Thursday, 26 October 2017

Stuck in a (muddy) rut

Stage 7, day 3, (Monday, 3 July 2017) 
Žítková to Karolinka, 75 km

Not for the first - or last - time on my Circuit Ride, I’m confronted with a cycle trail that’s too rough to ride. A short while back I had to squelch through a waterlogged section where some huge forestry vehicle had gouged great muddy ruts out of the ground. And now I’m on a rocky, rooty chute that’s so stupidly steep I’ve had to dismount again and clamber down on foot. I’d be struggling on a full-suspension downhill bike, never mind on this touring machine of mine. I’m not too proud to get off and push uphill where necessary, but, dammit, I do resent having to walk downhill.

The “cycle trail” near the Pulčín Rocks

Sign outside an animal pen at Hotel Kopanice

The view from breakfast

Breakfast at Hotel Kopanice in Žítková came with a side order of a fine vista across the surrounding White Carpathian hills. I’d slept well and was feeling surprisingly good after the previous day’s extreme exertions. I cycled out of the village in the company of two squabbling goldfinches. The road was flat for a while, with lovely views down to the border road, but then lurched up and turned into a rough trail as the forest engulfed me. I went at least half an hour without seeing anyone except a pair of cyclists coming in the opposite direction. Eventually I bounced out onto a proper road leading down to the small town of Pitín.

View back down to Pitín

I struck east along the main highway, sharing the rolling road with lorries and other big vehicles for the first time on this stage of my trip. At one point I even outpaced a tractor up a hill. On the outskirts of Brumlov-Bylnice, I gratefully turned off the busy road onto a new cycle path running alongside the Brumovka stream. This brought me out below Brumov castle, which I reached at about midday. If you, however, were to arrive at midnight, you might see the long-dead lord of the castle riding around - as he is said to do - in a chariot drawn by fire-breathing horses.

Brumov castle, clearly

After a lunch of pizza in Valašské Klobouky (which translates, amusingly, as “Wallachian Hats”; you can buy one for yourself here if the fancy takes you). I continued along the main road and then turned right under a railway line to start the long climb to Pulčín, the highest village in Valašsko (the Moravian Wallachia region). On the way up I came across a rather odd roadside memorial listing all the dead former residents of the village of Horní Lideč, which lies in the valley below. Soon after, the tarmac ended and I was back on the bumpy stuff.

On the climb to Pulčín

After a couple of miles of climbing I came out on the road that winds through Pulčín, best known for its romantic sandstone rock formations. There used to be a castle here, although all that is left of it today is stairways in the rocks. According to a local legend, a knight named Bočkaj hid his treasure there. On the feast of St John the Baptist, the sun shines directly on the spot leading underground. The rocks are only accessible by foot, but I caught a glimpse of them from the cycle trail above the village.

Pulčín rocks!

It was in the deep forest here that I hit the uncyclable track described in the preamble. It’s a quietly beautiful part of the world, this, but the cycling infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired - some of the roads and trails are in a very poor state. Just as I was beginning to despair, I came out on a lovely smooth road in the village of Zděchov. I stopped to knock the mud out of the soles of my boots then descended serenely to the River Bečva at Huslenky.

The Bečva valley

You see, they can do it round here when they want to! A fabulous dedicated cycleway winds up the picturesque Bečva valley between Vsetín and Velké Karlovice. Not surprisingly, I found it busy with folks of all ages out cycling in the afternoon sunshine. Within an hour I was entering the glass-making town of Karolinka, my destination for the day. Meanwhile, in Longwy, France, Slovak superstar Petr Sagan was winning the third stage of the 2017 Tour de France. It would be Slovakia for me tomorrow.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Hill towers and towering hills

Stage 7, day 2, (Sunday, 2 July 2017)
Hodonín to Žítková, 93 km

I have ground to a halt halfway up the exposed spiral staircase of Travničná telecommunication tower and I’m having to give myself a stern talking to. That toddler just managed it, so why can’t you? The steps - slippery after the rain - are made of a steel mesh, so I can see all the way down to the visitor centre below my feet and all the way up to the observation deck above. I don’t have a great head for heights, and this is well outside my comfort zone. I try to regain my composure as the whole structure sways in the wind. It’s decision time: do I turn around and go back down, or can I persuade myself to keep going upwards?

Views up and down Travničná observation tower

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Great Moravia!

Stage 7, day 1, (Saturday, 1 July 2017)
Břeclav to Hodonín, 54 km

I’m standing on Czech soil at the southernmost vertex of the Dyje Triangle, also known as the Moravian Amazon, one of the last uninhabited expanses of Europe. Just below me, the clear, black River Dyje is merging restlessly into the murkier waters of the Morava. To my left, a group of cyclists has assembled on the Slovak side of the Morava. To my right, on the opposite bank of the Dyje, stand Austrian fishermen’s cottages with big hammock-like nets suspended on poles above the water. I wait a while as a pair of canoes glide nearer, then shout “Ahoj!”, the traditional greeting among Czech river-goers. “Hallo!” comes the German rejoinder. Behind me, my great friend Ryan is already making his way back towards the bikes. He’s grumbling about the nettles and mosquitoes, but you won’t hear any complaints from me. I’m back exploring the farthest-flung reaches of the Czech Republic for the first time in over six years, and it feels great. I take one last look at the river disappearing around the bend on its way down to the Danube, then I turn around to continue my own journey.

The Dyje (right) flowing into the Morava (left)

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Circuit Rider returns!

Yes, after a hiatus of almost six years, I have at last carved out enough time to attempt to complete my perimeter ride of the Czech Republic.

In just over two weeks' time, barring disasters, I will embark on the long-planned Stage 7 of my Circuit Ride. I've booked time off work, I've bought my rail tickets and I've finalised my itinerary. On 1 July, I will catch the train to Břeclav in South Moravia, where I ended Stage 6 in September 2011. There, I will meet my great friend Ryan (who accompanied me on a highly entertaining section of Stage 3 back in September 2010) and together we will cycle to Hodonín. I'll then continue on my own for a few days through the White Carpathians and the Moravian-Silesian Beskids to the tripoint where the Czech Republic meets Slovakia meets Poland. From there, I'll turn north and head along the Czech-Polish border to Cieszyn, where my wife and her cousin and 10-year-old son will, I hope, be waiting for me. The next day – on 6 July – the four of us will cycle together to Bohumín, where my Circuit Ride adventure began (in the rain) in May 2010.