We walked through dense forests, surrounded by oak and beech trees. We walked past steep rock walls and unique sandstone formations. We reveled in the gorgeous views of verdant valleys. We walked down to a gorge and sailed in a small boat on a serene river, listening to the commentary by the ferryman and laughing even at his lamest of jokes! We, a small group of four strangers led by a local guide, chatted and laughed and enjoyed every single minute of hiking in the picturesque Bohemian Switzerland National Park on a beautiful sunny day.
During my travel to a few countries in central Europe, I was looking for some outdoor activities of my liking. Medieval towns and magnificent architecture are great, but the thought of being surrounded by nature is far more appealing to me. So, a hike in the picturesque Bohemian Switzerland National Park – with its sandstone towers, rock formations, majestic canyons, valleys covered with dense forest – just had to be on my list of “things I must do”!
While the thought of hiking in the national park was extremely exciting, I had no clue about what to expect in terms of the difficulty level and my comfort level to hike at an unknown place on my own. So, I decided to go with a local company on a guided tour. Northern Hikes – an adventure company based in Prague – with its highest ratings and positive reviews seemed to be the perfect choice. The fact that it partners with local businesses owned by local people to promote responsible tourism and cooperation within the region was a plus as it was, in a way, an assurance of an authentic local experience.
“How difficult is the hike?” “Actually, the distance is not a problem at all. I can walk for hours, but I’m not great as far as speed is concerned especially during ascent. Will that be ok?” “Will I need trekking shoes or are regular walking shoes alright?” “Will I need trekking poles?” “What’ the size of the group?” I remember asking numerous questions before signing up for the hike.
The person answering my endless list of (what now seem like silly) questions must be someone with loads of patience or he must’ve lots of experience handling even worse. “I believe you will be just fine on the hike. It is uphill – the first part – but we can slow down and manage a reasonable pace for the climbing part. The rest of the hike is much less demanding. Our tour guides always check with all the guests how they are doing” he responded calmly. “I would suggest wearing warmer clothes and a jacket. I also strongly recommend wearing non-slippery shoes with a good grip as there is a chance of walking on wet stone during the tour”, the person I was conversing with on the phone added. A few minutes of conversation and a few mail exchanges cleared all my doubts and apprehensions and I signed up for a day hike in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park and prayed that it wouldn’t rain at least on the day of the hike!
Bohemian Switzerland? In Czech Republic?
That’s right! The name of the place can be misleading, but it is actually only about 1.5-2 hours of a drive from Prague. So why is the place called “Bohemian Switzerland”? Because a long time ago, two Swiss artists visited the place, which is in the Bohemia region of Czech Republic. The picturesque landscape reminded them of their homeland, Switzerland, and that’s how it came to be known as Bohemian Switzerland. Declared as a national park in 2000, Bohemian Switzerland is on the Czech Republic side of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the mountain range that stretches across the border to Germany, where it is called Saxon Switzerland.
Honza, our local guide, kept sharing such nuggets of information about the national park during our drive from Prague. A native of a town called Novy Bar pretty close to the national park, Honza left his town several times to work in other countries like Austria, but his love for the North of Bohemia brought him back to his homeland, he mentioned as we approached Hrensko, a tiny village that’s on the border of Germany and that’s the gateway to the Bohemian Switzerland National Park.
Europe’ Largest Sandstone Arch – Pravcicka Brana
We started the hike from Hrensko and while walking, Honza continued to give information about the flora and fauna in the national park and sharing interesting anecdotes. He narrated the incident where he found he found wolf feces and then followed the footprints and eventually managed to track the wolf. His pride was evident as he narrated the story and when he told about his association with an NGO that he volunteers with to help track wolves.
After about 1.5 hours or so of a not-so-difficult hike uphill, we reached the iconic Pravcicka Brana or Pravcicka Gate, the largest natural sandstone arch in Europe and the second-largest in the world! This is a major attraction and the symbol of the national park. Apparently, this 26.5-meters wide and 16-meters high arch used to be open for people to walk over. However, due to concerns about heavy erosion and wear and tear, the arch has been out of bounds for visitors. While you cannot walk over the arch, you can take a break for refreshments at a bar right under the arch.
We walked a little ahead to a viewpoint. The spectacular views of the forest below from the viewpoint proved to be absolutely rewarding and soothing to the eyes and the mind. I could’ve spent hours there just soaking in the beauty but we had a lot more distance to cover.
We headed on Gabriella’s trail (Gabrielina Stezka) and walked along the tree-lined route and along the way, saw some more rock formations. “Can you guess how these sandstones were formed and why you see sand around at some places?” Honza asked us and went on to answer his own question. “Millions of years ago, there was a sea here”, he said, further adding that sandstone pillars and rock formation that we see today were developed a result of the result of water, wind and volcanic activity on the sand that was placed at the bottom of the sea.
The trail was about 6 kilometers long easy trail and took us close to 2 hours as we walked at an easy pace. Not quite sure whether it was the effect of the serenity around or the fact that we all were all starving, but we talked comparatively a lot lesser on this trail.
It must’ve been 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. by the time we reached the traditional restaurant that Northern Hikes partners with, in their attempt to support local businesses. I could hear my stomach grumble and I couldn’t wait to eat! I was a little concerned about the availability of vegetarian options although I had already informed about my food preferences. In Prague, the only vegetarian food I’d managed to find was grilled vegetables or sandwiches or pizzas. None of these was traditional Czech food and I wondered if Czechs have any vegetarian preparations at all!
Honza reassured that there were some good vegetarian options and said he too would have vegetarian food – fruit dumplings (I think). I opted for chickpeas and grilled veggies and a light beer. I quite liked the food and to my surprise, despite being a beer-hater, I quite enjoyed the beer too! From the expressions of the other three who opted for non-vegetarian food, I could say that they were just as happy with the food.
Boat ride through Gorges of Kamenice
After the much-needed lunch break, we left for our last part of the hike – a descent to a small lush canyon, with the Kamenice river making its way through the canyon. This was the easiest part of the hike and provided the prettiest of views. We walked along the river for some time and reached the point where the trail ended. To go ahead, we needed to take a ride in a small boat that could accommodate about 20 people.
“They won’t give you a life jacket. This is very dangerous!”, Honza joked while we were boarding the small boat. Sometime during the hike, after realizing just how easy the entire hike was, I’d told my group how paranoid I was before I signed up for it with Northern Hikes and how I’d asked numerous questions when I’d called them up. Little did I know that all of this information would be used for some good amount of leg-pulling and laughs. “I was told you’d be providing life jackets. Now you must provide me one!”, I responded, laughing with the group, laughing at myself recalling all those silly questions I’d asked.
The ferryman on the boat navigated the boat on the calm river, between huge craggy sandstone walls covered with moss and fern. The ferryman’s commentary in Czech (?) must’ve been funny, it definitely caused some guffaws. I laughed seeing some others laugh without understanding much of what the ferryman said – Honza did translate some of the stuff the ferryman said. It all reminded me of a boat ride at a place called Bhedaghat in India, where the boatmen provide funny commentary in an attempt to keep the visitors entertained. While the entertainment wasn’t exactly needed (the views around were stunning), I still did enjoy it because it did add a bit of local flavor to the overall experience and did give us just a bit of taste of the Czech sense of humor.
Just a few minutes more of a walk and the hike came to an end and we were on our way back to Prague. We walked a total of 16 kilometers (10 miles) for almost 8-9 hours, but there was no fatigue. The hike was incredibly easy and the company was just awesome. We hiked through the most preserved part of the national park, called the First Zone, and from what Northern Hikes brochure states, we’d hiked less than 7% of the national park! We returned to Prague by 7:00ish in the evening, after spending the day in the beautiful mountains of Czech Republic, away from the hustle and bustle of Prague. A day well spent!