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In Ernst Lubitsch's classic 1939 comedy Ninotchka, three Soviet functionaries are dispatched to Paris to fetch a wayward comrade, Greta Garbo. Instead, they become enthralled by the City of Light themselves and end up defecting, too. The same denouement might occur today in Prague, a bewitchingly lovely city where the residents, proudly free of Communist domination, are quickly and eagerly developing a taste for the finer things in life: dining out, vintage wines, good Cognac--and premium cigars.
Guests at Prague's luxurious Hotel Inter-Continental Praha are able to partake of all of these--particularly the best in Havana cigars. The city's top cigar store--indeed, one of Eastern Europe's finest emporiums of premium smokes--is located conveniently in the hotel's gleaming, marble-floored lobby. La Casa del Habano, operated by the Geneva-based Redimex Co., opened in October 1995 with exclusive distribution rights for Cuban cigars in Eastern Europe. The shop offers some 40 Cuban brands in 150 shapes and sizes, selling 15,000 to 20,000 a month, with the average cigar priced at $8.50 (far better than the $10 to $12 often commanded in Western Europe).
"You can really control the quality and price when you're the official distributor," says Noella Levy, the store's owner. "We are very, very careful with the margin." Her "very active" 75-year-old father, Raphael Levy, has been a distributor of Havanas for some 35 to 40 years.
The store also provides cigars to the Inter-Continental's acclaimed ninth-floor restaurant, Zlata Praha (Golden Prague), which offers panoramic views of the city's red-tiled roofs, ancient spires and mammoth castle. With Old World graciousness, the waiters will bring a humidor to your table and help you light up. In the summer, the restaurant's outdoor terrace is an ideal place for an after-dinner smoke.
The Inter-Continental, built in 1974, was known as the only hotel in Prague to provide Western-style service--although back then, it rarely matched the standards maintained by other outlets in the chain. That has changed since "The Velvet Revolution." The capitalist spirit--and a multimillion-dollar remodeling undertaken in 1993-94--have brightened the decor enormously and transformed the once-drab lobby and 364 rooms, ensuring that the hotel retains its reputation as the city's finest.
The hotel is ideally located. Its rooms, which include 89 suites, afford views of either the Vltava River, or Prague's magnificent Old Town Square, just a pleasant three- to five-minute stroll down a tree-lined street of elegant shops. The junior and business suites on the hotel's Club Floors (seventh and eighth) feature fax machines with printers, data ports, voice mail and such executive amenities as a trouser presser and a coffee maker. There is 24-hour room service and same-day laundry and dry cleaning. Breakfast and use of the swimming pool and sauna in the hotel's new Fitness Club (which also has massage facilities, a weight room, an aerobic studio and a putting green) are included in the room rate.
Czech cuisine tends toward the rich and heavy, with plenty of roasted meats, cream gravies and knedliky--dumplings made either of bread, potatoes, flour or semolina. The land-locked Czechs also favor freshwater fish such as trout and carp. The staff of the Inter-Continental's executive chef, Miroslav Kubec, prepares traditional Czech fare with a slightly lighter touch, while also serving a more internationally oriented selection of entrées not only in Golden Prague but in the hotel's other restaurants, the ground-floor Primator Grill and the Cafe Gallery.
At Golden Prague, lobster thermidor, veal tenderloin with shrimps, chateaubriand with asparagus, New Zealand lamb, and even vegetable tempura or vegetable ravioli are available, along with Prague butchers' goulash and roast duck, Old Bohemian style. A Czech potato soup with mushrooms, carrots and celery is an especially hearty and flavorful first course; the "Old Bohemian" duck was blessedly nongreasy and was served with red and white cabbage, a crisp potato pancake and the inevitable dumplings. Although wonderful Czech beer is readily available (the Czechs invented pilsner beer and now proudly boast a greater per capita consumption of suds than the Germans), local wines, such as a well-balanced Moravian red, are excellent. The Czechs are also renowned for their pastry. A fellow diner was overheard saying: "What makes this are the beer and the desserts--my two favorite things."
Neil A. Grauer is a writer based in Baltimore.
Hotel Inter-Continental Praha
Namesti Curieovych 43/5
Phone (420-2) 2488 11 11 Fax (420-2) 2481 12 16
Rates Suites from $360