02 Jun Trip Diary – Prague to Slovakia
When I was back in the UK looking into route options from Prague, I’d planned to take a fairly straight line southeast out of the city to Brno, before heading south to the Slovakian border.
This route would follow much the same path as the E50 highway and involved a mix of fast roads, back country lanes, and woodland tracks. However, whilst I was in Prague and had a reliable wifi connection, I checked if there was an alternative way so that I could avoid the busiest of roads. What I discovered is that the Euro Route 4 cycle path that had taken me into the city from Germany carried on and would eventually lead me into Brno. The route was much longer but had the appealing benefit of once again following the river Elbe and, on the map at least, looked rather more scenic than my original plan. It would take me east out of Prague along the river to a place called Kunta Hora where it then snaked its way south before eventually arriving in Brno. As I was in no great rush to leave the Czech Republic, I decided to abandon my original plans and follow Route 4. Apart from one aspect that would only become apparent a few days later, I’m glad I did.
The cycle route was well marked for the majority of the time over the next few days but getting out of Prague itself provided more than one “where the f*#k am I?” moments, until after around two hours I’d reached the outskirts of the city and was back into the countryside. That put the church spires and hoards of tourists firmly behind me. As I passed the sign confirming I’d left Prague and that wished me a pleasant onward journey, I felt the tension that comes with riding in heavy traffic amongst impatient drivers and seemingly crazy Prague pedestrians lift from my shoulders. It was just me and the bike; the odd cyclist or walker were my only distractions from the beautiful landscape that was beginning to unfold in front of the handlebars. My smile grew bigger with every stroke of the pedal. Throughout the course of the day, the route took me from river bank to village and back to the river again, an easy ride on good tracks with just the right amount of off-roading to give the route some excitement and the bike a healthy thrashing. By the evening I’d covered 108km and arrived at the outskirts of Kunta Hora with the tent set up just as the first of the stars appeared overhead. I slept well that night, pleased to be back on the bike and grateful to once again find myself falling asleep in the tranquility and silence of the countryside. Little did I know that the morning would bring the hardest and most testing day of the trip so far.
The contour lines on my map had warned me it was going to get steep. The thin red lines grew closer and closer together as I studied the map over breakfast the next morning. Normally, on any half decent map, the innermost ring of any contour line groupings would contain a number denoting the highest point of the rise, to show how high you were about to ascend and how steep things are about to get. My map featured neither. For all I knew, they could represent just a quick pedal thrash in a low gear, over and done within a few sweaty minutes or an hour long, lung-busting, calf-exploding plod at less than walking pace. As it turned out, the latter would be more accurate.
I can’t really complain, but I’m going to anyway. Up until now, the trip hadn’t involved many ascents. Sure, there’d been steep sections but nothing that wasn’t over fairly quickly, but even the hills I encountered on this day will surely pale in comparison to what lies ahead in places like South America. Spring had also chosen this Wednesday morning to re-emerge in all it’s hot, sweat-inducing glory. By 11am, my little thermometer, normally under 10 Celsius, had rocketed to 29 degrees. By 2pm, it hit 32. One rather memorable climb started right around this time. At its base, a triangular sign warned of a 13% incline ahead (it doesn’t sound much but try walking up one – even the fittest would have their hands on their knees in no time) without any details of how long it may last and as I’ve already explained, consulting my map would only end in disappointment. I heaved away for around 90 minutes, the pedals and gearing creaking under the 100+ kilo weight of the bike, heart, and calfs pounding from the effort of sustaining just enough speed to avoid rolling comically backward. The climb was made worse by the fact I had no cycle path, no hard shoulder to crawl along. Instead, the edge of the road was a mixture of potholes, cracked tarmac, and loose gravel. I hit patches and felt the wheels struggle for grip; what little momentum I had was sapped away by the shifting ground below and I struggled to remain balanced. I stuck as close to the barrier on my left as I could, but I saw queues stretching down the hillside, cars, and lorries unable to pass as the road zigzagged upwards. Occasionally, despite the obvious lack of room, they’d give it a go anyway, squeezing between me on their right and oncoming traffic on their left.
The Czechs have a worrying trait of talking on their phones when they drive – more than I’ve noticed in other countries. This was unnerving at the best of times but damn right scary at moments like this when I’d like to think that concentrating on not squashing me held greater priority than gossiping to friends. Those who realised overtaking wasn’t really an option resorted to other means of removing me from their path. Horns blasted out from behind, but there was little I could do. I wished I could pull over but stopping places were few and far between and even when I was able to find somewhere to pause, it was too thin to provide enough room between the bike and overtaking traffic. My pannier bags on the left protruded worryingly into the road, ready to snag on the first car whose driver wasn’t paying attention. By the time I crested the summit, I was a sweaty, sunburnt mess. Clothing stuck to me as if I’d been vacuum wrapped, the lactic acid caused my calves to swell to almost double their normal size. I paused briefly at the top to admire the view but the exhaust fumes and sun made for a mixture of air that did little to aid any recovery and I longed for the cool breeze that comes with a fast descent. I pulled back into the traffic, sat down on the saddle, and let gravity do its thing.
There is a certain pride that comes with completing these little challenges and on the descent, I congratulated myself for not giving up. Okay, so I paused a handful of times and sure, anyone foolish enough to walk up that hill would have overtaken me, presumably with a look of grave concern and an offer to call the paramedics, but never once did I resort to getting off and pushing. As I’m finding out, giving yourself a pat on the back and acknowledging these little successes goes a long way to boosting morale when you’ve no partner to do it for you.
That night, a storm broke out over the forest I was camped in and that marked the first of three nights that would mean little to no sleep. The rain came down so hard I thought it would pierce the tent. The pine trees surrounding me bent and creaked alarmingly, lit up every couple of minutes by the lightning that crashed down a few kilometres to the west. Despite being utterly knackered from the day’s riding, I managed only an hour of sleep before my alarm sounded at 5am. When I prised myself out of the sleeping bag, I emerged into a wet and misty world. Spring had receded again and it wouldn’t return for another two days.
That day, my feet remained wet well into the afternoon and, by the time I took my shoes off in the evening, they were completely devoid of the usual pinkness and had turned a bright white colour. Layers of skin had begun peeling off. The hills had also returned, though not quite as bad or as long as the day before and the cool air had made them a little more bearable, but the descents lasted longer. Now they swept me along for kilometres at a time. At one point, I glanced at the speedometer to see a reading of 57.6kmph and decided that was fast enough. I’d plenty to deal with on this trip without my own stupidity getting me in trouble. Still, it was quite exhilarating to be moving almost at the same pace as the traffic. But, it was the final descent of the day, into the outskirts of Brno, that would be the most memorable.
I’d just made my way up a long, but fairly easy angled incline and pulled over at a small layby to catch my breath. I regretted this almost instantly. The traffic was heavy and, after labouring uphill, the cars and lorries had nudged up a gear and took off at an alarmingly fast speed. Regaining the road proved almost impossible and I waited for what seemed like ages for a small gap. When it came, I shot out from where I was hiding, immediately picking up speed with a few good hard pedals to start me off. Seconds later, and the small but comforting hard shoulder I’d had during the ascent disappeared, replaced by more broken and cracked tarmac that forced me out into the road. I bounced along, each bump making the bike hop into the air and crash back down with a rather worrying thud, swerving about as it landed. Traffic came so close to my left that I could, if I’d wanted to, have kissed the drivers. The backwash of air from the lorries sucked me in and then pushed me back out again leaving me wobbling around in their exhaust fumes. As I rounded a bend halfway down, a crosswind made it hard to keep the bike from being pushed into the traffic. I tried to remember what I’d read, to stay relaxed and not over grip the bike: doing so would only make it react more violently to any change in the steering. I had the brakes lightly squeezed for the full descent. The smell of hot rubber swirled up from below my knees until I finally eyed the welcome sight of flat tarmac. I knew at the base my route took me straight on at this point, along a small road that led the back way into Brno. I panicked at the thought of having to move out into the centre of the road and then cross oncoming traffic – a manoeuvre that seemed all but impossible. Luckily, the traffic had slowed, and a group of cyclists ahead was in a heated debate with some drivers, which had started to hold everyone up. I took the opportunity and carved between two lorries and shot across the other lane, bumping and crashing over a patchwork of poorly fixed potholes as I did and down the quiet back lane. That minute and a half descent had been the scariest part of the trip so far and, as I whizzed downhill towards Brno, I considered for the first time whether I’d packed enough underwear for the trip.
By the time I rolled into that back road, I’d done 118km and was feeling more than ready to find somewhere to camp. Unfortunately, that road also carved its way between steep hillsides, alongside a beautiful lake dotted here and there with houses. It was near impossible to find a flat spot to camp. To my right, the terrain headed steeply, in some places vertically, uphill straight from the roadside and the water’s edge lapped at the road to my left. Continuing on would have meant being in Brno proper and I’d have to make it out the other side before I even thought about finding somewhere to camp. I was too tired for that and I only had about an hour of light left. By nightfall, the best I could find was a small clearing no more than four or five meters from the roadside that didn’t slope too much. I heaved the bike up the hill and through the brambles that covered the forest floor and collapsed. This would have to do. As it turns out, it was horrible. I spent the whole night slipping down my sleeping mat. Each time I felt myself drift off, I’d wake with a start to find myself crumbled at the base of the tent. I was still awake when my alarm sounded at 5am.
Brno in the dark
Feeling rather grumpy, to say the least, I packed the bike up and sat in the rain overlooking the lake drinking coffee. It was probably the lowest point I’d been at on the whole trip. As I mounted the bike to set off, I abandoned my plans of exploring Brno, partly because of the rain and partly because I just wanted to get out of the city to the south and find a quiet spot to sleep for a few hours. I got lucky. After around three hours of riding, I found a small grassy knoll, separated from the road by a small clump of trees, that gave spectacular 360-degree views over the countryside. The rain had stopped but the sky remained overcast. I propped the bike up against the solitary bench, grabbed my down jacket from the pannier and curled up on the grass under some trees, feeling a little sorry for myself, but overall, just very tired. I didn’t sleep; the view to the south was breathtaking and I lay there for a few hours watching the world go by. I watched as the trains crossed the fields and over a bridge, clattering from village to village and stopping at the tiny country stations, imaging where everyone was going and what they were doing. I saw deer sprint across the hills that made up the far horizon and tractors toiling away in the fields below. By the time I got back up to cook some lunch, I realised that the grassy knoll actually contained a small war memorial – a lone white cross stood just to the left of the trees. It turns out that a little over 200 years ago, this area was the scene of a battle known as ‘The Battle of Three Tzars’. A small sign told me as much but the English translation was almost incomprehensible and I gained very little information after that. It was something to do with Nepolean. That and the cross marked the site of a mass grave discovered many years before my arrival.
A stormy night
Fatigue and the fact I’d not seen anyone stop by all day made me decide to camp where I was. I figured any remaining occupants of the grave wouldn’t mind me staying the night if I kept a respectful distance. The view was the best I’d had of any campsite so far and I wanted to see it at night. It was simply stunning. I could see four or five villages separated by acres of farmland and rolling hills. Each village had its own church and on the hour, every hour, a chorus of bells rang out, the sound wafting it’s way up the valley and over my hillside camp. Each bell had a different tone and when night fell, the sound of the bells mixed with clusters of dimly illuminated villages that lifted my spirits. It was only me up here (above ground anyway) and I lay outside the tent and fell in love with this part of the Czech Republic. I was so captivated I didn’t notice the clouds rolling in from behind until it had gone from still and peaceful to a frenzy of rain and wind. I dived for the tent and made for bed, but I was in for one more night of little sleep.
The wind was ferocious and lasted well into dawn. At one point, the tent poles where bent so far over I could almost breathe in the fabric of the roof. I lay there convinced I’d hear a snap, but it never came. Each time I heard the wind come roaring across the valley and up the hill, I braced for the impact and each time the tent absorbed its force and sprang back with no harm done. I was lucky to get two hours sleep and I was ready to get out of there come morning. But, as the sun rose so did my spirits. The sky was clear, and by the time my bike was loaded up and I’d had breakfast, the sun was above the horizon and the temperature began to rise rapidly. I lay on the damp grass for around half an hour, soaking up the heat and willing the tiredness away before I hopped on the bike and set off down to the valley below.
Lost in the woods
A quick look at the map told me I was around 70km from Slovakia and I intended to make it just over the border and camp for the night in what my map showed was a promising clump of green, which, with luck, would be a forest. As it happened, my energy levels didn’t quite match my enthusiasm and I felt really drained by midday; the previous three nights were beginning to take their toll. The ride itself wasn’t too bad. I got lost for a while in a wood full of bluebells and pine trees, but I really didn’t mind as it was so beautiful, but the final straw came as I headed into a small town called Milotice, less than 20km from the border. The hilly forest approach through a warren of small tracks took the final ounces of energy I had. I had to stop every hundred or so meters and lean on the handlebars and stare at the ground as the sun burnt into my neck. Tiredness does strange things to your body. For one, it makes easy decisions much harder. I started to struggle with the map and began making silly costly mistakes. At one crossroads, I’d a choice between going up and going down. I hurriedly consulted the map under the shade of the pines and picked the downhill way – my desire for the easy path overriding any thought to whether it was actually correct. Once at the bottom, another look at the map made it clear that down was wrong and I was forced to push the bike back up the stone path, with the wheels sliding and struggling for grip as the ground moved around below them. Every two paces forward, I’d slide back one. By the time I emerged from the forest, I’d had enough. The temperature was back in the 30s, my t-shirt clung to my back, and the dripping sweat stung my eyes. I unceremoniously dropped the bike in the grass and sat on the side of the road in a sweaty mess debating what to do when I saw a sign that was almost too good to be true. Even though it was in a foreign language, I knew what it meant: Campsite.
Ten minutes later, I was standing at the gate to Kamp Joseph. I debated for a few minutes about whether I should enquire or just get on with things and keep riding. After all, I thought, Europe was meant to be the easy stage. I’d been good with my budget, but that didn’t mean I could now spend freely. I still have a long way to go and every daily budget of £10 (or equivalent) I could save meant another day on the road but I decided if I could stay for less than 200 Koruna (around £7), I would. As it turns out, the sight of a sunburnt, sweaty and perhaps slightly distressed looking English man must have struck a kindness cord with the man behind the desk. He waved me on to the outside veranda surrounding the little hut and appeared two minutes later carrying a cold beer and with the news that I could stay for free. The beer was also on the house. I could have cried. I very almost did. At that moment, I felt my shoulders ease and the stress and tension of the last few days slip away. Slovakia could wait until morning.
That was Friday, today is Sunday, and I’m just about to leave the camp. I hadn’t intended to stay this long, but my body longed for rest and besides, I wasn’t charged a single Koruna to stay. When I asked for an extra night,, the man smiled kindly and nodded, indicating again that he didn’t want any money from me. As the only guest of the campsite, as far as I could tell, I spent last night talking with him in his homemade bar and was given free pint after free pint until I wandered off to bed around midnight. I wish I knew the words in Czech to explain how grateful I was for his kindness and how much I appreciated it. But I don’t, so I had to make do with a mix of English and handshakes. I only hope he understood.
I’m glad I decided to deviate from my original plan and head along cycle route 4. The route really is very beautiful for the most part with an agreeable mix of terrain to keep you entertained and enough accent to please even the most sadistic of riders, although the hills don’t really start until you reach Kunta Hora. Sure, there are a few sections where a fully loaded touring bike isn’t the best option and you’d be better off with a full suspension mountain bike, but they don’t last too long and make for some fun, if not rather slow riding.
So, it’s from 20km north of the border with Slovakia that I’ll leave you this week, rested and ready again for whatever country number 7 decides to throw my way. Just not so many hills this week, please!
This diary enter covers dates from 21st – 28th May, 2017
To see more photos from this section of my ride, visit the gallery page or click here
Edited by – Emer Garry