A magical, alluring city

I have always wanted to go to Prague. It was on my top five destinations to visit.

I have always wanted to go to Prague. It was on my top five destinations to visit.

I imagined a place like Vienna as in the movie Before Sunrise, which is about two strangers meeting on a train from Budapest to Paris and both getting off in Vienna. They spent a night together in Vienna. I thought and hoped Prague was that pretty.

I was not prepared for the breathtakingly beautiful place it is and, for me, Prague is a serious contender as the most beautiful city in Europe, and possibly the prettiest in the world. I loved Budapest, Edinburgh, Paris and London. But Prague had the magic. Windows from its many old buildings gazed at me with appealing love of a puppy's big eyes and I fell in love with it. I walked the streets of Prague. I ate and walked more. I had coffee and onion Czech soup in many different restaurants.

Czechs are a friendly, warm bunch. I found the men most terribly flirtatious. I had stares from both men and women, which were warm and though some lascivious, but generally inquisitive and appreciative.

The man at the forex window had trouble concentrating on the money. The woman at immigration desk didn't even look at my passport. She just smiled. It was a very warm and interesting welcome I got.

When you think of the Czech Republic, what kind of associations does it conjure up? Semtex, Defenestrations, the plastic explosive of choice, a string of successful tennis players, including Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, and probably the best beer in the world, with Pilsener Urquell and Budvar brewed in the land of Franz Kafka and Vaclav Havel.

Prague itself is probably the best known Czech brand. It is a preserved city of the Middle Ages, that has taken the momentous changes that have beset it in its stride.

The consequences of the Soviet Empire and the return to democratic capitalism are worn lightly by Prague. It seems to say, in all modesty: "100 years of history. Bah, that's nothing for this city."

Professor Richard Crampton, a lecturer in Eastern European history, pointed out the bourgeoisie nature of the Czech Republic when I was at university. This, he said, was best exemplified by the ability of the country to produce a veritable conveyor belt of world class tennis talent. Tennis, with its need for well-kept lawns and country club mentality, not only persisted but thrived in the Czech Communist era.

Clothes shops now dominate the central shopping areas. Marks & Spencer, Hennes & Mauritz and Gap have flagship stores, while Tesco, the pre-eminent British retailer, has become something of a landmark in Prague with its superstore.

Prague is strikingly clean. Once the home of Europe's largest Jewish community, it retains the Bohemian tradition of hospitality. The old town centre is now just one large café area, where one can sit and sup on anything from traditional Czech stews to pizza or falafel. There's also no shortage of that most modern of bourgeoisie destinations, the coffee house.

Staff are mostly young and multi-lingual, so English speakers have no problem getting what they want. I spent many a pleasant hour in the Old Town centre, watching the tourists watching the Astronomical Clock, one of the premier tourist attractions.

Hotels in Prague have maps and brochures for city walks. If you are feeling richer, you can have a guided tour in a historic open-seat or a horse-drawn carriage.

I just walked everywhere and by the end of the day I pretty much knew my way around. Climbing up to the Castle District is something of an effort, but a rewarding one. The higher you climb, past hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and many private residences, the more tantalising the panorama.

And the St Nicholas Church at the pinnacle is worth it on its own. The sheer topographical layout of the city is magical. It is dominated by the Castle District with almost Disneyesque St Vitus Cathedral.

From there you can get panoramic views of the city, which competes with Oxford in terms of spires. The River Vltava bisects the city.

Of course, the most famous landmark is the Charles Bridge with its statuary. Here buskers and souvenir sellers mingle with tourists, generating a genteel buzz. The past has a hand on your shoulder, gently shepherding you in the footfalls of those who witnessed the Reformation and 30 years war.

Getting around Prague is easy. The city centre is small, most destinations are within walking distance.

However, if you want to go further afield, the comprehensive transport system is ideal.