TAKE it off all! The reference in this oddly-phrased instruction was to my clothes and the speaker was a woman clearly used to being obeyed.


My intention was to make you so, with an eye-catching opening to this account of my first visit to the Czech Republic, during which I took a mineral bath in the Bohemian spa city of Karlovy Vary.

Now what did you think I was describing?

The journey to Prague, the focus of my four-day break, was made by train rather than plane. This added an enjoyable extra dimension to the trip that would be appreciated, I think, even by those who do not share my long-time interest in railways.

For one thing, you do away with the hassle of airport security checks and the ever-present risk of delays; for another, trains are friendlier to the planet.

The Czech capital, when we reached it, proved everything I hoped it would be – a place steeped in history and culture, with wonderful buildings and cheerful, friendly people, some of whom I met in the excellent bars and restaurants that abound there.

Emphatically not observable was any sign of the beer-drenched Brits abroad who once damaged Prague’s good name. Stag parties have moved away to other places in former Communist countries where the beer is even cheaper – Bratislava, say, or Riga.

The good eating that characterised the trip began as early as the first leg of the journey, by the 2.34pm Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels.

Travelling Standard Premier class, we were served tasty nibbles – air-dried ham, Wensleydale cheese, smoked salmon – as we sped beneath the Channel and on through France towards Belgium.

This being a country that, somewhat strangely, I had never previously visited, it seemed appropriate to celebrate the ‘first’ with a glass of Grimbergen Blonde beer at Le Comptoir du Midi bar, just outside Brussels Midi railway station.

There was time, alas, for just the one before the departure of German Railways’ ICE train (Inter-City Express) which raced us at a speed of 247kmh towards Cologne. That we had our own booked first-class compartment – once we had evicted a pair of interloping businessmen, their papers spread across the tables proprietorially – made the 110-minute journey especially comfortable.

We had dinner at Cologne in what I judged to be the best of the various fast-food joints clustered beneath the station. Pork steak and salad (and, naturally a foaming Stein) set me up for the night ride ahead to Prague.

We travelled on a City Night Line sleeper train called Phoenix, which leaves Cologne just before 10.30pm. As seems the norm in Continental Europe, it was bang on time.

Ours was the last coach of the locomotive-hauled service, a new Czech-owned, German built carriage divided into sleeping compartments of various kinds. With the three deluxe compartments (private loo and shower) already booked, we had the next best thing – the two-person standard sleeper with washbasin. There was a lavatory (and shower) just along the corridor, which was vacant every time I needed it.

In the lower of the two berths – a more agile companion had ascended to the upper one – I passed a comfortable night. For most of the time, such was the smoothness of the ride over continuously welded rails, it was difficult to tell whether the train was moving or not.

I was fully awake, shortly after dawn, as we rumbled through Dresden. Soon after, the train snaked along the picturesque valley of the River Elbe. Coffee and a boxed breakfast of roll, croissant and jam were served by the uniformed attendant as we took in the view.

Into Prague’s main station at 9.28am, we sent on our luggage by car and enjoyed a 15-minute stroll through the sunshine to the five-star Kempinski Hybernska Hotel that was to be our base for the next three days.

Cocooned in luxury (two flat-screen tellys in the suite!) and courteously attended upon, I would gladly have stayed put amid its comforts had there not been so much else to see and do.

First came lunch (but of course!) amid the antique splendour of the famous U Cisaro restaurant (established 1671) in the shadow of Prague Castle. Much pewter, a wine vault and a huge bear’s head and other hunting relics provided the appropriate atmosphere for the sampling of potato soup, baby octopus and venison medallions.

The guard was being changed as we arrived at the castle, a reminder that this is home to the country’s head of state.

A flag flying indicated that he was in the republic that day if not necessarily here in the presidential apartments.

The amazing conglomeration of buildings also includes the basilica of St Vitus, which was begun in the 14th century, but not actually completed until the 19th and 20th.

The ‘join’ is undetectable today. In another part of the castle is the window from which three Catholics were hurled to their deaths by Protestants in 1618, an event central to the start of the Thirty Years’ War.

Was it the thought of this vertiginous plunge that led to my queasy cowardice the next day – after a train ride to the Moravian city of Olomouc – when I climbed to the top of the tower at the city hall and didn’t dare to look out?

On the building beneath is one of the country’s many relics of Communist rule, an elaborate timepiece designed in imitation of Prague’s world-famous Astronomical Clock, except that it features worker heroes and heroines of the revolution.

The streets here are thronged with young people, as might be expected in a place that rivals Oxford for student numbers – 25,000 at a time.

Antiquities we saw at the Archdiocesan Museum included a gilded 18th century imperial coach similar to those used in our Royal household. Later came road transport of a more recent vintage in the splendid collection of Czech cars at the Veteran Arena.

Memorable dinners at two of Prague’s best restaurants, the Bellevue (the ‘vue’ being of the city’s iconic Charles Bridge) and La Degustation, in the Old Town, were other highlights of the trip.

The mineral bath? Well, the 15 minutes of bubbling on the orders of the fierce lady in charge certainly left me feeling very clean.

It has to be admitted, too, that bathing in the naturally heated spring water was rather better than swallowing it, as all the locals do.

For a health drink give me Becherovka, the delicious green herbal bitters made in the city, every time...