Saturday, April 28, 2012

Beautiful Towns # 5 - Čicmany, Slovakia

The village of Čičmany is located in hilly, forested countryside in Žilina region in western Slovakia. It lies in a forested valley among the Strážov mountains, close to the source of the Rajčianka river, and today has less than 400 inhabitants. The settlement is renowned for the local tradition of painting white geometric patterns on its dark wooden cottages. These folk patterns are based on the local lacework designs used on fabric and clothing.
The village also has unique folk costumes, songs and dances which have all been carefully preserved and are still practiced today. A local folklore group performs music and dances at special events throughout the year, and there and a number of cultural events organized in the summer months.
Fires which occurred in 1907, 1921 and 1945 destroyed many of the folk cottages but most of them were repeatedly rebuilt in the traditional manner. The fire in 1921 was especially serious, burning down more than half of the cottages in the village. Special funding was provided by the Czechoslovak government to rebuild most of the houses.
The history of the village begins in 1272, when it was recorded as a settlement with a newly-built road. There are several competing theories about the founding of the village, the main ones being that the original inhabitants were German settlers, or that they were Bulgarian immigrants fleeing from the Turks who came north and settled in the region.
The traditional occupations of Čičmany residents were farming and sheep herding, and sheep's cheese was produced and sold throughout the region. The origin of the name "Čičmany", meaning 'homestead in the hills', probably comes from an ancient Indo-European word which was incorporated into the Old Slavonic language.
Through the centuries the village had many different feudal landlords, but by the start of the 20th century most of the land was owned by two Hungarian families. It was difficult for the peasant farmers to make a living in this region, and emigration, especially to North America, became a common choice for many. Other local families moved to France, Belgium and Austria in search of greater prosperity.
Living in the pretty cottages of the village was not always comfortable in the past - before the 20th century it was quite common to have three or even four generations of a family living together under one roof, sometimes up to 20 people in one building. Only one main room would have been heated by a stove in the winter, and the younger members of the family would have their beds in the upper attic while the oldest generation slept nearest to the wood stove for extra warmth.
The gingerbread-style decorations which cover the wooden beams of the cottages were painted with a mixture composed of white lime. The painting process was intended to conserve and protect the wooden beams in addition to its attractive appearance. The custom is thought to have begun more than 200 years ago, and their are several explanations for where the idea came from, including Bulgarian folk customs.
Another theory about the founding of the village and the origin of the cottage decorations says that during the time of the Tatar raids from the east in the 13th century local Slavic peasants sought safety up in this remote mountain region. Well-protected and isolated from the outside world, the peasants established a community in the valley and kept sheep and cattle. The women of the village created embroidery designs for their clothing with folk symbols that represented their way of life.
These embroidery symbols were then added to the cottages, perhaps in the hope that the symbols would bring good fortune to the cottage occupants. The symbols seen on the cottages today include arrows, clovers, hearts, crosses and several different kinds of animals. Until the devastating fire of 1921, most of the cottages in the village had two floors, but today only one example of this type of structure still exists in the settlement.
Many painted cottages were again destroyed during World War Two, when German soldiers set part of the village on fire. Another large rebuilding project began afterwards, including repainting the decorative white patterns on the logs of the buildings.
One of my favourite experiences in Čičmany is walking the streets of the lower part of the village at night when the lantern shrines are lit; two Catholic shrines on street corners are lit by candles which can be seen far off down the lane as a yellow glow to guide you past the painted cottages whose white patterns are dimly visible in the dark.
Another worthwhile experience is to climb the hill to the east of the village at dusk to get a view of the pattern made by the jumble of rooftops with the white church standing out above them. You can also look for a unique Catholic cross which is along one of the hiking trails a short distance to the east; it is surrounded by four large trees which must have been intentionally planted around it more than a century ago.
In the winter the snow can be knee-deep, and the local ski resort of Javorinka on a nearby hill becomes a popular destination with locals. In the summer months the slopes of Javorinka are used by cyclists and as a launching area for paragliding and hang gliding. Mushroom picking in the surrounding forests is another favourite local activity.
Nowadays all of the lower part of the village is a protected folk architecture reserve, with 110 listed heritage buildings including 36 which have the status of national monuments. Plans were created to establish the reserve in 1974, and it became the world's first such protected village three years later.
Two of the cottages are open to the public as a museum of traditional life, with exhibits on the history and culture of the village. Tickets are available in Radenov house, the large cottage with two floors, and the second cottage with indoor displays is the one directly across the street. There is also a small craft shop selling locally produced products such as embroidery and a few souvenirs.
There are several different accommodation options in the village, and staying for the night is highly recommended so that you can experience the village fully. The Penzion Javorina offers comfortable rooms in the middle of the village and has its own restaurant serving all the traditional Slovak dishes. There are several other cottages which are available for rent, though these are usually intended for larger groups of people staying for at least a weekend or longer.
There are hiking trails leading off into the hills in every direction from Čičmany, leading to valleys with other remote villages. Some of these villages have decorated cottages, but none have designs as unique or impressive as those found in Čicmany. A good day hike from Čičmany can be made heading west on the red-marked trail to the village of Zliechov, stopping for the views from the peak called Strážov on the way. From Zliechov it's possible to take a green-marked trail north and then a yellow-marked trail east to return to Čičmany in a loop. This circle route takes about 5.5 hours in total, so bring a lunch for a picnic somewhere along the trail. Zliechov has a small local pub where it is possible to get beer, water and light snacks.
Getting to Čičmany by public transport is easiest by bus from the city of Žilina, which is on the main train line across Slovakia with direct connections to Bratislava and Prague. Buses go directly to the village from Žilina several times per day from Monday to Friday (50 minutes), though less frequently on Saturdays and Sundays.
Many more buses travel along the main road from Žilina to Prievidza which can drop you off at the turning point for the small local road up into the hills to Čičmany. If you take the bus and ask to get off at this turn off point, it's about a seven kilometre walk in along the road to the village, or you can try to hitchhike with locals to cover this distance. Another good option is to get off one stop further along the main road where a scenic hiking trail (follow the red markers) leads over the hills to Čičmany, taking about 2.5 to 3 hours.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Natural Wonders # 3 - Czech Paradise Rock Towns, Czech Republic

The Czech Paradise (Český Raj) is a region to the north-east of Prague which features unusual sandstone rock formations among its dense forests. Many castles are scattered among these 'rock towns', as well as small villages full of traditional wooden folk architecture. There are at least five different interesting routes for hiking in the Czech Paradise that can be made as day trips from Prague with public transport.
One of the best choices is a hike that includes the ruin of Trosky castle, Hrubá Skála rock town and Valdštejn castle. From Prague's central station take the train to Turnov and then change to a local train which goes east to the village of Ktová (the total travel time from Prague is about 2 hours and 20 minutes). A green-marked trail starts from the train station in Ktová which leads straight up to Trosky castle. After visiting the castle you can follow the red-marked trail north to Hrubá Skála chateau and then into the rock city area on the yellow trail until you reach the ruins of Valdštejn castle. This is a nice place to take a rest, since there is a small restaurant with drinks and food available in front of the castle entrance. From there it's an easy downhill walk into the town of Turnov on the red trail, where you can take a train back to Prague.
The most impressive castle in the Český Raj region is Kost castle, to the south of the Hrubá Skála area. It's possible to include a visit to this castle in a nice day hike starting from the small town of Sobotka, which has an interesting chateau called Humprecht on a nearby hill and some examples of traditional wooden folk architecture. The most convenient way to get to Sobotka is by bus from outside Prague's Černý Most metro station, it takes about one hour and ten minutes. A red-marked trail from Sobotka leads to Kost castle along a picturesque river valley. It's also worth making a detour to the nearby village of Vesec u Sobotky which has some beautiful wooden folk cottages.
One of the highlights of the Czech Paradise is Prachovské Skály rock town, near the town of Jičín (which is a much more interesting and historical town than Turnov). To get there take the bus to Jičín from outside Prague Černý Most metro station, then get a local bus from the bus station in Jičín to the bus stop called Holín Skalní Město which is at the edge of the rock city. The main valley where the rock city is located is small, but a web of trails go over, under and through the rock formations and it's worth spending a full afternoon exploring them.
Suché Skály rock town is found near the pretty little town of Malá Skála, which makes a nice destination together with the nearby Frýdštejn castle ruin. To get there take the train from Prague's main station to the town of Turnov, then change to a local train to get to Malá Skála. A red-marked path leads up the hill to the Suché Skály formations. On the opposite side of the river from Malá Skála the castle of Frýdštejn sits on top of a rocky pillar. The red-marked path leads along the river to the south from there, offering great views back towards the castle.
Another option to try is the Přihrazké Skály rock town with its impressive Valečov castle ruin. To get there take the train from Prague's main station to the town of Mnichovo Hradiště and then walk east along the red trail to reach the rock town. There are two other smaller castle ruins among the rocks to the north of Valečov along the red-marked trail, while the finest formations in the rock town are further east along the blue trail.
These are a few interesting options, but there are many more worthwhile hikes to make in the Czech Paradise and public transport connections from Prague are generally good, at least to the towns in the region. Many shops in Prague sell hiking maps of the Czech Paradise region which show the trail routes and distances. If you want to check any bus or train times in the Czech Republic or Slovakia, use the website (you can change the language to English in the lower-right corner of the page).
The photos displayed in this post show, from top to bottom: Rock climbers in Hrubá Skála rock town; a view from the top of a rock outcrop in Hrubá Skála rock town; Rock pillars in Hrubá Skála rock town; Kost castle; Humprecht chateau on a hill near Sobotka; Views over Hrubá Skála; Part of the main valley of Prachovské Skály rock town; A traditional folk cottage near Sobotka; The main entrance to Humprecht chateau.