‘ He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all ‘ – Sinclair Lewis
I would counter Nobel Laureate Lewis, that if you have seen one cathedral ten times then you should consider the possibility you may be badly lost. This, seeing a ‘ little bit of a lot ‘ is the way we travel by bicycle. Do we travel to places to experience them? Well probably not, more a passing through, and that in its self is not a bad thing if you do it well. I know people who have lived their lives in one place without knowing it. At least we get a bit of exercise.
We are back on the road. It is a unpromising start as we have managed to forget how to pack. We must have had a system, but neither of us can remember it. My stomach is in full ‘ exam nerve – first date ‘ spasm ‘. Who’d have thought a touring bike could be so heavy? On the plus side, we are looking good and smelling sweet.
We go through Hochkirch. It is 25′c, but colder nights mean that the wind has a sharp edge to it. Short demanding hills. We have been telling stories of our journey, none of which had much about how lung busting, phlegm spittle horrid, climbing a steep hill on a touring bike is. Selective memory is brilliant. With the joy of the descent it is all forgotten.
As always in Germany we are riding on bike paths. Like a yacht forced to tack against a strong wind, we go first left and then right. On the plus side, Germany offers ample opportunity for stopping for coffee and cake, which we do. Much of this part of Europe has town centres fringed with buildings whose designers must have studied at the same university. The unique feature of which is the twin faculty of cake icing and architecture. Minimalist, or anything hinting at ‘ form follows function ‘ is not in the brief.
We stop at the small town of Herrenhut, home to the family friend who now lives in the USA. Without that connection, we would have probably pedaled through, and been out the other side in under 5 minutes. We would have missed the home of a world religion, the Moravian Church.
At Varnsdorf we cross into Czech Republic. If we had looked it up on the WWW. the very short entry on Wiki would have hinted not to expect much. The third image on the web is of a riot and the first is of a block of flats in winter. We were unprepared for just how bad it is, shocked even.
There are the usual huddle of shops selling things that are cheaper on one side of the border than the other. Here, for whatever reason, that includes several shops selling bird tables. It is depressing in the failing light of an autumn day. The Czech people love nature, they love the woodlands and rivers of their land. They also love very big dogs. Almost every house has a baritone voiced Cerberus that bounds to the fence as we pass. A wild camp after a late start with 716m of climb, and tree religions in the 55Km.
It is the first ‘ see your breath ‘, star specked night of camping this year. I do not think it is possible to camp anywhere without hearing a dog bark. Tonight is no exception, but it is good to be back in the tent.
The climb starts straight from the tent and we are soon at 500m. The air is cold, chilling in the shadows and cold at speed on descents. It is impossible to be at the right temperature without stopping to change, which we don’t. Crisp autumn riding, possibly my favorite sort of day.
We stop for first coffee in Ceska Kamenice in a square of baroque excess. Most of mainland Europe finds nothing even slightly ungodly about a strong beer taken well before noon. It feels slightly prudish to stick to tea. The square also has that most dreadful of venues, a SPORTS BAR. Along with Truck Fest and possibly celebrity wedding, these are two words when stuck together that really get me annoyed.
We stop for a wild camp, but dismiss the first venue when it fails our mosquito rule. Here is how it goes. You stop the bikes at the intended site and stand for about 3 minutes. If during that time a mosquito lands on you, move on if possible. Just because it looks like a good pitch, it does not mean that dank, standing water is not just a hop away.
We are awakened by a high velocity rifle shot near the tent. Bolt upright, I am trying to work out if I was dreaming or if that is the first crash of a lightning storm. All night there were strange noises and now this. We know there is deer and possibly wild boar around and the dark has been full of sounds and passing shadows. You do not have to camp in a wood many days before you have built a whole cosmos of imagined beasts to populate the night. A good early start in perfect conditions, oh joy.
The woodlands are full of Czechs with baskets. Head down, they are pursuing the national passion for gathering mushrooms. First coffee in the town of Doksy and another passion, that for truly bad haircuts is in evidence. They start young here, with a ‘ rat tail ‘ on many young blonde boy. The ‘ mullet ‘ is also plentiful, evidence that it may always be 1983 at a Bohemian barber.
The 273, quite possibly the finest cycling road in Bohemia. It is popular, and so it should be, it is stunning. Woodland hangs from the walls of a sandstone gorge that cuts deep into the countryside. The smell of over ripe fruit, damp soil and wood slowly rotting. It is cool, but still the air is full of flavours. Roadside fruit trees grow where the road comes up to breathe. They are heavy with fruit, much of which is now lying bruised or split open on the road. Plumb, apple and pear. There are swarms of the angry wasps of autumn, two or three to each fruit casualty.
Lunch of Goulash and Czech Cola in the town of Mseno could not be too much more perfect. You could do far worse than to bring your bike here and book into a cheap hotel for a week. Heck, make it an expensive one, you’re worth it. You could fly into Prague, which is not more than 60Km away.
Melnik, the outskirts are a little grim and it is a push, shove and grovel up to the old town. Worth it for the view and St. Peter’s and Paul’s with its crypt full of bones. We need a shower if we are to remain socially acceptable and by good fortune Melnik has a campground. We book in for a night.
Another morning of long shadows and very soon we have climbed up to exposed ground of vast fields of stubble. It is flat and almost featureless. Today we are in luck. there is little wind. On a day good for drying washing it would be a pain and the perfect kite flying day would have you groveling and sending curses to oblivion. There are few villages of any size. Most are one time baronial estates with ornate farm steadings and posh homes. There are dozens of then here. One every few kilometres. There is no where for coffee until Slany.
One side of the square is holding a Death Metal Festival, whilst on the other in front of where we sit, a brass band goes by at the front of a wedding procession. It would be a hard place to be 17 years of age. A few more hard hills and we call it a day. We are hitting 800 to 1000m of climbing every day here and we are not quite match fit yet. A hasty field side wild camp under a threateningly dark sky. After all the rush, the storm rotates around us this time. It returns in the middle of the night to really give us a hammering. We stay dry, but only just.
We have a big ride ahead of us. It starts in an undistinguished way, with a dreadful navigational blunder. We put 5Km behind us, all steeply downhill with a strong tailwind. In our defence signposting here is rubbish but we should have caught it. We dial a village in the right direction into the gps and make our way back up the hill. There is a short cut back to our route. Of course this compounds our morning misery with a ‘ off road ‘ section. Bugger.
This Sunday morning is the very epicentre of mushroom season. Last nights rain has bought up the fungi and has got every self respecting Czech out of bed early. They go to their secret spots, their family patch. Every pull-in has a Skoda parked in it. Children are taken in hand and taught which fungi will not kill you at lunch. It is a holiday atmosphere which I am glad we get to see. Bottles of beer are held in pockets and the foray begins in earnest.
Sunday morning, so we are expecting nothing to be open. We are in luck, there is a fair in the square at the town of Rakovnik. It is cold and overcast, which rather takes the fun out of ‘ fun fair ‘. To compound things there is just one place open for coffee, a SPORTS BAR! If you were looking for something or somewhere to illustrate Sunday morning melancholia you are spot on. It does have a first for me – a live horse merry-go-round. Esther claims they are a things from her East German childhood. The animal lobby would be on them in seconds in the UK.
It is a day that warms just in time for the really steep climbs. Off with the gillet, the arm warmers and by mid afternoon it is hot. We stumble across a wonderful hotel in the village of Radnice. It is run by a Dutch lady and her Czech husband – find it on the WWW. if you want a retreat from Prague.
We are on our way to friends in Plzen (Pilsen). ” You won’t find the house “, which is always a challenge we like to accept. I always find dialling in an address to the gps a mixture of joy, amazement and suspicion. They know where you live, and that data base is on my handlebars. We had met Tomas years ago on a winter holiday here. I had bought a photography book and tracked down the photographer, Bohdan Holomicek ( have a look at some great photography! ). Tomas is his son and a good photographer himself.
The gps is spot on. Hurrah to St. Garmin on high, the route was a maze. We are greeted with big smiles and a well stocked fridge. Today we climbed 1,100m and did over 100Km and the foot feels good today. We are back on the road and loving most of it. We have been lucky with the wind, lucky with the sun and our late summer tans. You get lucky if you get out, even if you end up spending just five minutes in a thousand cathedrals.