Monday, 19 March 2012

Arachnophobia on a bike

Stage 6, day 4 (Tuesday, 27 September 2011)
Znojmo to Mikulov (91 km)


The slithery sandy track I’m on disappears into a thick, dark wood. It looks ominous, but I press on. I can’t see much with my sunglasses on, but straight away I feel the thick, sticky pull of cobwebs across my skin. And where there’s webs, there’s... SPIDERS! Big, plump ones suspended one after the other across the overgrown trail. The horror! As an arachnophobe, I couldn’t continue along here even if it was the last available route out of hell. All I can do is turn around and retrace my tracks. Unfortunately, that means taking with me the remaining webs and spiders I didn’t pick up on my way in. Back in the field, I descend into panic. I try to flick the beasts off me, my body convulsing and my arms and legs flailing (imagine, if you will, Ian Curtis attempting the cancan on two wheels). Just as I’m beginning to recover a mite of composure, I spot a whopping specimen with a bloated grey abdomen hitching a ride on my handlebars. Worse still, he’s crawling towards my right hand. What has, up to now, been a mere panic attack turns into a fully fledged physical and psychological meltdown. I blow the bugger off his perch just as he’s reaching my thumb, but he immediately starts scrabbling back up his thread. The bike lurches to one side as I momentarily lose control, and in the process the angry arthropod gets a dose of my spokes and is knocked to the ground. That, I’m glad to say, is the last I see of him.

The early morning view from my B&B in Znojmo

I was woken up at 5 a.m. on Tuesday by a mosquito buzzing around my ears. By six o’clock I had despatched the insect lowlife to the afterlife with a well-aimed blow from a Znojmo tourist guide. Just as I was dropping off again I was disturbed by the sound of shotgun fire emanating from a dawn hunting party getting busy on the opposite side of the Dyje valley. At this point I gave up hope of getting any more sleep. I got up to admire the view out of my bedroom window and then spent some quality time twiddling the knobs in my high-tech en-suite shower cubicle.

At breakfast I was amazed to learn that Derek, the owner of the B&B where I was staying, hails from the same part of England as me. We spent quite some time chatting over a cup of tea, two blokes from Stoke getting nostalgic about the dirty old Potteries and comparing notes on expat life in the Czech Republic. (I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Derek and his wife Blanka for their warm hospitality. If you ever visit Znojmo I wholeheartedly recommend Pension Grant Lux. It’s easily the best place I’ve stayed at on my tour along the Czech border.)

My day’s cycling began with a whistle-stop tour of Znojmo, one of the oldest and loveliest towns in Moravia. Its historical highlights include the Gothic Church of St Nicholas and the Romanesque Rotunda of the Virgin Mary and St Catherine, as well as the Late Gothic Town Hall tower, from the top of which, it is said, the Alps are visible on a clear day.

Znojmo’s Town Hall tower...

...and Romanesque rotunda

I headed out of town along the south bank of the Dyje then turned right onto the main road leading towards the border with Austria. At the wine-making village of Šatov I stopped to visit the “Zahrada” infantry block. This large concrete bunker, built in the late 1930s, used to form part of the Czechoslovak frontier defence line and is now a museum.

Zahrada infantry block in Šatov

A former Iron Curtain guard tower

At Šatov I rejoined the so-called Signálka - the long and mostly straight former Iron Curtain patrol road. This took me east across featureless farmland to the busy border crossing at Hatě. I really should be used to these tacky shopping zones by now, but this one was in the most spectacularly bad taste, as I hope the following wobbly video will show.


At midday I crossed into Austria into an altogether more tranquil and bucolic world where families were toiling together to harvest the grapes in the vineyards. The terrain hereabouts was quite hilly, and at the top of the first climb I chanced upon a rather decrepit old viewing tower. A startled hare bolted out from under a picnic table at its base as I parked my bike and made for the steps.

Grape harvesting on the Austrian side of the border

The viewing tower I came across...

...and the vineyards viewed from the top

After admiring the view from the top of the tower, I returned to ground level and continued through Austrian wine-making country, past a malodorous chemical works at Pernhofen and on to the border town of Laa an der Thaya, which I had last visited on my way to Vienna by bicycle in 2004.

Town Hall in Laa an der Thaya

I left Austria for the final time on my Circuit Ride and stopped for lunch at a “motorest” (a restaurant for drivers) at Hevlín just over the border. There I was served a nasty bowl of pasta which an Italian would not even feed to his cat. Back on the bike, feeling full but slightly queasy, I turned off the road and on to cycle path number 4, which runs parallel to the frontier. From here I was expecting a nice easy spin across flat open country to my destination for the day - the historical town of Mikulov. I could not have been more wrong.

A surreal rest area on cycle route 4

After a few miles my way was blocked by a large crater, beyond which the trail was being re-laid and was practically uncyclable. For a while I managed to make slow progress by riding through the fields alongside the path and by getting off and pushing where necessary. To make matters worse, the hunting season was evidently in full swing and my nerves were being frayed by the thudding sound of shotgun fire all around me. Mikulov may have been visible on the horizon, but it still seemed a long way off.

First sign of trouble on the run-in to Mikulov

In the village of Březí a crane was pulling up the old concrete surface of the trail, leaving the bare earth underneath exposed. At this point I gave up on the cycle path and decided to take the main road into town. Now, I’m not usually a timid cyclist, but the motor traffic there was so fast and furious it soon had me consulting the map again. Unfortunately, the alternative route I found led me straight into the horrific Forest 101 described at the top of this post. Suddenly, sharing the road with speeding juggernauts didn’t seem quite so bad, so I hit the highway again.

Mikulov at last!

I was still picking the spider silk off my bike and clothes as I reached the outskirts of Mikulov. Due to poor signposting I took a tortuous route into the centre of town, which at least meant I got to view the castle from various interesting angles. Eventually I emerged on the main square and found my guesthouse, which lays claim to being the narrowest in Moravia. It turned out to be a cross between a B&B and a bike hire shop, but it had the feel of a student house. Aptly named U Bylinkáře (“The Herbalist’s House”) it was stuffed to the rafters with esoteric herbs and teas, which filled the air inside with a heady aroma. The young proprietor congratulated me on arriving exactly when I’d said I would (six o’clock). His partner, a girl with a mellifluous laugh, showed me up to a rudely furnished room on the second floor. The shower room below it reminded me of Barcelona with its crazy Gaudi-esque mosaic decor.

The ever-so-narrow Herbalist’s House

That evening I sat outside for a while on the square drinking coffee and eavesdropping on a party of elderly local ladies at the next table, who were laughing raucously at smutty jokes and singing folk songs in strong Moravian accents. Afterwards I strolled up the hill to a restaurant recommended to me by the couple in charge of the Herbalist’s. Then, with my belly full of duck, cabbage and dumplings, I rolled back down the hill to a busy bar called O’Hara’s for a nightcap or two. Later, as I meandered back to the guesthouse to turn in for the night, I wondered idly just how far one would have to cycle to leave the generic Irish pub behind.

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