Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Accidental Hike

"Like a magical realist composition from the time of liberation": Svaty Jan pod Skalou
Alktron/Wikimedia Commons

Siobhan's newest hobby is walking, doggedly and for miles. She started with a stroll along the river, past where the Vyšehrad outcrop juts forward like the land's steadying third leg and plunges into the water below. Last weekend we walked to Prokopské údolí, a long, thin valley in the heart of Prague 5. But roaming Prague's backwaters, where disused industry, sleepy villages and sudden granite cliffs all vie for your attention, ultimately pays limited dividends. With growing resignation, I agreed to go on a hike.

Hiking, I had always thought, was for the middle aged. It was a habit of the world weary, those willing to embrace their aimlessness: walking for the sake of it was always, for me, walking because you had nothing else to do. It was reluctant acceptance of one's essentially purposeless existence. 'I had nothing else to do, so I went for a walk.' Thus it came to dominate otherwise vacated lives. It was insidious, and in that sense alone I've been proved right. Suddenly everyone's at it. Who do you know who hasn't been on a walk recently? And let's face it, there's nothing qualitatively different about hiking. It's just walking further with some hills. Its one redeeming feature was the insistence on food and booze at the end, a pleasure even the most dedicated of walkers seems unable to relinquish. There's something horribly ascetic - self flagellating, even - about walking for your holiday, so the booze and food thing is warmly reassuring to an outsider.

It was with said promise of food and booze that I agreed to Siobhan's hike. Imagining a two or three kilometre stroll across a nice flat meadow (maybe we'd see a rabbit or a little stream with some fish!), I set out wearing my ridiculous grey shoulder satchel, looking exactly as I do when I walk the ten minutes up the road to work. I had on some old pumps, the thinning soles slapping delicately on the pavement. So what if it's a bit further, I thought, we'll end up getting a bus back anyway. The idea, hurriedly agreed upon fifteen minutes before leaving, was to go to Karlštejn and walk around a bit. Siobhan proposed walking to Beroun - a town about 16km away - which I might have accidentally said yes to.

Unsurprisingly, that's exactly what we ended up doing. Oddly, what unites me and Siobhan on any such endeavour is a horror of turning back or retracing our footsteps. This leaves us in the odd predicament of wanting all journeys to be either circular or one-way. In the little village below Karlštejn's massive Gothic castle we trawled about for a map to no avail. Pretty, old cottages, decked in hanging plastic toys and glassware, beckoned to passing tourists, offering nothing of any use. More surprising, however, was the so-called "Karlštejn lion", an angry looking lion cub on a lead, whose principal job was to bait tourists into a dingy pub. This was not the Bohemian idyll we had anticipated, but rather a dim echo of the world of queasy medieval "wonders". We mounted the hill as far as the castle gates, but found our particular trail cut into a steep slope, which led back down into the valley where the road ran. Reassured by the presence of sandal-footed families stumbling awkwardly over the crumbly surface of the path, we felt decidedly less under-prepared.

The first hill was fine. The lush spring-green canopy tumbled all over us, and though the once tightly packed land on the trail had come loose and crumbly, turning over old buried limestone, we stumbled and hopped our way down the ridge in no time. We cut past the road and quickly climbed out of that valley, the track growing less busy as the trees grew taller and more distinct until they were lean, free-standing conifers garlanding a wide stony path. Here a corn field rolled out across the hill's peak, the high ramparts of the castle just visible across the valley, sinking beneath its narrow horizon. Enchanted by this sudden spectacle, I imagined heavy-laden tinkers and grimy, shuffling peasants pausing here to smoke and contemplate their imperial destination. What must this chiseled bastion - wrought from the previously immutable, coarse landscape - have looked like but the promise of unthinkable danger? 

As we made our way back downhill the earth got wetter, at first just a bit slippery, but slowly forming a thick, dark paste under our shoes. The path swelled and slurred, its trampled surface gorged by greasy brown liquid. Last month's floods, devastating whole tracts of land, had left their mark even here, high up on the hills. The ground water was coursing together and finding its way down, and so like us it followed the trail. Though the miners of Kutná Hora had dug for ninety metres into the Karlštejn hill and found not a drop of liquid, now there was no shortage. As we slid and stumbled downhill the mud grew ever sludgier. The warm, muggy afternoon sun was blotted out by the dense canopy and there remained no inducement for the ground to dry. As we approached the valley's basin, impromptu rivers began forming in the narrow gulleys, winding their way towards the bottom with increasing speed.

Once there deposits of gravel and tree branch stacked up along the creek banks. The new streams were running quite a current and we had to hop stepping stones just to get across. After scrambling up the banks of the creek we wandered through a tall grass meadow, the afternoon sun keeping the still sopping mud in relatively decent shape. Everywhere walkers dodged the trail proper and trod the grass to its sides. As the stream curled back through the forest and met the path again we found some poor soul had erected a series of bridges - cut from the felled trees that littered the forest floor - over its swollen current. Tools and stripped tree trunks lay ready for work on the banks, anticipating further agitation in this otherwise quiet spot of forest. A series of sheer rock faces that cut into the hill had turned into waterfalls, which rushed over the mud slick and plumed downwards. The trail went that way, and so we had to shimmy across a dry ledge, just a few inches at its widest.

The next hour was consumed by two further valleys, this time relatively dry; a deep silent world of conifers which climbed all across the ululating slopes, rising and sinking in every direction. The trail wound through these ups and downs, the sky occasionally vanishing entirely behind the staggered rows of branches. At last we arrived in the tiny village of Svatý Jan pod Skalou (St John Under the Rock), which looked like some magical realist composition from the time of the liberation: in the middle of the clearing, flanked on one side by the crumbling monastery and on the other by a rickety brown fence, sat an old tank, two kids hanging off the shaft of its gun. Next to it two young women in full traditional school uniforms stood drinking beer, while a Roma family in baggy sweat suits sat quietly, waiting to sell their fried potato chips. The trail fanned out onto a dirt track and then a tarmac road, which ran over the village bridge, the river once again swelling beneath it. All this was alive and moved with the balmly, late afternoon sun-glare. Inside the monastery a motley choir stop-started their turgid anthem each time they reached a certain insurmountable note. An exasperated conductor yelped ever terser instructions over their bellows. And there above the village church, as if growing out of its roof, the great rock which gives the town its name spread out in the sun like some warm iguana.

With five kilometres left we set off again, pale ales in hand, struggling with the last big hill of the journey. Once at the top, however, we made good time, even pausing to sign a note book placed under a wooden shelter: "We walked 16 km by accident." Finally we were circling Beroun, and in that sudden exhilaration I foolhardily promised to do further trekking. Perhaps, I was thinking, as I strode high above yet another valley, this could be our new thing. Tramping through the woods like Woody Guthrie - half the tree species of the Czech Republic were, after all, imported from California! Only after sitting down to our long anticipated food and booze did I question our idea. 'Well, maybe not every weekend,' I said pleadingly.

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