Wednesday 6 October 2010

Be nice to yourself

Stage 3, day 1 (Saturday, 18 September 2010)
Děčín to Mikulov (63 km)

The two of us are taking a breather at a roadside picnic table half way up the 90-minute climb to Děčínský Sněžník on the Ore Mountains Cycle Trail. Ryan - who is accompanying me on the first two days of this stage - is texting our friend and partner-in-cycling Ciaran to let him know we’re on the road again together, this time in the northwest of the Czech Republic. Turns out Ciaran is in Greece and has just broken his arm - after falling off his bike! One of Ciaran’s mottos is “Be nice to yourself”. Where breaking a limb - or, indeed, riding over the Alps with bronchitis (as Ciaran did with us in June this year) - fits in with that I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, we send him a message recommending he take plenty of ouzo to aid his recovery, then we get back on our bikes and continue grinding up the hill.

Official start, Děčín town square

Ryan and I met at Prague’s main railway station at half eight on Saturday morning and loaded our bikes onto the Děčín train. Taking Ciaran’s “be nice” maxim to heart, Ryan very kindly upgraded us both to first class and we had an old-fashioned compartment all to ourselves for the entire ride north. From Děčín railway station we cycled across the River Elbe for the obligatory official start photos in the town centre. Then it was back over the bridge and straight onto one of the biggest climbs of the entire four-day trip - up Děčínský Sněžník mountain. This was not being very nice to ourselves.

Bridge over the Elbe at Děčín

Quite a few locals were out hunting for wild mushrooms in the forest. Each time we passed one of them, Ryan would ask “Rostou?” (“Are they growing?”). The response, almost without exception, was a cheerful “Yes!” and a friendly wave. Czechs are quite a dour and reserved bunch; it’s funny how fungi can lift the national mood.

Rock climbers on the cliffs below Děčinský Sněžník

Near the summit the road winds steeply through a wall of rocks. I stopped to take a photo of a climber silhouetted against the sky at the top of the cliff face above us. Just as I was about to press the shutter, however, he sat down and went partly out of view. Ryan saw this as he pulled up behind me and helpfully bellowed “Stůj!” at the guy. He was trying, of course, to say “Stand up!”, but what he was actually shouting was “Freeze!”. The climber looked startled, but fortunately didn’t slip from his lofty perch.

 Me doing the Romantic Poet thing at the Dresden Viewpoint

We tarried at the “Dresden Viewpoint”, which, as the name more than suggests, affords views as far as Dresden (although we needed the help of a passing party of German ramblers to spot it), then we rode the final, flatter, half-mile to the 99-foot-high viewing tower at the summit. It was here in 1936 that the first television signal was picked up in Czechoslovakia (broadcast from the Berlin Olympics).

Děčínský Sněžník viewing tower (built in 1864)

I learn something new every day on this tour; today I learned that Ryan has a fear of heights. However, even he - while clinging to the crenellations - had to admit that the vistas from the top were worth the effort.

Ryan trying not to look terrified

We decided to give the overpriced summit restaurant a miss and descended to Sněžník village for lunch at a pub there. The waiter kept speaking German to us, even though we were talking Czech to him. (This was to happen repeatedly over the next few days - the region gets a lot of German tourists, so when the locals hear someone speaking Czech with a foreign accent they tend to assume they are dealing with Germans.) As we were setting off again the waiter came outside for a cigarette break. He told me he was a cyclist himself and had recently done a tour of Scotland and northern England with a group of friends. We compared notes on cycling on Skye.

During lunch we’d discovered that despite all our careful planning we only had about 2,000 crowns (about $100) between us. By the time we reached the border village of Petrovice it was clear we had no chance of finding a cash machine in such a remote area. Instead, Ryan tried his luck in a petrol station. (I should point out here that he has such a gargantuan gift of the gab that one wonders just what he got up to with that Blarney Stone.) I waited outside, admiring the garden gnomes that Germans like to buy at border crossings.

Why do Germans buy this tat?

Ryan emerged some time later after buying 1,380 crowns worth of cigarettes on his credit card and immediately selling them back to the girl behind the counter for cash. Job done, as he would say.

In the final months of World War II, several “death marches” passed south through the Ore Mountains from evacuated concentration camps in Germany. On one of these marches 59 prisoners were killed near the village of Fojtovice. A sombre roadside memorial marks the site.

Death march memorial and grave of an unknown Red Army soldier

We were now in the Eastern Ore Mountains Natural Park, over 2,500 feet above sea level. Farmland had given way to upland wilderness. We took a break at a tiny stream meandering along the borderline and larked around for a while jumping from one country to the other.

Ryan strikes a pose on the German side of the brook

In the late afternoon we arrived in the frontier town of Cínovec. The name comes from the Czech word for tin (cín), and tin mining here dates back to at least the 14th century and possibly even to Celtic times. Over the centuries, silver, tungsten, molybdenum and quartzite have also been extracted here. At one time there were 140 mines in the locality. All that is gone now. As we cycled through, we saw lots of disused buildings. The town now lives mainly off tourism and passing border traffic.

Old German church in Cínovec

We picked up the Ore Mountains trail again by a golf course, where a group of lads were furtively picking magic mushrooms (Ryan: “Are they growing?”). From there we crossed the Cínovec moor and entered a beautiful mountain forest. On the other side we were treated to magnificent views of the Bohemian plain to the south. The final section of our day’s ride was a cold, winding descent halfway down the side of the plateau to the accommodation I’d booked in Mikulov.

Evening view from the Ore Mountains plateau

Hotel Cepín (“Ice-Axe”) looked nice enough from the outside. In fact, it even looked okay on the inside - downstairs at least. True, the staff seemed a bit surprised to see us, but they were friendly enough. Upstairs it was a rather different story: tiny rooms, communal showers and toilets, no towels - the classic (very basic) Czech ski lodge. “Didn’t you check the internet?” said Ryan, unimpressed. “What happened to being nice to ourselves?”

The Ice-Axe Hotel in Mikulov

In the end we were glad we decided to stay, as Saturday night at the Ice-Axe turned out to be quite a party. After chatting to the staff at the bar for a bit we went to the guesthouse next door, where we joined a party of Germans singing songs in the corner. Ryan did a rendition of his favourite Scottish folk song, and in return one of them sang the Czech song Modlitba pro Martu (“A Prayer for Marta”), which he’d learned on Wenceslas Square during the 1989 revolution. At closing time we returned to our hotel, where a school reunion (25 years on) was in full swing. It was 3 a.m. before we turned in.


Unknown said...

Hi Men,
Great entry Simon. Yes there I was being nice to myself ;-) lolling around on a beach on the east of Rhodes trying every conivance to get me and my plastered left arm into the water thinking of you both huffing and puffing up the mountains. (Eventually got in with the aid of plastic bags, elastics bands, masking tape and air mattress). Can't wait to get back on the bike and feel the buzz again.
Ciao, ciao

Circuit Rider CZ said...

Good to hear from you Ciarán. Hope that arm's on the mend. Keep on being nice to yourself!

Anonymous said...

Oh to be back in the mountains. Nice blog entry Simon. Brings back some lovely memories...


Circuit Rider CZ said...

Yes, even the hardest hills are more fun than sitting in the office.

Karen said...

How fun to have a companion on part of your journey. As always, I learn a bunch of interesting things about parts of the Czech Republic I don't know from your blog. Thanks for sharing!

Circuit Rider CZ said...

Thank you Karen, kind as always.

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