OUTSIDE the window, the sun was smiling on one of the world's most beautiful cities. It was early September in Prague, a warm and pleasant Wednesday morning. No doubt, Old Town Square was filled with tourists snapping pictures. The outdoor cafes would be crowded with people sipping coffee, waiting for the Town Hall's 15th-century Astronomical Clock to reveal, every hour on the hour, a little tableau of a skeletal Death ringing a bell as 12 medieval carved apostles emerged from two windows.
But I was sitting in a third-floor room at Charles University, listening to Peter Griffin, a Cambridge-trained historian. Mr. Griffin, whose red sports jacket and paisley tie were cloaked in the black gown of a proper don, paced back and forth, stopping now and again to lean forward on the lectern. ''There were five separate crusades before 1431 sent to destroy the Taborites,'' he said.
Oddly, I had no desire to escape the classroom for the cafe.
Before I arrived in Prague for my weeklong University Vacations tour late last summer, I had never heard of the Taborites, and didn't seem to suffer for it.
And just the day before, as I jogged along the Vltava River at dawn, I had been thinking about a break from the program. The day, like today, was gorgeous and suddenly the prospect of spending even part of the afternoon on a slow-motion bus tour, as the program promised, seemed depressing. I wanted to walk through the city, hear its sounds, smell its aromas. I wanted to see the museums of the National Gallery and the spectacular library in the Strahov Monastery and many other things that were not on the agenda. Why had I signed up for this expensive excursion in group travel?
But before the second day of classes were over, I had changed my mind.
Mr. Griffin is a compelling lecturer, with rich, if convoluted, material to plow through in a course called Prague: The Jewel of Bohemia. I realized that I could probably participate fully and still see much of what I wanted to, my way. University Vacations schedules long lunches and breaks that I filled with walks and gallery visits.
Before this trip, I had never taken a group tour. But last July, without summer vacation plans, I found myself leafing through a brochure I had saved from Miami-based University Vacations. Its weeklong programs in history and culture at European universities intrigued me, as did Prague, with its enchanting castle on the hill, Baroque churches, bustling squares and narrow cobbled streets. The Jewel of Bohemia tour promised an examination of Prague's golden age, which ran from the 14th century (under Charles IV, who in 1348 founded Charles University, the site of the program) to the early 18th century. Despite my reservations -- mostly, I feared being the only baby boomer in a group of retirees -- I signed up.
On Aug. 31, I arrived in Prague before 10 A.M. and took a taxi to the hotel that the group's participants were staying at: the four-star Hotel Pariz, a heavily restored neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau landmark built in 1907 in Old Town, near the 500-year-old Powder Tower. My single room, comfortable though not luxurious, was ready.
''School'' was to begin with a 7 P.M. reception, and when I ventured down to the bar shortly after the hour, I got mixed omens. There were only nine participants (18 to 24 was normal, I was told) and seven of those were retirees. On the other hand, six of the nine were repeat University Vacation-ers -- and Barry Caswell Brooks, the program director; Mr. Griffin and Renata Blazkova, the local tour guide, were my age or younger. Everyone was friendly.
A half-hour later we all walked to the Golden Well restaurant, where a private room with a big round table and carved Gothic chairs awaited us. Conversation soon outgrew its initial awkwardness. Although the reasonably good dinner, ordered ahead -- venison pate with lingonberries, stuffed turkey, strudel, ice cream, berries and Greek wine -- ran past 10 P.M., the night was so beautiful that we all walked halfway across the crowded Charles Bridge for a view of the Castle, Prague's signature for more than 1,000 years.
On Monday, my routine for the week took shape: up for a jog at 6 A.M., buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant and a five-minute walk to the university. Lectures began at 9:30 and ran until 10:30, followed by a break in Old Town Square, resuming from 11:15 to 12:30. At the end of each, we could ask questions -- though we often saved them for dinner discussions. After lunch, there were walking tours or excursions (optional, like every other part of the program), followed by dinner -- usually at quite good restaurants.
On two nights, opera tickets had been arranged, but the group elected to attend the first acts only of ''La Traviata'' at the State Opera House and ''Don Giovanni'' at the Estates Theater. The performances were fine, and these sumptuously decorated Baroque theaters -- one in red, the other in powder blue -- were a sight to behold, but we were unwilling to eat dinner late. No one was coerced to leave, but we all did, and I was a willing conspirator.
There were some variations, of course. But basically it was Prague in history in the morning, Prague in reality in the afternoon, and Prague in discussion at dinner. The week was over in no time, long before the subject was exhausted.
Our high-ceilinged classroom, on the third floor of the Karolinum (the oldest part of Charles University), was more the spare but elegant conference room than traditional classroom. It was furnished with stuffed leather chairs, a U-shaped conference table, a few 19th-century portraits and a gilded chandelier.
Just after our first break, Jan Havranek, a professor of modern Czech history, arrived to lead us through the 14th-century main hall and the vault room, where the university stores its scepters, academic gowns and other symbols of power.
Soon we were in the archives -- rare for nonscholars -- treated to a look at medieval religious books and manuscripts (some on vellum), faculty and graduate rolls and dissertations dating from the 15th century. Many were hand-written but utilitarian scripts (not decorative). We also examined the 1402 document appointing Jan Hus custodian of Bethlehem chapel. From its pulpit, Hus launched a revolution that challenged the Bohemian church-state hierarchy, helped define the future Czech nation and foreshadowed by a century the Protestant Reformation.
Before Jan Hus, though, there was Charles IV and the Black Death, the bubonic plague brought here from China by 14th-century rats. Combined with a separate plague of septicemia (or blood poisoning), the Black Death wiped out at least two-thirds of Bohemia's population in 18 months, setting the stage for Charles IV to rejuvenate the church, sponsor German immigration into Bohemia and revamp the social structure.
For the popular Charles, the feudal system worked. But his heirs were weak, explained Mr. Griffin. People rebelled, and Bohemia bounced for hundreds of years among the Hussites (who had a more radical wing, the Taborites), the Hapsburgs, home-grown rulers and kings of Poland and Sweden, with religious and political infighting galore.
Martin Luther, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Wycliffe, Frederick the Wise, John Calvin and Henry VIII were among the many who made appearances in Mr. Griffin's lectures. Indeed, by the middle of the program, the drama was so laden with names and dates that it was very hard to follow. Overwhelmed, I asked Mr. Griffin how the course compared with what he teaches university students. We had, he replied, eight hours of lectures to cover a period that takes six weeks in a European history course.
But no matter. From his compressed lectures, I gleaned a frame of reference for the Czech Republic, as well as a reminder of the turbulence of European history. And by then, our afternoon excursions were a big attraction. One day we took a comfortable bus ride to Kutna Hora, a pretty little medieval silver-mining town about an hour east of Prague.
Kutna Hora twice played a role in history. In 1409, fighting university factions here agreed to a voting system that essentially elevated Jan Hus to the powerful post of rector. Then, in 1471, the Polish king Vladislav II Jagiello was elected king of Bohemia here.
The bus stopped at St. Barbara's, a Gothic cathedral begun in 1388 that, aside from some beautiful murals, is spare inside. Outside, however, it boasts outstanding outsized flying buttresses. From there, it was a short walk down a narrow cobblestone road into town, where pastel-painted shops form the main square.
Kutna Hora is uncannily, almost disturbingly quiet. While the others ate lunch in the local hotel, I poked around the mostly deserted square. Later, I found a park with a spectacular view of the valley below.
When the others rejoined me, we headed for the Italian Court, which was built as a royal seat and the royal mint. We stopped briefly to gaze at the old coins in the treasury, but the main attraction here is Audience Hall, where two stunning early 20th-century murals depict Jan Hus's and Vladislav II's dates with history in Kutna Hora.
Friday's excursion to Karlstejn Castle, about 20 miles outside Prague, was even better. Our coach wended its way up and down through wheatfields and orchards, past little villages of houses with red-tile roofs.
Karlstejn, built high on a cliff in the 14th century to house the Holy Roman Empire's crown jewels, is on five levels. It was designed on the theory that attackers would never get to the Chapel of the Holy Cross at the top, where the jewels were. Though Swedish troops got close in the 16th century, they didn't succeed. Today, most tourists don't have access to the gilt and jewel-encrusted murals of the chapel, either -- but we were an exception. In contrast with the stripped royal staterooms and bedrooms below -- which I found disappointing -- the chapel was a shining jewel box.
Perhaps to make up for a Dvorak concert that had been canceled on our second night (no one knew why, including Mr. Brooks, the program director), the farewell cocktail reception was switched from the hotel bar to a surprise location. And the Hanavsky Pavilion, a sparkling restaurant with an open terrace perched above the river in Prague's Castle District, provided a panorama of the city, made all the better by the champagne and tasty crab and ham hors d'oeuvres.
From there, we went on to what was probably our best meal: smoked trout, rack of lamb and apple strudel at U Maliru restaurant. All of us were now old friends, and the conversation flowed as freely as the wine and after-dinner drinks. Melancholy came over us briefly at the impending end of the week; only Saturday's buffet breakfast was left (though I stayed an extra day).
Months later, do I recall much Czech history? In all honesty, no. The lectures went far deeper into politics than I would have chosen, with little on art, music and culture of the age.
And yet, I remember a very pleasant time in Prague, entailing much more mind-stretching than any lazy, oh-so-common beach trip could possible provide.