters her fourth wow of the day.
Am I a good husband or what?
Adrian Mourby travelled to Prague with International Festivals Bureau (0870-247 1204; www.ifbarts.com), which offers three-night weekend breaks in Prague from £275 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, four-star b&b, and a ticket to the opera
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