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Czech Republic

Walkers retreat to a farmhouse in forested Sumava

Email|Print| Text size + By Richard Pennington
Globe Staff / November 14, 2004

HARTMANICE, Czech Republic -- Our vacation time in a European city is always balanced by a corresponding week in the countryside. After seeing Athens, for example, we escaped to the rugged terrain of the Pelion. After London, we took a train to Wales. Time in the quiet mountains in Umbria seemed appropriate after several days in bustling Florence.

The Sumava National Park, the ''green roof of Europe," in the south of Bohemia seemed in harmony with a visit to Prague.

Before my wife, Mary, and I booked a weeklong stay at an obscure farmhouse in Busil, we read that the 266-square-mile Sumava is a sparsely populated region of the Czech Republic, untouched by industry and shrouded in a deep forest.

It is the largest mountain range in the Czech Republic, and, together with the 50-square-mile Bavarian National Park on the other side of the border, is the largest wooded area in central Europe. Mount Plechy, its highest peak, is 4,520 feet tall.

The topography of the Sumava might be compared with the Green Mountains in Vermont, but its castles, and cobbled-square towns, largely unchanged after hundreds of years, are quite different.

Before the Second World War, this part of the former Czechoslovakia was largely German speaking, and in 1938 was part of the contested Sudetenland, which, under the infamous Munich Agreement was transferred to Hitler's Germany. After the war, the German-speaking population was deported by the Czechs and the region became part of what was called the Iron Curtain. A large swath of border was cut into the forest, and land mines were laid down. A tall barbed-wire fence and a series of watchtowers were constructed. That is all gone now.

We planned a week walking in the mountains, on some of the hundreds of miles of trails.

We had never hired a driver to take us anywhere in Europe, but this time it seemed the best way to get to Busil, which is not on most maps. An affable man named Pepa in a blue VW Microbus met us on the outskirts of Cesky Krumlov, and, for $80, dropped us at the Farma Busil about two hours later.

Ludmila Mourkova, who runs the bed-and-breakfast at Busil, met us at the door. We had booked this particular agritourist spot because it is near hiking trails; it had the added attraction of an English-speaking hostess. Mourkova helped us find our way around a region where almost no one speaks our language.

The farmhouse is 600 years old, on 185 acres on a wooded hillside. There are 60 cattle in the fields, and an Afghan hound, the size of a small calf, roams the downstairs hallways at will. While we stayed upstairs in the farmhouse, three English-speaking Dutch families camped in the small field in front of the house. We joined them most nights around the campfire while they cooked dinner.

We soon realized that we would need a car, so Mourkova took us to nearby Susice to rent an old red Skoda station wagon from a local garage. For our first day of walking, we drove to a trailhead called Rokyta and studied the signs, uncomprehending. So we just started walking. That did the trick. What was pictured on the map and what the signs said started coming together. We walked into a snow squall completely beguiled by the beauty of the forest. At the top of the low mountain, we encountered a friendly young Czech couple, who mentioned a nearby chalet along the cascading Vydra steam. We headed there.

Indeed, at the chalet at Turnerova Chata, a fire burned in the central fireplace. Jaroslav, the genial owner, took our orders for potato pancakes, garden salads, and mushroom soup. Van Morrison, Mary Black, Phil Collins, and the Chieftans played on the stereo. We stayed for cappuccino and vanilla ice cream with peaches. I envied the backpackers who stayed in the clean, inexpensive rooms upstairs. Even better, the chalet is not accessible by car. We liked the place so much that on another day, we returned with our Scrabble game.

We climbed 4,468-foot-high Boubin mountain because we were curious about the Boubinsky prales, one of the world's first nature reserves. The 660-acre virgin forest was set aside in 1858 and is not accessible to walkers. Nevertheless, we were able to see over the fence that surrounds it. What struck me was how similar it seemed to the lovely forest outside the fence.

During our week in the Sumava, I could not shake the feeling that we were in uncharted territory. One late afternoon, we turned off on a narrow road that we thought would take us to Busil. In a short time, we stopped seeing civilization and were dumbstruck by the beauty of the countryside, a mixture of deep green forest and meadows on low-lying mountains. The sun slipped behind a cloud. When the asphalt turned to cobblestones, we felt we perhaps had drifted into Austria or Germany. Perplexed that the road did not appear on our map, we turned the car around.

We ended up using seven maps of the Sumava. Ironically, we had never encountered a better-marked trail system anywhere, nor have we walked on better-maintained trails. The trails, marked by the Czech Hiking Club, are wide and usually covered with asphalt or fine gravel.

The Sumava lies on the continental divide; some rivers run to the North Sea, others to the Black Sea. It is the source of the river Vltava, which flows through the center of faraway Prague. In 1990, UNESCO added the Sumava to its list of Biospheric Preserves because of its vast peat bogs and rare species of flora and fauna. The mountains are covered with spruce, fir, beech, and pine. One day, we saw loggers leading a pair of chestnut draft horses pulling trees out of the woods.

The Sumava gets plenty of rain. In the south, as much as 35 inches falls yearly, and in the north, up to 59 inches. The windward ridges of the mountains see up to 78 inches of rain a year. Boston, by comparison, gets 41 inches yearly.

After several days of hiking, we toured by car around Lake Lipno, a popular resort area in the southeast corner of the park near the Austrian border. We were curious about the nearby Schwarzenberg logging canal, a 31-mile-long engineering miracle built to supply Sumava lumber to Vienna. The canal was built in sections from 1789 to 1822 and involved the construction of 87 bridges, 80 water sluices, 78 drainage ditches, and 22 locks. We walked along the canal on a wooded cycling path.

Another day, we parked at the head of a trail in Prasily, a former glassmaking and tree-felling town in the heart of the national forest. It had been a resort in the early 1900s, but after World War II, it fell into severe decline. Today, it is being rebuilt. It was an easy walk up to a beautiful small glacial lake called Prasilke Jezero.

The next day we returned to the same trail and walked farther to the top of Polednik, 4,314 feet high. Its Darth Vader-like tower greeted us, as well as dozens of children on trail bikes. The tower is a good example of post-Cold War reuse: It once served as an antiaircraft installation, but is now open to tourists. On a clear day, you can see more than 110 miles.

Meanwhile, a no-frills Czech farm vacation is not like staying at a luxury hotel. Mourkova, a former university professor in Prague, was a friendly hostess who enjoyed the company of her guests. Whenever she agreed with something we said, she'd say, ''Yo Yo Yo," meaning ''yes yes yes." We usually communicated pretty well, but when we asked her how long she had been on the farm she replied ''600 years." Actually, she and her hardworking husband have spent about a decade on the farm, wanting to be close to nature.

On our last day, we returned our car to Susice and Mourkova drove us across the border to Bayerisch Eisenstein, Germany, where we caught the train to Munich. We checked into an old favorite hotel on the Schillerstrasse and found it hard to contain our enthusiasm as we anticipated a hot bath, white terrycloth bath towels, and crisp cotton sheets.

Adventure is what we had sought in Bohemia, however, and an adventure is what we had.

Richard Pennington can be reached at pennington@globe.com.

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