Barbara Noe finds the unusual in Prague, with help from a former dissident, a monk and a would-be priest.
Prague's cosy, small-scale size - the centre is just four kilometres from end to end - assures a quick, satisfying reconnaissance of this ancient capital. Indeed, once I've walked across crowded Charles Bridge a couple of times, tucked into the shops of Old Town, visited Prague Castle, watched the astrological clock do its thing on Old Town Square and taken in a classical concert in one of the baroque churches, I feel as if I've seen it all.
But that's before I visit the city in the company of a few special people - a former dissident, a monk and a would-be prince - who each show me that sometimes you just need to delve a little deeper to find something amazing and unexpected. Here are a few examples.
Milos Curik is a communist-era dissident and former postal worker who now is a location-spotter for movies and one of the country's finest tour guides, with his own company, Arts & Music Travel. Curik adores cubist art and is fiercely proud that Prague is the only city in the world that has cubist buildings in addition to artwork. Chattering away, he takes me directly to Old Town's Museum Ceskeho Kubismu (Museum of Czech Cubism), housed in an earth-toned building designed in 1912-13 by Josef Gocar. Curik says it's a "supreme example of how a modern building can be incorporated in a historic core".
I had seen the building before but never noted its portal and capitals in fabulous cubist style. Inside, Curik runs from one masterful work to the next, pointing out his favourite ceramics and furniture, paintings and sculptures, including Otto Gutfreund's celebrated Anxiety, the first cubist sculpture.
"And now I'm going to show you something truly special," Curik says. We weave through ancient cobblestone streets, stopping in a small square, Jungmannovo namesti, off Wenceslas Square. In front of us stands a funky cubist lamp post, the only one in the world. "What's fascinating about Prague," Curik says, "is that it's truly a city of history; you can find many different architectural styles right next to each other." Sure enough, next to the cubist lamp post stands a Gothic church, a functionalist building and a secession building - a theme that reverberates throughout all of Prague.
I meet Father Juan in the lobby of The Augustine hotel in Mala Strana, or Lesser Town, where I'm staying. He tells me that the Augustines had lived and prayed in this monastery since the 13th century, until the Soviets took it over in 1948. After the fall of communism in 1989, with their monastery in ruins, the few surviving monks forged a unique partnership with the Rocco Forte Collection, which converted some of the historic buildings into an upmarket hotel. The monks continue to work and live in their part of the cloistered complex - a new twist on a hotel's pledge to provide peace and quiet.
Father Juan leads me through the cloisters to the lavishly baroque Church of St Augustine and St Thomas, whose dome I can see from my room. We creep up a tiny spiral staircase and enter the ancient library, which is filled with hundreds of rare, dusty books. There are ancient choral books, medical books and philosophy works, many with centuries-old pencil notations in the margins. Several tomes lie on a table in the middle of the room and Father Juan flips through one, a geography of China, dating from the 1600s. There's a beautiful painting at the front but other pictures are missing. "The Soviets," he says.
And then I meet a prince. Well, he would have been one if the communists hadn't forced his family to flee the country in 1948. William Lobkowicz, a nobleman whose family line dates to the 14th century, was born in the US in 1961 but, upon the Soviets' departure, he ventured to his ancestral homeland to track down family heirlooms and then restore the family palaces.
One of the palaces, Lobkowicz Palace within the walls of Prague Castle, is a private museum. I take time to explore the palace's meticulously presented rooms, where there are priceless paintings (including Haymaking by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and two Canalettos); and music (Beethoven's original scores for the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies; Mozart's revisions of Handel's Messiah).
Lobkowicz takes me to the museum cafe, to its balcony overlooking Mala Strana's red rooftops and all of Prague beyond. Leaning over the rail, he points out various landmarks related to his family history, including St Augustine and St Thomas church. "That's our church," he says, "All of our ancestors are buried there."
Later, I walk through Old Town, past the astrological clock and its tourists in waiting, and past Municipal Hall (Prague's most prominent art-nouveau building). A sign advertises a concert by the Prague Philharmonia and I think, "Why not?"
After the first mesmerising ensemble, the conductor, Kaspar Zehnder, mentions its renowned composer, Jan Malek; he turns around and gesticulates to the audience. A man with wild grey hair totters up to the stage and the crowd applaud furiously. It's the composer himself.
Emirates has a fare to Prague for about $1810, flying to Dubai (14hr), then Prague (6hr 30min). Emirates has three flights a week from Melbourne to Dubai, one non-stop, one via Kuala Lumpur and one via Singapore; from Sydney you can travel non-stop or via Bangkok. Fare is low-season return, including tax. Milos Curik runs the Arts & Music Travel tour service. Email Arts.firstname.lastname@example.org; see www.czechtourism.co.uk.
The Augustine has doubles that cost from €270 ($382) a night. At Letenska 12/33, see www.theaugustine.com.
- Telegraph, London