Thursday, 22 March 2018

Easterly rider

Stage 7, day 4 (Tuesday, 4 July 2017)
Karolinka to Jablunkov, 86 km

Another day, another border crossing, this time at Konečná, which means terminus” in Czech. Things get even more terminal as I swoop down the other side of the pass into Klokočov, the first Slovak town Ive encountered on my frontier ride. There, a woman is reading out death notices in a mournful monotone over the municipal PA system. Sombre choral folk music follows. The crackly sound rises and falls as I pass under telegraph poles where the speakers are mounted. The sky darkens fleetingly. I feel a growing sense of foreboding about the unknown hill trails ahead.

The Czech Republic ends at Konečná

I left Karolinka at half nine that morning, only to stop a few minutes later as the rain started to come down. The weather radar on my phone told me it was just a passing shower, and 15 minutes later I was heading east again in the dry along the excellent Bečva valley cycle path. The trail came to an end just as the road kicked up into the Beskyd mountains. As I gained height, the highest peak in the range, Lysá Hora, came into view on my left. I reached the Slovak border crossing at the top surprisingly comfortably and rested for a while at a huge monument to the partisans who crossed from Slovakia into Moravia here in September 1944.

Local gastronomic treats advertised in the local dialect
Lysá Hora, the highest mountain in the Moravian-Silesian Beskyds
 
Monument to WWII partisans at the Slovak border crossing

After a close call with a lorry on the busy main road on the Slovak side, I crossed back into the Czech Republic at the Bumbálka pass, the furthest point from the sea in the Czech Republic. With some relief, I took a left turn away from the traffic onto a quiet forest road and then followed a hiking path up to Čarták observation tower, which although it looks old, was built as recently as 1997 and is in fact a mobile telephone transmitter clad in wood for cosmetic reasons.

Čarták observation tower

I arrived just as a father and his two kids were disappearing into the tower, locking the door behind them. A woman nearby saw me emerge into the clearing and, correctly guessing my intentions, bounded up the steps after them and called them back. The family let me in and I followed them up the 131 steps. The little boy in front of me was afraid of heights. I tried to reassure him, but the metal-grill spiral staircase was disquieting even for me. The viewing platform windows at the top were all shut and shuttered. Light and wind poured in as we opened them one by one. Now above the treetops, at the highest point on Stage 7 of my Circuit Ride, I could properly admire the Javorník ridge to the south and the Beskyd peaks ahead of me to the north.

The spiral staircase
 
Views from the top

I ran into the two children again at the nearby car park. “Is that the cyclist who was up the tower with us?” asked the girl as I passed. “I don’t know,” her younger brother replied. 

I freewheeled back down to the Bumbálka pass, crossed the highway and went off-road again. The path was initially very rough and I had the sinking feeling that I was in for another arduous descent. However, the surface improved after a while and eventually I came out on a freshly laid cycle superhighway running down through the forest to the town of Bílá, where I stopped for lunch in the busy beer garden at Hotel Bauer.

Cycle superhighway running down to...
...St Frederics Church in Bílá

A fairly gentle post-prandial climb took me up to the border with Slovakia at Konečná, then it was a long descent into gloomy Klokočov. At Hrubý Buk, I turned off the highway onto a narrow, steeply rising road that petered out into a rough hiking trail. It occurred to me that I might be the first Englishman ever to have passed this way. As I reached the crown of the hill, an old woman labouring up the other way reciprocated my greeting, adding, “I’m curious how you’re going to cycle down this rubbish".

The trail gets sketchy in Slovakia
Slovak cycle signpost

It was indeed a steep and bumpy drop to the next village, where I faced yet another ascent. This time, however, it levelled out onto quite a decent cycle trail leading to Megoňky, known, dear reader, for its huge balls. These extraordinary rock spheres, over 8 foot in diameter, rolled out into the open during blasting at the quarry here in the 1980s, but how they were originally formed remains a mystery. To be honest, I only found one of them, which I reached after a tricky scramble. I might have discovered more, but it was getting late in the day and I had to press on.

An unfeasibly large rock ball at Megoňky

My short sojourn in Slovakia ended at the nearby border crossing, the most underwhelming of my Circuit Ride so far. A dirt track took me back into the Czech Republic and onto a road winding through dense forest for quite some distance to Hrčava, where the locals were busy preparing to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its status as an independent municipality. A Czech-Polish-Slovak disco was planned for the evening. I was more interested in finding the “tripoint” where the borders of these three countries all meet.

Valy Bridge in Slovakia

For no good reason, I’d been expecting this part of the world to be flat. That I was mistaken soon became clear as the brand new Valy road bridge - at 84 m the highest in Central Europe - came into view in the middle distance on the other side of Hrčava. I had to descend steeply and then climb equally sharply to reach the tripoint. The spot itself is marked by three obelisks, one for each country. A flight of steps leads down to the stream separating the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Otherwise, it was a bit of a building site - someone was clearly trying to develop it as a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, it was a major milestone on my trip around the Czech border.

 
 
The Czech-Polish-Slovak tripoint

By now it was gone 5 o’clock and I had another landmark still to reach that day: the easternmost point of the Czech Republic. I briefly entered Poland for the first time since stage 3 of my Circuit Ride then crossed back into the Czech Republic. The views on all sides were goosebump-inducing. This beautiful area was clearly getting under my skin. It was impossible not to fall in love with it, despite the relentless hills.

 
Views along the Czech-Polish border

A nature trail leads down to the most easterly point in the Czech Republic, first through a peat meadow beside the Bukovec nature reserve and then left along the border stream into a wood. I left my bike at a picnic table and walked the final 100 yards or so. The last of the tourist information boards dotted along the way urged me to let go of my cares and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of this secluded spot. Which was all very well except that I was dealing simultaneously by phone with a family crisis in the UK. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the time for contemplation.

 
 
The easternmost point of the Czech Republic

I made my way back to the road and cycled mostly downhill to today’s destination of Jablunkov. The three women behind the bar in Hotel Bullawa initially blanked me, but they turned out to be friendly enough. As I supped a welcome beer, the manager asked if I was one of “our Americans”. A party of seven, she said, were staying there for a family celebration.

Jablunkov

It was the eve of a double public holiday and the bar was full of people when I came back down to the bar later in search of food. I found a free table on the terrace at the back, ordered a schnitzel and another beer and reflected on what a great day I’d had, despite the route having been 10 miles longer than I’d calculated. It dawned on me that I only had another two days to go to Bohumín, where I’d started this adventure over seven years earlier. It was the beginning of the end.