After a disappointing weather change on a day that promised to be sunny, it is pleasant to see that the man charging 40 crowns an hour for parking at McDonald’s is not around. It must be his day off, and that is good news, because it means unlimited free parking.

However, a car is not necessary to reach Divoká Šárka. Trams 20 and 26 and buses  108, 119, 142 and 191 stop there. From the city center, a usual route is to catch the metro on line A (the green one) from Muzeum or Můstek, get off at Nádraží Veleslavín and take tram 20 or bus 119 from there.

It’s a chilly, overcast day and the cliffs ahead dominate the pale landscape.

According to Bohemian mythology, the warrior Šárka, famous for murdering Ctirad during the Maiden’s war – a vicious and long conflict between Czech men and women some 1500 years ago –  jumped to her death from one of these cliffs to avoid being captured by the enemy. Today, the valley bears her name, and one of the rock formations is known as dívčí skok, or maiden’s jump, for it is believed to be the place where she committed suicide.

Šárka’s legend is famous among Czechs, and a sculpture of Šárka seducing Ctirad, by Josef Václav Myslbek, can be found at Vyšehradské sady (Vyšehrad Gardens).

From McDonald’s parking lot, the way down is a five-minute walk that goes first through a short, concrete stairway to then cross a dusty road and follow a second, slightly more worn-out and wild staircase covered by trees. Once down, the lake, known as Džbán (the Jug), is to the right, and the trail that follows the stream goes left, while walking a straight line leads to the top of the cliffs. This is usually an inspiring and inviting scene, but today, somehow, the place feels dull.

The trail that leads to the top of the cliffs is easier to conquer than it seems at first glance and the view at the top is a decent reward. However, the wind blows strong today, making it hard to enjoy the view while sitting on the rocks. Several trails let you continue marching above the valley or descend.

It’s cold, Džbán is still frozen, and the snow that covered the trees and grass has receded, leaving behind an unimpressive wet land that does not seem to remember how to color vividly. It will take a few more weeks for the black mud to dry and the tea green trees to regain their vitality.

However, Divoká Šárka remains pleasantly peaceful, and unexpectedly dynamic.

The Litovický stream runs through almost 20 kilometers of the valley like a zen murmur, a thousand possible characters carved in the cliff’s mossy rocks show their faces to the imaginative eye, and the wind toys with the forest, rocking the slim trees from side to side, constantly changing the patterns of the brown-leaved carpet that covers the valley ground, and blowing aggressively and persistently atop the cliffs, tempting one to navigate it all.

A rabbit’s nose would distinguish the smell of the pines, the dead leaves on the ground, and the black dirt everywhere. The bolder among the eighty species of birds living here would dare to sing more often than to cry for food. Wasps would fiercely claim back their territory by the lake from tanned, red-skinned Russians. But not today. Today the place feels like Scotland in Braveheart: cold, muddy and gray, like a prolonged, desolate autumn.

Still, they come to escape urban Prague. Young parents, children, baby carriages, joggers burning calories, pot-heads burning neurons, love birds and masterfully trained Czech dogs are all occasional reminders that the valley is not deserted even at this time of year.

The nature reserve, which is divided into Divoká (wild) Šárka and Tichá (silent) Šárka, extends across more than 25 hectares. It is less than half an hour from Prague’s center, and can be reached fairly easily by public transport . The whole area is well signposted, with directions and distances, although all information boards are written in Czech only.

Džbán is slowly melting and no one ventures to skate on it anymore. It looks like a dirty freezer today, with pieces of wood sticking out of the frozen water and black spots that resemble smoked glass. The air traffic from nearby Václav Havel airport, and the buildings and diving platforms around the lake, inexplicably abandoned, add a communist, post-apocalyptic feel to the scene. It is captivating, even for someone who has seen it on sunnier, warmer days.

Cover photo courtesy of Flickr user Milan B