Prague in mid-winter certainly has its moments: On sunny days, pale smog-filtered light casts a strange silver glow over everything, and the city’s crooked cobbled alleys never look better than around 4pm when dusk falls. But then there are the crowded trams, the chugging traffic, the all-permeating damp cold – it can get a bit dreary.
Fortunately, you don’t need to travel far to experience Czech winter in a more bucolic setting. Roztoky is a tiny town just a 15-minute train ride from Prague, nestled in the appropriately named Tiché údolí – the quiet valley. It’s got cozy pubs, a network of hiking trails – which are cross-country skiable in winter – spooky-looking mansions, a chateau and the most charming 19th century train station.
The train trip itself is a delight. Board the Kralupy nad Vltavou-bound train from Masarykovo nádraží (take time to pause and admire the run-down beauty of Prague’s oldest station before it gets shut down and converted into a shopping mall).
As the train passes above the streets of Karlín on the elevated tracks of a 19th century viaduct, you can look in through the windows of nearby apartments and check out how other Praguers are spending their weekend.
After it crosses the Vltava, the train continues along tracks that run between the Stromovka park and an arm of the Vltava. This part of the river is now frozen, and you might see some skaters and hockey players making the most of the season’s unusually cold weather.
Once in Roztoky, you have several options. There’s the Museum of Central Bohemia, housed in the town’s chateau, not far from the station if you’re craving something educational. My advice, though, is to head straight to Hospůdka Zvířátka (Little Animals pub) for some grog, mulled wine or the excellent unpasteurised Černá hora beer.
It’s about a 10-minute walk to the pub along a street that leads through the old part of Roztoky. On either side, you will see mansions, some apparently abandoned with boarded up windows and crumbling facades. The villas date back to the second half of the 19th century when Roztoky became a popular place for wealthy Praguers to spend their summers. The composer Bedřich Smetana used to spend his summers here.
It’s a long enough walk – especially when it’s cold out – to build up a small appetite. Along the way, you will pass a local wine cellar, where you can fortify yourself before hiking the last 30-metre stretch to Zvířátka, so named because of the pets – birds and cats, mostly, although there also used to be a pot-bellied pig – that share the space with guests. The pub has an outdoor barbecue that runs year round. The menu isn’t extensive but offers precisely the sort of food the winter-chilled traveller might desire: barbecued ribs, fried cheese, sausage and home-made pies.
You could while away hours, especially if you manage to snag a seat near the wood-burning stove, but best move along before it gets dark because another not-to-be-missed Roztoky experience awaits.
The ideal route is to backtrack down the street from which you came and get on a trail that follows a small brook that runs on the edge of the town. A 10-minute walk along the brook through a wooded area takes you to a clearing with a pond – now frozen enough to skate on – with a restaurant next to it that looks like a mountain chalet. This is Koliba. It has a full menu that alongside Czech standards like guláš and pork knee also includes Slovak specialties like halušky with sheep cheese or kapustnica, a rich creamy cabbage soup. Best of all, Koliba has a sizeable fireplace and plenty of seating right next to it.
The downside to all this coziness is that you can easily become lazy and, rather than strapping on skis or lacing up your hiking boots, might feel tempted to return the same way you came and take a train back to Prague.
If, on the other hand, you are feeling ambitious, you can follow one of the trails all the way to Prague. This is about 10km, so make sure there is plenty of daylight left. Alternately, you can follow the red trail along the brook to Únětice, a neighbouring village, from where you can catch a bus to end of the A metro line in Dejvice.