Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Cycle trip from Jičín to Plzeň

About a week ago I finished the second stage of my cycle trip around the Czech Republic.

I started in the Český ráj protected landscape area, after a slight delay getting to Jičín. That morning there’d been a train accident that blocked the tracks and they were ferrying passengers around the site by bus. With not much space for bicycles, six or seven of us cycled the 14km from Červenka to Mohelnice.

In Jičín, the annual fairytale festival was in full swing so I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the outdoor concerts and fireworks and visited the Prachov rocks the next day. From Turnov I visited Trosky, Kost, Valdštejn and Hrubá Skala castles and bumped into the castlekeeper from the Pantheon ruins above Malá Skala, who I met at the end of my last trip. This time he was leading a group of overexcited Danish schoolkids through the forest on mountain bikes, so we didn't talk for long. Always nice to see a familiar face in a strange place.

After the Český raj, I headed north towards Ještěd and then Liberec, where I saw the new Czech films Tobruk and Maj outdoors on the main square. I also saw the Liberec Bili Tygři (white tigers) make short work of Mlada Boleslav at the fancy hockey stadium (ushers in suits and ties holding the doors open for fans!) and made good use of city things like cafes and bookstores before plunging back into the rocks and trees and hills of the Czech Switzerland national park.

I stayed at the eastern end of the park in Krasná Lípa, which has the best tourist information office I’ve ever been to. It’s more like a tourist information lounge; they have internet terminals with printers, a cafe bar and window-side tables where you can just sit and absorb all the information they have available. And they manage to offer suggestions and answer questions with enthusiasm. Brilliant! A model for tourist information offices everywhere.

That was at the eastern end of the National park, but I also visited the west. The western gateway town Hřensko is close to the most popular natural attractions; the Kamenice river gorges and the Pravčická brana, a huge sandstone arch. In contrast to Krasná Lípa, Hřensko is horrible. It’s all haughty hotels and Vietnamese junk stores, which apparently sell illegal cigarettes in bulk as a sideline. On the day I arrived they were all taped up and being raided by customs officers with dogs, while German day-trippers with empty plastic bags moped around looking bewildered.

From Hřensko I turned and followed the Labe River to the South. Ústí nad labem lived up to its reputation as not being a very nice place, but Litoměrice and Mělník are two of the loveliest places north of Prague. They’re surrounded by Bohemia’s tiny wine growing region and Litoměrice’s annual harvest festival was underway when I rode into town.

Despite that, the tourist office managed to find affordable accommodation in the centre and when I arrived to check in the owners invited me to go riding and canoeing with them on the weekend. When I found out it would be something like a triathlon, I politely declined.

I had a big day planned that day anyway. I rode from Litoměrice to the castle at Budyně nad Ohří then continued to the mountain Říp, where the legendary tribal forefather of the Czechs declared that he saw a land full of birds and animals and flowing with honey and that this would be his people’s homeland from then on.

At Mělník the chateau overlooks the junction of the Labe and Vltava rivers, the old gothic gate tower has been turned into a cosy teahouse, and the impressive Church of Sts Peter and Paul covers an eerie bone chapel, where the bones of up to 20,000 people have been piled and arranged into patterns.

From Mělník I cycled south to visit the chapel at Budeč (bohemia’s oldest building and the place where St Wenceslas learned to read and write), Okoř castle (unexpectedly closed on a Tuesday in September) and the memorial and museum at Lidice, which is the village obliterated by the Nazis in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.

I’d hoped to stay overnight in nearby Buštěhrad, but apparently there was not a bed to be had in town. I reluctantly pressed on through drizzle and twilight to Slaný, which turned out to be quite a pleasant town. As did Louny, with its spectacular tent-spired church and gate towers. From there I rode to Most to find out more about the five hundred year old stone church that was moved by hydraulics in the 1970’s and picked my way along beside the highway to Chomutov where Mrs Oddsocks had arrived by train and was waiting to come cycling for a few days.

Chomutov was a nice city; much nicer than Most, and we visited Žatec, home of Saaz hops and the old royal city Kadaň on the way to Jáchymov. Jáchymov has two sides; one is a spa resort where white uniformed health workers flit between the floors of modern hospital-like spa facilities and the other end is the grim uranium mining town where communist era political prisoners were systematically worked to death in the race to win the cold war.

Mrs. Oddsocks put her bike on the train at Ostrov and went home, and I had an overpriced lunch in Karlovy Vary then followed a beautiful cycle trail through the forest to pretty Loket nad Ohří, which was a breath of fresh air after the stuffy spa towns.

One evening I was sitting in the outdoor theatre waiting with my camera for the castle lights to come on, when a young guy sat down at the corner of the stage, went through his backpack, pulled out some black and white shoes and switched them for his sneakers. He then strode out through the autumn leaves to the middle of stage, adjusted his mp3 player and started to work through an hour of tap-dancing routines. The castle lights never came on, but I was far from disappointed with the evening’s entertainment.

Next stop was Cheb, where I was woken by earthquakes, visited the castle and the museum with the death chamber of medieval warlord Albrecht Valdštejn, and was approached by local ladies: Do you have a cigarette? Sorry, I don’t smoke. What are you doing? Planning my trip. Can I help you plan? No thanks. Why don’t you ask those guys for a cigarette? I’m not looking for a cigarette; I’m looking for a nice boy. I’m not the boy you’re looking for, goodbye.

From Cheb the Iron Curtain Greenway follows the old patrol roads inside the German border. A normal road would pick its way around the contours of a hill, but these roads were built with slow driving and clear lines of sight in mind, so they go arrow straight down into valleys and up the other side, regardless of slope. For a cyclist, it’s something like a rollercoaster ride, except you have to pedal like mad at the bottom to conserve as much momentum as possible for the other side.

Around lunchtime that day I crossed into Germany through the abandoned border control post Broumov/Mahring and took an educated guess at where I might find a memorial to Johann Dick, the German hiker who was shot by Czechoslovakian border guards in 1986, sparking a scandal on the western side of the border and a coverup on the east.

Back in the Czech Republic, I spent that night in the old walled town of Tachov and the next day explored the spooky ruins of the church of St John on the way to Stříbro, which was my final stop before trundling into Plzeň and ending this stage of my trip.

Despite the weather being lousy most of the time, it was a good month overall. There are a couple of places I didn’t get to explore properly because they were closed, so I’ll have to get started a little sooner next autumn. The next stage though is to start again in the spring from Plzeň and work my way through South Bohemia across to South Moravia, ending in Znojmo.

Or somewhere just short of Znojmo if past performance is anything to go by…

Related Posts:
Cycle trip from Olomouc to Litomyšl
Help me plan my next big trip
What to pack for cycletouring


Michael said...

Sounds fantastic, mate. Cesky Raj, Litomerice and Melnik I know well, but you've just reminded me there's plenty I've yet to see.

Maybe next year.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Cheers mate, it did turn out to be a good trip.

I'd have to say Kadan, Zatec and Louny were the most pleasant suprises for me. All I knew about them beforehand could fit on the head of a pin, but they were lovely interesting little places, all three.

Michael said...

I usually find it's the places I know least about that I enjoy the most. Shame I've never been to Kadan - I'd just lumped together in my imagination with the other Brown Coal towns.