Monday, June 16, 2014

A Short Hike

Sometimes it's really nice to get out of town and go for a hike. When I first started to plan my hike I just wanted to go see the castle in Karlstejn. It is a very nice looking castle about 30 kilometers southwest of Prague. It's a very popular day trip and many people will ride their bikes there and take the train back.

I had mentioned to a few friends that I wanted to go to Karlstejn and a few of them said the same thing: "It's nice, but what is really nice is to go to Beroun and hike to Karlstejn." So I took their advice and decided that I would do that. I can say that I think starting in Beroun is definitely the best idea. When you start there you're rewarded with the castle at the end of the trip and you can tour that -- maybe. I spent so much time hiking that the castle was closed to the public when I got there.

The village around the castle looks pretty nice too. At least the part just under it. It might be a little touristy but it is very pretty. It wasn't packed with people when I got there, maybe because it was so late in the day, and it felt very quaint and relaxed.
As soon as I got off the train in Beroun I started my hike. There isn't really a "trail" that goes from the train station. Not in the traditional dirt-path-through-the-woods sense at least. There are some signs and blazes painted on utility poles and things. Near the town's hospital the trail hits the dirt and it's still pretty well marked. It's not very difficult to follow through the town, but I did take at least one wrong turn and had to double back.

I took that with my phone and you can see the blazes clearly marked. As I said, when you're traveling through the woods the trail is really easy to follow and if there are other trails it's not hard to stay on the one you want because the blazes will have arrows under them telling you which way to go.

The hike was fantastic. Evidently I went at the right time of year because I'm told the trail, which is really just a fire road for the most part, gets crowded during the summer. It had also rained for most of the week and that may have dissuaded some people who didn't want to hike on muddy trails. There was mud in spots, but not much. The temperature was pretty much perfect and the forest is so thick that not a lot of direct sunlight makes it to the floor, keeping things cool and temperate.

After I made it into the woods I was happy and alone and nearly forgot that I was in a forest in a foreign country. I might as well have been hiking in the Shenandoah National Park along a leg of the Appalachian Trail. There were birds singing and the trail isn't technical or strenuous so I was able to just relax and walk. I even heard Cuckoos. I had never heard one that wasn't in a clock before.

I had been walking in the forest for about thirty minutes when I passed what looked like a very red log of dog feces. It's a trail, scat is pretty commonplace along them, so I just remember thinking "that dog needs to go to the vet" and just kept walking. Then I saw the same thing again and looked closer. Not because I'm fascinated with dog logs, but because there is no way this unhealthy pup could produce so much crap in such a short distance. It turns out it was not poop at all, but rather some species of MASSIVE slug. Any slug that looks like exhaust from a labrador is a big slug. And these things must be tough as nails. I don't know what they are called, but I have given the species the name Czechoslovakian Murder Slug. I realize Czechoslovakia doesn't exist anymore, but the added syllables make the name sound more menacing.

I hope you can see what I mean with this photo. This particular Murder Slug has a substantial hole in his body. I can tell you right now, if I had a hole in my torso that had removed a similar percentage of my body I would not be calmly walking along a trail. I'd probably be dead.

I kept walking after photographing the slug for evidence and just enjoyed being in the woods and not the city. I like Prague, it's great, but there are times when not hearing the noise of traffic and sirens and everything is very refreshing and rejuvenating. Most of my day trips are to small towns or villages with other people there and this hike with almost no one else around was also a welcome change.

Not long into my hike I came to a junction in the trail and a nice rest shack. I sat and enjoyed the solitude and then continued on after a few minutes.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

I had two "goals" for this hike and while the main one was to get to the castle in Karlstejn a very close second was to visit Svaty Jan Pod Skalou. It translates to Saint John Under the Cliff. You can google your heart out, but you won't find a ton of information on this place. I didn't find out more about it until I was talking to a friend about my trip there. She's been there dozens of times and out of all the people I talked to about it she knew the most. She told me enough to make me want to go back. You can see from the sign up there that I was only 1.5 kilometers away.

As a side note: I love kilometers. I still think in miles and when I see a number that I know is related to distance my brain automatically calculates the estimated time to travel that distance in miles. At a leisurely pase I was making about 3km an hour.

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I got to Svaty Jan. I popped out of the woods in someone's back yard and the trail basically followed his driveway to the road about 20 meters down the road I saw this:

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

Basically all I knew about the place at this point was that it existed and that there was a monastery there. This clearly wasn't the monastery and I was a little worried about where I would pick the trail back up, but it was more of a logistical curiosity rather than a complete, "oh shit where am I going" panic. Hell, my plans were so open I would have walked back to Beroun and caught the train back to Prague from there if I needed to.

So I photographed the town cemetery and its chapel from another angle and followed the road.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

The town isn't really even a town. I'd have to call it a village or better yet a hamlet. There are less than 20 buildings there. It seemed it was pretty popular for Czechs to go and visit. There were quite a few cars at the monastery and the local (read only) pub/restaurant was packed to the rafters. Lots of Czechs had ridden their bikes to the hamlet.

The whole place was built because there is a spring there that has healing water in it. I wish I'd known this before I went. I saw the spring and a spigot for getting a drink, but I don't really read any Czech so I just thought it was there for thirsty people. There is even a little outdoor chapel on the spring. It's the chapel of St. Ivana.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

You can see a little of the spring on the right of the photo. It's a pool in the chapel. There is a system of caves that the monastery is connected to with rooms that have been converted for religious purposes. So the spooky faces you see behind that barred window on the right are people touring the caves, not ghosts.

What I did know about the place is that the monastery sits under a 300 foot cliff and you can hike to an overlook at the top of it. The trail to the top is 1 kilometer and it's pretty steep. When I got there I remembered something very different between Americans and Europeans (or at least Czechs) when it comes to things like scenic overlooks.

For many Americans the scenic overlook is a wonderful thing, but not really a destination; it's a detour as part of a larger journey. Think of a roadside vista point there an American family pulls up, gets out of the car, checks things out and then it's "alright kids back in the car. We've got 500 more miles to go before we get to Disneyland."

When I reached the top of the overlook there were maybe 20 Czechs just hanging out with the view. They were all relaxing and chatting and taking it in. A few were enjoying a cigarette and a beer and chatting while sitting a few meters from the edge of the cliff. I can't think of many places in the States where Americans would hike up a strenuous hill for a kilometer, get to the top and say to themselves, "this is really beautiful. I'm going to relax with a cigarette and just drink it all in." Heck, I didn't even stay that long up top. There wasn't any reason to, which I think is precisely the reason one would want to stay there for a while. When you can derive purpose from an absence of purpose you have reached a point of existential relaxation I'm just not ready for yet. Or maybe you're a smoker and you need to take a pretty long rest after a hard climb.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

As you can see it is a beautiful view of a tiny hamlet. The monastery dominates the town. My friend tells me the monastery was used to house political prisoners during the communist era.

As you can see from the photo the forest is pretty dense. From here I went back down the hill and started hiking in the direction of Karlstejn. The trail wandered though the woods and it was the same quiet, restful solitude I'd had for the first part of the trip. The rolling clouds made the sunlight that broke through the forest canopy dance on the leaves around me and it was like walking through a Robert Frost poem.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

The trail goes though a management-free section of forest that is being used as an experiment. I guess they don't have many unmanaged forests in Europe. They don't have a lot of wildfires either. You'll know you're entering and leaving the management-free zone when you see signs warning you of the possibility of falling trees. I didn't see much deadfall, but there was some.

Shortly after you exit the management-free area on your way to Karstejn you come to some vodopady or waterfalls. They aren't treacherous dives off terrifying precipices, but rather gentle runs down some sloped rock faces.

Karstejn, Czech Republic, waterfalls, vodopady

Karstejn, Czech Republic, waterfalls, vodopady

There are a few of them in a row and they are about 4 km outside of Karlstejn. I saw a few people who had just hiked up to the waterfalls and back.

At this point I knew I wasn't far and I thought I might be able to catch a distant view of the castle at some point. There was really only one view of the castle along the way and it wasn't what I expected -- it was better.

I have written before about how I find the rapeseed fields very beautiful. They are like oceans of yellow paint, their waves crashing on green shores. I have been hoping to find a place where I could capture one of these fields in just the right way. A came around a corner and saw the trail skirted one of these fields with the castle peeking out of the trees behind it. The light was perfect and the whole thing was like a shot from a Boz Luhrmann film. As a side note I really hate Boz Luhrmann's films, but he does a great job of capturing beautiful scenery.

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle, Rapeseed, field

To me it looked like a painting. So, I applied a photoshop filter to make it look more like an oil painting. It's about as close to actual painting as I will ever get. I'm not usually a heavy photoshop filter user, but in this case I really like the results.

From here I was at the castle in about 20 minutes. I hiked up the trail to the back door of the place and made my way to the rear gate, I think.

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle

This isn't "inside" the castle it's a path that follows the outer walls. When I got to the gate there was a sign saying that the last tour of the day had already started and the castle was now closed to the public, it was a little after 17:00. I made my way to the town to get some food, then caught the train back to Prague. The whole hike was a little over 15 kilometers and I was plenty tired after. It looks like I'm going to have to make a special trip just to see the castle.

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle

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