Archive for the ‘Europe 2012’ Category

Out of Russia again

29 August 2018

Kaliningrad to Frombork, Poland

Kaliningrad is proud of its past as Konigsberg, based on the historical photos on display, but it seems that little of this remains after two World Wars. It is now a busy city with lots of traffic, trolley buses, trams, Sovietsky apartments and statues and a few grand houses and buildings from more prosperous times. We managed our navigation by retreating to the footpath as much as possible.

On the way to Kaliningrad South station we stopped at a mobile phone shop where Ian bought a phone for under $100 to replace his recently deceased one. Then we noticed and followed the red line that had been painted on the footpath to guide World Cup visitors from the station to the FanFest.

A large statue in the Soviet style, presumably of Kalinin but not identified, dominates the approach to the station. As at many Russian train stations, this one requires the scanning of all luggage at the entry, so we unloaded everything and went in, to discover that there are only two trains each day to Mamonovo near the Polish border. We had missed the first and the second one was not until mid-afternoon. Timetables for local trains are not available online. Therefore we decided to cycle all the way.

Riding out of Kaliningrad was not too bad. We stayed on the footpath where possible and once out of the city fringe the traffic gradually decreased, the countryside became more scenic and the weather improved.

We reached the border at about 1pm, cruised through fairly quickly and were greeted in Poland by three stork nests, of which we saw none in Kaliningrad.

Now we are in Frombork, a small town on the Vistula Lagoon with a massive cathedral and memorials to Copernicus who lived here.

The tiles on the cathedral roof are being replaced – wonder who pays for that? Delicious dinner of fish and fried potatoes.

The epilogue

1 August 2012

The holiday is almost over. Some headlines from the last few days:

  • Beautiful scenery in Saxon Schweiz on the train from Dresden to Prague
  • Dinner in cafetherapie with cycling friend Daniel and his partner Julie, then a beer at Bajkazyl, a riverside bar/cafe/bike workshop
  • A day of perambulation around Prague that included the intentional discovery of David Czerny’s Dead Horse sculpture and the serendipitous discovery of another of his works, Embryo
  • Found the Kolonial bar by chance in Josefov area – kolo means bicycle in Czech. The seats at the bar are Brooks saddles!
  • Dinner overlooking the city – last goulash with dumplings
  • Tram tour of city beyond tourism limits – it’s great, you sit there and the scenery just goes past
  • Discovery of and visit to Art Puzzle Gallery
  • Arrival in Amsterdam and mad ride on hired bikes to the southern edge of the city to Citizen M, coolest ever hotel with sardine-can but uber-trendy rooms with auto check-in.

It has been a great 5 weeks – home soon!

Bikelele on the Elbe

31 July 2012

Dresden wasn’t originally on the itinerary but it had to be included after (1) an introduction to Alex via the international ukulele grapevine – thanks Herman! and (2) an examination of the map showing that Dresden was within reach.

This is an amazing city with mixture of old and new. The Frauenkirche combines both, as it has been rebuilt over the last 20 years incorporating the blackened remnant of the 1945 bombs.

It has a great bike scheme that had us on two wheels within 15 minutes of arriving – 8 euros per day. There are hundreds of cyclists and cycle tourists everywhere. The Elbe flows through the city with a wide meadow along one side, equipped with heavily used bike path and beer gardens in good supply. We watched as a man cooked up an enormous pan of fried potatoes to go with the thuringers and bratwursts. There are not many bridges upstream of the city but there are plenty of ferries taking walkers, bikes and cars across.

The Elbe is also popular with canoeists and boating types – there were canoeists hostels and campsites just near Ukulelistan, and presumably many more up and downstream.

On Alex’s recommendation we visited Pillnitz Castle and gardens, summer palace of dissolute King Augustus amongst others.

Alex’s house is right on the river and he gets woken up by the geese in the morning. Across the other side are fields with newly based hay and Saxon church with lidded eyes in the roof.

Our stay in Ukulelistan was a delightful interlude and an unexpected privilege – thanks to Alex for this!

Muses in Dresden and Ukulelistan

30 July 2012

It may have been Carl Maria von Weber that brought us to Dresden but it was George Frideric Handel, the Freiburger Barockorchester and counter tenor Bejun Mehta who entertained us in the Frauenkirche that evening.

Both the church and orchestra were tremendous but Zubin Mehta’s cousin Bejun was the uncontested star of the evening – a marvellous musician and stunning singer. The audience lapped it up. A more deserved ovation at the end could scarcely be imagined.

After a night in a pension and sumptuous breakfast at Kaffee Wippler we cycled up the Elbe Radweg to meet Alexander Wandrowsky, high chief of Ukulelistan where we spent an entertaining day.

Alexander’s neighbour Jurg cooked us trout for dinner and we traded songs into the night before retiring to Alexander’s self-erecting tent in his garden.

The Elbe just keeps rolling along.

Travelling by train and the Apple Problem

28 July 2012

We have sampled the trains of Czech, Poland and Slovakia and found them to be good, mainly because they are available – that’s a new experience for someone from Australia – but also because they are inexpensive, carry bicycles and run mostly on time.

Helena, our couchsurfing host in Olomouc, told us about the loud screeching brakes of Czech trains as they pull into stations, and it is true. You must have both hands free as a train approaches so you can block your ears.

Railway stations in Czech vary in standard from unkempt and overgrown (small regional ones) to well maintained with geraniums and newly paved platforms. The station masters stand proudly on their platforms wearing their red peaked caps as trains go through.

With my expertise in purchasing tickets we have never had any difficulties with loading our bikes on. Not so for a German couple who we witnessed yesterday trying to get their bikes on the train in Cesky Budejovice. They didn’t have bike tickets, and although there was plenty of space in the luggage van, the conductor wouldn’t let them on. He had to obey the rules and so did they. Discussion occurred followed by arm waving by the Germans and shoulder shrugging by the conductor but the result was the same.

All the major towns have public transport, many with trams, trolley buses or both. Regional bus networks are also good, with bus stops in every village and along country roads. The buses are modern.

International trains are named after composers. We are on the Carl Maria von Weber from Prague to Dresden. We saw the Anton Bruckner on its way to Linz earlier.

Ok – now the apples. There is a lot of unregulated apple growing going on all over the place. There are thousands of apple trees all loaded with fruit. They are not in orchards, just by the road or in gardens. The question is: what is going to happen with the apples? We have eaten apple strudel and apple cake whenever possible so we are doing what we can, but there are still a lot left. We will continue to do our best.

Tabor ignores the Olympics

27 July 2012

Last night’s accommodation in Cesky Budejovice was remarkable for the fact that the wardrobe had been converted into the bathroom. They are very clever in finding ways to fit bathrooms into European penzions. Tonight’s penzion in Tabor is an enormous suite by comparison.

Today has been hot and sunny. We had coffee in the namesti (square), admired the Samson fountain on top of which Samson wrestles a lion while being pounded with water. There is the Erratic Boulder in the square too, hard to find as it’s only slightly larger than the paving stones. There’s a story to that involving 15th century gallows and other gruesome stuff.

I found a house adorned with a giant fly – this gets Most Unusual Feature prize for today.

We have really finished our cycling tour now and are travelling by train in the direction of Prague. During today’s train leg I was doing a little ukulele practice. This caught the attention of Eva whose daughter has a ukulele but doesn’t know how to play it. A 5 minute lesson got her going with two chords and a simple strum!

We have come to Tabor, another interesting and beautiful historical town with lots to see and a low to medium tourist density. I am converted to the wonders of sgraffito decorations on buildings and plan to introduce them to Royston Park.

    We wanted to watch the Olympic Games opening ceremony, especially after we heard about Boris going zoink, but the TV reception is poor. I thought I’d drop in to the non-stop sports bar up the street and catch it there, but they, and apparently everyone else here, prefer the regular Czech television programs. More clunk than zoink in Tabor!

Zoinking some quick observations

27 July 2012

Beagles are very popular in Central Europe.

Most CZ cities have moved all their cables underground.

There seems to be a baby boom. Just another miracle worked by JP2?

All the Roma have moved East.

Don’t go to Cesky Krumlov

26 July 2012

We dined on garlic soup and carp last night and found them to be excellent. On the way out of Trebon this morning we passed a huge carp farming area with dozens of large concrete ponds. They take it seriously here.

The weather cleared but it was hazy, misty and humid. Riding along  forest tracks on this trip we have often seen people with baskets collecting fungi and mushrooms. Today we had a close up look at the contents of a basket – they look knobbly but they must be good!

The approach to Cesky Krumlov was more industrial than I had expected for the jewel in the Czech Republic crown of UNESCO recognised towns. It is in fact quite a large city surrounding the small historical area. While it is beautiful, it was so full of tourists, tour groups, tour group leaders and associated tourist stuff that it was unbearable.

We walked through and took in enough, then caught a train to Cesky Budejovice, home of the real (not American) Budweis beer. It has the most splendid enormous town square, but they do need to slow the traffic around the edge – I nearly got skittled a couple of times.

K+M+B 2012

26 July 2012

Many houses in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia bear this inscription in chalk on their front door. What gives?

K+M+B 2012

It appears that this reflects the way Catholics in these areas celebrate the Epiphany. K, M & B are the intials of the three wise men (Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar for those who weren’t paying attention in Sunday School).

Enthusiastic Christians (of which there are many in these parts) visit the church after Christmas with a gold ring, incense and amber (representing the Magi’s gifts) and some chalk to be blessed.

The blessed chalk is then used to inscribe doors to protect against various ill adventures.

It doesn’t only rain at night!

25 July 2012

We were at Penzion Patricia in Telc last night. Patricia put on a shared breakfast for all her guests, including us, 3 students plus teacher from the university in Pardubice who were doing restoration work in the castle, and Danuta and Rafael from Poland. It was nice to have a meal and conversation together. We had a chance to ask Danuta and Rafael about life and political climate in Poland. They are both lawyers and did not relish the prospect of returning to work.

Patricia told us it would rain all day and urged us to stay in Telc to do Tours A, B & C of the castle. But we followed our own plan and set off in the drizzle. It was not cold and scarcely raining enough for waterproofs. Everything was damp and misty.

We have discovered that this region is called Czesky Kanada – the Canada of Czech Republic – because of its lakes and coniferous forests. Along a section of our road was an avenue of maple trees.

In Strmilov we stopped for coffee but the smokers in the bar were too much, so we retreated outside and admired the stork perched above the post office.

Jindrichuv Hradec is a mouthful! It has two namestis and a magnificent plague column. We paid more attention to the kavarnas (cafes) where we could sit out of the rain and considered trains, but then decided to ride on to Trebon.

The gradient for the afternoon was agreeable ie flat or downhill. We are in a wet and boggy area with lakes everywhere that were created for carp production. Lovely European carp with all those scales and bones – why aren’t all the Australian celebrity chefs coming up with recipes so that we can enjoy eating the carp out of the River Murray?

Telc – Trebon route.

Zmrzlina means icecream

25 July 2012

In Poland it is lody, in Czech it is zmrzlina. We have been trying it out so that we can reliably report on its quality. We can say that it is good and visitors to these parts are recommended to eat it. Zmrzlina with hot raspberry sauce is the best.

Today was hot, and after a long hot ride yesterday we needed a day off the bikes. We took the train from Slavonice to Telc, 26 km in 55 minutes. Telc is famous for its magnificent town square with pastel coloured gables. It is surrounded by lakes and parks.

There are cycle tourists everywhere and normal tourists as well. We climbed the tower of St Jacobs church which gives good views in all directions over the town and surrounding countryside. This tower would be an OH&S nightmare for any Australian local government. It includes a stage near the top where the roof is under 5 feet high – a bit like in Being John Malkovich – and the railings around the viewing platform are not especially robust. However no injuries were sustained today!

It was reassuring to see some reaping occurring in the fields. There is a lot of this to be done and I have been wondering how they will manage it all. I guess it’s all in good hands with EU reaping regulations to be followed.

Route planning has been on the agenda. The result of this is: tomorrow we will head in the direction of Cesky Krumlov, another UNESCO listed historical town.

Lost in the forest

23 July 2012

Sunflowers were on one side and sun power on the other as we pedalled out of Znojmo. We have seen a number of medium sized solar panel installations in the past few days. Brilliant sunny day today.

At Cisov we were at the entrance to Narodni park Podyji (national park). There were dozens of cyclists and walkers including lots of family groups. A remnant of the Cold War barbed wire border fence is here as this whole area was No Man’s Land during that era. It’s hard to imagine it now.

We rode down the long hill to Hardegg, on the Austrian side of the river Dyje. We call it Hardlegg as we had to ride up again. During our half hour in Austria we received several Grüß Gotts, danke schoens and auf wiedersehens. Our amazing (not) multilingualism enabled us to adapt immediately.

Getting lost came next, the result of combining Garmin, topographical maps, the geographical intuitions of two people, multiple tracks and steep terrain. We thrashed about for awhile, got tempted by a couple of seldom trod paths, and eventually were spat out into a lovely meadow on a paved path. We therefore made it to Vranov nad Dyji (impressive castle here).

The rest of the route was easy to navigate but hard to ride as we had altogether 3 descents into and ascents out of the Dyje gorge. Overgrown Cold War concrete bunkers are numerous along the road.

At last we arrived in Slavonice, a beautiful town with many buildings covered in sgraffito from the 1500s.

Znojmo – Slavonice by ianwroberts at Garmin Connect – Details.

It only rains at night

22 July 2012

Well, that seems to be the pattern. It was raining when we woke, but after excellent breakfast of bottomless everything (cost $A5 each) it stopped. Our crops of today were wheat, sunflowers (many of these), vineyards, yellow capsicums (these are included in breakfasts), cauliflowers (remains of the harvest gently scenting the air), apricots, pumpkins.

In a small town we found Supermarket Flop which had extensive meat paste and rye bread sections as well as toothpaste. Over the road was a pet supplies shop advertising Carp Servis, obviously for carp lovers. I say carpe diem to them! So far no carp on our menus.

Puncture goblin is back – Ian still 9, me now 1. As we stopped in Hevlin to attend to this we met another cycle tourist, Pattie from Portland, Oregon, on an old style black Bike Friday (New World Tourist) that she bought second hand. She is on a 2 month jaunt and she rode along with us for awhile until our ways parted.

St Sebastian punctured by arrows from all sides was the feature of Hradek. Coffee (gritty) and the cheese sandwiches that we surreptitiously made at breakfast were the feature of Jaroslavice.

From our destination, Znojmo, we can just see Mikulov far off on the horizon. Znojmo is an ancient town with many náměstí (squares), churches, a castle, a river, narrow cobbled streets, underground passages, towers, geraniums in window boxes and a big Bata shoe shop.

I went for a walk through a park and was reprimanded by a policeman for walking on the cycle path when I should have been on the pedestrian path. There were scarcely any other people walking or cycling, but I’m trying to stay out of trouble so moved across as directed.

Mikulov – Znojmo by ianwroberts at Garmin Connect – Details.

Mooching in Moravia

21 July 2012

Tra-la, what a day, only 50km, hardly a decent hill to be seen and lots of normal tourism activities! We are in Moravia, area of UNESCO recognised significance with castles, follies, churches, historical things of all kinds everywhere. We left the town of Breclav and wandered along little tracks and forest paths in the direction of Valtice.  The first interesting sights for the day were 4 slightly lost Czech people in the forest (we gave them directions and they were impressed by our Garmin – they don’t know him like we do), followed by an ornate monument to St Hubert.

The town of Valtice has a fine castle and other grand buildings. Lednice is not far away. It also has a castle accompanied by follies that were built all around by a wealthy family who liked that sort of thing. I liked the gargoyles here – dogs, sheep, cats, fish, all open-mouthed with agonised expressions ready to spout the water off the roof in a down-pour. Tourists flock here in large numbers and there are many things to interest them besides buildings – for example birds of prey. We saw three men, one with a huge eagle on his arm, the other two with a hooded falcon and an owl.

After lunch of gulas with dumplings and palacinka (pancake) with apricot jam, we rode on through wheat fields and vineyards to Mikulov where a food and wine festival was in full swing in the main square. There were bands, beer, pigs on spits, bikes everywhere, amazing old towers and buildings all around (one decorated in the sgrafitto style including a medieval ukulele player), and a dramatic steep hill behind with the church of St Sebastian at the top. We walked around proudly wearing our Udiča t-shirts.

We have now found out the proper way to order two beers, assisted by a Czech woman sitting at our table. Our non-Czech-ness is so easily discovered when we try to speak. Probably the Slovakian accent we have picked up.

By the way, the frequency of punctures has really dropped off. Probably because the last one that occurred, just outside Puchov, was mended by a roadside crucifix.

Breclav – Mikulov by ianwroberts at Garmin Connect – Details.

The White Carpathians

20 July 2012

They are called Biele Karpaty and we approached them from Trencin along a quiet country road that wound its way gently up a valley. At first. Then it became steep. And then steeper. Ian stopped riding and started walking his bike – this is a sign of severe steepness! The road became a dirt track, then an overgrown dirt track. Where are Slovakian scythers when you need them? We pushed and dragged our bikes for ages and eventually emerged on to a paved road.

Why are we doing this, you may ask? Well, we are placing our trust in Garmin, our GPS, whom we have requested to send us on low traffic routes including unsealed tracks. He does have good ideas at times, but can be both wayward and impractical.

We were rewarded for our efforts by the discovery of a cafe up on the ridge with a fine view and a trio of Czech motorcyclists who were touring around on their vintage Jawas. Our paths subsequently crossed a few more times during the day as they needed to stop and tinker a lot.

The next stage of our route took us back into Czech Republic, straight off the ridge, down a very steep sealed road to a small village. We felt glad not to be riding up such a road until… we found we had to do so. Oh no! The road got steep and steeper, became unrideably steep and we had to haul ourselves and bikes up and up with dripping sweat and aching legs. And then we found we were back on the original ridge, just a bit further along.

More climbing followed, but now at least we could ride again, past holiday cabins and small but precipitous ski slopes with views to the south and west. A buffet provided lunch of sausage with mustard and horseradish, rye bread, ice tea and gritty black coffee.

Then a big run down off the top into fields and farms. We saw a huge zucchini crop with mechanical and human pickers and tried to imagine who would eat them all.

Eventually we arrived in Veseli nad Moravolu, not one of the jewels of Czech Republic, and decided to take a train to Breclav. I am now experienced in the use of simple pictograms to purchase train tickets from non-English speaking railway staff.

Observations of Slovakia & Czech

20 July 2012

There is a lot of local cycling in Slovakia and Czech Republic. In the towns and villages there are people of all ages, including children, adolescents, adults and aged people all getting around on bikes. There are bike racks at shops, supermarkets, restaurants, bars, churches (yesterday we saw a church with parking for at least 100 bikes). Bike racks are placed every 20m or so along main streets, not very good ones by Australian standards, but good enough. People here jump on a bike to go somewhere in the same way that we would jump into a car. And the places they want to get to are an easy cycling distance. The bikes are old clunkers, folders with single hinge in frame, some with high riser handle bars, generally nothing special, but fulfil their purpose.

There is quite a lot of medium-rise housing in the kind of buildings that would be vociferously opposed in most Australian cities. The housing blocks are usually painted in a variety of colours and they look attractive and well maintained. It would be interesting to find out how people here feel about living in them.

The amount of domestic fruit and vegetable growing is astonishing. In villages almost every house has an extensive garden that is planted with a variety of vegetables and fruit trees, all looking neat and well tended as well as incredibly productive. It is common to see people working in their gardens.

Towns and cities have a lot of public space and pedestrian areas that attract people and give a sense of life and activity. Obviously it is summer and the weather and long daylight hours encourage people to be out, but the physical form of the towns seems to play a big part.

Smoking is permitted inside restaurants. Once we have plain cigarette packaging and have stamped out smoking in Australia, people will be able to come to Czech, Slovakia and Poland for smoking tours. To be fair though we do often see people smoking outside – eg a shop proprietor will smoke on the door step and just blow smoke on the customers as they come in.

The valley of the Vah

19 July 2012

Hotel Majovey, our place of residence last night, used to be the place where ‘unpleasant people’ were taken during bad times in Slovakia, not so long ago either. Fortunately the ghosts of this sad history have been banished by Veronika, the proprietor who has created a fine establishment.

Today we followed the Vah which flows south through a wide valley to meet the Danube at Komarno. Wide valleys are good places for freeways, railways, lots of towns and traffic, so bucolic charms were a little diminished.

We passed a village this morning in which loud speakers throughout were broadcasting traditional music and spoken messages, presumably by the mayor or other pillar of society, exhorting the residents to higher levels of citizenship. Actually Google research has just revealed that they are mainly community announcements and local news.

We took a small road out of the valley and, leaving Ian in a quiet spot to entertain some sheep with his trumpet warm ups and scales, I continued a few km into the next village, called Udiča, to look around. I was discovered map-reading in front of the Udiča church by a local man on bike who asked if I needed help. I indicated ‘no’ so he went off, only to return a bit later in his car, laden with gifts for me – large blue Udiča t-shirt, 2 Udiča postcards and blue Udiča whistle on keyring. He also had his mobile phone with an English speaking friend on the other end. It turned out that he was Jozef, mayor or at least Main Man of Udiča. He spoke English about as well as I speak Slovakian. I conveyed my story to the friend on the phone. Jozef then went off but returned to me twice to give me another t-shirt and then a bag of apricots from his tree. What a man! And now I find that the fine village of Udiča doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry. So I am making up for that by giving it a big promotion here!

Other notable events of the day: 3 punctures (Ian – 9; me – 0); hot morning with massive thunder and rain storms in the afternoon – we sheltered and stayed dry.

We are now in Trencin, small city with impressive hrad (castle).

Mountains and valleys

18 July 2012

An ascent of Lomnicky Stit has been done (famous peak of High Tatras at 2600m)! First you take a ride in a little ski lift bubble car part way up the mountain, then change to the red cable car that takes you to the summit. We admire and thank the German and/or Austrian engineers who built all this and made it work. We had wonderful views to the plains in the south and east and could see the city of Poprad at the foot of the Low Tatras.

Summiteers get 50 minutes at the top. It’s cold up there – plenty of ice on the ground and on the metal railings. The clouds were swirling around but lifted enough for us to see glimpses of alpine tarns, precipitous drops, rock faces and zigzag walking tracks way below.

There is a cafe of course – it has a  rather sophisticated James Bond style ambience with white leather furniture and people drinking spirits. We fitted in well.

Returning to lower altitudes we had another puncture to fix (Ian – 6, me – 0), then a ride of about 60km along a road skirting the mountains and giving spectacular views to the bare peaks on one side and the valley and Low Tatras on the other. We were still at 1000m so it was cold.

A long descent brought us to Hradek whereupon a discussion of route options influenced us to travel by train to Zilina. We had only a 30 minute wait for an excellent train service, inexpensive, with bicycle storage included. We have now avoided an area that would have placed us in unacceptably heavy traffic with few other options.

Zilina is one of those pleasant surprise towns. It has two large squares and a lively atmosphere. In the lower square there was a big screen showing The Big Lebowsky dubbed into Slovakian and about 20 people in chairs watching it!

Cycling facilities

17 July 2012

We had to ride on a bad road this morning – narrow, two-lanes, heavy traffic including trucks, no shoulder and a metre-deep culvert. Only 8 kms but too long. We had a longer similar stretch into Krakow but that stretch had a ridable shoulder. These have been exceptions to quiet roads and tracks.

We met a friendly and helpful bike shop proprietor, Martin Kostka of Bicykle Kostka, Stefanikova 38, Spisska Bela 059 01 – all a passing cyclist might need.

This afternoon we enjoyed 10 kms of dedicated bike track with smooth, hotmix pavement and no cracks – please take note SA Department of Transport.

Prague has few cyclists, few facilities and medieval pave. Apparently a recent pro-cycling campaign has stalled following the death of its director (cycling fatality). We found Prague quite good for cycling but had to take care with all the tram tracks.

Krakow has lots of excellent veloways, dedicated lanes and contra-flow lanes. Quite a few cyclists too.

The Doors in the Tatras

17 July 2012

We’re sitting in the lounge of the Tatry Hotel at the foot of Lomnicky Stit in Slovakia. The Doors are being played – pretty cool. I spoke too soon, someone has changed the music to some more contemporary rubbish. 😦

Two flats today (Riders on the Storm just started – things are looking up.) I’m annoyed that the Prague bikes guy couldn’t supply Kevlar-belted tyres as requested.