Having suffered with what we both at the time thought was a ‘bad’ cold while leaving the Netherlands, progress across Germany was somewhat uncomfortable, painful and slow. I’d been feeling progressively more lethargic, run down and could no longer move my head without turning my entire body due to golf ball sized glands in my neck. After well over a week under the weather, and a couple of instances of turning pale as a sheet and nearly fainting, a trip to the doctors in Hamburg was in order. (One piece of sage advice if you’re thinking about travelling Europe by bike - don’t leave it until five days before leaving to think about getting a European health card.)
Based on my experience, the GPs in Germany are much more casual in their approach than those in the UK - enter Felix. I’d like to encourage the reader to use their imagination and conjure an image of Jurgen Klopp on a day off meets Dr. Nick from the Simpsons. Felix was warm, friendly, spoke better english than some of my friends and was as jovial as you’d expect a doctor who was about to insert a cannula while wearing flip-flops, jeans and an ACDC t-shirt to be. A couple of blood tests later and I knew two things:
- Healthcare in Germany without a European health card is very expensive.
- I had Glandular Fever.
By the time we reached the Czech border, I was feeling a bit better and Martha could take a break from teasing me for the near incessant groaning. Crossing the border into Czechia we were almost immediately greeted with a change in scenery, landscape and road network. The route we’d agreed on across Czech Republic looked something like this - Ceska Lipa > Melnik > Prague > Humpolec > Jihlava > Trebic > Znojmo. The first few days served up some punishment and the first real physical challenge we’d encountered. The weather made things quite difficult; 25+ degree heat or driving rain, or any combination of the two. The route we took towards Melnik followed long rolling hills through vast, beautiful woodlands, past lakes, through agricultural land and countless fields of poppies.
The roads we encountered for the first few days fell into two categories; either gorgeous but poorly maintained or well maintained and mundane. The beautiful scenic through pine forests and small villages had steeper climbs, often poor road surfaces and roundabout routes to our next destination. The larger roads didn't have the charm of the smaller ones but were nice and smooth and had crawler lanes to allow slower vehicles to trudge over the hills. Having lost strength to illness and some time recouping in Germany, we compromised and rode the direct route where we needed to...but still taking the roads less travelled where and when possible.
Travelling on the smaller roads, the villages we passed through were all seemingly very close-knit communities in which there would be a social hub for people to gather. The way of life here intrigued us; old farm buildings, large detached houses, the odd ornate castle high up on a hilltop here and there, and almost every house we passed kept animals or grew their own vegetables. On the roads more travelled, we’d pass by or through larger towns, stopping at service station every so often allowing us to get some cold water or a can of coke (the little things eh?). There was, however, another sort of establishment we passed with an unfamiliar regularity along the winding roads through the hills and countryside. I won't go into detail but they were the ones providing a sort of xxx TLC!
Before reaching Melnik, I was daft enough to leave my wallet laying around after we’d stopped for lunch earlier in the day. I can be quite a forgetful person when it comes to putting stuff down and remembering to pick it up again - experiences like the following helped break that habit, through sheer pain and sense of dread. Having reached a cafe intending to stop for coffee before we found a campsite, I reached for the familiar lump in my jersey pocket to find nothing, but a feeling of terror and a flashback to the moment I left it on the arm of a bench in a village square, 30 lumpy kilometers back the way we came. I swore. A lot.
Martha suggested that she'd ride ahead, find a place for us to wild camp somewhere between points A and B, and I could meet her there once I'd learned my fate. If there are any time trialists short of motivation reading this, try leaving your wallet nearly 20 miles down the road, followed by a round of stern words from your partner and off you pop. The climb that would take me back to the main road we rode in on averaged 12% - breaks between gasps posed an opportunity for me to explore my repertoire of four letter words at the thought of how much fun I had nonchalantly coming down it just before. At least we’d get to do it again the next day. Leaving the village earlier Martha and I had to take a long diversion along farm tracks as the road out of the village was being completely dug up and relayed. Time being of the essence, I decided to skip this diversion and found myself going downhill on gravel paths or sand trying to play cyclocross on a 30kg bike. I rode into the village and over towards the square with my heart in my mouth. As I got closer to the bench, low and behold, there it was hours later with every penny inside as when I foolishly left it. Elation!
Throughout the trip Martha and I spent the majority of nights in our two-man tent - whether at a campsite or wild-camping - bar the nights we slept outside in hammocks later in the trip because of the heat, half a dozen nights in different hostels and another half dozen nights staying with friends, or strangers that were soon to become friends.
The route we took didn’t offer a huge number of campsites (I don’t know if the same can be said for different areas) so to anyone interested in doing a similar trip, I would suggest being prepared to take a less direct route, or find a wild camping spot. If wild camping is a possibility, make sure that you have enough food and water to see you through! There were a couple of instances throughout the trip were we’d done a day’s ride, found it harder than expected and turned in early, then couldn’t find campsite or a shop within 20-miles and had to resort to rationing. Be prepared for things being ‘lost in translation’ over the internet. Not every campsite on Google is as advertised - a lesson we learned the hard way when we arrived one night at a 'campsite' that turned out to be a motorhome dealership.
One night before we reached Prague, Martha and I ended up at a beautiful ‘campsite’ by a lake, only to find out we’d actually just cycled in to what we think was an activity learning centre and crashed a school trip. The owners kindly allowed us to stay and the teachers leading the school trip had lit a fire which helped keep the bugs away and got the children to cook an inordinate amount of delicious smelling sausages to be eaten by 15 kids. Being the helpful soul that I am couldn’t bear seeing them become a feast for the bugs when the fire eventually went out, so I took it upon myself to help clear up. You’re welcome.
Arriving in Prague was a little different to what we’d quickly become accustomed to. Cycling in cities can be difficult or it can be the best way to get around - but quite a few things factor into this. Prague was a challenge in that it was extremely busy and perhaps the drivers weren’t as used to cyclists. Prague is a beautiful city, particularly old town - with some incredible gothic architecture and loads of good hostels. City riding can be extremely fun, as long as you have an idea of where you’re going and you stay alert - I definitely wouldn’t recommend using your phone as a guide while riding. A Beeline this time last year would’ve saved some stressful situations. In great need of a couple of days off, we spent a couple of nights in Prague resting and sheltering from the rain in our hostel's sauna. It was perfect.
Back on the road again, our route took us southeast towards Jihlava, Znojmo and eventually the Austrian border and Vienna - our next big landmark. Over the next few days we learnt the northern and southern parts of the country were quite contrasting. The weather changed for the better and we were graced with days of sunshine, with an occasional heavy downpour. Rolling hills through woodlands and poppy fields swapped out for roads that gently undulated, lined with cherry trees and never ending fields of sunflowers.
Martha and I embarked on this journey in memoriam of our fathers and to raise money for charity and June 27th marked the year anniversary since Martha lost her father, Maurice, to a battle with cancer. After a tough day with an afternoon of headwinds and heavy rain, we pulled over into a bus shelter and raised a bottle in memory of Maurice - nothing says commemoration like a bottle of peppermint Schnapps in a Czech bus shelter.
One final camping anecdote! We managed another interesting camping experience before our time in the Czechia came to an end. The final ‘wild’ camping spot we settled for before crossing the border into Austria was instigated by two things; one part necessity and two parts well-earned luxury. With no campsites anywhere remotely close to our route, we knew we had to keep an eye out for a safe, secluded spot. As we rounded a corner, off in the distance, we saw two large floating yellow arches. Neither of us particularly enjoyed McDonalds and prior to the trip Martha had been a strict vegan for four years. However, for tourers who spent much of the time wild camping 'off the grid', it offered us the chance to charge our electronics and access wifi for the price of a milkshake or a sweaty burger once every couple of hours.
After Martha had watched a couple of episodes of Orange Is The New Black and I’d watched the stage highlights from the first three stages of the Tour De France, we retired to pitch our McTent in the farthest and most secluded corner of a McDonalds carpark. We popped back in for a coffee and a croissant in the morning and then we were on the road to Vienna.
So there you have it: cycling in Czechia 101. Tune in again next week for Ben's next instalment!