A Brief Visit to Austria

Vienna skyline from the Summer Palace

Vienna skyline from the Summer Palace

We didn’t spend much time in Austria. It was more of a destination to meet with family and friends which happened to be in the direction we were headed.  Austria is beautiful. The gardens are well kept, there is little trash on the ground and the people are generally helpful. A little rough around the edges at first, but once they open up, we found most to be nice.

However, Austria was not cheap. By any means.   We chose to hang out in Vienna for an extra day in an AirB&B apartment which drove our lodging budget through the roof.

We headed into Austria from the Palava area of the Czech republic.  Immediately we were happy to find beautiful rolling hills with old Schlosses (castles) on the top of Bergs (hills).

We found a small, discrete campground in Loosdorf.  The campground was really nothing more than a corner of grass in front of a house that was converted into a sanitary room (as they like to call them) and a small sitting room.  It actually was very peaceful, a welcome reprieve after our experience in the largest campground in the Czech Republic where we were camped with 5000 of our best Czech friends.

In the early evening, Jen and I rode to the store in the next town – 1 km away up a big hill according to our camp host who actually offered us a ride because the hill “was so steep”.  We politely declined the ride and pedaled, slowly to the kliene (small) store which had very little to offer.  “if you want anything more” the shop keeper stated ” you’ll have to head to Mistelbach 16 km the other direction”.  We had enough food for the night so we coasted back to camp and enjoyed a very quite evening. Only one other couple joined us in the camping platz- they were looking for a couple of nights out of the rain on their motorcycles.

The next day we rode from Loosdorf to Vienna- a long day – 84 km with lots of hills and no food.  Well, we had some snacks but had planned on hitting up a store along the route.  Unfortunately, no stores were open.  It was a national holiday in Austria and nothing was open.  By the time we got to the Danau, 15 km from our lodging for the night, we were all starving.  A little snappish and ready  to eat.  The first open biergarten on the river was a welcome site and we tucked into Spatzle and Radlers.  Food never tasted so good.

Vienna was beautiful. I could definitely spend some serious time in Vienna expect I probably couldn’t afford it.  We met with my brother Nick, his son, Mark and our good friend Annett and her man Rudy. And Jen was with us for the first three days.  It was fun to explore the rich culture and taste the fine food of Vienna with family and friends.

On Tuesday morning, We left Vienna and followed the Danau East towards Slovakia. We had a pleasant ride and did not see anything out of the ordinary as our friend Jen reported on the previous day.  She said that there were hundreds of naked people bathing on the bike path and that they were all Australian – in her words ” there were so many Australian willies everywhere. I did not know where to look without chuckling”.  We were spared the Australian willies.

We were unable to secure any warm showers hosts in Bratislava.  We knew there was a camp site North of town but are always weary to get into a major city later in the day.  Navigating through city streets when we are tired is not a good idea. So we decided to wild camp in the National Forest in Austria – just west of the border.  Although wild camping is forbidden in the National park, we found one spot that allowed tents – and it was all ours.  It was a beautiful spot however, it was not quite- there were river barges trudging up stream all night and you could hear the traffic on the bridge just to the West.  Plus, my overactive imagination kept me awake most of the night (axe murderers – there was an axe in a pile of wood near our camp – rising rivers and wild dogs) – all stayed in my head and we had an otherwise peaceful night.

The ride into Slovakia was mostly along the Danau Eurovelo 6 bike path.  We had a short stretch which we had to share our path with cars being diverted off the main hwy.  Otherwise the ride was flat, easy and uneventful.  The border crossing into Slovakia was equally uneventful.  It was obvious that you are in another country because all of the sudden the signs are in Slovak, there are bars on all the windows of the Casino and adult night club and the remnants of the border crossing buildings lie abandoned as merely a momentum to times past.

It is interesting how a line drawn on the map causes changes in aesthetics, culture, language, attitude, economy and the infrastructure as you pedal from one country to the next.  These changes are obvious the minute you pedal across that line.

More pictures to come!

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Czech Thoughts

I am still trying to sort my thoughts out about the Czech Republic.  Honestly, before I started this adventure, I did not know much about this Central European country.  I knew that they seperated from Slovakia and that I need to work hard not to refer to the country as Czechoslovakia.  If I slip up- there is no shortage of people to remind me of my mistake.

We entered the Czech Republic along the Labe (or Elbe in German) river from Dresden.  Our first night was spent in a shipping container campground under a highway overpass in Decin.  All the facilities (bathrooms, showers, reception) were housed in Shipping containers.  I know, it doesn’t sound very nice, but it was clean, quiet and comfortable.

We followed the Labe into Prague where we spent a few days exploring the city (and getting cleaned up).  From Prague we ventured South East until we met the Austrian border. From there we followed the border to the South East corner where we camped in the “largest camp ground in the Czech Republic”.  A beautiful spot but a zoo of a campground. Although, they had an excellent restaurant, The Schnitzel House run by Peter.

The Czechs we have encountered seem to love Americans. When we first start trying to communicate there is usually a little tension. Many older Czech people don’t even want to try to communicate if you can’t speak Czech.  I have found that if you can engage them in the charades game along with trying to communicate in their language, that will break the ice and usually ends in laughter.  Most assume we are from England and when we say we live in the US- there hands go up, their faces relax and smiles emerge replacing the furloughed frown.

The frown usually quickly returns when we tell them we are from Oregon.

“ Where the hell is that?”

“Oh, near California, yeah, yeah, I know California.”

With this opening, Jay and I spend a little time chatting up the Pacific Northwest.

We are comfortable in the Czech Republic. There are well signed bike paths that tend to take you through scenic countryside.  There are tourist information offices with bike tourists in mind. Sometimes they have information in English.  Usually the best we can do is German – which I can get by with.  Most of the young adults are willing to give English a try.  Anyone who has learned some English will often seek out a conversation with us.

“Do you know my great aunt? She moved to New Jersey 10 years ago.”

The food here is heavy, meat based and lacking in diversity.  We have enjoyed a few traditional Czech meals but mostly cook for ourselves.  The grocery stores in the small towns we visit usually have a poor selection of fruits and vegetables. Pork is by far the easiest meat to find.  They love their cheese and bread.  Ice cream, although not as tasty as the ice cream in Germany is not bad.

Pivo (beer) is cheaper than water, juice or soda.  In most of the rural stores the Pivo is limited to a pilsner or two with little diversity.  It is never too early to start drinking Pivo in the Czech Republic.  I have been up at 6am working in the common area of a camp ground and invariably there will be a man drinking Pivo.  Probably on his second or third already.  And yes, I did specifically say man. I have not seen a woman in CR drinking a beer before noon.

Along with Pivo or (other alcohol) is the seemingly national sport of cigarette smoking.  Male, female, young or old, the rates of smoking in Czech Republic are even higher than in Germany.  Mind you this conclusion is purely based on observational data from our tour.

There are definitely some beautiful areas of the Czech Republic.  If you are looking for a relatively cheap mountain biking holiday, there are some fantastic bike parks and bike paths.  Prague was relatively expensive (as expected) compared to the rest of the country. Although on the whole, The Czech Republic has been the least expensive on our tour (so far).

I am glad we decided to travel to the Czech Republic.  It has been a fantastic two weeks.  The riding was definitely more interesting from a terrain perspective than following the Elbe. We met some wonderful Czech people who have made our adventure just that much better.

 

Pictures to come soon.

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Tourist or Traveler

travel or touristThe debate has come up numerous times usually over dinner with new friends from the road.  There are many online discussion boards that also approach the question.  Mike Carter in his book One Man and his Bicycle discusses the topic.  Are long distance bicyclists tourists?  Travelers? Or something else?

We like to think we are more than simply tourists, so what description fits us best?

The Webster’s dictionary defines a tourist as “a person who travels to a place for pleasure”.

Traveler is listed as a synonym and is defined as “someone who is traveling or who travels often” or “a person who moves around from place to place instead of living in one place for a long time”.

Adventurer: “someone who likes dangerous or exciting experiences: a person who looks for adventures”.

Explorer: “a person who travels in search of geographical or scientific information”.

I found this article to jump start my arguments: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adventure-collection/traveler-or-a-tourist_b_3568344.html.   There are some great quotes in here about travelers-some of my favorites:

Daniel J. Boorstin  “The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.'”

One theme identified that seems to separate tourists from travelers is total immersion.  Travelers immerse themselves in the journey.  It is not about the sightseeing of the destination, but about the journey.

I really like this quote by Paul Theroux:

“There are two worlds: the world of the tourist and the world of everyone else. Often they’re side by side. But the tourist doesn’t actually see how people live.”

When we cycle through a country we spend more time in the rural “in between” areas where much of a countries population lives, works and survives.  We interact with folks who don’t speak our native tongue and often share their living space, even if just for a night.  We are immersed in their world and we adapt to their culture as best we can.  Although we are only temporary inhabitants, we gain local perspective. We don’t necessarily seek out comfort. We don’t need air conditioning or a comfortable bed every night.  We are happy to take up a small space on the floor of a shed, or even a bus stop.

The journey, the adventures, the mis-adventures are more memorable than the tourist destinations. Sure, we love to visit some of the sights and participate in the occasional tourist attraction. But that is also part of travel.

I will argue that long distance bike touring is more complex than simple traveling. In bike touring there is adventure, exploration and physical demand interwoven with travel and a pinch of tourist in the mix.

 

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Oh Stanley

Jen and I had just been talking about how it can be for girls traveling alone.  How there are times when (as Fitz would say) your “spidey sense” is on heightened alert.  We were nearly done with our 4km 12% climb on a small rural road in South Czech Republic. Near the top, I was slightly ahead of Jen when a white station wagon speed past us and then slammed on the brakes only to speed up again and swerve.

I called back to Jen that I would wait for her and we both decided that this station wagon had our spidey sense heightened.  We thought it would be better to pass the stopped car together.  As we came around the corner, we were relieved to see that the car had stopped in front of Jay, who was waiting for us.  From our vantage point, it looked as though Jay was being chewed out by this portly 60 something man with Harry Potter glasses and grubby sweats- Jay was probably being yelled at in Czech.

Stanley

Stanley

As we approached, the man, Stanley, turned to us and told us, in his animated way, that he thought we were amazing.  When he spoke, his hands moved as if his lips were attached to his limbs with puppet strings.  “I didn’t want to scare you two ladies” he said in his broken English, limbs flying as he spoke.  “I just wanted to tell you that you two ladies are amazing. You are climbing that hill with all your [stuff] and you are doing it.  I thought about stopping and telling you but I thought I might scare you” -

Stanley was out collecting mushrooms, a very popular activity this time of year in the Czech Republic.  He lives in Prague and has a summer cottage in the area.  “I don’t want to take anymore of your time” he said and gestured as he scrambled back into his car and speed away.

We pedaled not more than a 100 yards when Stanley slammed on his breaks and parked in the middle of the road. He threw open his door and jumped out of the car right in front of us. “Please be careful on this road” he said pointing to the road side.  “Two young people died by cars here, you can see their [memorials] on the side of the road. Okay, I won’t waste any more of your time” he said as he again jumped into his car and drove away like a mad man.

Oh Stanley! I think he only knew how to press the gas or brake with the same enthusiasm as he spoke. We were relieved that our Spidey sense was wrong about Stanley.

Czech drivers generally speaking of course, like to go fast, are fairly impatient and are not all that tolerant of bicyclists. Not like in Norway and Denmark where everyone stopped for cyclists and were very courteous to us two wheelin’ folks.

 

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From Ice Cream to Camping.

The kindness of strangers is a theme that many long distance bike tourists talk about.  We have had many interactions with strangers that have made our lives on the road just a little more comfortable- just a little nicer.  Some strangers become friends (Jen!).

Navigating Prague

Navigating Prague

It took us longer than we wanted to leave the sprawling city of Prague.  The tall buildings often interferred with the GPS signal- we went South the best we could along cobbled roads, through rough  neighborhoods, over train tracks, under highways and along water drainage canals.  Two hours later, we popped out into the country side and sat down to regroup and get a cold drink at a small cafe.

Once out of the city we were able to locate the Prague-Vienna Greenway bike path.  This path is different than following a river, it heads over the hills, through parks and on mostly B-roads.  There is not a designated, seperate bike path- it simply connects the least traveled, most scenic route.

We stopped in Kamenice to stock up on food and inquire about camping.  Two issues: 1.  nobody we communicated with spoke English (and our Czech is terrible) and 2. there are no known campgrounds for at least 20 km.  At least that is what we were able to interrupt from our animated attempts at conversations.  The good news,  you can wild camp in Prague- as long as you don’t have an open fire.  So, we decided that we would look for a suitable place to wild camp along the route.

Petr's lovely house.  Nanuk anyone?

Petr’s lovely house. Nanuk anyone?

About 5 km out of Kamenice we were enjoying a downhill through the small village Cakovice when we spotted a sign that said Cyclo Nanuk with an arrow pointing to a house.  We stopped to investigate- thinking maybe there might also be lodging (Nanuk is ice cream).  We found a very cool shed with a freezer full of ice cream with an honor pay system. There were also drinks and other snacks.  How cool is that!?

Once we realized that it wasn’t camping we were about to leave when I noticed a man in the yard behind the shed.  I called him over and asked if he knew of any local camping.  No, he said, nothing that he knows- but we could use his internet to locate a place.  Thanking him for his offer, I stated that we thought the closest campground was over 20 km away.  He looked away for a moment and turned back to us and said. Here,  you can stay here.

After introductions, we set up camp in his lovely yard (or garden as Jen would say). Petr, our host for the night, let us know that we could use his washroom-  and even provided towels.  His lovely wife and two kids were a bit shy but enjoyed watching the shenanigans as we began to settle in for the night.

Petr sharing Slivovitz

Petr sharing Slivovitz

Petr joined us for a toast bringing his very own plum spirits, Slivovitz, a traditional central European distilled drink.

Our evening was very peaceful.  We cooked dinner and had a small fire in his portable fire pit- a rare treat for us.  Every so often we would look up to the second floor windows and see two little faces peering through the curtains with curiosity about the strangers in their yard.

If you are traveling through Cakovice, be sure to stop and have a Nanuk from the little shed and say hello to Petr for us! Cyclo-Nanuk – Added 8/15/14 – check out the nice post from Petr about our stay! http://cyklo-nanuk.webnode.cz/news/jak-u-nas-kempovali-opravdovi-cyklo-globetrotters/

 

Jay cooking dinner

Jay cooking dinner

Jen hiding from the camera

Jen hiding from the camera

Relaxing by the fire

Relaxing by the fire

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