The border town of Cheb is claimed around these parts to be the geographical centre of Europe. The countries I’d cycled through so far had some degree of familiarity – France, Belgium, Germany – but crossing the border into the Czech republic felt like stepping into different territory. And back a few years. The language of course was impenetrable to my ears and there wasn’t too much English about.
Prague in the centre of the country was of course on my itinerary, but to get there I had decided to follow the river Orne to the town of Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad as it used to be known when under German control. Following their exemplary neighbours, the Czechs were making an effort with cycle paths and a nice new path followed the river. I met just a couple of cyclists the whole day – it seems the pastime is not yet as popular as more western European countries. It developed into a really beautiful ride, despite the fact the track was more suited to a mountain bike – at times pretty muddy due to rains – rather than a heavily loaded touring bike. If anything shook me from my goal oriented approach to a day’s cycle it was this – the most strikingly scenic cycling so far. Through the forest next to the fast flowing river the track wound, nearly every bend exposing another magnificent vista of heavily wooded slopes or cliff side. The final stretch from the incredibly picturesque fortified village of Locket perched high on a sheer hilltop above the river to Karlovy Vary was superb. I’m sure it’s destined to become a renowned cycling destination (I don’t know, maybe it is already!).
When entering a country for the first time I was trying to learn some useful words – please, thank you, hello, how much… After a few “Ahoys” on the road I confirmed with someone that that was indeed the colloquial greeting. How bizarre – the old maritime greeting used in the most central of Europe’s landlocked countries?? When I mentioned that on the Bicycle to Burma Facebook page a Czech follower of the site gave an account of its origin in the country:
“Since begin of previous century till today, many people likes to go to the nature during the weekends and hollidays, with very humble equipment, often of army origin (to be unobtrusive in nature…). This movement is called “tramping” and its members like the romanticism of American Wild West, Indians, sailors… They have special, frequently romantic songs about nature, freedom, horses, wild water, love and so on. And they started use the greeting “Ahoy” and nowadays the good friends greet another with this word.”
That would be an easy salutation to remember.
I found my way to my warmshower address, a large, fenced detached house in what appeared to be quite a salubrious part of town. Marza was expecting me and, baby in her arms, unlocked the gate inviting me in. Up the wide, curving stairway through the spacious, impressively appointed house she showed me to my room. Wow. What a lovely place to arrive at after a hundred kilometre cycle.
Marza was a judge. As she explained she’d had to study quite intensively to achieve the position but then decided to raise their young family instead. Jan her husband and breadwinner joined us a little later from work. He was a lawyer, a partner in a small practice. Although he modestly claimed they were a smalltown outfit doing a bit of everything but specialists in none, I reckoned they must be pretty successful. He was a quick witted, smart guy and there was a reference later when we were discussing Ireland’s and Europe’s present economic crisis, to a business visit to Crete to look after a Russian property deal. Yes, I had heard references to Karlovy Vary as a destination for nouveau riche Russians. It is a spa town famed for the recuperative qualities of its hot water springs and in previous centuries was a destination for central European and Russian royalty.
Bavaria in Germany has a reputation for taking their beer brewing seriously, and Bamberg a reputation for a specific quality beer. When I reported to Jan that in Bamberg they admired Czech beer he was tickled pink and insisted on bringing me out to sample some. I sensed this suggestion may not have gone down too well with Marza and felt a little guilty. When he got home he gives her a well earned break by taking over with the two young kids. It seemed to me the classic case of the wife at home with little in the way of social or intellectual stimulation during the day, really in need of a break and the husband taking over when he got home. Quite a different environment than working as a judge. I commented to Jan on the generally older age of judges in Ireland, presumably allowing that age and experience are reckoned to add to a judge’s wisdom and ability to adjudicate in situations that are not so black and white. In this system apparently wisdom is not seen as the prerogative of age.
We strolled towards the town centre and a local bar which had according to Jan the best Czech beer on draft. The bar was, Jan counselled, “a little rough. Riff raff.” I laughed at the phrase and asked him where he learned it, in English it is used in a disparaging way. “Yes I know. Today a union leader, a client, use it to describe, how you say, troublemakers in his organisation!” The bar was pretty basic, and although it wasn’t too late in the evening, the patrons well lubricated. I was wearing my bright yellow cycling jacket when we entered which elicited a reaction. “He say he wants your jacket.” I responded to the table of four guys and one woman with a smile and a thumbs up. “Thank you. You like?”
Jan and myself continued a conversation, initiated by my ignorance of things Czech. The second most atheistic country in the world after North Korea, Ivan Lendl, Vaclev Havel, Milan Kundera… Ah, Alexander Dubcek. I remember in my naive college days an activist fellow student from the Workers Party barracking the Russian ambassador in a college debate, repeatedly demanding “Where is Dubcek?”. He was a hero of the Prague Spring and was ‘disappeared’ by the Russians wasn’t he? “Alexander Dubcek was a coward”, said Jan dismissively. Oh. “He was General Secretary of the Communist Party at the time, and all he was interested in was to put a human face on communism.” But it is argued by some that it can be more effective to work from within the system than to oppose it from the outside. “My father and me we have this argument, he support Dubcek. But Dubcek was just a party man. He didn’t try to change anything fundamental.”
Dubcek was arrested when the Russians stormed Prague in the spring of 1968 with 300,000 troops and 2,000 tanks. It was total overkill but the intention was to stamp out any inclinations towards independent thinking by the Soviet countries or taking a looser line on totalitarian communism. And most obviously it was a warning to Czechoslovakia’s neighbours. Dubcek was arrested and sent to Moscow. “Big deal,” retorted Jan. It was those who were imprisoned for their ideals that he admired. Like Havel? “Yes, Havel to me is a hero. He keep his principles, went to prison many times but didn’t renounce them.” Havel was the Czech republic’s first President, elected by the parliament, not the general public. That sounded very encouraging, that the politicians put their differences aside and agreed on this controversial and principled man. He must have been a great leader. “Havel was not a leader, he was an inspirer! And he didn’t tell people there was one way to do things. He allowed there would always be other opinions than his, which is why he remained popular.” His replacement? Vaclav Klaus “a combination of Sid Vicious and Hitler!”
Staring over my shoulder his eyes opened wide like saucers. He had to repeat his word a couple of times before I recognised “striptease”. I looked around to see the woman who was at the jacket appreciation table – in her late thirties – standing on her bench seat in front of her drinking buddies pulling her pants up. A couple of them were continuing their conversation ignoring her, the others with varying degrees of interest. These were having to work hard concentrating. They were all pretty drunk. “She is doing it for another beer,” Jan translated. After a few more bars we ended up in a late night pub known as “mother of drunks. It takes care of them”, drinking Becherovka, the popular spirit from Karlovy Vary with a slightly medicinal taste. I liked it.
The next morning Jan was up early for work and I set off, a little the worse for wear. Patchy rain had settled in to steady, as I continued following the Orne river up and down hills through beautiful forest scenery, through Klasterec then Kadan. After ninety five kilometres I reckoned I’d done a decent day. Asking around in the hilltop town of Zatec about a bed, I was directed to a fancy looking hotel which had boarding rooms in the old town square for €6, and was pleased to get a private room. An important word I’d written down in Czech was ‘ubytovna’, workers’ hostel.
The Vltava River flows from Prague and I decided to cut across a few hills to meet up with it. After some meandering diversions away from the river I struck lucky in the town of Kralupy where an elderly lady cyclist insisted I follow her to their new cycle path along the river. “Prague”, she proudly gestured up river, which I took to mean I couldn’t go wrong – a lovely wide cyclepath all the way! I couldn’t believe my good fortune and made steady progress, until the cycle path stopped. What continued along the riverside was an increasingly narrow mountain bike track. It became less and less manageable and more of an obstacle course. At one stage I had to dismount as the path was climbing over tree roots and around large rocks. I had gone too far to turn back, even if there was any space to do that. For a stretch of six kilometres it was no more than eighteen inches wide, with a drop of a few metres to the water below. A little nudge on my side pannier from a rock and it was bye bye black Cadillac. I wasn’t going to go in after it. The adrenaline was flowing.
The rain had eased by the time I found my way to the impressive Czech Inn hostel in downtown Prague. The poor weather I had experienced for much of the journey to date was part of a general pattern throughout central Europe. A few days later I was to read on the Accuweather website, “a nationwide state of emergency was declared for the Czech Republic… The country has suffered at least five deaths related to the flood… In the Czech capital Prague, flood fears led authorities to raise protective metal barriers against the rampaging Vltava River… Transportation was disrupted, and many schools were closed.”
After a brief stop in this attractive city – it would have to wait for another visit to investigate further its charms – it was a speedy passage with a stiff wind at my back across flatlands of east Czech. Until the last few hours of the day’s cycle that is, when I was enticed by bicycle signs when the main road became too narrow and busy. It was once again the scenic recreational route! This was definitely the last time I vowed.
That evening I was hosted by cyclist Micheal, a lovely guy, and his father in their small apartment. The father spoke no English but cooked us a satisfying roast chicken and potato dinner. Micheal moved out of his bedroom to sleep on the couch to accommodate me. I was humbled by the hospitality. He had returned from a working and cycling holiday in New Zealand with his girlfriend and work was difficult to find – he was a schoolteacher. The only work he was able to get was more than a hundred kilometres away from his father and his girlfriend. He came home weekends to look after his ailing dad.
Sunday was wet and blustery. From Hradec Kralove the road passed through deserted countryside and towns – there was no place open to eat or buy food. Until entering the streets of Dobruska where I came upon a street fair! I was convinced to try some pork fat on a thick hunk of local bread – with onions it made quite a savoury sandwich. The stall next to it threw in a sample of their liqueur. The next one again their pork soup.
Fortified I started on the steady climb from there up the hills to the border with Poland. It was skiing country – out of season lodges were tucked away up forestry roads, large billboards with dramatic ski shots advertised resorts. The temperature was dropping. At the small village of Ohlenice I sat in the square to eat another pork fat doorstopper from the fair. I had to put on a few layers of clothes to keep from getting cold.
And what was it with these unresponsive people! Two trekkers in their hiking boots and walking poles strode right past me avoiding my eyes. I had to force an “Ahoy” out of them. Two cyclists ignored me altogether, like I was invisible. I noticed my irritation. Ok, well I wouldn’t take it personally, it must be a cultural thing. I was to experience similar behaviour in the Ukraine and by then had developed some kind of theory – something to do with a combination of northern European reserve, stoicism and lack of demonstrativeness, allied with their experience in the Soviet culture of not giving away much (you never knew who was reporting what), and the communist repression of individual expression in favour of the greater interests of the community? As someone who lived in Moscow suggested to me, they don’t put much of a premium on cordiality.
The route I was following on my – admittedly large scale – map was indicated as a public road but degenerated into a steep, stony forest track the final six kilometres. The rain was making the going slippery and it was a struggle up in first gear. Eventually the end was in sight and I was pleased to reach a sealed road along the crest. I had passed through a gate and quite possibly was now in Poland. I stopped a car on the road to confirm that yes, this was indeed Polska! Interestingly I felt happy to be in this country, I’m not sure why. Possibly to do with exposure to Polish people at home, or the reportedly positive response to Irish football supporters here in the recent World Cup.
A long winding downhill continued for a number of kilometres. Although I had on all my gear including rain pants and jacket I was freezing cold by the time I reached a fuel station on the main road and gratefully went inside the shop to warm up. As I began to warm up I felt light-headed and hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself and collapse. It took quite a few minutes, and a hot cup of tea, to get over it. I could only assume it was some form of mild exposure. The young attendant spoke English having worked in Halifax in England and spent some time giving me Polish lessons as I jotted down helpful phrases phonetically.
After changing some money I was feeling revived and ready to continue, a lovely cycle along the back roads at the foot of the hills I’d just descended, a mixture of forest and pasture. The sun even came out. There was an air of dilapidation about. Fine, large stone farmhouses and outbuildings were crumbling through lack of maintenance. I wondered was that after the policy of communist collectivisation, or more recently when landowners couldn’t afford heating and labour costs any more. It looked sad to me.
In the city of Klotzko I found a hotel. The receptionist – in his late twenties, buzz cut hair, and cheap suit – spoke some English and was very deferential. He couldn’t really get his head around the idea of my trip, rang his boss and we agreed a reduction from 90 to 60 zlotis for the room, about €14. I was cold, my gear was a little wet and I’d had quite day so justified it to myself. The hotel was on the edge of the old part of town which sat astride the river, backed by an historic fortress. It was really atmospheric with no suggestion of dressing itself up for the tourists.
In the morning my receptionist friend was very eager to help, rushing out from behind the desk to open the doors for me and the bike. I asked about the road east to Nysa and he confirmed yes there was only the one, the main road. Any hills I asked? He thought a second before nodding. And understanding the significance for a cyclist named a couple of towns where “there are hills”, taking a noticeable pleasure in informing me of this. Warming to it he added, “Yes, big hills”, before, unable to contain himself bursting into uncontrollable giggling. I wasn’t amused.
Though taking me north and away from my destination, I decided to take a train the half hour journey to avoid that road. After the previous day’s exertions and only two hours sleep I didn’t feel up to it. Yes, according to station master, there was a train in an hour to the next town. After hefting the loaded bike up a series of concrete stairs to train platform I went to buy a ticket to discover the train left from another station two kilometres away. I just managed to get there in time.
Just a half hour journey, it was an opportunity to observe Polish people. There was an exchange between an efficient looking ticket inspector in his uniform and cap and a young woman passenger – the main actors – with the next passenger to be checked, an older man, cast as audience. It struck me as a recognisably Irish scene. There was wry humour in her back-answering the inspector, met by an apparent non reaction by him, half attending her offhand comments while busying himself with his portable digital ticket dispenser. The audience member – contributing to this vignette – was adding the required supportive nods and smirks. The ticket officer finishes the scene with an authoritative but smiling dismissal and she walks off stage with a smirk. Of course I understood nothing. Already I liked Poland.