Czech out this slow haven
The gem of the Czech Republic is a beautiful protected area – and a UNESCO Global Geopark – rich in nature and culture that lives up to its utopian name.
While popular for decades with Czechs seeking family-friendly outdoor activities, Bohemian Paradise is mostly devoid of foreign visitors. That will certainly change as the appeal to slow-travel enthusiasts for rustic, safe, and affordable getaways beyond the popular tourist destinations continue to grow.
History is everywhere
Approximately 200 square kilometres in size, Bohemian Paradise is located about 90 kilometres north-east of Prague and 30 kilometres south of Liberec near the Polish border. The main towns of Turnov in the north-east on the beautiful Jizera River, and Jicín in the south-east, famous for its Baroque architecture, roughly define the area.
“The name Ceský ráj or Bohemian Paradise first appeared 150 years ago,” according to Jan Mertlik, a representative of the local tourism association. “It was officially declared a protected scenic district in 1955, the first in the Czech Republic, and in 2005 it was granted UNESCO Geopark status,” he adds.
The area has been at the heart of Central European history for dozens of generations. The ruins of medieval castles like Valecov (14th century), Vranov Pantheon (15th century), and Trosky (14th century) magically rise out of sandstone outcroppings as if built by supernatural forces.
The natural wonders of Bohemian Paradise do have an almost otherworldly quality, especially the sandstone pillars and ridges that rise in sharp vertical shapes –they look like colossal statues and busts carved by giant sculptors. Prachovské skály and Hrubá Skála, both near Jicín, and Krtola Valley near Valecov are a few of the best places to behold these photogenic marvels.
There are hiking trails and well-marked paths. The 19-kilometre-long Rieger Trail (Riegrova stezka) at Semily follows the Jizera River Valley through narrow gorges and thick beech forests that stand as tall and straight as big firs. Canoe trips are a popular option and easy enough for beginners on the gently flowing and scenic Jizera River.
Bohemian Paradise is also the home to the Bozkovské Dolomite Caves near the village of Bozkov in Semily. Guided tours along safe and gently paved paths which pass through caverns rich in stalagmites and stalactites and underground lakes are a unique experience for all ages.
Glass, cars, and beer
Besides spectacular nature, the Czech Republic is well known for craftsmanship and manufacturing. Bohemian crystal is world famous. Many of the great churches, palaces, and luxurious private homes around the world have chandeliers made of glass cut into gem-like crystals assembled at places like Wranovsky Bohemian Crystal Lamps in Turov.
The Harrachov Glassworks in a beautiful mountainous region 40 kilometres east of Liberec is the oldest continuously-running glass factory in Bohemia. Right next to the factory is a microbrewery and gastropub.
Without doubt, Czech beer, especially lager, is often considered the best in the world and at prices so ridiculously low, it’s irresistible. The Nová Paka Brewery near Jicín, one of the four breweries in Bohemian Paradise, offers tours in English and tastings of their list of delicious brews which are exported around the world.
The city of Mladá Boleslav located on the route to Prague is famous as the home of the Škoda car factory. Cars and trucks have been manufactured here for more than 120 years. The modern and fascinating factory museum is not only an interest for Škoda owners, but for anyone who’s interested in the history of automobiles. The nearby Metodej Vlach Aviation Museum has a captivating collection of vintage aircraft that would certainly interest the same crowd.
“We try to encourage visitors to see the countryside and experience the local life,” says Gérard Keijsper from the Mladá Boleslav Information Centre. “Besides Škoda we have so much to see and experience in this ancient city and area,” he says.
Prague is of course a magnificent world city, so if you have a few extra days or you just want to experience a more rustic, less crowded, and affordable part of the country then rent a car or take the train to Bohemian Paradise, the hidden gem of the Czech Republic.
Text Pete Balding
Photos Hernan Patiῆo