Walking From Prague to Vienna
We tell everyone that we walked from Prague to Vienna and they are suitably impressed--like we said NYC to LA. But the truth is, my friend Robin and I took the train just less than an hour south of Prague to Tabor and walked from there for 27 days--with only a few layover days, to Breclav where we again took the train the short distance across the border to Vienna. While the total distance we walked--about 240 miles--could have taken us literally from Prague to Vienna, we chose to use our month of walking down in the scenic areas of South Bohemia, along the Austrian border with wonderful castles, in the Lake District and the Moravian wine area and Palava Hills.
In our planning before we left for Prague, the only walking maps we could find were the small brochures "Explore the Czech Greenways" that we got from Friends of Czech Greenways. But we had been told that good large scale hiking maps were available there locally. We went on faith that we could find them without speaking a word of Czech and we were right. After going to just a few book and sporting good stores in Prague, where fortunately many people spoke English (unlike in the countryside, by the way, where almost no one does) we found great topographical maps by Klub Ceskych Turistu (Czech Hiking Club) in 1:50,000 scale which showed all the hiking trails. With these maps and the very well marked trails, and the Greenways brochures which told us about the sites in each region, we were able to find our way and have wonderful adventures along the way.
Although we started out carrying our sleeping bags and tent, after 3 days we decided that we would rather take our chances on finding a place to sleep inside each night rather than carry the extra weight in case we couldn't. We were convinced of it when we walked about 20 km from Sudomerice to Veseli nad Luznici where we were sure we would find a place to stay...there was NOTHING. Nothing in the main square where there should have been at least one hotel and probably used to be. The big, modern high-rise hotel just off the square was vacant and forlorn and there was not a "Ubytovani Privat" (like a bed and breakfast) to be found. We asked a woman passing in the street and she just scoffed and said "no." There was a sign for a campground several kilometers out of town and we were also standing in front of a bus stop that indicated the bus went to the next town Ceske Budejovice. In that damp and cold El Nine spring, we opted for the bus.
When we arrived in Ceske Budejovice and found the inviting Pension Klika just on a blind branch of the Malse River that runs through town, with its tables outside and cozy rooms and restaurant, we knew we had made the right choice. The next day we packed up our sleeping bags, tent and other items that we could do without and sent them home. The post office excursion is another story.
We loved Budejovice and stayed another day and then with lighter packs we hit the trail again. It was a good decision and only one time did we momentarily regret it.
A Brew and a Bonfire
In the border town of Nova Bystrice on a Saturday when the only place in town was full, we walked on out of town toward a pension that we were told was not far. When we got there, there was a party going on with a full house in the pub, spilling out into the picnic tables outside and into the meadow. There was a small craft fair and a puppet theater and tents set up where people were planning to stay the night. Needless to say, there was no room at the inn. We looked around and decided to stay. We drank beer (maybe the best food item in the Czech Republic), ate dinner, had fractured conversations with various people, like the man who said he had learned his English from Bill Gates, and generally soaked up a big slice of rural Czech party time. By the time we spread out our ponchos in the meadow to make a bed (a bit damp but with all our available clothes on not too cold) there were bonfires blazing and the singing went on all night long. When we got up and started out down the road about 4:30AM when it was just getting light, there were still a few people around the fire singing low. Being there and then out on the lush, wildflower filled meadow trail and through tiny villages just waking up quickly became one of our favorite memories.
We walked 10 to 25 km a day, depending on how the towns were located. We stayed in places ranging from an exquisite newly restored small hotel with a restaurant and art gallery on the canal in Trebon, where we had a beautiful suite with original art on the walls and incredible breakfasts with homemade strudel, sausages, eggs, cheeses, breads for about $60 a night, to privats which are accommodations in private homes that have lots of variety. Usually, they cost $5-$10 dollars/night and we found them just by walking around town and looking for the small sign in the window or on the fence; to old style, communist era, worn out hotels with the WC in another wing and the shower up a flight. But with only one exception (and it wasn't the worn-out place) they were all spotlessly clean with the most comfortable beds I have ever encountered and always friendly, helpful people.
During an extremely hot spell early on, we decided to get up and on the trail before it started to heat up. We were up and heading out of town by 5:30AM, which is about when these country towns were starting to wake up. We were out there with the folks walking and biking into town to work. After a few hours we would stop someplace pretty and eat our yogurt, muesli cereal, and fruit breakfast and then be into the next town by noon to 2 o'clock in time for lunch. This was perfect because the eggs, meat and bread breakfasts that come with your hotel are really too heavy for hiking and since lunch is the main meal there, that is when the great soups are available. You soon learn that although usually delicious, almost everything on a Czech menu is fried and start spending a lot of menu deciphering time searching for alternatives. The soups are usually only available at lunch and they are delicious. My other favorites were the cabbage and sauerkraut salads, which are usually just a garnish, but you can ask for more and I always did.
Then we would find a place to stay and spend the rest of the day exploring the town and surroundings. It was our favorite schedule and we kept it even when we started out at 5 AM in the cool drizzle. When you are walking, even the rain is beautiful...you put on your poncho and start out.
This is the Trail, Right?
Mostly the trail was very well marked. There were, however, a few times such as just outside of Telc on the green trail towards Dacice, where the trail just disappeared into very wet, very tall grass following alongside of a railroad track. We put on our ponchos and waded in just following what seemed from the map to be the direction to go. We made some educated guesses about turns and directions and eventually picked up the marked trail again. Another time, going from Lancov to Vranov nad Dyji, we tried to just use the map and the narrative directions from the Greenways pamphlet because for some reason the trail wasn't marked at all. We thought we were on the right path, crossing a bridge and following a brook for several hours, and we thought when we emerged on a small road that we were just where we should be, just outside of town...we weren't! We were completely lost. I approached a man who was filling up an ancient agricultural tanker truck in a large agricultural compound of some kind, and, showing him the map, asked (gestures and about 2 Czech words) where we were. He started to try to explain to me and then gestured to get in the truck. I climbed in, we drove out of the yard and picked up Robin and he drove us all the way to the Zamek (castle) door at Vranov nad Dyji. It was quite a way; we had gone in the completely opposite direction...and we had a compass!! He tipped his hat and drove back the way he had come. This was just one of many nice encounters we had with the Czech people.
Even though it was rare to meet people who spoke English (or French, the other language we speak) we had lots of those amazing conversations you have with people when you use a few words in assorted common languages; lots of gestures and facial expressions and you seem to understand each other amazingly well. It was really wonderful though to encounter someone who did speak English so we could ask all our questions about things we had been seeing--like what was the significance of what looked to us like Christmas trees at the top of roofs or on tall polls out in a meadow or along the side of the road in almost all of the small towns we passed through, and especially to hear how they felt about the new political system.
We had a wonderful time and would definitely recommend our on-your-own method to any one who loves to hike and have adventures. Even though we were two women traveling alone, on foot, we never felt unsafe for a moment.
A few things we did learn: In the small towns all the stores (except restaurants) close at 11 to 11:30 AM. on Saturday and stay closed until Monday morning. Carry gaiters to cover your lower pant legs and shoe tops in the wet grass and if hiking in the rain to keep your boots dry. Keep your pack as light as possible. Carry a compass.
-Susan Church firstname.lastname@example.org