Sunday 22 August 2010

Heaven and bagpipes

Stage 2, day 4 (Monday, 26 July 2010)
Szklarska Poręba to Zittau (119 km)

When Czechs want to compare and contrast two very different things, they describe them as being like “nebe a dudy” - heaven and bagpipes. Well, if yesterday, with its agonising ascents and tooth-rattling descents, was bagpipes, then today is pure heaven. I’m on the lofty Jizera plateau and there’s not a soul in sight. There are rainclouds all around, but the sky directly above me is clear. The landscape up here is gorgeous, so gorgeous it makes the hair on my arms stand up. Moments like this remind me why I’m doing this trip.

The Jizera, separating Poland (where I'm standing) from the Czech Republic

The day started with a really steep climb out of Szklarska Poręba, but I was soon onto a flatter deserted road into the Jizera Mountains. Here, the ER-2 cycle trail, which had given me so much trouble the day before, was a joy to ride and I made quick progress up to the wide open spaces of the plateau. I tarried for a while at the point where the trail meets the Jizera River. The ecosystem of the surrounding Jizera Peatland Nature Reserve is only now recovering from the ravages of 20th century air pollution. Despite that, it’s a stunningly beautiful spot.

The trail over the Jizera plateau

I continued to the highest point of the ride today: Polana Izerska (965 m above sea level). After admiring the fabulous views down over the flatlands of Poland I began the steep descent out of the wilderness and into the charming town of Świeradów-Zdrój. There I turned west and before long was back in the Czech Republic.

Świeradów-Zdrój viewed from Polana Izerska

I stopped for a lunch at a pub just over the border in Nové Město pod Smrkem. After filling my belly with cheap goulash I emerged into a warm and sunny afternoon, the first of my entire trip so far. I was so preoccupied by this climatic change for the better that I set off without my handlebar bag. Fortunately it was still sitting on the window ledge outside the pub when I returned a few minutes later.

The ancient remains of St James Church in Jindřichovice

I was now in the Frýdlant region, which is bordered on its eastern, northern and western sides by Poland. I passed the ruin of St James Church and for a while followed the curiously named “Nature Trail through the Environs of Jindřichovice over the Heights of Ideals and into the Valley of the Soul”. This was a lovely section of the route, running gently downhill through a tranquil forest and across open farmland.

Horses grazing somewhere near Pertoltice

Just north of Pertoltice the trail took an unmarked turn across a meadow and through a spinney. Feeling lost, I asked directions from a young woman walking towards me through a waterlogged wheat field. “It’s not much of a bike path,” she told me as she struggled to push a child in a pushchair across the slippery muddy surface.

The cycle path takes another turn for the worse

At Habartice I nipped over the border into the noticeably less wealthy Polish town of Zawidów to see the ruined church there. As I photographed it the bell in the tower tolled the half-hour.

The church tower in Zawidów

Time was getting on so I hurried south along the meanders of the Smědá River through Višňová towards Frýdlant. Less than two weeks later this area would be cut off by catastrophic flash flooding. Today, however, the river - where visible through the trees - looked placid and benign.

Traditional timber-framed houses in Višňová

I freewheeled into Frýdlant in search of coffee and cake, completely forgetting to visit the viewing tower that stands on a hill just north of the town. After getting lost in the backstreets I emerged on the main square and parked myself in a café on the corner. I asked the waitress if they had apple strudel - not an unusual item to find in such places. She shook her head and looked at me as if I’d requested caviar and chips. Instead I settled for honey cake washed down with cyclists’ magic energy potion (or cappuccino, as it was quaintly termed on the menu).

In 1801 Frýdlant became the first castle in Central Europe to be opened to the public

A few miles down the road, in the unusually well-maintained village of Heřmanice, I had similar trouble buying water at a koloniál (general store) - so called because in days gone by they sold goods imported from the colonies. For this particular establishment, however, bottled non-sparkling water proved to be too exotic a request, so I had to make do with the fizzy stuff.

Two weeks after I took this shot on the Czech-Polish border, the babbling brook on the left turned into a raging torrent that took the lives of three people downstream in Bogatynia

I crossed yet again into Poland and rode through Bogatynia, which, according to Wikipedia, is one of the richest towns per capita in Poland thanks to its huge open-cast coal mine and nearby power station. It certainly looked more affluent than the other Polish towns I’d visited.

Turów mine and power station near Bogatynia

On the road out of Bogatynia I saw two baby birds lying on the other side of the carriageway, one tweeting plaintively and the other squashed bloodily into the asphalt. It occurred to me to go and rescue the former when I was almost sent the same way as the latter by an idiot driver flying past about one inch away from my elbow. I’d enjoyed my time in Poland, but I wouldn’t be sad to see the back of Polish drivers in their noisy jalopies. I found them to be even more aggressive than the Czechs, and that is saying something.

As evening fell I reached a major landmark on my circuit ride: the “tripoint” where the borders of Czech Republic, Poland and Germany all meet. I first stood on the Czech side then crossed over a small footbridge into Poland. Just downstream another, larger, bridge over the Nisa (Neisse) River was closed at both ends, so I resolved to visit the German side the next morning.

The tripoint - Poland on the right, the Czech Republic on the left and Germany in the background

At about half past six I left Poland for the last time on this tour probably until 2012 and entered Germany for the first time. I like Germany. It’s had an image problem in Britain since the first half of the last century, but it’s nice to be in a place where everything works, the people are friendly and the service is good. The Germans may seem to be the butt of the joke in that famous Fawlty Towers episode, but John Cleese was really sending up entrenched British attitudes.

A ghost bike points the way to the bicycle store at my hotel in Zittau

I’d covered almost 120 km when I arrived in Zittau, but I felt surprisingly fresh. After checking in to my hotel I dined at a quiet restaurant across the road. With my (very) limited German I managed to order pork topped with more pork topped with melted cheese, which was a bit overwhelming even for this hungry cyclist. By the time I’d finished eating it was getting quite late, so, after a long debate with myself, I decided to postpone my exploration of the town centre to the next morning.

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