Travel: The streetlamps and tongues are particularly memorable
MY ROUGH GUIDE
Sunday 10 May 1998
There are lots of excellent pubs in Prague, and, of course, litres and litres of the best beer in the world, but there's a real dearth of places near the castle, where a lot of thirsty tourists can be found expiring. Few of them ever find their way to U cerneho vola (The Black Ox), a staunchly Czech pub, which serves frothy mugs of the excellent Velkopopovicky kozel beer. Don't be intimidated, just stick a beer mat in front of you, and nod when the waiter asks you if you want pivo? From that point on, he'll just keep bringing in those beers until you tell him to stop.
Once upon a time, Prague had a selection of cafes to rival the likes of Vienna, but nowadays only a handful survive from the golden age at the turn of the century. The most evocative is the one inside the Obecn dum or Municipal House, which was built in Art Nouveau style in 1911 and has recently been lovingly restored. You only really get a taster of the decor from the cafe - the restaurant is even more ornate - and, if you're truly smitten, you can take a guided tour of the rest of the interior, which includes a vast concert hall, exhibition rooms and work by Alfons Mucha.
After years of wrangling and delays, the city's new modern art museum has finally opened in the Veletrzn palc in the northern suburb of Holesovice. Not only does it house a fantastic collection of Czech art from Kupka to Kolr, plus works by Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse, it is also an awesome building in its own right, a masterful essay in modernism from the late 1920s.
Most memorable streetlamp
For a brief period just before the First World War, the Czechs had a stab at applying Cubism to architecture and design. One of the finest examples of Czech Cubist architecture is the streetlamp (and seat) from 1912, hidden away in a corner of Jungmannovo nmest. For a more general overview of the zig-zag furniture and buildings this remarkable experiment produced, head for the Ceske muzeum vytvarnych umen, housed in a Cubist house in the old town.
All ex-pat bookshops should be as welcoming and appealingly ramshackle as Prague's Globe bookshop in the suburb of Holesovice. The bookstacks touch the ceiling, and there are comfy armchairs in which you're positively invited to while away a rainy afternoon. Buy a book and you can step next door to the adjacent cafe and enjoy coffee, cakes and a cigarette.
Nowadays there are some great little hotels in the cobbled streets just below Prague Castle, but what unreconstructed Marxist-Leninist can resist the Hotel International, Prague's only Stalinist skyscraper, built in wedding-cake style in the 1950s replete with dour socialist realist friezes and lashings of marble, and now run by Holiday Inn?
Walk round the ambulatory of Prague's St Vitus Cathedral and you'll bump into the city's most ostentatious tomb, containing the remains of Saint John of Nepomuk. This poor fellow was thrown off the Charles Bridge in 1393 on the orders of the king for refusing to divulge the secrets of the queen's confession. In an effort to get him canonised, the Jesuits dug him up several centuries later and claimed that, although his body was reduced to bones, his tongue was alive and licking. A replica of the tongue now has pride of place on the lid of the tombafter scientists discovered that the original was, in fact, a desiccated brain.
Good King Wenceslas wasn't that good. It's only that his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, who stabbed him to death, was even worse. And he wasn't a king, only a duke. And his real name was Vclav. And as for the snow...
Czech Airlines, British Airways and British Midland all fly daily from London to Prague; discounted fares should bring the price down to around pounds 150 return. Czech Airlines also flies five times a week from Manchester.
Where to stay
Private rooms can be organised easily enough on arrival in the airport for around pounds 10 per person. Hotel International, Koulova 15 (00 420 2 24 39 31 11; fax 24 31 06 16). Expect to pay around pounds 100 for a double.
Where to drink
The Obecn dum is the largest building on nmest Republiky, by the metro station. The cafe is open daily 8am-11pm. U cerneho vola is under the arches on Loretnske nmest. It's open daily 10am-10pm.
Seeing the sights
The Veletrzn palc is on Dukelskych hrdinu; to get there take tram #5 from nmest Republiky; it's open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, Thurs until 9pm. The Ceske muzeum vytvarnych umen is on the corner of Celetn and Ovocny trh; it's open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm.
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