Europe

Hikers replace soldiers in Czech army zone turned reserve

  • In this picture taken on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016, soldiers demonstrate a search for ammunition at the Brdy reserve in Brdy, Czech Republic. A former military zone near Prague which the army used to do artillery training has been turning into a protected nature reserve and opening to the public after almost a century with a big politics decision behind it. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

    In this picture taken on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016, soldiers demonstrate a search for ammunition at the Brdy reserve in Brdy, Czech Republic. A former military zone near Prague which the army used to do artillery training has been turning into a protected nature reserve and opening to the public after almost a century with a big politics decision behind it. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this picture taken on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, a group of tourists walk inside the Brdy reserve in Brdy, Czech Republic. A former military zone near Prague which the army used to do artillery training has been turning into a protected nature reserve and opening to the public after almost a century with a big politics decision behind it. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

    In this picture taken on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, a group of tourists walk inside the Brdy reserve in Brdy, Czech Republic. A former military zone near Prague which the army used to do artillery training has been turning into a protected nature reserve and opening to the public after almost a century with a big politics decision behind it. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this picture taken on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, a man opens a door at a museum of the Cold War nuclear arms race located at the Brdy reserve in Brdy, Czech Republic. In the deep forests of Brdy, there's a unique concrete installation known under the code name Javor (Maple) 51 which is believed to be used by the Soviet Army as a top secret depot to store nuclear war heads during the Cold War. A former military zone near Prague has been turning into a protected nature reserve and opening to the public after almost a century. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

    In this picture taken on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, a man opens a door at a museum of the Cold War nuclear arms race located at the Brdy reserve in Brdy, Czech Republic. In the deep forests of Brdy, there's a unique concrete installation known under the code name Javor (Maple) 51 which is believed to be used by the Soviet Army as a top secret depot to store nuclear war heads during the Cold War. A former military zone near Prague has been turning into a protected nature reserve and opening to the public after almost a century. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)  (The Associated Press)

Half an hour's drive outside Prague, visitors looking for something different near the Czech capital can find themselves hiking in a former military zone — with army bunkers and a top secret Cold War depot to boot.

For decades, Brdy was used for artillery training and was scheduled to host an American radar base as part of the U.S. missile defense system. Since the plan was abandoned in 2009, authorities have been clearing unexploded ammunition from the site and installed hiking paths and bike routes. This year the site is opening to the public as a protected nature reserve, almost a century since it was built.

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BRDY RESERVE

Brdy has forbidden entry to civilians since 1926, when the sprawling military zone southwest of Prague was established. Because the artillery target areas were relatively small, the 345-square kilometers (133 square miles) of the reserve offers a countryside unspoiled by any other human activities. Rare plants and animals can be found here, including an endangered stone cray fish whose presence in the streams indicates clear, unpolluted water.

The area is so remote that in some valleys cell phone signal is non-existent. And other than the ruins of a medieval castle and concrete army bunkers, there are hardly any buildings here — no hotels or restaurants — and no building work is planned. No cars are allowed. So far, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of hiking routes and bicycle tracks have been marked, and 120 kilometers (75 miles) more are planned to be added in 2018.

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ATOM MUSEUM

Deep in the Brdy forests is a unique concrete building known under the code name Javor (Maple) 51 — believed to be a top secret depot used by the Soviet Army to store nuclear warheads during the Cold War. Fully equipped to store up to 60 nuclear warheads for short-range missiles to be used in case of an attack against West Germany, the site was so secret that no Czech officials ever visited it until the Soviet troops that had been occupying the country since 1968 left in early 1990s.

Nearby is a twin bunker, now turned into a museum of the Cold War nuclear arms race. The bunker is believed to be the only one of its kind to have been preserved outside the former Soviet Union.

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WATCH YOUR STEPS!

There may no longer be any secret armed activities here, but decades of arms training — including for the Czechoslovak army, Nazi Germany and NATO allies — has left behind a dangerous legacy. Since 2012 soldiers have found more than 7,000 pieces of ammunition from various time periods and armies, be it from artillery, rockets, air missiles or tanks.

"You can find the ammunition just about anywhere, as we know from searching for it, even where people don't expect it to be," Master Sergeant Vlastimil Kalivoda said. Warning signs (only in Czech so far) mark where the ammunition removal has not completed, and visitors are strictly advised against venturing into these areas. A central part of the zone will remain closed till the end of next year.

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MISSILE DEFENSE HISTORY

The Czechs had struck a deal with the United States to host an American missile defense radar base in Brdy — a plan that was unpopular with many Czechs and that was angrily opposed by Russia, which warned it would station its own missiles close to Poland if it went ahead. The Obama administration scrapped the plan in 2009, a decision that made the current changes possible. Today, visitors can freely walk to the proposed radar site, a hilltop clearing hidden in the forest.

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If You Go: For conservation purposes, camp fires are strictly forbidden, as is camping in tents, though visitors are allowed to spend the night in a sleeping bag. An English version of the Brdy website isn't yet available but is planned. Guided English tours at the Atom Museum are available if booked in advance at zsttop@volny.cz.