Czechia has a treasure not known to many visitors. It is a unique network of hiking trails over 40 000 kilometers (or 25 000 miles) long. The trails are very well marked out and regularly maintained by members of the Czech Tourist Club. Whereas other countries have various hiking trails, the Czech network is very systematic, easy to understand and unified all over the country. As Vít Pohanka reports, the system was developed for over a century.
Meet Martin Pesler and Vladimír Maršík. Mr. Pesler is the chairman of the regional commision for tourists trails, Mr. Maršík is the head of the team that marks out and maintains the trails in and around the town of Havlíčkův Brod. They have both been hiking around the forests and fields of the Vysočina – or Highlands – Region with a brush and a can of paint for more than 20 years. You could not wish for better guides if you want to learn something about the Czech hiking trails. We start our short field trip in front of a guidepost in the main square of Havlíčkův Brod. There is a red-mark arrow on top, blue, green and yellow follow downwards. Is there a meaning in that order? Martin Pesler explains:
"Yes, the red color is the most important and that’s why it is on top. It is reserved for the long trails that can connect different regions of the country, lead down long river valleys or on the contrary, on top of long mountain ridges. The blue trails mostly connect some significant or scenic spots but only within a certain region. The green color is for shorter trails usually within a county. And yellow signs mark shorter trails connecting other more significant and longer trails. But, of course, like in every system, there are exceptions. So you can find yellow trails that are 50 kilometers long."
Vladimír Maršík then gives a concrete example of a trail that is marked on this particular guidepost and bears the name of famous 19th-century Czech journalist and writer Karel Havlíček Borovský, who was born in a small village nearby and later lived in this town:
"If you take the red sign, you can also see that it has a special name: Trail of Karel Havlíček Borovský. We give some of the trails names. This one leads for over 40 kilometers or 25 miles from the town of Hlinsko and ends right here. Then you can see a different sort of mark – that is a local educational trail dedicated to painter, poet, and writer Bohuslav Reynek. He was born in the nearby village of Petrkov in the late 19th century and later lived there with his French wife. The trail will lead you to his favorite places, there are five stops where you can read about his life and excerpts from his poems. It ends at his grave at the Svatý Kříž village cemetery.“
So, the Czech Tourist Club encourages you not only to hike but also learn something – be it about history, literature, geology, plants, and animals. In order to be easily followed, the trail marks must be very visible and there are strict rules about their placement, size, and distances from one mark to another. In the forests you will find them most often on trees or large boulders in the mountains, in the cities, they will be painted on walls or traffic sign posts. If needed they have special posts of their own. Vladimír Maršík explains the basic rules.
"They should be placed approximately at eye-level – usually somewhere between 150 and 170 centimeters from the ground. They have to have specific size – 10 centimeters high, ten centimeters wide. There are always two very white bands for good visibility. In between them is the specific color-band – we call it "the lead color".
"Secondly, it is very important to carefully mark out any crossroads or other places that could mislead the hiker. So for example here on the corner, you see what we call a „leading sign“ and then there is another within ten meters so that you know which direction to take. That’s a "confirmation“ sign. You must not forget that tourists are hiking not only from Havlíčkův Brod but also to Havlíčkův Brod so it must be carefully marked out in the same way in both directions."
All this may sound a bit silly –the signs having to be placed so that you can see from one to another or at least in such a way that you do not have doubts that you are following the right path or route. But try hiking in some other countries. You will often find that the person who marked out a trail probably knew it quite well, but failed to take into consideration that someone who is trying to follow it for the first time and does not know the area needs much more visible and frequent signage.
A lot of Czech and foreign hikers consider the Czech network of trails and the way it is marked not only unique but perhaps the best in the world. Are they right? I ask Vratislav Chvátal, the president of the Czech Tourist Club:
"Of course, there are many other systems and it would probably be conceited of me to say that we have the best system in the world. What we know for sure is that not just Czech hikers but tourists from many other countries like it and praise it. We also know that our members hike in many other countries all over the world and can compare the systems and they unequivocally rate our system better. What makes it so easy to use is not just the marks themselves but also information on the guideposts. You can always find the main points of the trail and distance to them – from the most distant to the closest. It might seem like a minor detail but it is very important that you instantly know where you are, where you are heading and how far it is. In other countries you very often need a map, too, to find this information. You can find an example in neighboring Austria. They do not use colors but numbers. So if you come to crossroads you need a map to choose the right trail.“
There is nothing like a nice long hike in the forests and fields – especially in spring and summer when the nature in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia is at its most colourful. But even in late fall and winter the Czech landscape offers great walks.
Only about 1400 members of the Czech Tourist Club are actually willing to devote their own free time as volunteers and work on the maintenance of the hiking trails. They do get a little money and their travel costs are reimbursed. Still,even for a symbolic reward, they do a great job. And if you want to try the trails for yourselves do not hesitate. Many of them start or go through Prague, Brno or other cities and towns you might be visiting.
You can find and buy special maps not only in tourist information centers but also many kiosks that sell stationery or even petrol or gas stations. Plus there are special map apps you can download no matter whether you have an Android smartphone or iPhone. Just search for "Czech", "Tourist" and "Maps“.