Day 15: 31/08/03
From: Karlovy Vary
Woke up to a damp and misty day. Set off on minor roads in to the hills east of Karlovy Vary towards a tiny village called Kyelka. Here I turned off towards an even smaller place called Doupov and was now on a totally empty lane climbing up in to some beautiful hills. The further I got from Karlovy Vary the wilder the place got. Saw countless birds of prey and at one point a wild Stag jumped out of the forest about 10 metres to my left and clattered off up the road – amazing to see such a wild and beautiful creature so close.
After getting caught in a biblical thunderstorm at the top the second big climb of the day I dropped down to lower ground and through the small towns of Mast’ov and Michelob (any connection with the beer?!) After an hour or so of blazing sunshine I was treated to another dose of thunder, torrential rain and hailstones, before it cleared again and I could carry on in the sun to Rakovnik, a nice enough small town suffering, however, from a shortage of cheap accommodation. Found something eventually.
Day 16: 1/09/03
Carried on through the mellow Bohemian countryside. Approaching Prague from the west I thought I was doing a good job of getting to the city centre without hitting any major roads, until I ended up on the city’s equivalent of the North Circular.
Found the hostel I’d pre-booked and checked in, showered and went out for a quick look around – yes, Prague is as amazingly beautiful as you’ve no doubt already been told it is. Think I’ll have two or three days here before continuing due east through Moravia to Krakow in southern Poland.
Days 17 & 18: 2/09/03 & 3/09/03
Rest Days: Prague
Weather: Mainly sunny
Well, I say rest days but I didn’t get much rest! Am staying in a huge travellers hostel. Prague is a great city to visit for a whole load of reasons – beautiful architecture, high culture, beer 40p a pint!
The nightlife is superb and there is so much to see during the day. Have seen too much to list, but most memorable was definitely the Prague Jewish Museum. Spread over a number of different synagogues in the old Jewish quarter, the exhibits were actually collected by the Nazis who wanted to open a “museum of an extinct race”. The items come from 153 Jewish communities throughout the area that is now the Czech Republic. The Spanish Synagogue offers a pertinent reminder that anti-semitism wasn’t invented by the Nazis but was a long standing racial prejudice dating back hundreds of years that was used by them to help obtain political power. Surely there is a lesson here that is as relevant today as at any time.
It also contains objects from the horrific Terezin ghetto with a section containing artwork by children living in the ghetto, including a poem by a 9 year old girl with the heartbreaking title “It depends on the way that you look at it”. A draining experience, but very rewarding and educational.
Day 19: 4/09/03
To: Brehy (near Prelouc)
Weather: Overcast, tailwind
Couldn’t be bothered to find the Route 1 bike path that heads east from Prague city centre – assumed it would be poorly marked – so just followed tram route 9 on some nasty main roads for 1/2 hour or so ’til Dolni Pocernice where I picked up Route 14. This was a very clearly signed trail and just when I was starting to feel guilty for dismissing Czech ability to provide for cyclists the signs for Route 14 promptly disappeared and I had to start map reading. Anyhow, fresh legs and a tailwind saw off the first 50 km in no time.
At Podebrady I picked up Route 24 that followed the Labe river. This is a very rough path and quite hard going but was worth it for the peace and quiet (no cars) and some nice scenery – saw another 2 wild deer as well.
Had a late lunch at a small village just past Kolin, too small to have been hit by the grotesque Stalinist industrialisation that has ruined so many other Czech settlements. It’s not unusual for some small towns and even villages to have a huge industrial plant attached to them.
After 50km or so of rough ground I was crying out for some nice smooth tarmac. This arrived just before Labshe Chrcice from where it was only 20 or so km to a smart little lakeside campsite. Popped in to site bar for a bit in the evening, that was full of typically jovial Czechs. Beer now down to 14 Kc a half litre – about 30p!
Day 20: 5/09/03
Weather: Cloudy, clearing to bright sunshine
Woke up feeling terrible – and I’d only had 2 beers! Got on the bike and my legs just didn’t want to know at all. Put it down to yesterday being a pretty tough day (70km on road, 50km off road) and me not eating enough as well. Also suspect that I might be a bit dehydrated and generally shagged out from not resting properly in Prague.
Eventually got going and rode with a Czech cyclist for a bit who had done a fair amount of touring herself. Laboured on to Chocen but couldn’t really enjoy it. Shame, as the scenery here in Moravia is gorgeous (particularly in the town of Pardubice, though the “scenery” was of a different 2 legged variety…)
Booked in to a cheap pension in Chocen at about 5. Ate all the food I had on me, drank loads of water and crashed out for 3 hours. Got up and went out to a restaurant (sort of like an English pub, but better) and ordered an embarrassingly large amount of food. Definitely didn’t eat enough yesterday.
Day 21: 6/09/03
Dist: 107 km
Weather: Bright sunshine, headwind
Woke up feeling better but still not 100%. Took about 20 minutes to find the right road out of the town. When the Russians invaded in 1968 many Czechs spontaneously destroyed road signs to disorientate them. Seems like some towns haven’t bothered to replace them.
Eventually found the road 312 and then cycle route 18, part of the Ceska-Moravska trasa, and followed it all the way to Ceske Petroviceon the Polish border. Here I got my first views of Poland, though I’ll be entering it from the eastern Czech border. I also picked up route 52 here that took me to Hanusovice. From there it was one more long climb and then a descent in to Samperk. All the routes I have followed today were well marked, except when passing through towns, but there you can ask a typicllay helpful Czech local for help. The routes took in some quiet roads and paths with some great veiws (its hilly rould here!), particularly of the Kralicky Snezik mountain range that looks amazing and contains at least three or four “Ben Nevis'” (Note: I’ve since found out that it is possible to cycle to the top of the highest (1500ish meters above sea level) peak here, something that doesn’t look do-able from the maps).
If you are in touring in Moravia I’d recommend these routes.
Day 22: 7/09/03
Weather: Sunny, Headwind
Back to full strength now. Headed straight for minor roads through hills, passing Mlandonov and other hill villages. Stopped at a bar at 10.30 to buy some crisps and there was already a group of 10 blokes in there necking beers!
A bit after here I met a couple of Czech bikers who took me off the tarmaced road at Bedrichov and up through a much wilder area on dirt tracks. Quite a climb but well worth it. Then it was a fast downhill to Rymarov, which is, according to my Czech companions, the poorest town in the whole Republic.
After lunch, got on road number 370 to Valsov where I followed a small road that zig-zags around Lake Slezska Harta. Map showed a campsite about 20km away but it turned out to be non-existent so put in an unwanted extra 10km to Opava. Found a cheap pension to stay in, though the challenges weren’t over as the owners English extended to little more than “yes”, “no”, “please”, and “Led Zepplin”.
Day 23: 8/09/03
Weather: Sunny, headwind
Left Opava only being able to find a ridiculously small scale map of the whole of Poland. Headed for the border and got turned away at the first checkpoint – I think it might have been for locals only.
Went on to Bohumin and crossed there, curtosey of the Polish border police, the rudest collection of people I’ve ever had the misfortune of encountering. Picked up the Polish R4 cycle route that followed the border to within about 2km for a while before dropping away from it.
Before long I was flagged down by an armed border patrol motorbike rider who by the look of him had clearly watched too many episodes of “Chips” as a boy. He’s also obviously been to the same charm school as his mates at the crossing point. He kept me hanging round for over half an hour while intermittently checking my passport, radioing my details through to someone else, and attempting to persuade me to go on to the main road rather than the bike path (no idea why). After it finally sunk in that I was fully aware of the fact that the route I was on was a marked bike route that I had every right to be on and that I wasn’t going to alter my plans for him, he finally let me go.
Hadn’t passed a cash machine yet so still had no Polish money and needed to buy some water. Managed to blag 300zl cash-back from a small supermarket for a fee of 6zl, about a quid.
The R4 took me to Jastrzebie-Zdroj (place names are getting to be hard work now!) where I picked up the 933, an unpleasant main road that went to Pszczyna.
Day 24: 9/09/03
Weather: Hot, sunny, headwind
Today has been looming in my mind for a good 2 months now, from the moment that I realised that my route from the Czech Republic to Krakow in Poland took me right past Osweicim, or Auschwitz, to use the name given to it by The Third Reich. I planned to get there at 2pm the latest to give me plenty of time to look around both the Auschwitz museum and Birkenau, or Auschwitz 2, the less visited but much larger of the two concentration camps and the one where the far greater number of people were murdered – about 1.5 million.
I left Pszczyna and followed a marked route on farm tracks and forested single track at a leisurely pace, getting something of a feel for the way of life for rural Poles. Eventually got directed back on to the 933 which I stayed on til about midday when I saw a sign saying Oswiecim was only 2k away. Turned off down a small lane as I knew that Birkenau was about 3km out of the west of town, though I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. Or at least I thought not, but on seeing the distant rows of long, narrow, low lying buildings interspersed with watchtowers I knew that I’d found it. My first impression was of its vastness. Birkenau is a massive place, stretching as far as the eye can see. To give you an idea, I clocked up 5km riding around the inner perimeter fence – that’s well over an hours walk.
After 2 1/2 hours there I headed for Auschwitz 1 and spent 3 hours there.
Regarding the content of both former concentration camps, they were both very informative and plainly spelt out what went on there, from the methods of social control the Nazis used to maintain their order in the camps, to the way they killed so many people, to the resistance movements of prisoners in the camps.
I’ve actually written about 4 pages on this in my diary and have no intention of boring you all with it. All I’ll say is that Auschwitz isn’t a fun day out, but then 20th Century European history isn’t exactly a bundle of laughs. If you are ever in Central Europe then get to Auschwitz. Everyone should go at some point.
By the time I had finished it was too late to cycle anywhere so I just went to the campsite in town.
Day 25: 10/09/03
Weather: Hot and sunny
With Auschwitz fresh in my mind I wanted to chill for a bit so decided not to go straight to Krakow, that was only about 50km or so away. I got back on the dreaded 933, til the 730. Got off this road at Kwaczala and spent the rest of the day exploring the hilly area to the Northwest of the city. Picked my way round on a combination of the 4 cris-crossing bike routes in the area that took in both open farmland and dense forest.
The red trail took me right in to Krakow from about 20 km out. It is a hard, dusty mountain biking trail but does mean you get to within 4km of the city centre avoiding all main roads.
Booked in to a hostel that has a ridiculous midnight curfew. This is ok for tonight as I need an early one. Will find somewhere decent tomorrow.
Have met Robin, a Dutch guy also touring. He wants to find somewhere new to stay so tomorrow we’ll meet at 10 and get somewhere better.
Day 26: 11/09/03
Rest Day: Krakow
Weather: Warm, cloudy
Have found a room with Robin a bit out of town in student digs. This is preferable for both of us as we don’t really like being in the backpacker scene. Not that there is anything wrong with it, we both just prefer to stay places where you are more likely to meet locals. Robin has ridden from his home town of Eindhoven through Berlin, Warsaw and to Krakow. From here we’ll ride to Budapest together and then he goes on to Romania, Belgrade, Sarejevo, Croatia, Italy and home.
We’re going to stay in Krakow for a few days now though and take in a bit of the nightlife as well…
Next stop Budapest, via the High Tatras mountain range with its 2500m peaks. Bring it on!!!