Happy endings …

Time for some humble pie, having been very critical of Polish bike paths on the evidence of our first day cycling here, things improved significantly. Almost the entire 53 miles between Oswiecim and Krakow, our final destination, were on a dedicated, mostly paved, path along the levees of the Wistula river.

Approaching Krakow along the Wistula river

There was a bit of a blip 10 miles or so before Krakow, where a section is clearly still on the drawing board; the route followed a particularly rutted and stoney section before depositing us in some woods where even a competent mountain biker would have to get off and push. Despite this and it being only 4°c when we set off, it was a beautifully sunny day to enjoy our final day on the bikes. Getting into Krakow, a city of 750,000 people and the former capital of Poland was a breeze, the route took us to the base of the 13th Century Wawel castle in the heart of the old city. A fitting end to our 904 miles in three weeks of cycling, with no punctures and no fallings off! A big hug to Gavin for all the hours he put in researching and planning another amazing adventure.

Wawel Castle, Krakow

Today (Thursday) was no rest for the wicked, we ended up walking almost 10 miles exploring this beautiful and ancient city from our accommodation, wonderfully located on the huge central square. The castle and its huge Cathedral was the seat of the Polish monarchy for many centuries, both have been wonderfully restored over the years. A very pleasant walk up river took us to the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory where he singlehandedly saved 1,200 of his Jewish employees from certain death during WW2.

Clock Tower and Cloth Hall in Krakow’s main square taken from our bedroom window

An afternoon soaking up the ambiance on, around and in the caverns under the main square preceded a busy hour or so getting the bikes padded with pipe lagging ready for our 7.30 transfer to the airport tomorrow morning. As always looking forward to catching up with friends and family.

Bikes padded for the flight home

Into Poland and 20th Century history …

From Oloumac to the Polish border at Cesky Tesin is a distance of just over one hundred miles, which we rode over the weekend. Although following a series of rivers; the Trebuvka, the Bystrice and the Becva, the terrain was challenging with some very steep hills. The Beskydy mountains in this border country between the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland makes for very picturesque wooded hillsides. Many of which are topped with imposing castles.

Hilltop Castle Czech – Polish border

The cycle routes and signage in Czech has been outstanding. It must be high on the leader board for the country with most dedicated bike routes anywhere in the world.

The Olza river separates the towns of Cesky Tesin on the Czech side from Cieszyn which lies in Poland and where we stayed on Sunday night. Yet again this town boasts a large cobbled Square at its heart.

Great bike route signage in Czech Republic

Our first day’s cycling in Poland was a bit of a shock, the roads are busy, the drivers more aggressive and there are fewer dedicated bike routes. Those that exist are not well signed, so it is easy to go wrong and the surfaces leave quite a lot to be desired. Despite all this and circa 15°c drop in temperature we made the 57 miles to Oswiecim, on Monday, without mishap.

Polish bike route a little more challenging

Today (Tuesday) has been a somber day; Oswiecim is renowned through out the world by its German name – Auschwitz. We visited both Auschwitz 1, a site of about 20 acres and Auschwitz-Birkenau, two miles out, which occupies a staggering 432 acres. I cannot put my thoughts into words so great and heinous were the atrocities here.

Castles, Cobbles and Plague …

Three days and 125 miles on, we have been travelling in a South Easterly direction, leaving the flat land of the Elbe basin behind us. Our winding route between the Bohemian- Moravian Highlands to the south and Eagle mountains to the north followed the border between Bohemia and Moravia for a good number of miles.

Litomysl Castle

The countryside side is more scenic with rolling terrain and forested hillsides which are beginning to trade their summer green for autumn hues. The roadsides still feature apple, pear and damson trees, shedding their bounty on the roadside, joined now by quite a few walnuts.

Bousov castle, worth the two miles uphill!!

The villages are generally very small, just a few houses and farms. The towns we have passed through, include Litomysl which boasts a Renaissance castle with stunning gardens, Svitavy, birthplace of Oskar Schindler, Moraska Trebová and Bousov, both with their own incredible castles. Tonight we are in Olomouc, the ancient capital of Moravia and a UNESCO world heritage city. All these towns/cities have beautiful cobbled town squares with exquisitely decorated buildings and all have their own ‘Plague Monument’ which features a number of statues of saints with the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus as the pinnacle. For towns which suffered the black death in the early 1700s, the monument honours the dead, in others they celebrate the respective town having been spared.

Cobbled Square, fine buildings and Plague Monument in Pardubice

Today we experienced some strong headwinds which were quite energy sapping and herald a change in the hot sunny weather we have had for most of our trip (28°c today). Tomorrow is forecast to be at least 10° cooler.

Rolling countryside leaving Moraska Trebová

Water, snakes and horses …

The Elbe 2 miles from its source on the Czech/Polish border

Our very pleasant, scenic, two day, pedal along the Elbe (Labe in Czech) ended up a distance of 120 miles. From a tiny mountain stream bubbling over huge boulders in the Krkonose mountains it became a wide navigable, major waterway with several dams and locks by the time we got to the little town of Nymburk.

120 miles downstream at Nymburk, already a major waterway

The temperature leaving Spindlruv Myln was just 4°c, quite a shock to the system! We bundled up in several layers for the chilly, but speedy first 10 miles, which were all down hill. Thank heavens we brought long fingered gloves!

Sunday’s sixty miles were an absolute joy, with well signed and paved paths or roads, mainly alongside the bank of the river. The day warmed very rapidly, becoming unseasonably hot. This brought the locals out in droves; it was great to see so many people out on their bikes from the elderly with electric assistance to tiny tots wobbling along on bikes that were either way too small for them or ones they will grow into – one day. Cycling is very popular here and the network of dedicated routes and paths are amongst the best in the world. Young Mums get their figures back roller blading along the paths pushing their prams as they go. A last minute swerve by Gavin, saw him avoid running over a 4-5 foot long snake slithering across the path.

Yesterday’s ride was more challenging as the route was not always paved making it hard going with loaded touring bikes, we were very tired after 62 miles. The countryside is very flat in this region- no freewheeling, every mile has to be pedalled. We passed right through the stud farm where Lippizaner horses have been raised since Habsburg times. Fields full of the grey (white) mares with their black foals is a lovely sight.

With our map showing that many of the downstream routes continue on unpaved paths, we decided to retrace our route back though town of Kolin to Pardubice. After exploring this lovely old town with its cobbled streets and fine buildings, we will commence the final three hundred miles of our trip, east through Olomouc and on to Poland.

Total miles so far, 555.

Kuneticka Hora Castle on the hill

Trains and bones …

Our billet for the night in Hlsinko was in a reproduction of a traditional Czech house, mostly wooden construction, but very comfortable. Supper was interesting in this little town that is clearly not on the tourist route. The menu was in Czech only; might as well have been Martian for all the sense it made, there are virtually no common words with English. Thank heavens for Google translate which did helps us identify, chicken, mashed potato and chips! The food was excellent when it arrived.

St. Barbara’s Cathedral Kutna Hora

Our luck with the weather ran out the following day as we left Hslinko for Kutna Hora, some 45 miles to the north west. The only consolations were that the rain was mostly soft, it wasn’t cold, and lugging wet weather gear around was justified. The day was one of two halves, with the former very hilly and the run in to the, erstwhile silver mining town, of Kutna Hora largely downhill.

There is much more grassland in this region, most is cut in the fields and hauled to stock in the farmyards. However it was good to see a reasonably sized, mainly friesian, dairy herd out in one of the few fields that was fenced. There are no hedges here, which gives a much better view of the wider countryside than Devon lanes with their high hedges.

Once in Kutna Hora, we added about three miles on foot to see the various sights in this beautifully kept town with its cobbled streets and huge Cathedral, dedicated to St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Heading out this morning we stopped at another church which was ‘decorated’ in 1870 with the skulls and bones of circa 40,000 former residents, whose remains were found in the crypt. It was macabre and not very respectful in our opinion, but judging by the queue it certainly generates plenty of revenue.

Macabre bone sculptures at Kutna Hora

A steep road out of Kutna Hora tested our legs on the short run to the next sizable town, Kolin. Here we caught the first of two delightful local trains up into the Krkonose mountains on the border with Poland, a trip of two and a half hours covering 70 miles. The final stop left us with a ten mile uphill pedal to Spindleruv Myln, a ski resort in winter and source of the Elbe river.

A dinky little train on the branch line up the Elbe

The Elbe is the fourth longest river in Europe at 678 miles. Over the next couple of days we intend to follow the river down stream for a hundred miles or so

409 miles pedalled do far …

Castles and colonnades …

We have been in cycling heaven! Well signed (for the most part), mainly paved, very quiet, routes meandering through vineyards, small villages and the flat countryside of Southern Moravia. The larger towns are nearly all dominated by grand castles or palaces, dating back to the middle ages. A reminder of the strategic wealth and position of these lands in the time of The Holy Roman Empire and whilst under the rule of the Habsburg Austria Hungarian empire.

Chateau at Lednice

A two night stay in the town of Mikulov, with its own magnificent castle, afforded us a day to amble around the wine routes to visit the castles at Lednice and Valdice. Both magnificent buildings, with considerable parks and gardens, were home to the Lichtenstein family until they were driven out in 1945. We are both of the opinion that it is more tiring sightseeing than cycling.

Chateau at Mikulov

Leaving Mikulov in a north westerly direction, largely following Euro Velo route 5, took us 45 miles through more vineyards, around and over lakes, to Moravia’s capital, Brno. Gavin managed to get an exceptional deal through Booking.com which resulted in us staying in a sumptuous appartment, complete with balcony, overlooking the main square. The front ediface has four Herculean sculptures holding the building up. The appartment was ideally located to explore this charming, friendly and history-filled city, Czech’s second largest after Prague.

Four Hurclean statues holding up our appartment in central Brno

To facilitate the next stage of our trip, following the Elbe river, we took a three hour train journey up into the central massif to the little town of Hlinsko. A stressful experience with the bikes given we had to change trains partway and the late departure of the train out of Brno resulted in us having to run to catch the, just departing, train along the branch line to Hlinsko. Some very nice Czech people were of great help lifting the bikes and bags onto the trains.

A chequered history in Czech

We are now in the south eastern province of Moravia, which is realtively flat and very much warmer, temperatures are in the high 20s. This is wine country with harvest in full swing. Trailers full of grapes are trundling from vines back to the vineyards for pressing. Some are being picked by hand whilst the bigger operations have curious tractors with enormous wheels which straddle a row of vines pulling a picking machine behind it. In the interests of research, the couple of glasses we have samples are very good indeed.

Sunflowers are also grown here in great quantity. They too are ready for harvest. The seed-heads, on the totally dead plants, hang down like stick men waiting for the grim reaper. There are also many acres of maize here which is harvested when completely dry, presumably for the grain rather than cattle feed as is mostly the case in the UK.

Dusty work combining sun flowers

The cycling has been very interesting here on the border between Czech and Austria, many of the cycle paths are on the former cold war border patrol roads. It is very sobering to think that this nation of peaceable souls were literally fenced in with a double row of barbed wire packing 10,000 volts, then 2km of patrolled no-mans-land. After 6 years of occupation by Germany in WWII, liberation by Russia lead to Czechoslovakia ending up the wrong side of the iron curtain until the velvet revolution in 1989.

The only remnant of the 1,000 mile iron curtain electrified barbed wire fences
We ventured a few miles into Austria, passed disused border crossings. Whilst the landscape is very similar, the Austrian towns seam less careworn.

Czech is a very clean and tidy country and rates as the 7th safest in the world. It is an hidden gem with many grand castles and palaces being restored to their considerable former glory

Castle at Mikulov

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