For most of our time on the road, stumbling across another touring cyclist has been a big event. Often, weeks have gone by between social roadside encounters and tails exchanged of the roads ahead. Somewhat abruptly, this has now changed. The roads of the Czech Republic are full of touring cyclists. Most of the riders are Czech, some are Poles, a few are German, and then a very small number of ‘ other ‘.
To remain socially acceptable whist riding in this sort of heat, we need to take a campground, and shower every couple of days. Happily, this has coincided with a string of great campgrounds. I have no idea why, but the culture of camping and campgrounds begins at the border of the Czech Republic, and not a moment sooner if you are riding North.
We are usually the first of the cycle tourists to turn up and pitch. We have made every possible mistake in the choice of pitching spot and now have a ‘ system ‘. Rule 1 is ‘ , do not let them tell you where to pitch ‘. Do not hand over any money, but ask ‘ can I just have a look ‘. This is your chance to make sure that you are not allocated a pitch near; powerful lights, the toilet block, an RV with a generator that will be running most of the night, the dumpster or worse still, a bottle recycling point ( the sound of breaking bottles will rob you of any sleep! ), a sprinkler system, a train track or quarry ( we learned the hard way that a quarry can operate all night ), children hyper with the excitement of camping with daddy and/or mummy for the first time, and dogs of any shape or size. You need 8 to 10 silent hours, and instincts need to judge the optimum pitch. Make a note of the three best, in order of preference and go and negotiate. On the odd occasion, turn and run.
Showered, and with the first of what can quite easily be half a dozen cups of tea in hand, we sit back and watch groups of touring cyclists turn up. Many here are on their first tour. Some are part of quite large groups and are making friendships that may last a lifetime. None of them really want to hear from an English touring cyclist who is telling them that he and his wife have been on the road for over 2 1/2 years.
I hate this ‘ do you know who I am! ‘, sort of thing when it is done by B and C list celebrities and here I am doing a version of it myself. I think it is the fact that we will very soon reach 37,000Km on the road. You could pedal around the world twice with that distance, and for some reason I feel compelled to share the news. It is just too big a number to keep to myself. So, there are a few touring cyclists that I need to apologise to. How the guy who does the voice of Homer Simpson keeps his mouth shut when someone walks towards him wearing a Simpsons T shirt I will never know. But he does.
Italy is suffering a heat wave, and the news is full of people ending up in hospital on drips. In a straight line and to mix a metaphor, we are just around the corner. It may be a degree cooler here, but that is about it. We have ‘ Gone North ‘ for couple of thousand kilometres or more to escape the heat of summer and yet it has caught us up. I can no longer remember a cool day of riding.
To the list of places to visit that I hope some of you have been keeping as you read this blog, you should now add, Snojmo. It is a Saturday morning as we throw bronzed legs over top tubes and begin the stiff climb back up to the city. We spent a number of happy hours yesterday having a look around Snojmo, and loved it. Today, we are cursing its prominent position at the end of the plains of Southern Czech Republic. The land beyond here is lumpy, and there is no more strategic position than this.
Gears that we have not used for hundreds of kilometres are now put to use. ” Up and down the gears like a fiddlers elbow Warren, up and down “. One of the few instructions that my driving instructor ever used. He was a painfully shy man, who found comfort in tins of boiled sweets. More than 30 years later, it would be good advice for us for the next few days.
Beech forest, dense and already if you pay attention, with the first vague hints of the aromas of Autumn. Ahead the road is closed. A bridge is being replaced and we are forced to do a bit of improvisation. The alternative to two very long side of a triangle, is a woodland track which is signed to where we need to be. There is an 8Km of riding through the sort of perfect broadleaf forest that you only get in the central and eastern once Soviet block areas. It could not be more perfect except that it spits us out onto our original route just before the bridge work that we were trying to avoid.
Saturday is wedding day. Even before we get into the town square of Jaromerice, we can here that this is a popular venue. Cars, polished and flying ribbons, are driving slowly around the town to a soundtrack of music and car horns. A rotation of brides and grooms is being photographed in all of the towns prime locations. it is 37’c and not the ideal day to be wearing four layers of gown that probably tops 5Kg.
A little way north of the town, the computer on my bar trips over to show 10,000Km. There is also some stats on climbing courtesy of the altimeter function – 67,400m of climbing, which is much more than in Europe last year.
As we near Trebic we must be approaching it from its ugly side. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but we are making our way along service roads for shopping malls and in between blocks of flats from socialist era style town planning. If the brief was ‘ build something as cheap as possible and worn out from the very moment it is complete ‘, then they nailed it. It is functional, but little else.
Thank goodness then that 1Km further on, someone had the wit to leave the old town to phase two or beyond. They never got around to it, which is why it is still here. One of the places that earns UNESCO protection is the 13th Century church and castle of Wallenstein. It belongs to the Wallenstein family, as does many of the finest castles and land north of here into Germany. Through a series of generations of not finding Mr or Mrs Right or possibly an extreme case of no one being quite good enough for my daughter. The family is now down to just one old lady. It has rather taken its eye of the ball, and a staggering disregard for fecundity in the family, has resulted in it underbreading itself into extinction.
A wild camp. We need to find somewhere that has a good breeze to keep away the horse flies that are even managing to bite us if we slow for a hill. We find the perfect spot. It is remote and should be quiet and we settle down. Just far enough away not to be a nuisance, music starts. It is bass heavy rubbish Euro dance music, accompanied by someone who may be hitting a tea tray with a hammer. As the light fades, a scream and a blast from a shotgun come from the woodland in the direction of the music. This is one of those occasions when sleeping under just the bug net makes you feel safer. Nothing is going to sneak up on us. Music, gunfire and screaming continue till about 3 in the morning. This is yet another wild camp where we are so happy that we do not have a bright red tent.
9.00am and already it is 29’c. We pick up the 351 to Cechtin and ride through a rolling and fertile landscape into a hairdryer hot blast of wind from the south. For the first time in ages, there is a network of quiet roads to pick from. It is just like the riding we enjoy back home. Just like there, the surfaces are universally rubbish in quality. We are letting the gps do the work, punching in one remote village name after another. It is a Sunday morning, the day of the week for Cycling clubs the world over We are seeing more riders here dressed in primary coloured lycra than any previous country.
It is tinderbox dry. Much of the landscape is now beyond dry and is bleached of all colour. The resin smell of pine woods so thick as we ride by you can taste it on your lips. 42’c at 2.30 and of course we have come to a series of awkward short climbs that have already added up to 629m climbed today. After two days of constantly dripping a bead of sweat onto the bar, gps and top tube, it is time for a shower. Google shows a campground ahead and it even has a review. The review is in Czech and almost certainly says something about how the place is impossible to find, and suggests that a sign from the road may go some way to avoiding going out of business. We find a bar and order two Czech Colas, quickly followed by two more, whilst we do a bit of thinking and rather more cursing. There is hardly ever a campground that is easy to find. If a sign from the road says campground 2Km, then expect to ride as much as 5Km and have to ask directions twice at least.
We consider a wild camp, but horse flies are on us even before we stop the bikes. It has been a long hot day and the only relief is a long series of curses. It feels good. Back at the same point that we passed 40 minutes ago, we continue through the village. Just as it comes to an end, there is a sign – campground. Of course, the next two junctions are not signed and we have to ask, but eventually we find our way to a lakeside campground. It is basic, which is perfect and means that there is more chance of it being quiet. Showered and fed we retire to the tent for a think about things.
Esther has developed a bad neck that is requiring chewing on Ibuprofen and is leading to poor nights of sleep. I have my foot problem which I know will not magically get better. Overall, team moral is low. It is said that if you look like your passport photo, then you are too ill to travel. Showered, and in the cleanest clothes I have I still look rubbish, with little vestige of the boyish good looks that set out with in New Zealand 2 1/2 years ago. We need some rest and medical attention before Esther does some long term damage. Chas Bland made my first touring bike, and at the time I was dealing with a bad back. ” Make it a bit higher at the front Chas “. He had a wise saying that came to use now, ” God gave us two arms, two legs, but only one back “.
We pick up a series of local trains through Prague. We are heading for a friends in the area of Germany that sticks out into Poland and the Czech Republic. Building work on the line means that there is a bus replacement for one of the connections that we can not take the bikes on. We end up going north to go back south, followed by going west to go east. In the end, we can not make the station nearest to our friends at anything like a reasonable time. We will get off early and take a cheap hotel or camp for the night. Just as we are approaching our destination, the light fades. It should not yet be anything like dusk, but the hot weather is going to come to an abrupt end in an almighty storm.
By the time the train comes to a halt, storm drains are overflowing and the road is 10cm deep in flood water. I punch ‘ accommodation ‘, into the gps and hope there is something close. WHOOP WHOOP, a hotel in under 1 mile. We set off with headtorches catching sheeting rain and visibility just a few metres at best. We can not see nor stop in time if we could. This is dangerous. The hotel is where it should be, but it looks posh. We are quite obviously in a weak position and it is pointless trying to negotiate a deal. It is almost three times what we would usually pay and that is before I have taken a beer from the mini bar to cheer myself up. We have had better days.
Breakfast is included. It is a popular area for cycling and many of the tables have German business men with their families. Already, they are dressed in the most lurid of cycling kit and are tucking into a slow breakfast. We take a walk around town, and once again you have another place to put on your travel list Zittau. Germany is shockingly expensive compared to all the places we have recently been biking through.
We leave most of our kit at our pals and head north to ‘ Granny Island ‘. The island of Rugen is Germany’s biggest island, and it sits near the Polish border, just a bridge length offshore into the Baltic Sea. This is when you need a network of friends and family. We have arranged consultations with a doctor friend. ” You need a Cortisone injection in your foot’. Well that I knew, but what was not clear is how much that hurts. Esther has physio lined up, and we manage to exchange bits of kit that is falling apart with shiny new stuff. There are a few Cranes already in the fields and Geese are forming large ‘ V’s ‘ in the sky at dusk and dawn. A low moon is turned red from all the dust of harvest. Autumn is near enough to smell and yet the days are still hot.
We have two plans. One is to ride to Italy and South, and the other is to ride northish to Amsterdam and home to Scotland for further rehab. No idea which one we will do yet, but I have a feeling that my foot needs an appointment with a man in Glasgow with a very sharp knife. Morton’s Neuroma is not nice and can screw your plans. If any of you have any ideas let me know.