Thursday 4 August 2011

Channelling Šumava

Stage 5, day 3 (Saturday, 4 June 2011)
Strážný to Vyšší Brod (94 km)

First, a quick history lesson. The Schwarzenberg Timber Floating Channel (Schwarzenberský plavební kanál) was designed by forestry engineer Joseph Rosenauer and was built in two phases between 1789 and 1823. It begins on the Czech-Bavarian border, crosses the watershed of the Danube and Vltava rivers, and runs for 32 miles through the Šumava forest before flowing into the River Mühl in Austria. It is around 2.5 m wide, 1 m deep and draws water from 27 springs. During its 100-year heyday between 1793 and 1892, almost 8 million cubic metres of firewood was floated out of Šumava to Vienna. The city’s grateful authorities made Rosenauer an honorary citizen for his efforts. The channel fell into disrepair after timber floating ended in the 20th century, and it is only now gradually being restored to its former glory. Why am I telling you all this? Because I cycled almost its entire length on this day of my trip along the Czech border.

Setting off from Strážný

I was chatting with the boss of Hotel Strážný while loading up the bike in the morning. “The weather could go either way,” he said, pointing up at the clouds lurking over the hills to the west. “But it’s usually better here than on the German side.” He wished me a pleasant ride and I set off along the “Golden Trail”, an old salt trading route between Bavaria and Bohemia.

Crossing into Germany for the last time on my circuit ride

After a couple of miles I turned right down a steep, wet path to the border with Germany. A large group of Czech cyclists all in the same red jerseys passed me as I took photographs. I overtook them on the hill on the other side then followed the frontier into the sleepy town of Haidmühle. From there, cycling against a tide of Germans carrying bags stuffed with cheap Czech cigarettes, I crossed back into the Czech Republic at Nové Údolí. It was here that I came across the “shortest international railway line in the world”.

The Šumava Railway: "105 metres long! Journey time 24 seconds!"

All aboard the train to Germany!

The adjacent Wagon Pub

The top of the Schwarzenberg Channel was just two miles down the road from Nové Údolí. The first section - a singletrack with muddy holes and slippery tree roots - had me nervous, but it soon opened out into a wide, smooth forest trail. The channel was well maintained in places, but completely blocked and barely visible in others. However, it was never less than enchanting, and I felt in fine form as I scooted along.

Start of the Schwarzenberg Channel

Near the village of Jelení the channel disappears into a 429 m long tunnel, so I had to take a short detour along the “Bear Trail”, so called because it leads to the spot where, on 14 November 1856, the last surviving wild bear in the Czech lands was hunted down and killed. The hunt involved 122 people, 46 of them armed, and took place in bad weather and deep snow. The encircled beast turned on its pursuers and chased them before one of the party took aim and fired the final, fatal shot.

The "Upper Portal", where the channel disappears into a tunnel

I stopped in Jelení and lunched on chicken schnitzel and delicious blueberry tart at an outdoor pub. Never before on my circuit ride of the Czech Republic had I seen so many other cyclists in one place. Šumava is a well-known cycling destination and the Schwarzenberg channel has the added attraction of being almost flat, unlike many other cycling trails in the area. Indeed, it has such a minimal incline the water sometimes looks like it is flowing uphill.

The section of channel by the museum at Jelení

Just down the road from the pub I found a one-room museum featuring a large and quite impressive 3D map of the whole area. The other tourists around me let out a collective gasp of wonderment as I pressed a button on the control panel and lit up the entire length of the model waterway with little flashing lights.

First taste of Austria

I continued along the channel in the afternoon, and in doing so entered Austria for the first time on my circumnavigation of the Czech Republic. This section of the “Schwarzenbergische Schwemmkanal” was the most overgrown, but the parallel trail stayed perfectly cyclable all the way to U Korandy back in the Czech Republic, where I parted company with this amazing feat of late 18th century engineering.

Me in a mirror in on the other side of the channel

Back into the Czech Republic for the final 2 km of the Schwarzenberg Channel

I headed uphill – on asphalt that was melting in the afternoon sun and snapped, crackled and popped as my tyres rolled over it – all the way to Vítkův Hrádek, which, at 1,053 metres above sea level, is the highest castle ruin in the Czech Republic. Two rock climbers were scaling the side of the 13th century tower with the aid of ropes, but I took the easier option of climbing the steps on the inside. From the top there were magnificent panoramic views of Lipno reservoir, aka the “South Bohemian Sea” and the whole of southern Šumava. Worryingly, I could also see sinister storm clouds gathering from the north.

Vítkův Hrádek castle

View from the top...

...and view of the inside

I freewheeled down the hill from the castle and joined a road running parallel to the border to the foot of the last big climb of Stage 5 of my trip, at a place called Spáleniště. Now, generally I have a very positive relationship with hills, but this was a 1,000 foot sting in the tail I could have done without. I wasn’t in the mood any more, but I had no choice other than to labour up the uncomfortably steep and potholed forest road to the top. Fortunately the ominous clouds I’d spotted from the castle stayed at bay.

Top of the final major climb of Stage 5

A bone-rattling descent on the other side took me into the town of Vyšší Brod, where I’d booked accommodation for the night. My room turned out to be in a converted barn in the courtyard behind the guesthouse. For the second time that day I ate al fresco, this time on the terrace of the guesthouse restaurant, my peace disturbed only by the roar of a posse of enormous German motor trikes passing through town.

Local Jakub beer

After dinner I wandered aimlessly around the town for a while before a wall poster reminded me to check out the local microbrewery. It wasn’t quite what I’d imagined. Instead of a gleaming copper temple to the art of brewing, I found a spartanly furnished, windowless cellar called Pajzl u Jakuba (pajzl being the Czech for a dive or sleazy pub). Practically the only food on offer was pork scratchings in lard. However, the beer was undeniably good, so I enjoyed a couple of pints while writing up the day’s events. A drunk slumped over the table next to mine snored loudly as I did so.


Wissy said...

A fantastic post with lovely photographs which give a feel for the region. Thank you for sharing your journeys.

Circuit Rider CZ said...

Thank you, Wissy!

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