The Bohemian Paradise

Český Ráj, photo: Štěpánka Budková

Today we travel to eastern Bohemia where I visited one of the country's regions that's true to its name - Cesky Raj, which translates as Bohemian Paradise. It's an area that encompasses sandstone rock formations that somewhat remind us of Stonehenge or miniature Grand Canyons, fairy tale hills that hide precious stones, romantic castles and chateaux with a colourful history, and picturesque folk architecture - to name just a few of the region's attractions. It is not hard to see why the Bohemian Paradise was given the honour of being labelled a UNESCO Geopark last month - there are only twenty others in Europe and eight in China.

Český Ráj,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
Picturesque countryside, heavy but delicious food, and good beer - these are the most frequent answers to the question - what does the Czech Republic have to offer. Unfortunately most visitors have little time to explore the country. If they've heard of the Bohemian Paradise, they reserve a day or two to the region, which is just 90 km away from Prague. But in order to find the hidden gems, you need about a week. Tomas Ridkosil is from the Bohemian Paradise Museum in the town of Turnov:

Tomas Ridkosil
"There are twelve main areas where you find groups of sandstone rock formations. We call them rock towns because of their forms - towers, gates, tunnels, and windows. You can spend a day at each town and not be bored because they all have different characteristics. But the Bohemian Paradise is not just interesting from a geological point of view. There are also a large number of interesting animals that will cross your path. You find rare species in the forests, ponds, and rivers such as the kingfisher, which is not a common bird in the Czech Republic. You can raft down the river, and try some climbing. The Bohemian Paradise is actually the cradle of Czech mountain climbing - all of our famous climbers who have tackled the Himalayas started off here."

But how were these rocks formed? To find out you have to go back over one hundred million years. You may be surprised to hear that back then this region was covered by water because a shallow sea was created when the earth's core shrank. Fine sand from the mountains was carried by the rivers to the bottom of the gulf, where it then hardened. The sea eventually evaporated, allowing isolated sandstone elevations to surface. These were initially flat-topped but erosion and the removal of minerals gave them their current appearance.

The shark fossil
"It's a pity that listeners can't see what I'm holding in my hand right now. This heavy piece was collecting dust at our depository until an expert on aquatic life came to see us. He saw it and conducted a few tests, only to discover that it was from a fresh-water shark which lived in one of the lakes in the Turnov area. That's why the shark is called Turnovichtis Magnus. Judging from the size of this bit, which was behind the shark's fin, palaeontologists say it was about 2.5 metres long."

If you're not into adrenaline sports like mountain climbing or kayaking there is plenty more for you to do here. During a simple walk around the countryside one can admire the rich folk architecture, visit numerous castles and chateaux, or - and this would be my favourite - visit the former Sedmihorky spa to see what inspired the country's 19th century patriots to call this region the Bohemian Paradise. Hana Maierova is from the Bohemian Paradise Association:

"At the time, one of the most popular tunes was Josef Kajetan Tyl's 'Where is my Homeland', which later became our national anthem. One of its phrases describes the Czech lands as a 'paradise on earth to look at'. That's how the Czech society of writers, poets, and painters who often visited the spa was inspired to name this region the Bohemian Paradise."

Kozakov Hill. Close to 750 metres high, it is the tallest in the region and is made of volcanic rock. This is where most visitors come to enjoy a breathtaking circular view from the look-out tower. It's also full of precious and semi-precious stones such as crystallised jasper, agates, and amethysts. You may even be permitted to look for them in the Votrubec quarry on the hill's southern slope and have your treasures polished in the local workshop.

If that sounds like too much work, you can always go into one of the picturesque towns to buy the ready-made products. In the 16th century, Turnov and the surrounding area saw the beginnings of a thriving industry in the processing of precious stones.

In the spring and summer months, Turnov stages a series of events to introduce visitors to the area's unique traditions of stone cutting, garnet jewellery making, and glass processing. The craftsmen of this region have a unique speciality - you can drop by to see how they make imitations of eye balls that are used for dolls or stuffed animals. But for a good idea of what you shouldn't miss, visit the Bohemian Paradise Museum or one of the information centres which is in every town. Here you'll find information in Czech, English, German, and even Dutch. But if you're afraid you'd get lost, you can hire a tour guide to show you around.