Friday, July 10, 2015

Bicycle Touring in Southern Bohemia - Part III: exploring Šumava

The forests of Šumava mountain range reminded me of British Columbia, but a scaled down, gentler version of those rain forests. Šumava is known for harsh weather and it rained on the first day of our explorations. Majority of this region used to be inaccessible to tourism, due to a broad band of well protected no man's land along the border with Germany. Today, mountain towns are centers of tourist activity, hiking trails cris-cross the hills and numerous bike paths exist to provide safe bicycle travel for families and bike tourists. All with excellent trail signage. Special category are trails following the "shipping canals", as the Šumava web site calls them. I would translate it as "flume" since these canals were built to transport logs, not ships. An intricate system of water flumes was built by Joseph Rosenauer in 1791 and some of the flumes were used as recently as 1961.

The flumes are built impeccably - walled off by stones, with numerous merges and even a 2-level water crossing. The system was used to transport timber from the mountains to both Danube and Vltava rivers, supplying construction wood for both Prague, Vienna and many towns along the way.

A part of the system is also a 420m long tunnel under Jeleni Hora, with nicely restored portals. The bike trails that follow these flumes are wide double tracks with fine crushed gravel surface, and since the grade of the canals was just a few % to allow for smooth water flow, these bike ways are easy to pedal on.
During our first day, we chose to detour to Plešivé jezero (lake), a man made reservoir supplying the flume system with water. This lake was built on a slope of a high mountain, so it took a good amount of climbing to reach it. It poured heavily on the way up, making us worry about the steep descent on the slippery and sometimes sandy path. But by the time we finished our lunch of sausage and bread at a rain shelter, the weather improved and we could let off the brakes for a long descent back to our cars.

This was a relatively easy, 23 mile ride with only 1500 ft vertical, but nevertheless deserved a reward in the form of Kofola and blueberry cobbler.

The weather improved considerably overnight and while some of my family went for sightseeing around some cultural and architectural places of interest, I decided for a quick solo ride from the rental house, before driving back to Bělčice in the afternoon.

 I rode through the former Iron Curtain area, following old military service roads that were built for rapid deployment of troops to catch those desperate souls trying to escape our socialist paradise across this physical barrier.

It is hard to believe today that these roads used to divide the world into West and East. On "our" side, there were watch towers, strips of smooth sand to see footprints, electric and barbed wires, and also land mines. The mines were eventually removed by the communists after many border patrol soldiers blew themselves up.
One good thing resulted from this nonsense: very well preserved nature and miles of excellent bike paths.

I rode over Knížecí Pláně, a high plateau with huge mountain meadows and tall solitary spruces, before starting a long and steep climb over an unnamed mountain below which the Vltava river source is. Vltava (Moldau) is called the mother of Czech rivers and it becomes Labe (Elbe) at the confluence in northern Bohemia, before traversing Germany on its way to North Sea.

Forests around the Vltava source have been badly damaged by bark beetles, but it is a popular bike route from Kvilda, a small town with many good restaurants. Here I managed to get lunch of goulash and dumplings, washed down by some good beer, before turning around and finishing my Sunday 50km loop.
This trip left many places still unexplored, as well as enough room for planning a longer bike tour across the whole Šumava mountain range. It is amazing that in the center of densely populated Europe, there are still places largely untouched by civilization, but with enough infrastructure to provide for safe and comfortable bike travel.  Renting good quality bikes is also easy and cheap ($100 for an 8-day Specialized 29er bike rental). I can easily see myself bike touring here after I won't be able to ride at Tahoe anymore.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Bicycle Touring in Southern Bohemia - Part II: From Bělčice to Sumava

 On Friday morning I got up early, strapped my universal Thule rack on the rental Specialized Hardrock 29 bike and packed bare necessities for a three day trip into the panniers. The first 10km between Bělčice and Blatná were a slight downhill and I shortly reached bike route 312. The stretch between villages of Mačkov and Měčichov were some of the prettiest places I ever biked through. I wanted to stop, sit in the grass on the woods edge and listen to birds chirping. But there was a long day ahead of me.
 South of Horažďovice, the bike route left pavement for a double track winding through the fields. Soon, I could see the ruins of Rabí castle on the horizon. Rabí is the largest castle ruin in the country and a place where the famous Hussit leader Jan Žižka lost his second eye besieging the castle in 1421. After a steep climb, I pushed the loaded bike for the final 100m on incredibly steep entry way to the castle and after walking around the main courtyard, slid back down on slippery rocks. Just outside the castle walls, multiple refreshment options called for a break. I ate a potato pancake, washed it down with my favorite Kofola and continued southward.

 The bike route between Rabí and Sušice followed a dirt road alongside a railroad, weaving into and out of the woods, with some grassy and muddy stretches. For couple of hours, I did not see anybody, except two bike tourists with heavily loaded bikes. Approaching Sušice, I rode on the banks of Otava river where red rubber rafts loaded with tourists bounced down some rapids and weir drains. Past Sušice, the natural scenery changed, too. Open fields and rolling hills gave way to deep spruce forests, valleys deepened and the shaded road following Otava river got very twisty. The grade was still very mild, as expected when riding along a river, but I knew there were some hills ahead. I encountered the first brutal climb just past Anín, a narrow road climbed at 15% for 3.5km to an intersection of bike routes.

The sign pointed to the right, but the arrow pointing left said "Cemetary 300m". I was curious enough to take a 0.6km detour although my legs burned and I was dizzy with fatigue after the climb in a humid weather. Black clouds were towering over the horizon, signalling some afternoon storms. At the end of the detour trail, I found a small church and a cemetary. There was nobody around, the place was absolutely quiet, bird songs that I heard since the morning stopped abruptly. This was an old German cemetery, a place called Mouřenec, likely a Czech modification of St. Moritz. A nearby kiosk described this hill and church as a "place rich in legends". I bet, it felt downright spooky.

After some more climbing through small villages, I reached another interesting place: St. Vintíř's spring and church. The spring was inside a small lovely chapel but I did not use the water source. I still had plenty of water on me, although I had been working hard for several hours by now and I was soaked.
I crested another steep ridge on a rooty forest singletrack and was rewarded with a nice fire road through beautiful forest.
 I enjoyed mountain biking in this very remote part of Sumava foothills - this area used to be a military target range and off the beaten track for tourists.
Signs along the bike route warned of unexploded ordnance, but I had no intention to veer of the trail. The bike path went down steep valley in a straight line, but just before I dipped into the valley, I saw the ridges I would have to cross. As I was flying down the trail, my phone rang a text message alert. My sister was in the area, and she decided to bike towards a glacier lake Prášilské Jezero. Up to here, I was doing a great time and it was only about 2PM and I thought I was at about 80% of my planned distance.  Back home, I thought about this possibility and drew an alternate route which used more dirt roads and added about 20-30km, passing by Prášilské Jezero. I ate what food I had left and decided to head that way. Few more kilometers through the woods on logging roads and then I hit the road towards Prášily, a village on German border and on the main Sumava massif. The hills around me were about 1000m, those mountains ahead were more like 1300m, so I knew I had some more climbing ahead. I looked to the right, where the road was dropping down the hill, then left towards the climb and pushed ahead. Soon afterwards, the road pitched down steeply and after few minutes of flying downhill at high speed, I realized my navigational error. I was going east, away from Prášily and towards Modrava. In Srní, I looked back the steep grade I just came down and decided to follow the Vchynicko-Tetovsky flume trail towards Modrava. More on these "flume trails" later.

 After I crossed the wild river Vydra on a wooden suspended bridge, it was a short distance to Modrava. Here, among restaurants, hotels and B&Bs bustling with tourists, I found my sister's car parked and after a few attempts to reach her by phone, I placed a piece of paper with the message that I will push towards Kvilda and Nové Hutě, our weekend destination.

 The climb between Modrava and Filipova Hut was a real bitch. As I reached the plateau with fantastic views over the whole mountain range, I ran out of water and strength. I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of fizzy lemonade, drank half of it and poured the rest of sweet liquid into my Camelbak. The sugary drink gave me enough energy to reach town of Kvilda, where I admired a unique church building covered with wood siding on the front wall. I knew I was close to the rental house so I did not linger here and after some ups and downs, reached a trail towards Nové Hutě. Riding through the village, I noticed it had one hotel with a restaurant, a small grocery store and one more restaurant. Nicely restored mountain homes lined the road and in one of them, I met my uncle, my cousin and his wife and two of their kids. My sister arrived later, having biked steep hills to the lakes. All my relatives were well supplied with food and I was fed, offered many beers and after that, we chatted and planned routes for the next two days until late night. I went to bed exhausted, but I looked forward to more bike rides in the deep forests of Sumava.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bicycle Touring in Southern Bohemia Part I

When we first discussed the idea of spending couple of weeks vacationing in Bělčice, a small town in the center of Southern Bohemia, which is a place of significant ties for my wife and her family, I quickly decided that staying at one place with my wife's relatives was not going to satisfy my own selfish needs for an active vacation. Since January, I have spent numerous hours charting routes on and importing them into Gaia GPS to create a five day trip across the Czech Republic, totaling about 500km. As time went on, I realized that this plan was stupid. Coming for vacation to my home country and riding for a week alone through regions I knew, without having enough time for my family and off the bike cultural experiences, would be a waste of time. I have a long list of other countries I would like to bike tour one day. The plans thus changed for a week of rides around the Blatna region and a three-day bike tour through Sumava mountains. This part will describe my experiences about cycling backroads around Bělčice and Blatna.

Blatna castle
Main square in Blatna

 South Bohemia is a region of the Czech Republic that is rich with history, famous for its numerous fish ponds, medieval castles and beer. The northern part is farm lands with rolling hills, small villages with the typical baroque architecture and hundreds of ponds of all sizes. A hundred kilometers to the south lie the Sumava mountains which create a historical border with Germany. This part of the country is known for rainy weather, deep forests logged for timber, a strong German influence (and history of clashes of the Czech and German cultures). This is also the former Iron Curtain border region, which used to be fenced off with barbed and electric wire, riddled with land mines and people evacuated inland with their small village homes left empty to slowly disappear in weeds.

 We were lucky to be hosted by Marketa's cousin and his family of bicycle enthusiasts, who have ridden all small roads, paths and forest trails in the area. Navigating the maze of roads and trails was not an issue in their company. I came prepared with Open Street maps preloaded in Gaia app and my phone on the handlebars in a waterproof case. These cycling specific maps are really good - not only they contain the complete and up to date information on the vast network of marked bicycle routes, but I could see pretty much every old fire road and paths through fields and forests. Bicycling infrastructure in Czech republic is amazing: there are numerous routes all marked with route numbers, distances and points of interest. I think that bicycle routes are marked better than car roads!

The first couple of days of riding were marked by chilly weather with some rain showers but no heavy rains. This being mid week, car traffic was almost non existent, although one had to be careful - you could encounter a tractor or an old Skoda car at places where you would not expect motorized vehicles. Another great thing about Czech cycling is that all passable routes are accessible to bikes, including all superbly marked hiking routes. There seems to be no user conflicts, at least outside national parks, where the No bikes signs exist. Major roads are not very bicycle friendly, though. Most roads we rode on were newly repaved using euro funds, but since these roads have been in place for centuries and are typically lined by rows of old trees, they are narrow and have no shoulders. Czech drivers practice the sport of speeding and passing each other for no apparent reason at blind corners, with little regard for bicyclists.

You can't really get lost here, I joked that you see from pub to pub easily. Every village has a restaurant or a small grocery store, with regional centers such as Blatna, having beautifuly restored old town centers with many coffee and pastry shops, restaurants and hotels. That means you don't have to worry about carrying food or water. Actually, carrying water bottles on bikes is not common, Czech cyclists firmly believe that beer is the best electrolyte drink. Similarly, power bars, gels and other forms of gas station style junk food were replaced with fruit cakes, pastries, fresh breads and sandwiches during our numerous stops.

 Every day, we set out after a good breakfast, with just a vague idea of where we would be riding that day. Our bike tour guides knew roughly how far and in which direction we would cycle, otherwise I could concentrate on soaking in the beautiful landscape, picturesque villages, and many details of the surroundings that reminded me so strongly about all my years growing up in this country. We would race up climbs, take some descents fast, then just ride alongside and chat. Each day brought us to some interesting places: an old and abandoned military runway (built during the communist regime as a secret emergency landing strip after our air force bases would be destroyed in a nuclear attack), today used for model plane flying, testing maximum speeds of motorcycles and such...

 ...or a cluster of menhirs on a field's edge, these could be real remnants of a megalithic culture or someone's joke, who knows? Our bike trips were not too long and the long daylight hours (at 50th parallel, Czechs enjoy about 18 hours of daylight in June) left us enough time to rest and socialize after coming back to our base.

We rode about 100 miles in three day trips which made me feel like I knew this part of my country for a long time. There really was no better way to get to know this place than criss-crossing it on a bike in this worry-free mode. At the same time, I was getting familiar with the region and spending enough hours in the saddle to be ready for my next trip: transporting myself and some basic gear for a three day exploration of Sumava.