So, dear readers, you graciously put up with my hand-wringing about whether I would make it through our six days of biking in the Czech countryside.
Guess what… I did it!
It was actually a piece of cake compared with riding Tunnel Road and the Three Bears in Orinda. There were a handful of hills, but they were not too steep and not too long.
The countryside was gorgeous — poppy fields, woods and rivers, chateaux, small towns filled with 13th and 16th century buildings. Our guide was personable, warm, knowledgeable and a passionate explicator of Czech history and culture. The hotels and other logistics were great.
And — get this — you get to drink beer while you ride!
Czech beer is terrific. It is cheap. At about a dollar, a huge stein of beer is cheaper than bottled water. The countryside is dotted with pubs, each one serving a different local beer on tap. And Czech beer apparently has a lower alcohol content than U.S. beer, so you can stop for a beer break without worrying about the consequences.
(Disclaimer: Czech law says you are not allowed to drink and ride. But we passed enough “cyclo terrazas” filled with bicyclists stopping for lunch and a beer under a shady umbrella that it is clearly not enforced much.)
We’d typically do some sightseeing and then ride in the morning, stop for a huge, delicious lunch and a beer, ride some more, stop for a mid-afternoon beer, and then ride to our hotel in time for for a little more sightseeing and dinner.
And another beer. Or a glass of wine — we had some very good Moravian white wines.
The biggest challenge, physically, was the heat. It was unusually warm, over 90 degrees, and some of the other women on the trip faded and ended up taking the support van. Not me! For the first time in my entire life, I felt like a stud. On the last day, the four other women on the trip opted out of the final hilly 12 miles. But I did the whole thing, along with Sam, a fellow traveller named Jim, and our wonderful guide Hana. We crested the last hill to see the fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov spread out before us. Call me Lance! (Well, Lance as he was in 2005.)
Biking in Europe for the first time, I was struck by just how fitting bicycles are for seeing that part of the world.
Unlike the U.S., Europe exists on a bicycle scale. Its villages and towns were formed in an era when walking or horseback riding were the only forms of transportation. Many villages are spaced about a day’s walk apart. So the scenery is varied — you pass through a village, ride through some fields, come to the next village, cross a hill, come to another village.
And biking helps you transport yourself back into the pre-industrial past, imagining what it was like in the days when the chateaux were filled with nobles rather than historical exhibits, and when villagers relied on town church bells to mark the time of day. (Still today, one chime = 15 minutes after the hour, two chimes = 30 minutes, three chimes = 45.)
We stayed overnight in seven small Czech villages — Valtice, Mikulov, Vranov nad Dyji, Telc, Jindrichuv Hradec, and Trebon, and in one larger town, Cesky Krumlov. We could have visited them all by car or bus. But it wouldn’t have felt the same.
There were also some things we simply couldn’t have seen by car. The Valtice area used to be the domain of the aristocratic Lichtenstein family (who now have a state rather than an estate). Throughout their hundreds of wooded acres, they erected about 13 “follies” — romantic stone structures such as miniature Arc de Triomphes, colonnades, minarets. These structures had no function. They were simply built out in random parts of the woods as a way to show off the family’s wealth and to have an entertaining destination for picnics or hunting trips. (Our guide said that some follies were built when the family ran out of money to contine construction work on their chateaux, but didn’t want to send the Italian architects home, so put them to work on folies until the bigger projects could recommence.)
So there we were, biking along a deserted dirt road in a wooded area, and we’d come upon a grassy clearing with… an Arc de Triomphe! It was surreal and amazing. And it was something that couldn’t have been done by car.
It also couldn’t have been done without the Czech Republic’s extraordinary network of bike paths, a 250-mile network of roads and trails between Vienna and Prague called the Greenways. (Our tour company also goes by the name of Greenways Travel Club.)
Initially created by hiking enthusiasts in the late 1800s, the Greenways paths were revived as a non-profit project after the end of communism in 1989. There were mileage markers and directional signs for bicyclists everywhere we went.
It’s part of a culture that, at least in this southern part of the Czech Republic, is very bike-friendly. We passed tons of Czech families biking with their kids. We passed villagers biking to and from their homes. There were pubs and cafes with facilities for bikes, and hotels that are certified by the government as bike-friendly.
Even the automotive traffic seemed more deferential and friendly to bikes than most places in the U.S.
So… rolling hills that aren’t too steep or long. Constantly changing vistas. Bike-friendly drivers and trails. Minimal traffic. Beer breaks every ten miles or so.
Hey, if we had all that here, I’d be biking with Sam every weekend.
It’s something we should aspire to, here in the U.S. — the bike trail network, if not the beer.