Published: August 22nd 2011August 18th 2011
Over the summer, an ESL teacher and DJ's life in Prague often becomes a complete void. The upper classes whose companies we teach in go off on holiday, while clubs stick to their resident DJs to cater for the musically apathetic tourists and serious music shifts to the festival stage. My summer hit such a catastrophic low in mid-August, and last week, I had a day where I was apparently not supposed to do anything at all. So I went and did nothing at all, but at least got way way out of Prague to do it.
I was drawn to the Bohemian-Bavarian border by a trivia question someone posted on Facebook a while back which asked "can anyone name a railway station which is in a different country to the place named on its signs?" Sadly the scope of this question was only mainland UK, as I had a few possible continental answers jump into my head immediately and the first I thought of was the station named Železná Ruda-Alžbětín
, which I was sure was actually in Germany. A Wikipedia search later revealed that this would not have been a satisfactory answer, as the station is in fact half
In more detail...
A scar left by the iron curtain. Tiles are Czech, tarmac is German.
in Germany and half in Czech Republic, with a border crossing going through the middle of it, and although it is one station, it also has a German name, Bayerisch Eisenstein
, named for the small town in which it's actually located. Across the division between tarmac and concrete slabs which serves as the state border, Alžbětín
is the name given to a handful of cottages located nearby, about 3km south of the town of Železná Ruda, which literally means "iron ore".
This station has a rather interesting history. It was built as the border crossing of a line conceived by some rather mediocre architects of the Austro-Hungarian empire as being the most direct route between Prague and Munich. As the crow flies, it is the most direct, but the crow that flies over Šumava national park doesn't have to strain itself by crawling around tricky hills. The steam loco, however, does, so even from day one, the presently used crossing at Fürth im Wald about 50km north-west has been more efficient.
The line remained unelectrified and single-tracked, but in operation, until 1948, when the tracks were severed at the border and the iron curtain literally built in their
place. During this time, a great barbed wire fence separated the Czechoslovak half of the station from the West German half, and ČSD dared not even operate trains up to it, instead terminating them in Železná Ruda's more central station. Nowadays, the tracks have been reconnected and German trains run three stops across the border, while Czech trains all terminate there.
The interior of the German half of the station has been converted into some kind of environmentalist museum, complete with a miniature railway which you can operate by answering correctly on a German-Czech language pop quiz. The Czech half of the station, where the ticket office is located, is wonderfully nostalgic, with one of those old style departure boards where you slot the numbers and letters in. My love of border stations kept me there for a long time, exploring every nook and cranny of the place before walking off into Bavaria.
The other thing that brought me here was the mountains. I had still never been to Šumava, which is often venerated by Czechs as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The Czech heartland of Šumava is located way way south, far too far
The mountain lake on the way to the peak
A flattering picture - makes it look far more peaceful than it really is.
for a day trip from Prague - this literally stretched me to the limit, forcing me to wake up for the 5:10am train to Plzeň. However, on the other side of the border from here, the German part of the national park, named Bayerischer Wald
(Bavarian Forest) gets a bit interesting. The highest peak in the whole park, Großer Arber
, is just 2 hours hike away.
So first through the town of Bayerisch Eisenstein, which as far as I could see lacked a cash machine. This left me basically euroless and foodless for the hike, but there was enough spring water along the way, fortunately so as it was a blazing hot day. I survived like this - the first part of the hike was very pleasant, ascending slowly up to a mountain lake. This lake was backed by a restaurant and car park and full of peddle boats, and was packed with tourists and families, many of whom were attempting the second half of the climb to Großer Arber. This made it far less enjoyable - I only really enjoy hiking alone or with company, otherwise, it just seems like a robotic walk to get away from everybody.
From Großer Arber
Bayerisch Eisenstein at the front, Železná Ruda at the back.
The amount of tourists thickened still at the top of an operating chairlift, which looked like it was about 20 metres below the summit. This place offered what was clearly the same view as the summit (it was possible to walk around) so I didn't even bother walking to the very top - I was getting too thirsty and tired. Bayerisch Eisenstein was clearly visible, as was Železná Ruda across the border. The rolling hills of Czech Šumava behind them faded off into grey-blue on the horizon.
I took some pictures and bounced back down the hill to the lake robotically, and then got spectacularly lost trying to retrace my steps at the very end of the walk, which meant I only had 20 minutes at the station to grab a much needed kofola and a snack before getting on the last direct train back to Prague. I never got a chance to actually see Železná Ruda except a glimpse from the train window, though what I hear of it is that it falls into the same box as many of the towns across the northern Czech-German border - havens for prostitution and obvious stop-overs for tourists. Interestingly, the town on the German side just seemed normal and quaint, while as soon as you cross over to the Czech side, everything is suddenly bilingual and aimed at nobody except the kinds of people who would cross the border and sleep there.