Winter is a wonderful time to explore this historic capital city, writes Nick Elvin
At the gates of Prague Castle, soldiers stand in their winter uniforms, waiting for the midday changing of the guard.
On the ramparts the leaves of Bohemia's oldest vineyard have long fallen - as have those on the trees, allowing the clearest views over the Czech capital. There's a low sun, and a chill wind quickens the senses. It feels like the perfect time of year to be here.
Within the castle walls, the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral towers over the churches, palaces, halls and gardens of a vast complex that has seen kings, emperors and presidents come and go for more than a thousand years. This is the world's largest inhabited castle, and everywhere there is a story. This is where the country’s crown jewels are kept. It’s where people were thrown from windows to their deaths; where knights jousted.
There are statues everywhere you turn in Prague, an indication, and a celebration, of its rich history. Just outside the castle gates is a likeness of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia after independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.
TGM - as he is affectionately known - looks out over the city. Below, the Vltava winds its way through the capital, and on either side of the river are the countless spires, towers, monasteries and bridges that help make this such an enchanting and popular place. Just on cue, a small ensemble standing nearby strikes up Vltava by Bedřich Smetena, the composer's ode to the journey the river takes through his country.
My friends and I are following a well-trodden route that leads down from the castle through the Lesser Town. I see one place advertising a “Viagra absinthe cocktail”, the drinking of which is possibly not covered by travel insurance policies. But it’s easy to get away from the tourist trail. There are plenty of small squares or gardens within a hundred yards where often only the occasional soft tolling of bells breaks the silence.
Eventually we reach Charles Bridge, the most famous of the 17 that span the Vltava in Prague. It’s dusk now and an ideal time to make the crossing, when the crowds are smaller and the 30 saints’ statues that line the bridge become eerie silhouettes.
Across the bridge, we descend to the riverbank where our boat awaits for a guided tour. We pass under the subtly lit arches, negotiating small boats where men fish for carp, and wooden icebreakers, which help prevent winter freeze damaging the 14th Century structure.
On one side of the river, we can see the grand buildings that house university faculties, concert venues and hotels. On the other side, the crescent moon is setting behind the Eiffel Tower-like landmark, the Petřínská rozhledna, built on a hilltop in 1891, and inspired by its more famous Parisian counterpart, which opened two years before.
We slip into Little Venice, a small side stream featuring a large waterwheel that I'm told turns very slowly - I don't notice it move. The Vltava flooded catastrophically in the summer of 2002, and we can see where levels reached several metres above where we are.
Back on dry land, we make our way to the heart of the old town. In Old Town Square, music is an the air, and – our visit being just before Christmas - as soon as we turn the corner we are confronted by a big, bright tree, full of white lights. The nearby Christmas market offers mulled wine, trdelnik (a sweet pastry) and souvenirs. All the while traditional dancing takes place up on a stage. Across the square the towers of the Týn and St Nicholas churches are lit up.
Old Town Square also hosts an astronomical clock. On the hour, this complex 15th Century timepiece, which tells you everything you need to know about time, season and celestial bodies, comes to life with a charming parade of clockwork figures, known as the Walk of the Apostles. High up on the tower of the Old Town City Hall, which houses the clock, the horological display ends with a trumpeter playing a fanfare to the assembled crowds below.
We go for dinner at the Kempinski Hotel Hybernska, a smart and modern place. The food offers a new slant on central European cuisine, using local ingredients. It’s not like the food we enjoyed in a café at the castle earlier - hearty soup made from wurst, paprika and sauerkraut, followed by goulash with dumplings. Here it’s deer tartare prepared with gin and capers, followed by pheasant with a sweet potato and squash ratatouille. Later we're shown round. It’s a hotel where guests include the likes of footballers and their model wives on honeymoon. The presidential suite even features an outdoor hot tub with views over the towers and spires of the city.
Our own hotel is the pretty 5-star family-run Boutique Hotel Hoffmeister. It's a romantic place in a quiet setting and comes complete with a spa. It's also very close to Prague Castle, so it’s a long walk back, but after an excellent dinner, a walk is exactly what I need. And anyway there are plenty of good bars on the way – so you can just see where the evening takes you.
Next morning we make use of the city’s extensive tram network. We make a stop at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, a series of statues representing the lives destroyed during the years Prague was behind the Iron Curtain. A bronze plaque informs us of the human cost: more than 200,000 were arrested, 170,000 forced into exile, while more than 5,000 died, either in prison, trying to escape, or were executed.
We also visit Wenceslas Square. This was the setting for large demonstrations during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which brought to an end communist one-party rule. The late Vaclav Havel made speeches from a balcony here, looking out over a scene very different to today’s one of capitalist department stores and clothing chains.
I ask our guide Michal what it was like during the years of communism. “Everything was much more grey,” he says. Two decades on, the place has plenty of colour in its cheeks. Much of the architecture has been restored to its former glory, whether it's Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, Art Nouveau or Modernist. The city centre was fortunate not to have been ruined by wartime bombing. This would have meant it being rebuilt with Soviet era architecture, as can be seen throughout the suburbs.
Back on the tram we head to the Zizkov neighbourhood, where Chefparade offers you the opportunity to learn to cook Czech style. Our instructor Radek, a chef who has worked in restaurants in England, soon gets us chopping and peeling vegetables. We prepare a starter called kuba, made from pearl barley and wild mushrooms (fungi collecting is something of a national pastime). Next we violently bash some pork fillets, roll them in breadcrumbs and fry them to make wiener schnitzels for our main course, which we devour with some potato salad that features gherkins. They’re simple dishes, but it’s a satisfying way to learn more about local cuisine.
That evening we ride the subway to the National Museum, and have dinner at the nearby Čestr. The restaurant's menu features a diagram of a cow showing all the various cuts of meat. Unable to decide which of the twenty-odd to choose, I opt for the Czech Christmas favourite of carp instead, which proves to be a good move.
After dinner we head to the State Opera. The arts have always flourished in Prague – the likes of Kafka, Mozart, Dvořák and Miloš Forman all made their mark here. Perhaps it’s not surprising; Prague was for so long a crossroads for major trade routes, so a mix of nationalities and ideas enriched the cultural landscape.
Tonight there's a performance of Rossini's The Barber of Seville for us to enjoy. The auditorium, with its claret seats, gold detail, frescoed ceiling and central chandelier, makes a stunning setting for a brilliant musical evening.
It seems that everywhere you go in Prague you feel you’ve opened a curtain onto some perfect fairytale scene.
Hotel Hoffmeister: www.hoffmeister.cz
Flights from London Luton with Wizz Air, www.wizzair.com