Where Wenceslas looked out

4th February 2000 at 00:00
The past and present blend magically in Prague, writes Carolyn O'Grady.

The capital of the Czech Republic is the seventh most visited city in Europe, its quaint cobbled squares packed with tourists in peak season. Crowds or no, it is an extraordinary place, where magic seeps from the old, grimed stone and the past blends mysteriously with the present.

A good starting point to exploring the city is the Staromestske n mest!, the magnificient and much-photographed square in the old town. It provides a breathtaking taster of the splendours to come and the first of many puzzles in the shape of the ornate and perplexing 15th-century astronomical clock.

Prague is a small city and the best way to get around is by foot - every turn of the city's ancient alleyways reveals some curiosity - but if you don't feel like walking you can use the efficient, integrated transport system.

The city is divided into areas which each have their own well-defined character: there's the old town (Stare Mesto), the Jewish quarter (Josefov) and the new town (Nove Mesto) - not that new since they started work on it in 1390. The most famous bit of the Nove Mesto is Wenceslas Square, an impressive avenue bordered by huge, art deco-style buildings. The Czechs still throng here for political demonstrations, but sadly it has become rather tawdry in places and shops and restaurants are expensive.

Across the River Vltava is Hradcany, a mesmerising complex of buildings which centres on the jaw-droppingly magnificent Prague Castle that crowns the city. If you're not selective about what to visit, you could soon have some very fractious young people on your hands. Unmissable are the magnificent St Vitus's Cathedral, the Chapel of St Wenceslas, the Vladislv Hall, Golden Lane and St George's Basilica.

Do allow your students, if they are old enough, time to explore. Prague is a labyrinth and, even if they head straight for the nearest hamburger outlet, the chances are they will get lost in its alleyways before they find one - it is all part of the experience.

The Jewish Quarter contains a moving evocation of a thousand years of Jewish history. Among its six main sites is the Pinkas Synagogue, a memorial to the 80,000 or so Jews of Bohemia and Moravia murdered by the Nazis, whose names are finely inscribed on every inch of its walls. Upstairs there is a haunting exhibition of children's drawings from Terez!n, which was used as a transit camp for Jewish people on their way to Auschwitz.

There is a saying that all Czechs are musicians and the proof is everywhere, in the free street performances and the concerts which fill the churches every evening with classical music. There are discos and theatrical entertainments, in particular mime, multi-media and puppet shows: this is a country where the art of manipulating marionettes can be studied at university.

Prague isn't renowned for its food. Dumplings (knedl!ky) feature a lot, as do sauerkraut, red cabbage and boiled bacon. But it's wholesome and often tastes much better than its reputation. Vegetarian alternatives are becoming standard. The best news is that extraordinarily cheap menus are available, often in beautifully decorated cellars with live music too.

The Czech Republic Tourist Office, 16 Frognal Parade, Finchley Road, London NW3 5HG. Tel: 020 7794 3263.

www.czech-slovak-tourist.co.uk PGL School Tours, tel: 01989 764342.

Kuoni Schools, tel: 01306 744285.

Rayburn Tours, tel: 01332 347828.

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