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Your Life: Travel: WAKING UP TO WINTER; Darren Fullerton gets in the festive spirit in Prague.

Byline: Darren Fullerton

OUR eyes met across a comfy bed at exactly 8.01am last Friday morning - the anticipation of a romantic weekend in Prague seizing our thoughts like a vice.

We sat up abruptly, peered maniacally at each other through the thicket of tousled hair and crumpled duvet and then back at the bedside alarm clock.

Yes, it definitely said 8.01am... and our intended flight to Prague was due to depart in less than 40 minutes from Belfast International Airport.

"What will we do?" wailed my wife Karen who, by this stage, was performing a reasonable impersonation of a Banshee with a personality defect.

"It's useless, we can't make it!" I replied, jumping from the bed for no apparent reason other than to accentuate my feeling of helpless abandon.

A quick check of the bedside radio clock revealed the extent of our stupidity. We'd set the alarm for six o'clock PM - and not AM.

"I feel sick," shrieked Karen.

"It's OK. Nobody has died," I replied, reviving the only contrast in fortunes available to us in the circumstances. The grim reaper... or missing a flight to Prague. Yep, that was the only argument left for us to dissect last Friday morning.

Writing a travel review isn't supposed to be like this. You're meant to strut into the airport bright and breezy with a worldly-wise demeanour and an air of self- importance.

So scuttling about a bedroom beseeching the largely unknown Saint of Romantic Breaks to turn back time because you've morphed into a muppet with learning difficulties isn't part of the packed media itinerary.

We had missed our flight to Prague by a country mile, and yet help was at hand when a quick phone call to Jet2's customer service line confirmed that we could transfer our departure to the following morning for a pounds 30 fee (pounds 15 per person).

"Is that OK?" asked the sympathetic Jet2.com operator.

"Yesssssss!" we wailed in unison.

The flight with Jet2 just 24 hours later from Belfast did exactly what it said on the tin. It was cheap, cheerful, comfortable and took just two hours and 15 minutes in duration.

We stayed in the five-star Marriott Hotel in the city centre - an opulent, customer-friendly establishment well within walking distance of the gates of the old city and several other must-sees dotted across this visually captivating capital.

Everything about the Marriott oozed quality, luxury and class. From its eye-catching, split-level ground floor bedecked in glinting Christmas decorations to the smiling concierges with their helpful demeanour and flamboyant epaulettes.

Looking back, it would have been so easy to cocoon ourselves in the warmth and majesty of the Marriott, but that would have deprived us of the main festive attraction in Prague this month - the Christmas Markets.

Prague is proud of its festive tradition - row upon row of wooden stalls selling eye-catching fare - and it's easy to understand why.

A five-minute walk in the bitterly cold winter air (a thermal hat and gloves combo is a must during December) took us to the Old Town square which is regarded as the "undisputable heart" of the city.

Stepping into the Old Town Square - the site where Soviet tanks were attacked in pre-democratic times in 1968 - was like drifting back in time.

We were immediately struck by the stunning array of wooden stalls, traditional dress, melodic music, festive decorations and old-style delicacies that turned the square into a happy, smiling winter wonderland.

The potent scent of freshly cooked klobasa (Czech sausage), sugary crepes, home-made bread and fresh carp filtered into the cold air as shivering shoppers warmed their hands with a pounds 1 cup of svarak (hot wine).

I can take or leave that particular tipple, but a quick glass of Pilsner, garlic bread and rack of pork ribs under a gas heater in one of the many nearby terrace cafes soon made amends.

There's something gloriously decadent about sitting in ice-cold weather in thermal gloves and hat, sipping Pilsner and watching the world pass by under a flutter of virginal white snowflakes.

But despite the glorious surroundings - many of the nearby towering buildings look as though they have been lifted out of a Beethoven documentary - the vast majority of gifts on offer at the market are dangerously affordable.

Unique home-made bracelets and necklaces are available from just 25 Krowns (60p) upwards, while metal trinkets (forged and crafted as you watch) were retailing at pounds 1.50 or pounds 2.

But the Christmas Markets aren't just about filling your pockets with ideal stocking fillers or one-off purchases. Joining the Prague public and immersing yourself in a unique Christmas atmosphere is really worth the journey alone.

Prague isn't particularly cheap - despite its reputation - so travel with money to spare. We spent just over pounds 250 in 36 hours - a bill that, admittedly, included a memorable Sunday tea in the Marriott Hotel Brasserie - but a bit of simple budgeting and financial modesty would have kept our expenses to a minimum.

If you want to dine and drink in style you can. But if you fancy a quick KFC, McDonald's or cheap and cheerful pizzeria away from the tourist track, Prague needn't ransack your wallet.

Another positive of the Czech capital was the array of superb buildings. Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque and neo-styles all nestle and wrestle for prominence within the city centre.

Karen and I simply lost ourselves strolling through the picture book streets and crowds of people on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. It is possible to walk for miles amidst the splendour and beauty of Prague and not notice the passing of time.

It was almost therapeutic. Exactly what we needed during a pre-Christmas weekend that will linger long in the memory. From manic start to relaxing finish.

CAPTION(S):

BRIDGE THAT GAP: Prague's greatest attraction; FAIR PLAY: Visitors at the Christmas market; STUNNING: View of the river; WHITE CHRISTMAS: Baby, it's cold out there!; DING DONG: Christmas spirit; WINDOW ON WINTER:; There's nowhere quite like Prague when you want to get into the spirit of Christmas
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 10, 2005
Words:1010
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