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High roaring pines.

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Snow.

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.

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Written by alexconnor

June 25, 2012 at 23:36

Posted in Not really Flanders., Sunburn

Tagged with ,

The hyperbolic hotel.

with 3 comments

The primary television transmitter for northern parts of the Czech Republic was completed in 1968. It serves the city of Liberec, along with much of Bohemia, southern Germany and south west Poland. Uniquely for a mountain-top transmission tower, it is also a hotel. A hotel from another time.

Egg chairs.

Hotel Ještěd sits a kilometre above sea level, on the top of the highest peak of Ještěd-Kozákov Ridge. It is not, as you might imagine, built in the traditions of a medieval, turreted Bohemian castle. Ještěd is the height of middle-European 1960s luxury.

It is reachable by treacherous mountain road, a hike through an ancient forest, or, and this is preferable, its own dedicated cable car.

Jested.

It stands proud, king of the mountain, and also of its own ski resort. Thirty metres across at its base, the tower rises as a circular hyperboloid.

It should feel like a lighthouse; it feels like a space station.

Jested.

Unlike other mathematically-themed hotels, Ještěd isn’t very big. It has 12 proper rooms, with a further half-dozen ski-chalet bunks. The restaurant has nine tables. But mathematics can only take you so far. Ještěd is a triumph of design over all things. Built as a new summit to the mountain, the tower defeated nature long ago.

The interior is inch perfect, besting time and progress. From the egg chairs in the hallways to the banana splits in the restaurant, Ještěd lives and breathes 60s glamour. (Though I can’t imagine that the Liberec of 1973 was any more the Monaco of central Europe than it is today — the Manchester of Bohemia, the guidebook says.) There are drawbacks to perfection. The shape means that as the weather warms, chunks of ice fall from the top of the tower and clatter down the outside of the structure. The sound echoing through the minimalist rooms. The staff are, understandably, a little surly, shut away at the top of a mountain. Aside from the restaurant and some Czech TV, there isn’t much to do, at least for English speakers; this is very much a German beach. But, hyperbole to one side, what a beach.

Jested.

Written by alexconnor

January 3, 2012 at 22:56

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