Monday 6 September 2010

Germany-Switzerland-Czech Republic - in an afternoon!

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

Down, down, deeper and down. I’m on the long, winding descent through Saxon Switzerland National Park and I’m in a rush. I’m travelling over loose gravel and I'm having to concentrate hard to find a safe line through the tricky bends. The deeper I go, the darker it gets, as the low sun fails to penetrate the forested gorge. I’m entirely alone in this eerie, twilight world. Everyone else has escaped to the safety of civilisation before night falls. Now and then I pass a small sign indicating the direction of the cycle trail, but it doesn’t tell me which trail I’m on, or where it’s leading. If I get lost now in this rocky labyrinth, I can forget about catching the last train back to Prague this evening; I’ll be here all night.

The cycle trail running through Saxon Switzerland

Just after reaching the most northerly point of my cycling circuit of the Czech Republic I emerged on the highway near the aptly named village of Severní (“Northern”). From there I headed south to the border at Dolní Poustevna and crossed back into Germany. I rode straight into the centre of Sebnitz and straight out the other side. That’s another thing I like about Germany: its clear urban road signs. Towns in the Czech Republic can be difficult to navigate through; Sebnitz, by contrast, was a piece of cake. Mind you, all this fine signposting didn’t stop a car crammed with teenagers sailing past me through a no entry sign and almost colliding with an oncoming vehicle.

Sebnitz town square

By now I’d already covered over 90 km, yet I still had a long way to go to the finish in Děčín. I suddenly felt very heavy-legged and couldn’t force myself to go any faster along the switchback road to make up time. A young racing cyclist came flying past me on a particularly steep hill, dealing a blow to my morale. After making a questionable decision to turn right at Saupsdorf, I lost a lot of altitude very quickly and had to make it up again very slowly and painfully on the road to Hinterhermsdorf, gateway to Saxon Switzerland National Park.

Fischer-Art-Haus in Sebnitz

On the way into the park I passed a tide of human foot traffic coming in the opposite direction. After a while the road ended and turned into a gravel trail that snaked downwards for a couple of miles between the park’s sheer rock formations. I was already apprehensive about missing my train, and the slippery surface, lack of useful signs and increasing gloom only added to my anxiety.

The valley floor in Saxon Switzerland

Eventually I hit the valley floor and, to my relief, spotted a sign telling me that the Czech border was just 1 km away. I was where I thought I was. The surface of the trail improved considerably after I crossed back into the Czech Republic at Zadní Jetřichovice. I was making good, if not swift, progress steadily uphill through Bohemian Switzerland National Park until I suddenly hit a short but brutally steep section of trail. In moments I was in bottom gear and wishing I could change down further. With my energy reserves dwindling I opened up my emergency rations and started knocking back glucose tablets.

Border crossing between Saxon Switzerland and Bohemian Switzerland (neither of which, confusingly, is in Switzerland)

From the top of the climb it was downhill all the way to Hřensko - at 115 metres above sea level the lowest point in the Czech Republic. To begin with the descent was steep and rough, but I soon hit the main road and enjoyed a more gentle downhill spin for about 10 km. I flashed past a stream of sweaty road cyclists coming the opposite way, testing themselves on the incline.

Hřensko (another town hit by catastrophic flooding not long after I passed through)

I reached Hřensko just before 6 pm. I had originally intended to catch the ferry across the Elbe there and ride down to Děčín along the dedicated cycle path on the other side of the river. However, time was still tight so I elected to take the main road. This allowed me to ease off the pace for the final section of stage 2 of my trip. Even so, I was utterly exhausted when I reached Děčín railway station. In the end I got there with about half an hour to spare.

The Elbe River disappearing into Germany

On the platform I realised I didn’t have any small change to pay for transport of my bike. I explained this to the very friendly guard and he told me not to worry about it. Evidently a cyclist himself, he was more interested in admiring my traditional Brookes leather saddle than collecting money from me. Before long the bike was safely stashed in his van and I was heading back home to Prague with stage 2 of my trip completed.


Karen said...

What a wonderful post! I felt like I was riding along with you. Every place you write about is new to me.

Circuit Rider CZ said...

Thank you, Karen. That "on the bike" feeling is exactly what I was trying to convey, so I'm glad it came across to you.

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