Short Break: From Kafka to Zappa
A beautiful medieval city with a rock'n'roll vibe, Prague is full of surprises, as Peter Moss discovered
Sunday 05 December 1999
The past ten years have seen Prague dragged into the 20th century. And yet, despite a rash of estate agents' boards, the city still retains a wonderful sense of its own history. It is also full of surprises, a medieval city with a rock'n'roll vibe, from the dazzling graffiti of the John Lennon Wall to the appointment a decade ago of the late Frank Zappa as the city's cultural attache. Vive La Velvet Revolution!
When to go
The Prague Spring Festival, in mid- May, is the city's biggest and best- known music event, with street processions and classical music concerts commandeering every palace, church and hall in the city. Hotels become crammed, so book ahead. The winter months coat spires and steeples in snowflakes and the run-up to Christmas is arguably the most atmospheric time to spend a weekend in the Czech capital. Late-afternoon summer sun turns the city's ochre buildings a glorious golden colour - the perfect time to sit in a cafe on the Old Town Square.
Forthcoming events include Mikhail Baryshnikov and the White Oak Dance Project at the Prague State Opera on 8-9 December, and the composer Michael Nyman and his band at Prague Castle on 18 December. The Dvorak Hall will doubtless be filled in November and December for both the Czech Philharmonic and the Czech National Symphony Orchestras.
Prague International Airport is just 25 minutes from the city centre. Czech Airlines (tel: 0171-255 1898) flies from Heathrow for pounds 140 return, and from Stansted from pounds 107 return. British Airways (tel: 0345-222111) flies Heathrow to Prague from pounds 169 return, while British Midland (tel: 0870-6070555) has a special autumn offer, flying Heathrow to Prague return for pounds 135, subject to at least seven days' advance booking.
Where to stay
Golden rule: stay central, either in Mala Strana or Stare Mesto, the areas either side of the river, linked by the superb Gothic Charles Bridge. That way you'll cover the city as you should, on foot (though the trams, it must be said, are efficient and cheap). The Pariz Hotel, U Obechino domu 1 (tel: 00420 2 24222151) on the edge of the Jewish quarter has been lovingly restored to its turn-of-the-century splendour. Doubles from pounds 120. Similarly refurbished, similarly priced, the Hoffmeister, Pod Bruskov 7 (tel: 00420 2 5618155) is a handsome historic building in a great location on the bend of the road leading up to the castle.
U Raka Pension, Cerninska 10 (tel: 00420 2 20511100) is an idyllic little hideaway, just six rooms in a half-timbered cottage amid a terrace of stucco houses right beside Prague Castle. Doubles from pounds 80.
The Kampa, Vsehrdova 16 (tel: 00420 2 57320404) has the best backstreet location, by the Devil's Brook, just beneath Charles Bridge on Kampa Island. Doubles from pounds 60. But my favourite, and the perfect antidote to the faceless chain hotels of which Prague has its share, is U Tri Pstrosu (The Three Ostriches), Drazickeho namesti 12 (tel: 00420 2 24510779). Once a coffee house, this exquisite Renaissance building stands barely a handshake away from Charles Bridge. Original frescoes and river views come at pounds 120 per double.
What to see and do
Charles Bridge is a must. A tourist trap for sure, but a tourist trap with genuine atmosphere. Old Town Square is the heartbeat of Prague, watched over by the Astronomical Clock, the Old Town Hall, and the blackened towers of the Tyn Church. The plazas behind Old Town Square, though, are quieter and cosier. Petrin Hill should be scaled, either by foot or funicular (the Lanovka), for the best overview of Prague. Climb the 299 steps of the Rozhledna, the "Little Eiffel Tower", and squint at the mountains 100 miles away.
Avoid Wenceslas Square (a sort of post-revolution Oxford Street), pause a while at the Strahov Monastery, where the ornate library halls are miracles of preservation, and give maximum time to the Jewish Quarter. Contemplate a millennium of Jewish life in Prague, as the sunlight filters through the trees on to the 12,000 toppling tombstones of the Old Jewish Cemetery. The Nazis' decimation of Prague Jewry is commemorated with chilling simplicity at the Pinkus Synagogue, the names of 85,000 perished Jews handwritten on every wall, while the evocative Altneu (Old-New) Synagogue, dating back to 1275, is the oldest still-functioning synagogue in Europe.
Most of all, just get out there and walk. And when you do, make sure you look up. The architecture above eye-level is stunning. See the cornices and frescoes soar ever higher to the roof gables. Marvel at the glittering dome of the Municipal House. Bask in the baroque and rococo facades on Neruda Street, each one prettier than the next, especially the "Three Little Fiddles" at No 12. And tarry in the peaceful courtyards and backwaters like Betlemski Namesti, with its 14th-century chapel, and Maltezske Nameski, home of the John Lennon Wall.
And finally, for those who fancy some more robust action, don't miss the football. The Czech Republic are very good - they currently rank second in the Fifa world ratings. Prague has two top teams, Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague. If you're lucky enough to catch them playing one another, you will witness a local derby that makes AC Milan versus Inter Milan look like croquet on the vicarage lawn.
Food and drink
It has been said that good food in Prague is as hard to find as a synagogue in the Vatican. Well, as the good food book says, seek and ye shall find. Reykjavik, Karlova 20 (tel: 2422 9251) is an Icelandic-owned seafood restaurant just round from Charles Bridge. Salmon and plaice in puff pastry is a typically delectable entree. Around pounds 15 for three courses. David Restaurant, in the Little Quarter at Trziste 21 (tel: 539 325) serves Bohemian cuisine with a soupcon of French in an intimate setting. Again, from pounds 15 a head. The divine riverfront location of Kampa Park, Na Kampa 8b (tel: 5731 3493) makes it a favourite with the likes of Lou Reed and Hillary Clinton (no connection, surely?). Sublime main courses such as grilled swordfish with soba noodles start at around pounds 10.
Cosy cafes abound in Prague. Franz Kafka Cafe in the Jewish Quarter at Siroka 12 (tel: 231 8945) oozes wood-panelled warmth and apple strudel. Cafe U Budovce is a hole in a pretty backstreet wall just off Old Town Square at Tynska 7 (tel: 232 5908). Viennese coffee, eccentric bric-a- brac, Otis and Aretha on the airwaves. For outdoor eats in a sun-drenched courtyard, try Metamorphosis, Mala Stupartska 5 (tel: 2482 7058). Eclectic nosh, great setting. Even better, and across the same courtyard, is the Ebel Coffee House (tel: 2489 5788). Muffins, bagels and lox - it could be Manhattan.
Along with offering a wealth of classical concerts, Prague is now firmly on the jazz and rock map. Autumn/winter gigs include Sting, U2, Nick Cave, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and Michael Brecker. Funkiest venues currently are the Palac Akropolis on Kubelikova Street (tel: 00420 2 2271 2287) and the Lucerna Music Bar on Stepanska Street (tel: 00420 2 2421 7108). Full listings are carried weekly in the English-language Prague Post.
Out of town
It seems like sacrilege to drag you away from Prague, so here, briefly, are two must-sees. The fortress town of Terezin, the ghetto 35 miles north- west of Prague, to which 140,000 Jews were deported before being transported to Auschwitz. The place is eerie and soulless and serves as a reminder of a terrible episode in recent history. By contrast, the majestic Gothic cathedral, remarkable monastery, and remains of the old silver mines, make a visit to Kutna Hora an enjoyable excursion and well worth the hour's journey from the capital.
Deals and packages
Travel Scene (tel: 0181-427 8800) will fly you from Heathrow to Prague for a two-night break through autumn and winter at the four-star Pariz Hotel for pounds 395 per person based on two sharing. Price includes b&b, airport taxes, and transfers. Three nights will cost pounds 475 per person. A similar two-night break at the five-star Savoy Hotel will cost pounds 409 per person, pounds 479 for three nights.
Prague's main tourist office is at Staromestske Nam 1 (tel: 00420 2 24482018).
In the UK, contact the Czech Republic Tourist Office, 16 Frognal Parade, Finchley Road, London NW3 5HG (tel: 0171-794 3263).
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