I am shivering as I stand at the side of the road, my thumb pointing to the dark sky, hoping. Earlier, that same sky was a brilliant blue and I regretted not bringing my sunglasses to protect my eyes against the glare of the snow. After sunset, however, the temperature dropped rapidly and my thin jacket, as brightly coloured as it is, no longer keeps me warm.
The temperature dropped rapidly after sunset
I don’t have to wait long. A car emerges from the car park opposite, and in the space of time it takes for my eyes to adjust to the blinding headlights, the car has pulled over beside me. The window opens and the driver leans over. He’s been skiing too and his face is flushed, his eyes bright. He looks healthy and happy, and I know I must look the same, because that’s exactly how I feel. ‘To Liberec?’ He nods and gets out to help me put my skis in the boot. ‘Cold, isn’t it? It’s a proper winter again this year.’ He grins, delighted that he’s able to make the most of the season. It turns out he can speak perfect English. He tells me he is a freelance actor and comes to Liberec from Prague most weekends in winter. ‘Prague is good for acting,’ he says. ‘But Liberec is good for sport.’
Local Czechs Go Cross-Country Skiing Every Weekend
Local Czechs, like this actor from Prague, lead a good lifestyle. They finish work early, do their shopping in the evenings, and spend the weekends busy being active in ‘the nature’. In winter this means skiing. The towns and villages empty of all but the unwitting tourists; the locals escape the hustle and bustle of city life and head for the hills. This is where the life is – but even here, it’s peaceful. There are 200km of prepared ski tracks in the Jizera Mountains: plenty of space for everyone from professional athletes to young families to spread out and enjoy the fairy-tale landscape.
This is where the life is
Hitchhiking Is The Best Way To Get Around
I decided to hitchhike after my boss suggested it. He moved out to Liberec from England twenty years ago and never left. I think he’s hoping I won’t want to leave either. ‘It’s best to go skiing in the evening when it’s a bit quieter,’ he said. ‘Take a head torch. And you don’t need to worry about catching the bus afterwards; everyone will be heading back to Liberec at that time. Just hitch a ride back.’ So I did. With the skiing only 15 minutes from my door in the centre of the city, there is nothing to stop me going mornings, evenings, at the weekends… On this occasion, I hopped on the bus after work on Friday afternoon and headed into the woods on my skis, stopping only to admire the expert skiers glide effortlessly by (that’s what I told myself, anyway – nothing to do with needing a rest!). After I’d watched them disappear into the distance I tried to copy their graceful style. It worked well at first… Until my technique succumbed to exhaustion. I relished the final descent, feeling like I’d earned it.
Skiing into the sunrise
The Czech Republic Is A Cheaper Alternative To The Alps
Friends and family come to visit (for once, I am living near an international airport – Prague) and are amazed by a country they know so little about. Liberec certainly gives a good first impression: the town hall is strikingly beautiful, and the city is very clean.
Town hall in Liberec
My parents have hired a car and we drive up into the mountains. The road was cleared in the night but it’s still snowing. ‘Didn’t I mention you’d need snow chains?’ I say helpfully. It only costs about £10 to hire a full set of ski equipment at the car park, and within minutes we are gliding through the winter wonderland. It’s hard work being a puppy, skiing back and forth, rounding my parents up. They haven’t been cross-country skiing for years; usually, we go downhill skiing in the Alps – but they pick it up again remarkably quickly.
The Best Place To Stop For A Rest While Cross-Country Skiing
Before long, I point to a mountain hut in a meadow: it is agreed that kolá?
(a delicious Czech pastry) and ?aj
(tea) is an excellent idea and we ski across the snow-bedecked meadow towards the promised warmth of Šámalova chata. Inside, it is rustic and cosy and full of locals tucking into steaming bowls of soup or traditional, hearty meals. The waiters speak a mixture of Czech, German and English and appreciate our attempts to speak their language. The quality of life is comparable to somewhere like Austria… it’s just significantly cheaper here.
The Nation’s Best Cross-Country Ski Marathon
And then I see an advert for the Czech Republic’s most famous race, the Jizerska 50, part of the Worldloppet series… I hesitantly sign up and, at the beginning of February, find myself at the starting line: Three.
The countdown begins – can you feel it? Can you feel the energy surging through the crowd? Two.
You’re in the middle of it all. Drones buzz above your head, music matches your heartbeat – One.
Is it your first cross-country ski race? Are you a professional? It doesn’t matter, excitement floods your every nerve – GO!
And you’re off, pushing yourself forward with your poles, then up the first hill – legs, body, arms – adrenaline pumping, and on, on, on for 50 km, the snow whispering encouragement beneath your skis, the cool misty air quenching the burn until – suddenly – the finish line is there and the finishers’ medal is around your neck and there is nowhere in the world you would rather be right now than here.