Oko!’s Roundup of the Best Places to Skate Outdoors This Winter
January and February in the Czech Republic can be harsh.
Thanks to its position in the centre of Europe, everyone’s favourite landlocked country suffers from bitterly cold winters. Temperatures commonly fall below freezing, and combined with strong winds and heavy snowfall, this often makes the Czech Republic a foreboding place to spend the darker months. You’d be forgiven for resigning yourself to indoor pursuits in the winter, the freshest air you breathe an unwelcome draft, your sportiest activity a 100m dash to the corner shop. It feels like the nation’s natural bounty – sublime as it may be – is under wintry lock and key.
That is, until the clouds disappear and the sun turns everything from grey to white. Suddenly the treacherous streets sparkle. The frozen lamppost you nearly skidded into coming back from Albert becomes an elaborate sculpture. There’s no better way to enjoy these glorious midwinter days than by grabbing your skates and heading out of the city. The Czech Republic is a natural ice skater’s paradise: pitted with rybníky (ponds) and jezera (lakes), not to mention man-made přehrady and nádrže (reservoirs), most of which freeze over in the early months of the year.
Skating in the great outdoors is a more emotional experience than going to a stadium. Fresh air aside, there’s a lot to be said for being in natural daylight, rather than under the fluorescent lights common in enclosed rinks. Whether you want to have a friendly (or not-so-friendly) game of hockey with your friends, work up a sweat racing, or just twirl about, I’d wager it’s much more fun to bundle into a car and head into the sticks than take the metro to your nearest stadium.
The first unmissable location that springs to mind is the undisputed beast of Czech natural skating: Lipenská přehrada, also known as Lipno. This reservoir on the Vltava has a surface area of almost 50km² and boasts 12km of skating tracks, which are free to the public. The community atmosphere on the ice is overwhelming, and you’ll be sure to find a skating partner: around 5,000 people visit per day when the conditions are favourable.
You might want to combine a skating trip with a cultural experience. If so, the towns of Jindřichův Hradec and Hradec Králové are ideal destinations. Jindřichův Hradec is a national heritage site and has earned the moniker “Česká Kanada” for its outstanding natural beauty. As you might guess from the nickname Czech Canada, the area is full of bodies of water, the most famous of which, Vajgar, is located on the edge of the historic town. Vajgar initially functioned as a fortification; a drawbridge over the narrowest part of the pool was raised when the area was threatened. It was later used as part of the town’s sewage system (don’t worry, they got rid of the smell) and then retired to become the rural oasis in the middle of a bustling urban area it is today. It’s a great place to mix skating with a city break.
Hradec Králové’s town planners had similar priorities, which is why the town boasts the famous Urban Forests – hundreds of hectares of woodlands within the urban area. These woods are dotted with ponds perfect for ice skating. If you fancy a more open space, you can also skate in the Elbe basin or on Orlice, a tributary of the Elbe. This last destination is particularly special because it offers views of the Podolnický Open Air Museum with its exhibits of local architecture through the ages.
There aren’t many lists of Czech natural wonders that fail to mention Český ráj, the aptly named Czech Paradise. This article is no exception. Podstrosecké rybníky are some of the most breathtaking bodies of water in the Republic, even if they won’t break any records for size. This series of eight pools are scattered through the canyon-like valleys under the imposing silhouette of Trosky Castle – one of the country’s most iconic landmarks, called the eighth wonder of the world by Alexander von Humboldt when he visited in the 17th century. The sharp valleys that fork to the north of the castle are spellbinding: sheer cliff faces of volcanic rock, the stillness and silence of a forgotten era, and eight deep blue pools that freeze solid in the colder months. Adventurous skaters can hit all eight pools in a single day, but it’s quite the undertaking – it’s not a trip for the faint-hearted or easily footsore. You’ll walk at least 5km, skate 4km, and untie your shoelaces six times. No easy task when it’s cold. You can avoid skating by adding 7km to your walk. Even if you decide not to skate on every pond, Podstrosecké rybníky are unmissable.
Although skating in a natural environment is exhilarating, it’s important to make sure safety is at the forefront of your mind before you boot up and push off. The risks associated with spending time on the ice can be mitigated by bearing a few key points in mind.
Firstly, you should make sure the ice you’re skating on is thick and strong. Experts suggest that 12cm of solid ice is usually sufficient to hold skaters’ weight, but this can be affected by temperature fluctuations leading up to your trip. Many people suggest only trusting the ice if the temperature has been consistently below -5°C for at least five days. You should avoid skating in isolated locations, making sure you and your party are in sight of other people who would be able to help you should something go wrong. A key differentiating factor in the survival rate for falling through ice is how quickly bystanders react – mere minutes can be crucial. Lastly, have a look at the surface of the ice and decide whether it looks reliable; if it’s cracked, slushy, or wet, best head to a hospoda and have a svářak instead.
There’s no better way to enjoy fair winter days than by being out on the ice. Pick your favourite rybník, grab your skates, and head on out!