Monday, 10 October 2011

Uneventful, but sensational

Stage 6, day 1 (Saturday, 24 September 2011)
Horní Dvořiště to Nové Hrady (61 km)

Some days not much happens when you’re bicycle touring. Take today, for example. I’m in the Nové Hrady Mountains, a lesser known region deep in the south of Bohemia. It consists mostly of unpopulated forest and there are few tourist attractions to lure people in. But while there might not be much going on here, there’s more than enough to satisfy the senses: the sickly sweet scent of pine resin oozing from log piles at the side of the trail, the ever-shifting dapple of the auburn autumn sunlight on the ground below me, the cool crisp air roaring across my ears as I coast downhill. Yes, today may be uneventful, but it is - literally - sensational.

Stage 6 official start: Horní Dvořiště railway station

Shortly after 1 pm I disembarked from the Linz train at Horní Dvořiště railway station - the last stop in the Czech Republic - and went through my usual start-of-stage routine (loading up the bike again, taking the official start photo, phoning home, sending a message to the blog). Under a cloudless September sky I took off into the forest and was soon changing down through the gears as the gradient kicked up. This was supposed to be a fairly short day in the saddle, but it was shaping up to be a tough one.

The former horse-driven railway entered Czechoslovakia near here

I cycled north close to the border with Austria and before long emerged from the trees into the Indian-summer sunshine. For a while I followed the route of the horse-drawn railway that used to run between Linz and České Budějovice. Built between 1825 and 1832, it was the first and longest such line in Continental Europe. Used primarily to transport salt and other commodities, it was 131 km long, with a journey time of 14 hours, and was in service for 40 years before being superseded by steam power. I scoured the fields for signs of it, but sadly there was little if anything left to see.

Czech-Austrian border crossing near Dolní Dvořiště

Behind a casino at the major border crossing south of Dolní Dvořiště I took a short cut down a little-used road running across the fields into a wood. After a mile or so, however, it came to an abrupt dead end at the top of a steep bank above a river. Unable to continue that way, I backtracked and turned down an overgrown path in search of the footbridge marked on my map. This path, too, soon petered out and I found myself in a small clearing not knowing how to proceed. As luck would have it (as it so often does on this trip), help was at hand in the form of two local women out foraging for wild mushrooms. They told me that there was indeed a bridge somewhere nearby, but that it had been wrecked by tractor traffic and was no longer safe to cross. My only option was to turn back.

Horses outside Dolní Dvořiště

So much for my short cut. I took the long way round through Dolní Dvořiště, passing across open farmland and through clumps of forest. The hunting season was in full swing. All around me I could hear the thud and crack of hunters’ shotguns, an unnerving sound that was to accompany me for the next few days. The hunters themselves, though, were always out of sight.

Church at Cetviny

I took a short break at a place called Cetviny, which - as I learned from a tourist information board there - had been quite a large village before the War. In 1945, however, the German population was thrown out of the country and Cetviny was resettled by, among others, Romanian Czechs and Slovaks, but they too were evicted just six years later when the Iron Curtain came down. In 1956, the town was completely demolished, with the exception of its church and one other building, which was converted into an army station. Only in 1990, after the Velvet Revolution, was the area opened to the public again.

Nové Hrady landscape

Time was getting on, so I abandoned my original plan to cycle around the back of the hills. Instead, I cut the corner and saved myself about ten miles of hard travelling along the remote trail closest to the border. This decision guaranteed that I would arrive at my destination - the town of Nové Hrady - before nightfall.

High point in the forest above Pohorská Ves

I crested the highest point of Stage 6 - a hill called Vyhlídka (which means “view” or “vantage point”) - and began my descent out of the Nové Hrady Mountains. At Žofín, where a surprisingly large number of walkers and cyclists were sunning themselves on the terrace of a woodland lodge, the trail turned into a road leading back into civilisation.

Huťský Rybník, site of a long-gone 18th century glassworks

In the picturesque village of Hojná Voda, in the shadow of an elegant peak called Kraví Hora, a fine view over the south Bohemian plain suddenly opened up below me. In the next village I took a detour through a ranch to visit a curious cairn marked on my map as a kamenná pyramida (“stone pyramid”). Opinions differ as to who put it there and why, but there's no arguing that it's a charming spot.

 Cross-country trail leading to...

...the huge cairn above Horní Stropnice

About a kilometre out of Horní Stropnice I turned off the main road and followed a footpath to a late-15th castle called Cuknštejn. From there I crossed the dam of a reservoir and joined a nature trail running through Terčino Údolí, a park that lies in the valley carved out by the Stropnice stream. The park, created in 1756 by a local nobleman and named after his wife Teresa, contains various romantic buildings dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it is probably best known for its 32-foot-high artificial waterfall.

Cuknštejn Castle...

...and the waterfall in nearby Terčino Údolí Park

I rode at a leisurely pace from one end of the park to the other, admiring its ancient trees and giving a wide berth to the many couples strolling there in the fading evening sunshine. I came out just a short distance from the guesthouse I’d booked into on the outskirts of Nové Hrady - the accurately named Penzion Pod Hradem (“Guesthouse Below the Castle”).

Penzion Pod Hradem in Nové Hrady

I spent an uneventful evening in the restaurant at the guesthouse. To say the food (chicken in a wild mushroom sauce) was sensational would be an overstatement, but it was certainly a cut above the average. By the time I’d finished eating, night had fallen and it was cold enough outside to dissuade me from going out to explore the town centre. I decided to leave that for the next morning.

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