Sunday, 23 July 2017

Great Moravia!

Stage 7, day 1, (Saturday, 1 July 2017)
Břeclav to Hodonín, 54 km

I’m standing on Czech soil at the southernmost vertex of the Dyje Triangle, also known as the Moravian Amazon, one of the last uninhabited expanses of Europe. Just below me, the clear, black River Dyje is merging restlessly into the murkier waters of the Morava. To my left, a group of cyclists has assembled on the Slovak side of the Morava. To my right, on the opposite bank of the Dyje, stand Austrian fishermen’s cottages with big hammock-like nets suspended on poles above the water. I wait a while as a pair of canoes glide nearer, then shout “Ahoj!”, the traditional greeting among Czech river-goers. “Hallo!” comes the German rejoinder. Behind me, my great friend Ryan is already making his way back towards the bikes. He’s grumbling about the nettles and mosquitoes, but you won’t hear any complaints from me. I’m back exploring the farthest-flung reaches of the Czech Republic for the first time in over six years, and it feels great. I take one last look at the river disappearing around the bend on its way down to the Danube, then I turn around to continue my own journey.

The Dyje (right) flowing into the Morava (left)

Fishing nets on the Austrian side of the Dyje

The train from Prague brought me into Břeclav just after 11 in the morning. Fifteen minutes later, Ryan careered into the station car park, complaining about the holiday traffic. Before long, he had his bike out of the car and we were cruising south into the flatlands of the Dyje Triangle. Our first stop was the Pohansko hunting chateau, built in the grandest of styles by Johann I Joseph, Prince of Liechtenstein, in 1810-11. It is named after a Great Moravian settlement which flourished here in the ninth century; the name itself derives from the word for pagan. An interesting place, although to be perfectly honest Ryan and I were still too busy catching up with each other’s news to pay it much attention.

Ryan silhouetted against the Pohansko hunting chateau

We continued along the long straight former patrol road past storks foraging for food in the meadows, stopping only to read an information board telling the tale of two fishermen killed by Czechoslovak border guards by the nearby river during the Cold War, a tragedy long hushed up by the Communist authorities.

Can you spot the stork in the meadow?

Despite its flatness, this is a magically beautiful place, part alluvial forest and part verdant grassland punctuated by solitary trees. I’ve read that it is largely unchanged since the time of the Great Moravian Empire. It is also surprisingly little known as a tourist destination, and we encountered hardly any other visitors as we scooted towards the confluence of the rivers Dyje and Morava, which also happens to be the “tripoint” where the Czech, Austrian and Slovak frontiers converge.

 Start of the spur leading to the tripoint

Border stone dating from 1755

A slatted wooden path winding through the forest led us to the tripoint. Ryan and I took it in turns to stand on the furthest tip of land overlooking the confluence and watch fish leaping from the water. We then backtracked to our main route and found a suitable trailside spot for a picnic.

 No prizes for guessing where Ryan hails from

My turn at the tripoint

After lunch, we cycled north up the opposite, eastern flank of the Dyje Triangle, eventually popping out on the main road to the border with Slovakia. There, we turned onto the Morava cycle path for a ride of gentle bends but harsh surfaces along the pancake-flat embankment on the Czech side of the river. At one point, I found myself missing the hills, but then I remembered I had plenty of those in store over the next few days. A stiff tailwind drove us along at a brisk pace but simultaneously made for stiflingly hot work in the afternoon sun, so we were very glad to turn off into a cool and tranquil wood. Before long, Mikulčice - another former Great Moravian settlement and the largest Slavonic archaeological site in the Czech Republic - suddenly appeared in a clearing in front of us.

First time on Slovak soil on my Circuit Ride 

View back along the Morava cycle trail

By now, we were not far from the town of Hodonín, our destination for the day, so a celebratory drink was in order. As we supped delicious Litovel beer alfresco at a cafe behind the visitor centre, I eavesdropped on a group of four Czechs at the next table, who, in turn, had been eavesdropping on us. They had clearly noticed Ryan’s splendid emerald green Cycle Ireland jersey and had surmised - wrongly - that we were both Irish. They were particularly perplexed by our English accents. “It’s like listening to someone from Ostrava - I can barely understand a word they’re saying,” said one of them.

 Mikulčice visitor centre and viewing tower

Picture of a ninth century rotunda,
one of the many buildings that used to stand at Mikulčice 

The woman at the visitor centre was similarly nonplussed by our combination of English and Czech, and especially by Ryan’s Czech-German mélange (he lived in Prague for a long time and is now based in Austria and probably doesn’t know what language he’s speaking half the time). We bought tickets for the surprisingly tall viewing tower that was swaying in the breeze above the museum. Ryan has an even worse head for heights than me and his complexion took on the same colour as his cycling top as I snapped the fine views from the top.

Selfie atop the viewing tower 

Panorama from the top

The final stretch of our day’s ride took us into Hodonín, where we stopped on the main square for greasy goulash and more drinks in the late afternoon sunshine. While we were there, the wind suddenly whipped up and blew my bike right over. At first, it seemed that no damage had been done, but then I noticed that one of my bar ends was missing. An exhaustive search of a large radius around the bikes revealed nothing except an inscription on the ground informing us that Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the much revered first President of Czechoslovakia, was born in the town. It was only after I had given up the bar end for lost that I found it lodged inside my helmet, which had been hanging from the handlebars but was now sitting on the table at the restaurant.

Masaryk Square in Hodonín 

With that mystery solved, we proceeded to the guesthouse, which turned out to be very comfortable indeed. The host, a delightful woman, had the strongest sing-song Moravian accent I’ve ever heard. Ryan needed to return home to his wife and baby daughter the same day, so I guided him to the station and put him on the train back to Břeclav.

Hodonín Town Hall

That evening I dined at a surprisingly good burger bar to an accompaniment of 1980s heavy rock music, and then ambled back to the guesthouse. At the dodgy pub next door, a live band was pumping out a bad version (is there a good version?) of Bryan Adams’ "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You". Had Ryan (not Bryan) still been with me, we would no doubt have ended up having some craic in there together, but I was on my own now and bed seemed more enticing than beer. To my surprise, the pub fell silent soon after 11 pm, and soon after that I was fast asleep.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Circuit Rider returns!

Yes, after a hiatus of almost six years, I have at last carved out enough time to attempt to complete my perimeter ride of the Czech Republic.

In just over two weeks' time, barring disasters, I will embark on the long-planned Stage 7 of my Circuit Ride. I've booked time off work, I've bought my rail tickets and I've finalised my itinerary. On 1 July, I will catch the train to Břeclav in South Moravia, where I ended Stage 6 in September 2011. There, I will meet my great friend Ryan (who accompanied me on a highly entertaining section of Stage 3 back in September 2010) and together we will cycle to Hodonín. I'll then continue on my own for a few days through the White Carpathians and the Moravian-Silesian Beskids to the tripoint where the Czech Republic meets Slovakia meets Poland. From there, I'll turn north and head along the Czech-Polish border to Cieszyn, where my wife and her cousin and 10-year-old son will, I hope, be waiting for me. The next day – on 6 July – the four of us will cycle together to Bohumín, where my Circuit Ride adventure began (in the rain) in May 2010.

Setting-off selfie seven years ago

Stage 7 start point

Many things have happened in my life since I completed Stage 6.* As a result, my Circuit Ride has been on the back burner. Yet I've never given up on my plan to finish it. In the meantime I've been cycling regularly and I've been replying to many e-mails from – and meeting up with – fellow cyclists who have contacted me through this site with their questions about cycling in and around the Czech Republic.

I have a new bike for this final stage. It's a Kolos No. 4 assembled to my specification in British racing green (or, less glamorously, John Deere green, as Ted and Cosmic Ray – my new cycling buddies from the USA – kindly pointed out) by local firm Citybikes. Technology has, of course, moved on since I last rode under the guise of Circuit Rider; unlike last time, for example, I will be guided by satnav on my smartphone. The network of cycling trails in the Czech Republic has also expanded a great deal since I first planned Stage 7 and I've been fine-tuning my original route in recent months to make the most of this.

Me and Kolos No. 4 in Tuscany last October

The one thing (okay, two things) that won't be new are my legs, which are approaching 50 years of age all too quickly. I'm not at the peak of fitness either, due to various distractions in recent months, but pain and suffering are all part of the fun of circuit riding. I can't wait to get going!

Some of them, to be honest, would probably have made for a more interesting blog than this one. 

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Circuit Ride Recycled – Part 2

In which our intrepid protagonist enters Poland, where he finds the trails - and the food - not entirely to his liking...

Testing spells and spelling tests

Stage 2, day 3 (Sunday, 25 July 2010)
Trutnov to Szklarska Poręba (84 km)

Funny things, borders. As I cross into Poland, where I’ll be spending the next day and a half, I feel like I’m somewhere new, somewhere alien and exotic. But the birds and the bees above my head don’t see it that way; they just see more of the same. And the beetle scuttling across the path in front of me just sees more colossal pebbles and towering blades of grass to negotiate - although maybe he should be paying more attention to the bicycle tyres bearing down on him at speed. Oops, sorry Ringo!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Circuit Ride Recycled – Part 1

Given the complete lack of posts here since last July, you might be thinking that I’ve hung up my cycling shoes for good. But you’d be wrong. Yes, my mission to circumcycle the Czech Republic has been on hold for far too long now, but I’m looking forward to completing the job this summer.

I haven’t been entirely idle on the Circuit Rider front. I’ve been answering plenty of cycling-related queries, and I’ve even met up with a few people in Prague through the blog. If you do have any questions about cycling in this part of the world, I’d be very pleased to hear them. You can e-mail me via my profile.

To get the blog rolling again, I've decided to re-publish six of my favourite posts, one from each of the six previous stages of my ride along the Czech border. It’s a re-hash, I know, but I’m hoping it will get me back in the circuit-riding mood as well as sending out a message that this project is still a going concern.

I’m calling this series Circuit Ride Recycled, and it starts with a post from the rain-sodden Stage 1 on of my trip, which I rode three years ago almost to the day. It’s only the second day of my journey, and things are already going awry...

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Stage 7 ticked off (for now)

A (very small) number of you must be wondering what is happening with my Circuit Ride given the absence of news on this blog over the last few months.

First of all, let me apologise for the dearth of new posts here recently. Since the start of this year I have been extraordinarily busy in the non-cycling, non-blogging department of my life. I simply have not had the time to blog or bike as much as I would like.

But that does not mean I have given up on my attempt to circumcycle the Czech Republic. On the contrary, I had pencilled in the final (5-day) stage for this weekend, as tomorrow and Friday are both national holidays here in the Czech Republic (Saints Cyril and Methodius Day and Jan Hus Day respectively). In fact, if all had gone according to plan, I would now be on a train bound for Břeclav.

But my big plans have been thwarted by a tiny tick. A couple of weeks ago I went for a routine freckle check. The dermatologist spotted a circular rash on my back, immediately diagnosed me with Lyme disease and put me on a three-week course of antibiotics. When I mentioned I’d been planning to do a spot of cycling (actually 250 miles over some pretty mountainous terrain), she told me to forget it and take lots of rest.

To be honest I feel a bit of a fraud, as I’m not suffering from any discernible symptoms at all. But for the time being the closest I can get to cycling is watching the Tour de France on television.

As it turns out, the steamy, stormy weather currently sweeping across the country might have forced me to reconsider anyway, as might the twinging pain that I’ve been experiencing in my right hip recently.

All in all I’m feeling pretty ticked off.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Lednice-Valtice: chateaux, follies and fakes

Stage 6, day 5 (Wednesday, 28 September 2011)
Mikulov to Břeclav (46 km)

As I climb out of the village of Úvaly the crack of shotgun fire around me seems alarmingly close. It’s a sound I’ve been hearing throughout this stage of my trip, yet I've only laid eyes on one single hunter. I wonder just how much slivovice (a plum brandy very popular hereabouts) a hunter would have to consume before becoming incapable of distinguishing a bike rider from a roe deer. I also wonder whether it is true – as my old physics teacher used to claim – that you would be hit by the buckshot before hearing the gunshot (on account of the former travelling faster than the speed of sound). I decide it’s a theory I’d rather not test.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Arachnophobia on a bike

Stage 6, day 4 (Tuesday, 27 September 2011)
Znojmo to Mikulov (91 km)

The slithery sandy track I’m on disappears into a thick, dark wood. It looks ominous, but I press on. I can’t see much with my sunglasses on, but straight away I feel the thick, sticky pull of cobwebs across my skin. And where there’s webs, there’s... SPIDERS! Big, plump ones suspended one after the other across the overgrown trail. The horror! As an arachnophobe, I couldn’t continue along here even if it was the last available route out of hell. All I can do is turn around and retrace my tracks. Unfortunately, that means taking with me the remaining webs and spiders I didn’t pick up on my way in. Back in the field, I descend into panic. I try to flick the beasts off me, my body convulsing and my arms and legs flailing (imagine, if you will, Ian Curtis attempting the cancan on two wheels). Just as I’m beginning to recover a mite of composure, I spot a whopping specimen with a bloated grey abdomen hitching a ride on my handlebars. Worse still, he’s crawling towards my right hand. What has, up to now, been a mere panic attack turns into a fully fledged physical and psychological meltdown. I blow the bugger off his perch just as he’s reaching my thumb, but he immediately starts scrabbling back up his thread. The bike lurches to one side as I momentarily lose control, and in the process the angry arthropod gets a dose of my spokes and is knocked to the ground. That, I’m glad to say, is the last I see of him.