A winter classic: Why Prague, the city of Kafka, is so glorious in the coldest season

'Prague never lets you go. This dear little mother has sharp claws,' whispered my lover, quoting Franz Kafka's famous quip. I felt a fur-gloved hand grip my arm as we slithered along snowy alleys. Gas lamps were throwing a golden glow on the cobbles and courtyards of the Mala Strana (lesser quarter) while silhouetted spires soared in the moonlit sky.

Prague, Czech Republic

Twice as ice: Prague is at its most picturesque in the winter

'We are free and that is why we are lost,' I countered, seizing a Kafka dictum of my own.

What better way to admit that while trying to find the way back to our hotel after dinner, we had just passed, for the third time, the same stuccoed gargoyle adorned with a spiky beard of ice.

But what a poetically romantic setting in which to meander, lost with my lover, who happens to be my wife of the past 23 years.

About four million tourists a year swarm through the capital of the Czech Republic, but most of them do so in summer when it is hot and clammy.

Garrulous gangs from Tokyo or Milan follow leaders with rolled umbrellas held aloft, trailing from museum to castle to concert hall. And beer-soaked British stag party celebrants sing bawdy songs as they stagger through the old town in silly hats and 'Czech Me Out' T-shirts.

So here is the real secret we learnt from the absurdist writer with the goblin ears, whose love letters to his adored home city we had read: Come instead in the depths of winter, when Prague is at its most spell-bindingly beautiful. Not only does the wintry weather fit the scenery perfectly, but you can have this sparking jewel in the crown of central Europe virtually to yourself.

You will find that Prague reveals itself not so much as an overgrown theme park, but as a city full of Czech people who travel to work on rattling, twin-carriage trams and sit in bars sipping frothy coffee while reading the paper.

Chances are, there will be snow. It was -5c on the evening we arrived and probably a few degrees colder by the time we finally found our way back to the welcoming warmth of the Mandarin Oriental. It is one of at least two monasteries buried away in medieval warrens that has been converted into a sumptuous five-star hotel (the other is Forte's recently-opened Augustine).

The following morning, we wrapped up tight and, enveloped in our personal clouds of steam, set off for the Stare Mesto (old town) across the River Vltava. The 19 statues lining ancient Charles Bridge wore shawls of frost and seemed to raise their heads to the copper and cake-icing outline of Saint Vitus Cathedral, which crowns gargantuan Prague Castle on Hradcany, the hill overlooking the city.

Later, we walked up to watch the strutting and trumpeting ' Banner Exchange' ceremony performed at the gates by guards in great coats and fur hats.

'A parody of all the pomp that has gone on here,' laughed my wife Hennie, recalling that Prague Castle was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, Hapsburg Empire, Czechoslovakia and now the Czech Republic.

Next we followed the Vltava down to the New Town and Wenceslas Square where the snow lay deep and crisp, if somewhat unevenly blown into drifts.

St Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Lofty ideals: St Vitus's Cathedral rears high into the Prague skyline

The open expanse is presided over by a bronze equestrian statue of the saint and 10th-century Duke of Bohemia (he was never a king, whatever the famous carol claims).

More moving were the flickering candles and frozen flowers placed around a photo of Jan Palach, near the spot where he burnt himself to death in 1969 protesting against the Soviet invasion.

The shrine was a reminder of Prague's communist chapter, which came to an end with the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The best that can be said of these times is that they preserved the city's illustrious buildings in aspic.

Goethe might have been referring to Prague when he called architecture 'frozen music'. Old Town Square alone is an icy symphony of Romanesque vaulting, Gothic spires and turrets, and the exuberant Rococo of Kinsky Palace.

Then there are the grand old art nouveau cafes - elegant meeting-places where local people go to shoot the breeze. We observed arty types sitting in comfy armchairs earnestly discussing philosophy. Or perhaps the football results - we hadn't managed to pick up much Czech.

Our favourite was Cafe Milena, where Kafka used to end his long, solitary perambulations through Prague.

Here we would hunker down for a bowl of steaming goulash soup and a tankard of foaming pilsner beer when we needed some respite from the chill.

From our snug corner next to a heater and a frosty window, we had a view across the square to the Astronomical Clock.

Its party trick since 1490 has been for a mechanical skeleton to ring a bell on the hour, triggering a morality warning in the form of moving figures representing Vanity, Greed and Turks.

'How about we go out and get lost again, ' suggested Hennie on the morning we were due to leave.

Prague in deep mid-winter does have a way of holding on to you. The little mother has sharp claws.

Travel Facts

Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283, www.kirkerholidays.com) offers three-night stays at the five-star deluxe Mandarin Oriental in Prague from £678 per person based on two sharing. Price includes scheduled flights from Heathrow, private transfers and breakfast.

Cheaper options are possible flying on no-frills airlines from various regional airports.

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