When I first entered the Czech Republic, I did not immediately go to Prague. Instead, I spent my first day hiking in the Saxon Switzerland National Park and then the Bohemian Switzerland National Park. As the names imply, they are both a part of the same National Park, crossing over two borders: the German portion is in the province of Saxony while the Czech portion is in the province of Bohemia. The Switzerland part of the name is slightly less logical. In the 18th century, two Swiss painters, Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff, were living in a village on the Saxon side of the park. They both remarked that the regions’s mountains reminded them of their native Switzerland. They started writing to home talking about the differences between “real Switzerland” and “Saxon Switzerland”. The name stuck.
I got off the train at a miniscule stop in the hamlet of Schöna. This hamlet had no more than 5 houses and was located right along the Elbe River, which acted as the dividing border between Germany and the Czech Republic. There was a man in a boat waiting at the dock down the hill from the train station. Apparently, you pay him a euro and he takes you across the river into the Czech Republic. If that sounds sketchy, it sort of is. But it is the only way to cross over to Czech Republic on the other side of this river, aside from swimming over. There are no bridges between the two nations. This was actually, surprisingly, completely legal.
I wasn’t the only one on this man’s ferry boat. A couple, speaking in Czech, were also on the boat with me, as were two other men. When I got dropped off on the other side of the river banks, I was greeted with a sign written in slightly Russian-looking script, along with the town’s name on this side of the River Elbe – Hřensko. I was officially in the Czech Republic.
Hřensko is one of those towns that almost doesn’t exist during the off-season. Some Asian immigrants were selling garden gnomes and knit sweaters at the market. There was a casino, two hotels which were both closed, and a handful of various eateries. Thick smoke billowed out of chimneys and the air smelled lightly of wood. Apparently the citizens here still use wood stoves to heat their homes.
I started the long, upwards hike into the forest of the national park. I passed a mill that used a water wheel feeding off one of the many streams. It was backed right up to the cliffs that formed the first mountains of the park. I had reached the entrance gate.
The trail up the Erzgebirge Mountains was wide and well marked. The old cobblestone trail still led the way as it had for centuries.
When the hike got really steep, the road zigzagged its way up the mountains, with small arched bridges made of local field stone allowing the streams to pass tranquilly underneath.
The trail took on a slightly spookier tone at times. I can see how the region sparked inspiration for many folk tales and Bohemian legends.
Along the way, I saw a tall, skinny tree stump with multiple mushrooms growing on it. In Czech Republic, they believe that seeing a mushroom in the forest is good luck. So is seeing a gnome. So far, no gnomes.
There were also some other curiosities along the way. One of them was a metal painted sign with “Olzin Pád”, which translates to “Olga’s Fall”. I hope Olga from 1872 is alright!
There was also a rock with what appeared to be the date 1425 carved into it. I’m curious to know what the EAS below it means. Like I said, these trails have been used for centuries.
I reached the top of the Erzgebirge Mountains just as the sun was starting to set. On top of this mountain is the largest natural stone arch in Europe – the Pravčická Brána.
You have probably seen this bridge from the film Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the film, the bridge makes an appearance as the main characters walk across the top of it during wintertime. Although you cannot walk along the very top of it today, you can climb the pathway that winds around its pillar and make it most of the way to the top. So I guess you could say that I had made it to Narnia.
(Taken from the film, obviously not my own photo.)
I climbed as far as I could up the pillar of the bridge as I was rewarded with a wonderful view: a stunning pink and orange sunset view over the mountains and forests, the rivers and the valleys, all the way to Germany and beyond. Czech Republic knows how to make a first impression!
It is hard to see in the photos, as our eyes always adjust to dimming light better than a photo lens, but I could see every village and pine tree for miles and miles. The view was stunning on all sides.
This next photo might not be of the best quality (the light was failing me quickly by this point), but it does show the view as close to what I could see. There are trees in the foreground, villages further back, and smoke clouds in the forest (right hand side) seen billowing out of homes and local pubs.
I climbed up to the mountain summit beside the Pravčická Brána and had some wonderful views of it from above.
The rocky cliffs plummeted from all sides around me. I felt like I was on top of the world. But then I remembered, it had taken me nearly an hour to get to the top of this mountain. The sun was setting quickly, and it would be darker yet in that forest. How long would it take me to get back down again? This was a National Park. There were likely bears or cougars or God-knows-what-else that come out at night and might find a young Canadian makes a good midnight snack. Oh no…
I made it down that mountain in 15 minutes flat.
Once back into the village, catching my breath, I realized I now had a new obstacle to overcome. I do possess a handful of unexpected skills I can rely on, but one of them is not speaking Czech. And in a little village like this, there were no other options.
The casino I saw earlier looked like the most official building on the one-and-only street of Hřensko. I stepped inside, was greeted by a butler, pulled out my premade cheat-sheet of Czech phrases, and managed to stumble out with something that vaguely resembled “Where is the bus stop for Děčín?”. Miraculously, (I have no idea how) the butler understood me. He offered me a seat in a big leather chair by the TV while he went to check the schedule. The television was playing the movie Hotel Transylvania. I may not be in Romania, but somehow, it still seemed quite fitting.
The butler came back with the schedule for the next 3 hours, telling me the next one was arriving in what I think was 20 minutes, but my Czech numbers get a little fuzzy after five. Through charades I understood that the bus would be stopping just around the corner from the casino. I just had to follow the one road I was on until I saw it. He asked me if I had any Czech koruna on me (the country’s currency) as the bus doesn’t take euros, and I admitted that I didn’t. The butler looked up the day’s exchange rate for euros to koruna and sold me a 50 koruna coin for just under 2 euros. That was actually a great deal since he didn’t charge me any commission and I got a slightly better deal than what the going rate really was.
The bus did indeed come when it was supposed to, right where I was waiting for it. I was in Děčín in a half hour and after that, the next train to Prague. I had made it to Narnia, didn’t meet any witches, avoided the bears along the way, and now I was coming back out of the wardrobe and into society once more.