Wow. We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto. Olive walls, silver lights and what can only be described as giant ten-foot tangerine-coloured cats’ tails (yes, you read that correctly – it’s only lunchtime, so we haven’t been at the absinthe just yet). Nope, we’re in the rather unique foyer of Hotel Yasmin. It all seems more like a land created by Dr Seuss than what we’d expected of our Prague design hotel.
The orange-suited check-in staff are super-friendly and have us registered quick-smart; up we go to our modern all-green bedroom. Despite our readiness to carry our own luggage, a determined bell-boy follows with our bags. (A word of advice: have change. We didn’t, and there was that awkward pause as we scrabbled around for a tip – the silence only broken by an unmistakeable ‘ahem!’ from the doorway…)
Our bedroom is stylishly minimal, but it’s certainly a decent size, with blinded windows onto the street and a flatscreen telly mounted on the wall. There’s a break from shades of olive and sage in the monochrome bathroom; every shred of the Yasmin’s design is contemporary, and it is welcoming and comfortable. And with so much culture awaiting us beyond these walls, it’s hard to imagine wanting to stop indoors for too long. As ever, this Ms Smith is keen to get stuck into local life as soon as possible – through the medium of mealtimes.
We pop down to the concierge and ask her to book us a table for lunch. Poised in a corner by reception, this helpful soul is primed to inform guests about where to go and what to see, and furnish them with the necessary maps and navigation. She approves us our choice of Pálffy Palác, a restaurant celebrated for its unique charm, housed in a baroque palace beneath the castle; she also magics us a cab to get there. It would probably take 20 minutes or so to reach, crossing the famous St Charles Bridge, she tells us, but we already have great plans to see this historical city in its entirety by foot. (After we’ve troughed, obviously.)
What looks like a once-grand apartment block doesn’t seem an obvious place to be housing an atmospheric eatery. But we find some imposing doors on the first floor, which open to reveal a Bohemian private salon. We admire its frayed grandeur and antique ambiance as we take our seats at a white-clothed table under a gold chandelier, amid framed portraits, wall tapestries and potted plants. It feels a rather Proustian setting (I’d like to compare it to a scene from a tale by native scribe Jan Neruda, but I’m not quite that erudite.) We relax to the Dvo?ák soundtrack (I’m better on music) and tuck into our meat and veg. The actual menu is almost irrelevant – it’s the shabby-aristo surroundings that steal the show.
Refuelled and inspired, we’re ready to walk every inch of this golden city, and soak up as much of its concentrated culture as we can. We start by walking through Mala Strana, the magnificent baroque quarter, to the ancient castle. (It’s the world’s biggest, apparently, Guinness World Records fans.) It’s not hard to see beyond the hordes of tourists and souvenir shops to appreciate the architectural spectacle of this mediaeval stronghold. Looking down over the terracotta-tiled rooftops and centuries-old steeples, we understand why ‘fairytale’ is a word that consistently crops up in descriptions of Prague. We amble down, cross the river Vltava and enter Staré M?sto, the old town.
You can’t turn many corners without being offered a leaflet advertising a concerto or seeing a sign for a choir recital. (Sure beats the promotions for sunbeds and cheap pizza that we get at home.) We earmark a Vivaldi/Handel/Mozart affair the following evening. Back at the hotel, the departure from cobblestones and church spires is striking: polished chrome and sticks in a pot (this interior-design quirk is astoundingly popular here – you’re hard pushed to find a modern-day establishment that doesn’t have a penchant for arranging twigs in a vase). As we have time for a bite to eat before hitting Prague in search of its 21st-century secrets, we opt for the one on our doorstep.
Hotel Yasmin’s space-age restaurant, Noodles, has an upmarket cafeteria feel. The outlandish decor we saw in the foyer continues, with eccentric silver lights, lime accents and those crazy orange tail-like… installations? We ask the waitress whether there’s a weird animal-body-part theme, as I’m thinking the seats resemble cloven hoofs. ‘No,’ she says, looking a little shocked. ‘They are based on an Eastern painting tool.’ This would have made an excellent Call My Bluff poser – no one would have plumped for that as the answer. The food isn’t as far-out as the design: an international noodle menu is categorised into Indonesian, Japanese, Swiss, Mongolian and German styles. Washing it down with a Rynsky Ryzlink, the tasty local riesling, we feel thoroughly cosmopolitan.
Ignoring the wisdom of the concierge, we wander out and hail a cab off the street. Quarter of an hour later, after our second sighting of the castle en route to the bars in Josefova, we realise that he’s taking us the ‘scenic’ way. Again. That’ll be why we were advised pointedly to always ring and book one with a reputable firm. Still, we make it to Pravda, a chic restaurant and cocktail bar among the fashiony shopping streets, followed by a drink in packed and convivial Tretters. But we feel like finding somewhere that might treat us to a dance. We settle in the urban interior of M1 Aqua Lounge, where the straight-outta-Shoreditch DJ is spinning Franz Ferdinand, Cure, Duran… It’s a fun contrast to the classical-music concerts and age-old architecture for which the city is celebrated.
Waking the following morning, noting a distinct stiffness after my previous night’s routine to Girls On Film, it seems smart to take advantage of Hotel Yasmin’s small gym. After a few stretches and a trot on the Stairmaster, I return to haul Mr Smith down to breakfast. We’re minutes from the 10.30am cut-off point, and the sweet and savoury buffet has turned into a bit of a smash and grab. A croissant, some scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and a fruit yoghurt all end up in a confused mound on my little plate. Still, it’s super-tasty and gives us enough energy to investigate the streets of ‘Sona’ (south of Národní t?ída), an up-and-coming area where many young ex-pats (US, French, British) choose to live and entertain themselves.
There’s a closed-for-business feel on this Sunday morning, but we are lucky enough to find a pair of easy chairs at the rear of Globe bookstore, which has the cosiest café, with a chilled-out, friendly, weekend vibe – perfect for flicking through a volume of Neruda. And eating more, obviously. Well, it’d be foolish to attempt this much European culture on an empty stomach.