Play in Prague
Discover the beautiful past and funky nightlife of Prague.
By Emily Ashton
Dancing under the lasers and lights of a huge warehouse club, the central DJ booth spinning like a UFO, it was hard to believe that I'd been exploring the cobbled city of old Prague only a few hours before.
The mega-club of SaSaZu, said to be one of the largest nightspots in central Europe, attracts all kinds of Czechs on a Saturday night - men with suspect checked shirts brought out their best moves in a bid to woo the ladies.
Alarmingly, a sleek woman with a slit-to-the-thigh dress sitting next to us on the VIP sofa calmly walked to the dancefloor and transformed into an unabashed belly dancer.
It was all hilarious. That lunchtime, we had been indulging in several courses at the huge Asian restaurant next door, part of the SaSaZu complex, and had been persuaded by the club manager to return in the evening.
"Ladies, what are you doing later?" he smiled. Well, we had a hectic schedule. The weekend was a whirlwind tour of sightseeing, shopping, fine dining and drinking cocktails.
The aim was to see whether Prague could live up to its reputation as a stylish 21st-century capital and still retain its charm as a historical city.
The last time I went to Prague, I was eight and the city was part of Czechoslovakia, not the Czech Republic - which was formed in 1993, four years after the collapse of Communism. The abiding memories of that trip were discovering that the family car had been towed away, and buying a toy pig for about 50p.
How things have changed. Now Prague is less famous for its reasonable prices and more for its classy hotels and wine bars - although perhaps I wouldn't really have appreciated those at that tender age anyway.
We arrived on the Friday evening, with the light fading, and were immediately shown to The Augustine Hotel. Created from a 13th-century monastery in the Mala Strana district, it sits across the Charles Bridge from the old town and for long was the haunt of artistic types and various hangers-on.
Several practising monks still live in a separate part of the monastery next door.
The Augustine is the latest addition to the growing portfolio being collected by Rocco Forte across Europe, which includes Manchester's Lowry Hotel and The Balmoral in Edinburgh. Mostly priced for demanding business travellers, they are a rare treat for leisure trippers.
All 101 bedrooms of The Augustine enjoy picturesque views of red-tiled rooftops and towers fading into the distance.
We were given a sneak peek of the breathtaking Tower Suite in the monastery's astronomical tower - the second-most expensive suite in the hotel - in which a winding staircase leads upwards through a living room, a bathroom and finally a bedroom with views from each of the four walls.
It would be incredible for a honeymoon, although those steps could be tricky after a few sips of champagne.
My room, though less awe-inspiring than a tower, was still the height of luxury.
A huge king-sized bed and grand marble bathroom with a pair of stone angel wings above the bath greeted me on arrival from the airport - and I spied some fresh apple pie waiting on the desk.
We took full advantage of the hotel bar in the monastery's former double-height hall, ordering colourful cocktails that corresponded to the four angels painted on the ceiling.
Crossing the Charles Bridge for dinner, the lights of the grand buildings along the Vltava River were glinting in the black water. At that moment, I could understand the mystery and the strange charm of Eastern Europe.
Prague's unpredictable architecture - Gothic spires above Cubist facades, Renaissance townhouses alongside Baroque palaces - understandably attracts tourists from across the world.
It is worth lingering in the Old Town Square with the crowds to see the Prague Astronomical Clock strike the hour: the bell tolls, the windows above the clock fly open and mechanical skeletons and apostles pop out and dance.
Next day, we wandered around Prague Castle, just up the hill from the Augustine, and gazed at the imposing St Vitus Cathedral.
In the Old Town area, there are so many little alleyways, cobbled streets and courtyards of town houses where you can suddenly discover fascinating shops selling clothes, hand-glazed kitchenware and traditional wooden toys. Hand-blown glass is another local speciality.
Besides the clubs, Prague is famous for its beer halls, where artists, musicians and poets mingle with city workers and passing groups of tourists.
In a bid to see another side to the city, we got a tram to DOX Gallery to see its contemporary art, including an exhibition from Scottish artist Douglas Gordon exploring Hitchcock's Vertigo.
DOX is also home to David Cerny's Entropa - the now infamous huge mosaic of snap-out plastic parts on which European countries are stereotyped. France is represented as a country on strike, Romania is a Dracula theme park and Bulgaria a toilet. The UK is curiously missing.
That night I was surprised to find no noisy British stag-dos underway at all (although we did catch a glimpse of a pink-jacketed group of hens).
In fact, drink prices in the city centre are now not much less expensive than London, which may deter beery men from choosing Prague as a cheap and cheerful destination.
After a delicious taster menu at the hotel's Monastery restaurant, we headed out to Bar & Books, a wood-panelled bar hidden away on a cobble-stoned street near Old Town Square.
The bar, which lives up to its name with a well-stacked library, attracts a well-heeled crowd who like their whisky, and we were soon keen to head off and dance the night away.
A few of us hopped in a taxi to SaSaZu and the others walked to Blue Light Bar, a late-night spot complete with candles, secondhand furniture and graffiti on the walls. Judging by our tired faces at breakfast, it's fair to say we all had a good night out in the capital.
Ending my time in Prague with a massage in the hotel spa, music on low and lights dimmed, was the icing on the cake of this girls' weekend.
The only problem with enjoying the nightlife on a weekend trip is that you can't give the next day's city tours and boat rides the concentration they deserve. But that's okay - it gives me a great reason to go back.
Key facts - weekend in Prague
:: Best for: Strolling through winding streets gazing at the architecture; sampling Czech beer by day and cocktails by night.
:: Time to go: May or September- or run the risk of thunderstorms in the long hot summer.
:: Don't miss: Sprawling Prague Castle, legendary Charles Bridge and trendy DOX gallery.
:: Need to know: The Czech crown (Koruna ceska, or Kc) is divided into 100 hellers. Keep lower denomination notes handy as cash machines generally spit out 2,000 Kc notes which are hard to change.
:: Don't forget: Always buy a ticket before hopping onto a bus or tram.
Emily Ashton was a guest of British Airways and The Augustine Hotel. BA operates four daily Heathrow-Prague services, from Â£85.70 one way, Â£171.70 return, including taxes and charges.
BA offer three nights' B&B at the The Augustine, Prague, from Â£654 per person based on November 2009 departures, which includes return BA flights ex-Heathrow. Package from Â£904 using Club Europe flights.
With economy flights, departures ex-Manchester start at Â£732, and ex-Edinburgh from Â£730.
BA Holidays reservations: 0844 493 0758 and www.ba.com/prague.
B&B at The Augustine starts at 320 euros (Â£295) for classic double room. See www.roccofortecollection.com or 00800 7666 6667.
Useful websites: www.czechtourism.com; www.sasazu.cz; www.doxprague.org/en/homepage; www.barandbooks.cz; www.bluelightbar.cz/menu_napoje.htm.