Tips for Trips: Říp
Mecca to the Czechs?
According to Czech legend, when nomadic tribes roamed Europe in the Middle Ages, a tribal leader with the surname Čech, later known as “Praotec” (forefather), brought his people through forests, over mountains and across swamps to the flat planes near Říp. Čech’s weary tribe climbed the rounded basalt hill where they had a view of the countryside for miles. Praotec saw a fertile land of “milk and honey” and claimed the site for his tribe under the name Čech.
Although Praotec is recorded as the forefather of the Czech nation by the historian Kosmas around the year 1125, there is no documentation that confirms Říp as the birthplace of the Czech nation. Yet evidence of ceremonial artifacts found on the hilltop show that Říp has been a pilgrimage site for Czech people for centuries.
On the October 28th state holiday, in honor of the anniversary of the independent Czechoslovakian nation in 1918, my family went to see what the Říp legend was all about. Říp is less than a 30 minute drive from the northern edge of Prague. As we drove past the hill on the D8 (E55) highway, my husband quipped that he guessed Praotec had forgotten to tell his people where to make a highway exit. Although Radek knew the legend by heart and Anna Lee had learned about it in her fifth grade history class, no one in our family had ever visited Říp. I was curious to see what the birthplace of a nation looked like.
After driving with the hill on our right for a few kilometers, we took Exit 29 and followed the road to Roudnice. Once off the highway, there were brown and white tourist signs for Říp. We wound our way through the village of Krabčice where we found a paid parking lot at the bottom of the paved path to Říp. We paid 50 CZK for the last make-shift spot, a grassy space on the side of a triangular median. I hadn’t counted on so many people. But it was the Czech nation’s birthday, and we weren’t the only ones who wanted to make their once in a lifetime trip to Říp.
Fielding complaints from my children that they were cold and that the walk uphill would be too hard, we started out. Radek carried a backpack with sandwiches for the kids and a thermos of hot tea. Before we’d left the parking lot, the children had bitten into their sandwiches and were arguing about who got to hold the thermos. Radek gave Anna the challenge of counting the trees along both sides of the path, and Samuel and I began to count carved pumpkins on the way. Oliver picked up a stick and started looking for bugs. As we headed uphill deeper into the forest, the fallen leaves formed a colorful carpet over the bumpy asphalt path. The children stopped complaining and settled into the rhythm of the walk.
From older Czechs with walking sticks to loud teenagers with bottles of lemon Becherovka in hand, from parents pushing toddlers in strollers to couples carrying small dogs in purses or walking large dogs off their leashes, there was a steady stream of walkers going up and coming down the hill. When I saw bikers peddling up the hill and other bikers flying down, startling walkers and inciting a round of mild fussing, my image of Czechs in the outdoors was complete.
At the top of the path, we exited the woods to the rounded pinnacle of Říp. The space itself seemed familiar, in as much as it could have been one of any number of historic sites in the Czech countryside. The wooden cabin serving as a pub faced us; its “Mecca” sign in full view. Beside it stood a ticket booth selling tourist stamps and postcards. A line of customers wrapped from the pub’s order window across the terrace.
The only historic structure on the hilltop was a Romanesque-style Rotunda of Saint Jiří (Saint George), dating from the early 12th century. Although the chapel was originally named for a different saint, in the early 16th century, it was dedicated to Saint George, the patron saint of scouts. As centuries passed, the chapel was renovated and rebuilt. Today only the base remains from the original 12th century structure. In the 18th century, the chapel served as a parish church for the local community. There is still an annual pilgrimage on the first Sunday after St. George’s day on April 24, and the chapel is opened for choral performances and other events.
We bought tickets for a 15-minute tour of the Rotunda (in Czech only). I didn’t catch everything the guide said, but the children retold what they’d heard. They liked the legend of Saint George which said that when a virgin looked at the wooden statue of Saint George with the Dragon which stood at the chapel entrance, if she saw George blink, she would get married within the year. Another interesting point the guide mentioned was the strong magnetism on the hill. Compasses didn’t work and cell phones didn’t have strong signals. Beyond the rotunda, a path led through the woods to the legendary viewpoint where Praotec stood. The day of our visit was cloudy, so we couldn’t see further than the fields below us.
While we checked the viewpoint, Radek waited in line. He came back twenty minutes later with no bread or honey, but plenty of fast food – sausages, fried cheese, French fries, two bowls of sauerkraut soup and beer. While we ate, a group behind us served “parky v rohliky” (hotdogs in buns) from the camping stove they had brought with them on the hike. They made such a cheerful ruckus passing hotdogs and posing for pictures that Anna Lee couldn’t help staring. She told Radek the group reminded her of the movie “S tebou me baví svet,” a quintessential Czech comedy about a group of fathers left in charge of their children for a weekend in the mountains.
The walk back down took only a fracture of the time it took to go up, and the children ran most of the way. Regardless of whether or not you believe the legend of Říp, a trip to the historic hillside is, at the least, a good excuse for an autumn walk. If you choose a national holiday, you may get the added bonus of people watching. Just don’t count on using your phone cell or a compass on the hike.
Once you’ve visited, decide for yourself if Říp is really a Mecca for Czechs.
For longer hiking routes, check the Říp website for tips.
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