Minus twelve, but marvellous

Never mind the temperature: Prague is at its best in winter, says Christian Wolmar after a weekend city-wandering
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The Independent Travel
The pilot gave us the only bad news of the weekend as we landed at Prague airport: "It's very cold," he said in heavily-accented English, "about minus 12 degrees Celsius". For the rest of our stay, Prague was simply the most magical place to spend a weekend away from the hurly-burly of Britain in late winter.

And even the bitter cold had its advantages. It keeps out the millions of tourists who in the summer make much of Prague's Old Town as busy as Oxford Street on the Saturday before Christmas. While we did not quite have Prague to ourselves, the streets were gloriously clear and there was plenty of space in the hotels which meant that a bit of hard bargaining was in order. We were two couples and used this mighty clout to negotiate a discount at the prestigious ornately decorated Hotel Parisz. We ended up in the executive rooms on the fifth floor, rather soulless but large with a comfortable double bed, free miniatures of whisky and a spacious bathroom. The normal price is 9,600 crowns (pounds 240) but we paid less than half that, thanks to the bargaining.

There are, of course, many other cheaper hotels with space off-season - even the Hilton comes in at under pounds 100 for two for a night. In summer, the city suffers a chronic shortage of bed spaces which results in high prices. Almost everything else, apart from the tourist traps selling imported goods, is incredibly cheap.

Prague is best enjoyed as a whole, not as a sequence of visits to specific attractions. The Old Town's fantastic array of buildings, from the medieval to the early 20th century (fortunately very little was built under the Communists because they couldn't afford to carry out the grandiosely grotesque schemes they had dreamt up) are best discovered by just wandering around rather aimlessly.

There are so many little architectural surprises, a statue or an ornate decoration on a corner here, a gargoyle or even a pair of snarling titans above a door there, that they often remain unnoticed until you have wandered down the same street three or four times. They like jokes, the Czechs, and many of these additions seem to have been done tongue in cheek. Why, for example, does the Cubist house near the Powder Tower, built in 1911, have a 17th-century black madonna on its corner?

The astronomical tower nearby in the Old Town Hall square, Prague's most impressive plaza, is a completely incomprehensible gag (not shared by its designer who, legend has it, was blinded so he could not repeat the work), since it is impossible to tell the time from it, and each hour a small skeleton attached to the side rings a little bell while Christ and the apostles pop up from a trapdoor above the clock.

In the same square, there is one of the larger archictectural treasures, the Tyn Church, clearly the inspiration for the Munsters' family castle as its small towers are lit by an orange glow at night. But it is disappointingly ordinary inside.

What gives Prague added grandeur is the sensible pedestrianisation of much of the Old Town. Cars have been kept out of the main squares for so long - since the Communist revolution mostly - that the absence of cars is no longer remarkable. With no separation between pavements and roadspace, the street spaces have blended into the buildings as if motorised transport had never used the streets. There are so many buildings to admire in one weekend that it seems almost a waste to go in any of them.

There are, of course, some unmissable attractions. The Charles Bridge, guarded by two lines of statues of Jesuit saints, is best seen at night while the castle, which overlooks the bridge, also has too many interesting sites to cope with. Therefore, a weekend is best seen as a taster, a time to wander and wonder, rather than trying frenetically to see everything.

Do not be deceived by the Communist past which evokes a spartan, impoverished history. Prague oozes affluence; there is nothing nouveau riche about it. They've had a lot of money over the centuries, enough to pay for all the architectural splendour and the bits of nonsense on the side.

Nor, despite Eastern Europe's reputation, is the food bad - so long as you are carnivorous. It is mostly simple Germanic meaty fare, with lots of sauerkraut. Even if you are unlucky and choose badly, at least you won't have paid much for it. We had a two-course lunch and beer for a fiver for two just near the Charles Bridge. With prices so low, it is amazing that there is still plenty of flight availability at bargain fares. Everyone knows about Prague in the summer, but go off-season and you will see the town in its true light, with prices to match.

six city essentials: Prague

Flights from Heathrow are cheapest with CSA Czech Airlines (0171- 255 1898) and British Midland (0345 554554). The return fare of pounds 161.50 includes tax. Kingscourt Express (0181-673 7500) runs buses direct from Victoria Coach Station to the centre of Prague three times a week for pounds 88 return.

Visas are no longer needed by British passport holders, and the Czech inquisition that visitors used to endure has been replaced by the most cursory of formalities.

Money is best changed at the airport, where exchange booths keep long hours and offer competitive rates. You should get close to yesterday's bank rate of 42 crowns to pounds 1.

Buses operated by CSA leave the airport for the city every half-hour, price 60 crowns (ie just less than pounds 1.50). Get off at the first stop, Dejvicka, to link into Prague's Metro system, or stay on to the end of the ride at Revolution Street for destinations in the east of the city centre.

Sleep under the same duvet as Christian Wolmar at the Parisz (00 422 242 22151, rates negotiable), or in the same hotel as Nelson Mandela -the flashy Hilton Atrium (book in advance on 0345 581595, special weekend rate of pounds 94 double).

Beware pickpockets, black-market con artists and the worst collection of buskers in Europe.