Marek is this guy who picks you up at your hotel in the morning. He drives you all the way to the national park in the comfortable, WIFI connected van. Tosses a few jokes or interesting facts about the natural monuments you pass during your hike. Offers the ice spikes for your boots when the spring sun is too lazy to melt the snow crust among the sand rocks.
He is the guy with extra water in his backpack in case you forgot the complimentary lunch pack in the car and need to refresh yourself after broadcasting live feeds to your IG or FB from the breathtaking but sun-parched viewpoints.
The guy who recommends the best from the menu at lunch and drives you back to your Prague hotel at the end of your adventurous day. He will take such good care of you that you will be tempted to call him… well, Mama. But don’t 🙂
He is our most experienced guide. And he has been with us from the very beginning.
AS: Marek, have you ever taken your mama for a trip as a guide?
MK: Haha, no. But I remember when I was little, my parents used to be our ‘guides’ in the forest every weekend. That’s what many families did back in the 1980’. The political regime didn’t allow for traveling or any interesting cultural events, so the beautiful, unspoiled nature of the Bohemian Switzerland was the logical escape for us locals.
AS: Must have been something, to live in the Bohemian Switzerland back at the time of communism, when no one could travel freely to the rich western countries, right?
MK: You bet! I remember feeling proud just saying it out loud as a kid. Bohemian Switzerland… it sounded so important and worldly! Also the fact that it is practically on the border with Germany. We felt privileged to live here. And, to be honest, I still do. I have seen half of the world, but in the end I came back here anyway.
AS: You said you have seen half of the world?
MK: Well, I left my hometown, Decin, right after school. I ended up finding a job on a cruise ship, worked and traveled like that for over ten years.
AS: How was working on a cruise ship?
MK: It teaches you a lot about the world. And even more about human nature. Makes you a good observer and an even better listener.
AS: But as a guide, surely, you must be a good teller, too.
MK: People often ask me if I strain my voice a lot as a guide. Or if I have a good memory to learn the long speeches for the guests. And I laugh. Because I think being a good guide is not about opening your mouth the moment your guests enter the car in the morning and closing it only after you drop them off in the evening. I prefer to talk only when I feel there are questions in the air. Or when we are passing a really remarkable monument. I like to tune myself to the different moods of the individual guest. Perform the role of someone like a mediator.
AS: Mediator? Why?
MK: We only do small groups of guests, up to 8 people, but they may come from totally different cultural backgrounds. And sometimes it is better to engage in little one-to-one conversations during the hike then to gather the group in front of a rock and give them all a boring geological lecture about how the sandstone structures came to existence in this area. Also, since we mostly walk through the undisturbed nature of the national park, I feel like talking too loud or too much would be inappropriate.
AS: But you do know how the sandstones originated, right?
MK: [Laughing] Oh, yes! Yes, of course. And I am happy to talk about this as well as many interesting historical facts to the guests during a tour. It’s just that I don’t push it onto them when I feel they prefer to enjoy the calm atmosphere of the forest. And it requires different approach when you talk about the region with an adventurous individual or to a family with kids. The first may like curiosities, the other more of a fairytale.
AS: So who is a typical guest on a Northern Hikes tour?
MK: That can vary a lot. We host different nationalities. Not only the native English speaking as Americans, Brits or Australians. I often get to guide people from Asia too, Singapore, South Korea. Some are solo travelers, adventure seekers, flashpacking individuals or traveling couples, others may be couples on honeymoon or families with children. I must be ready for all variations.
AS: But is there something they all have in common?
MK: Basically, they all come to Czech Republic to see the capital, Prague. And then, usually when they plan the trip, they come across our offer of 1-day hiking tours. They like the idea of escaping the city for 1 day. Getting rest in the nature without much effort or stress from organising, then coming back refreshed and ready for the many jollies of the historical metropole again.
AS: So if the guests come to Czech Republic for a city trip, are they equipped for hiking in the wild terrain?
MK: There is really no need of any extra equipment on our tours. Our longest and most demanding tour is 10 miles (16km), so it is advisable to bring comfortable boots for that. But we also offer easy, much shorter variants for those who want to enjoy the nature and see a lot but don’t feel like much hiking. And for that you can come in regular sports shoes. Plus we carry all the necessary equipment in the back of the car, so if we arrive at the location and it looks like raining, I have raincoats for everyone ready. Or a stack of extra gloves and a few other gadgets, just in case.
The most important thing is for the guests to be able to assess how fit they are and to choose the type of the tour accordingly. And if they don’t know, then it is up to our tour coordinators to talk to the guests and help them make the right decision. And even if all these insurances fail, there is still me. With my two hands. That can help in case someone overestimates their strength. But luckily, that almost never happens.
AS: We know that climbing is the most favorite local sport. Are you a climber yourself?
MK: I seem to be an exception. I mean, of course I climbed a few of the sand rocks around here as a teenager. After all, you could hardly pick up a girl back then without clinking a span shackle. But I never found the true enthusiasm for climbing. Probably because I left my hometown, Decin, so early and only came back when I already had kids and had to behave. [Scoffing]
AS: What is your favorite part of the Bohemian Switzerland National Park?
MK: Ha! There is no way I am giving away my secret favorite place to the public! But you know what? The places we go to with the Northern Hikes are pretty much the highlights of the park. So if I was to take my friends for a trip here, I would definitely go for some of the spots we do with our guests, like the Pravcicka Gate (the biggest sandstone arch in Europe), the Gorges of Kamenice river, Tisa sand-rocks labyrinth, the Bastei Bridge etc. Generally, I like the entire area of the park.
Wherever you go there is something beautiful, the viewpoints or the wild forest, the canyon around the Elbe river, the sand-rock formations. And if I had to choose, then, well, the windy, sun bathed views from the plateau are great, but I rather walk through the canyon, down by the river, in the shade of the green forest.
AS: How about a good local place to eat after you have walked the canyon?
MK: I don’t like to repeat myself, but again, the restaurant we take our guests with Northern Hikes, U Forta at Mezni Louka, is one of the best. They cook from local products, so when you order their famous ribs or the beef tenderloin or the goat cheese with apple jam and walnut bread, it all comes from local farmers. And I really like the idea of supporting the locals who try to promote and develop the region.
AS: Come on! There must be more. Somewhere you take your own family for a treat?
MK: [Sighs with resignation] OK, ok. There are more places like that, in fact, they have started popping up pretty fast in the last few years. Probably a proof that the tourists finally start discovering the region. I can definitely recommend the restaurant and guest house Na Stodolci in Chribska where you can not only have a hearty lunch, but also go for a horse ride, I think they call it a hipotour nowadays. I also like to go to Krasna Lipa, to the local mini-brewery called Falkenstejn. Their craft beer is exquisite! And I hear they recently had some famous cook from England rearranging their menu, so all the more reason to pay their restaurant a visit.
Then there is a special treat for those who love the wild, game meat. The romantic hunting residence Kristin Hradek enroute to the famous table mountain Sneznik. Hidden in the woods. A perfect love nest! And they even appeared on the Maurer’s Grand restaurant choice. Oh, and let’s not forget some of the places located directly in the town Decin, which is considered the gate to the national park. There are two burger places right next to the favorite tourist spot, the ferrata. I personally like the one called Karls’ Grill Bar better. Then there is the Farmar, right on the exit route towards the Luzicke (Lusatian) mountains.
AS: And a little something where they serve just coffee or open from early in the morning?
MK: Decin is naturally divided into two halves by the Elbe river. And lately, each side finally has a good coffeehouse. In Podmokly, it is the Cafe jako zvon, while the other side of the river can show off with a really nice cafe called Coffee & Books. Both places also serve homemade snacks and cakes, and you get bread from the local bakery with each bowl of soup.
AS: Well, it seems like I have squeezed all the secret local gems from you, so just one last question. What made you come and work for the Northern Hikes?
MK: You know, it all just fits. You have this urge to do something that really makes sense once you turn forty. Also you start thinking about keeping yourself in a good shape physically. And, last but not least, you need to be able to feed the family. Northern Hikes was the first company to do a good job guiding English speaking tourists from Prague through the region. Based the business on offering the best service without a compromise. Started employing locals for good wages and promoting local entrepreneurship. That really helps the potential of the region to be seen and cultivated. Yes. That’s the word.
Northern Hikes doesn’t take advantage of the beautiful nature around here. We try to cultivate it. We guide our guests to places unknown to the tourist crowd and visit the main attractions off season as well, which helps distribute the impact of tourism on the region more evenly. We cooperate with local projects like the one trying to rebuild old wells and natural springs. I like all that. And I like Vitek. The founder of the Northern Hikes. He is a local, just like me. A tough boss, but a fair one at the same time. And he has a vision of developing the piece of land we both grew up on.
AS: Thanks for the chat, Marek!
MK: Pleasure! Now let’s have a beer! A Falkenstejn, of course.
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