Czech 14th-22nd June


Its a lovely blue sky morning in a huge wooded park on a hill near the centre of Kraków.  We’ve had some pretty miserable weather at times recently but has suited the places we’ve been exploring.

We’ve spent the last three days learning about and witnessing horrible histories of Central Europe over the last 75 years.

On our second day in Prague we returned to explore more of the city

 and walked up to Wenceslas Square outside the natural history museum, the scene of some major events in the Velvet Revolution as we were about to learn.

We were looking for the museum of Communism and eventually tracked it down, ironically, on one of Prague’s busiest shopping streets lined with international brand names. Housed in the elegant Palace Savarin it sits above Mc Donald’s and next to a casino. The boys will be turning in their graves.

An American who was passing through during the revolution in the late 80’s decided to stay and take advantage of the new commercial possibilities and ended up with a string of bars and restaurants. Always fascinated by communism he eventually spent a lot of time and money to set up this reminder of how radically different things had been until a short time ago.

Together with a Czech filmmaker they put together a “three act tragedy”     The Dream, Reality and Nightmare of the communist regime and with film and propaganda posters and artefacts etc the little museum puts on a stunning display of the utopian ideal, the reality of life under the regime and the nightmare of a state controlled by the secret police through surveillance, censorship and imprisonment.

It’s hard for us westerners to imagine the world they inhabited but the museum really helped to bring home how bad it was. It’s felt by many here that the recent past hasn’t been acknowledged and that perpetrators of injustice have not been held to account but with 99 per cent of the population involved in the system and with a bad conscience  that they were forced to collaborate its perhaps not surprising. It is also difficult for anyone under 30 to appreciate what life was like as most people don’t talk about it so this space is important for them and it was good to see so many there.

After looking at all the exhibits concerning the crushing of the relative freedoms introduced in the Prague Spring in 68 by Soviet forces it was moving to watch all the footage of unrest and uprising during the Velvet Revolution and the eventual collapse of the communist state.

Powerful stuff. Wenceslas Square was where a student burnt himself to death ( it took 3 days to die) in protest at the regime and help to kickstart the momentous changes to come.

We left the beautiful historical city that afternoon reflecting how much it had changed just in the last 25 years.

We were headed for the Eagle Mountains, an area of national park to the north east, along the border with Poland. Before the Second World War it had been the Czech/ Germany border and Hitler had plans for the area as it had a large ethnic German population.   The Czech government initiated a massive and very rapid defence programme to build a vast line of fortifications along this vulnerable border. Over 10,000 pillboxes, bunkers and blockhouses were built to a French design and most are still there, scattered throughout the forests of the mountainous area.

 There are many hiking paths through the area including the multi day Friendship Trail which traverses the entire ridge of Eagle Mountains and we did an educational trail which linked some of the major fortifications.

It was a suitably misty day for the strangely surreal objects that appeared out of the gloom with vent pipes and gun windows.

We climbed to 1000 m and were well into the cloud as we looked at the places where 1000’s of men, up to a couple of hundred in one underground bunker, were prepared to defend at any cost.

The good news was that no lives were lost in these bunkers, the tragedy was that all the effort inbuilding them was wasted as the whole area was given to the Germans in a deal put together by the Brits and the French to “appease ” and thought by Chamberlain to have averted war.  

Of course things didn’t work out like that and the Germans used all those fortifications to practice and test how to defeat identical ones on the French and Belgian lines and invaded the rest of the country.

After the day before’s history lesson it was ironic to think that the Czechs greeted Russian tanks into their country twice. Once for liberation and once for oppression.

During the Cold War one of the biggest forts was used as a nerve centre for nuclear war where a couple of hundred people could live and work under the 10 ft of concrete. Luckily it wasn’t needed and after the Velvet Revolution the whole programme was abandoned.

We went past a group of Czech soldiers who still used one on the trail as a base

 and read that others had been sold into private ownership or turned into museums by enthusiasts but mostly they have been left to moulder in the forest.   With the weather still pretty grim we decided to say goodbye to the Republic after a week there and head over the mountains to Poland in the hope of better climes.

No such luck. After weaving through the tiny border back roads of Serena’s shortist route ( she loves to take us off the tourist trail to see the “real” country, always a surprising journey) we hit the motorway and lashing rain. At one point it got so bad a windscreen wiper gave up and tried to throw itself off the van requiring me to pull onto the hard shoulder and manhandle it while the thundering trucks sprayed me. With visibility approaching zero we pulled into a service station for the night alongside a fleet of lorries involved in some long distance runs.

Still grey and drizzly in the morning we continued on to the grimmest destination of the trip. Oswiecim. Better known by it’s German name of Auschwitz.

Since the war the town has become a centre for peace and reconciliation and on the way in we passed a billboard advertising the Life Festival organised by Artists against War headlining Chris de Burgh and UB40 but the horrors had been so great there that there still seemed to be a dark cloud over the place. Maybe that was because there WAS a dark cloud over the place.

Arriving at the museum at the main camp of Auschwitz we discovered it was very busy and we couldn’t get in for the tour ( you had to join a group of your language from 10am till 4pm) for a couple of hours so we took a shuttle bus the 5 min trip to Birkenau where the lessons in extermination learnt in Auschwitz where ruthlessly applied to an incomprehendable extent. We’ve all heard the extraordinary numbers of murders committed there and about the methods employed by the killing machine but to walk through the space where one and a half million people where erased was powerfully emotional and upsetting.

The train tracks

 And wagons

 That delivered a constant stream of humanity that was processed into those sent to the barracks to work until they died and those sent to the gas chambers to die immediately. The crematorium and gas chambers at Birkenau were destroyed by the Germans as the Allies approached ( was it guilt?) but the remaining rubble exuded a terrible energy.



At Birkenau you can visit without a guide but we were lucky enough to be there on the one day a year when Eva Mozes Kor, a camp survivor, was leading a group around and speaking of her experiences.

   She was a ten year in the camp with her twin sister and experimented on by Dr Mengeles and her stories of her parents murder and her survival were powerful stuff.

We walked with her and the group through the camp learning about the camp life and how it was survived.

 Eva works tirelessly on keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and for peace and reconciliation and we felt grateful to have been there with her.

Returning to Auschwitz we watched a movie containing footage we had seen before but that now meant much more of the terrible events that happened just 10 short years before our births and we were reminded that similar shit still goes on around the world.

You would hope that the thousands of people who come to see this place every week take pacifism away with them and that slowly lessons can be learnt.

Joining one of many tour groups starting at 1.30 and shuffling around the camp en mass it seemed a little ironic that the place still “processes ” so many people in a never ending cycle.

We past under the ” work will set you free” as did hundreds of thousands of victims before us and entered the camp.

We were shown around the barracks, the sleeping quarters, wash houses, interrogation rooms, punishment blocks and firing squad wall in the same order as many of the prisoners would have experienced them. Most poignant were the exhibits of personal possessions left behind by the victims not sent for recycling for the benefit of the Third Reich war effort before the liberators arrived.

Another building housed hundreds of the identification photographs of the victims with the dates of admission and death.

This poor fellow was one of countless who didn’t last long.

Then came the most loathsome final exhibit, the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”. The one where everyone fell silent.

The one surviving gas chamber, oven and crematorium chimney.

As we filed away towards the exit another load of noisy groups began their tours.


12/ 10 km

A dull start to the day made for a cool walk in the woods from the camp up towards the iconic natural feature of the area, the massive stone arch of The Pravcicka Gate.

There was an educational trail at the beginning featuring another wood block instrument of different species.

 and a timber slide used to get timber out of the forest and into the river to be floated to the towns downstream.

Our route was known as Gabriella’s Way and was lined with magnificent beech trees whose roots spread like fingers across the sandy path.

 The cliffs seemed taller and more sheer than the day before and some sported trees growing out of the vertical rock faces.

 When the canopy opened up in places the views were shrouded in mist.

This was a popular hike and we shared the route with more people than usual and when we arrived at the little chateau built way beyond any road with the aid of mules and cable car it was busy with visitors.

 The arch above it, the largest of it’s kind in Europe, was truly amazing.

 The air had cleared to reveal more far ranging views across the area we’d been walking through.

 and pillars of rock stood up above the forest here and there.

 There were flights of steep steps up above the arch to walkways connecting huge slabs of rock but nowadays no access to the arch itself.

We return to camp on a circular route that took us through more forest

 and along tree lined roads by the unfenced  hay meadows.

 We went through another village of pretty houses with a good few pensions and restaurants and what seemed to us to be more life than over the border in east Germany.

After a couple of weeks in the splendours of nature we were looking forward to seeing some of mankinds best work so packed up and headed for what has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Prague. Sally had found a campsite on the river a short tram ride from the centre. When we arrived at the small camp we discovered that the World Cup canoe slalom was happening next to us which was quite exciting. The real excitement came the next day when we rubbernecked around the sights of the old town with the rest of the hoards of tourists.

These photos can’t do justice to the subtle beauty to the mingling architectural periods and designs but give a flavour of our stroll down “the Royal Route” from the Powder Gate to Prague Castle.


There were great details like the astronomical clock on the town hall

 and ornate doorways.

 People took rides in carriages

  in fancy cars

  and lots on Segways

  The famous Charles Bridge did not disappoint

  With great views across the river to the castle.

  On the bridge a series of statues had in places been rubbed to a shine by countless thousands of passerbys.

  More historic gateways led to yet more  grand vistas and intimate spaces.

Sally particularly liked the cobble paving and now wants me to do the yard.

An intriguing street act I hadn’t seen before led us up towards the castle where a gorilla run was incongruous.

Up in the enormous castle grounds we were overwhelmed by the windows in St Vitus cathedral.

Feeling sated of splendours and getting overwhelmed by the crowds we took in one last viewpoint and retreated to the river camp to regroup for another advance into the city the next day.


9/ 26km

Heading into town in the morning , past some inviting holiday accommodation,

 the helpful lady in the info centre directed us to the uranium mine that had been opened to the public. Getting there we were told to come back in 3 hours. It seemed like they were busy with school groups. We read that there was a 9km trail from there that takes in some of the concentration/ prison camps and the sites of mine shafts from the soviet era from 40’s to the 60’s, so set off in the sunshine into beautiful scenery that belied it’s brutal past. We past the remains of camps

 one of which had been converted into a restaurant at some stage and the slag heaps and panning ponds

 and poked about in small buildings with unknown purpose.

 There were poignant maps of the past

 set amongst the placid woods.

 A walk that contrasted the beauties of nature with the savagery of man,the trail brought us round to Jachymov, now again a bustling and attractive spa town host to tourists not slaves.

  It got easier to imagine the horror of that past reality when we went underground into the uranium mine itself passing through the welded gates that kept the prisoners in.

 The tunnels open to the public extend for about 200mt which was more than enough to make you realise how grim it must have been.

 On the way back into town afterwards we went down the old wooden steps the prisoners used every day.

After that somewhat somber experience it was time to top up on the good times so we drove northeast to Bohemian Switzerland on the German border, another national park and area of great beauty.

On the way across the flat central plains we past lots of power stations with cooling tower chimneys sending plumes of smoke into the blue sky, and more massive areas of what looked like strip mining of coal. We had read that their had been extensive devastation of the forests in the Jachymov area in the 70’s and 80’s due to coal mining and burning but as went north again into the hills the ancient forests spread as far as the eye could see and looked very healthy.

We drove along the Labe river valley in the sunshine to the pretty town of Hrensko where the towering sandstone blocks for the which the area is known began.

 Another few miles and we were at our camp in the tiny Menzi Louka deep in the forest where a collection of cabins had seen better days.

The following days hike was a real pleasure despite the many steep ups and downs. The ascents through the beech, oak and pines were made easier by the steps either of timber logs or often cut into the Rock.

The woods were magnificent. Towering trunks straight as an arrow shot up from the steep slopes between huge hunks of weathered sandstone.

Where there was light foxgloves filled it with colour

 there were ladders and cables and handholds to enable you to get to the pinnacle of some of the imposing rock towers which gave us views out across a sea of trees.

 The dogs were left below a few times as we clambered up some pretty hairy stuff incredulous at the efforts put in to make it possible.

 One of the peaks even had a little hut bolted securely to the rock with picture windows

 All enchanting, as were the carved benches and picnic tables in scenic spots along the way.

 There were carvings and graffiti dating back nearly 400 years.

 Glorious, spectacular, awesomeness.

We emerged, hungry, five hours later into Jetrichovice and stopped to eat some unknown items from an unreadable menu. So far we’ve been lucky but awaiting the time we have to tuck in smiling to a dish of unthinkables like we order it all the time.

The wooded architecture in these rural Czech towns is stunning and it’s nice to see that quite a few old one are being restored. They are also keen gardeners and we were treated to some heady scents as we walked out of the town and down along a stream.

As we followed the steam down through the woods

 between sandstone cliffs on either side we passed a number of religious shrines, crosses  and wells all dedicated to different saints.

Eventually the stream led us to a collection of ruins on the banks of the bigger river in a majestic setting.

There were some laboriously carved rooms with stone beds set into the cliff which , coupled with the shrines along the way, made us think that this was not just the mill the info said it was.

One last major climb

 and an offshoot of the way to a viewpoint with a large soft rock carved over the centuries by many weary walkers.

We added ours before finishing the hike by passing some more handsome wooden buildings on the way back into camp.



A hot Sunday on our last day on Germany. I could see the benefits of a stay on a campsite when the bread and cake van came round. We did our best to blend in for a while    and then it was time to get going.  We had asked Serena to direct us to Czech without going on the motorway as we had not got a vignette, a toll card, so we had a lovely back road drive across open high country to the border past windmills and solar farms and a biomass plant. All very green.  Wild camping and park ups are apparently illegal in Czech so soon after the border we headed for a campsite near the spa town of Frantiskovy Lazne. Greeted by a very friendly lady who dug deep to revive her 30 yr old school English lessons we were given free rein to park where we liked in the small laid back camp. The grassy field was being smothered in poplar fluff.    We went on a walk around and a meal at the nearby lakeside restaurant where everyone was friendly and the whole vibe seemed more relaxed and funky than East Germany with a LOT of young hip looking folk about. And they love their trees.     Next day it was time to explore the town, one of the pillars of the west bohemian spa triangle. With 23 different mineral springs with very high iron, salt, co2, and other stuff it was a hugely popular place at the turn of the 20th century and it’s fine architecture was surrounded by landscaped parklands that spread the 2 km to the camp along tree lined avenues.  

 We tried a lot of the waters, and most were pretty vile but came in nice wrappings.  

  In the afternoon we headed to a reserve nearby where across the 100’s of acres of moor and wetlands there were many mineral spring sources and a large quantity of pure carbon dioxide comes to the surface in mud volcanos.  

 There was a boardwalk across the strange landscape that had beautiful patches of sulphur coloured ground.  

  There was another area of Bohemia I wanted to explore above the spa town of Karlovy Vary. The Krusne mountains have been mined for tin, iron , copper, zinc since the 16th century and when uranium was discovered there in the 1950’s the Soviets brought 15000 mostly political prisoners in to toil below ground extracting it for Russian nuclear experiments.  On our way there we past a huge area of open cast mining where the planet had been stripped away.     . We found our way, well Serena did, to a lovely pension with a small field of cabins to park in up in the woods below the mountains. The friendly owner of Pod Lanovkou charged us a couple of euros to use the showers and toilets but nothing to park up.    In the morning we did a 18km hike up to the top of Klinovec the highest peak at 1224m. The way went through forest with abandoned ski lifts and runs and across meadows thick with wild flowers.  

 We stopped for a coffee in the highest town in Central Europe,Bozi Dar which was a nice looking ski walking and biking centre.  

  For what is the second most irreligious country in the world they have many fine churches.     Then up to the top with more ski lifts, flower meadows with views and a summit abandoned hotel.  

 On our way down we passed a gang of dark skinned workers making a new trail through the forest.    And after a steep scramble made it back to camp where the owner told me that this very site had been a uranium mining work camp and pointed out the mine entrance and buildings. We had been hiking over the top of the tunnels.  

  Tomorrow we will explore more of the “Jachymov Hell Trail”