Saturday, July 23, 2011

Winter in Prague

The capital of Bohemia and the Czech Republic. A city I have wanted to visit since a cousin went there on a school trip in the mid nineties and got drunk for a pound. The very reason which drew me there as a teenager, kept me away through my twenties as the hoards of uncouth and roudy British piss-heads swooped down on the city. The worst side of Brits abroad and an embarrassment. Time has though ticked on and the draws of its glorious architecture and the recommendation of Czechs I have met all over the world led me to visit this February.


In the dark we jumped off the bus and wandered through the snow carpeted streets in the rough direction of our lodging. A feeling of great excitement, a real buzz as we criss-crossed the small winding, picturesque alleyways of one of the worlds most beautiful cities. The streets were nearly empty. Down one passageway the only person we encountered was a beggar, prostrate in front of us in quite an alarming fashion. Kneeling on the cold compacted snow, head face down just above the pavement, reaching out front, hands cupped. I have seen people beg in many ways, but this made quite an impact in the cutting cold and snow. Around another corner and we had arrived. The old town square at the heart of Stare Mesto. Straight out of gothic novel. It took my breath away. A wide open space of icy cobbles is flanked by magnificent buildings. The imposing 14th century Tynn church, grand multi-story town houses and the old town hall to name a few. On the latter hangs the medieval astronomical clock. A wondrous thing of multiple moving parts enlightening the people with the phase of the moon, stars, seasons, no less than the struggle between good and evil (enshrined by figures of perceived vice and virtue) and, yes, the time.
Quite a sight, and by little chance, we had a hotel room directly opposite. Much of the next four days were spent lounging on our window sill watching the enchanting machinations.

On one evening, crossing the old square past the statue of Jan Hus (a fascinating man who sowed the seeds of the reformation and was consequently burned alive by the church – love thy neighbour and all that), we meandered through the streets until we found ourselves at Lokal. A modern twist on a traditional Bohemian beerhall, Czech specialities are served in a long semi-circular white-washed vault of a room. Dumplings and goulash are washed down with the most flavoursome, refreshing, fulfilling beer that has ever flowed down my throat. This is not an exaggeration. Pilsner was invented in Bohemia and the locally brewed stuff in Lokal edged out the best I have tasted from Belgium or Germany, although there are many good contenders…

We had the fortune of meeting a lovely local couple, Marian and Katerina, who shared many insights into modern Prague with us. The city seems to be in a time of flux, in between the growth and rejuvenation post-communism, through somewhat of a blip and searching for where it wants to go next. I suspect many parts of Eastern Europe are in a similar place.
One of their best recommendations was a trip to the ice hockey, a local favourite past time and, after a few more beers and a wobbly walk home, we woke up the next day and made it happen. Sparta Prague were playing a team I had never heard of that night and, turning up in one of the uglier and less touristy areas of the city, managed to get hold of two tickets.
The ice hockey was of a good standard (obviously immeasurably superior to the Guildford Flames who I used to watch back in the nineties), but two memories stick out. Firstly the die-hard, nutty Sparta fans at one end. Despite Sparta losing, they shook the stands with their jumping and chanting. I would have loved to be amongst them to feel the intensity, but am perhaps lucky that I was not as I idiotically confused the two teams at the face off and cheered the opposition's early goal. Not clever. Secondly, the cheerleaders. OK, not the cheerleaders precisely, though they were relatively entertaining, but the ice cleaning lasses. Drawing only slightly on modern perceptions of Spartan heritage, the ladies who brushed the ice were clad in tiny, extraordinarily short white see-through togas which billowed all over the place. The half time show involved them repeatedly bending over to place pucks for fans to hit at goal and I guarantee the audience was not concentrating on those fans. Probably would not pass the politically correct smell test back home, but everyone seemed to have fun.


I won't go into to detail of just how impressive the highlights of Prague are, but can not resist sharing a snapshot from four glorious days exploring. Overlooked by the largest castle in the world with its giant cathedral and numerous palaces, the city slopes down via imposing medieval streets and parkland to the wide river Vltava. This body of water is crossed by the half kilometre long Charles Bridge, started in the fourteenth century and flanked by grand statues. Walking out the other end you are thrown into the cobbled touristy streets of Stare Mesto, the old town, and then into numerous intertwined districts from the garish and ugly soviet architecture of parts of Nove Mesto, to the fascinating history of the old Jewish quarter. It is images of the latter which will stay with me the longest with its centuries old synagogues and squeezed, imperceptibly slowly tumbling gravestones of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Alas, the once thriving community has nearly completely disappeared as a result of centuries of prejudice.
I found Prague and its people charming. A fascinating city of historical and contemporary culture. And you know what, avoiding a street or two you can avoid the drunk British idiots who have done so much to sour relations and, by being nothing more than civil and respectful, can convince a local or two that we are not all so base.

And one more thing from Prague...

Captured from the poshist street in the Czezh capital - the most unashamedly effective advertising I have seen in ages.

Bill Hicks would be proud!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Route II: Deutschland

What started last year as a saunter from Brussels to Paris evolved into Part I of a wider ambition. Gibraltar to Stockholm on 2 wheels with nothing but pedal-power. Part II was to be across northern Germany some 400 plus kilometres from Dortmund to Hamburg. These things seem like a good idea at the time...
Sleep deprived and hungover (you think we would learn), Dave and I found ourselves in the relatively unattractive city of Dortmund with our bikes in as many parts as we could break off to squeeze them in the extra small flight boxes. Eventually, we managed to put them back together almost correctly. Being an amateur is so much fun.Jan then turned up with much enthusiasm and his mountain bike. It is great how things like this work out. To think I met him on the first corner of the inaugural cycle last year ( and here we are again on a new route. Uwe, another random connection from travels in Fiji and NZ (, followed shortly after with his tight, tight flurescant lycra and via a night out we were rearing to go.

Off through Dortmund, we left the city centre behind with its one very impressive building (the central church) and wheeled our way through some plush neighbourhoods and then out into the countryside. Very flat and green, we followed the small cycle paths which criss-cross every other mile of this country, out to a large canal. Heading North-West through Nord-Rhein Wesphalia (the federal province), what struck me is the scale of industry. Unlike the UK, where what industry there is centres around the urban centres, here views across the countryside are broken up by factory towers, power stations and wind turbines.Our mileage was significantly curtailed by serial punctures on Uwe's tyres, a result of some off road on a road bike. Uwe's despair when it happened for the third time was comic. Well worth it in fact and it meant we settled in for the night somewhat short of our intended destination. A good thing too as Oelde contained one of the best breweries in the region - Pott's. In the interests of cultural understanding we tried all the specialities to hand.

Having only touched 90km the day before we set off early putting some fast kms under our belt. Racing in peloton down the straight semi-major roads rev'ed up the endorphins (especially when Uwe leads the way, cutting the air with his perhaps overly aerodynamic outfit). Through small towns broken up by familiar countryside we left behind the flatlands and raced down a large hill into Bielefeld. A place famous for Dr Oetke, but we only stopped in for the long overdue first wurst (sausage) of the tour. Conscious of time we pushed on to the small pretty town of Herford, where the temptation of another crisp, light, yet flavourful local beer detained us for a while in the sunshine. Ordering our beverages I remembered that this was the day of the Royal Wedding back home and, catching a glimpse on the tele in the bar, I remembered why I had run away for the weekend. Spoil sport perhaps, but given the chance I prefer not to be induced to wretch by the sight of peasants orgasming over the nuptials of inbred hangovers from history. Enough of that.
Herford was complete with copper spired church, brau-haus and cobbled central square. It is these small towns which make Germany so endearing. Unlike the cities which were largely bombed to buggery, these quaint places retain much of the charm of old Germany and we had the privilege of pedalling through many of them on this trip.

From here we met the river Weser and raced through the steep hills of the Porta Westfalica. From the crown of one of those hills a giant statue of Kaiser Wilhelm looks down on what was the most spectacular scenery of our journey. The river snaked swiftly through a lush green valley basked in the spring sunshine and then on through impressive architecture and riverside bars of Minden. After a short pit-stop in which I was surprised to discover and just about converse with members of the local Greek community (families who fled after the Greek civil war) over some gyros, we decided to push on for a final 15 km to the pocket sized picturesque town of Petershagen. In spite of an acutely painful tendon in my left knee (quite possible triggered by the embarrassment of being overtaken by a German roller-blading machine while pushing 32 kmph), this final push was well worth it.

Following one of the countless signs that litter German byways with varying degrees of helpful information (an affectionately OCD people), we spent the night in the local jail. Yup for only 20 odd euro you can spend a night behind bars in an old Nazi jail. To be more accurate, a jail bolted onto the back of the hundreds of year old grand court house and used throughout most of the 20th century to incarcerate deviating locals. And, as the landlady informed me with an odd grin, for only a couple of euros extra you can wear uniform!!

The transformation was complete. A night of beers and roaming around the town in stripy attire ensued before knocking out on a prison bunk blocking out thoughts of the previous occupants. All a bit odd. But fun.

After the 130 km the day before, the saddle was a little sore, but we set off early to follow the winding Weser for most of the day. Face into the wind, we pressed on through a flat fertile land cut through by the river and skirted by wind turbines. Occasionally cutting inland through twee villages and past large triangular farm houses, we found the river again, climbed up and crossed at a damn allowing gorgeous elevated vistas.

We stopped in the bustling market town of Nienburg for the usual refuelling of copious amounts of carbs. Wurst, pastries, chocolate and more wurst. It was hot, so we guzzled more fluid and put on a sprint north along the river. Just as the legs were tiring, at least in my case, we sighted the town of Verden.

Banking the Weser with its church steeples, medieval town houses and breweries, it was a must stop. A few requisite local brews in a biergarten seemed to rejuvenate the limbs, or at least make us tipsy enough not to notice the aches, and we cycled on for another 30 km to the town of Rotenberg, arriving just before sundown.

After a couple of days passing from one idyllic town to the next we had no reason to expect anything else from Rotenberg. The clue was in the name. We wasted an evening trying to have fun in this soulless, dull, nothing of a town. Being the last day of April, it was a night famous for party in Germany, but the best we could find was an over 40's do and the worst bar I have visited in memory. Awkward unhappy looking locals, pop music and, God forbid in Germany, bad beer. Never go to Rotenberg.

Our final push the night before had left us only 80 km to Hamburg. Excellent. All we needed to do was relaxedly ride along well sign posted country roads and end up in Germany's second largest city nice and early for a celebratory knees up. That simple...

Rolling out of the town, we were flanked by dozens of already drunk youths sinking bottles of beer. An impressive feat by 10 in the morning. A local May Day tradition apparently. Germans take their drinking seriously.

We found ourselves on a very efficient, fast, straight road heading directly to Hamburg. All we had to do was keep on going. In fact, it seemed so straight forward that we decided to cut north along some slightly smaller roads to add some sights to our journey. An eventful few hours commenced...

The road we took shrank to a small country highway, then a single lane road, a gravel track, a couple of tyre tracks through a dense wood, before finally and undeniably ending. Clearly we had made a wrong turn. So what to do? Retrace our steps and find the right road like sensible people, or, what the fuck, push on trying out the theory that if we head in one direction we have to hit some other type of track eventually. Being the idiots that we are, of course we took the latter course of action.After a brief salute to the Phantom (search the blog if for some peculiar reason you want to understand more...), we pushed our bikes through bumpy fields of marsh grass, into another patch of woodland and then with a sludge into the soggy brown goo found ourselves in a swamp. A veritable, sodden, bug infested swamp. Not the optimum terrain for racing bikes! Swatting at swarms of mozzies, we picked up our bikes and soldiered on, as the idea that we were being a bit stupid filtered past the testosterone. Wet, bitten and lost we decided to make a 90 degree turn, hoping to find our originally intended path rather than conquering the rest of the swamp. Back through a forest, over fallen trees and through brush, we eventually found an abandoned shelter and followed the overgrown adjoining path to..... yup, where we started. Not a high score on the navigational skills and a lesson learned. Just not sure if the lesson was “turn back when you are going head first into a stupid situation” or “push the situation further because you are bound to find some fun”.

The inevitable Uwe flat tyre only slightly slowed us as we now did our best to make up time. In fact, we only stopped once for the undoubted draw of more sausage and a couple of local beers at a quaint village May Day celebration complete with poles, flags, uniforms and odd dancing. Much like home then.

Up, up, up a hill we pedalled for 10 kms or so until, eventually and thankfully, we reached the peak and, crouched down, used every inch of kinetic energy to surge at over 50 kpmh down the slope. Exhilarating. Awesome. A bit further and then, with a certain amount of glee, we sighted the scores of harbour cranes which introduce Hamburg.
Ugly, but impressive in scale, we cycled through the giant docklands, over spanning bridges and past piping industry. We were nearly there. An extra sprightliness invigorated the legs, grins broke across the face, my wheel caught in a tram track, I hurdled head over the handle bars, Dave swerved and ate tarmac. Nice.

440 km complete, a couple to go and we crash. Luckily for me a tuck-and-roll out of the fall left me with only a few scrapes, but Dave took a bit of a beating. A big bugger of a bruise, only a modicum of whining and some interesting shaped handle bars.What to do? What else, jump back on the bike and find the beers. Through a tunnel under the mighty Elbe and we had arrived. St Pauli, Hamburg.

Smiles, high funfs, beer, jaegar and a rather interesting night in the Reeperbahn. Been a pleasure to adorn the lycra with the boys. Can't wait for next year... just have to choose the route...