Via Czechia pilgrimage trails offer a great way to explore the country
Jan Hocek is an enthusiastic traveller, tourist guide and columnist, who has completed some of the world’s most challenging trails. In 2020, he created a comprehensive network of long-distance tourist and pilgrimage routes leading through the country, called Via Czechia. The trails cover some 10,000 kilometres, passing through the lowest and highest points in the country and offering countless opportunities to explore its natural and historical landmarks. When I met with Jan Hocek to discuss Via Czechia, I started by asking how he got the idea for the project:
“I have always been hiking and spending time outdoors. It is my passion and a part of my life. I also travel abroad a lot. In 2019 I was visiting Bhutan in the Himalayas to hike the Snowman Trek, which is supposed to be one of the hardest trails in the world. And that’s where the idea came to me.
“We had been in the mountains for about a month, far from civilization, so it was the ideal moment to dream about things and new ideas. So that’s how the idea came to me.
“When I came back home, I started to work on the system of hiking and biking, and also cross country skiing and water craft trails in Czechia.”
How did you go about creating these trails? Getting an idea is one thing, but executing it…
“The trail goes across the highest point and the lowest point of Czechia and it crosses over 50 mountains higher than 1,000 meters.“
“The Via Czechia system currently consists of six trails, but I started with the longest one and the hardest one, the Northern Trail, which connects the westernmost and easternmost points. It is the longest trail in Czechia and measures 1,058 kilometres. The trail goes across the highest point and the lowest point of Czechia and it crosses over 50 mountains higher than 1,000 meters.
“So I started with this one in 2020, and that same year I also created the Southern Trail, which goes along the southern part of the Czech border, also connecting the easternmost and westernmost points. So these two trails were the first ones and if you look at the map and hike these two trails, you actually walk around the country.
“Later on I added two central trails. One of them also goes from the easternmost to the westernmost point, it’s the Central Trail, and another one connects north and south and I call it the Inland Trail.”
At the moment there are six trails in total covering approximately 10,000 kilometres. Does that mean that Via Czechia is completed or is it a work in progress?
“At this point, I am quite happy with the network as it is. Apart from the four trails that I already mentioned, there are also another two. They are somewhat shorter, but they still cover around 350 kilometres.
“One is the Silesian Trail, which goes across the whole historical region of Silesia, and the last one is the Czech-Moravian Trail, which is quite new and which goes along the historical border between Bohemia and Moravia.
“This is a historical border, which is no longer valid, but it is still interesting to go along this line through towns and mountains and compare life on one side, which is Bohemia, and the other side, which is Moravia.”
Czechia has a pretty unique system of marked walking trails. What makes your system different?
“It has been created with the aim to connect nice places where people can stay overnight, where you can sleep and continue the next day.”
“In Czechia, we have a lot of trails which are marked, but the Via Czechia trail system is, I would say, logical. It makes sense. It has been created for people who would like to do long walks, multiple-day walks. They have been created with the aim to connect nice places where people can stay overnight, where you can sleep and continue on your way the next day.
“They also cross many pilgrimage places. At present there are more than 100 pilgrimage places which are connected by Via Czechia. So it is not just a tourist trail, it’s a pilgrimage trail or a pilgrimage path.
“You can walk the trail at once, which is quite hard, but you can also divide it into shorter hikes, like weekend hikes or four to five day hikes. Then you can go home and come back and continue your walk.”
You mentioned the most demanding trail, the Northern Trail. Would you say that all of these trails can be hiked even by younger or inexperienced hikers?
“Yes. Actually the Via Czechia trails are now three years old, so we already have some feedback and experience, and I know that there are many young people and many families with small children hiking the trails. The point is to choose the easier part or start with a shorter trail, or with a trail which is not so hilly, not so demanding for children.
“For example, the Southern Trail is much easier than the Northern Trail. Or if you hike the Inland Trail from north to south, it is only 600 kilometres, so it is not that long. So I am sure everyone can find the right one for themselves.
“Also, some parts of the trails are possible to cover in a water craft. You can sit in a canoe and pedal for a few days. Every trail has got a cycling route, so you can actually swap one exercise for another, or you can complete the whole trail on a bicycle.”
So if I wanted to walk Via Czechia, where would I find the information? And is it also available in English?
“Yes, the best source of information is our website www.viaczechia.cz. This website is also available in English, so you can switch to English or another language to get the information about trails.
“There are also online maps. You can download GPX files which can be easily used in any device like a phone or a smartwatch. There are also paper maps sold around the country with marked Via Czechia trails.
“You can also download an itinerary on the website, which is now only available in Czech, but hopefully it will soon be translated into English.
“And I would like to also mention the books which I wrote about each trail. There are now four books –North Trail, South Trail, Central Trail and Inland Trail, and the other two are soon to be released.”
I noticed your website is really available in many foreign languages. What kind of feedback do you get from foreign travellers?
“Usually these travellers contact me by e-mail with some questions or they publish their posts on our Facebook page, because Via Czechia has also got quite a large Facebook group, where people can share experiences or ask questions.
“So I see that these trails are quite popular among Polish tourists, for example, but we also had hikers from Germany, Austria, New Zealand or Canada.”
As you said, you yourself are a seasoned traveller. Was there something that surprised you about your own country? Have you made some new discoveries?
“Yes, I made many small discoveries. I call it exploration, because even though our country is perfectly mapped, you can still find many places you have never visited before. It took me about three years to cover all these trails and I have many nice experiences.”
So can you mention some of your favourite places on Via Czechia?
“Some of my favourite places are self-service forest bars, which is quite a new thing in the Czech mountains. They started to appear over the past couple of years.
“These places are very nice for people who travel because you can get refreshment in the forest during your walk. They are usually located at a nice place, somewhere by the creek.
“There are cans of chilled beer or lemonade and some snacks. You get it, you pay in the cash box and then continue on your hike. So these places are fantastic.
“I would also like to mention an area in the western part of Czechia called the Bohemian Forest. Not many people go there because there are deep forests, not too much infrastructure and not so many places to sleep.
“This is where I found Arnošt’s glass polishing factory, which is the ruind of an old glass-polishing shop. It was very interesting to see the old structure standing among the tall trees, totally overgrown, with the remnants of old engines. I really like such places.”
What makes hiking in Czechia different from other countries in Europe? Would you say it is an easy country to walk?
“Czechia has many unique things, such as the dense network of marked routes that we already mentioned. It has a diverse landscape, beautiful mountains and deep valleys, and above all, many picturesque towns and villages. So I would say the whole landscape is actually easy to walk through and this mix makes it very interesting!”
Finally, now that Via Czechia is more or less completed, do you have any plans for the future?
“Well, as concerns long-distance hiking, I think there are many possibilities in Slovakia, which is former part of our country, so I plan to do some long hikes there. But even here in Czechia, there are still many places to explore, so who knows what will happen?”