When people hear the word skiing, they mostly think about downhill skiing, which features more prominently in outdoor film festivals and the media because it is faster and more dramatic. However, cross-country skiing (or Langlaufen in German) is also popular in many snowy countries, particularly with outdoorsy people who enjoy being in the forests and doing some exercise. Having tested out the cross-country ski trails in the Harz mountains in Germany over the last years, we started exploring the cross-country trails across the border in Czech Republic over 2018/2019 winter season. For some practical tips on visiting the Czech republic for cross-country skiing, see the bottom of this post.
Our first stop was Hejnice, a village located in the Jizera mountains on the Via Sacra, a trails that connects important ecclesiastical sites in Germany, Poland and Czech Republic. Appropriately, our accommodation was in a former Franciscan monastery (Hejnice Klášter), and we woke every day to the sound of church bells. The breakfast was great and the rooms were comfortable, so I would definitely stay there again. Hejnice is approximately 3 hours from Berlin.
From Hejnice, it was a relatively short drive up the mountain to the cross-country skiing area. While there was no snow in Hejnice itself, as we drove higher, we started to see snow on the sides of the roads. By the time we got to the cross-country skiing area, Smědava, the world was blanketed in snow.
We had one complete beginner in our group, so we chose a route that started off going uphill, which is easier for beginners than going downhill. Downhill is the trickiest to learn in cross-country skiing, since the skis usually don’t have edges like downhill skis do. For more about the art of cross-country skiing, you can read this post I wrote about Harz when I was a beginner myself.
We noticed some clear differences in cross-country skiing between Harz (Germany) and the Czech Republic. For one, there seemed to be a lot more professional skiers in Czech republic, dressed in skintight skiing outfits, compared to Harz where you do spot the odd person dressed like that but not many. Czechs seem to take sports gear fairly seriously, since people cycling are also usually dressed up in sporty lycra, and not out for casual sightseeing bike rides like we would be here. Also, there were far more people using the skating style, compared to the classical style, whereas in Germany the classical style predominates. Skaters ski down the middle of the two sets of tracks, and it’s an energetic frog-like motion that takes up quite a bit of room and looks like a good workout.
Sometimes it’s a bit alarming when skaters are skiing past, especially when it’s tall men with very long skis that sometimes overlap the tracks for classical skiing. It also means sometimes there’s not much room to stand if you want to step off the tracks for any reason (like waiting for slower friends), until you get to the junctions. There’s also less tolerance for slower people, especially on hills when some people seem to want to zoom down, and shout at any one who happens to be in their way. In Harz it’s more casual, and if there’s someone slower in front of you, you are the one who should go around. On the other hand, in Harz you always have to dodge pedestrians, sledders, kids and dogs, so both ways have their own obstacles.
What both regions have in common is the enjoyable trails through snowy forests. The Jizerská magistrála is 170km of linked up, groomed trails leading through the Jizera mountains. Our trail started off uphill and was then relatively flat apart from one or two ups and downs. After some time, we arrived at a wooden hut. It was cosy inside but with standing room only, so we just had a hot drink and decided to head towards another hut for lunch.
After quite a long stretch, our beginner was getting quite worn out (partly because he hadn’t mastered the art of gliding yet), so before reaching the next hut, we turned back as it was getting too late. We’d come further than we realized as it seemed like a very long slog back to the first hut. Once there, we all ate the sausages and bread that were on offer, before doing the last leg back to the start. The hill we’d come up in the beginning was a relatively long and steep down, and too much of a challenge for our beginner, who in the end took of his skis and walked the last part. I asked him how much he’d fallen in the last half of the day compared to the first half, and he said in all seriousness “Not much, only about 10 times”, which left me wondering how many times he’d crashed earlier!
Our timing was perfect as it was just starting to get dark when we got to the end of our trail. We headed to the hut at the parking lot and indulged in some blueberry dumplings before driving back to Hejnice. Definitely look for blueberry specialties when you visit the Czech republic – they use the small blueberries from the forest and it tastes delicious.
After freshening up in our rooms, we had dinner at the hotel restaurant and then played some card games before falling into bed for a well-earned rest. We awoke the sound of raining – not good. We hoped that higher up in Smědava it would be cold enough that it was snow and not rain, but unfortunately we arrived at the parking lot to find that it was raining there too. We thus retreated to the hut, along with the majority of other would-be skiers, and enjoyed hot drinks while keeping an eye on the weather forecast. Suddenly the temperature dropped, and the people coming in the door has snow on their clothes instead of being wet. The weather changes fast in the mountains! It was time to head to the ski trails.
That day we experienced all kinds of weather: rain, snow, sleet, mist, wind blasting flecks of ice, and even hail later on in Hejnice. By the end of the day I was soaked through despite having an outfit that should have resisted the rain to some degree. We did a different trail this time. The first part was similar to the day before in that it was more or less a cross country skiing highway and fairly busy, although the inclement weather reduced the crowds compared to the day before. Just before lunch there was a very long downhill, with our beginner struggling to get down, but pleased that this was material for good crash videos with which he could entertain his friends and family. The wind was howling by the time we arrived at a hut, and we were happy to hurry inside and enjoy a hearty lunch.
After lunch we ended up on a trail that was much quieter because the tracks hadn’t been laid, and we enjoyed that the most, even though we did it in the middle of a blizzard. The trail followed a river back to the carpark, and was mostly flat apart from a long downhill at the end. The woods looked mysterious as the mist started to settle in.
Once again, our timing was good, and we ended just as the light was starting to fade. We treated ourselves to another plate of blueberry dumplings, and then headed back to Berlin, already starting to plan our next cross-country skiing trip in the Czech Republic.
Some tips for cross-country skiing trips in the Czech Republic:
1. Get some cash. Many restaurants only take cash, preferably Korunas (Czech crowns). Some will take Euros and give you change in Korunas. Even many guesthouses will expect you to pay in cash. If you’re wondering how much to draw, a meal usually costs between 100-200 Korunas. Beer and soft drinks are relatively cheap.
2. If you are a beginner, some areas have training trails which are generally a bit quieter than the cross country skiing highways such as the Magistrála. Bedřîchov has a great 5km training route, although it has uphills and downhills, and beginners might like to start on a flatter track. Check the map for flat routes if you’re a beginner, to get in the swing of things. Tracks that are less well groomed also tend to be emptier, but could be trickier for beginners to negotiate.
3. While we were at a ski shop, my husband had to translate between the shop staff and a Spanish tourist, because English is not widely spoken in the skiing areas. Many people do understand some German, since it’s not far from Germany. Try to learn a few Czech phrases, for example “Pozor!” which means “Watch out!/Careful!”, as if you hear someone shouting this out on the ski slope from behind you, you should know to get out of the way.
4. If you’re looking for something tasty to eat and don’t understand the menu, try svíčková. This is a Czech specialty consisting of meat in a tasty sauce, served with dumplings, and it is really delicious. Czech guláš (goulash) is also a good option, and you will also see roast duck (pecena kachna) on a lot of menus, served with bread dumplings and red cabbage. Czech republic is not so easy for vegetarians, but you can find fried cheese (smažený sýr) on most menus, and you can often choose between Edam cheese and hermelin (similar to Camembert). Beer (pivo) is cheap, and you should try the local cola, Kofola, at least once. If you’re looking for a stronger drink, Becherovka is a local herbal liqueur that people drink as a digestive.