I'm running, headed out of town, it's Friday afternoon and everything around me is quiet. Raindrops fall on the dry hot road and each one seems to hiss a little as it hits the ground. The summer rain pours down in a monotonous shhhhhh, as if telling me to calm down, not to think about anything now.
I run through an ancient quarter built by wealthy, mostly German factory owners about a hundred years ago, heading towards the woods a few hundred yards away. The small details give a clue as to how they are used by their current tenants. A washing line with freshly laundered linen in the parlour suggests that the new owners have a slightly different way of life from the old factory workers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The worn plaster reminds us that the days when Liberec was one of the richest cities in Europe are long gone. I feel a mixture of sadness and fascination at the statues without hands or heads that adorn some of the villas that have not yet been "lucky" enough to become offices. And perhaps I like these houses best because they have not yet received the recently fashionable coat of apricot coloured paint.
As I look around, I stumble on the cobblestone and almost fall to the ground on the wet granite. Just around the bend an elephant trumpets, and although it sounds very surreal, I know all is well. My head isn't consumed by hallucinations of fatigue, but this sound announces that I'm at the zoo, finally approaching the forest. I pass Lidové sady and start to climb up. Well, you could say up the hill, because today I'm running up Granite Hill - the first hill of the Jizera Mountains.
Graniter is a concept. Anyone who runs a bit in Liberec knows what it's all about. The first imaginary step up to the Jizera Mountains is unforgiving for the untrained and can be a real pain for the trained. Climbing to its top, all the way to the transmitter, is not a walk in a park at all. However, harsh as the mountain may seem, it hides so many stories, tales and mysterious places.
The forest below the peak is part of a large suburban park where even today, a hundred years later, people still go for a spatsirgang, or promenade. The ladies may no longer wear layered skirts and the gentlemen no longer wear grand jackets, but this place still works. On Sundays, the forest is full of shushkas, and in mushroom season, it's full of grandmothers crawling on their knees, carefully picking the pine needles off the porcini mushrooms and placing them in their hand-crocheted mesh bags with their corners turned up.
I skip the stone gullies that drain the sandy paths like a chamois, but the steep climb gives me a hard time. The raindrops no longer just fall on my head and shoulders, but also land on my tongue, which is crawling out somewhere far ahead of me. I pass the fork to The Liberec Heights and continue along the red trail.
Illustration: Jan Vondrák
The Liberec Heights were built by the important textile manufacturer Heinrich Liebieg in 1901. The businessman and patron, fascinated by Romanticism, had a restaurant with a lookout tower built to resemble the watchtower in Nuremberg. To achieve the desired effect, weathered stone and dilapidated roofing from demolished Nuremberg houses were used for the construction.
After about a kilometre I am at the Watchtower, the sky is beginning to clear a little and my watch is whirring and announcing a reading that I am not interested in at the moment. The Guardian Beech owes its name to the soldiers who patrolled the nearby firing range during training exercises to make sure no one got hurt. Its huge, coarse canopy spreads above me like a vast green sky. Before the first snow falls in the Jizera Mountains, the Jizera beeches cover all the roads and paths with a layer of golden leaves. This time is a beautiful preparation for early wading in the deep drifts between the rocks. Smoothed paths, however, hide many pitfalls under the layer of flakes, so for me this is the time of the most frequent accidents. Watch out.
The dark cloudy sky is slowly brightening and every now and then a ray of light pierces the thick green canopy of the surrounding trees, which I perceive as a continuous green blur in the running lauf. My legs are running and I'm picking up the pace. The red hiking sign is a little confusing, it should be more like black at this point, I say to myself, and I step into the dirt, which forces me to slow down again. The rocky path leads after about two hundred metres to a place known for its gloomy past. The wind slashing the surrounding rocks tells the sad story of two unsolved murders that happened here independently in the past. Both acts have remained unsolved and are still shrouded in mystery. I pay tribute to the shot Löwi and the stabbed nurse Sonia Kučerová and recall the stories of the two wasted lives with the usual shudder.
I run to the crossroads where the red marker meets the more runnable path to Česká chalupa, and turn left on the gravel. As I disconnect from the trail onto the forest path, I'm glad I ran today. I follow the trail, from which the pinkish boulders of the legendary Rudolf granite protrude, past the quarry and through the birch grove to the transmitter. The freshly sprinkled forest smells of a thousand scents. Now and then my foot slips on wet boulders among the mature birch and spruce trees. Their branches continuously refresh me with a shower, breaking me out of my running reverie.
Rudolph granite is a glorious product quarried at the foot of Granite Mountain since time immemorial. After all, it gave this hill its name. It was first mined in tiny little quarries, which, like healing scars, slowly overgrow and disappear into the green jungle just below the top of the hill. Today the granite is mined in a large quarry, a fresh furrow ploughed in the green of the mixed woods above Horská Street, visible from far away. The local stone was used not only for the construction of the Liberec Town Hall, but also in places much further afield. We walk on granite from Rudolfov at the National Theatre, in metro stations and it left its mark on the Stalin monument in Letná, for which it was used as a base.
My shoes are completely soaked from the mountain grass, but the low afternoon sun is already shining through the clouds, making its magic through the drops on the grass. Evaporating rain rises from the forest, heralding the arrival of the mushroom harvest. The voices of the hikers from the bottom of the hill have died down and I am all alone at the top. The mud shows the footprints of the running shoes of those who came before me, and I wonder how many more stories this mountain holds. Some have been captured through the silent traces in the landscape of the local forest in the form of moss-covered stone walls, sad little crosses, or deep stone pits, others have disappeared into oblivion like their actors in the thick mists of the past.
Winter runs here are merciless. Shins split from the top icy layer of snow and sometimes thigh-high boots are more military training than regular running. But it's September now, and these experiences will wait for me for another month or so. Symbolically, I touch the granite bollard at the top and immediately descend the steep pass. At the bottom of the hill the pass meets the path to Rudolfov Dam. Together with the Bedřichov dam, it tames the wild waters of the Černá Nisa and converts their power into electricity. Both dams were built more than a hundred years ago to protect Liberec from flash floods that often battered the city and its surrounding villages. Since then, both stone beauties have grown into the landscape and the upper dam in particular is a unique place. It is more reminiscent of the lakes much further north, far away in the Swedish forests. A romantic place that changes its atmosphere as quickly as the weather changes on the Jizera Mountains.
Illustration: Jan Vondrák
Illustration: Jan Vondrák
I am not running up today, I am turning left and descending through a young spruce forest. The path has turned into a rocky path again and I am enjoying it. For a moment I forget about my wobbly ankles. Step by step I speed up and bounce from stone to stone on the rocky path, but this game has strict rules. My eyes read the stones many metres ahead so that my brain has enough information and my feet land exactly where there is no risk of twisting an ankle.
After a few hundred metres I run breathlessly over the quarry, to a place called Miller's Cross. The cross was erected in memory of miller Antonín Jäger of Rudolfov, who died on this spot in 1864. There are many such crosses in the hills of the Jizera Mountains. They tell of happy and sad events, gratitude and sorrow. There used to be a spring close to the cross. Unfortunately, it can no longer be found. The nearby quarry is affecting the water table and many of the springs, from which one could refresh oneself while running, are losing their abundance or disappearing altogether.
I follow the path for about half a kilometre to the edge of the quarry. The edge of the quarried rock offers a beautiful view not only of Liberec, but also of the Ještěd Ridge or the nearby Lusatian Mountains. The huge blocks of quarried stone are fascinating, as is all the machinery used for quarrying. Week after week, the blocks are slowly moved around the site between the small steel shelters that serve to protect the miners during firings. At the edge of the quarry is a clearing and fire pit, a great place for a date or just for a sleepover with one of the best views around Liberec.
I walk back to the yellow marker at the Millers Cross. I take the path, which is again very technical, in the direction of The Rider. The roots intertwined between the stones can be a bad trap for tired legs, but also for crazy people on bikes who use the local wild paths to pump doses of adrenaline into their heads with death in their eyes.
The Rider is a rock with carved steps, which is the remnant of a medieval castle. It stood here to protect the land road from Liberec to Frýdlant. A legend tells of a robber named Černý Jíra who hid here. Jíra was not a good man and according to the legend, he maintained a lively relationship with a witch who lived at a nearby rock called Kovadlina. The robbers had their edge when they kidnapped the beautiful daughter of the lord of Hamrštejn and then held her at the castle. The angry Hamrštejn family came for the virgin and killed the robbers. Only Jíra managed to escape on horseback by jumping from one of the castle rocks into the valley of the wild river Černá Nisa. Whether he jumped straight into the clutches of hell, or whether he actually managed to escape, no one knows. What is certain is that The Rider offers a beautiful view of the sparkling valley, which in the past was an important trade route and in later times, thanks to the energy of the waters of the Nisa River, an important centre of the textile industry. Apart from a few old chimneys and the dilapidated villas of factory workers, which have lost all the lustre of the past under the weight of time, not much of the recent industrial history remains in the valley, which was once criss-crossed by many power stations. It is as if everything has gone silent here, and the river and time together are taking back what was once undoubtedly nature's.
But there is still one last remnant left below the Rider. It doesn't let us forget what happened here over a hundred years ago. A small weir that spouts water for most of the year and, as an artificial waterfall, is another pleasant stop on today's run. From spring to autumn, I don't forgive myself a bath here. The water falls from a four-foot height onto my parched head, and I think of my grandmother and the story of the boy on his bike who, out of breath in the hot summer, jumped into the pond and his heart broke. Every grandmother has this story, which I'm sure, like the one about Jira, happened, but it still makes my corners twitch. I slide down the slippery boulder into the deep pool one more time, get dressed, and move on. My route takes me a few hundred metres along an asphalt road called Horská, from which I turn onto an inconspicuous footpath. The path rises steeply to a small ridge. At the top, I take a left and throw myself into one last run. The beech forest turns into a pine forest and I suddenly feel like I am somewhere around Mácha's Lake. I weave through a number of smaller trails and pass small lakes created by flooding old quarries. In a few minutes the path widens and I find myself on the doorstep of the town again. I pass the recently reconstructed Forest Swimming Pool on my right and the last few metres converge along the Jizera Stream. The city park is in great shape. Dozens of small fireplaces smell here every warmer evening and remind us how unique our town is. I've run about ten kilometres, I'm back in Lidové sady and I'm happy to live here. I hate it when people talk about Liberec as a city of sports. There's something much better here. There's this granite hill and a hundred more behind it that tell the story of what was here and maybe what will be. All you have to do is listen well.