Greenways treks allow visitors to take a walk back in time


PRAGUE -- Veteran travelers seeking an escape from European modernity may find one by hiking the Czech Republic's green trails.

Its 250 miles of hiking routes between Vienna, Austria, and Prague wind through historic areas, giving walkers a fresh perspective.

Cesky Krumlov The 100-year-old Czech pathways follow the Dyje River through southern Moravia and the Vltava River in southern Bohemia. Likened to the Appalachian Trail by Czech tourism officials, the paths, known as the Greenways, take hikers through a network of villages, vineyards, monasteries and castles.

Although Austria and the Czech Republic share a border, the cultural division between these two European countries reflects disparate political and social courses. There was little architectural evolution during communist rule, and it enabled the Czech Republic to maintain its Gothic and Baroque building styles absent the modern influences found in Vienna.

Furthermore, Cold War isolation left the area relatively free of tourist traffic or development. "These places were untouched for 50 years. It's like walking in a time warp," said Suzanna Halsey, administrator for Friends of Czech Greenways, a nonprofit organization based in New York that coordinates development and conservation efforts along the trails.

With increased travel to the Czech Republic, interest groups such as Halsey's work with the U.S and Czech travel communities to encourage tourism that respects the local character.

"We're bringing in ecotourism as well as experts who can help preserve the area," Halsey said.

The Charles Bridge One associate of Friends of Czech Greenways noted that walking tours offer a more intimate exploration of the Czech Republic than a standard group tour. "We don't have buses zooming through the region [with passengers] taking a picture to the left and a picture to the right," said Peter Dytrych, co-owner of Summit, N.J.-based Summit International Travel.

"We want people to spend quality time in the region," he said.

The agency operates as the U.S. authorized retailer for the preservationist organization and offers a slate of options for self-guided walking and biking tours. In addition to the Summit International offerings, several operators offer walking tours that visit the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia. Some themed itineraries include wine and beer tours as well as art- and architecture-focused packages.

Portland, Ore.-based Walking Softly Adventures focuses on local artistry ranging from baroque paintings to prehistoric cave drawings.

According to some operators, many visitors booking vacations in the Czech Republic and other eastern European destinations have traveled already to central or western Europe. "They are looking for something a little more traditional," said Richard McConnell, general manager of Emeryville, Calif.-based Adventure Center, adding that these guests want to visit "a part of Europe that has not had the same advances as the rest of Europe."

According to Hilary Achauer, guest services coordinator for La Jolla, Calif.-based Classic Journeys, visitors can see the juxtaposition of the two cultures in central Europe. Achauer said the local Austrian and Czech guides who conduct sightseeing in each region highlight the distinctions.

Operators note that visitors to the Czech countryside will not find as many luxury properties as are found in other major European destinations. One operator described the the country's facilities, outside of Prague, as "clean and comfortable," adding that some properties should be considered simply "a place to spend the night."

The hotels can be considered to be in a three-star category, with private bathrooms available at many properties. Various options are provided by inns and guest quarters on the journey between Vienna and Prague.

According to McConnell, simplicity of accommodations helps keep costs down for the walking tours offered by Adventure Center. "We want to keep the tours small and affordable," Dytrych said.

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