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

I woke up very early on Sunday morning and was cruising south out of Hodonín by half past nine. Before long I was crossing into Slovakia for the first time on my Circuit Ride. The rain started to drizzle down as I cycled east along the flood-defence embankment running parallel to the River Morava, and it was pouring by the time I reached Skalice Marina at the western end of the Baťa Canal. I parked up for a while and climbed the adjacent observation tower, the first of several such structures I planned to visit that day. Below me, a trio of Slovak boxers were training alfresco.

Skalice Marina on the Baťa Canal

The Baťa Canal was built between 1934 and 1938 and was part-financed by the Baťa Shoe Company, which needed to transport brown coal to power its factories in Otrokovice and Zlín. However, the canal was badly damaged during World War II and gradually fell into disuse. It was reopened in 1995 and is now the most popular tourist destination in this relatively undiscovered part of the world.

A family enjoying a pleasure cruise on the Baťa Canal

The rain slackened as I crossed the waterway back into the Czech Republic. I followed the towpath for a couple of miles then left the canal behind and made for the wine-making village of Sudoměřice. The White Carpathian hills began to loom ominously ahead. This was to be the last flat section of the route until the very last day of my Circuit Ride.

Pretty local architecture near Sudoměřice

From then on it was up and down the whole day. The first challenge was Žerotín, a pretty hill with small vineyards and orchards on its flanks. Then came Travničná, with the aforementioned scary beast of an observation tower at its summit. As I arrived there it started bucketing down again, so I took shelter in the building at its base. The extremely chatty ticket-seller was threatening to close up and go home on account of the rain-averse mouse that was scurrying around her feet. When the downpour eased off for a while, I took a deep breath and climbed the 177 steps to the observation deck. It was worth overcoming my fear; despite the impaired visibility the views were amazing in all directions.

Travničná telecommunication tower

Views from the top

Back down on terra firma I lunched on sandwiches left over from the previous day while periodically checking the weather radar on my phone. Once the final rain cloud of the day had passed, I set off again for the next hilltop, the oddly named Výzkum (“Research” in Czech), where a funny wooden chap was pointing me in the wrong direction. Not for the first time that day, I had the place to myself.

Confusing directions

Another fine panorama from the top of Výzkum

The next landmark on my route was Kuželov, a Dutch-style windmill dating from 1842. Here I met a pair of Slovak cyclists, who asked me where I was headed. They exchanged glances when I told them. “That’s quite a way,” said one. “Hilly, too,” said the other. It began to dawn on me that I had seriously underestimated both the terrain and the length of today’s ride.

Kuželov Windmill

Another tower - Drahy - sprouted into view further down the road. From the top I could see the valley ahead, which took me gently uphill to the village of Vápenky. I stopped at a pub there and ordered a mid-afternoon snack from a waiter, a fellow with an extraordinary sing-song voice. I was just wondering whether he was the only gay in the village when the barman arrived with my drink and addressed me in exactly the same way. Turns out that everyone speaks like this around here. It’s the remains of the local Slovácko (Moravian Slovakia) dialect, which like so many others, has been pushed into retreat in recent decades by the effects of globalisation.

Drahy observation tower

Fuelled up on Nutella pancakes, I climbed out of Vápenky past a large party of elderly ramblers and into a thick forest. As the incline increased, a young family out cycling with no map flagged me down to ask how far it was to the top. When I told them it was at least another kilometre, they decided to turn back - probably a wise decision given the rough, steep hairpins that followed.

By the time I crested this particular hill it was already late afternoon and I was beginning to feel very pushed for time. I pressed on to the next observation tower on my list, Obecnice, stopping only briefly to admire more stunning views, and continued along an increasingly rough and narrow hiking trail, past a children’s camp on the edge of the forest. The kids watched bemused as I bounced past over tree roots, cursing in English as I went. After another couple of miles I reached my fifth and final tower of the day, U Křížku, which was practically identical to the previous one. The track ahead looked sketchy, so, fed up with broken trails, I backtracked to the nearest road and lost a whole lot of height freewheeling down to the town of Březová.

Obecnice and U Křížku towers - can you tell the difference?

Great views from both, though

The next ascent just wouldn’t relent. It was innocuous enough to begin with, but it ramped up after a few miles and then got even steeper when I turned right onto a straight side road. That short section alone involved a 100 m (330 ft) gain in altitude. Halfway up, I stopped to catch my breath and also to check my hotel check-in hours, as by now it was getting on for 6 pm and I still had quite some way to go.

I came out on a wider road, which, although less severe, still climbed and climbed. You can tell you’re high up when you start passing the tops of ski lifts. The scenery was admittedly stunning, but I’d had my fill by now. Eventually I reached the highest point of my day at Rapantův vrch, which, at 788 m (2,585 ft) above sea level, was a full 350 m (1,150 ft) higher than I’d been in Březová. This was followed by an alarmingly steep and tricky descent along a narrow, gravel-strewn road. The driver of the car in front refused to let me pass even though he was clearly holding me up.

The descent to Starý Hrozenkov

After a while, the road became wider and smoother and I glided down to the border town of Starý Hrozenkov. No sooner had I hit the valley floor, though, than I was climbing up the other side again. This was the sting in the tail. With an average gradient of around 1 in 6, it was short but most certainly not sweet. I part rode, part pushed my way up, driven on solely by the prospect of reaching my accommodation for the night.

Three other cyclists were resting at the junction at the top. I was too breathless to say anything except “That hurts!”. One of them said, “Let’s hope it gets easier now”. Fortunately it did, although I still had to cycle uphill for another mile or so to my destination, the hilltop village of Žítková. The hotel there turned out to be quite smart, with great views of the surrounding countryside. The Slovak receptionist looked faintly disgusted when she set eyes on my sweaty, snotty, smelly self. “I have a reservation,” I said, trying to muster what little decorum I had left.

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