Just as American travelers of the 50s and 60s discovered cities like Munich, Salzburg and Vienna, travelers in 90s are discovering Prague. They are finding "old world" enchantment and low prices.

Ten years ago, Prague was a secret. The rare traveler who took the trouble to obtain a visa, brave the border crossing and then endure lousy accommodations, found a wondrous, truly "old world" city where the calendar was stuck on 1938.

Then everything changed and the town is now crawling with tourists. Some say the secret of Prague was whispered on TV to Connie Chung. Others attribute the change to that share-and-share-alike thing known as communism taking a harder fall than leisure suits. Though historians can't agree exactly what happened, we're going to take the high road and not blame Connie for this one.

People who are supposed to know these things say more Americans went to Prague in the summer of 1994 than visited Paris - a fairly astonishing assertion. But why not? Except for hotel rooms, Prague is still inexpensive. Another reason for so many visitors is this business about it being the continent's best example of "old world" Europe. Remember, the film Amadeus was shot there because the movie's producers decided Prague looked more like 18th century Vienna than anyplace else, including Vienna.

But that was before McDonald's and American Express turned up on Wenceslas Square. Now the Czechs, schooled by opportunistic Westerners, are rapidly learning one of the prime rules of capitalism: keep raising the prices until people stop giving you money.

In the last two years, for example, the cost of a subway ride has skyrocketed. Admittedly the increase is from an almost-free (to us) 9 cents to a merely dirt-cheap 20 cents, but it is a symptom of the times. Four dollar dinners are now $8. Renegade cab drivers quickly discovered they could charge rich softies from the West $2 for a 50 cent cab ride. That was the early days, now they've boosted the prices and demand $30 for a $12 ride.

In general, though, Prague remains a terrific bargain. Unlike some of the city's cab drivers, most other businesses haven't yet figured out how to charge locals one price and visitors another. Except for hotels, prices are a throwback to Europe of the 50s and 60s. New hotels are opening but a high-season room shortage still pushes rates to the gulping point. Thus the town is a much better bargain in the off-season when hotel rooms are heavily discounted.

Things are changing rapidly and the time to see "Europe as it once was" is as soon as you can. Following is Bruce Woelfel's Prague report. RHB

A Winter Visit to Prague

Our train from Dresden to Prague passed vine covered slopes, wispy white birch forests and, along the river, large villas with boat landings. As we pondered the murky weather we wondered about our destination. When a chilly winter fog reduced visibility to zero, we imagined a place as gloomy as London. Reality, however, was quite different. Prague is neither gloomy nor reminiscent of London.

As seen while crossing the Vltava river, the city is a network of distinctively designed structures: gilded towers shining in an unexpectedly bright light, onion-shaped spires and multiple turrets and steeples in an endless variety of lacy designs. The setting is dominated by the 16th century Renaissance structures of Hradcany Castle and its towering cathedral.

Walking Prague's cobblestoned streets, we found it also to be a city of elegant Baroque building façades, alive with gold detail and delicate pastels of pink, yellow, blue and green. Each front is different. A rose-colored, four-story townhouse emblazoned with an elaborate, gold-lettered, coats-of-arms, is set between immaculate white-painted stone buildings with dormer windows. Unlike Berlin, which still shows extensive war damage, buildings in Prague seem to be either carefully maintained or restored to perfection. In the "Old Town," for example, the cathedral-like Town Hall displays a red and blue royal coat-of-arms and its gilded astronomical clock is flanked by pigmented figures of medieval knights.

We also found Prague to be a lively city, full of street musicians, shoppers and sightseers.

Such an alluring, complex city, so full of life and culture, demands exploration. After four days of constant walking, subway, bus and streetcar travel, we only scratched the surface.

The Castle District is particularly intriguing. Following a bus ride up the steep slopes to Hradcany, where we gazed at the stained glass windows of huge St. Vitus Cathedral, we descended on foot via tortuous cobblestone alleyways that passed tiny dwellings, one or two closet-sized rooms each, formerly inhabited by artists and writers, including Franz Kafka.

Later we visited the grave of this master of irony and black humor. His tomb, in a brooding forest, is in the city's only Jewish cemetery, watched over by a woman caretaker who handed me a yarmulke to wear and showed us where to look. The grave is marked by a single five-foot high stone labeled with one final irony: his name is chiseled between those of the mother and father whom he detested.

Prague is an affordable city. Clothing is inexpensive, though department store goods had a 50s look about them. Crystal glassware is widely sold at reasonable prices (see "What to Buy in Prague"), but imports from Eastern Europe do not seem to be available. This is a country that looks to the West not the East for trade.

Restaurants are also inexpensive. Palatable food is available in numerous pub-like places off the major shopping street Narodni trida. For about $4 one can enjoy a hearty, filling meal.

Good coffee, in numerous hole-in-the-wall shops, is about $1.25, more in the fancier establishments. The wonderful Art-Deco café at Hotel Europa with high ceilings and colorful murals is a good example. But beware the kind of coffee you order there unless you want an early cocktail hour. One morning we innocently asked for "Prague Coffee" which came in a large mug enriched by sugar, cream, cinnamon and...a shot of liquor.

For us, four days wasn't enough. The Jewish quarter, with evidence of a rich culture tragically ended, needed more time. The river and its bridges were worth another half day. The shopping district around Wenceslas Square, site of the 1969 confrontation between Czechs and Russian tanks and, 20 years later, protests against the police beatings of students, which brought about the end of the communist state, needed at least two more days.

We put Prague at the top of our list of places to return to ASAP.

Moderately Priced Hotels

(Ed. Note: Prices in Prague, including those for hotel rooms, are constantly changing. The 1994 off-season double room rate published by the "Best Western" reservation service for the City-Hotel Moran was about $60. In December, our Bruce Woelfel paid $110.

Several of the hotels listed below, the Moran being an example, have U.S. reservation services. Of course, a U.S. 800 number is very convenient and these reservation services claim their prices are at least as cheap as dealing directly with the hotel. With Bruce's reservation, that proved to be the case, but we still recommend obtaining a price quote from the hotel as well as through toll-free services in the U.S.

Prague hotels quote rates either in Czech korunas (Kcs.) or German marks. Because of that, and the fact that rates are changing so rapidly, the hotel rates listed herein are approximate for December 1994 and expressed in U.S. dollars only. As usual, breakfast is included in the price unless otherwise indicated.)

City-Hotel Moran

This small hotel, a member of the "Best Western" marketing group, is only a 10-minute walk from the town center and perfect for independent travelers. Though hardly a "grand" hotel, with banquet halls and a fancy French restaurant, the newly renovated Moran is sparklingly modern and clean. Everything including lobby, dining room and guest rooms is pleasantly in harmony. Many hotels are a jumble of styles, with different areas reflecting the ideas of various decorators or owners. Not so the Moran. All is accomplished with panache and each part belongs to the whole: lobby, restaurant, guest rooms, corridors.

The restaurant/breakfast bar, just off the lobby, feature simple modern decor: marble floors, light wood wainscoting with green panels and a large gold-framed oil painting.

Breakfast consists of cereals, juices, breads, rolls and croissants, scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon. Room service is prompt and cheap: a bottle of white wine was 240 koruna ($9); a "club" sandwich of ham, cheese and hard boiled egg was 180 koruna ($6.50). The Moran's restaurant serves simple Czech food at low prices. Dinner (about $20 for two with a glass of wine) included Beef Stroganoff with ham, spätzle, tomato, lettuce and sweet red pepper garnish.

Guests are served by a friendly and efficient staff. As a moderately-priced city lodging, the Moran leaves little to be desired and, in winter at least, is a good value.

Address: Best Western City-Hotel Moran Na Morani 15, CZ-120 00 Praha 2
Phone: 24/915208
Fax: 29/7533
Location: Ten minutes from the town center, near the Vltava River and the Karlovo Namesti Metro stop
Rooms: 57 doubles
Proprietor: Johannes Aldrian, Director
Prices: Singles, $79 to $130, doubles $110 to $206. Book in the U. S. through 800-528-1234
Meals: All available
Facilities: Bar
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: Good, specially-equipped rooms available soon
Closed: Never
Parking: $9.25 per night
Rating: Excellent 16/20 $

Hotel Meteor Plaza

The Meteor occupies a rather unimaginatively renovated Baroque building with origins from 1307. It is, however, in a fine location five minutes from Wenceslas Square near the Namesti Republiky metro stop.

Though adequate in size and amenities, guestrooms are somewhat dark with drab brown and beige furnishings. Rooms facing the street are only quiet with the windows closed. Those located on the inner courtyard or the narrow side street are more peaceful.

Address: Best Western Hotel Meteor Plaza Hybernska 6, 110 00 Praha 1
Phone: 242/20664
Fax: 242/13005
Location: Near Wenceslas Square
Rooms: 7 singles, 81 doubles
Proprietor: Dr. Sustek
Prices: Singles $135, doubles $162 ($95 winter rate booked from USA) Meals: All available
Facilities: Solarium, fitness room, whirlpool and sauna
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: Four rooms specially fitted
Closed: Never
Parking: $15 per night
Rating: Average 10/20

Maximilian

This new "residential" hotel-pension, aimed at business travelers, is located in a quiet part of town in the old Jewish quarter. Built in 1904, it originally was a private residence. Guestrooms are rather formally decorated and have chandeliers.

Address: Maximilian Hotel Hastalska 14, CR 11000 Praha 1
Phone: 7242/62941
Fax: 7242/62941/110
Rooms: Two singles, 70 doubles
Proprietor: Gabriela Buzkova, Asst. to General Manager
Prices: Singles $126 to $166, doubles $160 to $200
Meals: Breakfast only
Facilities: Café-bar
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: Not suitable
Closed: Never
Parking: Hotel garage
Rating: Above average 13/20

Hotel Adria Praha

The Adria is a centrally located four-star hotel in a renovated 14th century building with a yellow Art-Deco façade. The rear of the hotel faces an attractively landscaped public park. The large, modern guestrooms are well decorated and furnished. Attractively designed bathrooms include oversized bathtubs. Besides a bar off the lobby, there is a café and a grotto-like wine restaurant on a lower level.

Address: Hotel Adria Praha Vaclavske namesti 26, Praha l, Czech Republic
Phone: 24219274, 242/19285
Fax: 242/11025, 261/529
Location: Center of city, near Wenceslas Square
Rooms: Seven singles, 59 doubles, three studios, five apartments
Proprietor: Gabriela Buzkova
Prices: Singles $127-$149, doubles $155-$182, studios $201-$220, apartments $255.
Meals: All available
Facilities: Bar, outdoor terrace
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: One specially equipped room
Closed: Never
Parking: Public garage
Rating: Above Average 12/20

Ambassador

A large, pleasantly renovated, Art-Deco hotel in the center of Prague. Larger than average rooms are comfortably furnished with imitation period pieces. Quiet rooms facing an inner courtyard are decorated in brown and gold with crystal chandeliers.

Hotel facilities include modern snack bar, pub, gourmet restaurant, disco and casino.

Address: Interhotel Ambassador Zlata Husa Vaclavske namesti 507, 111 24 Praha 1, Czech Republic
Phone: 242/12185
Fax: 242/26167
Location: Facing main boulevard in center of city
Rooms: 30 singles, 142 doubles
Prices: Singles $120-$180, doubles $150-$220, suites $200-300
Meals: All available
Facilities: Bar, disco, night club, casino, 3 restaurants
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: Fair, no special facilities
Closed: Never
Parking: Public garage
Rating: Above average 12/20

Other Best Western Hotels in Prague

Hotel Bila Labut winter double $132; summer double $168

Hotel Alta (4 km outside of Prague): winter double $84; summer $108

Other Hotel Options

DER Tours sells Prague city packages that include two nights lodging and a city sight-seeing tour. The high season, per person double occupancy price for two nights at the Hotel Forum ("first class") is $268 or $448 single occupancy. At the Hotel Diplomat ("Superior First Class") the double occupancy price is $278 and the single price is $448.

We have also had positive reports on our recommendation of the Villa Eva, which has eight rooms with toilet and shower and is located about 10 minutes from city center. The price is about $40 double. Villa Eva, Franty Kocourka 14, 150 00 Praha 5, Smichov, Czech Republic, phone 00422/534776. Proprietor: Milan Matousek.

Sustenance In Prague

Don't go to Prague for the food. Mostly its stick-to-the-ribs stuff with an emphasis on meat and starch. Vegetables are limited. Most of the pub-style restaurants don't offer a menu in English nor is any English likely to be spoken by servers. For those amenities you have to stay with major hotels and top-class restaurants.

The restaurants below are representative of many found throughout Prague: one very plain and cheap, the other at a higher level of style and price, but still serving simple dishes.

Ceska Hospoda

With its wooden tables and benches and simple rustic decor, this café on a narrow side street, five minutes from Wenceslas Square, has the atmosphere of a small beer hall. Similar establishments are found throughout the central area. An air of friendliness and congeniality permeates the cozy interior and the Hospodas casually dressed owner presides.

Steins of the excellent local beer are served to a principally male clientèle, most of whom seem to know one another. Like entering a private club, we at first felt uncomfortable. Our convivial host, however, quickly found us a table with some friendly Czechs and went in search of an English menu. We instantly regretted our language deficiency which made it impossible to converse with our tablemates. Although the English menu soon arrived along with the marvelous Czech beer we preferred to order from a list of specials which were not translated on the menu. Our host patiently answered our questions in his limited English vocabulary.

Roast chicken came with boiled potatoes and apricot compote. The beef special turned out to be boiled beef with a light gravy, served with rice and a tomato garnish. The food was wholesome and not as loaded with fat as we had been warned. Although hardly in the gourmet category, our meal was satisfying and tasty. The bill for two including drinks came to 186 koruna ($7).

Ceska Hospoda V. Krakovske, Krakovska 20, Praha 1. Phone/Fax 261/537. No credit cards. Inexpensive.

Restaurant Adria

Restaurant Adria was more sumptuous and difficult to find. The restaurant is located on the third floor of a building near the pedestrian shopping area by Wenceslas Square. Originally a residence of the Thun family, the building was built in 1810 in Italian Renaissance style and contains sculptures by a locally respected artist. An outdoor terrace is open during warmer months.

We were met on arrival by the formally dressed host and manager. Guests are first invited to select from a display of cold appetizers in a refrigerated glass case presided over by a man in a white suit and a chef's toque.

Next, we were shown an eight-page English menu listing international and Czech dishes as well as macrobiotic vegetarian cuisine. One of our choices was onion soup au gratin with crisp croûtons and a pleasant touch of garlic, followed by fried breast of chicken with red cabbage, boiled potatoes and onions. Another entrée of roasted rabbit with red cabbage, dumplings and boiled potatoes, was preceded by a delicious thick potato soup enhanced with carrots, mushrooms, garlic and bay leaf.

Unlike many Czech restaurants, the Adria accepts major credit cards. Our bill for two, including drinks and a 30 koruna ($1.10) per person "cover" charge, came to 511 koruna ($19).

This is a nice find; more deluxe but with uncomplicated, good food at very low prices.

Restaurant Adria, Narodni tr. 40, Praha 1, phone 242/28065. Credit cards o.k. Inexpensive.