Today the cycling part of the holiday begins, I’m excited. We are up at 4.30am packed and at Berlin Zoo station by 5am. We have fallen in line with the precise timing of the German population. As expected by everyone except us the 5.26 to Dresden arrived on the dot and my bike is cradled into a snazzy rack in the rear carriage. A few other touring bikes are there to accompany mine. We are able to relax in plush seats as the train snakes through the early morning darkness. By the time we leave Dresden we can just make out the Elbe river alongside.
The early German precision timetables disappears at the Czech border. We sit for what seems like an eternity with no explanation before limping along at walking speed towards Prague. Into Prague late morning and have to shake myself like a dog after sitting for too long in the one spot.
The international signage we had come to rely on in cosmopolitan Berlin has disappeared and we struggle to navigate our way to our pension. Thankfully whilst I have the bike to manage Robyn is all over her new map and soon enough we are standing outside our pension. Pity our room is on the fifth floor. I pant as I struggle with the bike on my shoulder up the staircase.
Prague’s inner city is exactly as you would expect. Period buildings side by side with modern interiors and credit card facilities to efficiently unload you of all your accumulated wealth. It’s pure reason for being is the tourist dollar. The crowds are so overbearing we scamper back to our room for a while. Later we timidly head out again to cross the famous Charles bridge and observe some rather poor quality street theatre. A bowl of pasta washed down with a few thirds of Czech beer.
We are out early again the next morning, Robyn has us booked on a 4 hour city tour. Our guide is earnest but softly spoken and in a bustling city of traffic, jackhammers news and boisterous American tourists full of high octane European coffee. I can hear nothing. Instead I nod every ten minutes and we move on.
There is no question that Prague is beautiful and in there lies the problem. Everyone comes here. The squares are all full of tribes of fifty. Where they hide all of the buses is anyones guess. Our mob of eighteen seems nimble in comparison with the larger marauding mobs.
We cross the Manesuv bridge and work our way up to Prague castle. The castle is a maze of buildings with a new wing apparently built every 100 years. The stained glass in St Vitus cathedral is spectacular even with little sunshine on offer. It made the climb worthwhile.
Tonight we escape the city of tourism to meet a friend in Suburbia. Mark and Vera live North of the city in a wooded area. It’s quiet, warm and perfect for a wander to the local pub. Robyn is determined to eat as much local food as possible. Fried cheese, pork and potato pancakes. Then she is tasting my potato crepe wrapped around pork and sauerkraut. It’s all heavy food and matches the sturdiness of the locals. Full of local beer and heavy food we safely wander back into the city thanks to my famous navigator. The night is such a success we do it all again the following night at Vera’s house. Yes, more pork, sauerkraut and dumplings.
I wake to the sound of light rain, not great considering this is my first day of riding. I head downstairs early and eat my breakfast alone. My plan is to get the Metro South a few stations outside of Prague away from the heavy traffic then push off. I put on my raincoat but already know the outcome. It’s steady, soaking rain and within an hour I am wet through.
Robyn will make her way by train, bus, or ferry over the following week. I will meet her at the station in Tabor this afternoon but first I have to get there. A few wrong turns has me peddling hard to try to make up lost time. First into the town of Jesenice then onto Benesov. I am hungry and get excited when I spot a roadside van ahead. The excitement wanes when I realise he is only selling smoked fish.
The rain has stopped but the wind in the hills is buffeting me about and I have to hold on tight for fear of sailing into the adjacent traffic. The fun will come soon ? Finally the sun comes out and I’m at the station just as Robyn’s train arrives. As a single traveller she has made a few Czech friends on the train. So keen have they been to talk that she saw little of the countryside but a lovely experience all the same. Hearty meals, great locals beers and a long walk to stretch my legs after the first 100 km day.
I wake to bright yellow omelette spilling over the sides of a dinner plate. It’s still windy but not raining. Again I get parting instructions from a receptionist. “Down the hill, over the bridge and then up a large hill. “ yep, spot on. It was Sunday morning and cars are parked along the side of the nearby forest. Gunshot rang out as the locals let off a week of boring factory work with a few bullets into a deer, a boar or more likely a tiny chirping bird. I hung low over the handlebars and pushed on into the wind.
As I climbed a rather steep hill out of Tyn n Vltavou I hear a sudden bang, worse than a gunshot wound my chain has exploded. I have no choice but to roll back down to the bottom of the hill and the only sign of life for miles. I spot a man washing a car in an Eastern bloc apartment complex. The complex must have been built to house the workers for the nuclear power station that towers over the valley. He shrugs when he sees my predicament , nods, looks sour and disappointed then returns with some tools. In typical Eastern European manner making something out of nothing we cobble the chain back together again. In two very different languages we grunt, sigh and express disgust in equally amounts. Carefully I remount and wave goodbye to my new found friend who has already returned to polishing his car.
I enter Ceske Budejovice exhausted, hungry and cold. I gesture for food but get nowhere. Then the shopkeeper turns and says sup? The look on my face says yes, yes, yes. I sit down to a big bowl of chicken and vegetable soup. It immediately warms me, fills me and returns some colour to my face. This guy should be a doctor.
I leave feeling so much better but soon sleet is whipping across my face and I lean forward just wanting Ceske Krumlov to appear in front of me. I finally arrive in a torrent of rain, slipping about on treacherous cobbles unable to find the described pension Marie. Then I look up, Robyn is sitting in a window high above the main square reading a book. Finally some luck and another 100 kms completed.
I soak under a hot shower till I can feel my feet again letting the water wash away the tightness in my body. Then an hours sleep and a wander around the small town. We’ve had the restaurant under our pension recommended and it’s a real local with smiles all round and good food. Robyn attacks a carp and I settle for a rich pork neck.
The sky is full of dark clouds sweeping past our attic window. We eat the whole of our breakfast basket unsure if it was a test or simple generosity by the owners. We waddle off around the castle set within the amazing natural moat. The river scours into the rocky hill almost completely circling before heading further South. The original locals had to do little to protect themselves from invaders other than to drop in a few brown bears which still fossick for food far below.
We walk and explore but I fail a navigation test set by Robyn and she returns to the pension to read more of her book. I’m a failure in both map reading and general navigation instincts. I have a quiet laugh late in the afternoon as we stand reading the menu at a vegetarian ? restaurant that starts with a list of pork dishes…
I wait for the breakfast basket to arrive. It’s loaded so high I am able to make up a couple of travel rolls with the leftovers. The mornings riding is beautiful and mostly downhill following the wild forest along the Vltava river. Campers and canoeists dot the river banks their drooping wet tents telling a story of soggy Autumn weather. I meet three young riders heading to Italy on their bikes. They are carrying everything for three weeks as they have no money. Even so the thought of peddling towards warmer climes seems attractive even to me. They are full of high spirits laughing and crying out to each other as they work their way South. What fun awaits them.
The rain gets heavier after lunch as I start to climb towards the Austrian border. This is stretching my enjoyment levels. I finally arrive onto a well cleared section of Alpine pasture and get in line dwarfed amongst a bevy of international lorries waiting to show their passports. A bit more work then it’s 35 kms all downhill into Linz, a total of 75 kms for the day. Wet and cold from all the downhill I shiver uncontrollably in the Linz information centre trying to book a room. I stand in the shower till the shaking subsides then head to the station to find Robyn.
Robyn has again found a handful of friends on the train, I think she is enjoying this independant travel. I’ve often found it more likely to meet others when you are on your own. After Czech, prices have gone sky high again in wealthy Austria. Everything is as neat as a pin. No more rustic rough wines, no home style country cooking with country prices. There is a certain finesse in everything here.
Late afternoon I find myself at the Internet cafe, an assortment of school desks jammed into a small shopfront with an array of old and young travellers all trying to connect with home. My MSN Hotmail site has a picture of two highrise towers on fire. My eyes head to my mail then back to the fire. My first thought was I was watching a promo for a Hollywood movie. Except it isn’t. The World Trade towers in New York have been attacked with planes crashing into one then the other. Not far away the Pentagon has also been hit by a plane. I turn and beckon an American couple sitting near me to view my screen. They are unaware of what has just happened. They go silent then ashen faced. The world waits for someone to claim responsibility, thousands have died. I wander back confused and unsure to Robyn in our pension. The world has spun off its axis.
We don’t know what to do but get hungry and eventually head out looking for dinner. There is a real unease on the street. Stern faces, little laughter.
I am back out on the bike the next morning. I wander through the Main Street of Linz over the bridge and onto the cyclist equivalent of a freeway, the main bike path along the Danube river. No longer am I the lone cyclist but part of a lively line of cyclists on tandems, electric bikes and touring bikes. There are mobile retirement villages of elderly Europeans with loaded pannier bags doing self guided mini tours along the smooth and pancake flat bike path. Laughter and wheezing is expelled in equal doses.
My repaired chain gives out in Enns and just as I get going the rain starts to fall. It gets heavier and heavier. To the point where I find refuge in a McDonalds burger joint full of wet steamy teenagers and enough noise to send me back out into the elements. I arrive at Grien completely soaked but manage to find Robyn huddled in the station waiting room just above the town centre. Robyn finds us a gem of a pension. Mrs Grien ushers us in. She has drying racks for our clothes and a radio to catch up on the international terrorist news, she fusses about like a mother hen. Dinner at the Golden Krone is magnificent. A schnitzel with sour cherry sauce for me and Robyn tucks into a goulash and a very large glass of flinty local white wine. I’ve ticked off another 75 kms.
The sun breaks through the next morning. All is as planned as I walk Robyn and our large travel bag up to the station. Once she is sorted I peddle off towards Melks. I have to double back a few kms to get onto the other side of the river. Small farms dot the countryside with the bike path weaving in and out from the river. I see Robyn’s train whistle then rattle past on the opposite bank.
Mid morning and I have done a cruisy 25 kms. Suddenly a large farm dog comes out of a field, first crouching then slinking towards me. Finally it bounds towards me knocking me from my bike and catching itself in the front wheel. We spill to the ground together before the dog begins to yelp and scampers off home.
I’m pissed off and slowly get back up to check for damage. My elbow is sore and my pannier bags have dislodged. My elbow is throbbing and I start searching for a nearby town and hopefully a doctor. I find a town but it has no doctor. The only place is Melks my final destination 20 kms further on. My elbow is the size of a tennis ball and getting bigger. My elbow has no feeling. I clutch my cycle top with my fist and keep riding. I find the hospital (Krankenhaus) easily and lean my bike against the front wall before heading inside.
The afternoon is X-rays and the news that the tendons have been severed from my elbow. The elbow is drained, the tendons are stapled back onto the bone and I am sewn back up. I feel terrible and realise I won’t be riding on. I contact Robyn who is already firmly settled in a winery with accomodation at Durnstein on the other side of the river.
As much as I feel terrible, listening to a room full of very ill patients calling out, crying and groaning last night put it all in perspective. I was going to survive, mend and leave this hospital many of them wouldn’t. The surgeon comes around to visit and tells me in perfect English that I can leave. He had arranged for my bike to be taken to the basement after being told it was leaning against the front entrance. Robyn arrives and is happy to see me moving although slowly. We gather the bike and our bags and slowly work our way to the station.
My planned day riding form Melks into Vienna takes one and a half hours on a no nonsense local train. We go out looking for some comfort food and a few beers. We are both glad today is over. We must replan the rest of our trip. We shuffle around Vienna with its expensive coffee shops, wealthy clientele and spoilt lap dogs. Late in the day I head to the airport hotel, the one we will return to later to request they store my bike. It’s too far to walk from the station and I have to ride it one handed with every bump jarring up through my sore body. I find out something new about my wife. She cannot go more than two days without pasta.
Early Sunday morning we head to the station for our train to Bratislava. There is a large groups of American tourists already up and about. Church bells are peeling as there is a special service for the victims of the attacks in America. It makes for a very sobering start to our day. The sombre Eastern European skies don’t lift the mood. The train quickly leaves the city confines to be replaced by farmlands and belching industrial chemical plants.
At the border to Slovakia we transfer to a single carriage train. We all look bemused and a little panicky that we are supposed to all fit inside a single carriage. There is pushing and shoving as we all try to squeeze in. Many feared they wouldn’t. Somehow they got us all aboard with children crying and everybody crammed against each other. A lonely solemn Japanese man chooses not to board and he watches as we leave. We could be going to the gas chambers it feels so bleak.
We spill out into a very quiet city on a Sunday afternoon. There is just the grinding squeak of the city’s old double trams to pierce the silence. We work our way towards the Danube and the old city centre. There are many old stately buildings of a more prosperous time. Later on we wander up to the the Bratislava castle towering over all around it. The view across to the other side of the river is of very unattractive Soviet style housing towers. A recent freeway has simply cut the city in half. Nearby buildings have literally been severed in half to enable the freeway to pass. It is beyond ugly and has stripped this ancient city of any ounce of pride and dignity.
We wander about through a small fish market. Supplies of freshwater fish have just arrived and are sloshing about in large tanks. Pretty much the same conditions we are walking in. Off to dinner once Robyn can find her recommended basement restaurant. Robyn chooses the catfish in a spicy sauce. I ask her if it was one of the ones we saw offloaded earlier. I just get the look.
We are thankful to be moving on, the Autumn weather is more dead of Winter to me. Our next train pulls us to Gyor, Hungary and although Robyn’s guide book spruiks 10 hours of sunshine per day we are met with pissing rain. We see nothing from beneath our raincoats drawn up tight except the torrents of water on the cobbles. I am rigid with nerves as one slip and my elbow will return to its earlier throbbing pain.
Gyor will remain a mystery to me. At 6am the following morning I am marched back to the station for a bus to Estergom and then another bus to Szentendre. Did I see anything out of the windows of the bus ? The condensation running down the glass as fast as the nearby Danube ? As the bus filled with factory workers, school children and pensioners clutching empty bags the temperature rose and breathe turned to vapour. The final straw is a pay toilet that is reminiscent of St Petersburg station and not in a good way. Szentendre is a daytime tourist town with strong connections to the river. We walk till we are worn out then fossick for dinner along a strip of empty restaurants. We get piano and large plates of pork and noodles and a very good Hungarian Riesling. Robyn swoons over rich, hot chocolate as we walk in the shadows back to our pension.
We wake to sunshine casting images on the bedroom wall and school children crunching on gravel as they head to early classes. The bell rings at the school and I get up and stretch like my first class is physical education. The bell also signals our breakfast is ready downstairs.
I try to navigate the street of Szentendre this morning, I don’t know why I bother. I firstly found a flooded camping ground then numerous dead end laneways before I latched onto a couple walking a sausage dog who looked like they knew what they were doing. I feel Robyn’s disappointment in my navigation once again.
Late morning and a 200 km train ride brings us into Budapest. It’s a far grander city than we both expected. The parliament building dominates the skyline. The afternoon is a mixture of sightseeing and a doctors appointment to check on my elbow. We go to bed with news that America is far from happy with the twin tower bombing and is sending planes to the Middle East for some return volley.
Robyn has us booked on a city walking tour the following morning. The cities change but the meet ups are all the same. They are always near a famous monument, spitting distance from a McDonald’s with couples pretending they are not waiting for a tour. Our tour guide squeezes hundreds of years into a few hours. He asks many questions and as long as you answer 1867 he is happy. It’s relevance is still lost on me till I find out it is when the region formerly part of Austria became known as Hungary.
His choice of “poor choice in partners” in the wars is greeted by a bit of foot shuffling and muffled laughter from his captive audience. He follows this up with “and then when the Germans had finished with us the Russians chewed on the remaining bones.” Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It took until 1991 to get the Russian soldiers out of Hungary. The city has enthusiastically embraced commercialism. Or maybe the bold signage just stands out against a glib Soviet blandness. To support our views on commercialism we find the magnificent and historical Buda Castle to be closed for the filming of a Hollywood movie with Eddie Murphy.
It’s an edgy Robyn awake and packing before the dawn. We breakfast the minute the room is opened then a brisk walk to our train. Just enough time to buy some salami and egg rolls already sweating in tight glad-wrap. Yum ? We sway along for eight hours back through Bratislava and the Czech Republic before heading to Katowice. It’s then an offshoot line to Krakow.
Sure enough with multiple connections one eventually goes wrong. I feel the anxiety rise. Robyn spots a station sign with the word Katowice in its title, she demands I get off. For a moment I feel like a human sacrifice, I refuse and for once I am right. We eventually arrive in Katowice only to find it is a town full of street stalls selling the stuff your grandmother always seemed to find for your birthday. The nearby countryside looks bleak with a thick mist adding to the desperation. It’s dark when we arrive in Krakow, there is a scuffle between us as we discuss catching the No 15 tram or a taxi for 20 zloties (A$10) I am stupid to have dug my heels in… we are there in 5 minutes. No strength left to eat out, instead we dine in our hotel which is of Russian style (enormous and no style ) The hotel passageway is so long I stride out 175m from one end to the other. Some customers will faint between reception and their room.
Krakow has a beautiful tree lined path shielding the old city from the constant buzz of traffic. We wander in a fine mist in our raincoats enjoying the solitude. The path is littered with sausage dogs. In a city of apartment dwellers small dogs reins supreme but then we spot a poster for a dog show and the puzzle is complete.
As we walk past the Krakow theatre we spot a sign for a Nigel Kennedy Bach concert. The ticket lady tells us that the concert is sold out but he is currently rehearsing and just wander in. We expect to be alone but there is around 400 others sitting quietly listening to his violin dance above the orchestra. It’s a lovely hour, totally unexpected. Robyn is not finished yet and leads me through the streets to the Jewish quarter for more sad tales of persecution.
A solemn bus ride with twenty others to Auschwitz no one is expecting this to be a fun day at Disneyland. An hour on the bus then we are suddenly dropped at the infamous gates. These gates greeted a million plus Jews, gypsies, Poles and Hungarians. The sign reads ‘Work gives Freedom.’ Well that didn’t really happen.
We sit through a sobering documentary then walk the barracks, the double barbed wire fences never far away. There are rooms full of items taken from the prisoners. The guards called the loot Canada. Worth much the same amount as the country of Canada. Rooms brimming with glasses, toothbrushes, shoes and clothes. A room full of human hair used to manufacture the backing for carpet. You feel repulsed thinking about the barbaric behaviour of fellow human beings. Your head just shakes in disbelief.
The guide takes us into the underground bunker where hundreds of people were jammed into this oppressive room. Once inside a canister of poisoned gas was dropped from a manhole above whilst a truck sat idling outside to baffle the 2-3 minutes of screaming. We head onto Birkenau where the camp was even larger. You can see the foundation layout of the original barracks for as far as the eye can see. It’s too easy to imagine the place jammed with people all awaiting death on an industrial scale.
I feel stunned and can barely remember what happens for the rest of the day. Evidently it rained to add to the gloom. We ate more rich pasta, drank fine wine but the conversation across the table was overshadowed by the day’s stark history lesson.
Our departure to Zakopane falters when we realise we’ve left our daypack in last nights restaurant. They don’t open till lunchtime so we wait about under a Summer umbrella on very soggy chairs. We board a local bus happy to be out of the rain. More soggy plastic wrapped rolls sit rather unappetising on the parcel rack above our heads. But no time to worry about lunch when you’ve got a madman at the wheel. He wildly lurches out into the traffic. He figures he’s the same size as a tram therefore he will follow the tram tracks until we reach the main road South out of the city. As the city turns to country so does the weather turn from rain to sunshine. We pass newly built haystacks looking like scary creatures in the fields, all tall and bright green. In the distance we can see the Tatra mountains.
Two hours later we are there. We are surrounded by locals holding signs for accomodation. It’s the end of the season and there are few tourists still arriving. It’s a pretty town and we already feel better for having escaped another city. We find a small bar and enjoy an hour of feeling like a local listening to unfathomable Polish chat yet easily recognisable laughter.
It’s misty but not raining. Map in hand my tireless tour leader marches us out of town towards a nearby valley. We follow a stream up to Dolina Bialego then across country to Dolina Strazyska. This all sounds simple until we find ourselves surrounded by large slippery smooth, wet boulders. First Robyn goes over and gets up stiff and sore. Fifteen minutes later I’m racked with sharp pin in my elbow as my body tenses when I nearly hit the deck. We let out a collective sigh when we reunite with the main trail back into Zakopane. We head to yesterdays bar just for the feeling of familiarity after being on the move for so long. We sip our drinks as the bar slowly fills with second hand cigarette smoke.
We wake to a complete white out. The plans for a vernacular ride then walk to a nearby summit won’t happen. The local information booth suggest we catch a bus to a nearby valley then a tourist train and a five km walk to a refuge for lunch. Easy peasy Japanesy. Our bus ticket is for Dolina Chocholowska and our bus is packed tight with school children on an excursion and local farmers. No one can read our tiny tickets. There is a discussion amongst everyone else on board as to where we should get off. We do not get to vote.
Thankfully their guess was correct and we wander along the fields to the tourist train watching local peasant women picking large baskets of mushrooms. It’s cold and even colder when we find a sign confirming it’s 5c. A big bowl of goulash and fresh rustic bread is a real treat at the refuge. We grunt and slurp like we were born here. Drizzle has set in and we feel cold to the bone. I convince Robyn to walk all the way back to the bus some 10 kms. I must give her credit for a non complaining sterling effort to slog it out in harsh conditions. Back on the local bus the school children and mushroom pickers are overjoyed to know we had a lovely day in the valley thanks to their vote. All without a word of either English or Polish. That’s what I love about travelling.
Robyn’s reward for today is another night at our local bar. We watch a local girl being harassed by a bloke as she reads her paper. The girl running the bar steps forward and gives the guy a spray, demanding he leave. The commotion last all of a few minutes but confirmed a real no nonsense attitude towards bad behaviour. A heavy blanket hangs in the doorway to equally protect patrons from the cold yet make it easy to enter. The trouble maker barely touches the blanket on his way out. I turn to Robyn in perfect Polish, I say… Goneski. She laughs but I don’t think she appreciated my rural dialect.
We’ve loved our time in the Tatra mountains far from the well trodden Western tourist route and with a more relaxed local atmosphere. No expectations whatsoever only amazing discoveries, surprises and experiences.
I tell Robyn there is no reason to book the bus back to Krakow only to find our bus packed to the rafters. We manage a seat somehow but many stand for the 100 km trip . The calamity that was the bus terminal only a few days go seems surprising organised as we skirt confidently around the buses , march uninterested past the cheap eat stalls towards our final bus to the airport. The public transport has seemed terribly overcrowded everywhere we’ve been. People think nothing of leaning, swaying and crashing hard against others whilst clutching half their worldly possessions. Somehow it all just holds together.
We leave all the tired Eastern Bloch blandness behind as we step into the brand new gleaming Krakow airport. The wrapping paper still hasn’t been removed. They are expecting big things from the tourism trade around here. In an hour we’ve skipped over the alps back into Vienna, Austria. We go from a wheezing old Polish state owned bus to a Mercedes taxi scooting along at 150 km/hr towards our hotel.
I find my bike tucked away out the back. Unfortunately there is no bike box available so it will have to load for the journey home as is. After a day of sitting we are happy to wander far from the polished new airport motel to a small pub in a nearby village. We bask in the afternoon sunshine smiling at the orderly nature of everything, even the woodpiles along the river have been stacked with military precision.
The small pub is a perfect way to finish our trip. The waitress taking the orders has authority and a large leather bag full of bank notes around her ample waist. She is jolly and the vibe runs through all of the customers. I can’t go past a final schnitzel whilst Robyn eats something breadcrumbed the size of a pony. I sip on Weiss beer whilst Robyn drinks their Riesling. No money changes hands till a tally of coded markings on my beer coaster confirm the damage. We waddle up the hill half pissed but very, very happy. I’ve finally forgotten about my elbow, the doctors back home will give it a thorough check. For now I just want to get home to my own bed. What an adventure.