Explorer: Bohemia’s Secret Spot for Cross-Country Skiing
The trail descended gently through a dense spruce forest, blanketed by snow from an overnight storm. It was bitterly cold, but the sky had cleared and the sun reflected dazzlingly off the frosted terrain. I rounded a corner on my cross-country skis and took in an impressive sight that emerged out of the rustic landscape like a vision from the Brothers Grimm: a meadow dominated by a castlelike dark-wood villa, with gabled windows, a central cupola and huge icicles dangling from the roof.
I was deep in the Jizera Mountains, straddling the borders of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, and had unexpectedly come across one of the prime attractions of this corner of Mitteleuropa: a 1756 glassblowing factory turned hunting lodge turned summer home of Premysl Samal, the first chancellor of Czechoslovakia after World War I, who later led the resistance against the Nazi occupiers and died in 1941 in a Berlin prison.
Today, in his memory, the villa is called Samalova Chata, an atmospheric rest stop on the region’s hiking and cross-country skiing circuit. In the warm, oak-paneled dining room of the chalet, Czech families and a handful of Germans washed down plates of roasted pork and knodel (round bread-and-potato dumplings), a local staple, with steins of domestic Gambrinus beer. I opted for less filling fare — a bowl of goulash and a cappuccino — while my two sons downed glasses of homemade raspberry lemonade.
Before last winter, I had never given a thought to a ski holiday in Bohemia, as this western corner of the Czech Republic has long been known. Then a friend in Berlin, where we live, came back raving about his trip here. Just a three-hour drive southeast of the German capital, and a one-hour drive west of Prague, the Jizera Mountains, which rise to about 4,000 feet, may lack the cachet and the grandeur of the Alps. But they do offer some of the finest Nordic skiing in Central Europe.
The area around Bedrichov, the main resort village in the Jizera range, is laced with nearly 100 miles of well-groomed, well-marked trails, as well as downhill slopes on par with those in some Vermont resorts. The trails thread through virgin forests of pine and spruce, past frozen lakes and meadows, with strategically placed cafes along the way and stunning vistas over the entire mountain range.
The region has a dark history. German-speaking colonists arrived in the Jizera Mountains from Bavaria and Saxony in the 13th and 14th centuries, answering an appeal by Bohemian princes to settle the rugged and heavily forested area. Deutsche Boehmen, or German Bohemia, became one of several largely German-speaking enclaves that formed along the borders of the modern-day Czech and Slovak republics under the Hapsburg monarchy, later the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
At the end of World War I, the Allies broke apart the empire and gave Czechoslovakia its independence. Hitler annexed all the country’s German-speaking areas, known as the Sudetenland, in the fall of 1938, before invading Czechoslovakia the following year.
When World War II ended, vengeful Czechs drove out much of the country’s German-speaking population of 2.8 million; tens of thousands were killed or died of starvation or disease during the forced marches west. The Czechs also erased almost every trace of a German presence. Names of cities and towns were changed from German to Czech. Friedrichswald Bei Gablonz became Bedrichov. Reichenberg, the largest city in the region, was renamed Liberec.
During the Communist era, Czechs ignored this terrible chapter of their history. But in the last few years, details of mass executions and other horrors have filtered into the public debate and found their way into Czech graphic novels and other cultural forums. The Czechs and the Germans, meanwhile, have largely set aside their animosity, and thousands of Germans come to Bohemia every year to hike and ski amid the ghosts of the past.
Some of those traces of the bygone era are visible in Janov Nad Nisou, the 2,500-foot-high mountain village where my sons and I reserved a room in a penzion — a family-owned hotel — for one week at the end of January 2015. Founded by German-speaking settlers in the 17th century, the village was known as Johannesberg until the end of World War II.
Arriving after the long drive from Berlin, we ascended a winding and snowy mountain road through the center of the hamlet, passing an old glassblowing factory; the gaudy yellow Town Hall, built in 1927 shortly after Czechoslovakian independence; and a Lutheran church from the same period. Almost immediately, I realized that we were lost. I phoned the owner of our inn, the Penzion Prvni Nelyzujem, who spoke no English and little German, and we talked over each other in mutual incomprehension.
At dusk, with snow falling and my panic rising, I found an English-speaking receptionist at the village’s biggest hotel who agreed to help us. A friend of hers led us in his vehicle over an icy mountain road for three miles in the gathering darkness. Then he turned down a side road through a settled area of pensions and bed-and-breakfasts, and guided us at last into the driveway of our tucked-away inn, a modern, three-story beige house set on a wide lawn surrounded by snowy woods.
Despite the language barrier, Mila and his wife, Lenka, were warm and welcoming hosts. That first night, they served us heaping plates of roasted pork and knodel for supper, with apple strudel and ice cream for dessert. (We would eat similarly hearty suppers there each evening after a full day’s skiing.) They also handed us brochures and maps in Czech and German that gave us the lay of the land.
The hotel was filled with Czech families from Liberec and Prague who had driven into the Jizera Mountains for the weekend. As we would discover the following morning, a Sunday, the weekend migration turns the neighboring village of Bedrichov into a zoo of snarled traffic, packed parking lots and stripped-bare ski-rental shops.
By Monday morning, however, the crowds were gone. We rented skis from a small shop in Bedrichov (“Czech, Czech,” the owner barked indignantly when I asked him if he spoke German or English), found a parking spot with ease, and carried our skis to the main cross-country trailhead.
We crossed a bridge over a frozen stream and plunged into the forest. It had snowed heavily the night before, and fresh powder obscured the grooves on the trail, making the going difficult at first. I had last been on cross-country skis nearly two decades earlier, in Big Bear, Calif., and my sons were novices. Czechs flew past us with breathtaking agility, skating seemingly effortlessly up steep slopes and speeding past us on the downhill runs. The temperature was a brisk 22 degrees, but the sky was cobalt blue, and I fell into a rhythm, sliding along with growing confidence, synchronizing skis and poles and picking up speed. There was, I discovered, a measure of satisfaction to be had in the downhill runs in Nordic skiing, a feeling of having earned the exhilarating ride.
After a long, strenuous ascent we stopped to rest at the crest of a hill, with the entire Jizera range spread out before us. Then we coasted for another half a mile to the Samalova Chata guesthouse and restaurant for a needed break.
During our five days on the trail, averaging about six hours and 10 miles of skiing each day, we saw no Americans. Except for a few passing greetings from Czechs who overheard us while consulting the map at a crossroads or waiting in line at a cafe, we heard no English. At a hilltop outdoor snack bar, a teenage girl regarded us with astonishment. “Where do you come from?” she asked. She was from Liberec and had spent the year before as an high-school exchange student in Idaho. “Lots of Mormons there,” she volunteered.
The language barrier could be frustrating sometimes — when making our way through Czech-only menus, or trying to glean information from the Czech-only trail markers about flora, fauna and geological formations. But it was impossible to get lost: All trails circled back to Bedrichov. And the exoticism of the setting, the heartiness of the food, the warmth of our hosts, the beauty of the forest and the exhilarating workouts compensated for the communication difficulties.
On our last morning in the Jizera Mountains, we ventured through a section of spruce forest where we had never been. The snow was soft and thick, the grade steep. My then 9-year-old son, who had been gaining confidence the past week and even picking up a few words of Czech along the way, veered out of control. He plummeted over a snow bank, and into a ditch. He lay in the snow, a tangled heap of limbs and skis. Slowly, he untwisted himself and got back on his feet. “Dobry,” he declared. I’m fine. And then we started again, together, down the trail.
IF YOU GO
Information in English about Bedrichov and the Jizera Mountains, including area accommodations and ski rental options, can be found at http://www.czech-mountains.eu/ski-centre/bedrichov.html.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Penzion Prvni Nelyzujem (Janov nad Nisou 359, 468 11 Janovnad Nisou, Czech Republic, 420-602-754-476), a rustic, family-run guesthouse with seven spacious rooms (50 euros per night, about $53 at $1.05 to the euro; breakfast included). Rooms can be reserved through booking.com.
Another option in the Czech Republic is Samalova Chata (Petr Polak 46812 Bedrichov 48, email@example.com, samalova-chata.cz/#_=_), a hotel and restaurant reachable by road or by a cross-country ski trail from Bedrichov. A former glassblowing factory, it has 15 rooms and apartments; from 480 Czech koruna for an adult, half that per child under 10 during the winter season (from about $20 for an adult, at 24 koruna to the dollar). The restaurant serves excellent Czech-style cuisine starting at about 150 Czech koruna for a main course.
An article last Sunday about skiing in the Jizera Mountains of Central Europe misstated the point in 1938 at which Hitler annexed the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia. It was in the fall, not in the spring.