Category Archives: Czech Republic

Gliwice to Bratislava 10-18 July 2011

We’d initially expected to spend just a couple of days in Gliwice, but what with waiting for a spare freehub that didn’t arrive until the Monday, and generally enjoying my sister’s company (!), we ended up spending a whole week there, including a day in neighbouring Katowice and a tour round Gliwice’s radio tower.  It was a really nice, relaxing break, but our Russian visa expiration date was ticking away in the background so on Tuesday 12th we thought we’d better get our asses back in the saddle.  We decided to head south via Pszczyna where they make a special vodka infused with bison grass.  Why there are bison in Pszczyna I have no idea, but there are, and the grass they graze on…or rather the grass they haven’t yet grazed on…is popped into the local voddy.  It’s very nice.  Then, whilst looking at the map for somewhere with a decent stretch of forest near Pszczyna that might be good to camp in, we noticed that Auschwitz wasn’t very far away.  It hadn’t been on our original itinerary, and after having been to Mauthausen I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go, but Keith was keen to get a sense of the scale of the place so we decided to spend another day sightseeing and, after camping in a very comfortable grassy little glade, we headed off in the airless heat to visit the largest of the Nazi death camps.  Killing on an industrial scale.  On the way we were hailed by a couple of middle-aged ladies on bicycles who’d spotted us the previous evening in Pszczyna and were delighted to have the chance to talk to us.  It was the first of two serendipitous meetings that morning that led us to change our itinerary yet again and see the most humbling and thought-provoking art exhibition I’ve ever been to.  The two ladies on bikes told us of an exhibition by an Auschwitz survivor that was on display in the crypt of a Franciscan church in a nearby village.  Our map wasn’t very detailed so the village was hard to find, but eventually we found it, and discovered the exhibition was entry by appointment only…we were about to give up and leave when the second serendipitous meeting occurred.  An elderly couple approached us and, after we explained why we were there, they went and banged on the door of one of the nearby buildings and arranged for someone to show us round the exhibition.  How lucky was that?  The artist, Marian Kolodziej, had died relatively recently, in 2009, and had not only drawn the pictures but had also designed how the exhibition should look.  The entrance was through a shattered glass door and into a dark wooden enclosure to bring to mind the cattle trucks in which people were transported.  Photos of his friends who hadn’t made it were pinned roughly to the wood.  Our guide explained that the artist had been just 17 when he imprisoned as a political activist and was in the first train-load of prisoners to be sent to Auschwitz.  Incredibly he survived 5 years at Auschwitz, only to be liberated by the Red Army and then re-arrested by them almost immediately as they thought he was too friendly with the US soldiers, and he then spent the next 5 years in a gulag.  He said there wasn’t much to choose between the two.  Anyhow, the drawings.  They were almost all done in black and white (good & evil symbolism), either pencil or pen, on large sheets of paper that were then placed together to form huge wall and ceiling coverings.  The drawings were all completed in a nine month frenzy following a stroke in 1992.  He’d enjoyed a successful career as an artist and stage designer but had never before drawn anything relating to his internment…in fact prior to his stroke he’d never even spoken to his wife of what had happened, but suddenly, he was compelled to bear witness.  Whether it was simply a sudden sense of his own mortality, or whether it was, as our guide told us a visiting professor of neuroscience had posited, a re-awakening of buried memories by the stroke, I don’t know, but it must have been quite frightening for his wife to see him suddenly compelled to spend every waking hour on the floor, crouched over a piece of paper, drawing.  Faces, hundreds and hundreds of faces: of those who didn’t make it, of those who tortured them, of the desperate starvation, cannibalism, barbarity and utter lack of humanity.  And in the midst of this overwhelming horror there were some particularly personal stories.  One of his jobs had been to shovel corpses into a barrow and take them to the crematorium.  One day he came across the body of his best friend.  He refused to use the shovel, but instead, lifted him in his arms and carried him, an act that could have been enough to cause him to be sent for special punishment, but which he needed to do to prove to himself he still had a scrap of humanity left in his soul.  From that day on he also took the first name of his best friend, Marian, and has been known by no other since.  A few drawings later, the reason why he left his exhibition to the Franciscans became apparent to us.  One of the more famous stories about Auschwitz is the sacrifice of a Franciscan friar called Maximilian Kolbe.  There had been some infraction, an escape attempt I think, and in retaliation the Nazis selected ten men to be starved to death in the punishment cells.  Maximilian volunteered to take the place of one of the other men, who had a wife and children.  At first I didn’t really understand the significance of this, to be honest, I thought it was a bit stupid.  What’s the point of sacrificing yourself when it doesn’t change anything?  Ten men will still die, it just means you’re one of them (although perhaps that’s preferable to living in a concentration camp) and in any case, there’s no guarantee that the man you’ve saved will survive anyway (although apparently he did).  However, my ignorance was soon addressed as I began to see it through the artist’s eyes.  He had personally witnessed this act of sacrifice and been profoundly moved by it.  At the end of the exhibition there was a line of text in which he dedicated the exhibition to Kolbe and said that he’d saved more than one life that day.  It seems the mood in the camp had changed following that act.  Men who’d previously given up all hope suddenly felt there was something to live for, felt that there was still some good in the world, in men.  I’m not doing the exhibition justice with my perfunctory and inadequate description.  It spoke volumes more than seeing the camp itself.  Some pictures were horrific but you were ready for them, knowing what the exhibition would be about, others, in particular one where his younger self was reaching over the shoulder of his older self and guiding his hand to fill the page, turning endless numbers into endless faces, were shockingly and profoundly moving.  It was absolutely masterful and I feel so privileged to have seen it. Everyone should have the opportunity.

Back on the road, we headed south-east into the mountains of the Czech Republic and phoned the couple we’d met in the border museum the previous week as they’d offered us a bed for the night.  Unfortunately the night we’d be arriving in Val Mez they would be at a music festival elsewhere, so we wild camped instead and made our way over the next couple of hilly days via Zlin towards Slovakia.  We made it into Slovakia on the evening of the 16th with only 80km to go to Bratislava, and as it would all be flat we thought it would be an easy day’s ride after the previous few days of climbing through the mountains.  How wrong we were.  It was over 30 degrees in the shade and we pedalled into a ferocious headwind that didn’t so much cool as desiccate us.  It was great to get to Bratislava, which has a very pretty old quarter with quirky statues peeking round corners and out of man-holes, and have a well deserved cool beer and an ice-cream.

Sadly the campsite in Bratislava is about 8km out of town and is a vile, overcrowded hell-hole, next to a busy road and under a flight path….but it’s cheap and has wifi.  After five nights of wild camping the showers were most welcome (although marred by the hordes of squawking teenagers who were for some reason all queuing for a shower at 6.30pm), but the lack of washing machine is a serious annoyance as my hand-washing technique isn’t really up to clearing several days worth of sweat and grime from some seriously stinky cycling kit.

No photos for this blog entry I’m afraid, mostly because we haven’t taken very many recently and in particular haven’t got any of the Kolodziej exhibition which is the main subject of this entry.  You’ll just have to use your imagination.

Passau to Poland 24 June – 9 July 2011

The Danube cyclepath from Passau to Vienna gives the choice of travelling on either the north or south bank of the river.  We opted to leave Passau on the north bank, prolonging our stay in Germany by around 25km and making it relatively late in the day when we entered Austria and started looking for suitable wild campsites.  The river at this point snakes its way in a tight S-bend through steeply sided forested hills and it’s only possible to cycle on the south bank, so we crossed over.  It wasn’t looking very promising for sneaky campsites, but was looking stunningly pretty and good for a panoramic photo if only we could be bothered to walk up to the viewpoint several hundred metres above us.  We’d stopped to have some sweets and discuss the matter when a man came over to chat to us.  Our first Austrian admirer….we thought.  Unfortunately, after luring us in with a few questions about the bike, he launched into a moan about cyclists being on the road and getting in the way of his car, which he told us was a hybrid and then went on to say that as his car very quiet it would be the cyclist’s problem if they didn’t hear him coming and thus got hit when they weaved around in front of him.  In as friendly a manner as we could muster we said we felt there was enough space for cars and cyclists on the road if each showed a little consideration for the other, and then escaped his company before things got heated.  It wasn’t clear whether he had seen us cycling and had taken issue with us personally (surely not!), or whether it was just a general rant about the (admittedly numerous) other cycle tourists in the area.  It was a minor thing really but the first few km in a new country always unsettle me as I try to work out how the locals perceive cyclists, and I’m always especially sensitive in the evenings when looking for a sneaky campsite.  My opinion of Austria improved immeasurably though in the following days as we met lots of far friendlier people.

After the beautiful S-bend section, in a village called Aschach we went to the fishing and boat-building museum which was next to the small tourist info office where we struck up conversation with the lady working there.  It turned out she was Czech by birth but had escaped when she was 20 (in the early 70’s) by taking a holiday in Yugoslavia which included a coach trip to Venice, where she simply walked away from the rest of her group with just the clothes she stood in, little money, and no Italian language skills.  She ended up in Germany, where she met and married her husband, and they then settled in Austria, but it was a very long time before she was able to see her Czech family again.  It was an incredible story, told in such an unassuming way by this otherwise very ordinary but very courageous woman.

Pedalling on, we arrived in Linz to discover the main square had been rigged with a stage and lighting ready for a free classical concert.  What a treat!  We drank wine in the drizzly rain and lost ourselves in the gorgeous Bruckner symphony.  We spent two nights at the Linz campsite to avail ourselves of the free wifi and catch up with the world…and the second night there proved to be a very sociable affair as our French friends Stephanie and Fabrice arrived along with a French tandem couple who they had struck up a friendship with, and then a Slovak family set up camp next to us en route to visit relatives in Paris.  There was also a Czech family who we would see several times of the coming days as we made our way to Vienna, and finally Herman from Bavaria who we’d met in Donaueschingen rolled in.

The next day, refreshed, we hit the road again and embarked on what would prove to be one our most challenging days…perhaps not physically, but certainly emotionally.  A short detour up a steep hill past some quarries brought us to Mauthausen concentration camp, which has been maintained as a memorial to the people who were incarcerated and killed there.  Many of the huts have been pulled down, but the main wall and gates, some examples of the huts, and, most distressingly, the gas chamber and crematorium remain. Despite having seen films and read about the camps, to actually stand there, in the sunshine, with an audioguide matter-of-factly telling you the most appalling things, was even worse than I thought it would be.  It was hard to maintain composure but thankfully dark sunglasses and not too many other tourists meant it was possible to find some privacy in which to try to absorb what had happened, and wonder how it had been allowed to happen, and what might still be happening today around the world and to what extent one country can and should interfere in the running of another.

Matthausen Crematoria

Matthausen Crematoria

The horrors of Mauthausen occupied our minds for many kilometres and it was a relief to put a night’s sleep between it and us, and to enjoy some more light-hearted entertainment the next day in Ybbs where we went to the Museum of Bicycles and saw some fabulous machines with sabres, guns or hosepipes attached according to profession.

Prepared for anything with a sabre AND a rifle.

Prepared for anything with a sabre AND a rifle.

There were some early alternatives to the Dog Dazer sonic device that some cyclists will be familiar with, starting with the special ornate sticks clipped onto the penny farthings for the specific use of fending off errant canines, and then there was an advert for some bangers to throw at the more persistent offenders, and finally a tiny pistol for deterring the really determined dog.

Abusing the facilities at Melk Cathedral.

Abusing the facilities at Melk Cathedral.

Other Austrian highlights before Vienna were the beautiful Rococo interior of Wilhering Church, the Benedictine Abbey at Melk (which we couldn’t afford to enter, but which had an useful drinking water fountain outside it that we sneakily washed our hair in) and the picturesque villages in the vineyards between Spitz and Krems where we found not only some good wine-tasting but also a local distiller who let us taste his delicious wares (extensively) and told us about different distillation techniques and the different taste imparted to whisky that’s been distilled in a fruit still rather than a grain still.  We also came across another Pino tandem (a Spanish couple with their children) and Keith went all ‘hunter-gatherer’ and climbed a tree at the side of the road to pilfer cherries for our dessert that evening (further down the road in the Czech Republic he expanded his pilfering to apples and plums…again from roadside trees rather than orchards…and made a compote which was delicious on our muesli).  We also had our wildest wild campsite to date.  The steep-sided vine-covered slopes near Spitz were at first glance not offering us much cover.  The cyclepath ran on the narrow strip of flat land between the river and terraced vineyards, and was trapped between a railway line and a busy road.  Poring over the map we saw a small stream snaking down the hillside with a road next to it and we hoped this would be the least steep route up out of the village and away from the vineyards.  Whilst it probably was the least steep route, but was by no means flat.  We sweated and groaned and eventually pushed the bike until we were a kilometre or so out of the village, in a woodland that had a flattish glade in it and was hidden from the road.  Happy with our efforts we threw down the picnic blanket and cooked up dinner.  As darkness descended we saw a couple of fireflies among the trees.  Over the next ten minutes more and more appeared until the glade was a magical fairyland with dozens of tiny lights suspended in the air and flitting in and out between the trees.  We watched, spellbound, until it became uncomfortably cold and we folded away the blanket and put the tent up in its place.  Full of food and still smiling from the beautiful display, we went to bed and slept soundly until 2am when I was woken by footsteps outside the tent.  I listened, holding my breath, yes, it was definitely footsteps…over on Keith’s side and getting closer.  I prodded Keith.  He sat up, rummaged carefully for our super-bright front light (good for blinding intruders) and reached over to open the tent….at which point my sleep-fuddled brain finally worked out that there were no lights outside the tent and most people would not be walking around the woods without some sort of light (unless they had a nightscope of course, but that only happens in novels, doesn’t it?).  Keith stuck his head out of the tent, swung the torch and to my relief (but not surprise by then) confirmed there were three or four deer next to us.  Of course, they’d all darted off by the time I got my head out, and I hope we didn’t upset their night-time browsing too much.

Looking out over the vineyards of Spitz.

Looking out over the vineyards of Spitz.

Viennese Penny Farthing

Viennese Penny Farthing

Back on the bike we approached Vienna along the man-made island turned nature park, the Donauinsel.  This runs for about 20km through the city providing a green escape just minutes from the city centre, but we cut off it after 9km and followed a further cyclepath into the touristy part of the city where we headed to the info office to enquire about campsites.  We also had a look at what there was to do and see in Vienna and to my delight discovered that Richard Thompson was playing that evening.  Whoop!  We pedalled off to find the campsite to set up camp before returning to the city for the evening.  Locating the campsite started off easily enough, out of the city centre and across the Prater Park, a big green space with a fun fair, coffee bars, woodland areas and parkland.  After that we had to find our way onto a bridge over the Danube and New Danube rivers.  This is where it got a bit tricky.  We could see the cyclists’ bridge suspended underneath the main road bridge, but with all the sliproads and minor roads and buildings in the way we just could not work out how to get on to it.  Eventually we made it onto the cyclists’ bridge and rubbed our eyes in disbelief as a splendidly moustachioed chap on penny-farthing came pedalling towards us….what the….?   We were then looking at an info board to try to find the campsite when a hand-cyclist pulled over to admire our bike.  We, likewise, admired his, and he kindly led the way to a second bridge and the campsite, where our French friends and then the Czech family from the Linz campsite joined us over the course of the afternoon.

Helpful hand cyclist

Helpful hand cyclist

Queuing for the Richard Thompson gig that evening we struck up conversation with a chap from the Isle of Man, who’s been living in Vienna for a decade, and his friend who has been there about a year after spending time in Berlin.  They were great company and after the excellent gig took us to a local micro-brewery where we enjoyed the fine beer and conversation immensely.

Historic Vienna (complete with Starbucks).

Historic Vienna (complete with Starbucks).

After a day sightseeing in Vienna we left the Danube for a while and head north through the Czech Republic to visit my sister in Poland.  Our progress was slow as we kept finding interesting places to visit.

The part of the Czech Republic bordering Austria has been designated a Unesco site on account of the huge number of impressive castles and edifices built by the Liechtenstein family over the centuries, until they were evicted by the communists in 1945.  So, despite having no Czech money with us, we planned to look round some interesting architecture, and also hopefully taste some Moravian wine.  No such luck.  The chateau tours would accept euros but were quite pricey and the Czech approach to wine tasting is very different to the French & Austrian.  In Valtice they expect you to pay for each glass you taste.  However, we did find a leaflet advertising the newly opened Museum of the Iron Curtain in what was the old border guard house, and that sounded rather good.  So, after a dismal mooch round the outside of the chateau in the pouring rain, we pedalled over to the Museum of the Iron Curtain.  We hadn’t had lunch, so before entering the museum we squatted, shivering, near their entrance, to gobble our bread and cheese lunch.  We were just packing up and preparing to go in when three young people came out (two men dressed in guard uniforms and a woman in civvies) and asked if we wanted coffee.  I could have kissed them.  We explained we didn’t have Czech money, only euros, and they said that was fine and after making us coffee gave us a guided tour of the museum.  I have to admit I didn’t take much of it in at first because one of the guards had a small, striped snake coiled below the flaps on the top of his hat, which he kindly let me carry round the museum (the snake not the hat), but once I tore my attention away from the snake it turned out to be a very interesting exhibition, especially the propaganda films used to encourage people to sign up to be border guards.  It was a high-risk occupation being a guard: the electric fence they were guarding killed more guards than it did people trying to cross illegally.  It was very high voltage through barbed wire and would arc unpredictably, killing deer (and people) up to 20m away.  At the end of the tour our guides offered us some Moravian wine to taste (and kept re-filling our glasses) and as we chatted it turned out that only one of them actually worked there, the other two were friends of his visiting for the weekend who were meant to be cycling round Liechtenstein castles that day but were driven indoors by the torrential rain.  They have invited us to spend a night with them on our way back from Poland as they live not far off our planned route.  To top off an excellent afternoon, they refused to take any money for either the museum tour or the wine.  What an excellent start to the Czech section of our trip.

 After our sight-seeing & socialising we needed to put in some solid pedalling if we were to get to my sister Gin’s on time.  We followed the Morava and Odra rivers up towards Ostrava near the Polish border.  Despite trying to follow valleys it was still quite lumpy in places, with lots of short, steep, energy-sapping ups and downs where we crossed tributaries.  We reached Poland early on Tuesday 5th July and made it to Gliwice that evening where we had an extravagant (for us) meal in the Rynek (town square) and then went to meet Gin when she finished work.

Four days later and we’re still in Gliwice, enjoying our time with Gin and her friends, two of whom hosted a lovely BBQ for us last night.  We’re happily relaxing, sightseeing, chatting, drinking and eating, and catching up on a few chores like getting my hair cut, writing this blog and sorting out a few kit issues.

If you’ve been following this blog from the start you’ll know we’ve had a few problems with our trailer…so just in case you’ve been on tenterhooks to find out how it’s going, here’s an update on the tale of the wagging tail:  Our second replacement arrived with us a couple of weeks ago, and at first seemed to be OK… there were a couple of wobbles but not the same uncontrollable wagging we’d experienced previously….but sadly this was not to last.  Austrian shops are closed on a Sunday so on the Saturday we did a fairly big shop to get us through the weekend. The minute we left the supermarket, the trailer began to wag.  We moved some stuff to the front panniers & rear rack.  It still wagged.  We moved more stuff.  This toned down the wag enough that we could ride, but sadly, was not enough to restore our faith in the trailer as if it continued to fling itself about then it would only be a matter of time before the frame would break as it had done on the previous two occasions…and the whole point of the trailer was to try to keep weight off the tandem, which is already carrying plenty.  With regret, we called the distributor and the shop where we’d originally bought the trailer and explained we were giving up on the “Extrawheel” trailer and asked if the shop could help us source a “Bob Yak” trailer, which they did, and which arrived with us in Gliwice yesterday.  We still think the Extrawheel is a great idea, and think it would probably work very well on mountain-bike tours over rough surfaces as we never had a problem with it on non-tarmac roads and trails.  The problem only arose when we were on smooth tarmac and, initially, with around 25kg of weight in the bags, although the amount of weight it could tolerate decreased as the frame weakened until only a few kilos would cause a wag.  In any case we were carrying far less than the manufacturer’s recommended maximum of 35kg.  So, now we have a Bob and are trying our best to like it.  When researching trailers we chose the Extrawheel over the Bob because the Bob is heavier, doesn’t pack down as well (for instance for taking it on trains and planes or simply storing it), and has a 16” wheel which means we’ll need to carry yet another size of inner tube, (our tandem has a 26” rear and a 20” front wheel), and of course the Bob doesn’t automatically provide us with a rim, spokes and tyre that we can poach as required if the tandem’s rear wheel needs new parts (which is a very useful feature of the Extrawheel and one that we’re about to make use of as Keith has noticed that the rear rim of the tandem is cracking around the spoke eyelets).  But I guess if the Bob can carry our kit and food without wagging itself to destruction every 2000km we’ll just have to overlook these shortcomings.