Bohemian paradise

Exploring the Český ráj region with children

With a heat wave bringing an early summer to the Czech Republic, our family made preparations for this year's inaugural camping trip to Český ráj, otherwise known as “Bohemian paradise.” Long-recognized as a place for “active relaxation,” the landscape of Český ráj is ideal for exploring with children. Unusual sandstone formations, underground caves, castles perched on cliffs, lush forests, gentle rivers and unique flora and fauna make the region a popular destination for hiking, biking, climbing and water activities.

Historically, Český ráj was the first Czech landscape awarded protected status in 1955. Today the region is also a UNESCO protected Geopark. Located about 90 km north east of Prague, the Český ráj region is an easy day trip. Be forewarned, however, that once you've arrived in Bohemian paradise, you'll want to stay longer. At least, that's the case with my family.

My first camping trip in Český ráj was in June of 2007 when Radek and I took our children, then four-week-old Oliver and two-and-half year-old Anna Lee, to the Sedmihorky family campground. Going camping with a tiny baby might have sounded crazy, but Czech friends were meeting us there with their newborn son, so I agreed to give it a try. I don't remember many details of our first trip; but it must have been a success. Ever since, we've made it a family tradition to tent camp in Český ráj at least two weekends each summer.

Situated a few kilometers from the base of a clifftop chateau called Hrubá Skála (rough rock), the Sedmihorky camp is tucked into a grassy bowl with an evergreen forest surrounding it. Rows of cabins and tiny bungalows line one hillside while an adjacent grassy meadow provides space for tent camping. There are electric hookups for mobile homes and caravans, clean bathroom and shower facilities and a communal kitchen for basic cooking. By the entrance to the camp, there is a pond with a swimming area and a sandy beach with large climbing rocks for children. Within the campground, there is a full-service restaurant and several smaller stands selling food, drinks and camping supplies. There are a few playgrounds, two teepees and even a miniature golf course. The campground is popular with Dutch and German tourists as well as locals, so expect to hear English, Dutch and German in addition to Czech.

Sedmihorky has won numerous awards from Czech camping associations for its family-friendly facilities. On a warm summer weekend, it's a good idea to arrive as early as possible on Friday afternoon (or better yet, come on Thursday) in order to get a nice spot. We often like to go in late May or early September when the weather's nice before or after the crowds. Since the campground doesn't take reservations for tent camping – their informal motto seems to be, “the more, the merrier,” – we have often driven to the meadow to make sure there's a space for our tent before paying. In the evenings, there's live music at the various outdoor stands, usually classic rock 'n roll or country/folk and special shows like the fire-eating performance my children still remember from two summers ago.

At Sedmihorky there are only communal bonfires and no private camping spots. Sometimes I miss the isolation and privacy of camping in the U.S. However, numerous activities for the children both in the camp and throughout the surrounding Český ráj region more than make up for the feeling that I'm spending the weekend at an enormous open-air festival. The campground gets quiet for the night, and there's a security guard that often greets me on early morning trips to the restroom.

Camp activities for children include arts-and-crafts, eco-lessons about the region's environment, sheep and goat feedings and a nightly children's program. During the evening program, a resident mountain “guru” asks the children where they've been in the woods and what they've found. (He's a stickler for knowing the name of the exact mushroom variety.) On their first visit to the evening program, Anna Lee and Oliver received a Český ráj trip log, which they have since brought back each year. Although all three children enjoy the evening program, their favorite evening activity is sitting by one of the communal fire pits, especially if I've brought marshmallows to roast. On occasion, they've made fast friends by passing around a bag of sticky marshmallows.

During the day, we explore Český ráj on trails through the woods, up and down rocky stairs and weaving around rock formations. Our kids wear camping vests and carry their wooden bow and arrows. Getting them to spend the entire day walking upwards of 10 kilometers isn't difficult. They are too busy checking crevices for signs of life, drawing clues on the sandy paths or climbing up designated rocky formations to get a birds' eye view of the villages and landscape below. While all of the trails are pretty much stroller accessible, in earlier years we've carried both the baby and the stroller through tighter spots. With wide gaps between railings and steep descents at the rocky overlooks, I still keep a firm grip whenever someone gets close to the edge.

In addition to the unique landscape, the Český ráj region is a mecca of medieval castles, chateaus and ancient ruins. Each summer we walk from the Sedmihorky campground through the woods to the Hrubá Skála chateau and the Valdštejn castle, both built on tops of cliffs. Another nearby castle built on rocks Kost (bone) is known for medieval reenactments and a spacious outdoor patio with grilled meat and fish specialties. For a more fairytale-like experience, we've visited the chateau Sychrov where, dressed like a princess and two knights, my children completed an organized scavenger hunt. In early autumn, after a meal at the Středověka krčma (medieval tavern) in Dětenice, where all food is served as in the Middle Ages with brusque tavern language and without cutlery, we took the scary Dětenice chateau tour. During the tour one of the witches took a child volunteer away and only returned her to her parents when she began to cry. The witches, ghosts and vampires frightened Anna Lee, Oliver and me so much than we vowed never to return.

Not all of Český ráj is hiking and castles, and most of our experiences have been more light-hearted than our haunted chateau tour. One summer we visited Štastná země (happy land), an extensive outdoor recreational area with wooden playground equipment, rope courses for children and adults, and an entire exploratory area made from hay. During the summer season, Štastná země offers a Saturday program with activities and theater for children. Saturday June 6, there is even a special children's day program, complete with a theater, magic show and disco dance.

Although another visit to “happy land” sounds intriguing, this weekend we've promised our children a chance to see a part of Český ráj that we haven't yet explored. Prachovské skály is a series of dramatic rock formations a few kilometers from Jičín. For a small fee that goes to the upkeep of the trails, you can enter the “rock town” and walk through the rock formations, along ridges with views down into steep ravines, past caves, and up and down a series of trails through the rocks. There are trails with different levels of difficulty, and the area has been known since the Middle Ages for its unique and awe-inspiring sights.

While the children gather up their camping equipment, I flip through pictures, trying to find one that best depicts what Český ráj has given my family. We've got hundreds of pictures of summers in Český ráj, but I can't find one that captures it all.

If you'd rather not take my word for it, go for a family visit. If your family is like my own – once you get a taste of Bohemian paradise, you won't want to leave.

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