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 Features
  Publication Date: 19 April 2003
Floods fail to dampen Prague's golden glory
Marie Foy flies off to Prague to immerse herself in a far away picturesque city and indulge in a little well-deserved escapism

By Marie Foy

AUTUMN is a wonderful time of year to visit the beautifully preserved city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Orange and gold foliage light up the tourist trails, the crowds have thinned, and the weather is not too much cooler than home and pleasant for strolling around the sights.

We booked our flights at the tail end of last summer - and a week later unexpected and horrendous floods, the worst in 100 years, swamped the city. The river Vltava burst its banks with flood Whaters reaching a staggering 6 metres, swirling through hotels, restaurants and bars, knocking out the subway and filling the streets with debris and mud.

Luckily, the massive drying out and clean-up operation was almost completed in time for our trip at Halloween, a month or so later.

Just as a precaution we booked a hotel well up the hill which is topped by the stately Prague Castle.

This turned out to be a fortuitous, as well as dry, choice. Dating from the 18th century, the Hotel Golden Star has been modernised to the highest standards with polite and efficient staff, many with good English.

The hotel is just above the Lala Strana (small district) which is littered with a maze of quiet lanes and palaces, previously the homes of nobles, many of which are now embassies.

The main thoroughfare is jewelled with small coffee shops, jazz cellars, wine bars and bijou shops and throbs with life. The back streets are a favourite locale for an endless stream of film crews shooting period pieces such as Amadeus and Les Miserables. Modern blockbusters were also shot there and no film has shown the city off better than Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible.

Alongside the castle are the looming pinnacles of St Vitus Cathedral, built on the site where murdered 'Good King' Wenceslas was buried 1,000 years ago.

Nearby is the ornate baroque Church of St Nicholas whose tower was once a favourite spy roost for teams of secret police during the Communist era.

On the same bank of the river is the ancient Hunger Wall, commissioned by Charles IV in 1362 to provide work for the poor, and a fifth-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower which you can climb for spectacular views.

There is also the tranquil Strahov Monastery with its stunningly frescoed libraries which appear on posters in universities all over the world.

From our hotel we crossed the Vltava via one of the best loved of the sights of the city, the famous Charles Bridge. Be sure to touch the gold cross half way across, make a wish, and you're bound to return.

Lined with a colourful gauntlet of hawkers and street entertainers, the bridge leads into the historic old town. The best time to come is at night when the castle above is floodlit.

The old town square was the original main market place and is still a bustling centre of activity. Here you can see the town hall, sections of which were restored after the Nazi's blew it up in the last days of the Second World War. It has an amazing astronomical clock with a procession of decorative wooden saints appearing on the hour.

In its shadow is a black and white house dating from 1611 where the writer Franz Kafka lived as a boy.

A short dander away you find the history steeped Old Jewish Cemetery. Forbidden to enlarge their burial ground, the Jews had to bury bodies on top of one another in 12 layers so that today crazy mounds of earth are jammed with lopsided stone tablets.

If you enjoy art nouveau, then you must drop into the Mucha Museum, dedicated to perhaps the most famous of all Czech visual artists, Alfons Mucha. He created striking commercial posters for actress Sarah Bernhardt and a brilliant stained-glass window for St Vitus.

Among the other sights is Wenceslas Square, the heart of modern Prague, where you can sip a cup of coffee while drinking in the chipped and shabby splendour of the Grand Hotel Europa.

Half-day city walks are a great way of gleaning a little local knowledge. We hired a personal guide, George, at £10 a head. He spent a number of years in the US and has an incisive take on east versus west. He can also show you some of the best restaurants serving real Czech food. Although the traditional goulash and dumplings can be heavy going, you have to try it. Pivovarsky Dum brewery and restaurant serves local dishes with lashings of beer for around £5 a head.

In the evening, you can mellow to the sound of Czech composer Smetana at the elegant Municipal House, a stunning art deco treat.

There are plenty of smart, touristy bars to chose from, but as an alternative try the low-lit designer cellar bar Klub Architektu in the old town for another refreshing beer. Prague is one of those olde worlde gems where you can immerse yourself in a far away, picturesque city and indulge in a little well-deserved escapism.

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