Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series chronicling a self guided bicycling tour from Prague, Czech Republic, to Budapest, Hungary.
The best thing about Pribram was leaving it. As was to be our standard MO for the next three weeks, we got lost for the first time only one hour into the ride. We figured it out and made up our own route to the next
The supplied maps were very readable in a large-scale with good topography and so detailed that we could improvise rather than back track. The next check point was the Orlic Dam and the major checkpoint on the day's ride. It was a beautiful ride until we found ourselves at the bottom of this towering dam with a 12 percent grade over a rough cobblestone road and a major climb to the route beyond.
"We can do this," we discussed the next obstacle as the local bus passed by. Joking around, I made a half-hearted hitch-hiking gesture and the bus stopped. Maybe having seen this pathetic site before, the driver motioned to us to put the bikes on board, we did.
There was only one other passenger as we stood rocking back and forth holding the bicycles erect. Up and up, over and past the dam, the bus finally stopped at the top of the hill. Only a 20-minute ride, it saved us two grueling hours of very difficult riding, the difference between pain and enjoyment, a valuable lesson learned.
Flashers on and parked in the middle of the road, the driver helped us unload the bikes, walked us over to a roadside map, explained our situation not speaking English, pointed to the correct path and recommended a restaurant. He refused any fare and bade us farewell.
All of the sudden things are looking up, but we are only one-and-a-half days into the ride. What is going to happen next?
Deposited by the side of the road in a small village, just one of dozens we were to ride through, we ended up at a 17th-century compound and a busy restaurant.
Filled to the brim with gray jump-suited and rubber-booted farm workers eating appealing food and drinking beer at 11 o'clock in the morning, we knew we were in luck.
The owner, Jan, explained in English that we were only the third and fourth Americans he has seen in 10 years and the only ones on bicycles. Good food, good beer and good directions set us off on an afternoon of riding through thick, dense forest and picturesque landscape of ancient castles and romantic chateaus, all overlooking the large, meandering rivers here in this part of the Czech Republic.
Things keep looking up and we keep pedaling into the late afternoon sun over more bridges, through more picturesque villages, in and out of shadowed forests then fields ripe for harvest to the confluence of the rivers Uitava and Otava, a fortified ancient castle and a comfortable inn and brewery built on the site of a brewery first built in 1380.
At the end of the second day, we are in a place called Zvikovske Podhradi, anticipated and welcomed guests at the Hotel Pivovarsky dvur. Pivo is Czech for beer.
Soon, the days like the Renaissance towns roll by. Each day brings another 40 or so miles of riding. Fourty miles, no big deal, maybe three or four hours of riding. Not so, I had heard that on a bike tour the average pace is 8.5 miles an hour, now I can tell you that is accurate. Fourty miles on tour is more like six or seven hours in the saddle. You connect from paved path to dirt road to lightly traffic two-lane highways, singletrack, muddy paths, marked tourist (hiking) paths that turn into greenways, in and out of each little village stopping for cheap beer, back on the trail and lost, get found only to get lost again. On the road before 9 a.m. and hope to find the next hotel before 4 p.m.
We are really starting to like this adventure. For the next seven days, we roll through the Czech Republic and an area called the "Czech Canada," and it is really quite beautiful. Towns, villages and small cities, spending a night in places who's names don't exactly roll off of the tongue: Pisek with its 13th century stone bridge; Huboka, the pearl of Southern Bohemia; Cheske Budajovice, site of the original Budvar/Budweiser brewery; Cesky Krumlov, a UNEESCO masterpiece; Trebon, famous for its spas; Jindrichuv Hradec and its fabulous chateau; Slavonice in a national park and on the triple boarders of Bohemia, Moravia and Austria. Finally, the last stop in the Czech Republic, Vranov nad Dyji, crowned by a hilltop 11th-century castle.
The memorable features of the past several days are the endless and numerous fishponds. We ride all day through 700 years of aqua culture. You would think that after all that time they would come up with something better to eat than grass carp. Other farm-raised delights include eel, pike and the better-tasting hybrid pike-perch.
The other culinary event is the beer; the Czechs take their beer seriously and the breweries are as numerous and as old as the towns we ride through: Platan since 1598, Cerna Hora since 1286, Gosser since 1860, Krusovice since 1581, Bohemia Regent since 1379, Bernard since 1597, Pilsner Urquell since 1842, Gambrinus since 1860, Cerveny Drak, Staropramen, Kozel and on and on.
We drink beer several times each day, sometimes in pubs and in small villages in the living rooms of the pub keeper's house. No mater how small the village, we can take a break and find a cold beer on tap. That's the beauty of bicycle touring, the hard to find rolls by every day, there is no privacy when viewing the world from your bike, we see all, and they see us.
For the past two days, we have been aware of Austria as we ride along the boarder with old pill boxes, machine gun nests and observation posts on our right. They're not to keep invaders out but to keep the citizens in.
Many Czech's talk of the "horrible 40 years" of communism. The smaller the village, the slower to have adapted, yet the houses are well kept, surrounded by piles of firewood and victory gardens, a sign that the economy is not good but life in general seems to be ok. On the 10th consecutive day of pedaling, we cross into Austria.
With great anticipation we ride across the bridge that is the border. The border crossing is deserted and the guard shack is boarded up, no one in sight. We immediately get lost and because of the severity and length of the last climb up from the river bottom, we decide to improvise once again and not backtrack.
Again, that's the nature of self-guided touring. With the help of the GPS and iPhone compass app, we take a different route, but in the right direction.
I felt it but Valerie expressed it best: "The forest smells better, the air is fresher, the sky more blue."
There was a noticeable difference. We stopped for lunch and then we knew we were not in the Czech Republic anymore. The Austrian beer was good, but now the $1 Czech half liter was the Austrian $5 half liter. The local chow house was spotless, well decorated and cheery.
The waitress spoke English and was happy to see us. Everywhere there were signs of commerce; new BMW's replaced the old 4-cylinder Soviet sedans. Was there such a big difference in such a short distance? Yes, would we have noticed it had we not been on bicycles? Maybe.
So another day of riding through national parks, this one in Austria and called Thayatal. One last day of rolling countryside to conquer before we reach Horn and then on to Kremes, the oldest city in Austria, old like in BC and not AD. Kremes is also the first city on the long anticipated Danube Bike Trail. No more hills, or so we thought.
Danube Bike Trail
The Danube Bike Trail is well documented in a series of combination map-guides published by bikeline guides from www.esterbauer.com. We were provided with Parts 2 and 3. These would take us kilometer by kilometer the 350 miles to the finish line in Budapest.
Time wise we were at the halfway mark, a full two days of riding out of Vienna and a planned three-night rest stop. Don't think that these guides were the answer to our oft piste wanderings, because even with such detail there are complications. In fact, there isn't a Danube Bike Trail, it is more of a "route." A designated route that sometimes is paved bike path, at other times a dirt track or lightly trafficked and then heavily trafficked roads. There is signage unless it has been defaced or otherwise damaged.
Sometimes you are given options like " may be difficult to transit in wet weather." Still it is a route, and the guide is informative and eventually will get you to where you are going.
We are now riding through the major wine region of Austria and it is late September. The harvest is in full swing, and the route passes villages clogged with tractors pulling wagons full of green grapes. The odor of fresh-pressed grapes seeps from the courtyards of the numerous small wineries. Now, besides the ever-present river and the two-lane road, we share the route with a railway. The railroad tracks become important landmarks and aid in our direction finding.
If you are tired or maybe drank too much wine with lunch, the option of hopping the local rail bus exists. I am a rail fan, so when Valerie suggests a longer lunch break at a very tasty beer garden and then a quick 15-minute rail ride into Kremes, I couldn't refuse.
That afternoon, we arrived in the student-packed city of Kremes by rail. We still get lost looking for the hotel, which turned out to be part of the local university campus, very modern and comfortable.
Kremes is a college town and has been for many centuries. A real happening place, so we were no longer limited in our choices. We ride and walk the pedestrian streets in awe of the variety of food and drink we hadn't seen for many days. I didn't see carp on any of the menu boards, so I felt good about this place.
Rob Philippe is a fourth-generation Coloradan whose great grandfather came from Paris, France, 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.