Eco travel opportunities are numerous in Central and Eastern Europe. There are networks of cycling and hiking paths called Greenways, from which the visitor can explore the beauty and heritage of the area.
By Kim Lyon
Throughout Central and Eastern European countries, there has been something of a revolution in its tourism status over recent years. The end of Communism, accession to the EU, and increasing cheap flights see a boom in tourism in the area. Rightly so, as the land is often without the marks of capitalism – few billboards lining the roads, and mile upon mile of unspoiled countryside.
Environmental NGOs in the region, namely the Environmental Partnership Consortium for Central and Eastern Europe, are keen to protect – and promote – its heritage via eco travel in the area. The Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation has worked with partners from the U.S. to develop a network of cycling and hiking paths throughout the Czech Republic, culminating in a Greenway from Prague to Vienna.
This oldest and most popular Greenway in the Czech lands has pioneered cooperation between nonprofit and commercial activities. Key partners in developing and promoting the eco travel route are the Civic Association Prague-Vienna Greenway, the Greenways-Zelené Stezky Program of the Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation, Friends of the Czech Greenways in New York, as well as the Greenways Travel Club, a local professional tour operator.
Since 1998, Greenways-Zelené Stesky has been directed by the Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation (Nadace Partnerstvi). The partnership is a member of the Environmental Partnership Consortium of six foundations – the others being in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – which are focused on mobilizing and empowering the people of the region to improve their environment, their local communities and societies. Together, Greenways-Zelené Stesky and the Partnership Foundation aim to restore and preserve heritage in the region, developing sustainable tourism at the same time.
The Greenways, as a form of sustainable tourism, are a way of combating the binge-drinking breaks common in Prague: showcasing the Czech Republic as a country with bountiful natural and cultural heritage, while involving NGOs and people from local communities.
Eva Kvapilova, manager of the Prague-Vienna Greenways project, says, “Greenways are a perfect example of how sustainable tourism can benefit local communities. People are learning it is possible to make money from their heritage.”
In 2001, different local organizations along the greenway united to form a Greenway Association. Over 30 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) now cooperate on issues surrounding sustainable tourism, and working on local projects.
One such project is Grasel’s Trail, an initiative of the Slavonice Renaissance Society. It connects Slavonice and Cesky Rudolec, winding through forest alongside streams and ponds. Information panels along the trail tell regional history and the 19th Century legend about Johann Georg Grasel, the local bandit. Various community-based events animate the trail, such as marionette theater performances, culinary festivities and planting trees.
“It is this involvement with the surrounding communities which helps to make the greenway much more than just a cycle path,” Eva states.
Travelers have the chance to participate in local cultural events. Along the Vltava River Valley in Southern Bohemia and the Dyje River Valley in Southern Moravia, numerous folk and music festivals are held. There are 15 local information centers along the route and they can provide details about these and other events.
Nature lovers and culture-vultures alike won’t fail to be impressed. You can cycle or hike between historic towns and villages, visit romantic castles, medieval churches and monasteries, discover old Jewish sites and savor some of the most picturesque countryside in Europe. There’s a signposted backbone cycling trail connecting places of interest between Prague and Vienna, stretching over 450km. Thematic loops, tracks showing unique aspects of Czech countryside and culture, link to the backbone trail.
Marvelously, the landscape varies over a relatively short distance, from deep forest in the Znojmo area to the lake district in Trebon, from the lime-rock hills covered by vineyard in South Moravia, to the Bohemian Highlands. When cycling through this beautiful landscape, its hard to believe that the “Black Triangle” lies in the North, where Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany meet. As an intensive mining-area where coal dust chokes the air, it contributed to the Czech Republic’s reputation as one of the dirtiest countries in Europe.
Such a title is a misnomer. Besides the beautiful countryside, the country hosts fine buildings unscathed by war. Highlights include the World Heritage sites of the chateaux in Lednice-Valtice Area, the Renaissance square in Telc, Cesky Krumlov, Holesevice and the old town of Prague. The Schonbrunn Palace marks the closure of the trail in Vienna.
A suggested route from Prague features overnight stops in Cesky Krumlov, Trebon, Jindrichuv Hradec, Telc, Vranov nad Dyji, Drnholec and Valtice. Cycling approximately 50km per day, which takes on average four hours, you can ride the length of the Greenway in ten days. The path is marked by yellow signs with a pictograph of a bicycle. The Praha-Wien Greenways Biking Map & Guide is a helpful guide.
If time or fitness are constraints on how far you can cycle, it is possible to take local trains to shorten the trip. Train timetables with a bicycle pictograph indicate the trains that will take bicycles. Czech Railways now offers bike hire in several regions (South Bohemia, East Bohemia, Czech Paradise, Morava River Valley, Beskydy) where you can hire a bike at one station and return it at another. You need to provide two forms of ID, pay a deposit for a bike and the hiring fee (100-200 kc per day), which includes transport for the bike on certain routes. You will get the deposit back even if you return the bike at another station. Such flexible bike hire makes it possible to travel the Greenways by bicycle and foot, so you can stroll over climbs like the Palava Hills then peddle quickly along flatter stretches. You can take the train to Jindrichuv or Trebon, cycle to Tabor, then take the train back to Prague.
Alternatively, there are tour operators offering tailor-made eco travel trips. For example, the Greenways Travel Club offers unique customized services to visitors, including transfers of luggage while you walk or bike from town to town, bike rentals, and organization of food and accommodation.
Resources for European Eco Travel
An earlier version of this article was first published in Natural Life Magazine in 2005.