Tuesday 8 June 2010

From Golden Mountains, through the Golden Mountains to the Golden Swan

Stage 1, day 3 (Sunday, 16 May 2010)
Zlaté hory to Králíky (111 km)

I'm up and over another climb. This should be the easy bit: the descent into the Polish town of Lądek-Zdrój. But it's not. The driving rain obscures my vision. There's a hairpin ahead. I squeeze the brake levers, but nothing happens; I'm still hurtling into the turn. I squeeze harder, and harder still. When the rain-sodden brakes do finally bite I'm already into the bend and my rear wheel skates outwards across the wet and potholed surface. I control the skid and keep going. A driver overtakes me. Couldn't he wait for a wider section? Can't he see how the wind is blowing me all over the road? My wind-chilled hands begin to sting. My boots slowly fill up with water. Wasn't this trip supposed to be fun?

Breakfast that morning was not as good as yesterday's; there's only so much cheap cheese and salami I can force down at one sitting. The radio was playing The Final Countdown, the song that - perhaps more than any other - typifies the antediluvian playlists of Czech local radio stations.

Lost in the clouds: the Jeseníky mountains

The rain started as soon as I set off from Zlaté hory and quickly turned into a downpour. I wasn't too bothered - I was still feeling buoyed by the fact that my serially offending front tyre had stayed fully inflated overnight. I stopped to adjust my rain gear near the entrance to Zlatorudné mlýny, a working museum where you can try your hand at panning for gold.

Oilseed rape in full bloom

I passed through vast fields of vivid yellow oilseed rape. To my left were the Jeseníky mountains, swathed in heavy cloud. Stretching away to my right were the plains of Poland. Dotted along the road were monuments to long-departed members of the Sudeten German community that used to populate this region.

Sudeten German roadside monument

The rain soon eased and had stopped altogether by the time I reached the small town of Vidnava. There I found a supermarket open. On a Sunday! I feasted on Kitkat while exploring the main square. The account of the town's history in my guidebook is a long list of fires and fighting, pillaging and plague, although I guess that's to be expected of a place that's been inhabited since the Stone Age. In the 1300s it was important enough to mint its own coins; nowadays it's a quiet backwater, but one with a certain faded charm.

Vidnava square

I left Vidnava in the direction of Javorník, passing by dilapidated houses occupied by local Roma people. I had planned to visit the nearby "Bowls of Venus", a group of depressions in the granite rock said to be the bathing places of a mythical nation of dwarfs. However, this would have involved quite a long diversion down an unpaved track. Given the previous day's experience with waterlogged trails I decided to give this a miss and pressed on into the wind towards Rychlebské hory (aka the Golden Mountains).

The long and winding road to the Golden Mountains

I arrived in Javorník at about 1 pm, just as the rain began to fall again. I stopped for lunch directly below the town's imposing chateau at the imaginatively named Hotel pod Zámkem ("Hotel Below the Castle"), where I enjoyed a huge plate of the not-very-local speciality Moravský vrabec ("Moravian sparrow"). Confusingly, this consists not of small plump birds, but of lumps of pork served with pickled cabbage and dumplings. Listening to the radio (Dancing Queen, Take My Breath Away, Mandy...) I was inspired to record a little broadcast of my own.

Javorník castle

It was pouring by the time I unwillingly left the warmth and comfort of the restaurant. I don't know whether it was the sparrow or the double espresso I chased it down with, but I zipped up the big hill to the Polish border relatively easily. The descent on the other side was a different kettle of fish - a cold, wet and treacherous one. Thankfully I reached Lądek-Zdrój in one piece and turned south.

 View of Golden Mountains near the Polish border...

...and the same view seen through my cycling specs

I warmed up again as I pedalled up the Morawka valley. The road gradually got steeper and more and more deserted as I headed into the misty forest. A startled mouse tried to outrun me like a Tour-de-France spectator at the side of the road. I climbed without stopping, singing as many verses of "Goodnight Irene" as I could remember (five, seeing as you ask) to keep my spirits up.

Sometimes I live in the country.
Sometimes I live in the town.
Sometimes I get a great notion
To jump in the river and drown.

The climb ended at Kladské sedlo, a col separating the Golden Mountains from Králický Sněžník, which, at 1424 m, is the highest peak in the region. "Job done," I said to myself as crossed back into the Czech Republic. "It's all downhill from here." Wrong again.

The lonely border post at Kladské sedlo, 815 m above sea level

It should have been one of the best descents ever: silky-smooth new tarmac, steep at first with wide, Alpine-style hairpins, then flatter and straight. But I felt like I was being blasted by a water cannon. Visibility was atrocious and my hands and feet froze up again. I stopped in Staré Město to thaw out. To my delight I spotted a "Cyclists Welcome" sign outside a pub on the square. I squelched inside and ordered a coffee and a wafer bar. The place was a dive. Apart from the barmaid my only company was a pair of drunks grunting at each other from different tables. I drank up quickly, paid and went, leaving a puddle of water behind me. As I rode off I noticed that my bike had been leaning against a notice in the pub window that read "Do not lean bicycles here". Later on I realised someone had stolen my water bottle there. Cyclists welcome indeed!

The "Cyclists Welcome" pub in Staré Město in better weather

Energised, I continued downhill in the rain. A couple of miles further on a small queue of vehicles had formed at a railway crossing. As I waited for the train to pass a man got out of the minivan in front of me and - to my alarm - started in my direction. I was relieved to see him smile.

"What are you doing out in this? It's only eight degrees! Do you want a lift?" he said.

Yes, yes, yes! yelled a rebel voice in my head. "No thanks," I replied.

"Where are you headed?" he asked.

"Králíky. Any idea how far it is?"

"Oh, eight, ten miles. Downhill to the crossroads and gently uphill along the Morava River."

He was wrong - it turned out to be slog of about 15 miles, most of it into a headwind. Just when I felt I couldn't take any more, the wind would get stronger and the road steeper. It was almost 7 pm when I reached Králíky. By then I was so tired I could scarcely speak. The owner of Hotel Zlatá Labuť ("The Golden Swan") seemed genuinely concerned for my wellbeing. When I tried to settle the bill upfront (the usual practice in Czech guesthouses) he kindly told me not to worry about it now, I could pay later.

Hotel Zlatá Labuť in Králíky

I was still feeling ill when I came down to dinner, but a half-litre of Holba, the excellent local beer, soon restored my appetite. I feasted on grilled pork with onion rings, mustard and horseradish. The elegant, oak-panelled dining room had a hunting-lodge feel. The only other guests were a small party of elderly German-speakers. One of them asked the waiter - in quite fluent Czech - about a film about the Sudeten Germans being made somewhere nearby. I surmised that he might be one of those expelled from the region after the War.


The restaurant closed at nine, so I turned in early. I was again seriously considering curtailing this stage of my journey. It was no fun cycling in that rain and wind all day. I would make my decision in the morning.


Karen said...

Maybe the worst is out of the way now? The rest of the stages might have better weather possibly?

Circuit Rider CZ said...

I like your optimism, Karen, but I fear it may be unfounded. Stay tuned to find out!

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