Troops give way to tourists in nature park

photo:  (Ralsko, photo: Štěpánka Budková)

A former Red Army military training ground in Ralsko in North Bohemia has been declared the Czech Republic's largest geopark. The area, which has been left largely intact since the withdrawal of Soviet troops after the fall of the Iron Curtain, covers an area of some 300 square kilometres and offers an island of unspoilt nature just an hour’s drive from Prague.


Once a rural landscape inhabited both by Czechs and Germans, Ralsko is now covered with pristine forests and features a number of valuable natural sights, including monumental rocks, peatlands and ponds with bird nesting grounds. A few years ago, a group of enthusiasts discovered its beauty and decided to turn the place into an attractive natural recreation area, with a network of tourist and cycling paths and services for the visitors. I spoke to Anna Ježková, one the founders of the geopark Ralsko, and I first asked her what exactly was the difference between a geopark and a nature reserve:

“We received the geopark Ralsko certification during our conference last week after four years of intensive work. And I would say that the difference between a geopark and a landscape protected area is that the geopark involves economic and marketing issues, so it is not as protected as a nature reserve. It is more about tourism and it serves for promoting some of the locations. And especially in case of Ralsko it is very important because of its history and the place as such.”

So can you tell me more about the location?

„We created the geopark in 2012, some 23 years after the Velvet Revolution. But when we came there, I had the impression that it was the same as it had been just after the fall of Communism. I felt as if I was in the 1990's; as if nothing happened during those years.

“I met with some people who lived in the nearby town of Česká Lípa and we found out that the location needed some new perspectives. Ralsko is located just 45 minutes by car from Prague, and it has a very interesting history. So it is very well accessible, but generally not very well known.

“So we started to think how to develop the area and bring some new ideas there. And we also discovered that there was very good infrastructure, there were roads built by the Soviet Army, so wanted to develop that in the future.”

You said that Ralsko had a very interesting history. So can you tell us more about it?

“Ralsko is very specific because before WWII it was a place where you could meet Czechs and Germans living together. For instance the place where we have organised the festival, in the former village of Jabloneček, you can still find ruins of both Czech and German schools.

“And then, in 1950 Ralsko became a military area, which was used by the Soviet Army until the Velvet Revolution. During this period they destroyed 17 villages and one of our objectives is to bring new life to these villages.

“We have taken the first step during the festival when we were showing photos from the past and together with our German partners we organised a visit of the Germans, who used to live in these villages. So one of our objectives is to organize these festivals and similar activities.

Can you tell me more about the festival that you have just mentioned and that took place over the last weekend?

“The festival focused on landscape and land art, because its aim is to bring new life to the destroyed villages. We had around 300 visitors coming, including the Germans, so it was quite interesting.”

Apart from its history, Ralsko is also valuable because of its nature. More than 80 percent of the area covered with forests, and there is a network of ponds with valuable nesting sites. What else can be found there?

“You can also find some interesting sandstone hills, which are quite easily accessible even by families with children or by the disabled. Another thing to see is the River Ploučnice, which runs through the park, and is known among people who like canoeing and other water sports.”

Did you have to meet some special criteria in order to be declared a geopark?

There are altogether seven certificated geoparks in the Czech Republic today, the best known is Český Ráj. The biggest objective for us this year was to build something visible in the landscape. We were also obliged to write down our marketing and economic strategies for the future and so on. So we had to create quite a complex document over the past three years.

So what are the biggest advantages of being a part of the geopark network?

“I would say the first advantage is the fact that we have the same status as the other geoparks. It serves as a sort of brand and it is important for fundraising.”

“Our long-term aim is to support all the activities in the location and to increase its attractiveness. We also want to bring in more families with children and improve accommodation and infrastructure. At the moment there are about one thousand people living in the area, which is nearly 300 square kilometres large. So we would like to implement a strategy of sustainable tourism in Ralsko.”

Ralsko has been preserved largely because it was a military area where people had no access. Aren’t you worried that by bringing in large number of tourists you might destroy its natural values?

“One of the objectives of the geopark, and we are trying to organise it quite professionally, is to divide the zones which should be accessible only with a guide and the zones open to the public. This way you couldn’t access zones which are protected.”

So what can people look forward to in the near future?

“We are already organising guided tours, bringing children and schools to the park, and we are building partnerships abroad. The first step was that we became a partner of Norway's Magma geopark. Another step is to build more tourist trails, which can only be found very sporadically at the moment. And we are very closely cooperating with the municipalities, because things could not happen without their support.”

What was the reaction of the local people? Did they welcome the fact the geopark in their vicinity?

“We started to discuss our plans with them before we founded the park, because they are part of it. Currently, we have more than 20 people on board of the geopark. So it wouldn't be possible to create it without them and we are working on a common strategic plan for promoting sustainable tourism in their location.”

Author: Český rozhlas Radio Praha
Added: 31.05.2016

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