The Giant Mountains - a world of legend

Les Monts des Géants

For this week's Spotlight we're in one of the most beautiful regions of the Czech Republic, the Krkonose or Giant Mountains, straddling the Czech-Polish border, a hundred kilometres north-east of Prague. These are the Czech Republic's highest mountains, rising well over a thousand metres, and at this time of year, they are decked with a thick blanket of snow. The Giant Mountains is a wonderfully poetic and evocative name... and indeed Krkonose does have its very own legendary giant, known as "Krakonos" in Czech and "Ruebezahl" in German.

Margit Bartosova grew up here in the mountains before the war, and is steeped in the Krakonos legend. It doesn't take much to persuade her to break into song, and the old mountain folk songs she sings are in German. This comes as no surprise. Until 1945 the Giant Mountains were almost entirely German speaking. After the Second World War, most of the German-speakers were expelled, taking with them many of the traditions and legends associated with the mountains, but some, like Margit Bartosova, whose family was half Czech, were able to stay. Her memories are a bridge to a past that has been all but lost, and she is full of stories from the mountains.

"Whenever I take tourists up to the top of the mountain Snezka or Schneekoppe, I always tell them what my parents told me. There are two lakes below the mountain, on the Polish side. They always told us that these lakes were where the babies came from. The boys were brought by the stork and the girls by the crow. I once asked an old lady, why does the crow bring the girls, and she told me, that the lady stork would be so busy chattering that the baby would fall out of her beak."

Legend has it that the giant Krakonos lives somewhere up on the bleak windswept plains. He's usually portrayed as a bearded, pipe-smoking character, with enormous power to do both good and evil in the mountains. His name in German - "Ruebezahl" means "the one who counts turnips", and there's a legend that he once kidnapped the princess Emma, and carried her up to his lair in the mountains. To stop her mind wandering to thoughts of escaping, he left her with an order to count his turnips. Margit Bartosova's husband, Miloslav, is something of a Krakonos expert. He has worked for forty years in the Krkonose Museum in the little town of Vrchlabi, so who better to ask about the origins of the legend:

"Most people agree that Krakonos is a personification of the forces of nature. I'll explain. The people who first settled here often had to face sudden, unexpected changes in the weather, so sudden, that they were hard to explain rationally. I must admit I know what they mean. I've experienced something very similar up near the source of the Elbe with my son. It was a glorious summer day - then suddenly, for half an hour the heavens opened with huge hailstones. Then the sun came out again as if nothing had happened."

Miloslav Bartos's home town of Vrchlabi, is in the foothills of the mountains. Its name means upper Elbe, for this is the first town on River Elbe, which has its source in the mountains above. Here the Elbe is little more than a stream, far from the great slow-moving river that eventually emerges into the North Sea in Hamburg.

The quiet little town of Vrchlabi was founded in the 16th century, and to find out more about its history we need to enter the huge heavy front door of the castle. Miloslav Bartos:

"Yes, here we are in the entrance hall. The castle was built in 1546 by the founder of the town Christoph of Gendorf. He came from Carinthia in Austria and served King Ludwig of Jagiello. He made a fortune from mining, and that's why this castle is so grand. The hall is vaulted, and you can see antlers on all sides, as well as paintings of four bears that were shot here on the estate. They include the last bear ever to be shot here - in the year 1726."

Vrchlabi and the four bears. I feel as though I'm back in the world of fairy tale. And if you head a few hundred metres up the main street from the castle to the square, the illusion continues. The square is lined with log-built cottages looking for all the world as if they had strayed from one of the Krakonos legends. Miloslav Bartos again:

"These cottages were only saved by chance. Until recently there were plans to demolish them. They go back to the days when the town was founded. When that house over there with the green gable was being renovated, we found a plaque with the date 1623. It makes it one of the oldest dated houses anywhere in the country. The other old house was probably originally the first Vrchlabi town hall. The house is covered with green-painted plaster, but underneath it has the original log construction, going back to the 16th century."

The Krkonose National Park covers an area of over 40 000 hectares. Until quite recently the entire area was glacial, and the glaciers carved and rounded the landscape. The flora and fauna are not typical for the Czech Republic. Instead, many of the birds, butterflies and flowers could easily have strayed from Scandinavia.

To appreciate the mountains properly you need to travel from Vrchlabi northwards, up towards the Polish border. We're in the village of Pec pod Snezkou, one of the most popular ski resorts in the Czech Republic, and nestling in a deep valley. At the heart of the village is an unusual modern wooden building, combining traditional and modern technologies.

"My name is Jana Javurkova. This is the information centre in Pec pod Snezkou. It's a winter sports centre with tourist information and a gallery. In winter skiers come here and in summer it's more tourists for hiking in the mountains. People come from Poland, from Germany, from the Czech Republic of course, also from Russia, from Holland..."

Photo : Jana Šustová
The information centre was established by one of Krkonose's great enthusiasts, Pavel Klimes.

"I reckon that around 2500 people live here in Pec pod Snezkou, but at any one time we may have up to 8000 visitors. We have ski slopes varying from the easiest - for beginners - to pistes that suite the more ambitious. This is an ideal place for families, and there's a rich tradition of skiing going back over a century."

Pavel Klimes is from a Czech family. His grandfather moved here just after the war, but he's fascinated by stories from the old Krkonose, and knows many of the German speakers, who - for various reasons - remained.

Every day, the sixty-eight-year-old Herbert Berger comes down from his chalet high on the mountainside on his snow scooter, looking very much like Krakonos, with his thick red beard, covered with snow:

"Our ancestors came here way back in the fifteenth century, when their local aristocrat in Austria was trying to persuade people to come here to help cut the beech forests. We used to have a family chronicle, where it says that my ancestor built a house on the hillside. We've been there ever since. In 1945 the state confiscated it, but my father bought it back again later. We weren't expelled after the war. My father was a prisoner of war in Russia, and then my mother died. We children were on our own and I think that they pretty much forgot about us up in the hills."

I'm now standing at the top of the village of Pec pod Snezkou looking down the narrow valley. There are cottages on each side, most of them wooden built, and the valley sides are covered with forests. And up above the village is the Czech Republic's highest mountain, Snezka, which rises to just over 1600 metres. And just behind me are skiers coming down the mountainside, twisting backwards and forwards on this beautiful sunny winter afternoon.

A bit further down the hill, the mountain rescue service is kept busy.

A woman has sprained a ligament skiing, the most common accident at this time of year.

Photo: CTK
The rescue station is being manned by Wolfgang Berger, a nephew of Herbert Berger, who we met a short while ago. The pub down the road is run by Herbert Berger's daughter, and another nephew is secretary to the mayor. So this is one village were the events of the 1940s didn't lead to a complete break with the past. Wolfgang Berger:

"I reckon you could say that it was my family that first settled this place. Under communism we used to have the occasional problem, because we were German, nothing serious, but the other kids at school did used to laugh sometimes, because my name was Wolfgang. But these days there's nothing like that."

The sometimes hysterical political rhetoric - on both sides - that has been damaging Czech-German relations recently seems far away when you are actually here in a village like Pec pod Snezkou. Herbert Berger has seen enormous changes since the traumatic period after the war:

"In those days most people hated the Germans, not many people saw us as people, but today that is forgotten. These days I can't say I have any complaints. But most of the Germans who stayed, their children don't speak German any more, and in time, all the Germans here will only speak and feel Czech."

I'll leave Miloslav Bartos with the last word:

"It's quite clear that the expulsions after the war led to the destruction of a huge number of cultural values. I mean concrete things. In the border areas 1500 villages disappeared. Here in the mountains there were only two, luckily, because of the attraction of Krkonose for recreation. At the moment we're busy trying to save St Ann's Chapel here in Vrchlabi. We are trying to save the cultural heritage which we inherited from those who left."