This post is mostly about love. I mean, it’s about travelling, travelling in 2020, and travelling back to the same region over and over again. Why? Because it’s close-but-not-too-close, because its sceneries are stunning and diverse and beautiful, and because the more I see, the further I want to explore. It’s not easy to explain this kind of familiar feeling, this kind of strong connection with a place. I’m going to call it my very own love story with Vysočina.
4 Nov 2020. 2019 was the year I travelled the most in my whole life. If I look back at it, I can confidently say I travelled somewhere at least once a month, if not more often. I travelled north, to Norway for the seventh time, to Finland for the second, to Denmark for the very first (and definitely not last).
I travelled east, to Romania on a first-time visit, and to Poland for the third time to attend a very special wedding (not mine). I also travelled south, to Croatia (also a first-time visit) and, obviously to Italy, both to visit my family and to attend another very special wedding (also not mine).
2020 came off to an amazing start. It wasn’t even mid-January and I’d already been on a long weekend break to Reykjavik: my first time in Iceland.
We all know what happened shortly after that. It took a while to get used to the idea that we were indeed going through a global pandemic, and that life as we’d always known it was changing suddenly, dramatically, and fast oh so fast. But in the end we all figured what was going on.
Global pandemic meant no more travelling abroad for a while. For me personally, it meant no more travelling for the whole year. I only just managed a timely trip back to my hometown in Italy to visit Mum and family, just weeks before new restrictive measures were introduced. Again. Lockdown #2 was never made official, but it feels very real, and who knows how long it’s going to last for.
And yet, I look at 2020, and it’s loaded with trips. 2020 is a thick photo album of bike rides, train journeys and car drives, lush green hillslopes, little blue ponds, narrow trails and open fields. 2020 is a vast collection of day trips around the Czech Republic.
It’s not like this year’s ‘style’ of travel is ever going to replace travelling abroad. ‘Domestic trips’ and long-distance travels are two sides of the same coin: they are made to co-exist. This year, though, what with international travel being off the table, ‘domestic’ trips have been a true highlight and contributed decisively to help me retain a semblance of mental sanity.
That said, it’s only fair to say I didn’t travel evenly in all directions within the country. In fact, if I were to draw a map of the places I’ve been to this year, I know too well what it would look like. With the exception of a couple bike rides around South Moravia, all trips I’ve taken this year have invariably taken me back to the same area: Vysočina.
Vysočina (‘Highland’ in English) is the region of the Czech Republic that sits between South Bohemia and South Moravia. I had been to Vysočina once already in 2019, when I visited Žďár nad Sázavou for the first time. It felt like a one-time thing back then. I was looking for somewhere other than Pálava for a Saturday trip, and the next thing I know, I’m on an early-morning train to Žďár.
I almost felt like a tourist at the time: I picked up a city map from the Tourist Centre by the main square, duly checked off as many monuments as I could fit into a one-day route and, needless to say, headed up Zelená hora to see the landmark (and Unesco site) Žďár is super uber most famous for: the Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk (Poutní kostel svatého Jana Nepomuckého).
All my Vysočina travels after that Žďár trip have happened in 2020, and even this year at first they kind of felt like occasional visits. I learnt about Dalešická přehrada (Dalešice Dam) almost by chance, but knew instantly I wanted to see it. Dalešická přehrada is one of those places that can be reached much more easily by car: public transport will drop you off relatively far from the lake, or the journey might be rather long and include multiple changes.
On a late February morning I (kind of randomly) boarded an early train to Náměšť nad Oslavou, and walked all the way to Hartvikovice and Wilsonová skála (Wilson’s Rock), at last. It was quite a walk but, oh, the beauty of it. Staring at the lake enveloped in the pale winter sun in complete solitude was as blissful as it sounds. The winter light was white and still, the air crispy but mild by the standards of Czech February, and the wind was like a whisper creasing the surface of the water.
Spring was already close, and the scenery was majestic yet so delicate. The one thing that got in the way of such bliss was, as I remember, the nagging thought that just the day before the very first Covid case had been reported in Italy. As I strolled through narrow, steep trails winding through the woods, I could only tell myself that this ‘virus’ thing was real, that it had reached Italy (not yet the Czech Republic, was it only a matter of time?), and I had made it back from my hometown literally a couple of days before Italy’s infection case announcement came. What was going to happen?
I visited Telč only a couple of weeks later. It was already March, but that Sunday the wind blew hard and cold. Telč is one of the most lovely, quaint, and picturesque towns I’ve ever visited in the region. It sits in the very south of Vysočina, close to the border with South Bohemia. Its ponds, scattered around town, further amplify the beauty of its architecture.
The true epicentre of Telč is undeniably its main square, Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce (Zachariáš of Hradec square). Framed by the most colourful 15th-century houses, it’s the closest to architectural perfection I’ve ever seen. Unsurprisingly, the square is a listed Unesco site. It makes you want to walk it in circles again and again, because the more you look around the more you keep noticing new details, hues and ornaments.
And if you think you will be done with the main square, think again, because there is more. There are imposing churches and church towers, side alleys to get lost around, sumptuous historic buildings, and a stunning, massive castle you cannot miss. The castle complex sits on a broad expanse of gardens that make for a very pleasant walk. Plus, if you’re visiting around spring, expect the grass to be covered in patches of spring snowflakes (bledulky in Czech): they grow everywhere in the park.
In spite of all the beauty, the same nagging feeling from two weeks before was still there, and it was only getting worse. The night before I visited Telč Italy announced a national lockdown. Around 11 in the morning I sat on a bench overlooking a pond, and I rang Mum. I asked her how it felt, to know that you couldn’t leave the house unless it was for strict necessity. We said how worrying figures and news from Italy sounded in those days: we didn’t know that was only the beginning. It felt so unreal to talk about infection rates and quarantine rules instead of comparing each other’s ideas for Sunday lunch.
The week after I visited Telč the state of emergency was announced in the Czech Republic, and lockdown followed suit. That also brought trips to a halt for a while. I believe it took everyone a while to adjust to a state of things no one had ever been confronted with before. Then, as days grew longer and April presented us with the most amazing weather, trips resumed, this time in earnest.
Biking into the Vysočina border to Velká Bíteš was great. Here, I have to say, it was more about the journey than the destination itself. The South Moravian nature flowed past like a slideshow of fields: (still) green wheat, yellow rapeseed, purplish flowering chives, all the way to the region border. ‘Czech spring comes in layers’, I remember thinking that day.
Of the last handful of kilometres I remember the silence of the main road (not even the odd car driving past), a lonesome bird lookout tower in the distance, and Velká Bíteš main square opening up round the corner like a theatre stage. I also remember eating on a bench rohliky (the most Czech bread type of all, similar to little bread rolls), soft cheese and a banana freshly bought from the local shop, and feeling very Czech.
It was already mid May, the tightest restrictions were slowly being lifted, and some little things were starting to feel normal again.
Still in the midst of lockdown #1, picking the next Vysočina destination slowly grew into a proper weekly routine. I would start on Wednesday by checking the weather forecast for the weekend. Then I would duly log into my Mapy.cz account, and start scanning some Vysočina area that looked or sounded especially intriguing – and, possibly, in the vicinity of water. I would book train tickets already on Friday just to make sure I wouldn’t miss the train if I ever got to the station last minute on Saturday morning.
End of May marked my first trip to Velké Dářko. The lake, known as Moře Vysočiny (Vysočina Sea), is located about 10 km north of Žďár, and it’s the largest lake in the region. What I love about it the most are its windy shores, the ‘official’ nature trail (naučná stezka) that runs along the western and northern sides of the lake, the maze of muddy paths all around, through broad meadows and open fields, and the unexpected lake views opening up through the trees.
When I first went there I took the (usual) train to Žďár, and then I walked all the way to Velké Dářko. It is quite a walk, but it’s one to enjoy every step of the way, as it takes you through tiny villages like Polnička and Škrdlovice, patches of forest bathed in silence, and wooden cottages with pointed roofs. There’s something special about reaching somewhere on foot because you see it all, you make it there step by step, you don’t miss anything along the way. Like, honestly, Vodní nádrž Pilská bathed in late-spring morning sun looks like a bright-coloured oil canvas.
By early June, when lockdown was lifted and we were allowed to work from the office again, I had been looking at how to get to Vír for weeks. Any bus + train combination, though, took forever, and included so many changes that almost made the whole trip pointless. Around those days, almost by accident, a casual conversation at work included the statement that ‘there are direct buses from Brno to Olešnice’, and that’s what did the trick. Olešnice, still in South Moravia lies around 12 km west of Vír, so I thought getting there by direct public transport meant I’d be able to walk straight to Vír from there.
It’s safe to say that trip remains one of the most eventful I’ve ever been on, mostly thanks to a bus journey that took longer than expected. The morning bus I boarded in Brno did read ‘Olešnice’, but its final destination turned out to be Kunštát, which is about 10 km south-east of Olešnice and is definitely not Olešnice. Standing in the middle of Kunštát main square, I asked the bus driver where he’d just dropped me off, and he insisted that we were in Olešnice. He then drove off, and I had to find an additional bus that would take me to actual Olešnice from there. Add to that a summer storm that lasted longer than average, and an epic fail when it came to crossing a stream that 1) was deeper than it looked and 2) didn’t have enough protruding stones to jump on during the crossing. There, you’ve got the full picture.
That very trip, however, is also one of those with the highest amount of stunning views and scenic trails of the whole year. I did walk from Olešnice to Vír and, before I left town, I detoured uphill to Vírská přehrada (Vír Dam), and down the lakeside trail to Kobylí skála (Mare’s Rock) viewpoint. I then headed south, and made it to Nedvědice ahead of my train schedule, so much so that I managed to climb the hilly trail to Pernštejn Castle and enjoy the late-afternoon views from there. The castle itself had already closed for the day, but luckily hilltop views are still available 24/7.
Next came the walk from Žďár to Nové Město na Moravě through Tři Studně, Sykovec, and a handful of other ponds along the way. Everything, really everything tasted like summer that day: the scorching sun, the heat lingering over the yellowish fields, the clear blue sky, flat as if cut out of a cardboard sheet.
The waters of Sykovec pond were almost lukewarm when I dipped in them, the light was blinding, and the shady stretches of trail through the woods were as rewarding as the sea of blueberries covering the ground, waiting to be picked. My love for blueberries knows no boundaries, I could hardly believe my eyes.
The week after I went back to Žďár, chasing pond after pond south of the city. Summer was still in full swing, wheat fields were borderless along the path, and I’ve never seen so many frogs as on that day. I walked through such broad expanses of green, yellow and blue without ever bumping into humans. I only met a few storks along the way, chilling in the grass without a care in the world.
As I headed back into the city, I realised I knew exactly what was where, and I didn’t need a map at all. And I thought, there’s something special about this place. To me Žďár is the beating heart of Vysočina, and not so much because it does sit at the heart of the region, but because, well, it’s just there, many direct trains a day from Brno.
Žďár is always easy to reach and, once you’re there, you can basically reach anywhere in the region. Some of its most iconic landmarks almost seem to be aptly placed here and there specially to make Žďár look even more familiar when you go back there: the castle and the adjacent stone Baroque bridge, which looks like it’s been there since forever; the reassuring view of Zelená hora and the elegant church outline sitting on its hilltop; windy Velké Dářko and the nature trails through the forest, which I don’t ever seem to get tired of.
There’s something special about Žďár, but it’s not easy to explain.
Třebíč was the first city trip in a very long time. As I waited for my train out of Brno, I caught sight of a poster where the Czech railway company promoted Třebíč this way: ‘Instead of Palm Beach, discover Třebíč’ (Místo Palm Beach, objevuju Třebíč). Now, I’ve never been to Palm Beach, so I can’t tell for sure, but it’s good that I didn’t suddenly think I’d find palms or beaches in Třebíč, because I would have been awfully disappointed. Even without palms and beaches, though, Třebíč turned out to be very pretty.
The centre is super compact, and everything worth seeing is within walking distance: the main square, the castle, St. Procopius Basilica and the Jewish quarter (both Unesco sites) and, just across the bridge, Masaryk lookout. Once you’re done with the key monuments, you can take the path along the Jihlava river, and keep going for as long as you feel like. You will likely come across this or that pond along the way, but that will only make the walk all the more pleasant.
Or you can walk the 5 km to Pekelný kopec watchtower. I knew I didn’t have time for that, so I climbed Strážná hora instead, and enjoyed amazing views of the city from the top of the old water tower, Vodárna Kostelíček. What makes it even more interesting is that the tower is also home to a small exhibition on the history of waterworks in Třebíč.
The leitmotiv of the walk from Světlá nad Sázavou to Lipnice nad Sázavou were apple trees. Wherever I turned, at any point during the day, I would see them: in private gardens, along the path going out of town, here and there on the very fields.
Světlá nad Sázavou is hardly one of the most characteristic places in Vysočina, nor is it as rich in famous landmarks as other towns of similar size. Lipnice itself, to name its closest neighbour, is much more popular than Světlá. But Světlá, too, deserves a stroll around town.
That day getting to Světlá was especially functional to the true goal of that trip: visiting the Národní památník odposlechu (National Monument of Eavesdropping). Don’t let this funny-looking monument fool you: it’s much more than the ‘monument hunt’ through the woods it appears to be.
The project consists of four sculptures located here and there in the forest outside Lipnice nad Sázavou. The first three parts (the mouth, the ear and the eyes) are carved in rocks, each of which is overlooking a different pond. The fourth (the head, a later addition) sits on a meadow by the main road, closer to Dolní Město than Lipnice.
For each piece there would be a whole story to tell and multiple historical, literary references to make. Sadly, for the purpose of this post (otherwise endless) I will have to skip all of that. I included some bits and pieces of it in the Instagram post I wrote when I visited the monument, plus I’m hoping to write a bit more extensively about it in a dedicated blog post at some point.
Extra note #1: the hilly area called Radostovinský kopec, south of Světlá, is covered in woods and dotted with quarry ponds. It makes for the best route to the sculptures that make up the monument.
As for Lipnice itself, its castle is a true landmark in the area. Perched on the very top of a hill, its composite architecture makes for quite a majestic sight from below, and it also offers amazing views over the sea of green surrounding it.
Extra note #2: Jaroslav Hašek, author of the popular Czech novel ‘Dobrý voják Švejk’ (‘Good Soldier Švejk’) died in Lipnice, so no wonder you also find other reminders of his ‘presence’ here and there around town (like a museum dedicated to his life and work). A character from the same novel is also referenced in the ‘ear’ sculpture of the monument but, again, no time for dwelling on it here.
When, in early September, I visited Velké Meziříčí, I got clear, unmistakable signs that summer was ending, and autumn was on its way. The light was softer, the fields a darker shade of yellow, and the days already visibly shorter.
Velké Meziříčí means ‘between rivers’ (mezi řekami in Czech), and owes its name to the town’s geographical location at the confluence (soutok in Czech) of rivers Oslava and Balinka. I took a walk through the town centre but, honestly, it was a brisk one, as I was eager to reach the actual destination of my trip: the Fajtův kopec observation tower. The watchtower was built on top of Fajtův hill (kopec means ‘hill’ in Czech), and it makes for quite a unique monument for more than one reason.
One: the tower offers a mesmerising, stunning 360-degree bird’s eye view over everything: the city, the forest, the viaduct down below and, more in general, the Moravian and Vysočina nature. Two: it sits right next to a ski resort, which makes it an objectively cool attraction in winter. (Honestly, if I saw it from afar after a snowfall, I could easily think that the tower, too, was made of snow.) Three: its shape resembles the DNA molecule, which makes it objectively pretty cool.
From Velké Meziříčí I walked to Ořechov, and hopped around the several ponds in the area. The fact that I already knew about the existence of an Ořechov in South Moravia (only because I had biked through the village at some point) meant I couldn’t mistake it for its Vysočina counterpart. Nor did any bus drivers mess with my route.
The end of summer also brought back nagging thoughts about soaring infection rates, a resurgence in the pandemic, rumours of a second lockdown, and all the rest. Predictably enough, they only kept getting worse.
Still in September, with my second (and, clearly, last) trip to Italy this year, I also became a proud car owner – more like, long-term ‘borrower’, since technically I’m driving Dad’s old car, though I’m the de facto driver and carer.
That’s how train journeys to Vysočina were replaced by car drives. The fact that having a car meant being able to reach the most secluded villages and lakes around the region was a truly priceless collateral effect I’m still truly enjoying and haven’t quite got used to.
So far autumn trips have always taken me close to the water, chasing after yellowing leaves and charming reflections. There was the drive to Dalečín, and the walk from Dalečín to Popelková skála viewing spot. Standing on the rocky banks of Vírská přehrada at golden hour, without having to rush to any train station to catch the last Brno train of the day, is ‘a first’ I will hardly forget.
There was the trip to Velké Dářko 2.0, when the cold air already felt like winter, clouds were heavy, but the trees were already so bright and colourful they would have lit up the greyest of all skies.
There were the trips to Dalešická přehrada, and its countless viewing spots: Kozlovské skály glowing in the Indian summer sun (Babí léto in Czech), Dalešice ferry stop, Skalní útvar Vztyčený prst (the Rock shaped like a raised finger, which you can probably better appreciate from the opposite side of the lake), and many more views along the way.
Each of the seventeen* Vysočina trips I’ve taken so far I remember vividly from beginning to end. This region has grown into a familiar place, one that gives me the same kind of ‘homey’ feeling I only experience whenever I travel to Norway and, more in general, the North. Vysočina is a place I know and recognise, a ‘place of the heart’, a place I still haven’t got tired of exploring and uncovering.
I’m not sure how this kind of connection starts existing and grows. Maybe it’s as I once wrote here on the blog: ‘Places don’t reject you or keep you at distance. They don’t forget about you, they don’t leave you behind’, and ‘some bonds exist even if you can’t explain them with words, and you just shouldn’t fight them’.
I do have the longest list of places I want to visit all around the Czech Republic, but Vysočina still retains a geography, a storyline of its own. So yes, there’s a reason I jokingly called this ’thing’, this connection with Vysočina a ‘love story’. It’s because that’s exactly what it is.
2020 has been cruel in many ways, not least in that it has tried to bring people apart, often succeeding in doing so. It has, however, also brought me close to a place so beautiful and diverse as Vysočina, so I’m going to take care of this connection as best as I can.
* Vysočina trip no. 17, back to Žďár nad Sázavou and Velké Dářko, happened on 8 November 2020 i.e. when this post had already been written. For this reason, with the exception of one photo of Zelená hora, it hasn’t been detailed in the post.