I have fallen in love with almost every country I have ever been to. But, after a detour to Zurich on a family trip to Germany, a semester on the shores of Lake Lugano and a ski trip to the majestic Alps of Davos, Switzerland securely holds the spot of my favorite place in the world. Between the mountains, the meadows, the lakes, the chocolate, and of course, the cheese, it has almost everything I love in one place. So of course, when I found myself teaching in the north of Czech Republic, just two hours from České Švýcarsko, or Bohemian Switzerland National Park, there would no questions that I would check it out.
I had sort of hoped the name had drawn its inspiration from some little-known mountain range that I didn’t know about, but with an elevation under 200 meters, this is clearly not the case. It turns out, the name Czech or Bohemian Switzerland refers to two Swiss Romantic artists who moved here from Dresden after being enchanted by its painting potential as well as the slightly Swiss characteristics of the chalets and cabins in the area. Even though you aren’t likely to see any cows with big bells in the pastures or old men yodeling off the non-existent mountain peaks, the park has some unique features of its own. With the largest sandstone arch in Europe, a crop of rock formations known as “The Sandstone Rocks of Labe,” a other-worldly gorge complete with boat rides and thick forests and meadows as far as the eye to see, I’d say Czech Switzerland is pretty darn impressive itself.
The park is easily accessible by bus from Děčín. I chose a route through the park that would take me past a few of the major attractions, including the rock arch and a boat ride through the Kamenice River Gorge. I was advised to get off the bus at the first main stop in Hrensko for this route, but I would recommend taking it a few kilometers further into the park to avoid a half-hour walk along a heavily travelled road, and more importantly, the touristy Vietnamese stands along the Hrensko streets selling nothing that is remotely Swiss, or Czech for that matter. From the trailhead (you can’t miss the red markers leading you to it on the road), a fairly leisurely 2 km walk takes you up to the giant rock arch, Pravčická Brána. Upon reaching it, you can walk far enough up the switch-backed path to snap a photo without paying the 3 € entrance fee, but the buying your way in gives you access to some pretty amazing lookout points. (So amazing in fact, I stooped to snapping a few selfies. When you are solo hiking to epic rock arches, what else is a girl to do?) Not only can you see the arch and the other rock towers, but there is an alternating light and dark green forest stretching as far as the eye can see, unspoiled by any distant smokestacks or apartment blocks. You learn to appreciate this as a rare thing in this part of the world.
After the rock arch, the red trail continues about 6 km Mezní Louka. Although there are no particularly noteworthy landmarks along the way, the trail teeters on the edges of huge sandstone outcroppings most of the way. You can see just how sensitive the rock really is when you see the footprints and depressions where people have repeatedly stepped, almost like walking along a beach.
Upon arriving in Mezní Louka, aromas I couldn’t quite identify coming from the several restaurants almost lured me in. Although I was tempted, I appeased myself Billa pizza roll, one of Eastern Europe’s best-kept culinary secrets. From Mezní Louka you can chose to follow the green path to Mezna, where you can descend into the deep and misty Kamenice River Gorge, or the blue path, which leads another 15 km to Jetřichovice to find lodging or a bus.
While I planned to take the green directly, I found myself more than halfway through my hike only two hours after I had started. I decided to head down the blue for a while with the vague idea of looking for some castle ruins I had read about near Vysoká Lípa. The extension took me about an hour out of my way, and after a brief look around the village, I didn’t see any castle ruins. However, I did see some nice old ladies, horses grazing in the sun, wildflowers popping up everywhere, a man mushrooming with his adorable dog, and most importantly, these Swiss-style buildings I kept hearing about. I’d call that a pretty successful side trip.
When I returned to Mezní Louka, all I had to do was follow the green markers and the billboard boasting lime green, metal boats down a 20-minute stretch of paved road to Mezna. While the billboard made me wonder if I shouldn’t have just continued along the blue path and forgotten about this widely acclaimed boat ride, the journey down into the gorge recaptured my interest. The steep stairs continue down much further than I thought was possible. Entering the gorge felt like entering into a completely different climate or continent. The sun that touches everything in the sprawl of the park is barely able to reach the floor of the canyon and everywhere rock, green leaves or water.
The trail itself alternates between hugging the rock or bursting right through it, leaving moments of complete darkness on the way to the boats. About 1 km down the gorge, it is possible to buy a ticket (3 €) and board your neon Czech Switzerland gondola. I’m glad I took the boat ride, but as an English speaking girl in my early-20’s, I wouldn’t count it as the highlight of my day. Our guide pushed about 30 of us along a dammed section of the river for 15 to 20 minutes. He provided narration along the ride, which I am sure was full of interesting facts about the gorge’s flora and fauna, but the only words I could really pick up were numbers under 100, so that didn’t help me out so much. My interest was piqued when the man stopped to pull a string and open a make-shift dam that turned a trickle of water down a rock into a picture-worthy waterfall. I personally thought there was enough natural beauty to go around already, but everyone else really got a kick out of it, so hey, why not?
As soon you exit the boat, you will be able to tell by the high concentration of ice cream cones in the hands of people coming towards you that Hrensko is near. By the time I got there I was truly regretting passing by the fantastic smells in Mezní Louka and began promising myself a big reward for my 20+ km hike. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize was that Czech Switzerland prices are much more Swiss than you would like them to be. Instead of a heaping plate, I subdued my growling stomach with my first ever fried cheese, a Czech specialty that is sort of like gourmet mozzarella sticks, and another Czech staple, Pilsner Urquell. (I even sprung for the big one.)
As I evaluated my hike, I decided, and I feel I am a bit of an authority on this, that there is hardly anything Swiss about Czech Switzerland. I actually think it does Czech Republic a disservice to slap another country’s name in front of one of its most stunning and highly protected areas of land. So if you want cheese fondue, alpine vistas and Ricola girls yodeling from the mountain tops, go to Switzerland. But if you want an amazing walk through crazy rock formations, endless forests and fields and a mysterious gorge draped in greenery from top to bottom, that’s all very distinctly Czech.