Monday, July 30, 2012

Czech Republic - To the Danube River

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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.


  1. Blimey! You had the worst run of luck with those spokes (patience of a saint)! How exciting, the Danube! Between wanting to know if you finally get your wheel sorted and anticipating the ride along the river I can hardly wait for the next installment.

    As an aside, I've had the good fortune of working over the years with some women from that area. Initially, I found them rather grim and a tad scary. A completely wrong first impression on my part. Their joy for life, fantastic sense of humour and kind gestures meant work days full of fun and giggles. I still love it when we catch up.

  2. Having all those spokes break would be so frustrating! Was it because of the load you were carrying? I am also interested in how many miles a day you travelled, you must have been very fit to have done such a trip, cycling day after day, that must take some getting used to!

  3. Vicki, I usually post at the beginning of each installment the miles that we ride. This day was 60. On average, it ranged anywhere from 40-60. We each carried 40-45 lbs. of gear.

    This is not an excessive amount of weight for bike touring. Breaking spokes numerous times means the whole wheel is weak. We put off getting to heart of the problem because of the language issue and truly trusting someone to respoke and reevaluate the hub and rim. Maybe this wasn't clear in my writing.

    We were in generally good shape for the trip, but there is nothing like a week of on-the-road training. After that initial tough period it becomes second nature.

  4. Thanks for this information Annie, very interesting.

  5. Really? Really?? I have lived in the Czech Republic all my life and I have never seen anybody using horses to plow.. perhaps John Deers or Zetors, but horses? 300 USD a month as a music teacher? 800 USD a month is still below the average monthly salary..Beer drinking and poor farmers - well, lets talk about akward stereotypes here.. all Americans are cowboys and like guns.
    Please open your eyes and try not to see what your stereotypes of so-called eastern bloc might be.

    1. Remember, this trip was in 1994. I'm sure the economy has improved since then.

      And yes, to our eyes, there was more beer drinking than we were used to. The same can be said for Germany too.


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