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The Gothic Tyn Church in Old Town Square is illuminated at night. Old Town, one of Prague's most charming quarters, is full of historic buildings in various architectural styles.
The Gothic Tyn Church in Old Town Square is illuminated at night. Old Town, one of Prague's most charming quarters, is full of historic buildings in various architectural styles.

Prague: Kafka's capital

Travel cover The Spring Festival begins this week. Scott MacMillan returns to the city where he once lived to see if the old magic has survived.

On a late summer evening in Prague last year, I met up with two old friends at a hole-in-the-wall bar notable only for not being notable. Hidden in a crook behind another crook in the medieval streets of Old Town, it's not one of the city's traditional storied watering holes, nor one of its achingly chic modern ones. The name changes so often that if we want to meet there - usually only to decide where to go next - we'll simply describe its location: "The place next to the shop selling full suits of armour if you turn right just before the tacky crystal shop on the way to Old Town Square." There's definitely something odd about this little den, however, which is so small the door almost scrapes the bartender's nose when it opens. Like so many things in the city I called home for nine years - a city beloved of alchemists, magicians and swooning writers - it's hard to put your finger on it. For me, it has to do with a random encounter that took place here one frigid evening several winters ago. My friend Vladan and I were huddled outside when a shadowy character approached us. "At this spot," the man said, "all the old underground passages converge."

Come again? He said no more. I've probably embellished the picture in my head, but I can still picture him today - bearded, with a pockmarked face, puffing out clouds of breath as he spoke, taking his hands from his overcoat pockets, gesturing towards the cobblestones and then disappearing into the night. Bizarre vignettes like that one - usually taking place in a vaporous fog worthy of Kafka, Prague's most famous literary son - have long been the Czech capital's stock-in-trade. Last summer, at the bar without a name, I asked Vladan and another friend, Klara, to describe the early days of Radio ­1, the indie station where Klara is now a DJ. Now in their mid-30s, both belong to the first generation of Czechs to enter adulthood after the fall of communism in 1989, so they have stories in abundance. The first years after the Velvet Revolution were heady and somewhat mad. Everybody made up the rules as they went along. The country's first private radio station set itself up literally amid the rubble of Stalin, running a pirate broadcast from the inside of a plinth from which a massive statue of the Soviet dictator had overlooked the city in the early 1950s. The remains of the demolished figure had been stashed beneath the plinth after Khrushchev's denunciation. Decades later, the rubble remained, backdrop to both a fledgling radio station and a concert venue, with local bands banging out tunes to a young crowd intoxicated by new-found liberties. "It was very dirty," Vladan recalled. "There was a lot of dust in the air, so you didn't need any special effects."

The city gradually became more sanitised in the ensuing years. The Czech Republic finally joined the European Union in 2004, and today an innocuous prosperity has replaced much of the old crusty magic. Those smitten by the city's low-rent charm during the 1990s might be disappointed to learn that a latte at the Starbucks on Old Town Square - yes, there's a Starbucks on Old Town Square - costs roughly the same as one in Dubai. As for tourists, Prague brings to mind the restaurant Yogi Berra was talking about when he said, "Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded." They jostle one another gaping up at the blend of Gothic, Baroque, neo-Renaissance and even Cubist facades, for Old Town itself is an open-air museum, albeit one where people still live and work, as packed as the Uffizi during a school holiday. Despite the crowds, the walk over the Charles Bridge to Prague Castle is still one of the most beautiful city strolls in all of Europe and, in the spring and summer especially, one almost feels inclined to pinch oneself to make sure it's not a dream. Moreover, if you know where to look, you can still find that beguiling spirit that made Prague the darling of adventure-seeking expatriates in the 1990s.

On the plain of Letná, the old Stalin plinth has long been mounted by a giant metronome. Sadly, padlocks hang from the doors to the space beneath. In the surrounding park and nearby beer garden, the city comes to life in spring, with roller-bladers and skaters cutting swirls as the city and its fabled spires spread out below along a bend in the Vltava river. Venturing downhill to the newly pedestrianised Námestí Republiky (Republic Square), the art nouveau fireworks display known as Obecni Dum, or the Municipal House, reveals the nation at its pagan best. Completed in 1912 as a symbol of civic pride for a Czech nation that was starting to chafe under Austria's imperial rule, the building is bedecked by allegorical figures on its facade, gables and spires, all fronted by a mosaic called "The Apotheosis of Prague", an exaltation of the city itself to divine status. Obecni Dum is the setting for the annual Prague Spring classical music festival, which started this week and runs to June 4.

Few guidebooks will tell you this, but according to some this is where the wayward spirit of 1990s Prague found its finest expression. Prior to its 1997 reopening, Obecni Dum had fallen into a state of decrepitude, but despite that - or more likely, because of that - it hosted one of the ­­post-revolution Prague's epicentres of hedonism: Repre Club, a late-night basement venue that was open for a Bacchanalian 18 months in the early part of the decade. Those who were there - I was not, for I only moved here in 1996 - say it was a time when anything seemed possible. The beat poet Allen Ginsberg, The Clash's Joe Strummer and Nick Cave performed here, celebrating an anarchic period of rebirth and discovery. It's fitting that the nation's architectural jewel should have been given over, however briefly, to people who would be deemed reprobates in most societies. It was not to last. Even the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, the revolution's hero, had cut his hair to a respectable length by the time he moved into Prague Castle.

Yet to this day, Prague's most powerful allure comes not from its picture-book street scenes but from its dank mystique. You'll still find it at places hidden in plain sight - like the small but legendary pub in the castle district called U Cerného Vola (At the Black Bull), smack in the heart of pinch-me territory. A recent visit found only locals packing its benches, the bathrooms still filthy, the limited menu and the heraldic decor unchanged for years - probably generations - and a plaque commemorating the recent 1,800th meeting of the Friends of Beer society. Then there's the Basilica of St James in Old Town, one of Prague's earliest churches and the setting for one of the creepiest stories of them all. Still frequented by ageing parishioners who kept the faith during the communist years, the basilica, too, is on a well-trod tourist path, directly opposite the seedy stalwart Chapeau Rouge, a bar that claims to have been open since 1919. A place of worship since 1232, St James was last rebuilt in 1702 in the early Baroque style. It's usually given no more than a second glance by visitors.

The signs outside make no mention, either in Czech or in English, of the church's most gruesome curiosity: a severed human arm hanging from the inner western wall, looking like a sausage left out for several centuries. A statue of the Virgin Mary momentarily came to life, so the story goes, and grabbed the arm of a thief trying to steal the ­basilica's treasure; he was found the next morning still in the clutches of the Madonna. His amputated arm still hangs here, a shrivelled testament to the miracle. If this bizarre tale captures something of the essence of Prague - and it definitely does - perhaps it's the pervasive sense of what 19th-century writers called "the uncanny", sometimes defined as an uncertainty about whether something is alive or inert. In Prague, the living and the dead brush elbows in the streets and on the pub bench, coexisting as easily as the holy and profane. One of the city's most enduring legends is that of the Golem, a creature made of clay by a mystical rabbi in the city's old Jewish quarter. Like the statue of the Madonna, the Golem came to life, and it still seems to lurk in some of the foggier corners of these crooked streets - or perhaps in those underground passages that come together at the place with no name. Even now, it all seems possible. travel@thenational.ae

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