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by Stuart Haggas

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Those without the benefit of a tour guide could do worse than follow the Royal Way, the traditional coronation route of the Bohemian Kings. It begins beside dramatic Powder Tower, built in the late 15th century as part of the old town’s defenses, and ornate Municipal House and Smetana Concert Hall, one of the finest Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. The Royal Way’s regal silver signs direct you from here through Old Town and up to Prague Castle via Charles Bridge, but don’t be afraid to let Prague’s alleyways lure you away from this breathtaking but congested tourist route, because an unorthodox detour will likely reveal charming churches, courtyards, and other crowd-free nooks and crannies.

While on your walking tour, make sure to stop and admire the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most). Construction on the bridge began during the reign of Charles IV, King of Bohemia. Being one of Prague’s most evocative landmarks means it’s associated with a fair amount of folklore. Previous bridges crossing the notoriously turbulent River Vltava were swept away by raging flood waters, so legend tells how astrologers looked to the stars to establish the most fortuitous time for work to commence. The moment they chose was in 1357, on 9 July at precisely 5:31 A.M., which can be interpreted as 135797531—a palindromic sequence of ascending then descending odd numbers, and a story that seems worthy of a place in The Da Vinci Code. Although Dan Brown didn’t mention Charles Bridge and its mathematical heritage in his best-selling novel, the bridge is frequently cited elsewhere in popular fiction, often as a clandestine meeting point for Cold War spies during Soviet times. Despite being the scene of some action in Mission: Impossible and xXx, nowadays spies have been usurped by street vendors, caricaturists, buskers, and tourists.

Across the bridge are the cobbled streets of Mala Straná (Lesser Town). When the River Vltava breached its banks in 2002, this ancient neighborhood was inundated with flood water, the ground floor of many historic buildings submerged. Extensive renovations have been completed, but you can still see marks left by water damage on some buildings.

There are many first-rate restaurants hereabouts, like upscale Kampa Park and bohemian U Modré Kachnicky. For inexpensive, gay-friendly refreshments drop by funky DownTownCafé Praha.

Mala Straná’s streets wind steeply up to Hradcany, a neighborhood dominated by hilltop Prague Castle (Prazsky Hrad). Dating back to the ninth century, the castle complex incorporates monumental St. Vitus Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, and numerous art galleries and government buildings. Vadim brought me here in time for us to watch the Changing Of The Guards—not as spectacular a ceremony as in other cities like London, but once Vadim had brought me up-to-speed on a rumor that some of these guardsmen were allegedly caught in and out of uniform in a recent gay porn movie, the whole event attained a more erotic and alluring subtext. According to gossip, the offending guards were dismissed, and the footage shelved to avoid further scandal and embarrassment.

Another charming and contemplative neighborhood is Josefov. Thanks to a plan by Adolf Hitler to retain Prague’s old Jewish quarter as a macabre living ethnographic museum, the narrow streets, old synagogues, and cemeteries of Josefov survived Nazi occupation. Today it’s traversed by upscale shopping street Parízská, lined with designer stores including Dior, Hermès, and Salvatore Ferragamo, plus some of Prague’s leading restaurants like fashionable siblings Barock and Pravda. As well as international brands, you’ll find home-grown designer talent nearby, including leading Czech menswear designer Jozef Sloboda. His jeans line “Gorgeous Guy” has a fun selection of t-shirts and sexy branded underwear that are perfect for clubbing.

A must-buy in Prague is Bohemia crystal. One renowned brand is Moser, founded in 1893, and beloved by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and American queen, Liberace. Jewelry made from locally mined garnets is another ostentatious option. Those with more contemporary tastes should seek out Kubista. Housed alongside the Museum of Czech Cubism in the 1912 cubist-style landmark Black Madonna House, Kubista sells sought-after Czech furniture from the first half of the 20th century, plus more affordable re-issues of cubist ceramics, vases, and jewelry.

Exploring Prague can be a sensory overload. This is why stylish Hotel Josef is designed as a detox for over-stimulated travelers. One of the few contemporary constructions in the medieval center, it consists of two new buildings facing onto a tranquil landscaped courtyard. Czech-born architect Eva Jiricna rejected extravagant designer gimmickry in favor of practical, neutral spaces that maximize space and light without sacrificing comfort or luxury.

The hotel proved such a critical and commercial success that once completed, attention switched to transforming sister Hotel Maximilian into an equally soothing space. Inspired by Pierre Chareau’s acclaimed La Maison de Verre (House of Glass) in Paris, Eva Jiricna has reconstructed an original art deco building into a functional, light-filled hotel containing classic modernist furniture by the likes of Eileen Gray—altogether earning it a place on the Condé Nast Traveler Hot List 2006. Unlike many design-led hotels, striving to become a destination in their own right, both Josef and Maximilian recognize that the best of Prague is beyond their walls. Instead of boasting fashionable lobby bars, there’s a simple self-service honesty bar. Although room service is available, neither has a restaurant offering lunch or dinner—the added benefit of this is that the sumptuous breakfast buffet in both hotels is generously served until 11:30 A.M. weekdays, 12:30 P.M. weekends, so there’s no rush to get out of bed if you’ve been partying all night.

If you prefer something more overstated, the lavish Carlo IV is regarded as Prague’s most opulent option. Don’t let its grandiose ambiance fool you, however, for it was until recently Prague’s main post office and a bank, reborn as a deluxe hotel in 2003. Still, this transformation makes for some unique features: the old bank vault now houses an intimate cigar bar, and although vintage wines and fine cigars are the only valuables in here nowadays, the original safe doors remain intact.

For a genuine taste of Prague’s old grandeur, visit nearby Art Nouveau gem Evropa. Once the hotel in Prague, the Louis XVI furnishings and stucco ornamentation have shabbily depreciated—its faded glories not helped by the fact that the once coveted location on Wenceslas Square today puts it in the middle of Prague’s most tawdry tourist-trap, alongside fast-food chains and low-end retailers by day, and neon and strip shows by night. Still, it provides a sense of history for a budget-friendly price.

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