Friday, June 27, 2008

journey to Narnia

Sadly the photographs that were to accompany this article were stolen at Prague airport, along with my camera. The camera I can live without, but if anyone has my memory cards, please return them!


Prince Caspian has just opened in the cinema. The acting may be a little shaky but Narnia is spectacular. Adamson creates a brilliant depiction of Narnia by layering images of beaches in New Zealand with ancient Polish and Czech forests. I was lucky enough to be invited by the Czech and Polish tourist authorities to explore the areas where much of the film was created. And so I set off on a quest to central Europe to see if I could find Narnia.

First stop, Prague. Well - any excuse really. Forties London was filmed in Prague, as were all the studio shots in Prince Caspian as it happens. It's an unlikely double, but perhaps the new Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Maze at the Hilton was the draw for Adamson, and I salute his choice. I flew into Prague late on Thursday night and dined alone at the latter. It turns out that the best way to experience the impeccable combination of service and food that Maze offers is to eat alone. I spent a little time enjoying the male eye candy at the next table, but my attention was soon drawn away from them by Ramsay's exquisite menu. I'm sure Aslan would have approved.

Revived by dinner I resumed my search through the labyrinthine streets for the Charles Bridge, which floats in my mind from a trip in my student days as the most sublime place in Europe. The sun had gone down and the dark silk water glimmered with pearly lights from the distant palaces on the hill above. The unlit statues looked strange in the dark, their noble sinews twisting in agony as the endless couples made out between them. Wearily I made my way back to my hotel. So far the trip wasn't being particularly Narnian, but really that's just because CS Lewis never went to central Europe, and perhaps in another life there will be a chronicle of Narnia with a city like Prague in it. It certainly deserves it. I was sure that my quest would begin the next day.

The following day my guide arrived, a merry Polish girl and her wise, older husband. Guided by our trust magic device (OK, Tom tom), we headed to the beautiful Narnian enclave of Bohemian Switzerland in the north of the Czech Republic. Before I go any further let me just say once and for all that IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH SWITZERLAND apart from that a Swiss artist liked it and christened it Bohemian Switzerland because it reminded him of his homeland. Anyway, what you need to know is that it's a sweet part of fairyland. The architecture is a quaint mix of hobbit like cottages, German, Czech and Habsburgh architecture.

My home was to be the pension Nastodolci. Early the next morning we rose and trekked through the fantastical sandstone rock formations and alpine forests. Up, up, we climbed. It was steep going, and I began to wonder if we would ever reach Prince Caspian in time. I noted that Mirza has chopped down half the trees, with a bit of help from acid rain and the nasty North American Panus Strobus, introduced in the 19th century which kills everything. At last we came out at a high place where there was a little mountain hut, perhaps built by Narnians, and there we could see a great swathe of Narnian territory below us.

On the way we glimpsed roe deer. Vaclav Banka, my patient forestier guide, advised me that there were also black storks, goats, lynx, wild boar, but they kept well hidden. The woods were a delight - strewn with foxgloves. The trees did not dance, though. Perhaps they knew that Miraz was near, and that people no longer believed. I wish I could show you the pictures, but Miraz's sentries pilfered my camera.

The next day we continued our journey to Aslan's How, I mean Poland, along the river Kamenice. We stopped to paddle our feet in the river between Rvnadace and Chribska. Snow White and six dwarves were carved into the rock face outside Rvnadace. It was all very relaxed, lush, abundant, sleepy. A little enclave of lush bliss.

Walking along from Hrensko we made our way along the gorge, enjoying our time in Narnia of the plashing glens. A little boat took us downstream through the outlandish rock formations, glistening with moss and water. An old rope hung down over the river. We gave it a great tug and out gushed a large fountain. Another Narnian mystery. Travelling on we journeyed the several hours' walk to the Pravicka natural bridge.

The next day we travelled across the border to Poland in search of the ominous table mountains. My guide and I trekked through the Gory Stolowe forests, carefully avoiding snakes, and delighting in the sun filled groves and wild woods. Brooks bubbled through the landscape. At times the rocks were so narrow that we could barely squeeze through. At the top we were able to take in the whole magical landscape once more. It is a beautiful part of the world with fields of buttercup, rolling green and purple hills and a wonderful diversity of deciduous and alpine trees.

That night we stayed in the Hotel Montana Verde, which had a magical Narnian pool and pool which bubbled furiously We drank Zoladkowa to give us courage for the quest.

More gentle lush hills and thickly fertile flower strewn plains stretch out around us. We pass by magical lakes, and I am sure there are river gods within them although they do not actually reveal themselves to us. Sniezka (Snow White) mountain towers above us as we climb the foothills of the Karkonsze mountains. The mountain might be Czech or Polish, both lay claim to it and the border is easy to miss. We pass through the beautiful ski resort of Szlarska Poreba and see the old man of the mountains. He kidnapped a lady he was in love with and told her he would let her go when she had counted all the vegetables in his garden. This being the fertile and much fought over Sudetanland, I'm sure that took her a good while. I'm also quite sure that Aslan would not have approved.

Szlarka Poreba is a delightful chalet town, easy-going with 300 km of bike trails to explore. It has a rope walk playground built amongst the trees and for a moment I think I glimpse Lucy and Edmund fooling about on it.

The food in this part of the world is very Narnian: bread pie with soup inside that floats with delicious pieces of meat, egg and spices. It is called Zurek. Over the trip I eat far, far too much of it. I would say one bowl a year was probably about the right measure.

From Szlarska Poreba it is a 25 minute walk through the forests to the Karkonsze Falls, where Lucy feel down the gorge. Lucy saw Aslan on the other side of the gorge but her siblings did not, and refused to agree to follow him up the gorge. It made more sense to go down the gorge. Eventually in a statement of faith she threatened to go alone and they were all forced to follow her. Then she found a hidden way down the gorge. We wind our way down and enjoy the cool feel of the gushing water and the wet rocks.

'The ghost of the mountains sighs when guests are leaving', my guides tell me. A moment later I feel my stomach lurch as the road dips sharply. 'That was him sighing,' they chuckle. 'We call it death corner.' All part of the Polish sense of fun.

In the distance we can see Sniezka Mountain (Snow White or Snowball Mountain). Legend has it that Princess Kussegussole (ten points to the person who can tell me how to spell that.) was too picky. She announced that she would only marry the knight that could ride his horse around the outside of her castle's parapet. Many knights went to their death, and then at last one succeeded. Legend has it that she was so distraught that she threw herself from the tower and only the imprint of her backside remained on the ground. Whether she was distraught because he would marry her or would not marry her depends on the teller.

I probably ought to tell you about Stara Hatavelnska, the old walance cottage that we visited. But frankly it's Å“uite weird and I am simply grateful that I missed the strange pagan ritual where journalists are forced to drink a concoction that erases all memory of their visit. The walance sect are an ancient tribe who specialise in excavating stones and crystals. Upstairs their strange rambling house has cases and cases of gigantic crystals. Downstairs is a series of dark tunnels. They're a bit freaky, with skeletons and boar heads peeking out. You half expect someone to suggest drawing up the fire and preparing the dark magic, and for the White Witch to make an appearance any minute. It's pretty Narnian, but not in a good way. Also, they really need to dust all those crystals.

That night we stay at the Caspar Hotel, a gracious Narnian dwelling (apart from the thin walls!) with mad filigree ironwork entwining the walls and graceful arched ceilings. It is in the spa town of Cieplice.

One of the great things about the film Prince Caspian is the sight of Ben Barnes galloping on his black thoroughbred. If you want such an experience yourself, and I can't guarantee any Barnes lookalikes I'm afraid, then you might try the Gostar Riding STables. 0048756495410

We drove on through the amazingly diverse countryside, s darting among the trees. It is gentle country, not far off traditional Enlgish hills but not quite. There are blue mountains in the distance, lakes and profusions of purple, yellow and white flowers and grasses. Tractors with ancient rusting ploughs toil their way across the land. And then we see a circus performer from the local Cyrkland out for his morning constitutional on a monowheel.

This Polish quirkiness is never far away from you in Lower Silesia. I feel I have entered a slightly Pythonesque trip when my guide takes me to the Western City, a perfect frontier town builty by a local politician, Pokoj. The sparkling manageress Izabella Dembowska (I have yet to notice an ugly Polish woman, and I think I saw one beautiful Polish man in the entire trip - what's that about?) They offer rodeo riding, lassoing, children's courses, canoeing, , panning, tipis, little trains for children... in fact everything you can think of connected with the wild west. It is bizarre to find it here in Poland, but somehow it fits.

We take the bobsleigh at Carpacz, which sweeps us round the blue-green hillside at a knee weakening speed. Carpacz is a large hillside town with Germanic houses and an ancient wooden church on the summit. We eat at U Ducha Gor, a carved wooden mountain chalet with leaf shaped chairs and, of course, a revolving wooden statue of the Ghost of the Mountains. It's a buzzing town, popular with skiers in winter. Some of it feels quite Narnian, the rest is good fun anyway.

That supper we have dinner in the gold Gdansk room of the Paulinium Palace, a castle in the woods on top of a hill. It would be a good place for a council of state for the Narnian kings.

At the end of the evening we stroll through the beautiful Jelena Gora, a square with arched cloisters and Habsburg architecture painted multi colours. Then I say goodbye to my guide - another one is showing up tomorrow.

Can you only fall in love so many times? No, it seems there is endless space to fall in love. And I have to admit I fell a little bit in love with my guide, Kuba, who was waiting for me the next morning. He was the first good looking Pole I have seen. Normally they look gaunt and haggard with mousy colouring, but there he was: blonde and tanned and toned and fun. I could feel my journalistic integrity wobbling.

Kuba and I checked out a nice campsite called the Stawy Podrzynskie, which has pleasant wooden chalets and is close to the woods. It's difficult to camp away from campsites in Poland, though you could always try.

We drove through beautiful floral countryside with fields of buttercups and rolling green and purple hills. This is the heart of the Sudetanland, the much fought over area that is the key to central Europe. Control the Sudetanland and you control central Europe, because the mountains form a natural defence and border, and it was before the Great war a very rich industrial area with fertile farmland.

Kuba takes me for a delightful walk through the wonderfully Narnian forests of the Gory Stolowe national park. 'Watch out for snakes,' he says. Up through the forests we go, expecting to see a dryad or a naiad at any moment. Then out onto another stunning vista, and back into the eery sandstone Table Mountains. Kuba twists and turns through the narrow passages and I follow.

We wander through the field where Adamson filmed the battle scene for the film. It's just a field, I wouldn't bother too much. But if you really want to see it it's at Kudowa Zdroj, if my notes are to be believed. I was a little smitten by Kuba so they get a little thin at this point...

That night we are given adjacent rooms at the Hotel Montana Verde with its amazing pool and manic turbo charged whirlpool. A certain amount of bracing Zocadkowa vodka was sampled. Also the sweeter Charlotka that I suspect is actually calpol. And so to bed. Reader, I did not marry him...

Kuba was adamant that I should fly out of Wroclaw, so I pass on the tip to you. There was some problem with the press tickets so I didn't make it there but I'm told by Kuba that it's a great place. There is the multidisciplinary Wroclaw Non Stop Festival which is something like Edinburgh with something going on every day, and Ryanair fly there. It's a beautiful, underdeveloped city because 2 generations ago the population was forced to swap with that of Lvov. The trauma of relocation has held the city back but these days it benefits from the resulting sense of openness that comes from being entirely made up of second generation immigrants. Or so Kuba said...

Polish hospitality is such that if you go to someone's house you will be offered everything they have. When they have a party it has to be a big party.

I say goodbye to Kuba and we exchange a momentary glance of friendship. I leave with the memory of Poland's kiss, nice and a little wild. Kuba tells me to watch Dark Blue World. I've seen a little of Narnia, dancing among the countryside, and a little of the Sudetan spirit. It was a great trip.


Anonymous Pawel said...

I'm affraid that Kuba exaggerated a bit about the snakes :) You can only find grass-snakes in the "Table mountains" (Gory Stolowe) and they are pretty harmless, although their venom is poisoness, but it needs maaany hours to actually kill :)
I hope you've liked Table Mountains. You haven't mentioned the "Bledne Skaly" it's when the kids and dwarf got lost in rocky tunnel it's also in Table Mountains (Didn't Kuba take You there :> ?)


Monday, July 14, 2008 6:46:00 am  

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