Lost in Bohemia: Happy Days Cycling in the Czech Republic
By Briand Beausoleil

Standing in the middle of a pine forest in Southern Bohemia, it was clear to anyone passing by that we didn't have a clue where we were. We were lost. And it was getting dark. Fiona was giving me that look. I stared more intently at the map, willing it to show me the way.

Ten weeks earlier, my partner Fiona is looking for a summer vacation that will feed our three kings of holiday criteria: sun, soft adventure and physical activity. Ignoring what's on offer in the Times travel section, we decide on a DIY adventure holiday. Our only requirements are that it has to be in Europe, is simple and has classic themes.

In need of inspiration, I pick up the barn-door sized atlas collecting dust under the coffee table, lay it out and like providence, it opens cleverly on the Central European plates. Et voila! There in front of me, laying north to south, surrounded by neat topographic greens and browns and haphazardly criss-crossed by thin red and black lines, are the twin countries of Czech Republic and Austria. Looking closer, there are two real-world connect-the-dot cities ready to be joined - Prague and Vienna. We'd never been to either city but travelling from one to the other did smack of an abridged European Grand Tour in the old style.

To add our own degree of difficulty, we decide to make the journey from Prague to Vienna by bicycle, towing our three year old in a child's bike trailer. I enjoy the fantasy: we're self supported, our weightless luggage strapped to the side of the bike in panniers, joyously independent, gliding along under a brilliant July sky with the wind at our back on an endless, downhill, tree-lined road towards the ultimate Viennese five star hotel. What could be more fun? My chest fills with the thought of accomplishment.

We plan on 30-35 miles per day, or roughly 4-5 hours in the saddle with frequent breaks to let Louis play and run around. Central European summers are known for hot, dry days interspersed with afternoon thunderstorms and since we'll be cycling at the height of summer we decide to ride in the morning, take long lunches during the hottest part of the day and continue when it gets cooler, arriving in time to relax before cocktail hour.

Flying into Prague's airport, we wisely sidestepped car-choked Prague and took a taxi to a starting point south of the city. We put the bikes together, loaded the panniers, fit the bike trailer onto the bike and Louis into the trailer. We were ready to go, but slowly. The accumulated weight of Louis, trailer and panniers came to a knee-popping 100 pounds, without including my weight or the bike. Fiona had another 40 pounds in her panniers. We weren't going anywhere fast. To get to Vienna we only had to ride 275 miles over nine days. That was only 30 miles a day. But, if you were like us, it was further, as we immediately took off in the wrong direction.

Luckily, our maps were excellent and kept us on a mix of quiet farm roads and country lanes. By day three we were no longer map-challenged and were enjoying long, sun-drenched days cycling through the Vltava River valley towards Southern Bohemia. Any blue-light railroad crossing we came to we halted, hoping to see the single coach trains that trundled by. Many stopped at the forlorn looking whistle-stops doubling as stations to disgorge their contents of old ladies and children. It was the high point of Louis' day.

By following the lines of green in the distance we could see our direction of travel as the roads were lined with trees. Apple trees were the hands-down favorite. We passed thousands of them, some with people hanging onto low limbs, picking away. Now and then a beat up, rusty red Škoda would belch past, jammed to overflowing with bodies and leaving a trail of diesel smoke in its wake. Other than tractors and old cars our only road companions were other cyclists; kids returning from school, farm laborers, the odd granny whizzing by with a basketful of carrots. Louis' child trailer was a natural ice breaker wherever we went.

The towns passed slowly, Benešov, near Konopiště, King Ferdinand's castle and home before he was assassinated. Tábor, a medieval fortress town high on a hill with a commanding view over Lužnice River surprised us with a restaurant that served giant helpings of Tex-Mex style ribs; and České Budějovice, home of the real Budweiser and one of the loveliest old towns we'd seen. We arrived in the perfectly preserved staré město, supposedly the second largest square in Europe after Krakow and an untouched example of the benefits of medieval commerce. The square hosts three generations of German burgher power in the fanciful buildings facing the central fountain. Capping it all off is the stunning blue Rococo radnice.

With time we fell into an easy rhythm. Fiona would lead on the flat stretches with me catching her wheel and drafting to reduce the drag from the trailer. Downhills saw me whiz by her, driven by the sheer weight of the bike-trailer ensemble. At the slightest rise she would glide past me as I slowed dramatically, my knees straining to pull the weight of bike, trailer up and over the crest. Louis took to the trailer well, and either slept or played with his assortment of toys. A screen let me talk to him while keeping bugs out and we passed the time discussing the various attributes of different Hotwheel cars and which dinosaur we liked better, the T-Rex or triceratops.

For the first few days the weight added hours to our arrival estimates and played havoc with our bodies, finding us collapsed in heaps on the bed, exhausted. By the time we hit České Budějovice, my knees were feeling the strain and needed time to repair. The weather turned cold and wet so we decided to take the local train 25 miles to Český Krumlov, a diversion from our planned route but one that would give Louis a much promised train ride and my knees a much needed rest.

We're glad we went. In a word, Český Krumlov is simply exquisite. Cycling from the train station down the steep-sided valley and through the narrow cobble-stoned maze of Latrán was hazardous and slippery in the rain but we could see why the town is named the jewel of Bohemia. It is truly beautiful, even soaking wet. It's a living memorial to medieval village life with the whole historic center designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We spent two relaxing days wandering among the warren of narrow streets before the bike beckoned and saw us climbing out of the river valley onto a landscape of golden barley and wheat fields, on our way north.

The break from the bikes was a tonic for our sore muscles and we found renewed energy as we cycled through the dikes and pond landscape of the Třeboňsko region, known for fish farming and brisk sales of Christmas carp. In the center of the region nestles the picture postcard, medieval spa town of Třeboň, bordered on three sides by its castle and the 16th century Regent brewery. Up till now we had seen the odd cycle tourer, but now they were everywhere - Germans, Austrians, and Dutch. Many were on longer tours and were camping, unlike us. One Danish family of four had ridden across Europe, the two children golden brown and glowing. The boy was no more than 10, the girl 13 and each had their own panniers. They smiled shyly as they rode off.

The shady, pancake-flat roads were a welcome relief after days of undulating hills as we flew down the roads towards Slavonice, a stone's throw from the Austrian border and a throwback in time. We rode 40 miles in three hours, stopping only once for a break, giddy with our forward progress.

The next day we rode 48 miles into and out of the gorges of Podyjí National Park, and the biggest hills of the trip. I found I was standing on the pedals as I climbed out of the gorge and realized my previous reluctance to test my knees on hills had melted away. I felt stronger than I had in days and we took to racing each other over the crests. We were getting used to the weight and the long days on the bikes. Our pace quickened. With each day since Český Krumlov we felt lighter and stronger, able to bounce back quicker from the day before. The fact was we were getting lighter too. Even with end-of-day beers and huge dinners, we were working hard, burning calories at a high rate and dropping weight. With a positive change in our bodies we also realized we had broken the back of the trip and could sense it coming to an end as we closed on the Austrian border.

Just south of Znojmo we crossed the border at the lonely Retz control point and found ourselves in Austria. As we moved south the land changed quickly from thick forests and gorges to the flatter plains of northern Austria. Mile upon mile of vineyards lay before us on gently rolling hills. It wasn't just the land that was different. Immediately after crossing the border everything seemed tidier, more ordered. As if by magic, village lawns were neat and trim, houses maintained, cars new and shiny. It was as if an army of cleaners had just swept through that morning. Forty years of Communist neglect and mismanagement left the Czech side looking unkempt, in need of a good coat of paint and a spring cleaning.

Our entry into Vienna along the Danube bike path was effortless and anticlimactic. We were elated yet sad that our journey was almost over and decided next time to go for longer. After celebrating with a bottle of champagne and a long bath, we hit the streets as regular tourists, this time on foot.

Over the following days we found ourselves replaying the trip and talked about the highs, lows and what we would do differently next time. We both agreed cycling with children was not the headache it was perceived to be. Louis, only three, enjoyed the sights, sounds and experience of bike travel. His retention of events and memories three years on continues to amaze us and triggers memories of our own. We also decided next time we would happily pay a service to transfer our luggage for us, especially since I was already pulling the combined weight of Louis and the trailer. When added together, the challenge, independence, great food, fitness factor, beautiful scenery and sense of accomplishment rewarded us far more than we expected.