Eastern Europe Aug 13 - Sep 4, 1995
Milada's apartment was very comfortable and convenient for us. So near, Old Town and all its activity. The next morning we took our bikes up to the Palace and looked out over the city. We enjoyed visiting the Palace grounds and the church. It started to rain so we biked back to explored the city on foot. Wenceslas Square, New Town, the Pedestrian Bridge and the streets around Stare Mesto. We had dinner that night at one of the restaurants on the square, as we enjoyed watching everyone pass bye.
Milada had drawn a map to her country apartment and George gave us a detailed map of the area near Vlasim. The next morning we started biking from Praha SSE to the countryside. We followed Georg's recommendations and biked along the river to Stechovice before crossing and climbing the hills towards Benesov. It was nice to get on our bikes and begin our cycling journey. We found the hills to be quite challenging, as we are used to cycling on flatter roads. We were surprised to find so much open countryside with very few houses. I expected to find many small farms but quickly learned that the people live in villages and go out to the fields to work.
Our journey this day took us from the busy streets leaving Praha, to the super highway, to smaller and smaller roads until we neared Borkovice. We stopped at the castle at Konopiste, and at most of the towns and villages along the way. We bought food at a small store and had a picnic lunch high on a hill. We asked for directions at the Horvonice near Milada's country apartment and a young man on a mountain bike guided us down a 1 km long two track to her cottage in an apartment type building. It was late in the day and Milada had given up on us, so she was off riding her bike with her daughter and grandson. The neighbors made us welcome with voda and we rested from our 92km ride.
When Milada returned she made us welcome with tea, cake and salt. Her English was appreciated and we enjoyed meeting her and finding about her and her life in Praha and her country homes. She cooked us a nice spaghetti dinner on her wood stove and arranged for our sleeping. We explored the surroundings with the water well, ponds (bath), outbuildings etc. We fell asleep early after our long journey from the USA and all the excitement we had experienced, as Milada cleaned up from the meal. The next morning she made us a breakfast and we cycled off after many thank you's, pictures and hugs. It was a treasured experience to visit her in her country apartment.
We biked to Tabor and were there about noon. It started to rain and we decided to find accommodations there. We got two rooms at separate bed-and-breakfasts and spent the day exploring Tabor, one of the nicest towns we visited. We were already a day behind on our schedule. We shopped for an outfit for Charlottes granddaughter, ate meals in the local restaurants and rested up.
The next morning we started biking South. We were having some difficulty with the hills. Fast down a hill into the towns of Tucapy, Dirna, J. Hradec and then a tough climbs into the countryside. At the bordertown of Novy Bystrice we turned east for Slavonice. We stopped in every small town to see what it had to offer and at the top of each hill, because we could see for miles. It is mostly farmland with occasional lakes and pine forests. Each town has a square near the church. (about 90 kms)
Because of the hills, we decided to cross the border the next day and enter Austria. The new idea was to bike downhill to the Danube River at Krems and then to follow the river on the bikepath to Wien (Vienna). We had one really beautiful downhill run into the town of Horn and then another scenic 30 km downhill into Krems. (about 105 kms)
The change in environment from an emerging country to a prosperous one was dramatic, from the height of the corn to the individuality shown in homes and towns and the friendliness of the people.
Krems was having their 1000 year anniversary and there was much activity in town. We followed signs from the main pedestrian walkway and visited the winefest, jazzfest, beerfest etc each with food, beverages and music that were being held in nearby plazas.
The next day we cycled on the bikepath along the Danube to Vienna with the only significant stop, for lunch in Tulln. There were lots of cycling tourists on the bikepath, some coming from the German border 300 kms away. We found a Pension near the train station for a reasonable price. Later we found out that we would not be able to take our bikes with us on the train to Krakow. We formulated a plan to take a train to the Czech border near Breclav and then bike across into the Czech Republic.
Sunday morning we toured Vienna on our bicycles. We were able to ride all over the downtown area near all the historic buildings and beautiful pedestrian malls near the Cathederal. Vienna is truly a beautiful city. We also went out along the Danube in a park before heading for the train station, just as it began to rain.
Our itinerary always had a problem of distance from Vienna to Krakow. This was further complicated because we lost a day getting into Tabor. To make up for this lost day and with our desire to visit Auchwitz, we planned to take the train to the Czech-Polish border near Ostrava and then bike into Poland. In Breclav at the Czech border, (they let us on bikes pass though the border crossing was for natives), we found out we could take a train all the way to Karvina on the Polish border, which would give us good access to Poland. We arrived in Karvina at about 10:00pm and found a hotel near the bus station.
The next morning we were turned away at a border crossing, that was just for the natives and had to bike to Cesky Tesin for our entry into Poland. The route to Oswiecim (Auschwitz) included some busy red roads and then another train ride. This area south of the major metro complex of Katowice was pretty congested and the pollution in the air was evident.
We had a sobering tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz had the feel of a bunch of brick barracks, not large and haunting only because of the displays in the buildings as you tour. Birkenau was more moving starting with the famous gate and with its railroad tracks running through it, to the rebuilt wooden barracks and then 400 acres of chimneys stretching out for what seemed forever. We didn't have time to get to the far side where the crematorias and gas chambers were in ruins. On the road to Krakow that afternoon, Mickey blew his rear derailleur and paid a trucker to take him and his father into town. They were able to get it replaced and were on their way in two hours.
Krakow is another beautiful city. We intended to spend three nights here and then leave by train for Warsaw so we could put Charlotte on her plane to the USA on Saturday. We toured the city by bike, the next day, and in the afternoon took a local bus for a tour of the famous salt mine in Wielizka. The next day we cycled out to Kalwaria to visit a religious Klasztor and ended up taking a bus back to Krakow.
We discovered that we could not take our bikes on express trains in Poland and this complicated things because most of the trains were express. Our arrival into Warsaw was delayed and we had time for just a short tour of the city that night after a harried afternoon trying to find a hotel. (not as many as you would expect, but we skipped the expensive Marriot across from the train station). The next morning I took Charlotte to the airport and scrambled to find some cardboard to drape over her bike for her flight home. On the way to the airport, I got caught on the city bus without the prepurchased ticket, I didn't know we needed and was fined 1000% over the 80 cent fee. The guys caught a train to Dzialdowo in the Mazurian lakes area of Poland. Our arrival there was in rain and we waited it out before cycling into the Polish countryside.
We met up with some young men that had been exchange students in the USA and they invited us to their uncles summer home. We had a very nice evening visiting their family and they helped us arrange for a nights stay in a cottage owned by the only nice little polish grandma encountered. (I had preconcieved notions of meeting pleasant grandmas in bunches) It is especially nice when we had the opportunity to interact personally with the local people. The summer home of our hosts was the most beautiful house I saw in Poland and was owned by a cosmopolitan family led by a entrepreneur living in Austria, his sister and husband from Warsaw, their sister from London and all their children on holiday in Northern Poland. They encouraged us to visit Gdansk, so we set that as another goal.
We cycled North for a couple of days into the lakes region with night stops in Mragowo and the Gizycho. The countryside in this region is full of lakes, fields, woods and small towns. In Gizycho, we awoke to heavy rain and were stranded for a day, as we watched the vacationing sailors in the port town with its connecting canals. The next day we started biking into a cold headwind that later turned into cold windy rain as we approached Lidzbark. At this point I had become sick with the flu and was pretty uncomfortable. Rain in Lidzbark forced us to put our bikes on a bus to Gdansk.
The rain let up for awhile the next day and we were able to tour Gdansk by bike in the morning before rain set in again. The next day I cycled out of Gdansk alone, as the others wanted to explore more of the city, along the coast and back towards Warsaw. It started raining almost immediately but I kept on riding until I got to the town of Malbork with its magnificient castle. These rainy days curtail any kind of touring in cities also. The next morning I awoke to rain again and headed to the train station to go to Warsaw. I put my bike on the last car of an express train, on this Sunday morning, and split the fine with the conductor, who pocketed his share, which was more than the cost of my own ticket. I had been sick 5 days by this time and was not feeling any better in the cold and rain. That evening it continued raining in Warsaw and I found the guys at the same hotel we stayed in previously.
The next day we were able to bike tour Warsaw for a few hours. We visited some of the local monuments and government buildings before going across the Wisla river to a giant flea market they hold near the soccer stadium. We were forced to change hotels and ended up cycling towards the airport for the next days flight home. We checked into a hotel as it started to rain again. During a late lunch we were approached by the local Trek Bicycle Dealer from Warsaw whose shop was nearby. He invited us to visit, and when we did, he unpacked 3 new Treks and gave us the boxes to package our bikes for the return flight. He also gave us a ride to the airport the next day. This is one of those chance encounters that seem fated. It helped us solve the difficult problem of how we were going to package our bikes for shipment. It was great to spend this last evening with a biking friend and to relive our trip to Eastern Europe.
We had visited the Czech Republic, Austria and Poland, toured the cities of Prague, Vienna, Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk and cycled 1100 kms through the countryside.
P.S. This was my third trip to Europe but my first to the emerging countries. In general I was disappointed, only because with just a few weeks of vacation a year, they would have been better spent in a friendlier environment. Before you go there make sure you visit Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and probably all the rest of the Western European countries. The communists have almost ruined the Czech Republic and Poland. The people are so suspicious that they are very reserved in public, and will avoid eye contact. Four, very foreign looking, cyclists in a small country store are all but ignored, only small children have enough nerve to approach them, grownups have been stifled by the thought that someone might betray them. I had expected the warm jocularity of the Polish and Czech friends I know here in the States. One of the reasons I went to Eastern Europe at this time is that I knew that I will be able to return in a few years and see countries that will be radically changed, and they are changing fast.
We noticed that if you did have an opportunity to get into the inner circle, that the people are delightful. Someone else, visiting families in the old country, are surely found more welcome than some foreign strangers on bikes. When we were with Milada in her home and with the wealthy family at their "cottage" we found them to be warm and expansive, as they felt secure in their private space. Unfortunately cycling through the countryside you have a slim chance of meeting these people, especially if you do not know their language and they are reluctant to approach you.
A word on the physical environment. In the Czech Republic you will hardly find any small farms or isloated houses. The people live in dreary villages and go out to the expansive and open fields to work. In both countries the buildings are plain and similar. Flower gardens and individual beauty and enhancements are uncommon. Travelling through Northern Poland, I kept having the feeling that I had been transported back to my Michigan country upbringing of 30 years ago. Big old trees right next to the road, old looking farming equipment, plain houses that will require some wealth before they will be enhanced. The central squares and tourist attractions in the big cities have been restored since the war but if you get a block away the beauty disappears and you find many tenaments and cement apartment buildings. Industrial areas are obviously polluted and an extended trip will find you with watering eyes and coughing for breath.
I do not intend to paint a total negative picture. If you go with realistic expectations, you will not be disappointed. The logistics of the trip are very workable. The roads are not any worse than here in the Michigan. Stores are plentiful and adequately supplied, the water is fine, hotels, (campgrounds?) and restaurants are available when needed. (portions in restaurants are small and western bikers had to order extras to feel full). There is a very good public transportation system that you can use for major commutes. One giant plus was the prices. Food, housing and transportation were very inexpensive. There never was a feeling of any kind of danger and crime was not evident, nor were we ever warned to be careful.
Regards, David L. Herdegen