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High roaring pines.

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Liberec, 28 December.

Growing up in the east of England, home of arable fields and pigsties, I have always seen mountains and forests as mysterious and enticing things. Filled with woodland realms and mountain kings. So it was with no little anticipation that I took my girlfriend off to the mountains in the north of the Czech Republic for the New Year. We were to be based in a hotel on the top of the Ještěd-Kozákov ridge, just outside Liberec and surrounded by woodland. And not just any woodland. A lush, ancient, Peter-and-the-Wolf style forest. Ripe for walking in.

Plans were made in short order and once installed in the hotel we set out down the mountain, wearing clothes that would not look out of place in London on a brisk afternoon. We laughed at the German tourists and their gortex and hiking poles, and their seriousness. We had seen their group at breakfast, as boorish as visitors from the local large country can be when they drop in on a smaller neighbour. We in contrast, cowed by our lack of language skills, were Über-polite. Courteous to the point of diffidence. The very soul of the relaxed traveller. And so it seemed even more appropriate that they should see us striding off in to the woods in such casual attire – we know what we are doing, and we can do it with making such a fuss about things.

We wound our way down a path that seemed to have been built by the trees themselves. This was the forest I had imagined. The walk was easy, fun. Making snowballs and marvelling at the virgin snow stretching out on the path before us. Sampling the silence and the infinity of the ancient forest, the long range order of the trees.

We reached the base of the mountain all too soon, and, after a brief moment to congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments, we turned and started back up. It was slightly harder going than we had anticipated but no less of adventure. We still had the trees, the mythology.

About an hour later we were still going. The path, curiously, as unfamiliar and untouched as it was on the way down. But such concerns were muted by the footprints of some other hearty walker and his dog in front of us. They went this way, surely we can too – after all, there was only one path, and we knew where it came from. We collected a couple of walking sticks from the forest floor. Only for appearance, of course. And took in the view across a vast snowy valley that somehow we had missed on the way down

Half an hour more and the romance was beginning to fade. The snow was up past our knees. The forest had opened out and we found ourselves on what appeared to be a mountain ridge, with night about to fall. Thoughts began to wander to half-remembered snippets on mountain survival. Should it be a snow hole, or shelter made of pine fronds? Pine cones are edible, aren’t they? Thoughts also drifted to the indignities of being rescued : hapless tourists rescued in good health, probably about 200 yards from the hotel reception. Maybe they would send a helicopter. The footprints we had been following stretched resolutely out ahead of us up the mountainside. Two clear sets, a man and his dog. A dog!

As the light began to dip further, common sense began to overcome pride. Footprints be damned. We were going back. A dog had beaten us.

It seemed only moments later that we arrived, exhausted, wet and delirious at the car park half way up the mountainside. We strode in as Shackleton to be met by the barely expressed indifference of the young families loading up their cars with sledges and pushchairs.

A glance back up the hill explained it all. There were two paths! To the right, a familiar welcoming trail into the magical forest, and on the left, a rugged goats’ path, marked only with a faded wooden signpost pointing to the next village some 16 km away.

It wasn’t long before we were back in the hotel. Huddled round bowls of soup, not looking at the Germans.


Written by alexconnor

June 25, 2012 at 23:36

Posted in Not really Flanders., Sunburn

Tagged with ,

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