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Prague springs eternal

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Prague is one of Europe’s elite cities, with more knockout picture postcard views than some entire countries. The Czech capital can also get a little bit busy. Gareth Huw Davies gives his selection of things not to miss - from traditional sights to bright new attractions – while still dodging the crowds. Photo - Gareth Huw Davies

See the glory

Emperor Charles IV planned this intensely beautiful city as the “New Jerusalem” in the 14th century, and architects maintained the vision until its last golden age in the 1930s. The entire old centre, with outstanding buildings such as Valdstejn Palace, St James church and St Vitus Cathedral still largely intact after 800 years, is now a World Heritage site. With some nifty timetabling you can outwit the throng. Try walking the Charles Bridge before breakfast. And save the striking of the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square until evening, when the crowds thin. I like the quiet of Mala Strana, the huddle of stepped, café and pub-lined cobblestone roads under the Castle. Take a tram to the Jewish Quarter. Wander Petrin Hill, with its small version of the Eiffel Tower, for wonderful view over Baroque roofs.

Grand reopened

How about this for a catering come-back? The Grand Café Orient opened in 1912 in the House of the Black Madonna, Prague’s unique architectural take on Cubism, the art form Picasso championed. It lasted only 10 years, before the next artistic style took over. In 2005 the café reopened, faithfully recreated from photographs in the same building, now the Museum of Czech Cubism, with period furniture and fittings. Try their apple strudel with caramel and vanilla ice cream. Another newly restored café, the Mysak Pastry Shop, reopened in 2008 inside the Mysak Gallery, with original doors, mosaics floors, marble staircase and wooden alcoves. The signature sweet here is karamelovy pohar - ice cream topped with caramel, chocolate and walnuts.

Freedom city

We shared the euphoria of the Prague Spring of 1968, Czechoslovakia’s short-lived break for freedom from the USSR. And the deep gloom that summer, when Soviet tanks rolled in to consign this proud nation to 20 more years of oppression. I came closest to Prague’s tragedy and eventual triumph on the steps of the National Museum at the top of huge, sloping Wenceslas Square. I looked down on the bronze cross at the spot where student Jan Palach burnt himself to death in protest in 1969. It’s a profoundly moving spot. 20 years later a freedom-celebrating multitude swirled around the statue of Saint Wenceslas on horseback. The Museum of Communism (www.muzeumkomunismu.cz) tells the story of those lost years.

Proud possessions

One day in 1989 young Bostonian William Lobkowicz saw his destiny. It was to return from exile to his now free homeland to restore the great estate his family built up over 700 years. It had been confiscated first by the Nazis, and then by the Communists. Diligent legal teams gradually recovered the scattered possessions – castles, houses, land, and thousands of books, paintings and pieces of furniture. William’s mission culminated in the opening of Lobkowicz Palace, close by Prague Castle, in 2007, with its exhibition of the best of the family’s reclaimed treasure. Star exhibits include two views of the River Thames by Canaletto, and Haymaking by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Another of the city’s new attractions is totally different. The Kafka Museum celebrates the man – he was born and worked here - whose name stands for the way the ordinary man is defeated by “the system”.

Music on a string

Mozart, with his mischievous sense of fun, would have approved of the National Marionette Theatre’s puppet performances of his opera Don Giovanni. A fine recording, excellent sound, hard working puppeteers, comic (I loved the puppet cat hissing at an anguished diva in mid aria) and ribald (some of the Don's conquests are, well, energetic). What a way to discover a masterpiece. Don Giovanni is Prague's top claim to cultural fame; Mozart gave its world premiere in 1787 at the exquisite opera house, the Estates Theatre, now fully restored as one of the city’s great performance centres. The two other musical magnets are the Smetana Museum, on the banks of the Vltava, and the Dvorak Museum in Villa Amerika [correct]. I liked the random items on display – a poster for an Albert Hall performance of his works, and his ticket for that emotion-packed return from America.

Taste real Bud

The city centre bars and restaurants are not the real Prague deal. For a more authentic – and much cheaper -taste of the city, head for the quieter streets away from Old Town Square. The Czech Republic brews a prodigious range of beers. Look in the many bars for brews such as Budvar (the original Budweiser), Urquell, Staropramen, Lev and Rohozec.
(Most bars serve food. Czech cuisine is modest but tasty, based around pork, dumplings, and cabbage.) One of the best new restaurants – opened in 2009, with straightforward French fare - is the Céleste, with a round-the-compass view from the top of the curvaceous glass-fronted Dancing House. The name comes from its resemblance to 1930s movie stars Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in a sultry clinch. Frank Gehry was one of the architects.

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