48 hours in Prague
It may be deluged with tourists, but Kafka's birthplace is quite simply one of Europe's most magnificent cities.
Saturday 15 May 2004
Because few other European cities can compare with the unremitting beauty of Prague. The Czech capital contains elements of the quaint, the ornate and the hi-tech, all within a compact and low-rise city. Two summers ago, you might have gained the impression that Prague had floated off down the river in the flood. This summer, the city will be deluged by more visitors than ever, but you need take only a few steps off the tourist trail to discover another, timeless Prague.
Prague has far better links to airports across Britain than any other eastern European capital. As a result, fares tend to be lower - especially midweek. Czech Airlines (0870 444 3747, www.czechairlines.co.uk) flies, with frills, from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester, Heathrow and Stansted. From Bristol, Newcastle, Stansted and Gatwick, you can fly on easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyJet.com). Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com) flies from Cardiff, Manchester, Nottingham, Teesside and Gatwick. Jet2 (0870 737 82 82, www.jet2.com) flies from Leeds/Bradford. And British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow.
From the airport, the cheap way in is on bus 119, which runs at least three times an hour. You need to buy a ticket (12Kc/25p) in advance from the public transport desk in the arrivals hall. Alternatively, buy a 72-hour transport ticket for 70Kc (£1.40). The bus terminates after 20 minutes at Dejvicka, where you can use the same ticket to transfer to Prague's metro system. A taxi into town costs around 700Kc (£14).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Almost all of your time is likely to be spent in the five districts that make up the heart of Prague. The core is Stare Mesto, the old town. To the north, Josefov is the old Jewish area; to the south, there is Nove Mesto which translates as "New Town", but this is a relative term. Facing Nove Mesto on the west bank of the Vltava is Mala Strana - while to the north, the castle and its surroundings are know as Hradcany. The handiest tourist office (00 420 12444, www.prague-info.cz) is in the south-west corner of old town Square; and it opens from 9am to 7pm weekday and 9am to 5pm weekends.
TAKE A VIEW
From 11am to 5.30pm daily (or from 9am at weekends), you can climb the tower from this tourist office, price 40Kc (80p). A lift is available to cut out most of the climb. A good time to ascend is just before the hour, so that you to look down on the crowds as they are gathering to watch the clock chime. On your way down, pause to look at the fabulously decorated entrance hall.
TAKE A HIKE
...through part of the old town and around Prague's unique cultural property, Josefov. From the tourist office, bear right past the colonnade into Male namesti, one of the loveliest small squares in the city. Turn right along U radnice to Franz Kafka namesti; a bronze visage of the writer hangs from a wall.
Bear left along Kaprova - you should see the castle in the distance - and bear right along Zatecka. This takes you to the entrance to the Jewish Cemetery, open 10am-6pm daily, except Saturday (and to 5.30pm on Fridays), admission 300Kc (£6). If it is closed or you choose not to visit, turn right and first left. The tour of the cemetery then emerges at the Klausova synagogue; go straight ahead to the Old-New synagogue. Head south on Parizska for a block, then left on Siroka to the extraordinary statue, newly installed, of Franz Kafka. Turn around in order to appreciate the symmetry of the two triangular blocks facing you, and then walk between them, along V Kolkovne.
Cross the square and continue along Masna, past Bohemia Bagels, and bear right to Mala Stupartska and the handsome church of St James. Opposite, you will see an arch which leads into the beautiful courtyard of Ungelt. Walk through, out the other side and along the north side of Tyn cathedral back to the old town Square.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
On Dluoha, the Gourmand boulangerie is a feast to look at, with all its tiles and mirrors, and it also sells good croissants and sandwiches; however Bohemia Bagels (00 420 224 812 560, www.bohemiabagel.cz) on Masna is hard to beat at around 90Kc (£1.80) for an over-stuffed bagel. Here, you might even imagine that you are in Manhattan, except the prices are far lower, and you can smoke. This self-service café opens 7am-11pm daily (from 8am at weekends), and you can also log on to the internet here.
TAKE A RIDE
Tram 22 runs along the river in the old town and across to the west bank, climbing steeply to the castle. If you want a leisurely downhill stroll, stay on to Pohorelec, and then breeze down to the castle. For a short cut, get off a stop earlier at Prazsky Hrad. Either way, you are about to enter the crowning glory of central Europe.
Prague castle(00 420 224 373 368, www.hrad.cz) is no forbidding fortress, but rather a historical melange of delights: a succession of minor and major palaces, interspersed with churches - notably the overpowering St Vitus cathedral - and cottages, including Kafka's former home in Golden Lane. All are open 9am-5pm (to 4pm from November to March). The admission system is positively Kafkaesque, with combinations of tickets ranging from 50Kc (£1) to 350Kc (£7) depending on how much you want to see. There is no charge for walking around the grounds.
U Prince (00 420 224 213 807, www.hoteluprince.cz), opposite the tourist office on old town Square, has just opened a roof terrace. A very reasonable 70Kc (£1.40) will buy you a beer with which to drink in the broad proportions and odd angles of the square.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
For an experience far removed from the postcard views of old town Square, head east into the newer areas, and in particular to the amazing Imperial Café on Na Porici 15 (00 420 222 316 012, www.hotelimperial.cz, open daily 9am-11pm). The cuisine is typically heavy Czech - 150Kc (£3) buys a beef Stroganoff that will stop you in your tracks - but the surroundings have a faded glory.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Tyn cathedral is off-limits to non-worshippers. So head across the river to the superb Strahov monastery, where you can visit the ornate library; it opens 9am-noon and 1-5pm daily, admission 60Kc (£1.20).
A WALK IN THE PARK
Descend from Strahov on foot - look for the archway near the library that is signposted to the Panorama restaurant, and go through to wander down the terraces of Mala Strana. You will get glorious views for most of the descent.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Sundays tend to start slowly in most of Prague, and as a result only the Western-oriented places are likely to be open early. Chez Michel, on Hastalska (00 420 222 315 676) opens 9am-1am (from 8am during the week) for a breakfast of juice, coffee, croissant and toast for Kcs210 (£4); more extravagant dishes are available.
WRITE A POSTCARD
Sepia cards of the old town are widely on sale. Buy a stamp from the curious main post office at the corner of Jindrisska and Politickych veznu, open 2am-midnight (really). You have to take a ticket and wait for ages, which you will not mind at all because of the intricate decorations within this cathedral to mail. Write it nearby at the Obecni dum, or "Municipal House", which a feast of art nouveau. After admiring the detail of the exterior, wander around the interior (open 10am-6pm daily) and grab a coffee while you write. Call 00 420 222 002 101 or visit www.obecnidum.cz for details of special events.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Walk across the Charles Bridge. And be happy with your good fortune at visiting so fine a city.
Like Amsterdam and Barcelona, the upsurge of cheap flights to Prague means there are barely enough rooms to go around, and hoteliers price their beds accordingly. For choice, select either the old town or Josefov, to keep close to the action.
On Hatalska, two adjacent properties have much to be said for them. The cheaper is Hastal (00 420 222 314 335, www.hastal.com) at number 16, a former brewery that has become a three-star hotel. Rooms are small but comfortably and tastefully furnished. A double costs €100 (£70) including breakfast, though when business is slow you may be able to negotiate a €20 (£14) discount.
Next door, the suave Maximilian (00 420 225 303 111, www.maximilianhotel.com) has one more star and much higher prices: €204 (£143) for a standard double with breakfast. For budget accommodation, nothing can beat the impressive Hostel Sokol, across in Mala Strana at Nosticova 2 (follow the signs for the hard-to-find hostel). Book ahead on 00 420 257 007 397, and you could get a double room for 660Kc (£13).
One more choice highly recommended by Independent readers: U Tri Bubno, the Three Drums (00 420 224 214 855, www.utribubnu.cz), a 15th-century house close to Male namesti. A double costs 3,900Kc (£78), or more at peak times, including breakfast.
Locals tend to shop in the covered malls of Nove Mesto. Most shops catering predominantly for residents open at 9 or 10am to 6 or 7pm from Monday to Friday, to 5pm on Saturday and stay closed on Sunday. Tourist shops, though, generally open seven days a week, often until 8 or 9pm.
The place to buy all your "They said I went to Prague but I can't remember" T-shirts is along Celetna, which is thronged with visitors and flanked by tourist shops. To avoid the tat, head for a completely different retail planet close by - the lovely hidden courtyard of Ungelt.
In the south-west corner, you can find Antikvariat (open 10am-7pm daily, 00 420 224 895 773), and, adjacent, the Anagram bookshop with a display of first-edition Penguin paperbacks. For a glorious choice of Art Deco essentials, Art Decoratif at Siroka 9 (00 420 222 321 032) opens 10am-7.30pm daily for fragments of the 1930s. Finally, for a sense of 1970s shopping, visit the dismalKotva department store, the Obecni dum.
TASTE OF THE CITY
The closer you are to old town Square, the higher the prices are likely to be and the poorer the food and service. Techniques used to inflate your bill include an unadvertised cover charge of a pound or two, which may or may not include the stale bread you didn't eat, and adding a speculative 20 per cent tip to the total. Strike a blow for tourists by deducting this amount - at the vast majority of places tipping is left to your discretion.
In most countries, eating "foreign" food might strike you as strange. Not in Prague, where pizzerias and even Mexican restaurants provide a welcome alternative to rich, meat-heavy local dishes - and tend to open on Sundays unlike most Czech restaurants. Just opened in Mala Strana is the Bakehouse Diner on Lazenska, a fun, comfortable and cheap place to eat that also has the advantage of being very close to the Charles Bridge.
In the tiny street of Ramova alone, you can dine on such recherché cuisine as Afghan or Burmese. Meanwhile, a reasonable introduction to the Czech cuisine is available close to the old town Square at U Cerneho Jelena on Tynska. Try the "100g Delicacy of Prague" - a meat-filled pancake - but watch out for the extras.
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