Sunday, 10 April 2011

Another cycle trip

If you meet an English speaking traveller who tells you they've done a week-long cycling tour in the Czech Republic, there's a pretty good chance (I'd guess at least 4 out of 5) that they rode either from Mikulov to Český Krumlov or from Český Krumlov to Mikulov. Which is fine, of course, but sometimes I answer questions on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum and when one came up recently I found myself with hesitations about recommending the Mikulov-Krumlov shuffle.

South Moravia is probably my favourite region in the country and South Bohemia is definitely in the top three good-looking regions in the room, but I just wonder if this route really deserves four times as much attention and patronage as the rest of the cycle routes in the country put together. My main concern is that, with the exception of Znojmo, all the other towns might start to look a bit the same.

Znojmo has around 35000 inhabitants, medieval catacombs, and a variety of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture; but Mikulov, Slavonice, Telč, Jindřichův Hradec, Třeboň and Český Krumlov are all smallish towns (maximum 20000 people) dominated by the renaissance architecture of the 16th century (two storeys plus attic, pastel or sgraffito facades, arcade walkways, and dating from 1500-1620). Unless you really have a specific interest in the variations and intricacies of Central European renaissance architecture (I must admit that applies to me) wouldn't this route be a bit like going to a smorgasbord dinner and having six helpings of the same dish?
In the case of the fellow that asked the original question, (lets call him Ben) I kind of thought Mikulov to Krumlov would be OK, but he expressed interest in hearing any other suggestions I might have and because I'm intending to finish my round the country ride soon, I thought it might be a good exercise to plan an itinerary a bit and see if it's any use to him or anyone else.

Ben was thinking of beginning in Mikulov and my last ride finished in Mutěnice near Hodonín, but for the purposes of this we might split the difference and start in Břeclav. Ben has a week and I have more than a month, so he'd have to skip some of the things I'd visit and I'd be able to devote more time to each place.

Břeclav

Břeclav is a good place to start because it has excellent rail connections and a well-equipped train station. Bombed in World War II, it's now a fairly unattractive town, but there is a chateau that was built to look like a partly ruined medieval castle during the romantic 19th century. Behind the chateau, cycle trail #43 heads off through the Dyje natural park towards Lednice chateau.

Lednice-Valtice area

The Lednice-Valtice area is 2 square kilometres of landscaped countryside and world heritage architecture from the 19th century. The highlights are another mock ruined castle hunting lodge called Janův Hrad, the minaret designed by Josef Hardtmuth (better known abroad for his pencils), the Lednice chateau and greenhouse and the chateau and Jesuit church in Valtice. I've done this ride a few time and i like to follow trail 41 out of Lednice, then turn off along the lake to visit Hlohovec castle, which marks the old border between Moravia and Austria. From there it's up and over a vineyard-covered hill and down into Valtice. Valtice's wine cellars are a great opportunity to sample the local drop, but bear in mind that cyclists should technically have a 0.0 blood-alcohol-content. From Valtice there are minor country roads back to Břeclav or sandy trails through the forest and past the rendezvous and monuments.

Ruins of the Great Moravian Empire

Trail #43 south out of Břeclav leads to Pohansko, which is marked on all the Lednice-Valtice maps because of the Pohansko chateau. More interesting to me though is the nearby archaeological site and reconstruction of a small encampment from the Great Moravian Empire. The Empire was the first organised nation state of Slavic peoples but you hear very little about it because most information comes out of Prague and getting a proud Praguer to use 'Great' and 'Moravia' in the same breath is like getting blood from a a stone.

Past Lanžhot, cycle trail 44 runs along the bank of the Morava river, and is a great opportunity to absorb what you learned at Pohansko, before delving into the centre of the great Moravian empire at Mikulčice. Actually no-one knows where the capital was, but the excavations at Mikulčice uncovered the largest cache of Great Moravian churches, graves, jewellery and ceramics ever found. It's likely to be the Czech Republic's next UNESCO-world heritage site.

Hodonín

From there it's not far to Hodonín, which has an impressive main square church, and museums devoted to a) local boy and liberator president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk and b) South Moravia's oil industry. You didn't know they drilled for oil in South Moravia? Neither did I - I'm looking forward to visiting to find out more about it. From Hodonín, trail #47 leads along the river valley towards Strážnice, or we could shortcut through Slovakia and the pretty little town of Skalica.

Strážnice

Strážnice is best known for the huge folk festival that takes place every year in and for its skansen. A skansen is basically an outdoor museum; in this case with a collection of typical traditional South Moravian cottages, farmhouses and gardens. There's also a renaissance chateau that offers budget accommodation, a Jewish cemetery and a small port for boats navigating the Bata Canal.

Uherské Hradiště or Uherský Brod & Luhačovice

Uherské Hradiště is the biggest town in the Moravské Slovácko region. If it were possible to single out the one Czech region that has best held on to its folk traditions and customs it would probably be Moravské Slovácko. There's a handful of wonderful old historic buildings in Uherské Hradiště, but the best way to use the town is as a base to get into the real Slovácko countryside.

One good day long cycle trip is the loop to Buchlovice chateau ( home of the garlic festival) The imposing gothic Buchlov castle, Tupesy (ceramics workshop, gift centre and museum), Velehrad (pilgrimage church) and Modra (reconstructed huts, houses and church from the Great Moravian empire).

Uherský Brod is a relaxed town with a couple of very impressive churches and a good museum to the most famous local boy Jan Amoš Komenský, better known abroad as Comenius - the teacher of nations. Luhačovice is a spa town in a lovely forested setting with some of architect Dušan Jurkovic's best work. Personally I think all places mentioned above are worth visiting, but a cyclist pressed for time would probably ride from Strážnice to Zlín either along the river via Uh. Hradiště or up over the hills via Uh. Brod and Luhačovice.

Zlín

Home of Bata shoes. The innovative Bata factories, villas and shoe museum can all be visited and office block 21 is especially worthwhile for the rooftop terrace, the elevator office and the free exhibition on the eighth floor. The town chateau has good exhibition about the local film animation industry and the annual festival of children's film happens each year at the end of May.

Vallašské Meziříčí and Rožnov pod radhoštěm

In my experience, Wallachia (Vallašsko) is the Czech republic's friendliest region. Vallašské Meziříčí is its biggest town and the pleasant old square, cool bars and cafes and the inexpensive guesthouse right in the chateau make it a good place to base yourself for a few days. Check out one of the teahouses and the coffee shop in the upholstery school.

The big attraction of Rožnov pod radhoštěm is its collection of traditional wooden buildings. In the early 20th century there were two brothers who bought any timber building they heard was going to be demolished and somehow got permission to restore and reassemble them in the Rožnov town park on the right bank of the river Bečva. There's a church, a mill, a post office, a couple of working pubs and traditional festivals or events almost every weekend from May through September.

Nový Jičín/Štramberk/Kopřivnice/Příbor/Hukvaldy

Nový Jičín and the towns nearby have plenty to keep anyone interested for few days. Nový Jičín has one of the prettiest main squares in the country, the hat museum and Starý Jičín castle ruins just outside town. Štramberk has good collection of traditional wooden Wallachian houses, the remains of a hilltop castle lookout tower and an excellent microbrewery on the main square. Příbor is Sigmund Freud's birthplace and the family house is now open to the public. Kopřivnice has the wonderfully quirky Tatra car and truck museum and Hukvaldy castle ruins are worth visiting even if you miss the annual Janaček music festival. The #502 trail connects most of these destinations.

Frýdek-Místek

I want to go back to Frýdek-Místek mostly because it has the best teahouse I've ever been to. Frýdek and Místek were originally two towns; Místek on the left, Moravian bank of the Ostravice river, and Frýdek across on the opposite bank in Silesia. The historic centre of Frýdek around the square and chateau is lovely and I'm looking forward to exploring Místek too when I go back with a bicycle.

Český Těšín

Český Těšín is the Czech part of the town that found itself split in two when a new international border between Czechoslovakia and Poland was drawn was drawn along the Olše river in 1920. Czech Těšín was cut off from the historic centre of town, and Polish Těšín lost the important rail connections that were on the western side of the river. Another upheaval came in 1938 when Polish troops annexed Czech Těšín after the Munich betrayal. These days you can just walk down and across the bridge into the neighbouring country and nobody bats an eyelid.

Havířov

You wont find Havířov mentioned in many guidebooks but it seems like a very interesting place. It's an industrial city built in the early 1950s in the style of socialist realism. In those early years the communist party was still dominated by courageous people who joined when it was a persecuted organization and I'm keen to see if I can find differences in their architecture compared to the monstrosities of the 1970s when party membership was a prerequisite for every ambitious and unscrupulous citizen interested in personal power. Even if I'm wrong about the difference in architecture, I think the extensive collection of social-realist public sculpture will make the visit worthwhile.

Ostrava

3rd biggest city of the Czech republic and much-maligned as an ugly industrial sprawl populated by unemployed former miners. But ask anyone who has actually spent time there and the overwhelming response is that they really quite like it. The nightlife is famous but I also enjoyed the cafes, bookshops, the tour of the old steelworks and the museum of mining out in the northern suburbs. From Ostrava there are good train connections to all major cities in the region and Ben would probably finish here, while I'd like to push on to Opava, Krnov and the Jesenik mountains on my way home to Olomouc.

I've probably left this post a bit late to be useful to Ben, but I hope to cycle much of this route between about Mid may and Mid June this year. With tiny villages, towns and large industrial cities; everything from Great Moravian wooden cabins to social-realist reinforced concrete; forested hills, gentle flood plains; Moravian Slovak, Wallachian and Silesian culture and cuisine, it's going to be quite a trip.

3 comments:

Christopher said...

Nice post and lots of good info. Welcome back!

Circuit Rider CZ said...

Thanks for a very useful post. I'll be cycling through this part of the world myself later in the year.

Scott said...

So much information. Glad to see your back again filling my head - as well as others - with good idea for places to see in the Czech Republic that are largely overlooked. Marketa and I will most likely do another bike trip this summer, but hadn't though about going through these towns, until now. Hope to see you both this summer at some point!