Sunday 31 October 2010

Job done for 2010

Stage 3, day 4 (Tuesday, 21 September 2010)
Kraslice to Aš (68 km)

It’s decision time. Do I keep going straight down the main road to the finish at Aš? Or do I have time for one last scenic detour through the forest? Stages 1 and 2 of my journey around the Czech border (ridden in May and July of this year respectively) both culminated in a mad dash to catch the train home to Prague. I don’t want to repeat that mistake this time. On the other hand, I don’t want this ride to end yet; I want to squeeze every last bit of goodness out of it before bottling it for the blog. I check the map and check my watch and I do the mental arithmetic. And then, with a big smile on my face, I turn right and disappear into the trees.

The road out of Kraslice

Another day, another morning climb. As I left Kraslice the sun was still burning away the remnants of the dawn mist. I was cold at first but soon warmed up as the road got steeper and my work rate increased. Half way up the hill I stopped to catch my breath and take in the ravishing views of the Ore Mountains behind me. Then I continued over the crest and hit the long descent to Luby.

The Ore Mountains in retrospect

Musical instruments - especially violins - have been made in this part of the world since the early 17th century. The mouth-organ is said to have been invented in Kraslice, and I own a clarinet produced at the Amati factory there. In 1921, over 4,000 people were working in the music industry in nearby Luby and surrounds. However, the industry had to be rebuilt almost from scratch after the area’s majority ethnic German population was expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II. In Luby I saw signs for two master violin makers and one guitar maker, and on the steep climb out of town I passed the locked gates of a long-closed violin factory.

Vildštejn Castle

By late morning I arrived in Skalná, a small town dominated by Vildštejn Castle, one of the few surviving Romanesque castles in the Czech Republic. Dating back to the late 12th century, it has recently been reconstructed and is now open to the public. Just down the road, in Starý Rybník (“Old Pond”), was another ancient castle, this one a mysterious ruin standing at one end of the stretch of water that gives the village its name.

Castle ruins in Starý Rybník

At Vojtanov I parted company with the Ore Mountains Cycle Trail, which I’d been following - on and off - all the way from Děčín three days earlier. Although I stayed on the Czech side of the border, I was now entering the Aš salient, a narrow protrusion of Czech territory surrounded on three sides by Germany. Around here it felt a bit like being actually in Germany: the roads were freshly paved, pensioners were out enjoying themselves on electric-powered bicycles, and for a while there was even a dedicated cycle path running alongside the highway.

A farewell to the Ore Mountains Cycle Trail

Near Hazlov I found myself riding alongside a golf course clearly aimed mainly at a well-heeled German clientele. Having spent the last few days cycling across wild mountain moorland it was very odd to be suddenly confronted by such a well-manicured, saturated-green landscape. I stopped to watch one chap teeing off at the 11th hole as his female companion looked on from behind the wheel of an electric buggy. “Nein!” he yelled in disgust as the ball flew low and hard in the wrong direction.


I continued through lovely rolling countryside, my mood only mildly marred by a road cyclist who overtook me without returning my greeting. It was just down the road that I made my decision to take the diversion described at the top of this post. I didn't regret it, even though I lost a fair bit of altitude in the forest and had to make it up again on the road into Aš. The end was almost in sight, so I didn’t mind this one last climb. It took me up to Háj, a hilltop observation tower on the edge of the town. A sign at the entrance said, “Whoever climbs Háj every day will live to be 90”.

Háj viewing tower (built in 1902-03)

Háj was a suitable place to formally end this stage of my cycling circumnavigation of the Czech Republic. From the top of the bullet-shaped tower I could see not only where I’d come from (the Ore Mountains to the east), but also where I’d be heading next spring (Chebsko and the Upper Palatinate Forest to the south). My goal to cycle the entire northern border of the Czech Republic in 2010 had been achieved. I spent quite a while up there on my own, savouring the moment.

 Views east...

...and south

I freewheeled down into Aš, arriving there a comfortable hour before my train was due to leave. The man at the tourist information centre recommended a pub nearby, where I treated myself to a late lunch of cauliflower soup and chicken schnitzels washed down with a well-earned half-litre of Kozel beer. From there it was 6-minute bike ride up to the railway station and a 6-hour train ride back to Prague.

Still life in an Aš pub

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