Reflections on international living and travel
 

 

 

Riverside walk through the forest 

Bohemian Switzerland and an Epiphany

Bohemian Switzerland, Czech Republic, October 2019; written in December 2021 by Jeffrey

In the autumn of 2019, I rounded off a road trip to Vienna and Krakow with a visit to Bohemian Switzerland (České Švýcarsko in Czech) which is actually in Bohemia rather than Switzerland. It's a vast national park that slips across the border into Germany where it's called Saxon Switzerland. I don't know where this obsession with Switzerland comes from; Luxembourg has a little Switzerland and I suspect there are others. Frankly, I think it's misplaced. Bohemian Switzerland has its own natural beauty which is quite distinct from the Alps. I reckon the Germans and Czechs should grant their respective parks with original names. I propose the "Jeffrey Baumgartner National Park" which I think rolls off the tongue quite easily, don't you?

I stayed overnight in the Praha Hotel in Hrensko, a village within spitting distance of the German border - which I'll get back to in a paragraph or three. The village comprises mostly hotels and an impressively large Asian market selling cheap clothes, foodstuff and other things. Most of the shops and stalls were run by Chinese, though I heard Thai here and there. Why so many Chinese vendors ended up in this village on the Czech-German border is a mystery to me. I would guess that the kind of tourist that comes to Bohemian Switzerland, rather than the more expensive Saxon Switzerland, appreciate a bargain and, furthermore, that a clan of opportunistic Chinese entrepreneurs decided to take advantage of that.  

But that is irrelevant. I came to Bohemian Switzerland for the hiking. So, upon checking in at the hotel, I asked about walks. The receptionist gave me a little card with a marked trail of about 15km or so. That's all she had, though she assured me it was a very nice walk. Wanting more choice, I popped down to the tourist information office and asked about walks. They offered me the same card. I asked if they had a more detailed map. The woman behind the desk, whose English was limited, said they only had maps in German or in Czech. I asked for a German map as I know the language a wee bit. I don't know Czech at all. I bought the map and tucked it in my pocket. Later that evening, when I looked at the map in the hotel, I realised she had sold me the Czech map. Sigh. And it was too late to take it back. So, I decided to give the map on the card a go. I'm glad I did.

Trail through the forest

 

The Hike

In the morning, I stocked up on calories at the hotel's breakfast buffet and then headed out on the walk which soon proved to be marvellous. As it was October, I was also treated to colourful leaves hanging from trees and littering the footpath, which only made the walk better. Soon, the trail became crowded and I became worried. I don't like crowds in general and certainly not when I am walking in a place of natural beauty. Fortunately, nearly all of people I passed were only going as far as Pravčická Archway, Europe's largest rock bridge - mere kilometer or so into the walk. Visiting the bridge required buying a ticket and joining the crowd. I did not. I continued along the path. It was free and from this point onward, I passed only the occasional hiker. For the most part, I felt alone. I liked that.

Pravčická Archway
Pravčická Archway

Around lunchtime, I passed the village of Mezná, stashed away in the national park. There, I found a pleasant restaurant with cheerful staff and, if memory serves, nice ravioli washed down with a friendly Czech red wine. I'd recommend the restaurant, but I cannot recall the name. On the other hand, it might be the only restaurant in the village.

Belly fortified, I continued the hike. The trail was littered with massive rocks in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many of them seemed somehow alien, and I could almost image I was walking past the ruins of a surreal alien town.

Near the end of the walk, the footpath gave out to a pier and it was necessary to take a boat for a kilometer or so along Edmund's Gorge. As he steered us down the river, the jovial boatman maintained a delightful narrative in Czech, German and English, pointing out various rocks and sharing his creative interpretation of them. Twenty minutes or so later, we disembarked and I continued for another kilometer or so to Hrensko and my hotel, suitably tired and well inspired.

Flying saucer shaped stone in forest

 

The Epiphany

In the morning, I tossed my things into the car, set the satnav to home and got on my way. Within a very few minutes, I was in Germany and felt so emotionally overwhelmed, I pulled the car over to the side of the road for a moment.

Allow me to explain: I am old enough to appreciate how remarkable it is that I can just drive from the Czech Republic to Germany with nothing more than a road sign to indicate I am in a different country. I grew up during the cold war and long before the creation of the Shengen Agreement that allows free travel between most EU countries.

When I was a child, Czechoslovakia (as it was in those days) was on the other side of the iron curtain. Visiting wasn't easy. For Czechoslovakians to visit the West was even less easy. I vaguely remember a school trip to Prague in 1978 or 9. It must have been in winter as I recall it being cold and grey. Everywhere we went, we were accompanied by guides. I even have a vague memory of silent men in overcoats trailing behind us - but knowing my memory, I may be recalling a scene from a spy thriller rather than from the actual trip.

But, today I can drive into Czechia or Poland or what was once "East Germany" without even slowing the car. It's no different than driving across the border from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. What's more, there is no longer anything to differentiate East Germany from West Germany. And that is so, so wonderful to me!

One of my very closest friends, Lenka, is from the Czech Republic. Had the Iron curtain not fallen, she would never have moved to Belgium and I would never have met her. Indeed, a handful of my friends are from Eastern European countries that are now part of the EU. My life is richer from knowing them. And, though I didn't realise it at the time, the woman who would become my partner a couple of years later (Ira, of course) is originally from behind the Iron Curtain. Had it not collapsed, we'd surely never have met.

I shed a tear or two of gratitude, that the Iron Curtain did fall and that the EU absorbed so many Eastern European countries, as I put the car into gear and continued alongside the Elba River and on my way home to Belgium, stopping only for fuel and lunch and not once for a national border.

 

Rock formation in forest

 

 

 

Old building beneath rock formation

 

 

 

Forest in Bohemian Switzerland

 

 

 

Face-like rock formation over footpath

 

 

 

footbridge over stream in forest

 

 

 

 

Bohemian Switzerland national park

 

 

Cliffside 

 

 

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