Travel: Factfile

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Prague

Getting there: You can fly to for pounds 204 return on BA or a little less on Czechoslovak Airlines (CSA). Regent Holidays of Bristol (0272 211711) also offers good fares.

Accommodation: has a serious shortage of hotels and the best ones - the beautiful Palace, just off Wenceslaus Square, the Inter-Continental or the Atrium - cost around pounds 180 for a twin room. In the middle bracket is the art nouveau Parisz, in the Old Town: pounds 110 for a twin room with bath and breakfast. The International, a short tram or tram-and-metro ride away, is a Stalinist monstrosity; only the red star is missing. But it is comfortable and reasonable: about pounds 45 each. The Olympic Garni is good value at pounds 40; perhaps the best bet, if you book early enough to get a room, is the U Raka, in Novy Svet, by the Loreto monastery.

Where to eat: The choice is either rather dim tourist food - there is a McDonald's in Wenceslaus Square - or Bohemian cooking. This can err on the heavy side, with lots of pork and goose, or it can be excellent. Among the best-known places are U Tri Pstrosu (the Three Ostriches) and U Mecenase, both in Mala Strana, and U Zlate Hrusky, in Novy Svet. We especially liked two places: U 7 Andelu, between Old Town Square and the river, a quiet place with a Habsburg flavour; and U Dvou Sluncu, on Nerudova street, at the bottom of the ramp leading up to the castle square. This is a pleasant restaurant in a stone vaulted room on the ground floor of an ancient house. You can also eat, sometimes well, in vinarnas, which sell local Moravian wine (vino) and pivnices (pubs) selling beer (pivo). The latter - including Pilsner Urquell and Budjevicy, the original Budweiser, a more serious tipple than its US namesake - is widely held to be the best in the world.

Getting around: Beware of taxis: there are 'city' and 'private' ones. The latter are a racket. One driver tried to charge us dollars 55 for a journey of less than two miles. He reduced it by a half only after a nasty argument. Make sure you are hiring an official 'city' taxi. And get to know the efficient tram and metro systems - the same tickets are used for both.

Entertainment: Under Communism, jazz came to occupy an extraordinary position in Czech culture, being viewed as the acceptable face of capitalism. There are open-air jazz concerts in the summer. Two good clubs are the Reduta and Press Jazz Club. The top venues for rock are the Rock Club, next to the Reduta, and Ujezd in Mala Strana, once a favourite haunt of Vaclav Havel. remains a great centre for classical music, with concerts by the Symphony Orchestra in the Smetana Hall. A particular feature is baroque music in the city's many baroque churches, among them the two St Nicholases, one in Mala Strana, one in Old Town Square. A recent development, aimed at tourists in general and Americans in particular, is English-language theatre. There is also a lot of mime in the laterna magika (magic lantern) theatres. There is opera at the Narodni Divadlo National Theatre) and the Smetanovo Divadlo (Smetana theatre). It features a lot of the great national composers, Janacek, Smetana and Dvorak. Classical CDs are good and cheap, especially at Suprafon.

Reading: Some of the books that got me interested in Czech writing are: Bohumil Hrabal, A Close Watch on the Trains (which was made into a film) and I Served the King of England; Ivan Klima, First Loves; Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being; everything by Josef Skvorecky, but especially The Engineer of Human Souls, Talking Moscow Blues and the Lieutenant Boruvka detective stories, now out in Penguin; Ludvik Vaculik, A Cup of Coffee with my Interrogator. The two best writers on the Czech experience are Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk, and Franz Kafka, The Castle and The Trial. On the experience of Jews during the war, Jiri Weil's Life with a Star is beautifully written. The essays by Vaclav Havel expound the philosophy of the Velvet Revolution. Also worth reading is Bruce Chatwin's Utz.

Berlin

Getting there: Lufthansa is offering a return flight for pounds 99 (plus pounds 2.50 airport tax) to any airport in Germany before the end of March. You can go on to any other EC airport for pounds 55. You can also fly from London on BA. It is nice to arrive at Tempelhof, which is no distance from the Kreuzberg district and closer to the centre than most other major airports. You can drive in or take the train from Frankfurt, Hamburg or Warsaw.

Accommodation: Berlin is a big city and, if only because the pound has been devalued against the mark, a relatively expensive one. The well- known hotels, therefore, such as the Bristol Hotel Kempinski ( pounds 200 a night for a twin room) in Kurfurstendamm (Ku'damm), the Inter-Continental in Budapesterstrasse and the Steigenberger are elegant and luxurious, but pricey. The best hotels in the former East Berlin are also expensive: they include the Dom, overlooking Platz der Akademie and Schinkel's theatre; the pleasant Grand Hotel and the Metropol ( pounds 160 for a twin) in Friedrichstrasse, close to the railway station. There are, however, cheaper hotels that are entirely satisfactory, among them the Savigny ( pounds 64), close to Ku'damm, the Atrium and - my choice - Riehmers Hofgarten ( pounds 84), near Tempelhof airport in Kreuzberg, the Latin Quarter of Berlin. The hotel is in a huge 1900 apartment complex, a cross between Albert Hall Mansions and the Dakota in New York, with an excellent, moderately priced restaurant.

Getting around: Twelve marks ( pounds 4.87) buys unlimited travel for 24 hours from the moment the ticket is validated in a special machine in all stations; you can travel by bus, tram (in the east only), S-bahn and U-bahn (Underground); a Monday-to-Friday pass costs 28 marks.

Where to eat: There is no shortage of places to eat, from super-grand international restaurants to the wurst stalls round Alexander Platz in the east. One of the most famous restaurants is Rockendorf's in the Reinickendorf district. The densest concentration of good eating places is immediately south of Ku'damm at its eastern end, in Uhlandstrasse, Fasanenstrasse and Meinekestrasse: among them I like Crombacher, Wibb's and Hardtke, the last known for beer, sausage and traditional Berlin food such as erbspuree, which is mushy peas.

What to see: Berlin is a great city and operates 24 hours a day. It is impossible to describe all it has to offer. There is nightlife, from the decorous to the seedy, with both gay and lesbian nightclubs tolerated: the Soho equivalent is Lietzenburgerstrasse, parallel to Ku'damm to the south. The western bohemia is in Kreuzberg, the eastern in Prenzlauer Berg. There are great museums: if you see nothing else, you should see the gate of Babylon and the Pergamon altar in the Pergamon museum, Nefertiti and the funeral models in the Egyptian museum in Charlottenburg, and Frederick the Great's Sans Souci in Potsdam. There are plenty of concerts - classical, rock and jazz - and about 25 live theatres, including Brecht's former Berliner Ensemble, now a bit of a museum piece. There are no fewer than three great opera houses: the Staatsoper in Unter den Linden, the Theater des Westens in the west, and - my favourite - the Komische Oper round the corner from Friedrichstrasse at Unter den Linden. It is a good idea to buy Berliner Programm, 2.80 marks.

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