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Hitting the slopes in the Czech Republic

Special to The Los Angeles Times

Harrachov, Czech Republic

The Alps, with their dizzying heights, high fashion and higher prices, were a day's drive away for my American family living in Berlin. Getting there would have eaten up gas and time, not to mention added significantly to the cost of lodging.

But the Krkonose Mountains of Eastern Europe promised to be an ideal ski destination: hospitable for first-time snowboarders, affordable enough to invite a teenage friend of our kids and close enough to Berlin to cut the vacation short if snow turned to slush.

So, two years ago, we drove 186 milesto the gentler mountains riffling the northwest edge of the Czech Republic. There, near the hamlet of Harrachov, we found more than our share of snow.

Harrachov is a venue for many international ski jump competitions, but the Czech village offered much for our group: a snowboard fun park, 62 milesof cross-country ski trails that traversed deep woods and enchanting waterfalls, and challenging downhill runs for me, who had to pull skis from the dust of 15 years.

When we arrived, snow had been falling for days. Our hotel, improbably named Hotel Fit Fun, reminded us how far the Czech Republic has come since the Cold War. It had a newly renovated tile swimming pool and Jacuzzi; a modern fitness room with weights and treadmill; a big-screen television in the lounge and clean, warm, spacious rooms.

The hotel seemed as though it wasn't completely ready for guests: The hot tub was closed, the pool too chilly to enjoy and construction workers bustled. But the showers were always steamy, the tap water deliciously cold and the service friendly and efficient. At times, the staff was a bit too dutiful: It whisked away plates before we were finished and housekeepers dragged in the vacuum cleaner while we were still packing. Mostly we communicated in German, but English was possible if needed; Americans were nowhere in sight.

The snow was coming hard as we stepped into the ever punctual ski bus, which dropped us in the center of town for 30 cents (at 17 Czech koruna to the dollar). Snowbanks taller than me hid many of the main street chalets such as ski schools and nearly empty cafes and boutiques, which sold a wintry mix of Tupac hats and ski gear. In splendid view, however, was the Certova Hora, or Devil's Mountain,, a 3,375-foot peak that boasted a new four-person chair lift capable of ferrying 1,800 people an hour.

But Harrachov's real claim to fame was the mammoth ski jump, which has brought world-class competitions and crowds to the modest resort. (Just one day before our arrival, young Jakub Janda had soared more than a football field on home snow to land in World Cup ski-jumping contention.) Maybe it was good our novice teenage snowboarders missed that kind of peer pressure. For them, I scouted out a few snowboard schools.

The next morning they met Franz, a multilingual snowboard instructor who had a weathered face and a cobbled syntax of Czech, German and English. He glided with perpetual patience through the snow squalls kicked up by my beginning boarders. His favorite counsel was to "hold the grand position" (he pronounced it po-zee-cee-on), to stand erect with a slight bend at the knees, or in his words, as if at a urinal. My daughter caught on just as fast as the boys.

Indeed, the "grand position" kept them all from uglier outcomes up high above the chairlift. Yet, in those first few lessons, they admitted, it was painful to hear Franz's mantra as they tumbled in the opposite direction of their boards.

Meanwhile, I decided to take up skiing where I had left off 15 years ago, when I had raced down a slope in Little Gap, Pa. I restarted without lessons and quickly mastered a bunny slope, soon feeling confident enough about taking on the Devil's Mountain with the snowboarders.

While waiting for the boarders, I trotted around Harrachov, checking out a few hotels and sights. I passed the pretty St. Wenceslas Church, an original wooden chapel that boasts a glass altar from the early 19th century. Then I dropped into a Bohemian glass store, where I found the famous Czech export of delicate wine glasses and handsome chandeliers. I thought about seeking out the glass-making museum or the mining museum I had noticed in a brochure, but darkness falls early in the Czech winter and by 4 p.m. it was time to collect the tired but exuberant snowboarders.

Sleep came before nine that night because heavy snow had knocked out the town's electricity. Minor kinks. We slept right through until the lights came back on at 3 a.m.

After feasting on a big Czech breakfast of yogurt, granola, eggs, cheese, salami and espresso, we prepared to tackle the Devil. The only run that would suit our varying ski skills was intermediate at the top, steeper in the center and beginner at the bottom.

We bought lift tickets (whole day $19; one ride $3) and hopped on. My snowboarders shared the slope with downhill skiers, and did well. I was a different story.

I am no Jakub Janda. As I faced the steep vertical drop in the center, I recalled the words of another Franz, one of the Czech Republic's most famous sons. Kafka must have thought up this gem on skis: "From a certain point onward, there is no longer any turning back." I took his advice, and I slid into the bottom, one bruised, gloveless human snowball.

The other chairlift and slopes opened after we had returned to Berlin. I imagine the disco ball started turning too. But while we were there, the many kilometers of pristine back-country ski trails were wide open and nearly empty for us.

As snow gloriously piled up on our last morning, I struck out early and made it to the touted Mumlava Falls just after sunrise. At only 26 feet high, the snow-crusted waterfall was no Niagara Falls, but because it tumbled over granite stones called devil's eyes, it had a fantasy Narnian flavor, and most important, at that hour in a tiny crease of Eastern Europe, it was all mine.

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