5 Things You Need to Make Your Family’s Wintertime Trip to the Czech Mountains a Success

(& why even a day ski trip can be a treat)

Getting away for the weekend is one of my family’s favorite things about life in the Czech Republic. Regardless of the season, once Friday afternoon arrives, we love to hit the road. Summer camping trips to Český Ráj (Bohemian Paradise) and rafting trips near Český Krumlov lead into autumn biking weekends in the Moravian wine region, followed by winter ski weekends in the country’s Krkonos, Jizera, Sumava, and Ore Mountains. When spring rolls around, we head to České Švýcarsko (Bohemian Switzerland) to hike again.

Our weekend travels often take us no farther than the country’s borders (i.e. a drive of one to two hours), yet they set the tone for the rest of our everyday lives. Sometimes, it seems as if we live weekend-to-weekend. Our duffel bags stand packed and ready near the laundry room door.

In this country where adventurers, nature-lovers, and mushroom-pickers abound – we are not alone. Getting out of the city and into nature doesn’t necessarily mean getting away from people, as Czechs in general use their weekend leisure time outdoors.

Being around other people can be a benefit where children are concerned (see tip #2 below). Pre-planning, negotiations, compromise, and flexibility are key to making a family weekend away work, especially in the winter when extra clothing and special equipment are often required (see tip #4).

Even if you aren’t ready to tackle an overnight, the Czech Republic is small enough to take a day ski/hike/trek trip anywhere in the country. No luggage required except for a day-pack.

Here are a few of my family’s best tips (and good spots) for making a winter weekend (or even a day) away, one that everyone will remember (in the best possible way).

#1 Plan Ahead

Decide what the primary goal of the weekend is. Do you want to downhill ski on slopes that will test your abilities? Go for a long day hike and stop for garlic soup and fruit dumplings at a mountain lodge? Put your children into ski lessons while you and your partner hit the slopes alone? Are you traveling with a group that includes non-skiers and skiers? Do you want to spend the evening playing a family game in a cozy cottage or socializing with friends in a restaurant?

Finding accommodation at this point in the winter can be tricky, as the Czech Republic is a small country and winter weekends are booked months in advance. However, if you have the urge to leave the city, check local websites (see where to go below) or www.booking.com for last minute deals. Try e-chalupy to rent entire cottages for multiple families.

#2 Travel with Friends (preferably ones with children)

From hard-earned experience, I’ve learned that family ski (hike, raft, bike, etc.) trips are best enjoyed with friends. Seriously. Trying to convince my three to brave bitter winds or heavy snowfall to hit the slopes on our own can be a chore. On the other hand, when we travel with friends, I often have to drag them off the slopes at the end of the day. Then, they usually just exchange their skis for sleds or shovels to build a snow fort.

Traveling with others requires prior planning, flexibility, and patience (see tips #1 and #5). But the benefits can be worth it. In addition to fun on the slopes, traveling as a group can bring added benefits – games and late-night conversation, splitting cooking responsibilities, and the chance for your children to share their skills (and learn some new ones) from their peers.

#3 Organize Food, Snacks & Drinks (before you go)

Have you ever been driving down highway D1 passing Czech cars loaded up with everything from a potty chair to a runner sled strapped on the top? Czechs travel prepared. From packing snacks for the car, to taking sandwiches on the slopes, or tucking a thermos of hot tea into their day packs, Czechs seem to know what it takes to keep themselves (and their children) physically satisfied while adventuring.

After watching my friends whip out sandwiches on the lift mid-morning to give their children, I finally caught on. Whether you carry your food with you or just plan where to stop (i.e. the Yeti Hut on Lipno’s back side has my children’s favorite hot chocolate while their après ski bar near the Fox Park is great for drinks while children sled), make food a fun part of your weekend away.

#4 Rent equipment & book lessons ahead of time (or call ahead)

Rather than scrambling last minute to find the right downhill or cross-country skis (as we have often done), consider renting your children’s equipment for the season back in Prague. Happy Sport has several locations in Prague and one in Hradec Kralove.

#5 Be Patient & Flexible

When traveling with children, remember that flexibility and patience are key. Things are likely to go wrong. And, you can’t control the weather. Take it in stride. Some of my family’s most memorable vacations include hiking in thick fog on the ridge above Špindlerův Mlýn, trying cross-country skiing (and falling repeatedly) in the Jizera Mountains, and playing rousing games of Dixit while listening to the rain beat down on the cottage roof.

A Few of Our Favorite Czech Ski Spots (totally subjective)  

The Lipno Ski resort in the Sumava Mountains (about 30 minutes from Cesky Budejovice by car, 200 km from Prague) is a great place to bring your family for their first ski experience. With the largest children’s ski areal in the country (Fox Park), gentle slopes, and plenty of activities for non-skiers (i.e. waterpark, Hopsarium, ice skating on Lake Lipno, and a treetop walkway, the Lipno resort is designed with families in mind. Ski and snowboard lessons are available for adults and children in Czech, English, and Dutch.

If cross-country skiing is more your style, head to Boží Dar, a ski town in the Karlovy Vary Region of the Krušné Hory (Ore Mountains) about 125 km from Prague. Enjoy the downhill runs at the region’s largest resort, Klinovec, in the morning, then swap out for an afternoon of cross-country skiing on kilometers of gently rolling, groomed trails. Boží Dar is an ideal place to introduce your family to cross-country skiing. And for aspiring snowboarders, Klinovec’s new Funpark has jumps and railings even for beginners.

The Spindlruv Mlyn ski resort in the Krkonos Mountains (145 km from Prague) is the Vail or Aspen of the Czech Republic. With a cute downtown straddling the river, shops to browse through, high-end restaurants and an active nightlife, Spindl offers a wide variety of options for skiers and non-skiers alike. After a day on the slopes, try snow tubing or tobogganing, or visit a water park. For last minute accommodations, check the local website or check here for more tips for families.

Though not as large as Spindl, Pec pod Sněžkou (200 km from Prague) is another popular family-oriented resort in the Krkonos Mountains. If you’ve ever wanted to learn to use a T-bar (or anchor) style lifts, this is the resort for you. Although the resort does have two chair lifts, the numerous T-bar lifts and mountain cottages scattered on the slopes give Pec a retro feel. The summit of Sněžka (1603 metres above sea level), the Czech Republic’s highest peak, can be reached by cable car from Pec, although fall or spring are more ideal times to make this hike with children.

The Jizera Mountains are best known for the Jizerská magistrála, a network of 170 km of cross-country skiing trails. The magistral is the site of the country’s most famous cross-country race, the annual Jizerská 50. Visit the region for this year’s 51st race series (February 16-18), which includes the traditional 50 km main race, team races, a 10-km family race, and a mini-race for children.

Whether you decide to book a weekend away or just head to the mountains for a day trip, I hope these tips may help.

Happy Skiing!Anna jump

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A case of post-holiday blues

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Learning to face the emptiness with grace

Sometimes, the best part of a holiday comes after the fireworks have been set off, the Christmas tree has been taken down, and the house is quiet again. Right?

At least, that’s what I kept telling myself as the days of our US holiday flashed by at breakneck speed. As soon as I get back to Prague, I’ll have a chance to relax.

The morning after we returned to Prague, I dropped my children off at school dressed in my running clothes. Planning to get a head start on my New Year’s fitness resolutions, I intended to run the path through the woods between our house and the Vltava River before I went to work. Instead, I went home and fell asleep. Sitting up. At the kitchen table.

When I awoke 20 minutes later, instead of rousing to jog, I moved to the couch, covered myself with a blanket and slept on. When I woke up an hour later, I thought I was still at my parents’ house in Virginia. Then, I looked out the window, saw the grey sky, and realized I was back in Prague. It was January. And, it was time to go teach my English lessons.

Over the next few days, I helped my children prepare for their end-of-semester exams in school, complete make-up work, and readjust, in general, to the rhythm of our Czech lives. Which included, ice-skating in lieu of gym class, visiting their Czech relatives for babička’s rajská omáčka (beef and noodles served in a thick, tomato sauce), and logging the year’s first kilometers on cross-country skis. Even after a few days back, I realized there was plenty to look forward to in the coming months of winter in the Czech Republic.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel let down. At first, I attributed my fuzziness to jet-lag and a result of a super-active holiday. Our 12-day trip to America had been a whirlwind complete with holiday parties, outdoor hikes to fast-flowing waterfalls, and exploring the hip mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina with my parents, aunts, and uncles.

In recent years, Asheville had become the trendiest beer city on the East Coast, and Radek and I wanted to see the beer scene firsthand. At Asheville’s Wicked Weed taproom, we selected beers from a tap list that included American ales, Belgian lagers, German ales, and the brewery’s specialty – barrel-aged beers with names like “Milk and Cookies,” “Angel of Darkness,” and “Coolcumber.” Overwhelmed by the extravagant names and flavors, in the end, Radek and I selected a pilsner brewed from imported Czech hops. It was tasty, but not quite like a Czech beer.

Radek marveled that Americans would be willing to drink such intensely flavored beers one after the other, and I reminded him that drinking beer in the US at a microbrewery might not involve the same quantity of consumption he was accustomed to at a typical Czech pub. We were both surprised at the bartender’s insistence on seeing an ID from each person and serving only one drink per person (i.e. no carrying a round of drinks back to your table).

Throughout our stay in the US, each time Radek opened his mouth, the waiter, gas station attendant, or shop keeper with whom he was speaking would comment, “Say, I can tell you’re not from around here, where are you from?”

Lively conversations ensued about just where the Czech Republic is and what language Czechs speak. People we met also remarked on Oliver and Samuel’s European accents, despite both boys trying out regional expressions like, “y’all” and “ain’t” as well as dropping the final ‘g from verbs like “comin’” or “goin’” to sound more like their American cousins.

Being in America for shorter than usual meant operating at a continuous high-speed to get to see and do and soak up as much as we could. We even squeezed in a pre-dinner New Year’s Eve visit with the granddaughter of my mother’s friend who had driven an hour and a half to meet us and hear stories about our lives in the Czech Republic.

Eighteen-year-old Sophia was getting ready to come to Prague for a semester abroad at Charles University. Her grandmother and her parents wanted us to reassure them that Prague was a safe city. While Anna described the easy-to-use public transportation system; I answered Sophia’s questions about food shopping and medical insurance. Radek put a plug in for the city’s good clubs and cheap entertainment.

We had so much fun in the US, no one wanted to leave.

The most difficult part of returning to Prague, this time, was that, instead of being glad to be home (as they usually are when we return in the summer), my children were sadder than ever to leave America. They were homesick for my parents, their cousins, and even my childhood home, where my daughter read old Nancy Drew mysteries and my sons played with my brother’s 30-year-old Legos and Lincoln Logs.

A few days after our return, I listened to a webcast on WebMed. I realized that post-holiday syndrome, otherwise known as post-travel depression (PTD), is a relatively common condition, particularly following the major winter holidays when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can also contribute to temporary feelings of being down.

Although I was pretty sure our children (and, to be honest, myself as well) were only suffering a natural let-down after having too much fun (along with, perhaps, the gloom that comes from too many grey Prague days in a row), I decided that instead of trying to pretend everything was normal, I would acknowledge their feelings.

We had a family dinner one night before Radek left for Germany. Radek had also noticed the kids were a little down. He said, “Guys, I know that it’s hard having part our family live so far away, but think about how cool it is that you get the chance to travel to see them.”

With Radek’s prompting, each child started to talk about his or her favorite memories from the holiday. For Anna, it was shopping with my mother and playing with her friend Raegan. For Oliver, it was shooting a squirrel with my father and Radek on my grandfather’s farm, skinning and preparing it, and finally, eating fried squirrel. And for Sam, the highlight of the holiday was a never-ending hike from Bridal Falls in the NC Dupont State forest, where he had to take off his pants to cross an icy-cold river with thigh-high (for him), fast-moving water.

My children often talk about how they miss my parents, and ask why we can’t live in America, too. However, for the first time ever, instead of just complaining, 10-year-old Oliver started calling both of my parents on Viber to chat. Before baseball practice or while he waited for me to put him to bed, he’d take his phone to the playroom, where the wi-fi connection was strongest, and call. Sometimes, they would do a video call, so Oliver could see my mom or watch the cat play.

Anna had already developed a habit of talking with my parents regularly, and despite being a little jealous that Oliver wanted to do the same, she understood his need to keep the communication strong.

I, too, knew how the children felt.

But, as I get older, I have also begun to realize just how important my post-holiday blues are. For me, it is a time of longing – when I yearn for what was, acknowledge that I can’t turn back the days, and begin to gather strength for the season ahead.

It is in the empty space, when the days seem grey, and inconveniently-timed phone calls to relatives who are just waking up (or heading to bed) can’t replace the longing to hug a family member in the flesh, when I know home is a place I carry with me.

As much as I want both worlds, I know that the beauty of life is in the tension – not the day-to-day continuity, but the break and the return. Recognizing this helps me get through the worst first days until my mind and body settle, and I return to my identity, as an American English teacher living (happily) in the Czech Republic with my half-n-half family.

After a few days, my children, too, get used to their classes, their sports, and their friends. And, they began looking forward to our next adventure. Anna reads a guide book I gave her at Christmas called Yellowstone Adventuring with Kids written by a family with four boys. When Oliver next calls my mother, she tells him that she’s counted her airline points and has enough for a spring trip to see us.

As the days pass, the experiences of this holiday fade into the quilt of our lives. Maybe, we’ll reflect on them next year (that is, if I am organized enough to get the pictures off the camera). In the meantime, I will do my best to acknowledge both the positives and the negatives of living a half-n-half life. And, have faith that the positives still outweigh the negatives.

I will even get off the couch and squeeze that run in. Who says the best part of the holidays can’t come once they’re over?