Paneláks, the concrete-panel apartment buildings that cover Central European cities, are a fact of life for many Praguers. Fortunately, so are nature reserves and parks. I’ve heard it said that Central Park has kept New York human. I’d say the copious green spaces of Prague have kept its humans relaxed.
I live in a panelák that is a five-minute walk from Prokopské Údolí (Prokop Valley), a 250-acre nature reserve reaching from the periphery of Prague – a land of wheat and colza fields – to the broader center of the city. I wouldn’t trade this location for a chic apartment overlooking Old Town Square; the sight of Prokopské’s forested hills and limestone cliffs is much more heavenly than Old Town’s Astronomical Clock.
A late September afternoon was a perfect chance to enjoy the valley. I strolled out of the paneláks’ gray canyons to the reserve’s border of grass and young trees. The sky was clear and the air was warm where sunlight shined. Autumn sunlight in the Czech Republic is a glory unto itself, a never-enduring-seemingly-eternal gold that imbues surfaces with secret tales. On my hike, the light shone on the fruits of long-tended gardens, a monument surrounded by invading forest, the overturned bed of an ancient sea, and one of the oldest volcanos in Europe.
This yellow light also meant that the main growing season was almost finished. While leaves were still green on the wild apple trees that grew among the oaks and horse chestnuts, the fruit was plump and maybe overripe; some of the fruit was succumbing to fungus. Depending on the tree, the apples were small and green, yellow, or blushing red, tasting from sweet to tart, and textures were mealy to thick-skinned and crisp. Some of the more beautiful examples of fruit trees were behind fences, dad blast it!
Fences like these didn’t delineate the preserve from the paneláks so much as frame a few garden plots that stretched from the hilltop down to a little neighborhood of older houses. Some of these gardens were hundreds of feet long, terraced, and basking in the day’s light. I imagined, after caring for rows of cabbage and late tomatoes, the aging owner could enjoy the valley from his bench, elbows on the table, fingers interlacing and straightening. His eyes study the negotiated border in front of him, where concrete meets forest, wondering…
At various times Prokopské Údolí was not so green. Obviously, volcanic activity or eons as a sea bottom do not a pretty forest make, but during the 19th century the valley was mined for its limestone. Coal smoke and industry denuded parts of the valley as buildings and a railroad were installed. But the mines were abandoned by 1905. Only a few houses remain, and a few factory ruins; the mines have been filled or have caved in, but the small rail-line still runs along the valley’s length, serving whistle-stops well beyond Prague to the town of Rakovnik.
Another memory lay not far from the gardens. At the base of a squat obelisk, a two-tailed lion silently roared, mourning. Around it trees encroached, and an invasive species of Japanese bamboo grew taller and taller. A thin path wound up to the memorial from the trail, so enough people were climbing up to examine the curiosity. One would find something similar in most European cities; the monument was a tribute to the men who had died fighting in World War I. Usually these structures are in town squares, but this one looked like it had been placed above the village, maybe to remind those below about war’s cost. But now one could only see it by walking on a path in thickening forest.
Rain had been in surplus the past few weeks, and the woods through which I walked hid many types of mushrooms. It’s been a great season for fungi (I cannot say the same for many wine growers but that will be another post). Czechs are very fond of mushrooms; there is even a composer who listens to them and then makes their music. (Yes, “LISTENS”. Not, “ingests”.) By the time I had walked through, all the delicious varieties that I could have recognized were not there, having been snatched up earlier. What was left were varying sizes and shades of lemony-yellow (Dangerous), purple (Unknown), a wee orange one (Unknown) and a nearly complete fairy-ring of white bunches.
Walking among this mycological fiesta, I visited a few of my favorite spots in the reserve, high points on cliffs or steep hillsides that afford beautiful views of the valley. Below one such prominence the rail-line followed the path of the stream; trees obscured a playground in the valley where parents chatted and kids screamed happily. In another location, the view was a broad, grassy hillside between sections of cliffs, all crowned by woods. Joggers traversed its width; a person or two were simply sitting; hawks floated out from dead tree limbs above the green valley.
I have often gone hiking or cycling in a Czech forest, only to find one or two houses half-hidden among the trees. Prokopské Údolí was no different; an old well-kept home, complete with the smell of wood smoke and a large garden, rested in a clearing just its size. Ivy climbed one wall, its window frames were wooden and in good condition, pottery jugs and bowls rested like still-lives behind the glass. Where three or four or five such houses would diminish the experience of the forest, just one increased the impression of the ring of mushrooms: I was walking in a fairy-tale.
The trail led down to the valley soon after, descending 30 vertical meters or so to the paved road on the valley floor. Parents were teaching their children to ride bikes; couples ran. Horse chestnut leaves covered the road in areas; blight had affected many of those trees, a virus that causes them to hasten their annual growth cycle. They were skeletal under the sky, in contrast to everything else.
Under the mossy ruins of an old bridge, the valley’s stream was surprisingly in much better shape. Urban waterways are rarely healthy, but there was plenty of fauna creeping across the undersides of stones, and even some caddisfly larva homes were there – always a good sign.
A section of old mine collapsed nearly a century ago, very close to a natural spring. The result was a quiet pond almost completely framed by tall rock walls. It is accessible by a small trail from the road. As usual, there were two swans paddling by the edge of the lake. Maybe like the owner of the forest house, the couple had found an idyllic place to live; locals come daily to feed them bread and vegetables.
Not a long walk from the pond, 30-meter, pointed cliffs overlooked the village of Hluboučepy. The two facing cliffs appeared to be granite, but between them lay crumbling red rock. These were the remains of an ancient volcano, from the cliffs’ edge I could look across to the East bank of the Vltava River and up the rail-lines that end at Smíchov Station. Below, Hluboučepy spread peacefully from the mouth of the valley.
On the opposing pointed cliff, I saw a man and two little girls. I walked over to ask if I could take their photo. There were no signs that said on the edge, “Warning! The City of Prague advises that playing, hiking, and possible even curiosity on cliffs can lead to serious injury or death.” Nothing like that. Nothing, in fact. Apparently, the assumption was that visitors would understand their personal reactions and responsibilities to gravity.
Arriving, at the cliff edge, I spoke with the man and his two daughters. The elder sister, 8-years-old, showed me a mushroom, a giant, edible hřib (boletus) they had found. But she wanted to leave it on the cliff’s edge for a reason I did not understand. Asking her father for paper, she then wrote out, with little help, “Prosim neprat [sic]!!! Please don’t take!!! Bitte nicht nehmen!!!”
As the sun set, it was an enjoyable conversation of language and culture with the father and daughters which went longer than either of us adults expected. I had thought I would pass a minute with them instead of 10 or 15. The man probably wished the conversation had been about 30-seconds shorter because, as I was saying goodbye to his daughters but had not yet turned to walk away, he farted. [I don’t write that to be crude, but just to illustrate that the natural progression of life does not aspire to our poetry].
Many if not most adventures in the Czech Republic end with alcohol (Many more begin with it). The amount doesn’t have to be much; but a winter hike might end in slivovice, an evening out with a glass of wine, and most everything ends with a beer. Prokopské Údolí is also home to one of my favorite hospody, or pubs, but that is another story. That one begins with, “With the sunlight almost gone, I left the autumn chill and entered the warm glow of the pub. Jirka poured me a jedenáct as he said hello…”