Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Riding down the Curtain

Stage 4, day 3 (Monday, 11 April 2011)
Přimda to Babylon (68 km)

God I love the mountains. This hill is steep - granny-gear steep, lung-burstingly steep, as steep as anything I’ve encountered since Poland last year. But I don’t care. However much it hurts, it's still more fun than staring at a computer screen at work. The day I’m no longer physically capable of doing this will be a sad day indeed. I feel lucky - so lucky - to be here. I round a corner and the twin towers of Čerchov suddenly come into view through a gap in the trees. I descend briefly, then hit the final ramp to the summit.

Čerchov comes into view

I left Přimda on Monday morning and was soon coasting along a deserted road winding down through the forest for a couple of miles. This is the way to start a cycling day! I rode through the tiny village of Diana, where loggers were busy logging, and stopped at a clearing to photograph an enchanting avenue of silver birch trees.

The trail just outside Diana

After passing close by the border crossing at Železná I hit the first big climb of the day - up to Pleš (“Bald Spot”). In 1930 this village had been home to more than 700 people crammed into 106 houses. After the War, its ethnic German residents were expelled from the country and their homes were demolished to make way for the Iron Curtain. Today, only vague traces of this and other nearby settlements remain. The only building I saw was a closed pub. There was not a soul in sight.

The pub at Pleš

Monument to two lost villages

I continued through more vanished communities - Rabov and Václav - then descended at speed into the next populated village of Rybník, where I knew there was a restaurant selling food from a nearby organic farm. I quickly located it and parked my bike in the rack outside, but it wasn’t until I tried to enter that I noticed the sign “Closed till 3 pm for technical reasons”. A “Cyclists Welcome” sign over the door smiled down at me mockingly. There was nowhere else open nearby, so I had to open my emergency rations again.

Top of the descent to Rybník

I pressed on through the forest to Nemanice, a run-down village whose only pub looked so awful from the outside I didn’t even bother to check it out. Fortunately, I found a respectable-looking restaurant at the border crossing near Lísková on Highway 189 and took a table on its sunny terrace. Across the road, at the usual scruffy frontier market, two police officers arrived and started taking protection money from the Vietnamese stallholders (at least, that’s what the man at the next table reckoned they were doing). An impossibly cute cat gazed up at me as I tucked into penne with tuna and tomato sauce. I was going to need all the energy I could get, as the biggest climb of Stage 4 - to the summit of Čerchov - lay just ahead.

Pub cat

The ascent started with a couple of switchbacks so typical of the Iron Curtain Trail. I was soon working up a sweat, so I stopped to strip off a layer of clothing. For the first time this year I was riding in shorts. On I went, through dense forest, past a German man logging illegally with his son, around the grubby remains of a winter snowdrift, all the way to the top of the highest mountain in the Bohemian Forest.

On the trail to Čerchov

Throughout the Cold War, Čerchov was off limits to the public and the military buildings there were top secret. Even today it was quite a forbidding sight. The gates into the deserted summit area were still locked after the winter, so I was forced to abandon the bike and enter through a hole in the fence. The mountain is crowned by two towers - a viewing tower dating from 1905 and a more recent (and less handsome) army construction. Both were closed.

Welcome to Čerchov...

...at 1,042 metres above sea level

The first part of the descent from Čerchov was on a road of concrete panels with wide gaps between them. I was forced to take the bumps frustratingly slowly, pulling hard on the brakes. Then I was on to a long, fast, straight trail called the Horizontála, which ended abruptly at a busy highway. The final - mercifully short - stretch into the curiously named Babylon (my destination for the day) was unpleasant. The downhill through the forest had been hairy but exhilarating. Being overtaken by fast-moving cars and lorries at close range, by contrast, was downright scary.

For night club, read brothel

Babylon had all the charm one would expect of an out-of-season holiday resort bordering a major road route out of the country. I checked into the big and empty Hotel Praha and took a long soak in a dirty bathtub. Afterwards I strolled around the drained bathing lake and walked back on a path running parallel to the main road, listening to the birds twittering on my right and cowering from the juggernauts thundering past on my left.

Lakeside view at Babylon holiday resort

I ate at a roadside pizzeria, which was doing pretty good business for a Monday night catering mainly to middle-aged German couples. In the kitchen the chef was quaffing beer at an alarming rate and getting increasingly belligerent with the other staff, but he did me a decent enough pizza. I washed it down with a couple of Weissbiers and a whisky, wrote up my notes for the day and then ambled back past the crater to the hotel.

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