Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The forty-nine steps and other thrilling tales

Stage 1, day 4 (Monday, 17 May 2010)  
Králíky to Náchod (98 km)

I peek nervously out of the window first thing on Monday morning. The rain has stopped. My clothes and boots have (almost) dried out overnight. So far, so good. The weather forecast on breakfast TV is not too bad, although they’re showing footage of catastrophic flooding in areas I’ve been cycling through over the past couple of days. I’m feeling much refreshed after a good night’s sleep. At breakfast a fine cup of tea with fresh milk cements my decision. The owner of the hotel is just going into a monologue on the bleak future of “the whites” in Europe when my wife rings from Prague. I tell her I’ve decided to keep going. She doesn’t sound overly impressed.

Adolf Hitler visiting Králíky in 1939

Adolf Hitler visited Králíky and the nearby fortifications on 5 November 1939. He was welcomed enthusiastically by the then majority ethnic German population and gave a speech on the main square. I wondered whether he had had better weather than me as I walked, shivering, across the same square to the local bike shop to buy a new water bottle and two spare inner tubes.

Start of the pilgrims' way leading up to Hora Matky Boží Monastery

Before leaving Králíky I had a look at the old pilgrims’ way that leads from the town up to the monastery of Hora Matky Boží (Holy Mother Mountain). The steep path runs between an avenue of linden trees with chapels dotted along the way and ends at a flight of 49 steps rising to the monastery gates. The site was used as a prison for British POWs in World War II and later as a concentration camp for persecuted priests during the Communist era.

"U cihelna" bunker

Just outside Kraliky I passed by “U cihelny”, a casemate that formed part of the Czechoslovak defence line designed to keep out Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In October 1940 the Germans turned all the artillery (up to 210 mm calibre) they had on U cihelny to test its strength. It was damaged but not destroyed.

"Made it" - to the top of Adam Hill

I pushed on through a strong northwesterly wind towards the Orlické (Eagle) Mountains. The first big climb of the day was a hill called Adam. As I reached the top the weather turned distinctly chillier - almost wintry - and spots of rain started to fall again. I stopped to put on an extra layer of clothing.

Zemská Brána gorge

From Adam it was an exhilarating downhill ride to the Zemská Brána gorge, where I paused to take some photographs. From there I continued north up the Divoká (“Wild”) Orlice River on the picturesque cycle route 22. On my left were the Eagle Mountains separating me from the rest of the Czech Republic, and on my right across the river was Poland. It was here I chanced upon an abandoned Sudeten German church, a haunting experience that moved me to make an audio recording on my mobile phone.


The abandoned Sudeten German church

I stopped for lunch in the village of Neratov. I’d planned to eat at the pub there, but it was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I stocked up with snack food at the general store-cum-post office across the road. The woman behind the counter laughed when I told her I probably wouldn’t want an ice-cream today. I sat at the picnic table outside the shop and ate alfresco. Across the road was the large, strange Church of the Assumption, which burned down at the end of the Second World War after it was hit by an anti-tank missile fired by a Red Army soldier. The ceiling vaults collapsed in 1957 and the church was saved from demolition thanks only to a lack of money. Services were held under the open sky until a glass roof was added in the 1990s.

The glass-roofed Church of the Assumption at Neratov

Legend has it that Princess Kačenka, mythical female ruler of the Eagle Mountains, repeatedly turned down the advances of her ardent admirer Krakonoš (Rübezahl in German, Liczyrzepa in Polish), the bearded guardian of the neighbouring Krkonoše (or Giant) mountains. Each time he was spurned he would unleash torrential rain and hailstorms over the hills. My guess is that he’d paid another unsuccessful visit just before I got there, because the rain intensified as the afternoon progressed. It was pouring by the time I started the long climb east to west over the Šerlich pass. This was a big one. The wide, smooth road didn’t look that steep, but I was struggling to push the pedals around even in bottom gear. I took off my “sunglasses” to see better in the downpour and they fell onto the road twice.

Signpost marking the top of the climb to Šerlich

The main landmark at the Šerlich col is Masaryk Mountain Lodge, built in 1925 to bolster Czech influence in what was then a Germanised area. It was attacked by Sudeten German militia in September 1938 and evacuated soon afterwards. During the war it was renamed Hitlerbaude and used as accommodation for families of leading fascists and for injured pilots. It was retaken by Soviet forces on 10 May 1945. Under the grey sky it looked suitably dark and forbidding.

Masaryk Mountain Lodge

I didn’t linger at Šerlich, as I was getting cold at this altitude. I flew down the other side of the mountain on slippery, narrow and rough roads. I couldn’t see much through my glasses, but when I took them off my eyes filled up with water and I couldn’t see at all. My wet brakes and rims gave me the stopping distance of a train. Water streamed down my legs and collected in my boots. My hands were saved from freezing by a pair of disposable plastic gloves I’d nabbed from a petrol station forecourt earlier in the day. My maps, which I’d printed out on an inkjet printer at home, turned kaleidoscopic as the rain penetrated my mapholder and soaked into the paper.

I passed through the aptly named town of Deštné (“Rainy”) and sought shelter in a bus stop. Not for the first time this weekend I was feeling cold, wet and demoralised. The finish point at Náchod still seemed a long way off. I decided to take the most direct route down to the town rather than the scenic high road. This was a risky tactic, as it involved going down a cycle path of unknown surface quality through a place called Peklo (literally “Hell”). I felt like I was cutting a deal with the Devil. Would there be a price to pay?

The road to Hell, I’m glad to say, was paved not with good intentions, but with decent-quality asphalt. However, a sign on the trail out of Peklo stated ominously, “Owner not liable for state of road surface”. Sure enough, there followed a bumpy, slippery, rollercoaster ride down the Metuje River. On a different day I’d have admired the gorgeous scenery, but today I was concentrating so hard on getting to my destination I barely noticed it. The bike, thank goodness, held out to the end.

Suddenly the tarmac was silky smooth again. I checked the time and could hardly believe I’d made such fast progress. I could almost smell the finish. I decided to bypass the centre of Náchod and go straight to the railway station in the nearby village of Starkoč. The last few miles went past in a blur as I sprinted to catch the 5.21 pm express back to Prague. I made it with 10 minutes to spare.

Starkoč railway station - the end of stage 1 of my trip

The conductor had to walk the full length of the train to help me load my bike into the guard's van. She told me she hadn't been expecting any cyclists in such foul weather. The rain stopped almost as soon as I boarded, and before long the sun was poking its shy face through gaps in the clouds. I changed into dry clothes in the train toilet. In three hours I was back home.

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