The place where Vaclav Havel plotted the Velvet Revolution is now a hotel room. Robert Nurden visited the most Westernised city in the old East
From The world-weary look on the face of the receptionist at Prague's Pension Unitas I knew she could read my thoughts. But I asked her anyway: "Is President Vaclav Havel's cell vacant tonight?"

No, the "Presidential Suite" was not vacant and, what's more, it was booked for "96 per cent of the nights over the next 12 months". Disappointed, I suggested philosophically that a room with such historical links must be a popular tourist haunt. Yes, not because this was where the Czech playwright had plotted the Velvet Revolution, but at 1,100 crowns (pounds 22) a night, it was the cheapest place in town.

Capitalism's stark realities have come quickly to Prague, and stuck. The idea of spending a night in the dingy cell block of the former state police prison already seemed passe.

Friends had been telling me I should visit Prague "before hip Americans take it over". I'd resisted, perhaps because "going to Prague" seemed synonymous with going to Goa or Amsterdam in the Sixties. Now I had to see this supposed Left Bank hangout of the Nineties, to see what all the fuss was about.

I was a quick-fix tourist on a weekend break, so I joined a private, three-hour dual language minibus tour. The weak spring sunshine was filtering through the mist - or was it smog - as we drove off from the Powder Gate. This magnificent Gothic tower had so far escaped the sweeping broom of the new age, and communist soot clung stubbornly to its carved stonework.

Our guide, Jaroslav, explained first in German, then in English, that the Czechs were proud of their bloodless revolution. "Like you, we are all capitalists," he smiled, his trilby bobbing up and down.

The minibus got stuck in mid-morning traffic and Jaroslav ran out of things to say. He took out a mobile phone to warn the office the tour was running late.

Workers wearing garish shell-suits huddled in a bus shelter, grim and unsmiling. Swathes of tall girls with peroxide hair, very short skirts and very high heels clacked past on the cobbles.

As we crossed the River Vltava, the spired splendour of the skyline came into view. Away to the north-west, the stacked-up pile of the Hradcany [castle district] with the cathedral, castle, Strahov monastery and thousands of red roofs, and to the east, the medieval towers and turrets of Tyn Church and Charles Bridge, and to the north the Soviet apartment blocks straddling the dusty hills.

Like no other European capital, Prague has stayed intact, untouched by Second World War bombing and protected by communism from the commercial pressures that have spawned high-rise eyesores. Later, I did see a Tesco superstore.

Jaroslav walked us down the higgledy-piggledy streets of pink and lemon houses near the Hradcany. He admired the "grandeur" of the 150-metre long Cernin Palace, the former Nazi headquarters. Not grandeur so much as brutality, I thought.

The Loreto church, the city's most ornate baroque, could not have been more of a contrast - all twirls and flourishes. A party of Italian schoolchildren were blocking the narrow entrance into the inner chapel - not because they were stopping to admire its silverwork but because two of them had stopped to snog.

By the time we reached St Vitus cathedral, we had merged with other tour groups, and even when Jaroslav was speaking English, which wasn't very often, I couldn't hear properly. Tip: never take a dual-language tour. We raced round this huge cathedral, nearly 600 years in the making. Outside I caught Jaroslav's arm. "I'm going to leave you," I said.

"You are quite right," he said softly. "My company is only here to make money. They stuff culture. Wait until two o'clock and start again. "

Alongside the Archbishop's Palace ran a path and tucked away at the bottom was the Sternberk Palace, the national gallery, untrumpeted and peaceful. Here were paintings by Durer, Rubens, El Greco and 20th-century giants to match any other gallery's. A coffee and chocolate cake took me to two o'clock and a crowd-free Hradcany. Tip: start touring Prague at lunchtime.

I soon encountered another pitfall: the closed for renovation syndrome, which sometimes was true but more often meant the heritage department had run out of money. It was the case with Prague's loveliest Renaissance building, the Belvedere.

The St Wenceslas chapel had shed its spectators to reveal its jewelbox Byzantine decorations. In the nave, the 20th-century stained-glass windows shouted out their bright blues, reds and greens. And the simple mystery of the 12th-century romanesque basilica of St George (restoration complete), was silencing even the Italian children.

With dusk falling, I followed Mozart's footsteps down the murky streets of the Mala Strana. I looked for the John Lennon memorial but in the gathering dark couldn't find it, only day-old graffiti and broken Budweiser bottles. Still I hadn't met an American, let alone a stoned hippie. Another thwarted exploit. I thought of Kafka's Joseph K, but rejected the comparison. This wasn't a trial. Was it?

Accordion players squeezed out the last drops of the day as I walked on to Charles Bridge. St Vitus stood out in shimmering green, the castle in stark yellow, the baroque dome of St Nicholas in warm pink. The statues had seen it all before, but I thought it was magical.

A Staropramen beer cleared the dust in my throat, and so did the next one. Lunch in the Czech Republic refers more to the size of the meal than when you eat it, so I had lunch - pork and dumplings - at six.

The barman leaned conspiratorially towards me, all sweaty forehead and sunken eyes. "You know these trendies, they want to drink absinthe, like Hemingway in Paris. So we give it to them and they fall down. But it is only bark dipped in spirits, not real wormwood." He told me that tourists had driven Czechs from the centre, but that "even the Yanks were leaving now". "The real place to drink beer is in the suburbs," he said.

Rubbish bins are Prague's unofficial what's on guide. Fly posters advertised Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and a marionette theatre version of The Yellow Submarine. With half an hour before curtain up I secured a box seat for The Magic Flute at the Stavovske.

I shared the box with Ellen and Merrill, two New York matrons, aficionados of opera they assured me. But the avant garde production was too much for them and they swept out. "Why are they singing in German anyway?" Ellen asked. Merrill and I exchanged glances: we knew it was in Czech.

The next day I arrived late for the Kafka tour, so I joined the Velvet Revolution tour instead. In the bitter cold, Tomas, in his peaked Donovan cap, gave us the history of the nation.

"We Czechs, we do not know who we are," he said. "We are not passionate or religious like Hungarians or Poles. We are phlegmatic and funny. But no more Skoda jokes, please. Now we are part of Volkswagen."

As I walked into the beautiful old town square the sound of clucking was on the air: toy chickens were being sold by men in floppy Renaissance hats. I looked up at the astronomical clock: five past six: I'd missed the performing figures again.

Two days before St Patrick's Day I drank too much Guinness in the James Joyce bar - about as off-season as you can get, I suppose. After that, I had one coffee more than I needed in the Ethno-Cafe.

I was going to take a taxi to Josefov but Radka - the waitress - warned me against corrupt drivers. Last month three Belgians were beaten up when they refused to pay an exorbitant fare. Anyway, Prague is for walking.

A travel agency was advertising holidays in Rhodes and a middle-aged woman in a dirty skirt was looking in the window. She shuffled towards the door and then turned back.

The free market, Left Bank hangouts, Skoda sales up 26 per cent - an explosion of paradoxes. I had to admit it: I hadn't got to grips with Prague - but neither had Joseph K.

n Robert Nurden flew from Heathrow with British Midland (Tel: 01332 854000).

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