Editor's note: This is the first part in a three-part series. Check back next week for Part 2.
Being international bicycling tour vets, we're always looking for more - more days, more places, more adventure. We wanted more.
As it turned out, we got more than we bargained for.
If someone had told me that we were going to plant our older than 60-year-old butts on bicycle seats and pedal more than 1,000 kilometers from Prague, Czech Republic, to Budapest, Hungary, I would have thought that they were nuts. Well, maybe we are the nuts because that is exactly what my my significant other, Valerie, and I did.
Not content with the pampered seven-day bike tours we had previously ridden with several different U.S.-based bicycle tour companies, these escorted rides through the civilized countries of France and Italy, and even a self-guided, eight-day trip around the island of Majorca didn't seem enough. I turned to the web and perused the online catalog offered by biketoursdirect.com.
What's this? Nineteen days of self-guided bicycle touring from Prague to Budapest. Sounds interesting, and the tour included eight days of riding the famous Danube Bike Trail. How bad could that be? Well, wait and see.
I had discovered biketoursdirect.com several years ago when the world had taken a financial beating. Up to that point, we had been riding tours selected out of slick catalogs and were paying the $300- to $400-per-day tab.
Things are different now, but our desire to ride bikes in Europe is still strong. With a kind of "do it while you still can" mentality, I searched for less expensive ways to keep the dream alive.
Do we really need some suave Italian tour guide waiting around every corner with fresh fruit and granola bars to keep us going? Do we want to spend every night around the dinner table with 14 strangers? No. We had participated in several of those tours, and we hope to take many more - it is not a bad way to travel. But let's talk the here and now.
Enter the self-guided bicycle tour concept. Last year, we gave it a try - eight days of four-star treatment: luggage transferred from beach-front hotel to beach-front hotel, breakfast and dinner each day. Just enough personal attention, maps, detailed trail guide, quality bike rental, beautiful weather and fabulous riding going 'round the Spanish island of Majorca. All of this for only 700 Euros, or about $130 U.S., per day. What a deal, and what a great tour it turned out to be.
Back home in Colorado after that adventure, the wheels started turning. The fact is that you can ride two or even three self-guided bike tours for the price of one guided tour. That is exactly what Jim Johnson, president of biketoursdirect.com, and I discussed.
Jim said that I wasn't alone in my thinking, and many of his American customers had come to that same conclusion. Even in this troubled economy, his business was growing.
His 9-year-old company and its online catalogue offer more than 200 tours in 35 different countries, representing 60 different European tour companies.
A detailed list of guided and self-guided bicycle tours gives day-to-day information on every European locale from Portugal to Turkey. The website has links to weather history, travel and rail schedules - all in all, a bike tourist's dream list.
So there it is, the longest tour on the menu, Prague to Budapest, 19 days in the saddle with a base price of only $3,200. For an extra $400, you can upgrade to four-star hotels. Add another $400, and the accommodations include five-star hotels where available. Not a bad deal - an upgraded tour of 19 days for $4,200, or about $200 per day, a real bargain.
Breakfast is included every day; there was a welcome dinner in Prague and a farewell dinner in Budapest. We added one extra five-star night in Prague, two extra five-star nights in Vienna and an extra five-star night in Budapest, which brought the 23-day tour in for just less than $4,700 per person. Not bad considering that a deluxe five-night, six-day tour from a U.S.-based company can set you back more than $4,000.
Enter Jaromir Siblik, the owner of CZ EuroTour, a 13-year-old family-owned travel and tour agency based in the Czech Republic. The local provider of our bicycle tour, Jaromir is a former ballroom dancer now bicycle enthusiast. He was soon our new Czech best friend.
We met on the steps of Prague's President Hotel, a cozy five-star on the border of Josefov or the Jewish Quarter in the center of the city. Here, he delivered our bikes and sat down to discuss the coming tour, all being translated into English by his associate, Jana.
Before us, Jaromir laid out three portfolios, almost 10 pounds of media, all of the maps and detailed instructions we would need to traverse more than 700 miles through Czech, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. The first portfolio contained route instructions packaged in a day-by-day format: Turn here, do this, go there, route ... to road ... to trail ... and, most importantly, a daily elevation schematic, kilometer by kilometer. Also in this portfolio were individual vouchers for each of the 18 hotels we would be staying in over the next 23 nights.
These instructions were cued to the next portfolio, which contained more than 70 pages of detailed maps, each carefully marked to show the planned route and numbered in sequence. We were now starting to get a hint of the enormous scope of what we had gotten ourselves into. Then Jaromir brought out the big portfolio that contained more than 20 card table-sized maps that detailed the route through most of the important villages, towns and cities. Each was marked to show each night's lodging, how to get there and how to get out of there. Also in this portfolio were the extensive Danube Bike Trail tour books that would guide us through the last eight days of the coming journey.
It's raining outside, dark clouds in a city where few ride bikes, where there are more dead people than live ones, where few people speak English, and we are getting ready to cut the umbilical cord and take off on a very long bicycle ride.
It is a little creepy here in the rain; we wander through Josefov, the Jewish quarter that Hitler spared so later it could be turned into a museum of the Jewish race when he was done murdering them all. Thanks to never being bombed during World War II (albeit once by accident), the entire city survives, including a 13th century synagogue and Jewish cemetery, where eight centuries of graves are laid one on top of the other. It's fascinating history in a city of bad food and questionable service.
"Don't worry," I told Valerie, "things are sure to get worse."
Things got worse the very next day, but don't get me wrong. Prague is a beautiful and fascinating city full of historic significance. Unlike Paris, London or even New York City, Prague is one of those been there, done that, don't need to go back places. So here we are leaving our comfy five-star wombs to pedal through a city of endless trolley and train tracks, no organized bike lanes and hazards around every bend.
Overcast, but not raining, we climb up through the old city, the new city and then the communist-era suburbs of drab, ugly and too numerous concrete apartment buildings. This is a difficult trail to follow; we ask directions every 20 minutes or so, as no map or GPS is going to get you through this maze of bike and/or pedestrian pathways.
Eventually, you leave Prague and its environs for the wide-open spaces, alternating dense forests and wide-open farmlands. Always, there's the next village where the road splits three ways but with only one sign, so you guess which way you go and then you have to go back because you guessed wrong and there are plenty of hills to climb - sometimes again.
Wow, what a first day. It's almost 2 p.m., and we are not even at our first checkpoint, the famous Karistejn Castle. No time to stop and tour this 12th century Gothic masterpiece, as we need to get to safe harbor before dark.
Misguided and misdirected, and not yet used to reading the directions that have not been translated to their final form and not originally written in English, we end up back at the castle's tour bus and parking lot. Okay, we can make this work. A little conversation, mostly gestures, no English spoken here, a deal is made, and we dismantle the bikes and somehow get everything into a taxi for a 20-minute lift to get us back on track. This scores points with Valerie, who I sensed was on the verge of despair and has only cried once today.
Now it is just a two-hour huff, mostly uphill on questionable bike paths, paved, graveled or maybe just weeds, to get to the first night's rest in Pribram. If you never get to Pribram, you are not missing much: a dreary, communist-era outpost of closed and spent uranium mines and mills. It's also home to quite possibly the worst four-star hotel on Earth.
This hotel was built around a gym and squash courts and offered closet-sized rooms, a 9-inch diagonal TV with four channels and Sponge Bob sheets, comforters and pillowcases - just the pillowcases with no pillows inside. Now it was my turn to cry.
Rob Philippe is a fourth-generation Coloradan whose great grandfather came from Paris to build a hotel and saloons in Leadville in the 1870s. Philippe's parents built a log cabin in Frisco in 1946 and brought him to Frisco when he was 2 weeks old in the winter of 1949. Valerie Weber is a Jersey shore girl now champion amateur golfer who has resided in Cordillera in the Vail Valley for the past 15 years. The couple lives in Cabo San Lucas half of the year.