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.
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.”
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.