Friday, August 26, 2016

Elbe Bike Route VII: The Final 200 km Through the Czech Republic to Prague

We entered the Czech Republic in the middle of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, and remained in a steep-sided valley for another 20 km to our first city of any size, Děčín.  It was a dramatic end to the mountains, with castles across the river from each other.

We took a swing up to the large castle.  We had a hard time pushing (not riding) the bike up the entry road, which was probably a 10% grade, and checked out the inner courtyard and the rose garden of this substantial place.

Two photos help explain the biggest difference we see so far between Germany and the Czech Republic.  The architecture here is quite interesting, colorful and fanciful, as much or maybe even more so than in Germany, which is saying a lot.  However there are many more places here where little or no care or restoration has been done on buildings since the war 70 years ago.  The second photo shows just what a little stucco work and paint can do to change things around, but these things take time and money, and we get the distinct impression that these are in somewhat shorter supply here, though the Czech economy is reportedly doing much better since the Velvet Revolution 25+ years ago.  As in the former East Germany, we do see a lot of renovation going on, but there is a much much bigger backlog of it here.

Leaving town we got an even better view of that other smaller castle.  We did not for one moment think about climbing the hill to explore this one!

We were not quite done with hills, but they were now more intermittent.  Both arriving and leaving our overnight destination of Usti nad Labem (Usti on the Labe [Elbe] River) there were dramatic hills (and a bridge) inviting us to take out the camera.  Not sure how much longer the hill on the north side of town is going to be dramatic, however, as that quarry chews away at it.

We met another tandem touring couple along the way, and in fractured German and English learned that they're from a small town mid-way between Berlin and Wittenberg, and that they were on their way to Prague as well, but with a substantially higher target mileage for each day than we aim for.  They were hoping to do 80-100 km per day, compared to the 40-65 km (25-40 mi.) we ride with all the sightseeing we do along the way.  The husband is a bike shop owner, by the way, and he built the tandem they're riding.  He has actually heard of Rodriguez bikes, the maker of our tandem, and was very impressed with the technology and workmanship of Little Red.

Our next destination was a profoundly sad one, Terezin, also known by its German name of Theresienstadt.  It was a pair of fortresses built in the 1700s to protect Austria-Hungary from the Prussians, but failed to do so in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.  The larger fort remained mainly as a garrison town and the smaller one was turned into a prison.  Gavrilo Princip, the man who is blamed for starting WWI by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, was imprisoned and died there along with several of his co-conspirators.

In the Munich Agreement of September 1938, Germany seized a large swath of Czechoslovakia bordering on Germany.  In March 1939 the Nazis seized power in what remained of the unfortunate country, and the SS turned the small fortress into not only a prison but also a torture location for their perceived enemies.  During the war the entire non-Jewish population of the small city that had grown up in the middle of the large fort was moved out, and it became a concentration camp for Jews.  A town of 7,000 people was suddenly "home" to 58,000, with miserable hygiene and nutrition.

The Ghetto Museum has recreated a bunkroom to give an idea of what it was like, but without the crush, noise and smell of all the people once crammed into this space, it's hard to get a true feeling for it.  A display of art that survived the war helps give a glimpse, however, of both the larger picture and of some of the people who were imprisoned here.

Terezin was not a death camp per se, but it was deadly thanks to its chronic shortage of food and medicine and consequent poor hygiene.  But it was also a way point for many Jews who were indeed sent on to the death camps further east.  A map shows where the 140,000 people who lived or passed through Terezin came from (circles) and went to (squares).  Of those 140,000, fewer than 40,000 survived until liberation in May 1945.  In one room, the Ghetto museum lists the names of just those children who died here.  It is a long list.  What a sad, sad place.

Although there is lodging available in Terezin, we luckily found a place in the delightful city of Litoměřice 4 km away and enjoyed walking around its large town square and exploring some narrow alleys and hill climbs.  The host of our pension suggested a restaurant in an old stone building near the main square, and Jeff had an incredible Wild Boar Wellington and a Czech beer for about $12.  Our lodging with breakfast was under $40.  We like the prices in the Czech Republic!

In Germany we followed blue Elbe Radweg signs along the road to help us find all the twists and turns in the route.  Those ended at the border, and now we look for yellow signs for National Bike Route 2.  The route has had a few rough sections, maybe a little less than in Germany, but more riding on roads.  However these have all been very quiet roads,  most of them so quiet you'd think they were reserved for bicycles.  We also had a detour that brought us up a very long climb, almost but not quite steep enough to tempt us to climb off and walk.  The payoff was a visit to some of the hop fields that make Czech beer famous.

At one spot well above the river, as you can see, we found this monument showing the height of the water in various floods.  Jeff, who is no short guy. is pointing to the water level in 2006.  If you look at the very top of the monument, hiding in the shadow, you can see where it reached in 2002.  Ouch!

Behind the monument we noticed a house that looks like it could be stunning, but was in sad condition with patches of stucco fallen off, a failing paint job, a few broken windows.  But notice the wooden barrier on the right.  Behind it we heard workers fixing the place up!  Thinks are getting nicer here, one building at a time.

At last we reached Melnik, our last overnight before Prague and the place where we will say goodbye to the Elbe/Labe River we have been following for 35 days.  Once again there is a big hill and a big palace on top, this time with a large church as well.  It was another big climb on Little Red to our hotel which is a block away from the church, but the road stayed under that point where we go to "15th gear" on our 14-speed bike -- i.e. walking -- and we had a scenic ride up.

On the way to dinner we passed through yet another colorful market square.

But the view after dinner at sunset was grand.  Looking upstream is the Vltava River joining the Elbe.  This will be our companion for the final 50 km to Prague.  You've probably heard of the river under its German name, the Moldau, from Bedřich Smetana's depiction of it in music as part of his collection of tone poems, Má vlast ('My Country').  Looking to the right, in the second photo, we could see the last of the Elbe Valley that has been our companion for so long.

The next morning we got a nice view back along the Vltava Canal to the castle and church in Melnik.  A few km further we had to cross the Vltava itself on what has to be the simplest ferry of the summer.  Taking advantage of the fact that boats are over on the canal, the ferry rides across the river tethered to a heavy wire cable.  Like a reaction ferry, the boat uses the power of the river to glide across without mechanical assistance.  The boatman used the large rudder as an oar to turn the boat 45 degrees to the river and Bingo! we were on our way.  In the third photos you can see him using the river to glide back to his home next to the ferry landing.

As we followed the river we passed three palaces, two along the river and one set back a bit on a hill and looking away from the river.

That last palace was in the town of Nelahozeves.  When Jeff realized that our bicycle guidebook route was going to take us through a town by that name, his eyes got big.  Hey, that's the birthplace of Antonin Dvořák!  If the two of us had to pick a single favorite composer, Antonin would be the guy.  His father ran a combination butcher shop and inn there, and little Antonin's introduction to music was sneaking into the orchestra to play the violin when there were dances at the inn.  Unfortunately, Tuesday was a day they were closed.  Guess we'll just have to come back again some day.

About a dozen km from downtown Prague we stopped to take a photo of the bike route, impressed with how distant it seemed from any sort of village or town, let alone a city of one and a quarter million people.  While stopped we began talking with a couple who were walking the other way, who turned out to be a British husband, Czech wife and their son.  They were walking from Prague to Dresden.  Gosh, that seems slow said the couple that was just finishing biking the 280 km.

We had one more surprise, in multiple manifestations, as we rolled along the Vltava.  We passed three dams, each with locks on the far shore so that boats can travel up and down the river. But on our side of the river parallel to the locks was a sluice each time, and each time set up with a slalom course for kayakers.  And were they ever at it!  We couldn't resist stopping and watching for a quarter hour at each one.  Call us biased, but our favorite boat was the tandem kayak.

We had a bike trail right up to and into the city of Prague, though not all the way to our destination.  We again rented an apartment, this time for 4 nights, through Airbnb.  It was in the heart of the city but we were up high, and the street noise never got bad enough to keep us awake. Making life better still, there was a large, well-stocked supermarket right across the street.  Though we only used it one cool evening, we did have the use of a verandah overlooking the city, and Louise captured this view of Jeff catching up on the blog with a full moon rising over Prague.

We parked the bike for the whole time we were there, since Prague is decidedly not a good cycling city, though quite a few folks were determined to pretend otherwise.  It was absolutely jammed with tourists on foot, but the vehicle traffic was astonishingly low.  We're not sure how the government has dissuaded so many folks from trying to drive through -- perhaps it's just the heavy pedestrian traffic acting as a deterrent -- but we rarely had to pause to cross a street.

We mostly just walked around soaking in the symphony of architectural styles, shapes, textures and colors.

A few building stood out from this architectural cornucopia.  One was the dark building in which the dark and moody author Franz Kafka was born and lived out his childhood.  Then there is the pair of buildings designed by Frank Gehry, known alternately as Fred and Ginger or as The Dancing Houses.

Our lodgings and the majority of the sightseeing is on the right bank of the river, with the notable exception of Prague Castle (Pražský hrad).  It is the largest intact castle complex in Europe, so large that it contains a cathedral and numerous palaces within its walls.  We started with a cable car ride to the far side, wandered through an old monastery, then came out to this stunning view down to the Vltava.

Around the corner was the Swedish Embassy, with some very odd Swedish art in the back yard.  The animatronic pair of legs kept a jogging pace as we ambled by the rear of the complex.

Next was the Schwarzenburg Palace, with a type of painted design called sgraffiti that made the flat stones look three-dimensional.

The Schwarzenburg and several other palaces are components of the state art museum, each focusing on a different time period.  We went to two others which featured Old Masters -- that's the only Rembrandt in the Czech Republic in the first photo, and 19th century art.  There was a special exhibit of Czech landscape painting, and the first canvas that caught our attention was by Josef Mánes and it depicted the meeting of the Vltava and Labe (Elbe) Rivers from virtually the same spot where we stood for the photo a few up in today's blog.

Ludvik Kohl's Gothic Hall with Assembly of a Secret Brotherhood is an early 19th century cousin to the many gothic novels that were the rage at that time.

We'll close our detour into art with two works by August Bedřich Piepenhagen.  The first reflects the same fascination with the lone wanderer that David Caspar Friedrich captured in a painting we displayed a few blogs back -- our regular readers should recognize the kinship immediately.  The second one looked like a Czech version of a recurrent theme in Currier & Ives prints from the U.S. in the same time period, the 1850s, perhaps duplicating for urbanized Czech art patrons the same sort of nostalgia for "the good old days" that Currier & Ives played upon for the American market.

Back out in the daylight we passed some statues that appear to be showing the tourists what happens to those who try to sneak into the exhibits without paying for an entrance ticket.  We decided to skip the inside stuff and just walked through the Prague Castle grounds, past the gargoyles, and on to the iconic Charles Bridge below us.

Parts of the Charles Bridge go back to 1357, when construction began, and it was for centuries the easiest place to cross the Vltava in the Czech lands.  It has been traffic-free for 50 years, if "traffic" means only motor vehicles.  It was mobbed with foot traffic when we were there and, we suspect, pretty much anytime except the wee hours of the morning.  While we saw no signs prohibiting cycling, it would be about as easy to cycle it as to ride through a crowd leaving a major sporting event.

It gave us a chance to see the waterfront and then to walk into the Jewish Quarter, where we took this photo of the curiously named "Old New Synagogue."  It was once the new synagogue since it replaced one that burned down, and became the "old new synagogue" when others went up.  Got it?  In any event, it's the oldest synagogue in current use in Europe, dating to 1250.

We'll close with one final view of the Charles Bridge from the shore, with some pedal boats that look like 1920s cars.  We're off now by train for 6 hours to the Danube River, where we will start biking in Ulm.  Catch that story in our next episode!