Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Goulash guzzler reaches furthest point north

Stage 2, day 5 (Tuesday, 27 July 2010)
Zittau to Děčín (120 km) - Part 1

I love German hotel breakfasts! Stuffing oneself with as much food as possible first thing in the morning can be a laborious process. But it has to be done, otherwise you can "bonk" (run out of energy) before lunchtime. Food equals fuel when you’re cycling long distances. Calories become your friend, not your enemy. And when the breakfast table is groaning under the weight of such an opulent selection as it is at Hotel Dresdner Hof this morning, tanking up is not a chore, it’s a pleasure.

Zittau on a Tuesday morning

After breakfast I pedalled into the quiet historical centre of Zittau to check out its Italianate town hall and Church of St John, then I headed south along the Nisa back to the tripoint I’d visited the day before. After taking some more photos - this time on the German side of the river - I started the steady climb (why does my day always start with a climb?) through the forest to Oybin. The sun was shining and I soon had to stop to strip down to my summer gear and slap on the sun lotion.

Back at the tripoint - I'm standing in Germany; behind me is Poland on the left and the Czech Republic on the right

Sign pointing towards other Central European tripoints

Oybin is a pretty spa town nestling below an enormous sandstone dome. A narrow-gauge steam railway takes visitors there from Zittau.

The rock dome that towers above Oybin

The road out of Oybin was steep, very steep. I ascended slowly, stopping about halfway up to admire a rickety old ski jump engulfed by the trees. At Hain my efforts were repaid with a long smooth descent. I coasted through a couple of tidy German towns then crossed the border at Varnsdorf. I knew I was back in the Czech Republic when a female driver started mouthing off at me for riding too slowly and impeding her progress for a full second or two. I regret to say that I lost my rag and hurled some abuse back before regaining my usual Zen-like composure.

The derelict ski jump above Oybin

I decided to visit Hrádek, a hilltop viewing tower that stands at the northern edge of Varnsdorf on the border with Germany. I’m glad I did, as I was rewarded not only with fine views, but also with a personal guided tour by one of the charming women who work there. Built in 1904, Hrádek was used as a watchtower during the communist era and later fell into severe disrepair. It was renovated in 2001–2003 with the aid of private donations and EU money, and was voted Czech Facade of the Year 2005. As well as recounting the history of the building, the guide told me all about the factories in the local area. It was good to see someone taking a pride in their town. I was reminded that these are living, working communities I'm passing through, not just tourist destinations to be ticked off on my ride around the country.

 Hrádek: view from below...

...and view from the top

From Varnsdorf I cut across Germany (through Seifhennersdorf) and re-entered the Czech Republic near Rumburk. On the run into the town I stopped at a pub for an alfresco lunch of goulash (for the second day running). Feeling fortified, I made rapid progress along a lovely forest trail to Šluknov, the northernmost town in the Czech Republic. I’d stopped here a year earlier en route to Berlin with my two great partners in cycling, Ciarán and Ryan. We’d been unimpressed with it then; today it looked more appealing in the afternoon sunshine, but it's a town that has evidently seen better days.

Šluknov town square

Coming out of Šluknov I had to stand for quite some time at a crossing waiting for a train to pass through. Standing beside me was a couple of senior citizens out on their bicycles. I hope I’m still enjoying my cycling at that age.

Close to the border I turned into a dense forest and hit a switchback section of trail. At the bottom of a rough descent into the tiny village of Liščí I ran - almost literally - into a pair of German women cyclists. One of them presented me with a woefully inaccurate map and asked me where they were. (When she saw how out of breath I was she also gave me a hug, which was rather nice of her.) I pointed them in the direction of the nearest town, but I’m not sure they trusted my map-reading skills. I hope they found their way home okay.

Menhir No. 2 - Modern art takes to the forests of Šluknov

Shortly after this encounter I reached the northernmost point of my entire circumnavigation of the Czech Republic. To be honest I passed it without noticing, as I was becoming increasingly distracted by a more pressing issue. Somehow, despite all my planning, I’d vastly underestimated the distance I had to cover that day. I had been intending to catch the last train home to Prague from Děčín that evening. Yet I still had the whole of Switzerland to ride through...

To be continued - here

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