Searching for the spring

A walk to find the source of the iconic Vltava River

As soon as we enter the forest, everything feels different. The road narrows, the pines thicken and the greenery deepens. The sun, bright overhead a moment ago, is reduced to streaks through the branches, highlighting misty, mossy avenues of spruce and gnarled tree roots. From the corner of my eye, I’m sure I see a shape bounding off into the undergrowth. Were it not for a wooden sign welcoming us to ‘Šumava National Park’, it’d be easy to believe we’d strayed into a Brothers Grimm fairytale.

The words ‘national treasure’ get thrown about a lot, but occasionally a place really deserves the description. Even before the road began rising up into Šumava’s tree-clad foothills, we had the impression we were heading somewhere special. An attendant at the petrol station on the highway had nodded his approval on hearing our plans to visit this 70,000-hectare stretch of rugged, lush and ecologically extraordinary forest. And he wasn’t the first.

Wherever you go in the Czech Republic, mention Šumava and you’re likely to draw smiles, memories or recommendations delivered in reverential tones. There’s no mistaking that this is the crown jewel in a country with a wealth of natural riches.

Looking at a map, you start to appreciate why. This landscape is not just enchanting but environmentally important. Straddling the Bavarian border at the southwest edge of the Czech Republic, Šumava’s mix of mountains, woods, peat bogs, mirror-flat glacial lakes, meadows, springs and meandering rivers link with tracts of German and Austrian woodland to form the vast ‘transnational’ Bohemian Forest, the largest forested area in Europe. Being at the geographical centre of the continent, this density of trees is also known as the ‘Green Lungs of Europe’; it’s a region that, quite literally, breathes life into the landmass.

This is especially true for wildlife. Aside from a few scattered villages Šumava remains sparsely populated by humans meaning thousands of animal species thrive here, including the king of European forest cats, the lynx, as well as elk, deer, moose, boar, pine marten, wildcat and otter. A sharp-eyed (or eared) visitor may encounter three types of rare grouse – the capercaillie, black grouse and hazel grouse – and there are even reports of hikers glimpsing wolves ghosting through its remotest reaches.

Winding down the windows as we drive, we’re washed with waves of birdsong echoing through the trees. In the lulls between melodies there is only glorious silence. Everything exudes a sense of deep age and timelessness; it feels like we’ve found that rare thing – a place of origin, protected from the modern world.

For Czechs, there’s one specific point of origin in Šumava particularly close to their hearts: the spring that births the country’s iconic watercourse, the mighty Vltava. Bubbling up here in South Bohemia, the ‘national river’ trickles, widens, weaves and thunders its way 430km through Český Krumlov, České Budějovice and all the way to Prague where it is criss-crossed by eighteen bridges, including the famously photogenic Charles Bridge.

...all the way to Prague where it is criss-crossed by eighteen bridges, including the famously photogenic Charles Bridge.

Located a gentle six kilometre trek from the mountain village of Kvilda, the Vltava’s source is not only a point of pilgrimage for Czechs but a great focal point for anyone wanting to get out and experience some of Šumava’s natural wonders on foot – which is exactly what we’re here to do.

So after parking and downing bags at our hotel for the night – the picturesque, wood-clad Hotel Šumava Inn on Kvilda’s little main street – we reappear in boots, jumpers and coats. The drop in temperature at over 1,060m above sea level is palpable. Across the road, outside an incredibly well stocked tourist information centre packed with walking trail leaflets and cycling maps, we meet up with Kvilda’s young mayor, Václav Vostradovský, who seems far more acclimatised in his thin leather jacket.

“Living here you get used to it.” He says. “This village is actually the coldest place in the Czech Republic. We have a yearly average temperature of two degrees centigrade. One day in early summer last year, it was 30 degrees everywhere else but we still had snow ploughs clearing the street.”

Not today though. Despite the weather becoming overcast, there’s no danger of the white stuff that transforms this village into a cross-country skiing paradise for much of the year. So, armed with maps, we all set off down the road in search of the spring.

Away to our right, the Vltava meanders, thick, snake-like through rich meadows; we stop to point at a kingfisher flashing sapphire across its surface. Then the track rises out of the village, past the grassland and lines of finely stacked logs, leading us up into the trees again.

Amid the vegetation, the mayor points out young blueberry plants jewelled with moisture and some of the many incredible wildflowers, explaining that there plant species found in Šumava that have remained since the last Ice Age.

Up through the wood and around a bend, a patch of mist hangs between the banks of spruce; beneath it a brown hare sits on the track, eyeing us as we approach before dashing off into the undergrowth. Its disappearance signals the start of a soft, drizzle-rain, which soon hazes the trees. But, as Václav explains, it’s fitting weather to be walking into.

“Water here is everything,” he tells me “Šumava’s mountain ridge is part of the main watershed of Europe between the Black Sea and the North Sea. The freshwater in its peat bogs, wetlands, lakes, streams and rivers mean it’s a very important headwater.”

The rivers he’s talking about – the Vltava and Otava – swell and fall with rain, over time creating oxbow lakes and floodplains that sustain Šumava’s diversity of aquatic insects, ‘underwater meadows’, fish and otters. Plants and trees like alder, willow and downy birch grow along the edges of the watercourses, themselves creating habitats and ecosystems that sustain rare species.

This lifeblood has long flowed downstream too. The Vltava’s winding course has long been integral to – and fed – the human history of the Czech Republic. From this river’s banks bloomed the country’s major towns and cities. Before Budweiser Budvar drew water from an Ice Age aquifer 300m beneath the brewery, its brewing predecessors in České Budějovice relied on the Vltava. The river has driven countless industries and even inspired classical composers; today it still powers everything from hydroelectric dams to a bohemian canoeing and rafting scene that congregates around Český Krumlov each summer.

“Just like when you make beer,” Václav says. “Without the water there would be nothing.”

Given this importance, it’s something of a shock to find the river’s humble source.

At a little clearing signposted ‘Pramen Vltavy’, we duck off the road a few feet following the sound of trickling water. Amid rowan and pine bursting with bracket fungus, surrounded by clumps of wood sorrel and wild raspberries, a wooden pipe is suspended over a pool. The pure, clear water running down it is too tempting to resist and I cup a handful of it and drink.

Staring at me is a weathered wooden sculpture, the river goddess and keeper of the spring. In the pool by her feet people have thrown coins, presumably for wishes. Rising up, I do the same and before long, they seem to be granted. The clouds lift and Alpine-like views of mountain and forest are revealed. A cuckoo calls and I stand, eyes closed, soaking in the peace and quiet.

Back by the signpost, there is a hiker’s information board detailing the lay of the land, criss-crossed with red and black dotted lines. “These are all walking routes,” says Václav. “They join up with paths that take you through Austria, Switzerland, Germany…throughout Europe.” It transpires that – amazingly – his own wife followed one, walking from here all the way to Santiago De Compostela last year.

Of course, these borders haven’t always been so open.

A few kilometres further on through the trees lie the remnants of Bučina, a village razed to the ground after its German population were evicted after the Second World War and borders were ruthlessly enforced between east and west. Standing there now is a chilling recreation of the Iron Curtain as it was giving visitors an idea of the danger of the dividing lines, showing the high walls of wire, lethal electric fences and lookout towers. It’s strange to think that for decades Šumava was a no-go area to most people, especially on days like this when, if you turn and look the other way, it appears to be a little corner of heaven.

By the time we get back to the hotel everyone is ravenous. As we take a table for dinner and order beers and jugs of water, fires are lit and the eclectic interiors of the Hotel Šumava Inn come to life. Creaky wooden beams, random Laurel and Hardy memorabilia, antlers, penny farthings and shelves of books – all work together to create a warming sense of bonhomie. But the food takes it to another level.

Plates arrive with hearty dishes drawing on ingredients from the area. A potato and wild mushroom soup; the chef’s signature ‘Handful’ soup – a handful each of beans, lentils, pearl barley, sausage – then a superb roasted trout fished from the Vltava served stuffed with herbs on a bed of risotto and chanterelles from the woods. Next is a delicious game goulash made with Šumava venison and boar, and the kind of local specialty discovery that renders you speechless and reaching for the camera: pancakes dusted with icing sugar with stewed, roasted apple and raisins.

Strolling it all off through Kvilda as the day draws down into dark, past a sweet, little church with a varnished tree trunk for an altar, I drop down to where the Vltava weaves through the village. There’s no doubt that water defines Šumava; it has done for countless millennia, but what rises here and flows on downstream defines the country too. It feels good to have found its beginning point and to have drunk in a little of this region’s unique magic. I throw one more coin into the river, just for good measure.

The Route

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest

TERMS & CONDITIONS

By entering this site you acknowledge and agree to the following terms and conditions. If you do not agree to these terms, do not use this site.

By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that this site will only be construed and evaluated according to uk law.

If you use this site from other juristictions you are responsible for compliance with any and all applicable local laws.

BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK Limited is the copyright owner of this site and no portion of this site, including but not limited to the text, images, audio or video, may be used in any manner, or for any purpose, without BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED’S express written permission, except as provided for herein. Without in any way waiving any of the foregoing rights, you may download one copy of the material on this site for your personal, non-commercial home use only, provided you do not delete or change any copyright, trademark or other proprietary notices. Modification or use of the material on this site for any other purposes violates BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED’S legal rights.

By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that your use is at your own risk and that none of the parties involved in creating, producing, or delivering this site is liable (to the extent that such liability is not prohibited at law) for any direct, incidental, consequential, indirect, or punitive damages, or any other losses, costs, or expenses of any kind (including legal fees, expert fees, or other disbursements) which may arise, directly or indirectly, through the access to, use of, or browsing of this site or through your downloading of any materials, data, text, images, video or audio from this site, including but not limited to anything caused by any viruses, bugs, human action or inaction or any computer system, phone line, hardware, software or program malfunctions, or any other errors, failures or delays in computer transmissions or network connections.

Do not post on this site, or transmit to this site, any pornographic, obscene, profane, defamatory, libelous, threatening, unlawful or other material which could constitute or encourage conduct that would be considered a criminal offence, give rise to civil liability, promote the excessive or irresponsible consumption of alcohol, or otherwise violate any law or regulation. Notwithstanding the fact that BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED or other parties involved in creating, producing, or delivering this site, may monitor or review transmissions, posting, discussions, or chats, BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED and all parties involved in creating, producing or delivering this site, assume no responsibility or liability which may arise from the content thereof, including but not limited to claims for defamation, libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, profanity, or misrepresentation.

By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that any communication or material you transmit to this site or BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED, in any manner and for any reason, will not be treated as confidential or proprietary. Furthermore, you acknowledge and agree that in consideration of your access to and transmission of any materials to this site, all rights (both legal and beneficial) in the nature of copyright arising or existing in any communication or material in which such ideas, concepts, techniques, procedures, methods, systems, designs, plans or charts are contained are assigned to BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED. You agree that you will not have any right to any form of payment or royalty in the event that any such materials are used by BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.

By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that any name, logo, trademark, or servicemark contained on this site is owned or licensed by BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED and may not be used by you without prior written approval. BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED will aggressively enforce its intellectual property rights to the full extent of the law. Sound, graphics, charts, text, video, information, or images of places or people are either the property of BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED or used on this site with permission. Your use of any of these materials is prohibited unless specifically provided for on the site. Any unauthorised use of these materials may subject you to penalties or damages, including but not limited to those related to violation of trademarks, copyrights, privacy, and publicity rights.

Although this site may be linked to other sites, BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED is not, directly or indirectly, implying any approval, association, sponsorship, endorsement, or affiliation with the linked site, unless specifically stated therein. By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED has not reviewed all the sites linked to this site and is not responsible for the content of any off-site pages or any other site linked to this site. Your linking to any other off-site pages or other sites is at your own risk.

BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED reserves the right to revise this legal information at any time and for any reason and reserves the right to make changes at any time, without notice or obligation, to any of the information contained on this site. By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that you shall be bound by any such revisions. We suggest periodically visiting this page of the site to review these terms and conditions.

Notices in respect of this site should be addressed to The Managing Director, Budweiser Budvar Ltd. Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9BB

PRIVACY STATEMENT: HOW WE USE COOKIES

Cookies are very small text files that are stored on your computer when you visit some websites.

We use cookies to help identify your computer so we can tailor your user experience.

You can disable any cookies already stored on your computer, but these may stop our website from functioning properly.

This website will use cookies to provide you with the best user experience and also to tell us which pages you find most interesting (anonymously).

This website will track the pages you visit via Google Analytics

This website will allow you to share pages with social networks such as Facebook, Twitter etc. These social networks may separately record this activity and such record is outside our control.

This website will not share any personal information with third parties.

If you do not agree to the above use of cookies, we respectfully request that you do not use this website.