On Saturday, May 9, thousands of people will converge on the small village of Sopotnice in the foothills of the Orlice Mountains to revive an ancient tradition: walking. Hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when a 15-kilometer jaunt to the nearest market town was a matter of course and shoe leather was the preferred means of transportation.
Sopotnice honors this tradition with its annual Three Caste Walk, held this year for the 43rd time. The start and finish line are on the soccer field, where, for a fee of 30 crowns, you can hike or bike back through history to three of the country’s oldest castles. Although given the massive crowds at this event, many opt to complete the hike at a quieter time!
First Circle: Potštejn (5 kilometers)
Once it was the lair of the notorious Mikuláš of Potštejn, a powerful nobleman who got into hot water when he killed a rich merchant in a blood feud. Ordinarily, he would have gotten off with a small fine, but the victim was the moneyman of the flamboyant King John of Luxembourg, and Mikuláš was lucky to get out of the mess with his head on his neck.
King John recouped his losses by evicting Mikuláš and confiscating his property. This irked the knight so, that moved back into the old homestead and went into business for himself. Back then, that meant robbery and he did quite well, lightening the loads of trade caravans en route to Poland.
That ate into royal profits, so the king sent his son, the young Margrave Charles, to bring the unruly knight to heel. In 1339, Charles moved into the Sopotnice priory and, with the help of state-of-the-art technology (gunpowder), he blew the castle and it’s owner sky-high.
Today, all that is left of Mikuláš is a magnificent ruin on an escarpment above the Divoká Orlice (Wild Eagle) River. Below it huddles the charming tiny spa town of Potštejn, a maze of tiny wooden cabins with three good restaurants: the proletarian Pod Lipami next to the river, the chic Hotel Praha with a large shaded garden or the hopping Slavie which serves a garlic soup bound to bring tears to your eyes. Or just cut to the chase in the cukrárna on the square.
It’s a five kilometer hike from Sopotnice, along a well-marked path that runs through a shady valley beside the burbling river. At the edge of town, you will cross a dam and continue along an old millrace, under a magnificent alley of linden trees to the town center.
Second Circle: Litice (15 kilometers)
Once fortified, follow the red markers through tiny Brná, then back to the river, and upstream through a magnificent valley, to the village of Litice.
Though it has no more than 150 inhabitants – all contendants for the prettiest garden prize – Litice has the most dramatic castle. Perched on a hill above a sharp bend of the river, it’s a steep 15-minute hike up to the drawbridge. Or you can invest in the pub at the foot of the hill. The shaggy dog that patrols the quiet street and gravely sniffs newcomers is named Míša.
Once fed, continue up the road to a pretty railway station – and a moral dilemma.
The decision you make here separates the walkers from the wimps. An hourly train will whisk you back to Sopotnice in 10 minutes. Or you can go back through the village, then follow the yellow markers along a path running high above the left bank of the river through tunnels of greenery, punctuated by large patches of violets, wild strawberries and lilies-of-the-valley. It’s s brisk 45-minute/5K walk back to Sopotnice.
Or you can take the challenge.
Third Circle: Žampach (30 kilometers)
After the first, murderous, climb out of the valley, it’s an easy 18-kilometer stroll through gently-rolling meadows, shady forests and charming villages to the third castle, Žampach.
This was the lair of Mikuláš of Potštejn’s colleague Jan “Pancíř” of Smojno. In his youth he had been awarded a heavy golden chain for courage in battle by the aforementioned Margrave Charles. Unfortunately, Pancíř was not the type to not let this go to his head. He wore the chain night and day and, thinking himself above the law, took up highway robbery.
Charles, now king, pulled up to the castle on Friday demanding surrender. On Sunday he got it. Pancíř, trading on the past, expected to receive pardon, and he might actually have gotten away with his neck intact, if he hadn’t worn that darned chain around it. In a rare display of black humor, the king used it to hang the robber knight from the nearest tree.
Only a few stone arches and a magnificent view of the Orlice mountain range are left of Žampach today. For many, it’s the end of the walk, with roast sausages, beer and live bands to bring you in. Intrepid walkers can turn back toward Sopotnice to complete the 30 kilometer circle via the pretty villages of Česká Rybná and Hejnice. Both have good pubs.
Fourth Circle: Landšperk (50 kilometers)
A few diehards will insist on tredging on to a fourth castle, Landšperk, to complete the 50 kilometer circle, mostly along asphalt roads. Yuck. It’s better to continue five kilometers to the lovely town of Letohrad, and a railway station where trains run back to a grand welcome in Sopotnice every hour.
Getting to Sopotnice: Catch the EC train from Hlavní Nádraží to Česká Třebová – it takes about 1.5 hours – then hop on a bus to Sopotnice in front of the train station – it’s a 30 minute ride to the Sopotnice fire station.