Monday 24 May 2010

Days like this

Stage 1, day 1 (Friday, 14 May 2010): 
Bohumín to Opava (50 km)

Bohumín railway station, 3.25 pm, Friday. Here at last, after months of planning and blogging about planning. The rain is pelting down - not quite what I'd envisaged. A guy in a white vest is leaning out of a window in the building opposite and staring down at me. I feel self-conscious dressed in my wet-weather cycling gear and taking an arm's length photo of myself with the station sign behind me. Still, I've got to have a record of the official start. Line it up, smile, click.

Official start, Bohumín railway station

That morning I'd packed the bike and headed off with no fanfare to Prague's main railway station. It was already raining hard. After riding just a hundred yards I was forced to brake harder than expected at a pedestrian crossing. My rear wheel locked up on the slippery concrete surface between the tram lines and the bike bucked beneath me. Clearly I was going to have to take care in these conditions.

I was already pretty wet by the time I reached the station. Having got there ridiculously early I watched the world go by on the concourse while waiting for my train to be announced. I was booked on the Pendolino service to Ostrava, from where I would cycle to Bohumín - the official start point of my cycling circumnavigation of the Czech Republic. I love travelling by Pendolino. It's Czech Railways' premium service - fast, modern and comfortable, yet surprisingly cheap. Best of all, there are three spaces for bicycles and you can reserve them on-line.

The train left on time and for the next three hours or so I watched - pensive and apprehensive - as the rain first eased off and then intensified again. The young man across the aisle from me produced a rabbit from a hutch and sat stroking it for a while. Something startled it and it nearly bolted. The conductor did a double take as he came past, but decided not to intervene.

In Ostrava I donned my rain gear and set off for Bohumín, where I took a couple of photos and posted one to my blog. My journey began a little uncertainly as I got lost in the backstreets of the town and was forced to take a diversion due to a road closure. Before long, though, I was out of the Czech Republic and into Poland for the first time.

For much of the rest of the afternoon I wove between the two countries. In one village - Hať, I think - an enormous stork appeared out of nowhere and landed chaotically on its precarious nest with a delivery of food for its chicks. By the time I'd fished my camera out of my pocket it had flown off again, leaving its mate in charge of the brood.

A stork perched precariously atop a lamp post

I was to see many more storks over the following few days - many more than I'd ever seen before in my life, in fact. Further on I spotted my first-ever lapwing in the Czech Republic. Ahead of me a stoat scurried recklessly across the road.

It was chilly but the rain gradually relented and stopped altogether for the last hour of my ride. Although I saw no other leisure cyclists, there were quite a few locals biking home from work. I was beginning to get tired when Opava suddenly came into view in the valley below. I arrived there at 6 pm. Penzion A Club, where I had booked accommodation for the night, was easy to spot thanks to its conspicuously blue facade. What it lacked in charm, it made up for by being clean, warm and - most importantly - dry. I stashed my bike in an outhouse out back, unpacked, cleaned myself up and headed into the town centre in search of food.

The conspicuously blue Penzion A Club in Opava

Opava is quite a major town. In the 1910 census 92% of its residents declared themselves to be German speakers (this figure probably includes most of the Jewish population, as they were not allowed to give Yiddish as their native language). In 1938, after the Nazi annexation, Opava - or Troppau, to give it its old German name - was made capital of one of the three regional units of the Sudetenland. The town saw fierce fighting between the Germans and the advancing Red Army at the end of World War II. One-third of the town was destroyed. The ethnic German population was expelled after the war ended, and the Czechs moved in.

The town hall dominates the Upper Square in Opava

Opava was pretty quiet for a Friday evening. I tried and failed to find a pub serving a local brew, so settled for a large Italian restaurant in the pedestrian zone - the San Marco. The beer here was Krušovice, which is not every Czech's favourite; indeed, my father-in-law won't touch it. I tucked into a tasty but none-too-Italian cabbage and ham soup followed by tagliatelle coated in green slime (or cream and spinach sauce according to the menu). The pasta was fairly nasty, but sometimes a man needs carbohydrate and plenty of it. Despite its flaws, the restaurant itself was smart enough, with attentive service and a good atmosphere. It was certainly popular; by 8 o'clock they were turning people away.

Bloated on pasta and beer, I reflected on the first leg of my trip. It had been a surprisingly hard day: unseasonably cold, further and hillier than I'd expected, and not a little wet. The enormity of the task ahead of me began to sink in. Why am I doing this? The Van Morrison line "There'll be days like this" entered my head. It became my mantra for the next few days.

Church of St Adalbert on Opava's Lower Square

I left the San Marco and took a roundabout route in another doomed attempt to sample a local beer. I was almost tempted into a pub on the lower square when a couple of drunks staggered out. A taxi driver waiting outside shouted Dupej kurva! ("Get a f**king move on!") at one of them. I didn't go in. Instead, I walked back to the guesthouse in the drizzle and turned in for the night.


Karen said...

Czechs don't like Kruošvice? Say it ain't so! I love Krušovice black beer! Wow, and here I thought I had developed into a full-blown almost-Czech beer snob. Shows what I know.

So is that town full up now with Czechs or is it underpopulated and with less people than it's normal population before WWII?

Circuit Rider CZ said...

I wouldn't say they don't like it, but opinion does seem polarised to me. Maybe it's because Krush is rather different in style to most other Czech beers. Anyway, all this applies to the pale beer, not the black stuff, which is a species apart. I've not heard anything negative spoken about the latter, so you've no need to worry about your beer-drinking credentials. I'm not a black-beer man myself, although I do enjoy an occasional "řezané" (a 50/50 mix of dark and pale).

According to Wikipedia, Opava's population is now roughly double what it was in 1910, so yes, it's full up now. However, I guess that's not a massive increase compared to many other towns over the last 90 years.

BTW Joy Adamson of "Born Free" was born there in 1910. Not a lot of people know that.

baresytapas said...

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Circuit Rider CZ said...

Greetings to you too, baresytapas, and thanks for your kind comment.

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