Monday, July 30, 2012

Czech Republic - To the Danube River

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Click here for the Introduction.

This was shown in an earlier post, but belongs here.
Tuesday, September 6 - 60 miles

Pedaling through fog at 8:30 a.m. we passed a group of men sitting on the roadside, drinking beer. They waved for us to join them. We said “hello” but kept moving. The Czech people drink at odd hours or it’s often never ending. More than once as we pull into a campground, we are asked if we want beer. Last evening’s dingy campsite was no exception. The bartender/store owner/receptionist insisted we enter the bar, almost pouring two drafts before we managed to say “no.” Though a beer might be a tasty treat, it’s far from our minds until we’ve hydrated and eaten dinner. And then I’m usually too stuffed or too tired to join the party.

We rolled through wheat and corn country. A mushroom-shaped hay mound crept along the highway. As we got closer, we heard the clip-clop of horse feet. An overloaded wagon inched forward. It was like a scene from an old postcard. Andy photographed me as I passed, for scale. At older couple sat at the reigns, the woman shut-eyed to the morning sun. I longed to take her picture, but our lack of communication makes it impossible to ask permission.

Typical Czech couple with a hand cart. Photo credit: Flickr
In another town people line up at a delivery truck full of propane gas tanks. Each person carted one in a big-wheeled hand cart or ingeniously attached to the pedal and top tube of a bike. We suspect they cook on gas stoves.

It is common to see the elderly stooped with osteoporosis. Women with head scarves tied under their chin hold a cane, and slowly walk the street. It’s a painstaking way to carry groceries, but somehow they manage, or push a cart, taking the better part of an hour to reach their tiny house. It’s difficult for Andy and I to fathom their way of life, and yet, I presume it’s the only way they know.

Roadside Catholic shrine. Photo credit: Flickr
The Czech people never smile. We try “Dobry Den”, meaning “good day”, but only the shop keepers grin. They light up when we thank them, “Dekuji.” Maybe we are bastardizing the language – I guess we’ll never know.

As we headed toward the Austrian border I reflected on this five year old country. By the archaic methods of harvesting: scything crops, picking by hand, and many farmers plowing with horses, the country seems, to westerners, stuck in the 1930’s. But because of this it is an affordable country for tourists. According to two Dutch couples, wages are low. A music teacher earns $300.00 per month. The Czech people cannot afford to travel compared with most other European countries.

We still see Catholic shrines on the corner of every field, in town, as frequent as every half mile. Metal crosses are erected with fresh flowers. They adorn front lawns or attached to public shelters, even at the intersection with newly plowed fields.

Smaller granite monuments with etched name are perched along the roadside, decorated with a vase of fresh flowers, even stuck in a tree. It’s a culture that pays tribute to ancestors, celebrating with weekly bouquets. Seeing the markets filled with a floral abundance makes all the sense in the world. I feel like an intruder to these personal displays and quickly pedal by.

Photo credit: Wine of Czech Republic
With 1,300 Korun left we crossed into Austria, exchanging it for 500 Schilling. The exchange rate is 11 Schilling to 1 U.S. dollar. Andy and I look forward to cleaner campgrounds standards that Austria is known for.

The border crossing was interesting. We left the Czech Republic, showed our passports, then pedaled through 1 km of “no man’s land” until entering Austrian customs.

We flew, a tailwind nipping our heels, passed a series of vineyards, their greenery like scalloped fabric across undulating hills. The dark purple grapes were nearing harvest. It reminded me of Oregon’s Willamette Valley during September. Later in the year, we taste a friend’s special vintage at their winery’s open house.

Another spoke broke, sounding like a rock shooting from our wheels. Exasperated, I arched my back and studied the sky as if searching for a cure among the clouds. A monotonous dull thumping brought my mind back to pavement. I looked between my legs at the rear wheel. It shimmied, wore than before. I rang my bell, alerting Andy to the problem. We inspected the wheel. Thankfully it still cleared the brake pads. There was nothing to do but push on, Vienna only 70 miles away. If nothing else, we’d cleared up the problem there, once and for all.

Crossing the Donau at Tulln. Photo credit: Bob Lucky

We cycled on a major highway until a white polezi (police) vehicle flashed its lights and pulled over at the next turn off. We moved on, slowly ascending. Andy and I discussed the possibility that the police car was waiting for us – there’d been times in Germany when the signs were confusing and only allowed autos. Then the blue shirted Czech policemen got out of the vehicle and sauntered to the rear, placing white caps on their heads. As travelers, we don’t fear the law. They’re often a good source for directions. We halted, smiling at the two approaching officers.

As we suspected, bicycles weren’t granted access on the thoroughfare. We apologized and they directed us to use an alternate route. They were helpful in locating a campsite, though not recommending the most direct route as there was road construction. When they sped away, we decided to take the quickest way. In our experience a closed road meant new asphalt or resurfacing a bridge. We took a chance.

Several kilometers later a small town’s main road was being repaved. The road crew happily waved us on. We maneuvered over the dirt road, around machinery then cruised, arriving at the Donau (Danube) River by 6 p.m.

We crossed the wide waterway side by side on a bike path. I grabbed Andy’s hand and squeezed. The Donau had been a distant carrot, a dream finally realized. We planned to bicycle a 250 mile stretch, from Vienna to Budapest, a purportedly scenic and lovely ride. I hoped - once my bike was straightened out - we’d be doing just that.

On the other side of the bridge we were surprised by a sign indicating a campground – much sooner than expected. Smiling, we looped back to the water’s edge where a bike path followed the Donau in both directions. Within minutes we rolled into the site.

Boing! Another spoke went. I got off my bike at the reception building, thoroughly disgusted. I took a deep breath. I was glad we’d made it. The person behind the counter gave us directions to a shop in Tulln, a few minutes away. We’d deal with the problem wheel in the morning.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Measure of a Good Path

Segregated path along Webster Road in Shelburne.
My boss had recently become a recreational rider. When he asked me where to ride that was safe so he could enjoy time with his granddaughter, the waterfront path quickly came to mind. And so he drives to a parking lot and they explore the trail as grandpa and child.

Now he's tiring of the trail. It's an out and back route and though it's a gorgeous path and Burlington's crown jewel when it comes to tourist attractions, it has it's limitations. I starting thinking about alternative rides they could do. Sure, there are ways to loop from the waterfront, but all require steep hills, high traffic road crossings, and a map. Signs are still difficult to follow, especially for novices. Some of the trails lead you to trail washouts, past homeless encampments, all of which require prior knowledge or adventurous detours, and may be uncomfortable to new riders. I ride these paths all the time. But I wouldn't necessarily advertise these routes to my employer. And the more I thought about it the more I realized there weren't many options, especially safe routes where a wobbling child could roam without danger.

Even with a 6 foot lane, I wouldn't take children along busy Shelburne Road. 18-wheelers 
regularly ply this road. I use it to get to my brother's home, but I normally avoid this route. 
If you lived nearby, taking the sidewalk would make more sense.

All of this thinking led me to re-look at the trails with a novice eye. My children are neither beginners nor competent cyclers, so taking this step back lends a unique perspective—one which city planners should consider when revising/constructing new paths. This is not a novel idea, I know, but it's good to cycle back to this viewpoint every now and then.

I suppose that what is safe is relative to where you live, where you travel, and dependant upon each rider's abilities. My boss wouldn't consider riding from his home onto Dorset Street, the same road I commute to his office. His comfort zone is different than mine.

For me, the measure of a good path is where I would feel comfortable taking my children. And yes, those options are few and far between. More often I advise them to walk, especially if they travel the 1.5 miles from home to downtown Burlington. 

I'll be working on maps for my boss and his granddaughter. I will encourage this new found love of the bike, but I'll have to dig deep for safe routes so they can have memorable adventures. I also will incorporate creemee stops. What child or adult doesn't love that?

What constitutes a "good bike path" in your area?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Anniversary Bike Overnight

Waiting at the ferry dock.
I had an idea for our anniversary. Usually we get away for a 4-day pedal sometime in September, but with my European plans eating up weeks we weren't sure it would happen this year. I'd miss that time alone as a couple, so I suggested a simple bike overnight. This means more to us than any restaurant celebration.

Lightweight packing on my Trek 830 Antelope. 
It all came together pretty fast. We planned to be away about 24 hours. Rummage through closets and cardboard boxes. Each pack a pad and sleeping bag. I hauled the tent; my husband the stove, necessities, tools, first aid. Keep the peace between our boys while we pack. Run them to their grandparents. Roll the bikes from the garage, then downhill to catch the 1:00 ferry to New York.

Bridgestone MB-3 with larger panniers. Cushy Thermarest pad
 and rolled up fleece blanket strapped to rear rack.

We changed course late in the planning, opting for a quick jaunt across the lake into the Adirondacks. I have all these maps from a ride years ago—one I cherished as it brought me deep into New York hills. Both my hub and I value the Lake Champlain Bikeways map as it not only shows the lake route, but a myriad of loops associated with it. I taped up our battered copy after my last ride.

I keyed on a campground about thirty miles away—perfect for the later start.

Enjoying the cool breeze and view from the upper deck.
After all, we were celebrating 23 wonderful years of marriage. No need to make this a strenuous adventure; the point was to just get away.

We cruised beside the Ausable River. With lower rainfall this summer the normally rushing, soothing sounds of water were merely stagnant pools. But no matter. We pedaled together.

At one point the unmistakable thwack-thwack noise meant I picked up something on the rear tire. I stopped and extracted a .25" piece of glass from the new rubber I'd replaced that very morning. Amazingly, the air remained. Yikes! That Nimbus tire I'd made fun of really did the trick. I'm now convinced that I will further spend good dough on puncture resistant tires.

We encountered a few smaller climbs and then one whopping mile-long pull, but I expected this. I'd done this route before and knew that I'd eventually return with my favorite riding partner. There's something special about this high plateau, with fragrant pines and aspen edging the road, even an escarpment of cliffs in the distance. With nary an automobile on these back roads in New York state, and the incredible network of smooth paved lanes, it's a bike rider's paradise. Sadly, hardly any route in Vermont can compare.

The North Face tent that we still love for its roomy interior and freestanding capabilities.
Around 6 p.m. we pulled into Taylor Pond and snagged the last campsite. Our anniversary weekend seems to coincide with Lake Placid's Ironman Triathlon. After calling ahead, but unable to make a last minute reservation, we expected to free camp on the state land should all sites be occupied, but miraculously we got lucky.

It's a rustic campground with pit toilets and no showers, but it's also hugs a 4 mile long lake. We went for a swim. The water was much warmer than Lake Champlain. Later, I washed my hair at the site.

As we discovered, Steve is also an avid non-motorized bike rider.
Our dinner of pesto and noodles was combined with biker Steve's amazing spread. My husband had earlier befriended this Minnesotan, who toured from his home to the Maine coast and was on the return ride. I presumed the attraction was because of the grey beards (just kidding), but learned that they shared the love of travel,hitchhiking in their younger years to some of the same places.

With our pot of noodles in tow we shared dinner at his table. A bottle of wine was open. Steve pulled out salad, his wife's homemade blue cheese dressing, croutons, and lobster pieces for topping, fresh from Maine. Egads, that was for starters! I helped myself to wine while he roasted a whole onion with butter in aluminum foil in the fire along with a baked potato. When that was done, he grilled a fresh piece of salmon in a square two-sided rack over the open flames. Yuuummmmy! Steve responded to our marveling at his accouterments and fine fare, "I've had a lot of practice. I aim to eat well."

It was quiet evening for me because I use ear plugs, but the Hub was awakened at 3 a.m. by party goers and couldn't get back to sleep. I didn't expect a warm night either, especially at nearly 1500 feet in elevation, wanting to test the lightweight down bag I'd borrowed from a friend. Instead I used it as a blanket. I'm preoccupied with lessening the weight and volume of camping gear. With a lighter, compressible bag, I was able to stow that, my pad, raincoat, cup, and utensils in one small pannier. That's pretty amazing.

The following morning, with a less than exciting bowl of oatmeal, we mapped a similar length, alternate route back to the ferry.

Rocky hillside in background.
This way brought us closer to the rock ledges and was mostly downhill—any way would've been descending back to the lake. The road conditions were sublime, smooth, and we didn't see a car for 30 minutes.

Even on the more heavily traveled route with road markings, the traffic was nil. It was a Sunday morning so it was also devoid of commuters.

We dropped in altitude until we were among the wide open Peru apple orchards. I hadn't seen this style of farming: pruned trees and spaced closely, since traveling in the Netherlands.
It also appeared that there was some type of irrigation.

My main squeeze, enjoying the beautiful day.

Typical style of large, old apple trees with barns filled with tractors and wooden boxes.

We'd underestimated the oatmeal breakfast providing enough calories to get us going. I was famished soon after we left the campsite and gobbled a breakfast sandwich at a convenience store. Andy's diet and stomach though, could wait for a healthier meal. Two hours after we set out we found a nice grocery. It was growing hot and we refueled, then stocked up on ferry ride munchies.

The boat ride back was wilder. Waves crashed over the bow, sometimes splashing our bikes. We kept an eye on them. I was concerned about the down bag getting soaked, but only a spray hit that pannier. It was mostly sheltered against the rail.

Homeward bound.

The route displayed in Map My Ride. Note the elevation change. We camped at the high point.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Buildings and Refuge

The breathtaking Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

There's a certain amount of culture shock when you cycle in a foreign country. A different language, the currency, locating shelter every day, the visceral exposure to heat and rain, and the occasional mishap or bike repair are all elements that may compound like a steaming kettle. One may thrive on the adventure. Another may break down in tears.

Tears at the Taj Mahal, Agra, India.
Ocean waves can be calming. I often gravitate to our lake for the vast space that I find soothing. But when you're surrounded by humanity and calamity in a huge city far from home, there is nothing quite so peaceful and quiet as the inside of a dark, tall structure, preferably hundreds—if not thousands—of years old.
The serenity of the Salisbury Cathedral.
A quiet retreat. To regroup, recharge, recenter, refuel the wanderlust.

Sometimes, the structure doesn't need a roof. These Roman pillars in Turkey are a magnificent example of the power of stone to restore the soul.

In Burlington, our city hall towers above a rollicking, lively pedestrian mall, but inside it's perfect, cool stone reflecting the July sunshine. I linger, on the premise that I'm perusing the art displays, but in reality I'm soaking the silence as I glide on the green and white marble floors.

*Thanks to Yung Falbz at Bike Fizxzit for her adoration of her local post office. She reminded me of how important edifices can be while rolling on two wheels.

Do you have a favorite building that "does it" for you?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Czech Republic - Jindrichuv Hradec and Castles

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Click here for the Introduction.

Sculpture in Jindrichuv Hradec central square. 
Photo credit: Wikipedia
Monday, September 5 – 61 Miles

This was one of those days when everything clicked. We got an 8:30 start and quickly made it to Jindrichuv Hradec, a good sized town whose cobbled spokes led to a central square. A two-story religious sculpture dominates the hub with narrow multi-story connected buildings decked in pastel shades as its backdrop. There are scores of people, mostly young mothers pushing purple flowered carriages. This is a common sight in the Czech Republic.

When Andy and roll into villages we become a spectacle. Residents stare. We haven’t seen any other bike tourists. We get directions to a bike shop, often given preferential treatment. While it is odd, it’s also a nice bonus, allowing us to put miles behind us.

I used hand signals to explain to the bicycle mechanic about my back wheel. As with this man and farm hands, construction workers, he wears blue coveralls. He waved for us to follow and I pushed my bike through telescoping arched tunnel to his back room.

Inside, the smell was oddly familiar, like my grandfather’s bike shop. There is something about bicycle grease that brings fond memories of sitting with grandpa, watching him true wheels, paint insides of rims, tools clattering, dirty rags hanging on nails. Like the Czech repairman my grandfather wore dark green shirt and pants, his uniform, camouflaging the inevitable grit of someone working with their hands.

In a half hour he threaded a new spoke for 50 Koruns ($2.00). I’ve become skeptical now with this rear wheel, but it didn’t seem like the place to investigate a major repair.

Wheat fields on a high plateau south of Jindrichuv Hradec. Photo caption: Panaramio
Spinning fast once more, the wheel rolls smoothly. Overhead, clouds gradually knitted into a grey sweater. After swooping from a high plateau of wheat fields, we made our way towards a distant campsite. And then, after some time the road steepened, the faded blue waters of the Thaya River visible between a curtain of hardwoods. Across the canyon a red roofed castle fortress hugged the cliffs, its white walls quiet and majestic. I stopped, breathless, waiting for Andy. My delight was evident, my smile dancing as the arbor swayed and parted, revealing a magnificent view.

Thaya River. Photo credit: Wikipedia
Following the river we passed yet another castle, this one in craggy ruin. I was in heaven, if often frustrated by the inability to explore. But these are the failings of multi-country travels. There is never enough time or knowledge to fully understand the language, countryside and history. So, we glean what we can, appreciate the scenery, be polite.

We camped near the shore in a low water cove. The cheapest campsite was $3.00, but hardly worth even that. With only cold water, I didn’t shower. The bathrooms were filthy. But we met a Dutch couple, camping in a caravan. After comparing our disbelief at the accommodations, we accepted their invitation for coffee. Andy and I stayed until midnight, drinking, discussing world affairs and watching the starry sky. We meet lots of Dutch travelers on the road. They speak English, are friendly and are likewise filled with wanderlust.

On and off today – and especially because of the bike repair – I thought of my maternal grandparents. Today is their 55th wedding anniversary. It’s times like this when it would be nice to be in Vermont.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Alternative Bike Route

A new set of signs recently cropped up along one of Burlington's north/south corridors. This is a busy 4 lane thoroughfare filled with housing, shopping center, gas stations, high school - just the type of roadway you want to avoid while riding a bike. There are no designated bike lanes, though the ubiquitous "share the road" signs line the asphalt. Unfortunately, it's become almost a joke in the bike community to ride this highway during rush hour. The brave souls that dare ride, probably "take the lane" otherwise it's a dangerous squeeze play between car, bike, and curb.

To my surprise and delight, there are now several of these little green signs, directing cyclers to the safe waterfront path. Since the trail moves in a likewise north/south route, it's a perfect alternative for resident and tourist. And what's more, it helps out of town travelers who find themselves stranded on this unwieldy roadway, allowing a better option. I have personally redirected many lost souls over the past five years.

The waterfront trail is the grey line about halfway down the photo.
It frequently crosses neighborhood streets
One day I followed a sign to it's confluence with the waterfront trail. And sure enough, it gives explicit detail for further exploration. Little by little the cycling community is growing and these particular connections are increasingly important.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Did You Know...about the Power of Dish Soap?

I know, it sounds pretty silly, talking about soap bubbles on a bike blog. But did you know that simple dish liquid does wonders on grease filled hands? I've never bought fancy products for this dirty job. The trick is to work the soap directly into your hands. Don't bother with water as this dilutes the effectiveness. Rub for a while, then simply wipe it off on a paper towel (or rag that you will dispose). It's amazing. Nearly all the grease is gone.

I forgot to wipe my pinky on the towel or that would be visibly cleaner.
My husband and I substituted shampoo while touring. Hair soap does double duty as body cleaner and bike maintenance cleanser! Soap up, rub hands in the grass, and then rinse with water from our bottles. All clean. Smelling like roses or Dove or Suave—whatever your preference.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Darren's Bridgestone MB-2

It seems there's a lot of Bridgestone Love floating around. Because of my husband's MB-2 readers felt the need to share their own acquisitions. And because I appreciate Bridgestone's too, it's worth passing it forward. What can I say—I'm smitten alsoI contemplated looking at a purple women's step through and was disappointed the frame was too small.

This beauty is Darren's current restoration, a 1994 MB-2. What a beautiful blue! It amazes me how these older frames retain their vibrant color and are often found in pristine condition.

Thank you, Darren.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Flower Power

The roadsides are ablaze with wildflowers: miniature daisies, monkey flowers, red clover, the blues of wild chicory, tall grasses and towering Queen Anne's lace. There is also the frowned upon Purple loosestrife, an invasive species here, but nonetheless striking with tall magenta cones. Beautiful.

Put yourself in my bike sandals and enjoy this spinning wheel view of a segment along my commute. And no, that's not snow near the asphalt, but nature's carpet.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Czech Republic - Central Bohemia

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Click here for the Introduction.

Roztoky village on the Berounka River. Photo credit: Panaramio
Saturday, September 3 – 42 Miles

It had been our experience that a day of rain is followed by a spectacular clear day. Today was no exception. It made up for the interrupted sleep, the noise of several trains waking me from 5 a.m. on. Amazingly, I had to rouse Andy at 7 a.m.; he had drifted in and out of slumber with each convoy.

A mass of agricultural valleys surround the Vltava River, pouring its waters southward from Prague. We worked our way east, cutting the grain of the land, like climbing the ridges of corduroy before dropping into the next. With my crippled wheel and without traffic of any kind – a cyclist’s dream - I wove around road hazards, what little there were. Czech roads have been smooth; only a few towns have cobbled central streets unlike Germany where we counted on bumpy rides. Thankfully, through all this my wheel is holding its own.

Andy and I have come to terms with my bicycle’s condition. It could give at any time and we’d have to wait out the weekend. Most importantly, we’ve changed our expectations about getting to Vienna in three days. We’d just come from busy Prague. The Czech Republic is hilly yet delightfully rich in agricultural and human diversity. Why propel ourselves towards another dense mass of humanity when what lies between is invariably more worthwhile? Besides, we're tired of the congestion. Once we shifted our perspective, we welcomed the Czech Republic with open arms.

Borek farmland. This area reminds me of Vermont. Photo credit: Panaramio
Today, the terrain reminds me of Vermont: open fields, hardwood forests, ponds, villages clustered short distances away, linked by farmland permeated with the ever present smell of manure, the odor tempered by the recent mixture with newly tilled soil. 

As Andy and I climbed a long, steady hill through a forest of mixed hardwood/softwood, scads of townspeople tromped through the undergrowth, filling large baskets with mushrooms.
Mushroom picking.
Photo credit: Radio Praha

There is a sense of community in the villages that make us smile. Life revolves around the quest for food. Before the store closure at noon on Saturday many people congregate, though not crowd, the tiny groceries. Young blond haired children ride on the front seat of their mother’s bicycles. People walk to the store or push a simple wooden car with bags stowed inside. Stores do not readily hand out sacks nor bag your food - the customer does. Invariably, our arms are full when we walk out to the bikes. Some folks return their bottles at the same time they shop. The sound of clinking glass adds to the chatter in the store.
Mushroom picking.
Photo credit: Radio Praha

One wall is devoted to bread. Naked loaves sit on racks, waiting for someone to put them in a cart. Small white hot dog-sized rolls are popular. And any type of meat, especially sausage, is sold in the deli, often a separate room of the store. It’s an obvious staple of the Czech diet. It’s not uncommon to find 10 people lined up, patiently waiting their turn. And, like Germany, fresh flowers are on sale. We pass folks who are carrying a bouquet home in their wagon, in their carryall knapsack, and sometimes sticking out of bike baskets.

Oh, the apple trees lining the roads! The green fruit has turned half crimson from a week ago. Today we coasted by some pickers, even a young family who shook a tree for its raining fruit. We presumed it was easier to harvest for those with little hands and little stature. I stopped to pick an apple. It will enhance a curry rice dish that we often assemble for dinner.

Konopiste Castle. Andy and I didn't know its history, nor could we appreciate its significance when we walked the grounds. The castle has become famous as the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, whose assassination in Sarajevo triggered World War I. Photo credit: Panaramio

Konopiste Castle. Photo credit: Panaramio
By 5 p.m. we pulled into a nearly deserted campground in Benesov. In the orange light just before sunset we walked along a path through the woods to visit Konopiste Castle. It magically appeared. An unfilled moat surrounds the tan and red castle; one section housing a black bear. The animal rested, one paw stretched outward. Peacocks cried from somewhere nearby. Religious statues slowly appeared from the shadowed trees, frightening me until I recognized them for what they were. The place was fabulous - our first real feel of central Bohemia - but unfortunately it was after hours and the museum was closed.