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Thursday, April 7, 2005

The Czechs call their capital, one of Europe's most beautiful cities, "matièka Praha" (little mother Prague). Under communist rule for 40 years, the city was freed by the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and has since blossomed into a desirable tourist destination.

Prague was spared the amount of war damage suffered by much of Europe. It offers a wonderful array of superb Gothic and Baroque architecture, elegant Art Nouveau and chiselled Cubist façades. Music is an important part of the city's charm. It hosts the annual Prague spring festival of classical music and opera, innumerable jazz and rock venues and has some excellent dance clubs.

Its layered history is in evidence wherever you go. Prague has been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, the first Czechoslovak Republic, the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the Communist Republic of Czechoslovakia and now the modern Czech Republic. Be prepared for a little of each.

This is a city which calls out to be explored. It has medieval lanes and many hidden passages in the Old Town (Staré Mĕsto). There are beautiful, wooded parks. The Vltava River is perfect for gentle cruising. The river is straddled by a series of bridges and lined by cafés and restaurants.

Charles Bridge, which is lined with 30 statues of saints, was begun by Charles IV to replace an earlier bridge which had been washed away by floods. It was completed in 1400 but wasn't given its name until the 19th century. It has withstood wheeled traffic for 600 years, all because of the eggs added to the mortar, some say. The marvellous old bridge stood firm against devastating floods in 2002. After WWII it became pedestrian-only and while it can become choked in the warmer months, it's worth crossing to see the hawkers and buskers and to enjoy the views.

Prague Castle is the city's most popular sight. Covering an area larger than seven football fields, the world's largest ancient castle was founded as a fortified settlement in the 9th century. A Romanesque palace was erected during the 12th century, then the 14th saw some Gothic additions. The Spanish Hall came in the 16th century and after WWI, the architect J Plecnik formed the interior and gardens. Its mixture of styles is the result of each new ruler making additions in his own taste. It has had four major reconstructions and despite many wars and fires, remains a splendid must-see for tourists.

St Vitus Cathedral is Prague's most recognised landmark, with the added attractions of a monastery, several towers, palaces and Golden Lane.

You will probably need a day to explore the buildings and will see the window from where, in 1618, two Protestant nobles who were rebelling against the emperor were thrown to their deaths.

Today, Prague Castle is the seat of the President of the Czech Republic and serves as the historical and political centre of both city and state. Buildings not occupied by the Government are filled with galleries and shops. The toy collection in the former Counts Chambers is the second largest of its kind in the world.

Staromestské námestí (Old Town Square) is Prague's most spectacular square and the city's traditional heart. Most of the brightly-coloured houses look solidly eighteenth-century, but their Baroque façades hide older buildings. It was the city's main marketplace from the 11th century, known simply as Velké námestí (Great Square). All roads in Bohemia led to it and merchants from all over Europe gathered there. When the five towns that made up Prague were united in 1784, the Old Town Square's town hall was made the seat of the new city council and for the next 200 years this square (along with Wenceslas Square) witnessed the country's most violent demonstrations and battles. In summer, cafés spread out their tables, in winter there's a Christmas market and all year round tourists pour in to admire the 700-year-old town hall clock chime, to sit on the steps of the Hus Monument and to drink in this historic showpiece.

The Czech Republic has become a hot destination for foreign film production. Prague is adaptable enough to be a modern or period location. You may have seen it in Mission: Impossible, Van Helsing, Shanghai Knights, The Bourne Identity or Jack the Ripper.

Traditional pubs and eateries have been hit by a torrent of gourmet restaurants, cocktail bars and trendy cafés, but those seeking traditional pork, cabbage and dumplings won't be disappointed. Most meals are designed to be accompanied by fine Czech beer, something they have been making since the 9th century and of which they are justifiably proud.

Hergetova Cihelna is a young, trendy restaurant offering traditional Czech and international favourites. It forms an essential part of the panorama of Prague Castle and has views of the Old Town of Prague and Charles Bridge. The restaurant seats 100, the summer terrace seats 150, there are 80 seats in the cocktail bar and 50 in the music lounge. There is always music here, sometimes live, and it appeals to all ages.

Café Imperial, in Prague's historic centre, is a wondrous art nouveau café, built in 1914, just as the Dada movement was being born not far away. During Czechoslovakia's First Republic it was the picture of decadence. Now it has a shabby chic appeal. Tables fill with people in awe of the floor-to-ceiling 1914 art nouveau sculpted porcelain tiles depicting leaping stags, nesting birds and cherubs on donkeys.

The menu has one very quirky item: Saturnin's Bowl, which is 45-day-old jelly doughnuts, purely for throwing at fellow diners, sold only to sober patrons over 21 years of age.

The dish is named after a Czech novel by Zdenek Jirotka, published in 1943 during the Nazi occupation. It groups people into one of three categories by their reactions to a plate of doughnuts: those who just stare at the doughnuts, those who wonder how it would feel to throw them at other customers and "people for whom the idea of a doughnut whistling through the air is such an enticement that they get up and actually make it happen".

Meteor Plaza is a perfectly located property for visitors to Prague. The heritage-listed hotel is close to the Old Town Square and offers charming, old-world style. Its baroque façade dates to 1307, forming an entrance to a place of modern rooms and amenities. The hotel restaurant is located in an original 14th-century cellar. They offer a complimentary buffet breakfast and have a fitness centre and spa.


Capital of the Czech Republic


Prague Castle entry is around $20 for adults and $10 for children. It is open between April and October from 5am to midnight and November to March from 6am to 11pm. Changing of the guard takes place on the hour between 5am and 11pm.

Café Imperial Saturnin's Bowl costs $110.

Best Western Meteor Plaza Hotel rooms start at $191 per person twin share.

Explore Holidays has three-night Prague Experience packages, including twin-share accommodation, breakfast each day, tour and lunch or dinner, starting at $376 per person twin share.

Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.

More information

Prague Castle
Hradcany Prague 1, Czech Republic

Hergetova Cihelna Restaurant
Cihelná 2b
Mala Strana, Prague 1, Czech Republic

Café Imperial
Na Porící 15, Prague 1
Ph: 420 6(02) 368 7(02)

Hotel Best Western Meteor Plaza
Hybernska 6
11000 Prague 1
Ph: 420 224 192 4559
Fax: 420 224 220 681

Explore Holidays
9/243 Sussex Street
Sydney 2000
Ph: (02) 9423 8004; 1300 731 012

Austrian Airlines
Ph: (02) 9241 4277
Fax: (02) 9251 7964

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