Here’s a nice little walk to enjoy the last of the summer weather, we thought. And it’ll get Our Kid and Our Dog out of the flat for a bit of fresh air. We have been neglecting the Jeseniky mountains for the last couple of years due to the fact that it takes a couple of hours to get right into them on the winding country roads and Our Kid has been a bit too young for camping expeditions. To get the best out of this area, you need to live a bit closer than we do or spend the weekend here.
Unlike certain other countries I have lived in, parking a car in an area popular with tourists doesn’t cost a day’s pay. In fact, it is free in many places. So we left the Van Rouge at a delightful, yet closed, little guest house and set off. Our Kid was perched on my back in his special rucksack (child, for the transportation of), Our Dog was in and out of the stream running beside the road and we were shaded from the sun by a forest of beech trees. All in all, a good start.
The road quickly became a dirt track and then a steep and narrow footpath as we began the climb proper. Our Dog took the opportunity for a dip, sensing that this could be her last chance for cool paws and Our Lass quickly started to find edible mushrooms. God knows how she sees them in amongst all the leaves and dead wood on the forest floor, it is a skill I have singularly failed to learn over the years I have been here.
This approach to the mountains was recommended to us by a friend who grew up in this area and it’s largely free from tourists. If you come from the other side, there is the lovely spa resort of Karlova Studanka, a car park and a bus ride most of the way to the top. Nice to know for when we’re older but for now it’s the open trail for us! Or not, as it turned out. Being largely free from tourists means that the path is largely overgrown and several times I found myself hanging by branches to swing out over the river in order to get around a tree. No matter, Our Kid seems to think this is all great fun and purely for his personal enjoyment whereas I was worried that I would slip and land on top of him!
Despite the branches taking the occasional swipe at him, he seemed to be enjoying it and it’s not really hard to navigate here even if you can only see 5 metres. As long as you’re going up, you’re going in roughly the right direction.
As you might expect with a mountain, there is a lot of up and some of it is quite steep. To make up for this, there were blueberry bushes everywhere, just coming into their prime. Our Lass was grazing contentedly as she climbed but I was worried about finding our way back down in the dark, which was becoming inevitable the longer we took to get to the top.
It is a good idea to get to the hills a little earlier than we did otherwise you can miss the beauty of it all by trying to make it to the top and back before dark. Not that there’s any law that says you have to get to the top at all. If you’ve got a map and compass and know how to use them, you can go all over the place, just obey any official signs you see, don’t cross fences, and the hills are your oyster!
There’s all manner of wildlife up here, some of it more visible than others. Burrows appear under bushes, birds are everywhere in the trees, deer and hare tracks – prints and droppings – and wild boar? Probably but you can’t make it out in the picture I took. I’ve read reports and heard stories of wolves and even bears returning to these mountains although if they are here, they’re certainly not common! Check the blueberries too, before eating them. There’s some little spider that likes them and is pretty hard to spot if you try and eat too many at once (not that they taste bad, though). In fact, everything up here likes blueberries; all the animal droppings are full of the seeds and some nice edible mushrooms can often be found sheltering under the bushes.
The view starts to improve the higher you go, as well. Because of the winter weather here, the trees have a harder time of it the higher they grow, until it feels like you’re walking through some kind of overgrown bonsai forest. By that time, you are fully exposed to the elements again so whatever the trees are sheltering you from, you’ll have to manage without them above about a thousand metres.
Just a word about obeying warning signs, while I remember. Most of them are pictographic and fairly self-explanatory but they do tend to use a lot of written Czech as well, so if you don’t speak Czech, just use a bit of common sense and you should be OK. The example on the right is fairly typical; it has the Czech coat of arms on it, so you know it’s official. The sign which seems to ban all dogs actually says you must keep your dog on a lead (in case it runs off and gets it’s head kicked in by the deer, boar, bears, wolves or hares), whereas the one which appears to ban bikes merely says that the path is for walkers only. I’ve seen serious cyclists with legs like tree-trunks carrying their bikes up here and quite honestly, if I saw anyone riding this far up the hill I would rather they got a medal than a fine but one must think of erosion, mustn’t one?
Then we come to the lengthy sign in Czech with symbols apparently advertising tents, NPR boots, a rubbish dump, paragliding, bird-poking and broken flowers. Common sense is the key here; if you can’t figure out that the red prohibition symbols have worn away then you may want to stay in the city! Except for the NPR boots; I’ll give you that one. NPR means ‘National Nature Reserve’ in Czech and it means you should walk on the path, not go trampling all over the shop like a herd of wildebeest.
So finally, we come to the top and the view. Ahhh, now there’s a chance to relax and admire the amount of up you’ve managed! The beauty of these mountains lies partly in their accessibility, which is limited by road quality. This region is more sparsely populated than the so-called ‘Moravian Gate’, the flat land between the Jeseniky and Beskydy mountains and has less industry, so the roads are winding, single carriageway affairs, often suffering badly from winter damage. In the more accessible Beskydys, which are only 20km or so from major industrial and population centres, you will find a lot more people out for a walk. It’s not uncommon on popular paths that you just have to step aside and let people come down so that you can go up.
Here however, we had the place to pretty much to ourselves. We met one couple on their way down but otherwise no-one until we got to the restaurant, so when you pause for breath, all you can hear are the sounds of nature. When you get up past the trees and look out over the valleys there is very little in the way of civilisation to see, no factory chimneys, no cities on the skyline, no roads or road noise, nothing in fact to spoil the illusion that you are in wonderful isolation from everything that you came here to get away from. And because it’s harder to get to, the people you do meet up here are much more serious about their environment. Rather than being occasional weekend ramblers they come here for a little challenge or to enjoy the peace and quiet which means that there is almost no litter, wildlife is abundant all around because no-one ever bothers it and the tourist infrastructure is subtle but effective.
And so to the restaurant for a little rest. That’s correct, a restaurant on a mountain. Well, why not? From the other side of the mountain, it’s a different story altogether. From the other side a cyclist can slog up on a tarmac road, one of the area’s excellent cycle paths. On the other side there are ski slopes, cross country ski routes, an inn (pub/restaurant/accommodation) and eventually a bus stop and car park. There are a lot more people on the other side!
From this side of the mountain, you can see more clearly the organisation typical of nature tourism in the Czech Republic. The Tourist Marker tells you where you are and how high you are so you can fix your position on the map and the other signs show you where you can get to and how far it is. This sign also tells you that the route is part of the European long-distance path E3, which you can follow from the Atlantic almost 7000km across Europe to the Black Sea, if that’s the sort of thing you like!
There is a fresh spring flowing into a pool so you can top up with fresh water and of course, the restaurant. This place also offers accommodation for long-distance hikers and cyclists as well as for the skiers and snow-boarders during the winter although not for their dogs.
The food is good Czech stuff to fill you up and give you the energy you need, whilst the drinks menu includes their excellent non-alcoholic beer and warm stuff like tea and coffee. Anyone who has ever carried all their food and water up a mountain and then tried to make some sort of meal out of it will immediately see the benefits of this arrangement!
We had a nice selection of garlic soup, pork chops done with spinach sauce, dumplings, sauerkraut and potatoes all washed down with spring water, beer and a coffee before we left. Our Dog, who is on the ‘spoiled rotten’ side of ‘domesticated’, started her well-rehearsed ‘poor, starving wretch’ act which should really win an Oscar. Although she is now back down to a healthy weight after too many treats and too much couch camping, she somehow contrives to give the impression that you actually can see her ribs poking out. She accompanies this with her special hang-dog posture; head down, ears down, eyes down, not actually facing you but close enough not to miss a fallen scrap. If you show any weakness at this point, you have already lost the match. Without any noticeable movement, she will appear on the seat next to you or, in extreme cases of weakness when her victim leans forward, on the same seat right behind them, still not actually looking at the food but defying you to not notice that she’s there.
Over our late luncheon, we finally abandoned our attempt to summit Praděd, the highest mountain in the Jesenikys. On the map it is only 2.5km from the restaurant but when you add in the height gain it works out at about an hour there and 45 minutes back, which would mean us attempting the really steep part of the path, swinging out over the river etc., in the dead of night. It’s hard to imagine how quickly it gets dark in the forest but you can get into trouble very easily if you misjudge it.
We followed the same path back as we did coming up but the lower sun really made a difference. It took ten minutes or so to get back up to the top of the saddle, in glorious sunshine, but once we got about 20 metres below the summit, we were in the shadow of the mountain. The air was noticeably colder and as we descended into the forest itself, it was already nearly dark enough that we had to take extra care with our footing.
Fortunately, the really steep part is next to the river for nearly its whole length and even Jeseniky trees haven’t figured out how to grow in rivers yet, so it was still light enough not to slow us down. Even so, the temperature kept dropping and I was thinking of how to add storage space to the child carrier because there’s not much room for my warm kit when it’s full of his warm kit. Somehow there needed to be space for a couple of warm layers and a wind/waterproof layer as well.
And so it came to pass that we made it back to the van, wrapped in all our warm layers and wishing we had brought the cooker so we could have a coffee for the long road home. Our Dog flopped onto her travel bed in the back of the van, Our Kid was unceremoniously changed and re-clothed and soon fast asleep in his car seat, Our Lass switched off the stereo to give him some quiet and then dozed off herself and Our Man in Moravia had to negotiate the pitch-black, twisting, pot-holed roads as best he could with no music, no coffee and no sympathy.
It’s a tough life up here in the mountains!