I hadn’t intended looking for partisans when I set out. After all, by the end of spring 1945 they were all unemployed and probably heartily sick of the sight of these hills and forests. What I did find though, was the memory of partisans. Memorials to their hardships and sacrifices spread out through the wilderness where they fought their brutal and bloody campaigns, as Our Dog and I sped along the ski-trail, enjoying the freedom.
The road up to Pustevny still bore the sign warning that snow chains were a really good idea and everyone was still ignoring it. The van Rouge took the hill like a 4×4, however. As long as you have winter tyres and don’t stop, you’re fine. Not stopping on some of the hairpin bends takes a bit of self-discipline when someone else is thundering down, barely under control, but that’s one of the advantages of setting out early; not so many people are on their way home by then!
I stopped briefly at the Mountain Rescue building to see a friend from the Old-Skool Tie Network, sample their fine instant coffee and get some advice on equipment, techniques and safety for mountain skiing then set off.
This trip was a vast improvement on my last visit to Pustevny. I could see nearly five hundred metres at times! The trail had been machine-prepared at some point but is apparently one of the most popular in the area, so the neat grooves I saw last time were nowhere to be found. Instead, the snow was packed so smooth and solid, it wasn’t easy to keep things under control on the steep bits.
The sign in the background is part of the excellent ‘Educational Trail’ network (Naučna Stezka) and tells the legend of the nearby hill called Čertův mlýn (Devil’s mill).
The legend has it that a farmer’s wife had a daughter (whether she was the farmer’s daughter, the legend doesn’t record). The daughter remained unmarried for far too long until one day a passing hunter asked to marry her. The farmer’s wife agreed on condition that the hunter built a mill on the hilltop by the time the cocks crowed on the second morning.
The hunter set to and next morning, the farmer’s wife’s neighbour dropped by to see what was going on. When she told him the deal, he told her that a beggar was going around buying up all the cockerels and persuaded her to hide hers, not sell it.
At the end of the second night, when the farmer’s wife could see that the mill was nearly finished, she put the cockerel up on the roof, where it crowed. At that instant, the hunter vanished.
Whether this was somehow the work of the Devil, I have no idea as the information was more than a little sketchy. To be honest, I have no idea where the devil actually fits in to this at all, but Devil’s Mill is a very popular place and pub name over here so maybe he had a stake in the Czech victualing industry.
What a way to spend a morning! It was a shame about the cloud because the views can be beautiful when you can actually see something but the air was unbelievably crisp and clean. Occasionally I passed a tree recently split open by the cold and the waft of not-quite-frozen sap was so strong it seemed like industrial pine-scented detergent but there’s nothing industrial about this place, just nature and an unobtrusively managed environment.
The ski trail follows the contours of the hill whereas the Educational Trail goes in a straighter line up and down the contours but soon the two joined again and there was some more information on the partisans. Standing there in the biting cold, neither hungry nor hunted, knowing that soon you can be somewhere warm and safe, makes you appreciate their achievements far more than reading about it in a book ever could. The pictures below show the board with translations of the information.
Near the turn-around point of the trip, I passed another of the trail markers, along with a covered picnic bench and a large sign pointing the way to the nearest public telephone for some reason. The organisation of these hiking and skiing trails never loses its appeal for me. You don’t have to be an expert navigator and carry all your food, water, shelters and any gear you might need for an emergency evacuation, because it’s just not as dangerous as the mountains in Wales or Scotland. As for anyone familiar with the Rockies, well they might be in danger of boredom here! It’s certainly no place for extreme adrenaline junkies but I’ve never seen anywhere better suited to adventurous family camping and hiking holidays.
Although you’re never more than a few kilometres from the nearest village or pub, the forests can be pretty dense at times, so it often feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Due to the way the national parks are organised, there is little obvious sign of human habitation apart from the paths and occasional tourist signs and picnic benches. Despite this feeling of isolation, I have never found anywhere without a mobile phone signal, which is reassuring when taking the kids out for a hike. If anything did go wrong, help could be on its way very quickly!
Here is a picture which illustrates the tourist trail network perfectly. The map board has a QR code and BeeTag wich you can scan for more information (if you have a smart enough phone), using the 3G network which covers pretty much all of the countryside.
The white signs show the hiking trails and the yellow ones show the ski trails. The colour codes are also painted on the tree on the right of the picture and regularly along the trails on other trees to help you stay on course. Real trekking fans will note that the red path is part of the E3 Long Distance Path which stretches 6950 km from the Atlantic to the Black sea.
The turnaround point was at Hotel Martiňák, which looked inviting but was far too packed for me to contemplate taking Our Dog into. For a start she would expect to have her own chair which never goes down well with the management and is always embarrassing for me. So there was a quick pause to play with the panorama feature on my new camera and stuff a couple of chocolate wafer bars down my neck before getting back on the trail of the partisans.
(Translation of the information on the board)
‘Operation “Grouse” was the biggest anti-guerrilla operation in our country. The countryside surrounding Martiňák and Devil’s Mill was one of the main areas where the hunt for partisans took place.
The operation should have completely destroyed the Jan Žižka partisan brigade, which had already been weakened by previous German operations. Although it involved a large number of German soldiers and policeman, the operation failed. The partisans had learned about the operation in advance and most managed to leave the area in time.
‘Karl Hermann Frank was like a “Reich Minister”, the second most powerful man in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Not only did he have many residents of Wallachia on his conscience, but also for example the destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky and the extermination of their residents. He not only commanded Operation Grouse, but took part in it personally.
‘Operation Grouse took place from 16 to 22 November 1944, involving 13,000 German soldiers and policemen. They enclosed a area of over 60 square kilometres, which they then gradually searched using special anti-partisan sections. The whole area was placed under curfew from 16.00 to 06.30 hours.’
‘You are walking in places where the first Czechoslovak Partisan Brigade Jan Žižka worked in 1944. Of the many guerrilla groups which worked in the Beskydys, this was the most remarkable.’
The basis of the Jan Žižka Partisan Brigade was a group formed in August 1944 in the Velka Fatra mountains of Slovakia. It consisted of 14 Slovak and 7 Soviet partisans trained in Ukraine. At the end of the war, several hundred partisans belonged to the brigade.
The standard of the partisan brigade was produced by the painter Jan Kobzáň, who belonged to the resistance movement called “For the homeland”
Soon after arrival in the Beskydys, two groups were sent to the Hostynsky hills. Over a hundred partisans remained in the area around devil’s Mill and others were added. Providing food, equipment and shelter for such a number of people must have been a big problem.
The route back was fraught with difficulties in the form of Our Dog, who has never got her head around the idea that she can be loved and appreciated without actually being under people’s feet all the time. This is bad enough when she stops dead in the middle of a hiking trail and people have to go round her but on ski trails it causes accidents and eventually I just had to take my skis off and hold her on a short lead until the end of the trail. Either we will have to attempt some training or I’ll have to pick less popular routes in future.
So ends another ski trip with Our Man and Our Dog. I stopped to take some more pictures of the beautiful wooden Wallachian hotels and restaurants on Pustevny and then it was home for tea and medals. Where shall we go next week, I wonder?