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Most Americans who visit the Czech Republic limit themselves to Prague and a few other well-traveled tourist spots. The language barrier cuts twice: first, few Americans speak Czech; second, the number of English-speaking Czechs follows the inverse square law of distance from cosmopolitan areas. Remember, Russian was the foreign language taught in schools until 1989. So it's understandable that most tourists don't depart from the usual tourist path. But the country has much more to offer.
We took a short excursion to a National Park about 100 miles north of Prague in a wooded area of mountains and sandstone formations known as Ceské Švýcarsko (“Czech Switzerland” or “Czech Swiss”). The area is popular with tourists from the Czech Republic and Germany but few Americans have ventured here. The rather grand name of Czech Swiss reflects more imagination than any actual similarity to the Alps, but it doesn’t distract from its wonderful hiking trails through forested hills.
As we drove from Prague to the Czech Switzerland on a Monday, first stopping at a roadside hostinek for lunch, we watched ominous clouds building during the afternoon. We dodged the summer storm while viewing some interesting lava formations (Panska Skala, photo at left) near Ceska Kamenice, avoided the temptation of a time-delaying tour of the nearby glass factory and school, and arrived in Jetrichovice about 5pm to check in at Pod Lesem (literally “Under the Forest”) pension.
The National Park boundaries lie just outside Jetrichovice, a village with perhaps 25 houses that straddle the two-lane road to Hrensko for about 150 meters. Because it caters to tourists and hikers during the summer, there are several restaurants and pensions here.
The Czech Swiss is just east of where the Elbe River forms a border with Germany. To the north only these mountains separate what was once Bohemia from Germany. In ancient times the thick woods and steep hills provided an easy means to avoid duties and tariffs imposed on river commerce or on the established trade route through the mountains to the east. Small towns grew up in this area to supply, and sometimes prey upon, the smugglers. Many of the present trails in these woods are the ancient contraband routes. The Kamenice River valley that runs through Jetrichovice to the Elbe at Hrensko was a route that Prussian armies used when invading Bohemia, and the Thirty Years War was particularly devastating to the region.
At the park boundary we were surprised to find a large plaque with a quotation from Chief Sealth (a Pacific Northwest Indian chief and namesake of Seattle). It was a steep climb up the trail, at times becoming a hand-over-hand clamber. We passed unusual rock pillars carved in the soft sandstone and came at last to a level trail around the tops of several hills. At one point the intermittent showers forced us to take shelter in a vast, overhanging cave. Tradition has it that an entire village lived in this cave for several months when the local tax collector laid siege to the town--or perhaps it was to escape the smugglers that the village had been extorting; just who and when wasn’t quite clear to us. From the north side of these hills we had a view over the forested valleys and hills into Germany, only a few kilometers away.
For dinner we stopped at Švýcarsky Dvur, a restaurant and pension in an old building off the main road in Jetrichovice. Czech restaurants identify themselves with the brand of beer they serve (always on tap, never bottled) as much as by their food. We enjoyed a Prague-brewed beer with a meal of traditional peasant food and dessert. The cost was about $4 per person.
Our hike the next day along Gabrielina stezka (Gabriel’s trail) started from Mezni Louka, about a fifteen-minute drive west toward the Elbe. Again the hike took us up into the mountains. The trails are broad and well maintained and in a few of the steeper sections steps have been carved in the sandstone. In some places we were surrounded by a forest of beech, oak and birch trees; elsewhere the trail hugged a steep hillside and offered sweeping views of the Kamenice valley to the south. Every kilometer or so we would encounter ever more spectacular sandstone formations. At one steep canyon head the trail was less than 100 meters from the border with Germany, but since it was almost straight up to reach it, we were not tempted to emulate those Middle Ages smugglers.
At the Trailhead
Stairs Carved in Stone
Just in time for lunch we reached the highest point of this day’s hike, the Pravcicka brána (elevation 442 meters), a natural arch of sandstone. The arch was created when a weak area in the sandstone (formed during the Mesozoic period) was eroded over millennia. The arch is about 50 feet high and 75 feet wide at the base. Pravcicka brána is a national treasure of the Czech Republic and one of 88 natural stone arches in the world. To serve the tourists a pub was built here as early as 1826. Somehow an entire restaurant and 50-bed hotel were constructed in 1881. Nowadays the restaurant serves meals both inside and on the outside terraces but the hotel is no longer functioning. A cable tram brings up supplies from the valley below but all the help must hike in each day. We took advantage of the trails that go to the very top of this flat mountain and ate our lunch while enjoying a spectacular 360ş view.
Pension Pod Lesem, Jetrichovice. Double about $20 per night, with breakfast
Pension Drevak, Jetrichovice, Double about $30 per night, with breakfast
Pension Švýcarský dvur, Jetrichovice, single about $15 per night, with breakfast
Hotel Praha, Hrensko, 4 star hotel with all amenities, Double about $70 with breakfast
Note: stay at or visit Hrensko with caution. This is a major tourist trap for the German visitors. “Non-Stop” is a code word for “Sex Club” and prostitutes line the roads at all hours.
Drevak, Jetrichovice. Bistro type setting, with a badly translated English menu. Dinner, beer and dessert about $10 per person
Note: a Czech phrase book with a menu guide will help you to determine what you just ate—and to avoid ordering tripe!
http://www.npcs.cz/cz/fotogalerie.htm photo gallery
http://www.npcs.cz/img/mapanp_det2.jpg map of National Park
http//www.ceske-svycarsko.com Regional Tourist Office