Prague: Velvet evolution
Whether it's gothic, baroque, art nouveau, art deco, cubist or socialist realist, it seems the architects of Prague just couldn't resist a little anatomy on the arches. During the 17th century the Old Town Bridge Tower even had the real thing, sporting the heads of 12 executed Protestant leaders as decoration. After a day wandering around with my head tipped back in admiration at the architecture, such was the ache in my neck that I sympathised.
With only the Easter weekend to explore, I was glad the city centre is a mere two and a half miles square. I had four guidebooks and a thirst for culture. My teenage son, meanwhile, has a milkshake habit.
We started with the castle that dominates the city, walking up its flanks past the haunting sculpture to the victims of Communism, through drifts of fruit blossom settling on picnicking bank holiday families. At the castle, the queues exceeded those we're told used to form for a pair of Levi's, so we watched the theatrics of the guards instead. One of the first acts of Vaclav Havel, playwright, first president of the Czech Republic and a man with a taste for drama, was to commission snazzy new uniforms for the soldiers from an Oscar-winning film designer.
The castle courtyard was also the dramatic backdrop to a recent piece of political theatre: Barack Obama's sole public speech in his European tour, in which he honoured the Czechs' overthrow of communism and reminded them of their need for a US military radar base.
Another US ambassador being fted at the castle is Barbie, with an exhibition celebrating her 50th birthday in the Toy Museum. That's where the Teenager turned refusnik, a rebellion that extended to entering any of Prague's many churches, despite the temptations of the Church of our Lady Victorious, where a wax baby doll is credited with miraculous powers and has a resident Order of English Virgins to change his 60 little outfits, or the mummified hand hanging in the baroque church of St James.
More his thing was the Museum of Communism – above McDonald's, below the casino – in Na Prikope. Stuffed with Stalinist statues and Communist curios, it also has a spookily atmospheric interrogation room. Next was a double whammy of art, both sublime and ridiculous, at the Alfons Mucha Museum in the Old Town Square, which was also hosting a Salvador Dal exhibition.
Emerging into the sunlight after our dose of Dal, it seemed appropriate that the square's trees were heavy with giant, brightly-coloured eggs. Stalls overflowed with smaller, painted versions, which girls traditionally present as a symbol of their fertility to the young men who have given them a gentle whipping with willow switches sold for the purpose. So much for subtlety.
Next stop was the Lennon wall in Mal Strana, a place of pilgrimage during the 1980s, where dissidents waged a battle with a secret police engaged in the Prague equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge. Every time the musician's face appeared alongside anti-Communist graffiti, they would gloss it over. Nowadays, the John Lennon Peace Club encourages modest daubing.
After this it was time to refuel the Teenager again, so we headed for the Caf Imperial on Na Porc 15 (www.hotel-imperial.cz), one of Prague's most ostentatious cafs, yet reasonably priced. While I admired the millions of tiles on the walls and pillars, and was entranced by toilets – with more bling than 50 Cent's chest (gilt swan-head taps, anyone?) – my companion decided the vanilla milkshakes were "the best he'd ever tasted" (and he's tasted a lot). Later he was swayed by those at the famous art deco Grand Caf Slavia in Smetanovo nbrez, a meeting place of artists and intellectuals, including Havel, who was a frequent visitor during his dissident years. It was surely after tasting their strawberry milkshake that he hit on the idea of the Velvet Revolution. Apparently it was awesome.
Which is more than can be said for our hotel. Given that the Mamaison Riverside is billed as five star and we had a 'Superior' room, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a window. Despite this omission it still had a fabulous view over the Vlatva River and the city's red-pantiled rooftops and multiple spires – if you balanced on a coffee table and thrust your head through a skylight. The same skylights that sent daylight streaming into the room from dawn. Sadly, none of the other 80 rooms with their "stunning Belle Epoque interiors" was available, but helpful staff did tack napkins over the skylights, which took me back to the detention cell in the Museum of Communism, albeit with the added western decadences of a comfy bed, mini-bar and ensuite.
Breakfast wasn't included so we headed out to the nearby Caf Savoy (Vtezn 124/5), where we ate under tinkling Bohemian glass chandeliers. The tea menu alone ran to five pages and included everything from Sweet Shanghai to Granny's Garden, and breakfast will keep you going all day, with a bill that didn't give me indigestion. Great milkshakes too.
A weekend was too short for Prague. We hadn't done the Kafka Museum, taken the funicular train up Petrin Hill to see the imitation Eiffel Tower, checked out Wenceslas Square, where half a million bouncing Czechs celebrated the collapse of communism, tried the "best dumplings in town" at Barcnick Rychta at Trziste 23 ... But the Teenager was happy. Prague's best bit? "Just walking around, soaking up the atmosphere. And the cafs – definitely the cafs," he said. Caf culture – if it was good enough for Kafka, Einstein and Havel, there's hope for him yet.
Fact file: Prague
Flights with Jet2 (www.jet2.com) depart from Edinburgh to Prague five times weekly until 16 August and four times weekly from 17 August, and start at 19.99 one way including taxes.
Mamasion Riverside Hotel (www.riversideprague.com), Janckovo nbrezi, 1115/15000 Prague 5, Czech Republic. Prices from 89 a night. Or try self-catering at www.homesweethome.cz.