Spectacular bounties of nature in Czech Republic…
There are travellers who thrive on hiking and trekking. Me…I’m not in that league. Yet, a trip to Bohemian Switzerland National Park was topping the ‘this-we-have-to-do’ list, while we drew up our Czech Republic itinerary. Just what was I thinking? I don’t know. A comfy coach that conveniently drops us off to ridiculously high vantage points for insta-worthy photo-opps, maybe. I’m aerially-challenged. And vertigo-prone. And exercise-averse. And plain lazy. (Nose wrinkle). But obsessively fascinated by that Youtube clipping on my laptop.
So, when we landed in Prague, and started digging around for details, I got my first major setback. I actually slumped back on the couch as I read the fine print: ‘6-8 kilometres of hiking’. No can do. Next morning I woke with a rethink. Let it go so easy? More research. Discouraging advise from pessimistic hotel concierge. Too tough. Too inaccessible. Locals don’t speak English. (I’m not making it up, he actually said that). Hmm, so we drop it then. Shrug. Next morning, new day. The Youtube clip is back to haunt me. A visit to the Czech Tourism Office. Positive recommendation…Ales Kubica, guide. Email drop. The reply reconfirms the 6-8 kilometres. Scowl. Give it up now. Wait, last ditch effort. Message good friend, Rashmi, who’s been to Prague just a week before. Whatsapp chat delivers inspiration. Motivation. And a decision. We are doing this!
Alec informative chitchats create the atmosphere as he drives us for an hour-and-half out of Prague until the silhouette of mountains starts defining the horizon. Anticipation already. The little village of Hrensko in Ústí nad Labem Region, bordering Germany heralds the arrival of the destination. The gentle Elbe breaks the harmony of thick forests and a bunch of half-timbered houses complete the portrait. The road snakes deeper, trees tower higher. Drop-off point at the edge of the Bohemian Switzerland National Park. A light drizzle tests my determination, and I give it a flying kiss. I’m so ready for this. Deep breaths. Fresh, misty air softly tickles my nose. Hoodie check. Umbrella check. Hiking pole check. Here we go…
Moment of glory
First steps into the 80 square kilometres of woody heaven. Wide open eyes. Lifted eyebrows. Soft whispers. Deep sighs. A mystical landscape of pine and beech. Dissolving into earthy greens and browns. Skimming over rain-drenched carpets of gold, amber, russet, scarlet, maroon leaves. Treading the sole-challenging, rough, stony path. Spotting mushroom bunches spring up from trees stumps. Crossing broken and fallen trees that lie undisturbed. Getting dwarfed by giant skyscraper trees. Shrinking under ancient, mammoth, sandstone mountains carved from a shallow sandy seabed, millions of years ago. Trudging along a narrow path that hugs sheer cliff-faces and sinks under jutting precipices. And refuelling with mysterious energy at every undiscovered bend.
Staring at gnarled tree branches forcing their way through the mountain cracks and crevices towards the light. Spelling eventual destruction? Wondering about soft sandstone crumbling under your hands. A beach here maybe, thousands of years later? Shhhh!! In the distance, a birdsong…can any composer create a sweeter symphony? Closer by, an incessant rhythm…silvery, tinkling teardrops dripping from leaves. And even closer…a gentle, pulsating, thudding, drumming…wait that’s my own heartbeat! Getting enveloped in the embrace of a wordless peace that soothes the soul. So why the irresistible urge to break into a dance?
Downpour. Glimpse of an insurmountable vertical rock. A twinge of doubt. No, not up there! Brush it aside. Vision of the iconic Pravčická Brána, the 399 meters high, largest natural rock arch in Europe. Wowwww! But first, shelter in the Falcon’s Nest perched precariously on a rocky outcrop. Once a hotel, now a restaurant and photography gallery. Unbeatable location. Coffee, soup or beer. And prayers for the rain to stop. Luck! Rain gods in our favour. Carefully up a narrow, slippery flight of steps. Not looking down. Clutching the handrail. Finally at the top. Whoa, the views! The Views! THE VIEWS!
This is a dream! Reliving Chronicles of Narnia. Rock city. Deep valleys. Soaring towers, walls, labyrinths, ravines, ledges, canyons, gorges, ledges, pinnacles, cliffs. Steely-grey wrinkly mountains. Unthinkable shapes. A sea of rust-green forests. A romantic, soft grey mist hanging over nature’s most surreal painting. Infinity. And that victorious feeling. Whoohooo! Cakewalk!
Gorgeousness and a gorge
Back to the parking lot and another drive 30 minutes away for lunch. And the next hike. This time, down to the Edmund Gorge in Hřensko, the lowest point of the Czech Republic (114 meters). Alec drops the critical question. It many be raining down there. Yay or nay? No brainer, actually. I’m up for it. Is that adrenaline talking?
Deep in the gorge, where sunlight can barely penetrate through the trees. Into a deep and narrow valley carved out of sandstone. Down. Further down. Through secret groves and a moss-veiled trail. Through shady glades. A gentle trail leading to the most charming wooden foot-bridge over the gently flowing Kamenice river. Walled in by the sheer grey rock of the Edmund Gorge. Strewn almost artistically with warm, wet autumn foliage. Discovering mushrooms that blow air as you pinch them. Chasing striped salamander through the ferns. Navigating a labyrinth of rocks, tunnels ledges, admiring stone art that nature sculpted and upholstered with moist fuzz. Some smooth as marble, others as if sliced by a sharp knife, some as if shaped by moulds. Can’t stop grinning.
The magic continues. An idyllic boat trip through the river. With a gondolier who pole-glides you over the dark shallow waters, fascinating you with Czech legends of stone giants hidden in the sandstone rock formations rising from the secretive waters. There’s a frog. And a crocodile. Even King Kong! Imagination running wild. Tinkling of the crystal clear Kamenice. Floating into nothingness.
More hiking. Now uphill. The great lungs and legs challenge. I can feel the strain now. Huff and puff. Nature, as rugged as it comes. No benches to catch the breath. No funiculars in case I give up. Just me, the tireless mountain path and the unadulterated air supply. Gulp away, exhale and march on. Incessant rewards…unreal gorgeousness.
Cutting through the German border into Saxony for a subtle, yet sudden change. A new standard of symmetry and order…roads as if newly painted, farmlands framed perfectly, even curves as if designed by computer graphics. Half an hour later, another spectacle awaits at Saxon Switzerland National Park.
An even more dramatic ‘city in stone’. Complete with craggy sandstone cliffs, vertigo-inducing gorges, surprising spire-shaped peaks, raw ravines and tabletop mountains. Several rocks and peaks with lookouts that can be accessed via stairways and bridges. Thousands of vertical rock pillars for adrenaline-junkie rock climbers. Hundreds of hiking trails for nature lovers. Meadows, moors, and extensive forests for the romantic at heart.
Heading for the most photographed location: Bastei (German for bastion) Bridge, suspended 200 meters above the valley floor and blending in seamlessly with the natural sandstone rocks. Built in 1851 to replace the original wooden bridge over a narrow valley, this bridge served no other purpose except as a viewing platform. Jaw-dropping then, jaw-dropping now. Gaping. For as long as I can.
From the Bastei Peak, (even higher at 305 meters), pinching myself that this is really happening and is not a fantasy of my errant mind. Age-worn fortress-like sandstone rock towers framing the elegant curves of the Elbe River far below in the valley. Countless shades of blue from the skies reflecting on her glassy surface. The soft sun rays glistening and showing off her delicate waves. Pretty red roof houses lining the banks complementing the hues of green. Its not a painting, its paradise. And I know why the Swiss painter duo, Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff, gave this area its fairytale name.
My hair is stringy, my calf muscles are sore and my feet are wet. My fitness app has clocked 15 kilometres for the day. I still have that grin pasted on my face. Despite the fact that I am the lead contender in the ‘Reluctant Hiker of the Millennium’ award. It must be the exhilaration because its certainly not the exhaustion. And I desperately need a long, warm soak now.
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