Travel: In a pickle over Prague

Mark Rowe feared the city he loved as a student might have been ruined.But all was well - even the cabbage

t was the neatly folded pickled cabbage that did it. Served with a side dish of gherkins and salami, it produced a tear-jerking wave of nostalgia. During the eight years since I was last in Prague, people had been constantly warning me that the city had altered for the worse, that you couldn't move for tourists and that American students had ruined the atmosphere of the best bars. But now I had the irrefutable evidence of my own taste buds: Prague had not changed.

No matter how many glossy boutiques or McDonald's branches had sprung up, a city that could still rustle up a genuine pickled salad had clearly survived the worst the West could throw at it.

Ten years ago, I had been a student in what was Central Europe's best- kept secret. Misplaced Western notions that Prague was the bleak and charmless epitome of the Cold War kept visitors away. Those of us who had the chance to spend time in the old Czechoslovakia knew better, forming an exclusive club of foreigners who lost our hearts to Prague in the 1980s - even if it did mean, night after night, dining out on pickled cabbage, pickled chicken, pickled anything.

While the questionable merits of Soviet-era Czech food will probably never find their way into a best-selling cook book, dining out did play its part in our shared love affair. Bacon dumplings and cheese on toast do not automatically inspire feelings of affection, but call them by their Czech names, spekove knedliky and smazeny syr, and they somehow seem to take on a mouthwatering quality.

Praguers hit by savage price-rises may disagree, but the city is as charming as ever for foreign visitors. Inevitably, there has been a rise in the universal tourist tat and the price of classical concerts in Old Town's numerous churches are shamelessly and outrageously priced. But Charles Bridge on a snowy winter's day remains a timeless place, with just a handful of frozen street-sellers bravely marketing their paintings and etchings.

You still do not have to look far for that authentic Czech experience. Which is why, when picking up the menu in the Golden Tiger pub, deep in Prague's Old Town, I had to go for the pickled vegetable option. The pub itself, once the haunt of Bohumil Hrabel, the eccentric, heavy-drinking novelist, had also changed little, despite a location making it a prime target for developers. The wooden benches leave you with splinters and the excellent Staropramen beer is just 25p for half a litre. Like many of Prague's other drinking dens, the Golden Tiger had managed to survive the dash to capitalism.

Elsewhere, to my great delight, I found the same story. A toy shop where I had bought a plastic kit of a MiG fighter for my father 10 years ago still survives on a site of prime real estate, barely 20 yards from the Old Town Square. Prague's Old Town is full of mellifluous street names such as Liliova, Kaprova and Melantrichova, which continue to throw up delicate, come-hither alleyways with crooked ramshackle houses. You can spend hours just wandering aimlessly, coming across miniature squares and fountains. Across the city, many towers have been opened up to tourists, allowing panoramas of the city that, in Communist times, were only grudgingly opened on request.

You can now rest your feet in between these walks at any of the handful of atmospheric coffee houses which have reopened after several years of refurbishment and protracted ownership disputes, recapturing much of the mood of Prague almost 100 years ago. The Cafe Slavia, where President Vaclav Havel spent his dissident days committing thought-crimes, is now a bustling mix of businessmen, students, grand old ladies and tourists, while the Malostranska Kavarna across the Vltava river in the Little Town retains its unpretentious appeal and scrumptious cakes despite a new lick of paint and - another novelty - attentive service. In Wenceslas Square, the magnificently ornate art nouveau Evropa Kafe remains just that, though sadly, the deaf-and-dumb discussion party no longer seems to meet there, probably deterred by the hike in prices, though it is still cheap by Western standards.

The charm has been enhanced by the fact that today, unlike during the Soviet era, waiters actually appear interested in serving you: the appaling service of state-owned restaurants was the stuff of legend. Furthermore, the immediate post-Communist era had produced an open season for rapacious waiters ripping off the new influx of tourists. A survey by the city's tourism chiefs in 1995 found that the average restaurant bill had been inflated by 35 per cent. But on my recent trip, I noted that almost all our bills were accurate. If anything, I found myself hoping to be ignored and abused, just for old times' sake.

And when you manage to drag yourself away from the beer and the coffee, you find that Prague is easier to explore than it ever has been.

Before the 1989 revolution, many of the real gems were rarely visited by tourists, either because they were advertised only in Czech or because group tours were only taken to what Cedok, the state-owned tourist monopoly, decided they should see. As a result, few people seeing a sign involving a lot of little consonants with the odd vowel thrown in were enticed to explore further. Now that English-language maps have been produced, magnificent buildings like the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Charlemagne, located in a quiet and peaceful part of the New Town, are no longer out of bounds. It is worth viewing for its astounding 16th-century ribbed vault (Praguers attributed it to witchcraft rather than architectural genius), and afterwards, don't forget to pop into the nearby, but little visited, Dvorak Museum.

But even in the height of summer, you can still have much of Prague to yourself. Few people having walked up the steep hill to Prague Castle make the extra five-minute stroll to Loreta Square, where there is a fine collection of baroque churches and chapels. It is perfectly possible to spend half a day or more in the area, though not many do.

Back in the Old Town, Tyn Church has finally been reopened after what seems like a lifetime of restoration. The church's spires stand out over the Old Town Square, but the church itself for years remained pretty inaccessible. Now this dusty corner of Prague's centre has been brought back to life, and even the tacky tourist shops in the vicinity possess a vestige of charm. I pressed my nose against the window of a grocery store and smiled. There it was again: a jar of finest okurka. Pickled cucumber.

PRAGUE

GETTING THERE

British Midland offers return flights to Prague from pounds 157 through Trailfinders (tel: 0171-937 5400). A two-night city break with Time Off (tel: 0990 846363) costs from pounds 325, including flights and accommodation.

GETTING AROUND

Prague is easy to get around on foot, but there are efficient and cheap metro and tram systems.

WHERE TO DRINK

The Golden Tiger pub (`U zlateho tygra') is at Husova 17, Old Town.

Cafe Slavia (Kavarna Slavie) is at Narodni 1, Old Town. Mala Strana Cafe (Malostranska Kavarna) is on the Little Town Square.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Czech Tourist Authority (tel: 0171-291 9925).

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