1. Military zone
2. Český Krumlov
3. České Budějovice
5. Jindřichův Hradec & Telč
7. South Moravia
9. Pálava National Parc
Let’s start with a bit of history. Former Czechoslovakia was composed of four lands: Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Slovakia. In 1993 the country was divided into two parts: Slovakia became independent and the state of Czech Republic was founded with Bohemia on the West, Moravia on the East and Silesia along the Polish border. Going more or less from west to east, I cycled first across Southern Bohemia, then in Southern Moravia.
It is midday when I cross the border from Germany to the Czech Republic. There is snow by the side of the road and people carrying their skis to the nearby slope. I am now cycling downhill, riding fast between potholes. Jacket and scarf closed tight, the cold wind in my eyes is snatching my tears out. Despite the cold and tiredness, I feel good to cycle now in a different country. I’ve been in Prague once, 6 years ago, but I didn’t see much of the Czech countryside and I am now looking forward discovering the real Czech Republic, its culture, its tradition and its history.
After cycling along the icy lake of Lipno, I come to wonder why the bike path heading to Český Krumlov is not following the shortest way on my map. As I am not wishing to cycle at night today, I decide to take a shortcut. The road is now strangely empty. No cars. Nobody. Only some deer and hares crossing from time to time. The few villages I pass by seem to be abandoned. What a weird atmosphere… Why did everybody move out of here? I finally come to a fence on the road and a soldier comes to me with stern face. Damn! I even don’t know how to say “hello” in Czech!
“Hum… hallo… hum… what’s going on here?“
The guy looks at me strangely and seems quite surprised to see me and my overloaded bike standing in front of the fence, so I try to explain to him with a smile that I wish to continue my way on that road until Český Krumlov. I am afraid he would ask me to go back but he finally lifts the fence and signs me to go. I didn’t know it but I was actually cycling across a military area and I could have been fined.
In Český Krumlov, I am welcomed by Mira and his family. After riding more than hundred kilometres in the cold, I am starving, so I am very grateful for the great mushroom dumpling prepared by Mira’s grandma. After the meal, Mira’s father invites me to taste some homemade Slivovice: “You have to drink at least two shots because you have two legs!” he said.
Later on, we head to the pub to discuss while drinking Czech beers. Czech people are the largest consumers of beer in Europe. A beer in a pub cost usually less than one euro. While talking, I almost forget about the extreme tiredness I felt when riding today. Tonight I will rest in my own room with fresh bed linen and my own bathroom with towel. This is far better than a five star hotel to me. I am just happy.
The next day I am strolling in the narrow streets of Český Krumlov. I am amazed by the amount of Asian tourists around me! I actually decided to stop in this town by chance and I didn’t expect a small city of 15.000 inhabitants to attract more than 2 million tourists each year. Český Krumlov is actually the most visited city in the Czech Republic after Prague. I should admit that the old town is very nice, I enjoy wandering between picturesque houses and along the beautiful town castle… but I’m getting annoyed by the amount of tourists everywhere. I hate to enter a café and be looked at like “just another tourist” with this kind of annoyed weary look.
I wonder how this town looked like 20 years ago. How much did this place become spoiled when it gained the status of a place you “SHOULD visit“? You know, when travel agencies and tourist guides claim “if you go to this country, you SHOULD visit this place” and what happens then is that a mass of tourists end up there, doing the same things… These places had originally a very typical atmosphere but they are now so crowded with tourists that nothing remains authentic. That makes me very sad when the few locals I see are walking down the streets with miserable look, low shoulders, like trying to escape, avoiding the crowd of shouting kids and guided tours. Do these people still feel at home in their home town? I can’t stand the satisfied smile of some tourists, standing in the streets and eating ice cream. I can’t stand old people complaining that their bus is parked too far from the castle. How can we let this happen? All these souvenir shops selling useless junk makes me dizzy. Is there no tourist to wonder why local people would never enter such shop? Where is the local artwork gone?
I am actually glad to visit Krumlov in low season. When I grow tired of the crowd, I walk a bit further and retire on a hill nearby. From there I can see the shape that the river Vltava makes around the castle and the old town. While sitting, I read about Czech history and learn a few Czech words because I don’t ever want to look as stupid as yesterday with that soldier. Later, I go back home and cook a broccoli and blue cheese quiche. My hosts are so kind, this is the least I can do for them.
On the way to České Budějovice, I am riding along the Vltava River with Mira’s dad, a healthy fireman dressed in bike outfit who speaks to me in Czech and couple of words of German. Despite my struggle in the few 15% climbs, I manage more or less to follow him. One of the reasons why I like to be alone is that I like to be free to ride at my own pace, make short breaks, sit in the grass, watch the landscape… There’s no point in being in a hurry. Now, I sit under the sun in České Budějovice’s main square. No tourist around, they are all packed in Český Krumlov and in Prague. I like the atmosphere of this city. I watch the people coming and going, thinking that I could be looking at the same people in France. The only real difference I notice is the lack of hope I can perceive in the eyes of old people. On some faces, I have the feeling that the sparkle of life already left them and they sit here between melancholy and sadness. When I encounter such look, I can’t help but wonder about what they lived during the communism era. And what are their hopes now? Young people seem much more alive and I’ve seen a lot of them laying in the grass, drinking beer and smoking weed by the river.
Now let me tell you one word about food. When it comes to food I am usually curious to try anything I don’t know so I was looking for Czech products and Czech trademarks. Unfortunately, all I could find was either Kraft or Nestlé. Most of the Czech food factories were bought by the giants of the food industry in the last 5 years. Where is this world going? The decline of the food diversity (along with food quality) seems to me much more likely than a global awakening of the population. That day, I found by chance some quinoa and decided to get some for my hosts.
Since I entered the Czech Republic, I have been collecting advices about where the most scenic roads are and what the most picturesque towns are. After České Budějovice, I head north to see the Castle of Hluboká nad Vltavou, then ride east and reach the Bohemian forest. I follow one path and another more or less randomly. There’s no road in this area on my map and that’s fine, I love the feeling of not knowing exactly where I am. I finally reach the pond’s region of Třeboň and cycle on muddy paths around the ponds. I settle for a lunch break by the water, enjoying the sun and sound of the water… This flat land with a lot of forests and ponds reminds me of Finland. One of the culinary speciality of this area is the fried carp.
In Třeboň, Tomás family welcomes me with a nice meal. They offer me my own room and everything I might need. In the evening I go out to visit this charming medieval old town. I am stunned by the colourful façades in the main square. I end up drinking beers with Tomás at the Alchemist’s pub. The local beer is named “Regent” and it is brewed here, at the oldest brewery in the Czech Republic, since 1379. The dark beer is especially nice and as we drink quite a lot of them the owner offers us free Pastis and free cognac! When the waiter asks me if I want one more dark beer or a blond one, I hesitate for a second… He interrupts my thinking and tells me that he can also mix both beers so I would have a half dark / half blond beer. I smile and think it is a joke but it is not, Czech people call it řezané, which means cut!
The next day I am riding against the wind in a cold drizzle. Hungry, I decide to make a break and eat sardines by the road. A moment later, while I try to repair the stand of my handlebar pannier, I break one of its screws. I curse and try to repair it despite my frozen fingers. After only 30 kilometres, I decide to pitch my tent in a forest by a pond. For dinner today: potato soup and Jasmine tea. Right after eating, I jump in my sleeping bag. Finally some warmth! After an hour, I face a quite common dilemma for campers in winter: I badly need to pee but do I really want to go outside in the cold?
When I wake up, it is 4 degrees in the tent and probably a bit less outside. No breakfast today. Shivering, I pack my stuff and push my bike out of the forest.
It is still raining on the way to Jindřichův Hradec. With my bike, I have a quick stroll around the town which I find quite pretty like most towns I visited in Bohemia. Later, I drink a tea with a guy from Kazakhstan and a Russian girl willing to hitchhike across Russia and Mongolia. They are the kind of unlikely people you meet only when you travel. Unfortunately I can’t stay very long because I have a long distance to cover today until Slavonice and I want to avoid sleeping once more in my wet tent.
About 40 kilometres later, while I try to avoid following the main road, I realize that I took the wrong way in the hills near Telč and I am now closer to Dačice. I’m tired and cold but I decide to go back and head to Telč because many Czech told me it is a lovely town. On the way I wonder if I am not too hard with myself. I could live without seeing Telč. Right now, I am sure of only one thing: the shortest road will not be mine.
Telč is an amazing town. By a lake stands a 17th century renaissance chateau. A couple a streets further I cycle in very large square surrounded by renaissance and baroque houses with high gables, arcades, lot of murals and colours… but I’m cold, tired and really hungry. I am standing in front of the pizzeria thinking that if I didn’t have to care for my bike, I would sit in a warm place and eat. With empty stomach, I leave Telč and continue my way to Dačice. I find some shop on the way, and finally arrive to Slavonice at dusk. I am exhausted but at least I enjoyed some nice evening sunlight on the hills.
Standing in front of the house of my hosts in Slavonice, I glance through the window and see a man with shaggy gray hair surrounded by couple of musical instruments in a beautiful wooden interior. I love the atmosphere of this living room and I already know I will like my stay here. Very often, people create their living environment to the image of who they are inside. I knock on the door and I am welcomed with a lot of smiles by Zuzana, Erik, Magdalena, Jakob, Vojta and Gabriel the two years old kid running around. They seem to be a family full of happiness and hippiness.
Erik, the father, is Swedish and his wife Zuzana is Slovak. Both travellers and musicians, they seem to be a very harmonious couple. I see in their eyes, the depth and wisdom of those who experienced a lot and learned to judge little. They live simply and smile to life. Here, in this tiny Czech town, the whole family switch from Swedish to English as soon as I am around. I am not impressed by the fact they all can speak English, but I admire the fact that it seems like something natural to them.
These days in Slavonice are stress-free and full of colours! Zuzana prepared some delicious Bryndzové Halušky (the Slovak national dish) and the traditional Czech cabbage soup. I discussed a lot with Erik about topics as diverse as Sweden, religion, music, culture, tolerance and integration of minorities. Madgalena showed me an old Jewish cemetery in the woods. I remember standing there, silently, mesmerized by the mystic atmosphere of the place. Later we met an atypical character exploring the forest ground with a metal detector. According to him, this area along the border with Austria has a fascinating history but I could not understand a thing of what he told us in Czech except what Magdalena translated for me.
With Vojta’s help, I could give a conference about my travel in Dačice’s high school. I decided to speak not only about my travel but also about CouchSurfing. I made the conference together with Jeff, an American guy travelling for the last 11 years and fond of Czech cinema. He had interesting travel stories to tell about Georgia, Kazakhstan and Tibet. I appreciated a lot to see the interest of the teenagers, asking many questions after the conference.
The next day we explored the ruins of a hotel on the Austrian border. We also strolled in the forest to see bunkers and the remains of some military equipment from the Second World War, from the time when Czechoslovakia was preparing against a possible invasion of Austria. The invasion never happened.
The villages around Slavonice were part of the Sudetenland, so they were inhabited mainly by ethnic Germans until the Second World War. In 1945, the president Edvard Beneš expelled all Germans out of Czechoslovakia and these villages became empty. Some towns like Slavonice (98% German before 1945) were repopulated after 1945. However it was mainly poor Czech families who decided to leave their own village and move there for cheap housing. I passed by some villages on the border which are still like ghost villages today.
Zuzana also advised me to visit central and Eastern Slovakia: Banská Štiavnica, Košice, Prešov and gypsy villages… This is not what I originally planned but I can change my plans anytime. I want to know more about the Gypsy culture and I believe Slovakia is also a wonderful country so I will try to go there.
During the morning before my departure, Gabriel is running all around and helping me to pack my bags. He actually puts randomly my items from one pannier to another. When I eventually leave Slavonice, I feel a mix of happiness and loneliness. Sometimes it is hard to say goodbye and leave, to be on the way once more, alone… but I smile, I am glad that I got to know such nice people.