European Tour 2009 VII - Czech Republic, Austria
Prague, CZ to Vienna, AT
August 15 to 30, 2009
Section 1 Prague to Horni Plana
August 15 - 20
Ten years ago we rode into Prague from the west and spent several days looking around the city. This was just about 10 years after the Czech Republic gained it's independence from the USSR. At that time we noted that a lot of buildings had been renovated and new stores were now housed on the ground floors. There seemed to be construction everywhere and almost every building not on the main tourist path needed a complete cleaning and overhaul.
With another 10 years under its belt, Prague has now taken on the appearance of a relatively normal western city. There is a bit of urban grunginess in places. But it seems to be about the same amount you'd find in any normal city. They definitely have made huge advances.
With it's newly cleaned and refurbished tourist district, Praha is an architectural treasure house. Particularly stunning is the castle complex. Located high on the hill overlooking the Vlatava, this complex is supposed to be the largest in the world, at least that's what Lonely Planet says. We were surprised that the Imperial Palace in Beijing didn't have that distinction.
The Praha palace is a rather interesting amalgamation of different centuries of building styles. Yet if you look closely, and if you have the advantage of seeing the scale model in the visitor's center, you can see how the buildings follow the path of the former fortress wall. The castle started as a stone fortress and over the years buildings were built into, on top of, and over these walls.
There are a couple of options for seeing inside the buildings of the palace, both of which have become significantly more expensive in the last 10 years. We chose the shorter, cheaper option which allowed us to visit the main banquet hall and the oldest church.
Perhaps the most important historical event that happened at the palace was when a few catholic fellows were tossed out the window. This began the 30 years war between the Protestants and Catholics. They actually have a specific word for tossing people out windows like that, something like defenistration.
Unfortunately the interior spaces of the palace that you are allowed to visit are not particularly ornate. There's not a lot of painting, gilding, ornamentation, or even furnishing. So we were a bit disappointed. We have to wonder if it really is worth the high price of 250 Kc per person they are now charging.
The St. Nicholas church, on the other hand, was well worth worth the 70 Kc per person price. This church is a monumental Baroque work. Seeing this particular example of Baroque architecture finally gave us the opportunity to understand the difference between that and Gothic. It's hard to describe, but Gothic seems to want to rise high and soar upward while Baroque tends to seem heavy and massive. Baroque churches express their devotion to Christ and God through lots and lots of interior decoration while for Gothic, the building itself expresses that devotion. Finally, we can see and understand the difference.
St. Nicholas church is truly magnificent. The interior gilding, marbles, carvings, paintings and just overall opulence is almost too much to take in. I suppose it was intended to so overwhelm the average peasant that they had no choice to think that this God had to be special. Today, for the most part, parishioners have been replaced by camera toting tourists. So that entrance fee is the best way they have to make the money needed for the continual upkeep and maintenance. It seemed a small price to pay to see this amazing structure.
During our wanders around this newly revitalized city we happened across the most unusual looking piece of art. It was a set of stairs with rough metal human figures descending the steps. What was unusual was that the human at the lowest step was the most whole. Each figure up a step became more and more cracked and fragmented until the one at the top was hardly recognizable. This unusual work of art was dedicated to the millions of people whose lives were destroyed by Communism. Not just those who were killed or imprisoned, but all the average people who had to survive this monstrous political system. If only every city could have such a poignant reminder.
The river that flows through Praha is called the Vlatava by the Czechs but is known as the Moldau by the Germans. Hence the bike route map published by Bikeline is called the Moldau route. It was published in 2006 which means that the research was done in 2006. Yet even in that short 4 years time from 2005 to 2009 a lot of changes have occurred. These eastern countries are changing so fast it must be hard to keep this kind of map up-to-date.
Even as we were leaving the city headed up river, more changes were being put in place. A very large 4 lane highway was being built and an interchange plus bridge was just about finished. These happened to be placed right over the top of the bike path and as yet there was no route around the construction. So we weren't quite sure what to do when we came to a dead end.
Spotting an underpass in the middle of the construction, we decided to give this a try to see if we could get through. Bouncing along the muddy construction site right in front of the bulldozers, we just pretended we knew what we were doing and plowed right on by. Much to our surprise no one came running out to stop us. We got through, but it'll be a much nicer ride in the future after they put the bike path back in place. Until that time we would suggest riding on the opposite side of the river than what the Bikeline maps are currently recommending.
After a lunch at a gas station/café we began the first of what would be many steep climbs. We eventually have to climb up to around 3000 ft elevation before we descend to the Danube. This climb would prove to be very strenuous.
The Vlatava river has its headwaters in the mountain range between Austria and the Czech Republic. Along the way it cuts through a series of narrow canyons where it seems to step from one elevated plateau down to the next. There has never been a road or a railroad that follows the length of the river along its banks. Hence, there's no bike path along the river either. Since the bike route follows existing roads we would have to make many climbs over the surrounding hills. This first climb would be the longest and steepest taking us up 300 meters in 4 km.
The climb wouldn't have been so rough if hadn't been so blasted hot. When we neared the top we stopped for a cold drink at the nicely located Shell station just before the town of Slapy. There a couple of motorcyclists commiserated with us as to how hot it was. With their black leathers they must have felt like they were broiling despite the wind.
Steep climbs continued for the rest of the afternoon.
We saw several bikers coming the other way from the Danube. These weren't your suitcase style credit card bike tourist groups. They don't like to do anything quite so tough. These were the fully self contained, camp along the way, carry everything with you type of bike tourists. We didn't see as many bike tourists as we did on the flat river routes. Still this is quite a change from 10 years ago when we found absolutely zero bikers and bike tourists in the Czech Republic.
We stopped for the night in the first campground we've been in that's intended for the Czech and hasn't been upgraded. It certainly does not try to appeal to the Western European crowd. As we found before these campgrounds tend to be run down affairs. The facilities are old and tired. If you were to think of a 1950s run down Boy Scout camp you'd have the right picture. Fortunately, the price reflects this run down condition. At 135 Kc, these were the cheapest campsites we'd seen in Europe so far.
The campsite at Cholin seems to make the most of its money by charging entrance to its beach. It's got a nice grassy beach fronting the river which is running very slow due to the dam just downstream. Hoards of weekend visitors come by car and bus to spend the day. There's a very rotund fellow at the front with a set of tickets he sells for folks to enter the facilities.
When we arrived he first asked if we spoke Deutsche. When we said English he got on his cell phone and called some woman who was able to translate. We got checked in and even learned that the little store, called a colonial, at the campground would have bakery products and other things available in the morning. This worked out great as it was once again Sunday and unlike further downstream on the Elbe, we'd been finding nothing but shuttered stores all day. So everything worked out well considering it was a Sunday and the campground was a tired affair. It was quiet, we got some showers, and food in the restaurant across the street. What more could you ask for.
Our next day on the Moldau route was another filled with steep hill after steep hill. This route doesn't just make a nice steady climb to that 3000 ft, it does a rollercoaster climb.
Along the way we saw lots of recently or currently being renovated towns. Construction seems to be a major project everywhere you go. We even saw a lot of individuals working on their own house upgrades. One fellow had recently replaced his windows and was now chipping away at the stucco getting ready to have a new layer put on. It never ceased to amaze us just how much work has been done to bring this country up to good western standards.
Roads have obviously been a big priority throughout the country. Almost all the roads we've seen have seen fairly recent resurfacing and rebuilding. Also, there are now huge 4 lane highways connecting the major towns and cities whereas before there were none. Even some of the littlest back roads seem to have been rebuilt.
As we rode along we happened to come across a tractor out rebuilding one of these little roads. Unfortunately to get around this particular spot would mean riding a long way over more hills. This was just a small spot about 20 ft long but happened to be right where they were replacing a culvert. When we approached we made some signals indicating we'd like to pass. This didn't seem to phase the tractor operator one bit. He just stopped and waited. In fact, even as we pushed on two more bikers came up from behind and had to do the same. So this must be so common an event the operator is used to it.
The Czech Republic now has numbered bike routes crisscrossing the country all over the place and the locals seem to have really taken up the biking craze. We saw lots of local mountain bikers. Free maps that give general route information are available in the local tourist offices and more detailed maps are for sale. Now that really amazed us as 10 years ago there was nothing like a bike route anywhere to be found. This has all come about as part of the EU biking initiative. What a great idea this plan is.
As we continued our up and down climbing into the mountains the scenery was getting quite lovely. It wasn't spectacular in the way the Alps are, but the forest covered hills are very pretty. Riding through them, though, is tough going.
We hadn't stopped to get extra food figuring we'd find a store at Zvikovske where the campsite was located. When we arrived we found that not only was there no store, there was no campground. So we rode over to the second campground nearby hoping it had either a restaurant or store. This unusual campground seemed to be operating mostly as a summer fitness camp for a bunch of boys and girls. While they provided meals for the camp participants they didn't have either a store or restaurant for the other campers.
Back to town we went to have dinner at the hotel. But just to be sure, we checked out a colorful umbrella we'd spotted before. This turned out to be another of those tiny colonial stores that managed to cram all sorts of food into a miniscule room. We were able to find enough to make up a pretty good breakfast. We still ate in the hotel, though, as a treat. At $15 for a fabulous meal this proved to be a real bargain compared to any western countries we'd been in so far.
From here we decided to spend some of the day riding the highway rather than the designated bike route. Primarily this was because we were getting tired of the steep hills and the main route would require a lot of climbs for the day. This did mean that we ended up skipping the town of Pisek which is supposed to have an interesting bridge. But otherwise the highway had light traffic and the riding was through the usual forested and farmed country we'd been seeing for a while.
We returned to the river and official Moldau route nice town of Tyn. Then once again it was over the hills and back to the main highway. We passed by one of the largest nuclear power plants we've ever seen. This plant has 4 towers and sits on a hill with a commanding view over the surroundings. You just can't miss it. This was the third nuclear plant we'd seen in the Czech Republic. Yet we'd seen almost no solar panels and no wind turbines. These eastern countries often taken the nuclear approach to solving their present and future energy needs.
We arrived at another of those 1950s Boy Scout camp looking campgrounds just outside the town of Hulboka. Since the town was still another 2 to 3 km away and since they had a nice restaurant at the campground, we chose to eat there rather than hunt down a grocery store. One thing we find about these east countries, eating out at restaurants is far more affordable.
Hulboka has a beautiful castle that is in remarkably good condition and has a wonderful expanse of well tended gardens. The current building actually dates from the 1800s, so it's no wonder it's in such good shape. Although upon closer look you can see that what looks like stone walls is actually just stucco. It's easy to see why the castle is now in such good shape. It's not too costly or difficult to keep stucco in good shape as long as you have a little money to do so.
From Hulboka it was a short ride along the brand new bike path to the town of Ceske Budjovice. This is the home for the original Budweiser beer. The name, Budweiser, was taken by the U.S. Counterpart because it generally stood for outstanding quality beer in the Czech Republic. Since then, there's been a nearly continual legal battle over the rights to the name. Even the lettering font looks just about the same between the two beer companies. Just take a guess as to which brew tastes better.
In this town made famous by its suds we happened to run across our first pair of Mormons for the year. We have managed to run into Mormon missionaries in almost every corner of the world we've visited. So it was no surprise when we happened on these two. One fellow was 18 months into his 2 year stint while the other had been there for just 1 week. His 2 week crash course in Czech would need some serious augmenting before his partner heads home.
After a few more of those steep hills we finally approached the second most famous town along the Moldau, second to Prague Czecky Krumlov is a wonderfully cute old town that was built on the cliffs of one of those hairpin turns the river takes on its long journey to the Elbe. Its castle has a commanding view of both sides of the bend of the river and makes for an incredibly picturesque site. The old town pours down the rest of the hillsides to crowd both banks of the river. It's just about as cute an old town as you can find anywhere.
It's also equally packed with tourists in summer. Not only are tourists visiting the town and castle, they're participating in just about every kind of water activity you can think of on the river. Rafting, kayaking, canoeing, and swimming are all popular. The river was just about as crowded as the streets. Taking one look at the way overcrowded campsite we decided to move on.
Having just left the incredibly pretty town of Cesky Krumlov we were rather surprised to see that the next town upriver was exactly the opposite. Vetrni looks like a company town where the company is an old logging mill. The buildings are in tatters which seems to match the demeanor of the inhabitants. This had to be the poorest town we'd seen so far in the Czech Republic.
Fortunately the next campground was upstream another 4 km or so, so we didn't have to try to camp around this place. There are a lot of people who raft the river all the way from near its top down to Prague. These folks need campsites. The campground we wound up in happened to be one of those sites. As we set up camp we watched a bunch of canoers unload these odd looking very large white jars. These are the equivalent of their dry sacks. In the U.S. We would use a welded vinyl bag with a roll top. Here they use these huge plastic jars. We imagine that it must be quite a nice rafting experience as you would actually get to stay on the river through all those canyons. For the bicyclist, you miss these canyons because there are no roads.
For just the very last bit the river and the bike route both pass through a very narrow canyon. Which makes this the prettiest part of the entire route. The highlight here is the pretty riverside town of Rozmberk nad Vltavou and it's great castle. It has white carved stucco walls and an onion shaped tower. It sits high on a cliff with a magnificent view over the river.
Here is one of the spots where the river rafters congregate. It's a stop on their route downstream. What a incredible river journey it must be. How many places can you float down a river and come to these fabulous castles perched overhead. This could be worth giving a try someday.
As with the bike touring culture of Germany, the river rafting culture here is rather amazing from an American point of view. First, the river was absolutely jammed with rafters. But that's often the case with anything you do in Europe. There are a lot of people in a small area all trying to do the same thing. It makes us thankful for our open spaces in the American west.
But the other amazing thing is that you could float down this river for days and not have to carry any food. There are restaurants everywhere along the river. Some are even accessible only by boat. So true to form in Europe you're never more than a few km from a place to eat.
Just before making the last climb up to Lake Lipno we had a small bit of single track to tackle. It's a rough spot that tuns next to the railroad track. We were doing it uphill which made it a bit more difficult. This did add a little excitement for the day. Then we came out of the trees and finally got to see the lake, the headwaters of the Vlatava river and, really the headwaters of the Elbe as well. It's been a long journey from the North Sea to this point.
Lake Lipno is beautiful in summer. In fact the area reminds us a bit of Oregon. So it's easy to see why it's a major summer destination for Czech. There's enough swimming, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and mountain bike riding to keep even the hardiest entertained for long periods. The bike route goes along the southern shore of the lake usually on unpaved farm roads. Unfortunately because of the trees the lake is rarely in view.
For our last night in the Czech Republic for this year we found ourselves a nice spot in the best campground we've found in this country so far. With an outstanding view of the lake, it was a great place to spend the night. The pizza dinner up in the town was an added plus.
Section 2 Horni Plana to Vienna
August 21 - 29
Our initial climb through the woods took us to the Austrian border. This border used to be fenced and manned by army, not to keep people out but to keep people in. Evidently this region of the Czech/Austria border was a favorite location for those trying their luck at getting out of the USSR.
Little evidence of that fortified border remains. Trees have overgrown where the fence used to be and there's just a vacant building at what used to be the border check point.
There is, however, a great dirt road that follows along the Austria side of the border. This has now become a big biking destination. We passed numerous bikers including a group of 60 somethings doing the route. It's easy to see why. It's a pleasant level well packed dirt road that is easy to ride going through a very nice forest.
All too soon our route left this pleasant dirt road and began an extremely steep descent into the cut Austrian town of Aigen. What a difference. When you're in an eastern country for so long you begin to forget how neat and clean the west is in comparison. Coming back to not only a western town but a very cute mountain town at that is quite an eye opening.
We ate lunch and then began what would be several steep ups and then downs before we got to the Danube. One climb just after the town of Rorbach was so steep we were amazed that they actually had the bike route going up it. We just groaned at how cruel the map makers were and plowed on up. Finally we made the last descent along a very lush forested road and at last the expanse of the Danube lay in front.
In this middle Danube section between Passau and Linz the river cuts its way between steep forested hills on both sides. The bike path hugs either side of the river. Although occasionally you have to take ferries across and then back again to avoid precipitous rocks at the river's edge.
Riding the Donau is one of the most pleasant bike rides we've done. The terrain reminds us a lot of the west portion of the Columbia River gorge. The river is wide, the hills green, and the bike path flat. An added bonus are all the river boats that ply these waters. In just one night we saw no less that 6 of those big hotel cruise boats go by along with about the same number of cargo barges. The water traffic is part of what makes the river riding so interesting.
Our ride into Linz was chased by an oncoming storm. We just managed to make it into town before it started pouring. Although we had wanted to spend the night at the nice campground, we decided this would be a good time to use some of that hotel budget we'd been saving. This turned out to be a wise decision as it rained all night long.
Linz has a very small, compact old town that makes for a good short walk. It in no way can compete with the amazing architecture of Vienna. So this second largest Austrian city has taken on the title of Austria's industrial center. This is the one city where you'll actually see some areas that aren't the usual picture perfect normal Austria.
The next day was Sunday and as usual everything in Linz was shut. Just about the only exception was the McDonalds, a few restaurants, and bakeries that opened after church services were over. So this was a great time to ride around downtown.
They'd had a big outdoor concert, in the rain no less, the night before and were in the process of cleaning up the mess. It almost seemed as if there were different music venues all over town, not just the one in the main square. So we had to negotiate the bits of temporary stage pieces that were being disassembled and packed away. Otherwise it was easy to get around, much easier than when the stores are open and the street full of shoppers.
We attempted to look at the several churches in town. The problem with trying to see the churches on Sunday is that they're usually in use. So you can't just go in and wander around. So instead we just rode the bikes around town a little bit having a look at the small old town as well as the brand new buildings. After lunch we continued on down the river.
One tough decision to make is which side of the river to ride. There is usually a bike bath on both sides. We decided to take the north side this time.
Directly east of Linz along the river is where you find the real industrial sections of the city. We recall back 10 years ago after going through all these near perfect towns between Vienna and Linz it was such a surprise to see this normal looking industry. There's a small port facility as well as a small mining operation. At least this makes Austria look real instead of just a country of tourist destinations.
Beyond this the bike route once again goes through rural countryside. When not right on top of the dyke, the route wanders a little off the river through some cute old towns. Virtually any and all of them could make for a nice place to stop.
With so many campgrounds to choose from it's hard to decide which to actually stay at. We decided to go onto the town of Grein. It is located just at the mouth of another canyon through which the Donau once again is squeezed. By this time the river is quite large. So this amount of water meandering through this narrow canyon is quite a sight to see. We can see why the cruise/hotel boats are so popular.
Our campground for the night sat right at the foot of the Grein castle. Except for the traffic on the main road, you couldn't ask for a more perfect location. The river on one side and the view of the castle on the other.
After the rain in Linz and a second day of clouds and sprinkles, the clear blue sky on the morning we left Grein was a welcome sight. The temperatures had dropped as a result of the recent cold front and there was just a tiny hint of that fallish feeling in the air. Although that lasted only a short time. September is right around the corner and once it hits we can expect that first real fall cold front to come blasting through.
We began the day with an exploration of the town of Grein. It's rather remarkable that after a while the towns in a particular region begin to all look the same. You need to be transported to a different region to really see great changes in the buildings. We climbed the short stairway to the castle that kept a watchful eye over our campsite all night. The views of the red tile roof tops, the pretty green domed church, and the mighty Danube were stunning. After that we strolled the streets, joining all the other radlers who had stayed in the pensions and gasthauses over night. Not a lot of these farad tourists stay in the campgrounds.
The quieter side of the river for this day would be to the south as the north bank route was often next to a major highway. So we retraced our ride back to the bridge so we could ride on the south side. A lot of those radlers (bikers) who stayed in the pensions and gasthauses took the ferry across. We'd rather save the money and ride the short 2 to 3 km to the bridge.
For the most part we rode right next to this milky looking river all day long. This section of the river is once again bounded by green hills on both sides. So it has spectacular scenery around every turn. That coupled with cute towns each having either a pretty church or awesome castle made for a fantastic day. Only a tail wind instead of the hearty head wind would have made the day absolutely perfect.
Just before quitting for the day we went through the absolute must stop for most folks traveling the Donau. It's the Melk Abbey. We'd seen it 10 years ago, having stayed at the rather unexciting Melk campground just to do so. This time we admired it's beautiful Baroque features from the outside, but chose not to enter.
The location for this abbey couldn't be more perfect. Like a lot of the castles on the Donau, it sits high on a cliff with commanding views both up and down river. With its yellow and white stucco, ornate onion shaped steeples, and gold trimmings it is quite a sight to behold. The building is absolutely huge. Just imagine coming around the corner back in the 1800s when it was first built. Now that must have been something to see. Today it attracts tourists galore.
We chose to just buy dinner supplies and move on to the town of Schönbühel. This is another small town with it's very own castle also perched on a rocky cliff over the Donau. This one happens to be so close to the Donau that the bike path has to climb the hill and go around the castle rather than staying at water's edge. The walls of this castle look like unfinished concrete as opposed to the other castles which are stuccoed. It has a tall tower topped by a green onion spire. Definitely an impressive sight right from our campsite.
The short section of the Donau extending from Melk to Krems is supposed to be the most scenic section in Austria. Although that section from Passau to Linz is stunning as well. What makes the downstream section more unique is that around every bend is another incredibly cute town with an unbelievably picturesque church palace, or castle ruins. The section near Passau is primarily natural scenery that you are looking at.
When riding a bike it's an absolute must that you take this short section as slowly as possible to enjoy it to its fullest. In fact, the section is short enough that you could ride it more than once. If you were to ride it upstream and downstream on each bank, essentially doing it 4 times, you'd find that each time it seems fresh and new. We wouldn't be surprised if there are folks who come back to ride this area over and over again. And that's not even considering all the off river routes that can be explored, without load if you want to climb the hills. This is definitely a biker's paradise.
We decided to ride only as far as Krems, drop the gear at the campground, and then ride back upstream to the town of Dürnstein. This is a very touristy town. It's where all the day and hotel tour boats make a stop, not to mention all the bus tours that also stop by. Of course, we heard lots of American English being spoken in the various tour groups. The town has a pretty kloster complete with an unusual blue and white clock/bell tower. It has a set of castle ruins on the hill as well. Evidently Richard the Lion Hearted insulted the Hapsburg king and wound up spending a little time in this castle's prison back in 1152 while returning from one of his crusades.
The streets are filled with shops mostly selling wines from the local vineyards, a local apricot brandy, and tourist trinkets. This isn't a normal town with regular stores. Our guess is that most folks go the 3 miles downriver to shop at Krems' many supermarkets. If you ignore the tourists, a slow wander around town can be a nice way to spend the afternoon.
Krems also has a nice old downtown. But it's more of a normal working town, a very cute working town. When we visited they were in the process of preparing for their annual Volkfest which takes place the last week of August. Their main square was overtaken by carnival rides and games. So it wasn't a place to visit this time around. Otherwise there are the usual pretty churches, rathaus, and narrow streets to meander.
From Krems to Vienna the river once again flows through relatively flat lands. Consequently it isn't quite as beautiful. We had a fairly short ride for the day, finishing at the town of Klosterneuberg. Here we parked our tent in a familiar campsite. It's one run by the Austrian equivalent of the AAA. It's a very nice, clean, well run campground. The first thing we noticed was that the trees in the tent area were significantly larger making for a less grassy but more shady site. Also, much to our disappointment, the automatic bike rental machine was gone. We really got a kick out of that unusual contraption. It's been replaced by a trampoline on which you can rent bounce time, 1€/5 minutes.
This would be our base from which we'd explore the city and prepare the bikes for the remaining weeks of the ride.
APPENDIX A – ROUTE
Aug 16 Moldau Radweg Praha, Zbraslav, Davie, Slapy, Chotilsko to Celina. Off
route to Chopin. 64.53 km
Aug 22 Moldau Radweg thru Predni Zvonkova to Austria border. Moldau Radweg
thru Aigen, Natschlag, Fürling, Rohrbach, Lanzers orf, Obermühl. Donau Radweg to
Kaiser. 66.72 km. Aug 22 Donau Radweg thru Ascach, Oberlandshaag, Feldkirchen,
Ottensheim, Urfahr, to Linz. 42.19 km
APPENDIX B – CAMPSITES
Aug 16: Kemp Cholin near Celina (135 Kc/night)
Aug 21: Kaiserhof Gasthaus & Camping in Kaiser. (14.90 €/night)
Lonely Planet Guidebook Central Europe Bikeline Radkart Moldau Radweg Bikeline Radkart Donau Radweg 2
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.