The Czech Switzerland National Park is an area of 80 square kilometres stretching in the west from Hřensko, where the Labe River crosses the German border and becomes the Elbe, eastwards almost to the prettily named town of Krásná Lípa, where the park administration and visitor centre are located.
I based myself for a couple of days in Krásná Lípa and explored the eastern end of the park by bicycle. If you ask locals about the Czech Switzerland national park, they’ll often think first of hiking, but there’s also an excellent network of marked cycle trails that crisscross the thick forests of the park and connect the most impressive of the viewpoints and rock formations.
Near Wolves’ gully and the memorial to the Jewish prisoners executed in the closing days of WWII, “on the threshold of freedom” as the inscription says, is a border crossing to Germany and Hinterhermsdorf, which was voted ‘Prettiest village in Saxon Switzerland’ in 2000 and the ‘Prettiest village in Germany’ in 2001.
After a quick look around town and a break for ‘Ein tasse kaffee und ein stuck dort, bitte’, I got a bit lost and ended up admiring some rock formations and the view from a lookout that I hadn’t really intended, before eventually working out the German system of trail marking and finding my way back across the border to the former settlement of Zadní Jetřichovice.
The international border here is a low key affair. The Czech side displays the national coat of arms and the simple text ‘Czech Republic’ while the only trace of German border formalities are some crooked red, gold and black striped posts that no longer hold signs. The German signs are more concerned with descriptions of the flora and fauna, rules of the park and trail pointers.
I left Krásná Lípa on an early morning ride through misty villages of traditional wooden cottages with gables clad in slate tiles arranged like the patterns of lace curtains and headed for Hřensko at the heavily visited western end of the park.
Despite a majestic backdrop of soaring rock walls, Hřensko lacks the charm of the other villages like Krásný buk Dlouhý důl and Kyjov. They were honest little villages with grocery stores, pubs and post offices, while Hřensko is all hotel restaurants, overpriced carparks and streetside stalls selling bulk cigarettes and trashy imported junk to German daytrippers.
Along with the huge sandstone arch called Pravčická brána the main attractions at this end of the park are the steep-sided, narrow gorges of the Kamenice river.
A yellow marked walking trail leads east out of Hřensko and winds along, beside, under and sometimes even through the rocks, for ten or fifteen minutes before a low weir appears, the trail becomes a boardwalk and then ends at a wooden hut nestled beneath the rocks. The cliffs here close in and become so steep that there’s simply nowhere for a walking trail to exist, but the hut is a ticket office for boat rides which are the only way to get through ‘Edmund's canyon’ to the point where the walking trail begins again 800 metres upstream.
The boats depart every twenty minutes and are operated by guides who stand at the rear to push the boat along with long wooden poles. And practise their stand up comedy routines, if my guide was anything to go by. “The water here is only 10 degrees. If you don’t believe me, throw your wife in.” “Here on the right is the spring of eternal youth. It’s 20% Becherovka and if ladies drink it they’ll get younger by two years. If men drink it, they’ll live until the end of their lives” and so on.
His big finale was “Hallo. Letzte attrakzione! Eskimo roll bitte!” before rocking the boat violently until everybody grabbed the sides. All the passengers had a good time and the guide told me afterwards that he’d been doing the job for 16 years and after six months could do the standard spiel in his sleep. “2 metres here, 5 metres there, hands in on the right, blah, blah, blah”. “I could see everybody was so bored they just wanted me to shut up. This way is better for the guide and the tourists”.
At the end of Edmund's canyon the yellow trail continues to another boat ride through another canyon or the green trail climbs steeply out of the river valley to the village Mezná. From Mezná its 6km back to Hřensko or 4km to Tři prameny and the beginning of the red marked walking trail to the other main attraction at this end of the national park.
At the top of the forested ridge above Tři prameny is a high sandstone arch called Pravčická brána. It’s reportedly the highest natural arch in Europe and appears to have recovered well from its widely reported collapse on April Fools’ Day of 2007. In the shadow of the arch there’s an impressive traditional wooden building with a restaurant, small museum and turnstiles charging another 75Kč admission fee.
Most of the other visitors to Pravčická brána were speaking German which I don’t understand very well. The one phrase I caught was “kein highlight” which is kind of how I felt about it as well. The arch itself is impressive enough, and the views are good but I guess the town full of hotels, the crowds of hikers and the turnstiles were such a contrast to the low key atmosphere at the eastern end of the park that I was anticipating something a little more spectacular.
Any other foreign travellers accustomed to the national parks of North America or the Antipodes probably shouldn’t get their hopes up too high for Pravčická brána, but it was good to visit once and I’d happily spend another couple of days roaming around the eastern end of the park anytime.
Getting to either Hřensko or Krásná Lípa from Prague takes less than three hours by bus and/or train, and it's even possible to continue on to Dresden by boat. There are several hotels in Hřensko but the Továrna in Krásná Lípa is an excellent option for budget accommodation.
Official website of the National Park
Connections to Krásná Lípa
Connections to Hřensko