Thursday 21 April 2011

Warming up

Stage 4, day 1 (Saturday, 9 April 2011)
Aš to Cheb (79 km)

I’m on the shuttle train from Cheb to Aš, the same train that I took in the opposite direction more than six months earlier at the end of Stage 3. I should be raring to go after such a long winter break, but I’m not. I might be physically prepared, but I’m not feeling mentally ready to resume my circuit ride of the Czech Republic. On top of that, my unease about spending three days alone on the Iron Curtain Trail is resurging. Still, at least the sun is shining.

Aš on a warm sunny afternoon in autumn 2010, and on a cold sunny morning in spring 2011

I’d arrived in Cheb the previous evening and checked into a hotel there. After catching the morning train to nearby Aš (pronounced "ash"), I intended to cycle around the narrow projection of Czech territory lying to the north of that town and follow the border south back to Cheb for a second overnight stay there. This ingenious plan meant I could leave most of my luggage in the hotel and travel light for the first time on my trip.

Burnt-out restaurant in Hranice

My mood on arriving in Aš was not enhanced by a chilly northerly headwind that slowed my progress along the main road towards Germany. I immediately regretted leaving my extra layer of clothing at Hotel Monika. I stopped in the grim frontier town of Hranice (appropriately named, since hranice is the Czech word for border) to photograph the burnt-out shell of a pub bearing the town’s former German name - Rossbach. Two old drunks sitting on a bench opposite glowered at me as I did so.

Off-road trail in Saxony

I hastened out of Hranice and crossed gratefully into Saxony, where I turned left onto a picturesque off-road trail. After meandering for a while I found a sign pointing across a field towards the Dreilandereck - the point where the borders of the Czech Republic, Bavaria and Saxony (and formerly East Germany and West Germany) coincide. At the bottom of the field I followed a German hiker across a ditch and along a barely discernible path into the fringes of the forest. There, in the shadows, a white border stone standing by a small wooden footbridge marked the far north-western tip of the Czech Republic.

The sketchy final section of trail to the tripoint...

It was a tranquil place, in spite of - or maybe thanks to - its historical significance as the point where the Iron Curtain entered Czechoslovakia from the north. Below the bridge I could see tiny brown trout swimming in the Rokytnice stream, whose quiet limpid waters also host brook lamprey, burbot, bullhead and the critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel, which has an average lifespan here of 50 years.

...where Saxony meets Bavaria meets the Czech Republic

I was now on the Iron Curtail Trail, and for the next couple of days, fittingly, I was to have this old no-man’s land almost entirely to myself. Heading south in the sunshine with the wind on my tail, I no longer felt cold and I began to warm to the task at hand. After a couple of miles the trail emerged at a characteristically straight military road, the first of many tough sections of this roller-coaster route through the “forbidden frontier zone”.

Military planners like their roads straight

I passed by a wind farm, the shadows of its blades rushing towards me along the ground, before arriving at an isolated war memorial marking the site of Újezd (Mähring), formerly the westernmost community in Czechoslovakia. Its ethnic German residents were expelled from the country after World War II and the entire village - including its cemetery - was ransacked and subsequently demolished.

Clasped hands above the Bridge of Europe...

At Újezd I took a short detour through a meadow down to the Bridge of Europe, built across the border stream in 2008 as a symbol of Czech-German reconciliation. As I approached I was shaken out of my reverie by a scruffy green figure - a one-eyed vodník (water sprite) - slouching on a bench on the Czech side. He was my only company in this isolated spot.

... where a water sprite keeps guard

I had been intending to visit the most westerly point of the Czech Republic, which lies a few hundred yards further along the stream from the bridge. However, the lack of a path through the marshy ground convinced me that this was not a viable option. Instead, I descended back into Aš and lunched at the same pub I’d visited after completing Stage 3 of my trip last September.

Libá Castle

After lunch I rejoined the Iron Curtain Trail and continued south, up and down, through mile after mile of dense forest. At one point I turned off the main trail along a path strewn with fallen trees in a failed attempt to locate a boundary stone dating from 1754. Later, I took another diversion to the village of Libá to see its chateau. Further on, I found a memorial to a soldier who died “defending the national borders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in exceptionally difficult circumstances” (I've since discovered that he drowned trying to save his dog during a military operation).

Memorial to a fallen Czechoslovak border guard

Skalka reservoir

I reached the shores of Skalka reservoir, which was drained of water, and began my final ascent of the day - up to the stubby Bismarck viewing tower at the summit of Zelená hora (Green Mountain). At a noisy dog pound I turned off the road onto a narrow track running through the forest. About a mile further on, the tower suddenly loomed into view. A family with young children was picnicking by an open fire at its base. The tower was still open, so I climbed to the top to take in the views of Cheb and surrounds glowing in the late-afternoon sun.

Bismarck viewing tower near Cheb

Following a chilly descent I crossed the dam at the head of Skalka reservoir and cycled along the River Ohře into the centre of Cheb, stopping periodically to photograph the town’s medieval fortifications. Cheb castle, dating from around 1180, is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in the Czech Republic and is said to be haunted by various ghosts. The town's other major attraction is Špalíček, a group of medieval merchants' houses on the town square. Before World War II, Cheb (German name Eger) was a bastion of Sudeten German nationalism. Adolf Hitler was welcomed rapturously by the town's German residents during a visit on 3 October 1938. After the War ended, however, most of the German population was expelled from the country.

The ramparts of Cheb

I stashed my bike at the hotel, showered and headed straight out again to explore the town on Saturday evening. The place wasn’t exactly bustling with life, but there were plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from. After dining on tortellini and splendid Rychtář beer, I watched night fall from the window of a pub on the main square then ambled back to the hotel.

Špalíček on Cheb's main square

The news on the TV in my room was full of reports about the latest crisis in the Czech coalition government. By contrast, I was feeling at peace with the world. So far at least, my trepidation about this stage of my circuit ride had proven entirely unfounded. In fact, it had been one of the least difficult days of my trip.

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