Archive for 2012

The prologue 2012

4 July 2012

On the way to Europe… we flew right over Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the Kimberley coast, Javanese volcanoes.

An eight hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur – enough time to take the KL Ekspres into town and visit a few old haunts. The Masjid Jamek is now pretty hemmed in by tall buildings and the elevated light rail.

Just around the corner is a leech clinic.

We walked along Jalan TAR past the Coliseum Hotel – it looks unchanged but we didn’t stop in for a sizzling steak.

Had a mediocre roti canai and teh tarik and a superior kway teow in Chinatown. KL’s old city centre is not in good shape – the Chinese shop houses are looking pretty crumbly. KL continues to spread with new condos and housing developments stretching out towards the airport.

Driebergen

4 July 2012

2 July 2012 – we arrived at Schiphol at almost the same time as Wieteke who flew in from New Delhi. It was good to be reunited with our Driebergen friends, Wieteke and Kees again. They hosted us in 2010, helped Ian in his recuperation from a painful bulging disk, showed us many beautiful places in The Netherlands and launched us on our 3 month trip to Istanbul. It was great to catch up with family news and have the chance to spend some time together.

As tradition requires we set off after breakfast for a bicycle ride from Driebergen to Amerongen and Wijk bij Duurstede – this is the approximate route:

We saw lots of cows, farmers on their tractors cutting grass, a pair of storks nest building and beak clacking on top of the Amerongen castle, cherries and berries for sale. We were told off via loud speaker from a distant lock manager for sitting on the grass by the lock on the the Lek. The sign on the gate did say ‘Do not enter’ so we did knowingly transgress! Wieteke immediately decided to become an Australian so she could claim ignorance like us.

After our return home we had dinner sitting in the garden. Hinke, Wieteke and Kees’ son, and his friend Stan joined us. We last met Hinke in Australia in 2001 when he was only 11 years old and could not speak any English. So it was a pleasure to meet him again as a young man and hear about his plans to travel overseas with Stan and then to study in Taiwan.

Nijmegen

5 July 2012

3 July 2012 – Nijmegen is the oldest city in The Netherlands. I last went there in 1979 when I visited Kees and Wieteke who lived there at the time.

We walked around the old town, had coffee in the square and admired the Waal.

We visited St Steven’s Church, then hired public transport bikes for  a ride around an area that has been restored from farmland and is now a nature reserve with extensive wetlands.

Fortunately Wieteke and Kees have a sensible approach to eating and drinking so this excursion included lunch followed by a visit to the Millinger Tea Garden, a beautiful place full of flowers and lovely places to sit and relax with tea!

On the way back Ian took a run up to get up a short incline to the top of the dyke and the chain came off his bike. As it was all enclosed inside a nice chain guard it was no simple matter to put it on again. A rescue plan was formed that involved leaving Wieteke behind and an advance party to set off. In the end all was well!

Getting to Prague

5 July 2012

We left Driebergen early, accompanied by Arne, Wieteke and Kees’ older son, who is doing many interesting things including setting up a coffee roasting enterprise in Ethiopia. At Schiphol it became clear that I could only check in one piece of luggage – but I had two panniers – yikes! What to do? One pannier then became cabin luggage but alas, that was the one that contained my Swiss Army pocket knife. The excellent luggage scanning picked it up straight away and now my knife is in the bin.

We arrived in Prague with an erroneous understanding of the exchange rate and believed our taxi ride from the airport to have cost $100. But when lunch cost the same amount we did further research and everything suddenly got a lot cheaper.

We are staying in a hotel where Margaret & Graham stayed when they were here some years ago. It is just below the Prague Castle and is reached along a narrow cobbled street. Nearby is the American Embassy and there appears to be a permanent police presence there that checks every car that passes – mirror on stick etc. Just down the street is also the KGB Museum – we’ll probably have to go in.

Our tourism activities of the day involved a walk around the castle, watching the changing of the guard at the gates, St Vitus Cathedral, and a climb up the tower (267 steps) from which a magnificent view of the city is available. We are blending in well with the crowds as we have camera and guide book in hand. There are tour groups everywhere so it is pretty easy to listen in on a commentary if you want to.

At 6pm we attended an organ recital in the St Nicholas Church, an amazing baroque building with marble and gilt everywhere. Cherubim are flying and gazing on all sides and there is a lot of smiting and slaying as well by saintly types who are entitled to do such things to persons who deserve no better. The concert program included Bach, Vivaldi, Dvorak and several other Czech composers. The audience were uncertain whether to applaud so we got things started when the organist looked down on us from on high in expectation of acknowledgement. We then received an encore!

Walking down to the Charles Bridge Ian had to fend off an insistent man who wanted to change money. We admired the portraits, caricatures and souvenirs but were able to resist all of these.

Observations in Prague

5 July 2012

Here are a few things we have seen or learnt:

  • Smetana means cream – seems strange to think that The Moldau was composed by Mr Cream.
  • Absinthe is all the rage here. There are shops specializing in all things absinthian including Absinthe icecream. They have marijuana vodka as well.
  • The police detail on the US embassy is still there, so it wasn’t just for 4 July. They do a pretty cursory inspection in my opinion.
  • Prague has few cyclists and lots of trams, most of them charmingly retro in style. Because its a national public holiday today, the trams are decked out with Czech flags.
  • Boiled broccoli was a menu item at a cafe we passed. We are so behind the times in Adelaide regarding the inclusion of boiled vegetables in our cafe offerings.
  • Unusual museums: two Museums of Torture, one medieval, the other presumably regular as type not specified; Museum of Communism as well as the previously mentioned KGB Museum; Beer Museum – actually more a bar pretending to be a museum.
  • Hells Angels have a Bohemia chapter – saw a member but was not game to photograph him in case he was sensitive to that kind of thing.

On two wheels again

5 July 2012

After a hot day it is now thundering and raining.

We went to the bike shop this morning, laden with our own seats, pedals, bike locks and front pannier racks, ready to collect our hired bikes. We adjourned to Staromestske Nameste – Old Town Square – while Davide was setting them up and watched a 5 piece jazz band and throngs of tourists. On returning to the bikes it transpired that, despite our specific request, provision of all relevant information and assurance that there would be no problem with fitting the racks, they actually don’t fit. This reduces our luggage carrying capacity to 2 rear panniers only. This is not a disaster, but we will need to rationalise our stuff and leave a bag behind at the hotel. The bikes appear to be OK apart from that.

We tested them out with a ride downstream beside the Vltava, then back for a siesta and escape from the heat. I only got yelled at once by a Czech motorist.

Our evening activity was an aperitif in Josefov, the Jewish quarter (chilli parecky – sausages with horseradish and mustard – delicious) followed by a concert in the Spanish Synagogue. The interior of the synagogue is lavishly decorated in the Moorish style. It was the perfect setting for a memorable performance entitled Jewish Mystical Melodies by violinist Alexander Shonert, accompanied by pianist Natalia Shonert.

Alexander played a variety of Jewish and Klezmer pieces with some Vivaldi and Gershwin as well. He seemed to enter into an ecstatic state as he played, head back, smiling, open mouthed, eyes closed, playing with absolute intensity. His playing was extremely virtuosic as were his flourishes at the end of each piece. As the concert progressed so did the thunder storm outside and he just came short of spontaneous combustion as the program ended. We came out to find rain falling steadily and had a damp ride back across the river and up the hill.

Zizkov

6 July 2012

It gets light so early that it’s hard to stay asleep past 6am. We began the day with a test of both bikes and legs by riding up Petrin Hill, a steep climb through an orchard of cherry and pear trees to the top where there is a monastery and a scaled down replica of the Eiffel Tower that you can climb for a view of the city. But we were too early. Back on the bank of the Vltava in a park we found three David Czerny babies. Czerny is a renowned Czech sculptor and the babies are large crawling figures without facial features. Below on the river is a row of yellow plastic penguins better seen at night when they are illuminated.

Our program included well-known Prague locations: Frank Gehry building – pretty curvy; Wenceslas Square – lots of political stuff there mixed in with tour groups; Charles Square where we admired the interior of St Ignatius church including a gilded figure playing a 3 string banjolele. Well that’s what I say it is.

Then another ascent to the Zizkov Tower, a telecommunications tower that dominates the Prague skyline and has David Czerny babies climbing all over it. At the bottom is a Jewish cemetery. We saw a woman on a Vitamin D quest. She was absorbing sunlight in a public place with a minimum of clothing.

We went to the National Technical Museum located high above the river and admired historical machinery therein. Then a rest with pivo (beer) in the shaded gardens and a stop at the Metronome, an installation overlooking the river and city. It really is a giant metronome!

Today was hot again so siesta was needed. We took an evening ride on the funicular to Petrin Hill and dined outdoors with beautiful view of Prague below. Another thunder storm with rain has arrived.

Museum of Communism

7 July 2012

A pre-breakfast walk around Prague Castle gave us a tourist-free (not counting us) experience and a close up view of the changing of the guard. The Polish guards look fine in their pale blue uniforms. Those facing the sun are allowed to wear sunglasses.

After breakfast I discovered two broken spokes in my rear wheel, so a return to the bike shop was necessary. We rode up the hill to Zizkov where there was a produce market, not extensive but with a good range of fruit, vegetables, bread, preserves, fish and dairy. It was held in a square surrounded by residential buildings. Apparently it is never too early to drink beer and many were doing so at 10am.

Not far away is Vitkof Hill, site of the National Monument and massive statue of historic Czech hero Jan Zizka mounted on a horse. Inspiring stuff!

The slightly scruffy Museum of Communism also inspired admiration for the Czech people who survived and overturned that era. It was sobering to see newsreel footage of Velvet Revolution and earlier events in places that are now familiar to us.

The daily thunder storm came early. We watched a student brass band from Denmark perform outside the Rudolfinum, then went for a late afternoon pivo at Riegrovy Sady, a leafy park with a westerly aspect over the city and castle. Here we saw a man cycle up, order a beer and ride off holding the plastic beer cup in one hand. We cycled to Vysehrad, an ancient fortification above the Vltava, then home to pack up ready to hit the road.

Prague to Kutna Hora

8 July 2012

Seventy six km out of Prague and through the Czech country side. High mountains (Snezka on Polish border?) just visible far off to the North through haze although the sky above is brilliant blue. Gentle breezes and a little cooler than recent days.

Traffic on road is heavier than we’d like but there didn’t seem to be a choice and the Czech drivers are passing with plenty of room.

Nice cycling weather but I’m going slowly at the moment – too much Czech beer perhaps – or too little. How to know? It doesn’t really matter as the Czech therapy is the same either way – more Czech beer!

Visited the Ossuary at Kutna Hora – seriously bizarre, thought of Michael Palin’s visit (definitely his sort of place) and then the Mentals’ song Spirit Got Lost. I’ll let a photo do the talking.

Cupid with bones in the ossuary near Kutna Hora Cupid with bones in the ossuary near Kutna Hora

Prague – Kutna Hora by ianwroberts at Garmin Connect – Details.

Toughness of leg

9 July 2012

A pre-breakfast visit to the Cathedral of St Barbara with its amazing pointy roof. The gargoyles are worth close examination – between a giant toad and a hideous gryphon was a banjolele player in full voice.

The breakfast cheese plate was converted into lunch and we set off into the countryside. The roads are lined with fruit and walnut trees, fields of ripening wheat and sunflowers, home gardens full of flowers and vegetables. I took a spill riding across a slippery ford, no harm done, just gave my right buttock and the camera a light rinsing. We had to completely ignore a perfectly good castle – plenty more of those to come.

We found a good place to stop for coffee in Horny Bradlo, at a little roadside garden with a cafe. Klara and her mother are the proprietors. Klara is an economics student in Prague. She offered us the choice of Nescafe, which evidently is preferred by most, or real coffee. We chose real and got glasses of strong stuff with lots of grounds, but good! The mother kindly brought out cake and the atlas to help us plan our route.

The last 30km is where toughness of leg was needed as it included steep hills, pushing up a grassy ski slope (nature did not intend us to do this), stony and muddy forest tracks, fields with no visible tracks at all, fantastic views of fields, valleys, villages, and finally a descent to our destination, Policka. We are staying at Lidmiluv mlyn, the old watermill at Sadek near Policka. It is run by a Dutch couple, friends of Wieteke’s brother.

Kutna Hora – Policka by ianwroberts at Garmin Connect – Details

Tongue twisting and mind bending

10 July 2012

Czech is  complicated and opaque to us. There are several genders: male (animate & inanimate), female & neuter. Particularly mystifying for travellors trying to navigate are the declensions (7 per gender) that apply even to proper nouns so that Prague (Praha) might become Prahe, Praze, Prahou…)

This morning we learned that we’ve been ordering coffees as if coffee was masculine. Counting needs to match gender for one and two. Yikes! Fortunately, our coffees came without gender reassignment. 🙂

Couchsurfing in Olomouc

11 July 2012

We are in Olomouc (‘mouc’ is pronounced moz as in Mozart), a beautiful historical city, in the home (small attic flat) of Helena our couchsurfing host. We have just spent a couple of hours drinking Olomouc beer, eating an excellent dinner, and talking with Helena and her boyfriend Viktor about all things Czech and everything else. Helena is a masters physics student, Victor an up and coming photographer and keen mountain bike rider. Two more welcoming and interesting people you can hardly imagine. A great end to a long day.

Other highlights from the day:

  • Morning market in Policka
  • Bus stops decorated with potted geraniums
  • Long descents
  • Long ascents – nice and cool under forest canopy, hot in the sun
  • Brightly coloured houses – the Czechs go for egg yolk yellow, pumpkin orange, lime green, hot pink and rust red
  • More beautiful villages and countryside
  • Completely litter free roadside
  • Window boxes with geraniums, petunias and begonias on almost every house

Policka – Olomouc route details by ianwroberts at Garmin Connect – Details.

Czechs bounce higher

11 July 2012

Czech Republic is a splendid country. Of the Central/Eastern countries that we’ve visited (Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia & Hungary), Cz seems to be in the best nick by far with well-maintained infrastructure, tidy cities and towns and litter-free road sides. The grey Soviet-dominated years seem remote except for those who lived through them.

Travelling with a trumpet

12 July 2012

Ian’s trumpet has been silent for three days. It has been riding along on the back of the bike in comfort thinking it didn’t have to do anything. Ian’s hard earned chops need to be kept in shape. It seems that 90+km on the bikes in the Czech countryside doesn’t combine well with music practice, so a new plan was made for today – tourism in Olomouc, trumpet practice in an appropriate location and a train to Ostrava.

The first two have been achieved and we are now waiting for the train as a thunderstorm approaches.

Olomouc is full of history, churches, fine buildings and gardens. We watched the astronomical clock (socialist era), visited St Wenceslas Cathedral with its amazing stencilled decorations and St Michael’s Church (baroque with cherubs). One of the 2 main squares, Dolni namesti, is under renovation and has now become an archeological dig.

Later… the trains were in a state of slight chaos, apparently due to a freight derailment. We became more familiar with the Olomouc station than intended, but eventually a train to Ostrava arrived and it brought us here rapidly (160kph).

We are staying in the garden cottage of Zoja, only a couple of minutes walk from her 3rd floor flat, overlooking the city. She greeted us bikini clad in true European style – she comes here to relax after work each day. Zoja runs a construction company that was left to her by her husband. She remembers when Ostrava was so heavily polluted by industry that the snow was black. This is a former coal mining city, still industrial but now much cleaner.

Lost in Poland

12 July 2012

It takes the TdF riders about two hours to ride 80km. It took us about 10 hours today. Here’s why:

  • We had to find breakfast (Havirov)
  • We have to stop frequently for photographic purposes
  • We have to stop for a drink
  • We have to go on a dirt track that is muddy with steep bits (this is recommended by Garmin, our GPS, who is instructed to avoid busy roads)
  • As first breakfast wasn’t very good we have to stop for second breakfast (Ciesyn on Polish border)
  • Tour de Pologne bike race is coming through and we have to observe the setup
  • We change countries – Poland did not announce itself but we could tell
  • We have to go into tourist office to get a map but they don’t have any that are useful to us
  • We have to mend a puncture
  • We take a 4km long cut to avoid 2km of busy road
  • Garmin batteries have to be replaced
  • We have to refill water bottles
  • We have to get Polish zlotys
  • We try to find a restaurant that actually serves food so we can have lunch
  • We take a road according to Garmin and end up riding up a 20% gradient and the road turns to dirt with big stones, so we abandon that and go back
  • We wrangle with Garmin and try to find a better route
  • Ian buys a strawberry milk, but it turns out to be 1 litre of cream (smetana) – our second beverage error as we both swigged on neat cordial the other day, thinking it was fruit juice
  • We resign ourselves to the fact that we are not ending up where we intended and book into luxury hotel – nothing else available
  • Total distance 84km, altitude gained over 1000m

Ostrava – Bielsko-Biala by ianwroberts at Garmin Connect – Details.

Krakow

14 July 2012

It took awhile to extricate ourselves from Bielsko Biala but we eventually did so.

At lunchtime we arrived in Kety, a small town equipped with square and fountain that came in handy for mending a puncture. Here we saw signs to Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and tour buses going in that direction. Also a lot of utility cycling, unlike in Cz where recreational cycling is popular but you don’t see people cycling to the shops. When you see elderly women on bikes with a shopping bag on the handle bars and bikes parked unlocked on the street, that shows it’s part of daily life.

In Cz it is common to see roadside crucifixes; in Poland, shrines to the Virgin Mary and, less frequently, memorials to the Polish Pope who was born in this region.

Light rain fell for most of the afternoon, not enough to get drenched. We had a few geographical adventures – dirt road to river where we were expecting a crossing but there was none, several km in wrong direction along horrid road with many trucks and no shoulder. We saw our first east European storks – three of them in a precariously located nest on top of a power pole. Then we battled our way into Krakow, grey sky, industrial landscape, traffic jam of vehicles heading out of the city, road works, rain getting heavier.

When we pass people we usually give a wave and a smile, but have found that these are often returned with a blank look or no eye contact at all. That’s a bit disconcerting. So it was nice to be helped by a young man on Dutch style bike who confirmed we were on the right track in the suburbs of Krakow.

We went to the address of our warmshowers host on the northern edge of the city, found no-one home, so retreated to the centre and Hotel Europejski.

Rynek Główny

14 July 2012

Krakow is as full of tourists as Prague. In Kasimierz, the Jewish quarter, they go around in electric wagons while a recorded commentary is broadcast in the required language. The tourists lean out with their cameras to take photos or film the famous historical places and their feet never have to touch the ground.

Entering Rynek Główny, Main Market Square of Krakow, is pretty incredible. It is huge, full of thousands of people without feeling crowded, cafes all around, and dominated by the enormous St Mary’s Basilica. We had Polish beer and icecream and watched rap dancers while waiting for the trumpeter to play the Hejnał mariacki from the Basilica tower – this occurs every hour according to Polish legend.

On our way back we saw an outdoor photographic exhibition of Pope John Paul II. One photo showed Rynek Główny completely packed with people who gathered there for a Mass a few days after the attempted assassination of the Pope in 1981 – that was a massive (!) crowd.

After dinner we went to a concert at the church of St Peter and St Paul, a string quartet with flute and trumpet soloists playing popular classics – Vivaldi, Mozart, Torelli, Chopin, Debussy.

Nowa Huta

15 July 2012

Early bike ride at 6.30 to see the city in the quiet. There were still a few people about finishing off their big night. We rode along the Vistula bike path to the Schindler factory, now a museum. This is one of the top tourist places here, along with Kasimierz (the Jewish Quarter) and day trips to Auschwitz and the salt mines.

We had heard about Nowa Huta from a brochure offering cult communism tours, so we decided to do our own tour. NH is an urban development on the eastern fringes of Krakow, a creation of the communist era in Poland. It is renowned for its architecture and history as a working class area and Solidarity stronghold, built to express socialist ideals.

We found it interesting and pleasant – clean, tree-lined streets with plenty of parks; housing blocks mainly grey but in reasonably good condition and with shaded gardens all around; geraniums in window boxes; trams providing transport to the city and to the industrial area. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Canberra – must be something to do with 20th Century urban design.

There have been some changes since the end of communism – the large statue of Lenin is gone (bet they wish they’d kept it now!), churches have been built and some street names changed (eg Ronald Reagan Square and John Paul II Avenue). No Trabants in sight but we did have coffee at Cafe Styl which still has a 1970s decor inside.

Later in Market Square we watched an accomplished button accordion trio play Vivaldi Summer and Bach Toccata in D minor.

Tomorrow we take the train to Nowy Targ on the way to Slovakia.

Nowa Huta

Rain and sun on the way to Slovakia

16 July 2012

The train to Nowy Targ took about 3 hours and we disembarked into steady rain. Therefore an immediate retreat into a cafe was needed.

This is a domestic tourist region with walking and cycling tracks for summer recreation and skiing in winter. As we cycled out of town on a too busy road, we saw the Tour de Pologne convoy of cars and buses heading towards Krakow where the final stage will take place this afternoon. There were also dozens of storks feeding in the fields, although only one nest that we could see.

Our route took us through charming mountain villages with houses built of river stones, colourful flowers and plenty of BVM shrines. We have seen scything in action twice today. I spotted a young man using a sickle last week in Czech Republic but thought his technique was poor.

By lunchtime the rain had stopped and sun had reappeared. We took a dirt road named after St Rosalia, easily the worst track we have encountered so far, muddy, waterlogged and much of it unrideable. Don’t ask me to explain that!

The countryside around here is beautiful, green and yellow fields, wild flowers, forests and mountain peaks. We are on the Dunajec River which forms the border between Poland and Slovakia, with the Pieniny National Park on the Polish side.

The river is popular for rafting and canoeing, particularly through the steep sided gorge. We intend to ride through on the cycle path tomorrow morning.

Dunajec Gorge to the Tatras

17 July 2012

Our accommodation last night was a room in a family house – simple, cheap, clean with good hot shower.

But on waking before 6am, ready for an early start, the weather looked all wrong with low cloud completely obscuring the beautiful scenery. Alas! We started out anyway and the clouds began to lift and gradually the scenery reappeared. Hurrah!

The most spectacular section of the Dunajec Gorge is accessible only by foot, bicycle or raft. The river winds around some dramatic bends for about 9km with steep limestone cliffs and dense forest along the way. The cycle/walking path is on the true right bank of the Dunajec river and provides a great view of the river and surrounding peaks.

We emerged at Lesnica to find a cafe open for coffee and breakfast – this is just one reason why Europe is perfect for a cycling tour! Other reasons were confirmed as we continued – low traffic country roads, villages full of interesting and delightful sights, houses painted in bold colours, men scything, countryside full of ripening wheat and barley, eastern European style haystacks, storks feeding in freshly mown fields, shepherds minding sheep, sheep with bells, mountains in the distance.

At Spisska Bela we found, at last, a helpful tourist information office and we now have a nice map of Slovakia. We also found a bike shop for chain oil and pumping up tyres. The proprietor was interested in our trip and presented us with 2 energy bars to help us along the way – so kind!

Today was our first cold day, although we have been putting on and taking off jackets depending on gradient of road. Now we are at Tatranska Lomnica, in the Tatra Mountain region of Slovakia. From the hotel window we can see the cable car to Lomnicky Stit, one of the highest peaks at over 2600m. Clouds are coming down now, so we will hope for clear weather in the morning.