Friday, February 11, 2011

Natural Wonders # 1 - Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Czech Republic

The Bohemian Switzerland National Park is a region of stunningly sculpted sandstone cliffs and towering columns of rock punctuated by deep, forest-covered canyons. Located in the north of the Czech Republic along the German border, the name for the park was coined by 19th-century artists who appreciated its romantically unique atmosphere (even though the non-alpine landscape doesn't resemble Switzerland). A major highlight of the park is the Pravčická Brána, a natural stone arch which is the largest on the European continent. Directly below the arch is the Falcon's Nest, a 19th-century chateau which now features a small museum about the park as well as an excellent restaurant with great views from its balcony. An entrance fee is charged to get close to the arch, but it's well worth the price for the chance to climb the series of stairs that leads to the view point above the arch on the opposite cliff face. From there you can look back all along the valley to see the many sandstone outcrops that rear up out of the forest floor at regular intervals.

A great day hike begins in the village of Mezní Louka, which is accessible from the city of Děčín by bus (Děčín can be reached by regular train from Prague). From Mezní Louka, a red-marked trail leads up to the foot of the sandstone cliffs and along a ridge with spectacular lookout points on rocky promontories. After 4.5 kilometres of walking, you will see the arch of Pravčická Brána appear above you on the sandstone plateau. It's a short climb from there to reach the Falcon's Nest chateau. After you've had time to walk below, beside, and above the arch and enjoy a meal on the terrace of the restaurant, you can continue further west along the red trail, which heads down a steep valley with many shallow caves lining the cliffs. You will come to the main road through the park after 2.5 kilometres, from where you can catch a returning bus to Děčín. Alternatively, continue walking west along the road on the red trail for another 2.5 kilometres until you reach the border village of Hřensko, a pretty settlement of timber-built houses that sits in a sandstone canyon surrounded by tall pinnacles of stone. Another worthwhile route involves heading south-east from Hřensko along the narrow canyons of the Kamenice river gorge. It's possible to continue by raft along the river through the tightest stretches of the gorge, where the cliff walls are just five metres apart while they extend upwards above you by over 100 metres.

The park can be visited as a long daytrip from Prague by taking a train to Děčín and then a bus from outside the train station to Hřensko or Mezní Louka. It's worth staying for two or three days to get a chance to fully experience the park, and there are regions to the west of Děčín with further sandstone formations which are equally impressive as those inside the park.


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