Thursday, 23 November 2017

Hiking in Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia: Conclusion

All three countries have a long hiking tradition and as a result the infrastructure for hikers is fantastic! Waymarking is excellent and often there are separate summer and winter trails which are signposted and blazed. Not to mention a lot of bike trails especially in Czech Republic. The trails are usually very well maintained mostly by use of hikers. Bushwhacking is really the exception, but logging activities can make trail finding difficult at times.
E3 uses existing trails here but is often mentioned on signposts (which is rarely the case in other countries!).
The terrain is usually easy or moderate - on the E3 I have not encountered any technically difficult trails. Sometimes ascents and descents can be quite steep and slippery in rain but nothing really serious.
In popular areas there are mountain huts which offer accommodation and restaurants. Expect big crowds in summer especially in touristy areas like the Giant Mountains or the Mala Fatra. You will encounter mostly day hikers. I have rarely seen any other long-distance hikers! 

Resupply was easy and I rarely carried food for more than three days. Most bigger villages have a little store and in bigger cities there are all kinds of Western food store chains and discounters like Billa, Kaufland or Lidl. I enjoyed local specialties like smoked cheese and tasty string sausages which both keep a long time even in hotter weather. In supermarkets you can get the typical dehydrated pasta meals, cereals and snacks. Decathlon is widespread in Eastern Europe which means you can easily get new outdoor clothes or equipment if needed.

Water was not a problem - there are plenty of springs and wells along the trail which are usually marked on the free OSM maps. Just keep in mind that many springs are not piped but kept in a roofed "spring hut". You need some sort of container to scoop water out of there.
Tap water is safe to drink and therefore I never treated water in these three countries becausee I got it either from a tap or spring!
Wild camping is technically illegal in all three countries but I have never had a problem. There is so much forest that you can usually hide somewhere out of sight. Just plan ahead because the E3 traverses several national parks which are monitored by rangers - and for conservation reasons I would not want to camp there anyways.
I encountered very few hunters (which might have been due to the season) but plenty of lumberjacks and berry pickers. Commercial berry pickers work in gangs - so try not to camp in blueberry areas. These people are already up at sunrise so can have an unexpected early morning start! I was discovered once but nobody seemed to bother.

Hotels and restaurants are still a lot cheaper than in Western European countries although they are definitely up to Western standards. I usually paid around 30 - 40 EUR for a single room including breakfast and Wlan and never had any bad experience. On the contrary: Private hotels and pensions have by far exceeded my expectations. The same goes for restaurants: Quality was very high and I enjoyed local specialties like the ubiquitous Piroggi - dumplings filled with various stuffings.

The landscape I saw on the E3 was generally nice and interesting, sometimes even spectacular. But if you are looking for breathtaking views there are better places to go. Still what I liked a lot was the mixture of all those different mountain ranges mixed with different cultural and historical aspects. Parts of these three countries once belonged to Germany and/or Austria so you will find plenty of remnants. I read tombstones in cemeteries, explored churches and castles or came across leftovers of the two World Wars.

Don't be deterred by the language problem. Younger people all speak English and restaurant menus are usually bi- or trilingual. Beside English German is widespread.
To sum it up: I personally enjoyed hiking here a lot and I would definitely recommend it to a friend. If you are looking for relatively easy but interesting trail with a little luxury like staying in a hotel or eating in a restaurant once in a while, this is ideal - especially when you are interested in history.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Slovakia Part 2

The E3 now makes a huge loop of almost 170 km along the Polish-Slovak border - that can be shortcutted by a trail of mere 2 km. And that is what I did because I wanted to have more time for the rest of my trip. But what I heard from other hikers this loop is definitely worth it if you have the time. Still I followed the borderline for quite a while but because Slovakia and Poland are both Schengen countries you only realise by these white markstone that there is an international border. I even camped right on the border line!

My next rest stop was Presov, a nice historical town from where I made a daytrip by bus to Bardejov, which is UNESCO world heritage. It was now end of July and freaking hot especially in my hotel room with no aircondition! But besides sightseeing I had another good reason to go to Bardejov: Anne and Ulli, two other German EB hikers had heard of my 50th birthday and had left me a little present in a pension in Bardejov. I was so excited when the hotel owner handed this little parcel over to me that Ulli had painted so nicely with a view of Bardejov town square. Inside was a bottle of Kofola, the Slovak version of Coke, chocolate, some candy bars and nuts. By that time I had not even met Anne and Ulli yet and still these total strangers had left me a present. I was so overwhelmed by gratitude!

In Presov I met up with Balazs, a Hungarian hiker whom I had met the previous year in Budapest. He had taken a day off work to hike with me for a couple of days and it was such a joy to have company again. We talked and talked - and hiked way too little! But it was so hot that hiking was very demanding and many water sources were dry or just a trickle. When we came across a well we each dumped a bucket of water over each others head to cool off a bit! Although the trail was not very difficult it was a constant up and down!

I took another rest day in historical Kosice where I was very happy about the air condition in my hotel! Kosice is a beautiful city and due to the summer heat the fountain in the main square was the biggest tourist attraction! The E3 now continues along the Slovak-Hungarian border on the Slovak side, but I crossed into Hungary as early as possible to continue on my beloved Kektura, a trail that circles around the entire country and which I had hiked the year before.

Poland Part 2

My first stop in Poland this time was Zakopane, a big tourist magnet in the area. The place was chock full with tourists and I felt like in a zoo! A real culture shock after walking alone for a month. Stalls in the streets were selling all kinds of tourists - and the local specialty: smoked cheese! How this cheese kept in the summer heat without any refrigeration is a bit of a mystery to me ... I was in shopping heaven when I discovered that a brand new Lidl market had just opened in town and this is of course where I did my resupply!

For my Zakopane was an important resupply shop. Because the town is so popular with hikers I had of huge choice of outdoor shops where I bought new shoes and socks. And I took a guided city tour and learnt about the local culture. Unfortunately Zakopane fame spreads wide into the country side and the next day I was almost completely walking on concrete passing countless ski lifts, parking lots and hordes of tourists.

And this being catholic Poland the Pope was everywhere! Big advantage for hikers: I could always seek shelter in a church when it started to rain - and it rained quite a lot at that time. In fact one day the forecast was so horrible that I decided to take a spontaneous rest day in Szczawnica. Luckily I could secure an affordable hotel room via and I could even check in at 10 am already instead of waiting outside in the rain! Szczawnica is another popular spa town but taking the waters here was rather expensive as was the entrance fee to the two tiny little town museums. But there was not much else to do in the rain ... I was relieved that next morning the rain had stopped and I could hike on as planned. Logging activities made hiking difficult though: A lot of trails were completely destroyed by heavy vehicles - and three times the E3 route was officially closed but no detour was signposted. I just walked through: Twice the warning signs were outdated and one time I surprised some wood cutters who were not too happy about my appeareance but let me pass through.

Generally there was a lot going on in these Polish forests which made wild camping not as peaceful as normal. When I had set up camp close to this wonderful view a big hiking group passed by. At night wild pigs were noisily roaming around the forest and next morning I was woken up by tractor noise. But no one discovered me .... Last town stop in Poland was Krynica Zdroj, another spa town. I must admit that I loved all that spas and taking the waters which again was rather expensive here but a good way to spend my last zloty before returning to Slovakia for a second time.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Slovakia Part 1

Slovakia offered some real landscape highlights! It started already in the tiny mountain range of Súľovské vrchy or Sulower Berge in German where one view point came after the other - unfortunately linked by some steep trail!

Descending some more very steep trail I arrived in Rajece Teplice, a posh and tacky spa town. The spa complex is called Aphrodite and seems to be a Slovak version of Las Vegas! I arrived just before the local supermarket closed and sat down at the town square watching tourists who seemed to come from all over the world - even including some Muslim women with head scarves - a rare sight in this part of the world. I would have liked to stay one night and relax in the thermal pools but now in high season everything was booked solid - and would have been expensive anyways.

In Strecno I wanted to go shopping again because I was completely out of food and nearly got a heart attack when a billboard sign said that the supermarket had already closed for the afternoon ... Luckily the billboard was outdated and the supermarket still open! Strecno even had a small visitor centre where I could hang out in the shade but had to pay for the toilet - which I also needed in order to get water. What followed was a long and very steep ascent out of the valley of the river Waag with spectacular views and a problematic search for a campsite. On top of the mountain ridge there were plenty of scenic spots but all were in plain view from the trail where even shortly before sunset several hikers were still on their way to the next hut! But I was lucky and found a flat spot on an otherwise steep slope.

Next day brought some of the most spectacular hiking of the entire trip: I was traversing the Mala Fatra, a National Park. The entire day I was walking on top of the crest, mostly even on knife-edge - although the trail was really easy due to the amount of tourists! In the evening I had to rush to get out of the National Park for wild camping but other hikers did not seem to bother: Even briefly before sunset a bunch of Slovak hikers entered the park and it was apparent they were about to free camp, too!

A couple of nights later I was in for a big surprise with wild camping. Again I was hiking along the broad crest but could not find a hidden campsite because the whole ground was overgrown with blueberry bushes. I settled for a place underneath a tree right next to the track and figured that late at night or early in the morning no one would come along. I was completely wrong. At five in the morning a jeep came rumbling along the crest and stopped only one hundred metres away from me. Several people jumped out - and I was suddenly scared by a loud explosion. People came running along the trail and soon I was discovered. And then another explosion!

It took me a while to realise what was going on. This was a gang of blueberry pickers (legal or illegal) and they had fired a rocket to scare away any wild animals! I quickly packed up and had a very early start this morning. I had just walked a couple of hundred metres when the next surprise was waiting for me: an adder was lying right in the middle of the trail sunning itself. I quickly passed. My quick pace was stopped pretty soon by this mud desaster on the trail. Farmers were cutting down trees and their vehicles had turned the trail into a mud bath. They had to work with horses to get the downed trees out of the forest because the ground was destroyed so much.

Right at the border with Poland Slovakia had a nice surprise for me: the thermal bath of Oravice right on trail. Although it was almost 30 Celsius in the sun I enjoyed the hot water - at least as long as the sun was hidden behind the clouds ... This was holiday time and the pool was chock full with people which I found quite entertaining - although I was quite jealous of those bathers with an umbrella. I had not had that much foresight!

Czech Republic Part 2

View from 1350 m Serak
Shortcutting another long detour for a border crossing I entered Czech Republic again. This mountain range is called Hrubý Jeseník or Altvatergebirge in German. First summit to climb is 1350 metres high Serak - and to my big surprise my German guidebook does not even mention how to hike up there. Instead it just describes taking the ski lift ...  I am a firm believer in connecting footsteps and walked of course - although I confess taking the lift up and walking downhill instead of the other way round ....

Niederes Gesenk
Praded is almost 1500 metres high and the highest - and most popular - summit of this mountain range. There are even shuttle buses from a nearby parking lot going up there! Everybody and their mother was out there hiking - or taking a ride on a scooter! These vehicles could be rented on top from where you can descend on a smooth paved road!
The E3 then descends into the lowlands of Nízký Jeseník or "Niederes Gesenke" where I was now traversing fields and pastures and following the very idyllic little river Moravice.

World War II memorial
But a very important date was coming closer: My 50th birthday on 9th of July. I had been deliberating what to do on that big day and had even thought of briefly returning to Berlin in order to celebrate with my friends. But once I am in hiking mode I don't want to be stopped and therefore decided to celebrate on the trail - and on my own. I wanted to be in a nice place and chose a hotel in Hradec nad Moravici. A very good choice because the hotel owner was a very good source of information for the Austrian-German history of this area.

I spent the big day sightseeing in Opava and Hradbyne where an impressive World War II Memorial is situated. Opava itself turned out to be a very pleasant little town with an interesting modern museum. And in the evening I treated myself with a posh dinner followed by dessert and a cocktail in a nice bar. Sitting at the outdoor terrace of the Restaurant and enjoying the view over historical Opava I felt very good - and did not regret spending my birthday alone.

So far I had not encountered any other long-distance hiker - but I knew there were others! Jana, another German was hiking Eisenach -Budapest coming towards me and through Facebook Messages we timed a meeting at the mountain hut at Radhost (Jana was not Camping but always staying in paid accommodation). It felt so good to meet a fellow hiker after almost one month alone on the trail! Although the rooms in this very old hut were sort of very old, too the food in the restaurant was excellent and we spent the entire evening and next morning talking. And this was not our last get-together. After our tours we have already met twice in Germany.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Poland Part 1

My route is generally following the European long-distance trail E3 and as you can see on this map this trail goes all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. Like all E-trails the E3 uses an existing trail network and is usually not marked as E3. But trail marking in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia is generally great and on most signposts the trail is also named as E3. Parallel to the E3 runs Eisenach - Budapest, or short EB. Both old routes were created long before the Schengen treaty and therefore they do big detours for official border crossings. Because nowadays as a pedestrian you can cross freely between Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia most hikers do shortcuts like the one through the Giant Mountains - and the only German trail guidebook recommends that as well. But when official trail and shortcut came together again in Poland I ended up in one of the worst bushwhacks of the entire walk. The route descends along a long ski slope that now in summer was completely overgrown with long grass. And because it had been raining I was soaking wet after the first hundred metres. I did not help that visibility was less than 50 metres due to heavy fog and there were no marking because you cannot mark anything in a meadow ... Suffering from hay fever was a problem, too ...

The spa town of Walbrzych was my next strategical rest stop. For some cents you can take the waters in a beautiful turn-of-the-century pavillion - and it does not taste too bad either! Again I was very lucky with my hotel and restaurant. Prices in Poland are still much lower than in Germany but the quality is definitely up to Western standards. Walbrzych has an extensive and cheap bus system which made sightseeing easy. I had good timing because a traditional folk dance group was performing at the huge castle of Waldenburg.

But not all was good in Walbrzych: I had chosen that town as a rest stop because there is a Decathlon, a sport store chain. According to their online shop they stock gas canisters - but when I went there not a single one was left! I was even told that no Polish Decathlon is stocking screw-top gas canisters any more - a big blow for my resupply strategy. Luckily they recommended another store and with the help of Walbrzych's bus system I eventually procured my much needed gas canister before  proceeding to the next mountain range: the Owl Mountains. The biggest tourist hot spot there is this view tower built by the Germans in the 19th century - where I ate a really bad gulash soup from a portable restaurant. As the entire area once belonged to Germany there were a lot of traces left and I spent a long time in old cemeteries studying tombstones and churches. Most impressive monument was Fort Srebrna Gora (Festung Silberberg), a massive fortress built by Prussian king Frederick II that was never conquered when besieged. On the E3 I walked around the entire complex.

My personal highlight was a different one: Weather was fantastic which means very hot - and I was looking forward to every possibility to wash up. One evening, just half an hour before I wanted to set up camp anyways, I came across this fantastic spring. No one was around anymore that late at night so I just stripped down and stepped underneath this natural shower. I washed myself, my clothes - and had plenty of tasty water that night! Life was good that evening!

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Jizera and Giant Mountains

When I briefly entered Germany again near Oybin bad weather struck for the first time during that hike. Luckily I was in village when a torrential downpour came down and I sought shelter together with a German guy on a big motor bike. After one hour the rain stopped and we both continued. Further West in Germany this turned out to be the most destructive thunderstorm of the year but even here at the border of Germany, Czech Republic and Poland the rain continued later in the evening. This was when I discovered that my brand new tent that I had bought seamsealed was not entirely waterproof ...

But I knew that I would soon reach Liberec and my first resupply stop where I would hopefully be able to fix the problem. Liberec turned out to be a wonderful trail town. Although the city was almost completely booked I ended up in a brand new hotel in the outskirts of town with an excellent restaurant nearby. I seamsealed the tent in my hotel room and never had a problem again with it on this trip. Liberec did not only have a nice historical town centre, but also two interesting museums. The art gallery had once been a swim hall dedicated to the Austrian emporer Franz Joseph and showed some surprisingly good art work

Now came one small mountain range after another and I keep forgetting their names. Most were crossed in one day! First were the Jizera Mountains were cyclists rule. This meant that almost half of the otherwise scenic trail was on pavement or concrete slabs and you see more cyclists than hikers. I even ran into a mountain bike race for kids where one father was accompanying his son on foot ... I don't think they broke any speed records but everyone seemed to have fun.

The Giant Mountains were not really that giant and full of tourists. I was having a hard time finding a discreet camping spot! Early in the morning I ran into two older German gentleman who asked me to take their picture and told me a sad story in return. They were on a memorial hike for an old friend who had recently died of cancer. For decades the three of them had been hiking in the Giant Mountains and their friend had always brought a special cake for them. Now they came back every year with this cake and ate it in his memory. Even I was offered a piece! Sniezka (1600 metres), the highest mountain of the Sudetes, was teeming with tourists as was the source of the river Elbe, a river that I still want to paddle one day.