There are places from which this beautiful part of the country will seem to you like a still undiscovered and miraculously unspoiled landscape.
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This natural gem has even appeared along with Yosemite National Park and the Galapagos Islands off South America in the travellers’ selection of the book 501 Must-Visit Wild Places.
By the second look, however, you will notice that the landscape is not nearly as deserted and untamed as it may have seemed at first glance. Indeed, if you venture into the heart of the region you will find that its deep gorges and high cliffs hold many surprises. The rocks here are interlaced with steep stairways and secret byways, that the rugged peaks are often crowned with rugged ruins which conceal in their crumbling walls ancient legends about robber barons, sprites and ogre. Yet, the path to this quiet storybook realm is no farther than two hours from the bustling capital city of Prague.
A walk along the bottom of the sea
The Bohemian Switzerland National Park is the youngest of the Czech Republic’s four national parks. It lies along the border with Germany, across which separates it from its identical twin – Saxon Switzerland. Millions of years ago there was a sea here. What remained after the waters retreated is a unique topography which recalls the mountains, even though its elevation is the lowest point in the Czech Republic. A region of soaring sandstone walls and towers, rock gates, gorges and mesas, it served as a refuge for prehistoric humans 10,000 years ago. In the 13th and 14th centuries, German settlers began building villages and entire future cities, and upon the rocks arose castles, often occupied by robber barons. In times of war, which were never in short supply around the historical border between the Czech and German lands, the local inhabitants sought refuge here from the armies crossing through the region. Even today you’ll find many reminders of these ancient stories – inscriptions carved into rocks by the villagers themselves, penitential crosses, rock chapels and abandoned church trails.
Photos: (© Martin Rak, © Václav Sojka)
Painters, poets and the first tourists
The untamed nature and yet-to-be discovered beauty of the landscape, which for aeons evolved without the intervention of human hands, was first discovered in the late 18th century by two Swiss Romantic artists, Adrian Zingg and Anton Graf. Engravings and poems quickly spread the glory of this landscape throughout Europe, and the Labe (Elbe) river canyon became a cradle of modern-day pilgrimage and one of the first tourist destination in Europe. More and more visitors sought out the beauties and mystery of Bohemian Switzerland. Seeking motifs for his paintings, one of the most famous landscape painters of all time, Caspar David Friedrich, came to the region. The noble owners of the local domain started to make the deep forests and romantic rock formations accessible to visitors by constructing paths and bridges. Maria’s Rock, Wilhelmina’s Wall and Rudolph’s Stone were equipped with stairs, walkways and gazebos at their summits. New taverns and guest houses sprang up near the paths, promenade trails arose, and boat transport began through the gorges as well as along the turbulent river Kamenice.
Not only painters but also major poets, writers and composers came to the unspoilt landscape to discover its stories and legends. The region’s castles ruled by robber barons, rock cities, and legends about dwarfs and sprites captivated such greats as the fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the composers Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner.
Photo: (© Václav Sojka)
Even today the region continues to fascinate artists – including creators of fairy tale films. The director of the film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe found in the snowy Tisá Walls (Tiské skály) the perfect backdrop for his story. Andrew Adamson selected the Tisá landscape because of its abundant snow cover and fantastical labyrinth of rock formations, which in the 19th century few people dared to enter without a guide. He wanted as much as possible to approximate the world that C. S. Lewis evoked on the pages of his books. This is where Lucy visits the cave of the faun Tumnus and where all four siblings first cross the rock bridge and see before them the endless forests of Narnia.
The Tisá Walls and indeed all of Bohemian Switzerland is also a paradise for hikers and rock climbers. The first ascent to the top of the rocks by climbers took place here in the early 20th century. Since that time, many climbing routes with various levels of difficulty have been established here.You can scale rock towers here with such poetic names as Baldur's Needle, Golem, Forest Chapel, Philosopher’s Stone and Rudolph’s Wardrobe.
© Martin Rak
This relatively expansive castle built in the 13th century two centuries later became the residence of Mikeš Blekta of Útěchovice, who along with his his band of marauders would set off on looting expeditions throughout the area. At the end of the 15th century the castle fell into disrepair and since the 19th century it has been accessible to the public.
© Franta Kriváň
Sometimes called the Robbers Barons’ Castle, it is one of the most beautiful rock castles in Bohemian Switzerland. Beginning at the end of the 14th century it guarded the so-called Bohemian Road, an important trade route linking Bohemia and Lusatia. The owners of the castle, the Berkas of Dubá, were notorious marauders, and their castle served as a base for looting expeditions throughout the area. At the end of the 15th century the castle was abandoned and then gradually deteriorated. The ascent to the castle is definitely worthwhile, not only to see the castle ruins but also for the magnificent views that unfold before you at the top.
© Ladislav Renner
Many thousands of years ago prehistoric hunters had a settlement on top of this rock. The castle that originally stood here was built in the 13th century and gradually went through a succession of owners, among which were robber barons. It was besieged several times and burned. In the 17th century hermits settled here, inhabiting the rock tops for more than a hundred years. Count Kinský later converted it into an excursion spot for his guests. Among the notable visitors were Archdukes Franz Karl and Stefan von Habsburg, King Friedrich Augustus of Saxony, and in 1847 the future Emperor Franz Josef I, who stayed here with his brothers.
© Jiří Stejskal
Originally a Gothic castle, over the course of its history it was a residence of noble families but also served as a refuge for robber barons. The castle ruins remain shrouded in myths and legends today: The castle is haunted by a White Lady with a large black dog. There is allegedly a web of secret passages under the castle, while in front of the castle rises a spring where the water is flecked with grains of gold and a nearby stream is said to contain rare stones and gems.
A boat ride to the end of the world
After the Pravčická Sandstone Gate, one of the biggest attractions in Bohemian Switzerland, which according to the book “501 Must-Visit Wild Places” you definitely should not miss, is a romantic boat ride along the Tichá (Silent) and Divoká (Wild) gorges on the river Kamenice. It is a short but dramatic ride guided by a boatman between soaring cliffs – sometimes so steep that only rarely does direct sunlight ever reach the water.
© Tomáš Pavlásek
The oldest modified lookout point in Bohemian Switzerland. From here there is a beautiful view of the deep canyon of the river Labe (Elbe) and the mesas of Zirkelstein and Kaiserkrone on the German side of the border. In the past the noble Clary-Aldringen family organized outdoor concerts here. They had a sala terrena built here and with and later also a 4-kilometre carriage road to their chateau in Bynovec, which is now a marked hiking trail.
© Václav Sojka
Pravčická Sandstone Gate
One of the largest natural stone gates on the continent and probably the most beautiful natural rock formation in Bohemian Switzerland, it has become the recognized symbol of the entire region. Also an integral part of the Pravčická Sandstone Gate since 1881 is the Falcon’s Nest, an excursion chateau originally used to accommodate important guests of the Clary-Aldrigen family. Today, the first floor houses a museum of the national park and on the ground floor is a restaurant with the original period decoration.
© Vladimír Pešek
Rabštejn – underground aircraft factory from the Second World War
In a labyrinth of underground tunnels 4,500 metres long, prisoners from concentration camps at Flossenbürg and Rabštejn were forced to labour here towards the end of the Second World War. The underground factory manufactured parts for aircraft, rifles, ordnance and missiles. Excavation of the underground factory claimed the lives of several dozen prisoners. Today it is a museum of the Rabštejn concentration camp.
© Jiří Stejskal
Rumburk – Loreta
This 330-year-old Marian shrine is one of the Baroque jewels of north Bohemia, designed by the architect Johann Lucas Hildebrandt. People come here to take part in Holy Mass and the devotions of the Stations of the Cross and Climbing the Holy Stairs.
© Václav Sojka
Růžovský vrch mountain
With its distinctive shape and especially its elevation of up to 300 metres above the surrounding terrain, it is the dominant feature of the area. With a height of 619 metres above sea level, the so-called Czech Fujiyama is the tallest peak in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park and in the entire region of Bohemian-Saxon Switzerland it is the second highest mountain after Děčínský Sněžník. It is probable that it served as a place of pagan rituals and was a pilgrimage destination. Germanic tribes purportedly regarded Růžovský vrch as the domicile of the gods. The mountain has also been a frequent motif in paintings – for example, in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich.
At one time it was an insurmountable obstacle which the residents of villages on the right bank had to overcome in order to get to the church in Růžová Kamenice on the other side. The majestic gorges were also used since time immemorial for transporting wood, and in the winter, when the trout and salmon were swimming, these waters were a paradise for fishermen. One day in 1877 five adventurers made daring bet at the Green Tree pub in Hřensko that they would set off on raft from the Dolský Mill to what was nicknamed at that time “the end of the world.” On four metre-long vessels they sailed happily to Hřensko, and their daring deed laid the foundation for the use of the gorges by tourists. Prince Clary-Aldringen called in experts from Italy, under whose leadership two hundred workers gradually made the gorges accessible to the public. They installed floating walkways and constructed bridges and tunnels. On 4 May 1890, the first one – the Silent or Edmund Gorge – was ceremonially opened together with a restaurant. Since that time, “the end of the world” has not really changed that much. The wonders of nature have remained intact and the boatmen, just as they did more than 130 years ago, still propel and steer their vessels with a bargepole.
Photo: (© Jerzy Strzelecki, © Václav Sojka)
Points of interest