Monday, 31 December 2018

Circuit Rider comes full circle

Stage 7, day 6 (Thursday, 6 July 2017)
Cieszyn to Bohumín, 60 km


The final day of my tour around the Czech frontier starts like most of the others have done - eat as much breakfast as possible, pack the bags, load up the bike and pay the hotel bill - but with one notable difference. This time, I’m in the company of my wife Jitka, her cousin Pavla, and Pavla’s ten-year-old son Šimon. If you’ve been following the story, you’ll know that they joined me here in the Polish border town of Cieszyn yesterday after a four-hour train journey from Prague. Together, we are going to ride the last stage of my Circuit Ride to Bohumín, the point where I started it over seven years earlier. From there, we plan to travel home on the late-afternoon express, on which we have reserved spaces for our bikes. I’m looking forward to a relaxed family day out. It should be more procession than sporting endeavour, rather like the last stage of the Tour de France. Hang on, though, doesn’t that always end in a mad sprint to the finish line?

 
Loaded up and ready to go

After posing for the obligatory group photos outside the hotel, we rode through the historical heart of Cieszyn, crossed the bridge over the Olza (or Olše in Czech) back into the Czech Republic and headed downriver. After passing the site of Stalag VIII B, a former World War II prisoner-of-war camp, we joined a smooth flat highway heading north and soon reached our first planned stop, the “Fish House” (Rybí dům). As the name more than suggests, this is a tourist attraction devoted to all things piscine. We spent some time there feeding ornamental carp and admiring the Slavonic god Veles and other weird and wonderful wood carvings (among them a fishing bear, a shark and - don’t ask, I have no idea - a pregnant woman).

Monument to Stalag VIII B
 
 
Wood carvings at the Fish House

Next door was Archeopark Chotěbuz, an open-air folk museum featuring a recreation of an early-Medieval Slavic hillfort. Not until we’d bought our tickets did we learn that the next guided tour was due to start 45 minutes later and would last over an hour. This was no good to us, as we had to get to Bohumín by 4 pm to catch our train home. We weren’t allowed to explore the site on our own, but the Slovak guide very kindly agreed to give us a short private tour. I’m so glad she did, because it was a great place to visit. It was just a shame we didn’t have more time, because we could have easily spent the whole day there and at the Fish House.

 
The hillfort at Archeopark Chotěbuz

We continued north along a dedicated cycle trail then crossed a handsome bridge over the Olza into Karviná via Darkov, a health spa established in the 1860s. Karviná is a coal-mining town, but far from being the unlovely place I’d expected, it was rather pretty, especially the main square with its château and adjacent church and park.

 
 
The bridge into Darkov
Karviná town square

On the way out of town, I missed a turning and we ended up doing an unnecessary detour. Then we collectively mis-read a road crossing and Pavla fell off her bike and grazed her leg, though fortunately not too seriously. After passing some quite swanky properties on the edge of town, we came to Dolní Markovice, which lies at the base of a small spur of Czech territory jutting north into Poland. My plan had been to ride around the edge of this salient and have lunch at “The Hut at the End of the World” (Koliba na konci světa), a small pub at the north-eastern tip of the Czech Republic. Young Šimon very much liked the sound of this, but his enthusiasm quickly evaporated as we hit the only climb of the day. While waiting for him to push his bike to the top, I consulted Google and discovered that the pub didn’t open until 2 pm. It was currently midday and we still had about 25 miles to go. Did I tell you our train was due to leave just after 4 pm? With morale falling low and time running short, I had to come up with a different plan. More googling revealed a restaurant open on the other side of the salient, just over a mile away. So, Jitka and I continued around the border as planned, while Pavla and Šimon made a beeline for the restaurant, where we would rendezvous for lunch.

Final border marker
The Hut at the End of the World

As Jitka and I entered a delightful wood, a startled buzzard took flight and a tail feather span to the ground nearby. I attached it (the feather, not the bird) to my handlebar bag as a lucky charm, hoping it would help get us to Bohumín in time for our train. We stopped to photograph what turned out to be the last border stone on my Circuit Ride then continued to the Hut at the End of the World, which was indeed closed. We then came out of the forest and cycled past more up-market houses on a newly laid road to the smart Hotel Dakol, where the other two - sitting on the terrace out back - had already ordered lunch and Pavla was tending to her cycling wounds.

 
Lunch at Hotel Dakol

Needless to say, the food was slow in coming and we agreed to shorten the rest of our route. Instead of following the river around the back of Bohumín and entering the town from the far side, we decided to head in direct from the east. The planned shortcut also involved fording the river. As this was an unknown in the equation, I went on ahead to scout the situation, only to find that the Olza - a sizeable waterway at the best of times - had been swollen by heavy rains in the night. I waded in and was soon knee-deep in quite fast-flowing water. The only way for us to cross would have been to carry the bikes on our backs. This was too extreme an adventure for a family outing. I phoned Jitka from the middle of the river and told her we had to take the long way round.

A ford too far

The other three cycled on ahead while I put my shoes back on and returned to the road. I caught them up just as they were nearing the towering Dětmarovice power station. A quiet cycle trail led round the back of the plant and came out by the river again. Here, Šimon got his wish to cycle through a stream - not the Olza, but a small tributary running into it. The path continuing along the river - the one I’d originally planned to take - was full of freshly laid loose gravel, so the direct route into town was the right choice in the end.

 
Dětmarovice power station comes into view
A ford we could afford

We still had some way to go, and Šimon - remember, only ten years old and on a heavy child’s bike - was running out of steam. By now, we were seriously behind schedule. Trying to hide my disquiet, I fed him an emergency muesli bar (only an hour after he’d eaten a huge lunch; the rate at which he burns through calories is astonishing) and instructed him to tuck in behind my rear wheel so we could make faster progress. For the last few miles, I towed him in my slipstream.

Finally, at a quarter to four on 6 July 2017, after cycling 1,500 miles over 32 days spread over more than seven years, I rounded the last corner of my Circuit Ride and Bohumín railway station came into view again. I confess I had a tear or two in my eyes as I came to a halt in front of it. There wasn’t much time to celebrate - a hug from Jitka and it was all over. We made it onto the platform only minutes before the train pulled in. Before long, we were hurtling home to Prague.

The start...
...and end of my cycle ride around the entire Czech border

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