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)

Fishing nets on the Austrian side of the Dyje

The train from Prague brought me into Břeclav just after 11 in the morning. Fifteen minutes later, Ryan careered into the station car park, complaining about the holiday traffic. Before long, he had his bike out of the car and we were cruising south into the flatlands of the Dyje Triangle. Our first stop was the Pohansko hunting chateau, built in the grandest of styles by Johann I Joseph, Prince of Liechtenstein, in 1810-11. It is named after a Great Moravian settlement which flourished here in the ninth century; the name itself derives from the word for pagan. An interesting place, although to be perfectly honest Ryan and I were still too busy catching up with each other’s news to pay it much attention.

Ryan silhouetted against the Pohansko hunting chateau

We continued along the long straight former patrol road past storks foraging for food in the meadows, stopping only to read an information board telling the tale of two fishermen killed by Czechoslovak border guards by the nearby river during the Cold War, a tragedy long hushed up by the Communist authorities.

Can you spot the stork in the meadow?

Despite its flatness, this is a magically beautiful place, part alluvial forest and part verdant grassland punctuated by solitary trees. I’ve read that it is largely unchanged since the time of the Great Moravian Empire. It is also surprisingly little known as a tourist destination, and we encountered hardly any other visitors as we scooted towards the confluence of the rivers Dyje and Morava, which also happens to be the “tripoint” where the Czech, Austrian and Slovak frontiers converge.

 Start of the spur leading to the tripoint

Border stone dating from 1755

A slatted wooden path winding through the forest led us to the tripoint. Ryan and I took it in turns to stand on the furthest tip of land overlooking the confluence and watch fish leaping from the water. We then backtracked to our main route and found a suitable trailside spot for a picnic.

 No prizes for guessing where Ryan hails from

My turn at the tripoint

After lunch, we cycled north up the opposite, eastern flank of the Dyje Triangle, eventually popping out on the main road to the border with Slovakia. There, we turned onto the Morava cycle path for a ride of gentle bends but harsh surfaces along the pancake-flat embankment on the Czech side of the river. At one point, I found myself missing the hills, but then I remembered I had plenty of those in store over the next few days. A stiff tailwind drove us along at a brisk pace but simultaneously made for stiflingly hot work in the afternoon sun, so we were very glad to turn off into a cool and tranquil wood. Before long, Mikulčice - another former Great Moravian settlement and the largest Slavonic archaeological site in the Czech Republic - suddenly appeared in a clearing in front of us.

First time on Slovak soil on my Circuit Ride 

View back along the Morava cycle trail

By now, we were not far from the town of Hodonín, our destination for the day, so a celebratory drink was in order. As we supped delicious Litovel beer alfresco at a cafe behind the visitor centre, I eavesdropped on a group of four Czechs at the next table, who, in turn, had been eavesdropping on us. They had clearly noticed Ryan’s splendid emerald green Cycle Ireland jersey and had surmised - wrongly - that we were both Irish. They were particularly perplexed by our English accents. “It’s like listening to someone from Ostrava - I can barely understand a word they’re saying,” said one of them.

 Mikulčice visitor centre and viewing tower

Picture of a ninth century rotunda,
one of the many buildings that used to stand at Mikulčice 

The woman at the visitor centre was similarly nonplussed by our combination of English and Czech, and especially by Ryan’s Czech-German mélange (he lived in Prague for a long time and is now based in Austria and probably doesn’t know what language he’s speaking half the time). We bought tickets for the surprisingly tall viewing tower that was swaying in the breeze above the museum. Ryan has an even worse head for heights than me and his complexion took on the same colour as his cycling top as I snapped the fine views from the top.

Selfie atop the viewing tower 

Panorama from the top

The final stretch of our day’s ride took us into Hodonín, where we stopped on the main square for greasy goulash and more drinks in the late afternoon sunshine. While we were there, the wind suddenly whipped up and blew my bike right over. At first, it seemed that no damage had been done, but then I noticed that one of my bar ends was missing. An exhaustive search of a large radius around the bikes revealed nothing except an inscription on the ground informing us that Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the much revered first President of Czechoslovakia, was born in the town. It was only after I had given up the bar end for lost that I found it lodged inside my helmet, which had been hanging from the handlebars but was now sitting on the table at the restaurant.

Masaryk Square in Hodonín 

With that mystery solved, we proceeded to the guesthouse, which turned out to be very comfortable indeed. The host, a delightful woman, had the strongest sing-song Moravian accent I’ve ever heard. Ryan needed to return home to his wife and baby daughter the same day, so I guided him to the station and put him on the train back to Břeclav.

Hodonín Town Hall

That evening I dined at a surprisingly good burger bar to an accompaniment of 1980s heavy rock music, and then ambled back to the guesthouse. At the dodgy pub next door, a live band was pumping out a bad version (is there a good version?) of Bryan Adams’ "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You". Had Ryan (not Bryan) still been with me, we would no doubt have ended up having some craic in there together, but I was on my own now and bed seemed more enticing than beer. To my surprise, the pub fell silent soon after 11 pm, and soon after that I was fast asleep.

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