Wednesday 2 June 2010

Ups and downs

Stage 1, day 2 (Saturday, 15 May 2010):
Opava to Zlaté hory (104 km)

I'm wrecked. I'm still only half way up this climb, but there's steam rising off my back, snot streaming out of my nose and I'm gasping for air. It's been gloomy all day, but it's even darker now as I enter the misty forest and dusk starts to fall. I round the last of three hairpins and grind to a halt. Serves me right for blogging on about loving the hills. Idiot. And then a thought occurs to me. That camera of mine has a video function. Maybe if I film myself it will take my mind off the pain. Perhaps some of the visitors to my blog will even enjoy watching me suffering like this. It's time for Circuit Rider CZ to go multimedia.

I was woken up at quarter past six on Saturday morning by the noise of my neighbour taking a shower. Bloody Czechs and their early-rising habits. Breakfast cheered me up: a hefty plate of fried ham and eggs (written hemenex in Czech) and a surprisingly good cup of tea, all with the usual accompaniment of 80s and 90s hits on the local radio station.

I had a pleasant run out of Opava through the backstreets of the town and had just hit the main drag to Krnov when I got that sinking feeling: a front-wheel puncture. So soon! I took a right turn across the railway line into a village called Holasovice, parked up and dug out my spare inner tube. As I set to work a man called at me from a house across the road.

"Need a bowl of water?"

"No, but do you have a pump? I've only got this small hand one."

"Hold on."

He reappeared moments later carrying a pristine floor pump complete with pressure gauge. His father-in-law had it for the tyres on his wheelchair, he said. We got chatting as we fixed the flat together. He was a dentist from Brno visiting his wife's family in the village. He told me about his brother living in the UK, enquired about my trip and warned me that torrential rain was forecast for the weekend. When the tyre was repaired, he wished me šťastnou cestu (bon voyage) and I thanked him for his act of kindness and set off again.

Úvalno viewing tower

My next stop was Úvalno, the first viewing tower of my trip. Built in 1913 and reopened to the public in 2000, it houses the mausoleum of the nearby village's most famous son, Hans Kudlich, a 19th century human rights campaigner. In 1848 Kudlich tabled a parliamentary motion that emancipated the peasantry in the Austrian empire. He was later sentenced to death for revolutionary activities and ended up in the USA, where he lobbied for the abolition of slavery and the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. A remarkable man.

Cvilín viewing tower

The following hill was Cvilín, a place of pilgrimage. Just as I reached the top I realised my tyre was slowly going down again. I'd checked the inside of the tyre for the cause of the first puncture, but obviously hadn't done so thoroughly enough - a beginner's mistake. A closer inspection revealed the culprit: a tiny shard of glass embedded in the rubber. Now both the original tube and the spare were holed. I patched up one of them and put it back on the wheel. While reinflating the tyre - this time the hard way using my tiny hand pump - I managed to break off the tip of the valve. Somehow the tube held firm, but things weren't going well.

The church on top of Cvilín and the 222 steps leading up to it

Cvilín was quite busy with pilgrims. Some of them were staring at me and I realised I'd been swearing rather too vociferously at my bike. People were gathering for a "mass for the conversion of the Czech, Moravian and Silesian people and the return of a just government". Most had walked up the 222 stone steps leading up from the town of Krnov to the site's fine Baroque church, which contains an allegedly miracle-working painting of the Virgin Mary. I walked to the adjacent viewing tower, but unfortunately it was closed.

Pilgrimage poster outside the church

I descended gingerly into Krnov for lunch, convinced that my front tyre was still leaking air. I found a (not very) Italian restaurant on the attractive main square, ordered pasta and went to the gents to wash my filthy hands. At this point I was seriously considering aborting stage one for this weekend. The weather was cold, heavy rain was forecast, and I was faced with a potentially unrepairable tyre. There'd be no bike shops open now until Monday and I was heading into a fairly remote area.

Krnov main square

A decent lunch and a call home to my sympathetic wife lifted my mood. When I emerged from the restaurant the tyre was still rock solid, so I decided to keep going. I rolled northwest along the Opavice River past Linhartovy Chateau (where a wedding was going on) to Město Albrechtice and there swung northwest.

Linhartovy Chateau

The road deteriorated first into rough muddy trail and then - flooded by the recent rains - into a riverbed. At one point I disturbed a pair of ducks paddling along it. I needed an amphibious vehicle, not a road bike. My bottle cage was shaken loose, but amazingly the tyres soaked up the punishment. Eventually I hit tarmac again. I would have knelt down and kissed it, but it was splattered with cow dung. A sign pointing back down the trail read "Cycle path difficult to negotiate in the wet". Tell me about it, I muttered.

"Cycle path difficult to negotiate in the wet"

I was now in the Osoblaha salient, a far-flung projection of Czech territory surrounded on three sides by Poland. The first major landmark was Slezské Rudoltice, a stately home which I found closed, dilapidated and engulfed in trees. I'd read a bit about this place. In the first half of the 18th century, Albert of Hodice, an art lover with a penchant for living spectacularly beyond his means, spent three million florins turning it into the "Silesian Versailles". In its heyday the chateau boasted 58 rooms and halls and a park containing 4,000 statues, man-made caves, ruins and water features, classical and oriental temples and other assorted follies. It was visited by the great and the good, including French philosopher Voltaire in the company of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Old Albert died broke in 1778 and the chateau slowly decayed. Today only one statue remains in the park, ironically that of Albert himself.

The narrow-gauge railway at Bohušov

I was glad to leave Slezské Rudoltice. Under the overcast sky it had looked sombre, spooky even. I pushed on to Bohušov, where I crossed paths with the only publicly-owned narrow-gauge railway in the Czech Republic. From there it was a short sharp descent into the town of Osoblaha.

Signs on Osoblaha square

Osoblaha sounds interesting on paper. It has a delightful German name (Hotzenplotz), a major Jewish cemetery and the aforementioned railway. On 31 March 1945 it became the first Czechoslovak town to be liberated from German occupation. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the process and - unlike, say, Krnov and Opava - never recovered from that and the subsequent expulsion of its majority ethnic German population. The main square looked so glum I couldn't even summon up the energy to photograph it. I didn't hang around long.

I hit a mental and physical low after climbing out of Osablaha. The temperature started dropping as evening approached and a stiff headwind rose from the west. I felt fatigued and demotivated.

And then, out of the blue, I experienced a moment of the soul. The fauna of Silesia suddenly seemed to rise up and urge me on. A stork treated me to a low fly-past, gliding effortlessly just ahead of me for a while before veering away across the meadow. A stoat with a small rodent clamped in its jaws dashed across the road. A roe deer burst out of a coppice. A huge hare took flight across a field. I spotted robins, goldfinches, yellowhammers and even red-backed shrikes, reminding me of highwaymen with their black eye bands.

I get a strange feeling at moments like this, one of elation mingled with melancholy. I only ever get it on the bike, and only ever when deeply physically tired. The goose bumps rise on my skin and a lump rises in my throat. I've even been known to weep. I guess it's just an endorphin rush, but it feels more profound than that. It's rather beautiful.

The drug-free high passed all too quickly. By the time I reached Petrovice, after almost 100 km in the saddle, I was exhausted. I stopped for a while to regain some strength and psych myself up for the final climb of the day. I was tempted to pop into the pub for coffee and cake, but I knew I'd never come out again. I was tempted a second time when I saw the road sign around the corner warning of a 12% gradient, but I kept going to the top.

Zlaté hory, Saturday evening

All that remained was a fast, cold, dark descent - through forests where outlaws once roamed - to my overnight stop in Zlaté hory ("Golden Mountains"). With its high street dug up, this frontier town was hardly a welcoming site; it looked like a war zone. Still, the guesthouse, U Modrého Zvonku (The Blue Bell), had real charm compared to yesterday's accommodation, and was cheaper as well. I was the only guest staying there that night. After a long soak in the bath in my top-floor room I dressed and went down for dinner. As I ate I watched the Czechs lose embarrassingly to Switzerland in the Ice Hockey World Championships (a tournament which, however, they went on to win). I posted a message to the blog and went back upstairs - nightcap in hand - to repair my spare inner tube.


Karen said...

I love reading about all of these Czech places I don't know about and I appreciate that you share both the Czech and German history of each place. To be so exhausted in the accomplishment of a goal is an awesome thing. How often does any of us use everything we've got? Well done.

sarah vollam said...

also my friends brother has a web helmet that films as he cycles.
also apparently good to put bad car drivers on you tube!!!!!

Circuit Rider CZ said...

Thanks for your kind words, Karen. I'm glad you liked the post.

A helmet camera - nice idea Sarah. I might try to borrow one for future stages.

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