Cycling through the Czech Republic was like a strange sandwich made with two very thin slices of stale bread and a very generous portion of an incredibly tasty filling. The very beginning and the very end were no fun at all (both my own fault), but everything in between was absolutely incredible.
THE GHOST BORDER
In 2004, the Czech Republic joined the EU and signed the Schengen agreement. Signatory states agreed to a single external border, in lieu of their old national frontiers. This translates into hundreds of abandoned border checkpoints across the „old-continent“.
I was making my way through the last kilometers of German soil, before the Elbe Bike Path ventured into Czech territory, looking for one of these abandoned border crossings. I was trying to envision how I would place the camera on the side of the path, and frame a shot including the Czech flag waving in the wind next to an old control booth as I darted past with my bicycle; how I would hold a little speech in front of the camera explaining how this was a significant milestone in my trip, as I was crossing my first border, etc… While I was imagining all of this, I started noticing that everything around me was already in Czech: the signposts on the side of the bike path, the license plates of the cars parked in the nearby houses, the names on the signs hanging from the restaurants around. The border crossing was so inexistent, that I had completely missed it! I was already in the Czech Republic.
Crossing to the Czech Republic... I think.
A SLICE OF STALE BREAD (SOAKED IN BEER)
The bike path I had been following the last days continued pretty much uninterrupted all the way to Prague. It followed the Elbe (now called Labe) and later the Vlatava, a tributary of the Elbe. Shortly after realizing I was already over the border, I stopped at a restaurant to use their restroom. When I came out, I saw something quite odd: two golden beer taps sticking out of the exterior of the building. Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to open one of those taps. „Nooooooooo“ I thought, as a sparkling amber elixir first gushed, and then smoothly flew out of the tap „FREE BEER!!!!“. It was early in the morning and I had a big biking day ahead of me, yes, but free beer is free beer. I tossed the useless water out of one of my drinking bottles and enjoyed this tasty forenoon refreshment.
Taps with free beer near the German-Czech border.
All was going well that morning as I approached the northern city of Usti nad Labem (Usti on the Elbe). I went to the city center to get something to eat and find a bank to get some Korunas. I wanted to get back to the bike path, but I made a wrong turn at some point and ended up in an industrial compound in the outskirts of the city. I saw two policemen on the side of the road and approached them to ask for directions. Their English was as good as my Czech, so we just worked out a conversation using our hands and the word „Praha“. They pointed down the road and then signaled for me to make a right. This was quite clearly the entrance to a highway. I looked at them with disbelief, and tried different hand gestures to rephrase my non-verbal question into something like: „There. highway. Cars. fast. Me, bicycle, slow. Bicycle, not good for highway. Another way?“ Their response remained unchanged: they pointed down the road and then signaled for me to make a right. I now noticed that the highway ran parallel to the river Elbe, and that there was really no bike path on sight. „Well, alright Mr. Policemen, your directions are my command, highway it is“.
Still unsure of whether they fully understood my well formulated inquiry, I made my way down the highway entrance ramp. I accelerated my vehicle to match flowing traffic (I did try!), looked on my non-existing mirrors, checked the blind spots and moved in the nearest freeway lane. „Oh my“, I thought, „there is no turning back now“. My bamboo bike, my heavy bags and me were rolling down a national highway, aided by our combined 0,2 horsepower reaching supersonic speeds well over 20Km/h… what a rush!
The excitement I experienced over the first few hundred meters quickly turned to unpleasantness and fear. I had been pedalling on an idyllic bike path the last couple days, where the only sounds I heard, were those made by the nearby river and the chirping of playful birds. Now huge loud trucks where stomping past me at incredible speeds. Not only that, the highway shoulder was not particularly wide, which meant traffic was roaring dangerously close by. I needed to exercise disciplined concentration to stay as far as possible from the white continuous line on my left, and yet not fall to the sloping abandoned meadows on my right. Although I never felt that my life was under imminent danger, it was a highly unpleasant ride. I started wondering: what happened to that wonderful bike path that was supposed to go all the way to Prague?
Before the town of Usti nad Labem, there was a bike path that run along the Elbe on both sides of the river. From that point onwards, and completely unbeknownst to me, the bike path was only available on the the eastern bank of the river. I was, of course, on the western side. Once I realized there were people cycling comfortably on the other side of the river, it was just a matter of crossing to the other side. However, it took almost 30Km of dancing with stampeding elephants before I found a ferry that took me to the other side.
Roadside companions during the highway journey.
These 30Km of highway cycling had gotten me in such a bad mood, I found it hard to keep illogical and unfair assessments at bay. „I had been in bicycle paradise until I entered this country!“, „Those policemen… I hope a rotten slug makes its way to their dinner tonight!“… ahhhh, silly me. It had been, after all, my own fault to loose track of the bike path, and all I had to do was to pedal on to discover the countless beauties that Czech Republic had in store for me.
Once I was at the eastern bank of the river, I got on my bike and enjoyed the wonderful sensation of cycling through a proper bike path. There is nothing like being stripped of something, to appreciate how great it is to have had it in the first place! I pedalled the rest of the day in absolute harmony with the surroundings, until I reached the town of Melnik. It is here in that the Czech national river, the Vlatava, donates its waters to the Elbe. For the first time in over 300Km, I would leave the Elbe's comforting guidance and entrust my bearings to the Vlatava, which would guide me all the way to Prague. I pitched my tent (still a bit smelly from the slug-party), and bought dinner at a nearby gas-station: a sub-premium slice of pizza with a premium Pilsner Urquell to wash it down! I slept like a baby, as I had just registered my longest cycle day thus far: 132 Km.
As I arrived in Prague the following evening, I kept remembering the first Mission Impossible film, where Ethan Hunt, played by a very young Tom Cruise, ran across the Charles Bridge as he found out that his entire team had been murdered by „the Mole“. As a young teen, I always fantasized of going to Prague in a smoking, carrying some really important undercover task as I would nonchalantly sweep some Czech beauty of her feet and drive with her in my old-time convertible into the sunset. Well… maybe some other time. For now, I arrived in a sweaty T-shirt in my loaded bicycle and there was no sweeping of any kind. I stayed the night at Alex and Yuri's place, two Couchsurfing hosts I had met online just a few hours before. They very generously offered to put me up for the night and let me store my bicycle in their house as I explored the city the next day.
"Abort mission, abort mission!!"... Ethan Hunt on the Charles Bridge in Prague
There is nothing anyone can tell you, that will prepare you for how beautiful Prague actually is. What unrelenting elegance! What breathtaking spectacle! I spent the day walking its cobblestoned roads, visiting some of its historic sites like the aforementioned Charles Bridge, the Old Town Square or the Jewish Quarter. I was overwhelmed by the intricate detail of all the building's facades, the imposing Prague Castle overlooking the city and the beautiful river promenade. More overwhelming though, were the hordes of tourists, that by the thousands marched through the capital, much to the city retailers' delight.
Photo gallery of Prague
As impressed as I was from Prague's architectural and cultural charm, its bicycle infrastructure left me a bit unfazed. I found some bicycle lanes in the periphery but the city's core neighbourhoods had invested very little in making cycling a viable and safe transportation option. There were, furthermore, other external factors that made cycling in the city an unpleasant experience: Prague's topography is a cyclist nightmare, as the city creeps its way up and down indiscriminately steep hills, its cobbledstones rattle a cyclist brain to mush and playing „dodge-the-tourists“ is not a game that tends to end well. Nevertheless, I found that, from an infrastructure perspective, there could have been more that the city could do to enable cycling as a possible transportation option.
Having spent a considerable amount of time as a wandering hermit before reaching Prague, the crowds and noises of a big city soon engulfed my spirits and I was only too happy to get back on my bike and continue the trip.
To be continued… in Act 2!
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