Top of the World in the Czech Republic
By Rupert Parker
Bus from Prague to Pec pod Sněžkou
From Prague, it’s a three hour bus journey east through the Bohemian countryside to Pec pod Sněžkou, the country’s main ski resort. It’s the middle of summer, hardly the season for winter sports, but we’re here to climb Sněžka, the highest peak in the Czech Republic, and reputedly home to a bearded giant called Krakenos.
Pine forests and chocolate box chalets hug the steep valley walls. It could be a typical alpine scene, were it not for the odd architectural hangovers from communist times. The other difference is the language. English, it seems, still hasn’t reached this remote area and ordering in restaurants can be tricky, since it’s often not clear what you’re getting. At least Goulash is the same in any language.
Sněžka, the “Snow Mountain” on the Polish Border
Sněžka, which means “Snow Mountain”, straddles the Polish border and rises above the town to a height of 1602m. Under communist rule, this was an environmental disaster area. Acid rain, caused by the output from heavy industry in Poland and Northern Bohemia, destroyed almost 100% of the trees but now a major programme of replanting seems to be working.
It’s every Czech child’s dream to climb this mountain and there’s a festive atmosphere as families gather at the bottom, readying for the ascent. A ski lift runs all the way to the top, but that feels too much like cheating, so we enter the forest to start our climb.
Last Bastion of the Cold War
The trees gradually give way to low alpine shrubbery and we get our first views of the bleak grey summit. It’s slightly intimidating: a bare desolate trail winds its way up the craggy sides of the mountain to a peak topped by militaristic mushroom-shaped structures. During communist times this was a well defended bastion of the cold war and definitely off limits to foreigners.
Highest Czech Post Office Serves Grog
There’s no sign of border guards these days and, within the hour, we’re sitting in the highest post office in the Czech Republic which fortunately also doubles as a pub. As we sip our warming cups of rum we’re surrounded by Czech and Polish families queuing to get their souvenir postcards franked, so they can prove they made it to the top.
St Lawrence Chapel Dates from 1681
The summit has always been a place of pilgrimage and, next door, there’s a large circular chapel dedicated to St Lawrence, dating from 1681. Inside there are a smattering of devout Catholics lighting candles and giving thanks for making it to the summit. The views are tremendous in either direction but they’re gradually blanked out by the swirling mist.
Krakenos, the Bearded Smoking Giant
It’s getting dark as we arrive back in Pec pod Sněžkou, and visibility is limited because of the low cloud. Legend has it that these mountains are protected by the terrifying bearded pipe-smoking giant, Krakenos, with tremendous power to do both good and evil, but our only encounter with him is friendly. The excellent local beer bears his name and, after a hard day’s walking, it certainly takes some beating.
The bus leaves from the Cerny Most bus station in Prague to Pec pod Sněžkou and takes 3-4 hours.
Penzion Veronika (+420 608 281 321) is a cosy friendly place and good value.
Hotel Horizont (+420 499 861 111) Is a soviet-era monstrosity and is more expensive but has all facilities.
Restaurace Sněžka (+420 499 896 243) serves hearty local specialties.
Enzian Grill (+420 420 499 7570) is more up market, serving international food, and is great for atmosphere.