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Vail Daily travel: What a capital idea

Matthew Cull
Travel correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Matthew Cull
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Editor’s note: This is the ninth installment of Matthew Cull’s series about his cycling journey through Iceland and eastern Europe. Cull has cycled through 50 countries on six continents. Visit his website at http://www.matthewjkcull.com or contact him at matthewcull@me.com.

My cycle journey through Eastern Europe took a breather in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. If you can see over, around, or through the fleets of tourists massing on the cobblestones, it is obvious that Prague is a quintessential Old World masterpiece. Castles, spires, churchs, and fine old buldings dominate a sweeping bend in the Vltava River which is crossed by a dozen bridges. Cruise boats ply the waters, bus loads ply the alleys, and parks provide a haven of peace.

Leaving Prague could not have been easier. I followed cycle paths upstream for 20 kilometers and turned left up the hill. I immediately joined on to Czech’s impressive and intricate system of cycle routes along minor roads and byways that afforded me enjoyable cycling all the way to the border. There was no doubt that Czech won all prizes for cycling organization, compatibility and enjoyment. Indeed, while the Czech landscape is pleasant rather than spectacular, it had the right combination of all the factors to place it far ahead of all other countries in Eastern Europe for cycling and travel.



My passage south linked the pretty old world towns of Tabor, Ceske Budejovice, Cesky Krumlov and picked up a few castles along the way. I wound through the Sumava mountains along its southern border and crossed into Western Europe, into Austria. I rolled out of the hills and bumped into the reason for diverting from my Eastern European cause – the Danube River. I was getting to like this whole cycle route/path scene, and along the Danube from Germany to Slovakia is a continuous line of traffic-free cycle paths, often on both sides of the river.

I turned east and beamed along level smooth pavement, crossing the lowlands of northern Austria, with the big green brown of the Danube never far away. More a series of dammed resevoirs than a river, it is slow and sluggish, bound by high levee banks and a mix of farmland and swampy forest. Long, heavily laden barges move upstream and cyclists flit about on a sunny weekend free from the evils of traffic. Paths link cute little villages below castle ruins perched on steep cliffy valley sides.



After a couple of days, I pulled into Vienna, home of waltzes, great composers and an empire only good now for its stately old buildings and palaces surrounded by formal parks and gardens, oases of grandiose tranquility amid a sea of frenetic capital city.

I continued down the Danube crossing into Slovakia, to its capital Brattislava. For a European city, its old town is modest, but its seas of Communist-era apartment buildings are something to behold. Fortunately they have mostly been painted happier colors.

Further downstream, I crossed the Danube on a dam that supplies Slovakia’s entire residential use. Further still, tragedy struck. The cycle paths came to an end and I was back on the streets. I crossed the Danube, into Hungary, under the steady gaze of an enormous basilica perched on a hill above the bridge. After its long run east, the Danube turns south to meander across the vast Hungarian Plain and into Croatia and Serbia. It soon splits Hungary’s capital into its two distinctive elements. On the west bank is Buda – hilly, leafy, single-family homes climb forested hills. On the east is Pest – flat, a sea of five-story buildings sprawling out onto the plain. Both sides pay homage to the river, flanking it with palace, castle, churchs, citadel, and its iconic parliament building.



Still I continued east. I ventured out on to the plain then cycled to the summit of Kekes (3,350 feet), the highest peak in Hungary that rises in one shot above the plain that is barely above sea level.

Like the Danube, I turned south. I rolled out of the hills and onto the vast flatness of the plain. I tacked southeast and southwest into stiff headwinds through huge fields of wilting corn and dark, sorry-looking sunflowers, their heads hanging low. The days are getting short, the nights cool, the forest on Kekes had a yellowish hue and wind pushed dry leaves across the road.

The plain continued out of the European Union and into Serbia. Head winds picked up speed, protective trees disappeared from the landscape, dark stormy showers roamed skies above enormous fields that disappeared over the horizon. I took brief reprieve from the flatness, climbing into the forested Furska Gora hills, then rolled down the other side into Belgrade, capital of Serbia.

The last leg of my journey to Istanbul is at hand, and I agonize over the best route – easy cycling along the Danube, the effort of the mountains, the poor roads of Bulgaria. A spicy mix to finish the journey.


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