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