Day 1, Sept 16: Dresden to Königstein, 40 km.

We biked out of the hotel at noon, arriving at the Elbe path to find it packed with people biking, walking, cycling, and in-line skating. The entire city seemed to be out taking advantage of the sunny autumn Sunday. The day’s path was almost entirely at the river’s edge, and mostly on cycle-only paths or small residential roads filled mostly with cyclists. We stopped for lunch in Pirna, sitting under the impressive Rathaus in the main plaza to eat our left-over noodles, stolen breakfast rolls, and lactose-free cheeses. The GPS quit a little before lunch, so we had to guess our distance based on the signs, book, and the distances marked for boats along the river.

After Pirna the route rose high above the river through a tight valley. Old stone walls lined the way through the forest, up and down hills. This is the area called Saxon Switzerland – eroded rock faces tower above the river among the forested hills. We see a section of old bridge built between rock towers across the river and high above us, swarming with tourists as well. This entire area is a destination travel site, and the ferries crisscrossing the river are packed with bikers and walkers for every passage.

In the early evening we arrived in Königstein and decided to stay at their campground, right at the edge of the Elbe and with a view up to the massive fortress filling the hill above the town. We set up camp and then bike back into the little town to see the church, wend through some side roads up hills towards the high castle, and then sit in a coffee shop for pre-dinner cake. Back to the campsite for a bland dinner (grocery stores aren’t open on Sunday) and early to bed. The train tracks run right through town and, thus, right alongside the campground. I am hoping that the trains will be fewer through the night so that we can sleep soundly after our shorter night of sleep yesterday.

     

Day 2, Sept 17: Königstein, Germany, to Hřensko, Czech Republic, 18 km.

Decided to take a bit of a rest day and spent most of the afternoon touring the fortress in Königstein, an imposing walled castle above the present-day town. The fortress is the size of 13 football fields, and is surrounded by steep walls built above the sharp cliffs. The drop from some of the edges is over 40 meters to the forest below. We toured some of the buildings and walked around the fortifications enjoying the marvelous clear view in every directions. One small building used by the court when in attendance at the site used to have a table that was an elevator – the kitchen staff would set the table in the room below, and then it would be levered up to the upper room to appear by magic from the center of the floor.

We left town in the evening to get a few kilometers under our belts and finally reach the Czech Republic. After hills at the start, the rest of the path was easy and just along the river. We finished the last few kilometers in the twilight, coasting into the little holiday town of Hřesko, situated along a river valley perpendicular to the Elbe and between sharp rock cliffs. The town was largely dark and the campground nowhere to be found. We asked at the few open hotels to try and find somewhere we could stay and pay with credit, as we had no Czech money and the town doesn’t have an ATM. Finally we found a nice room at a hotel just near the Elbe and enjoyed a filling, cheap dinner in the empty restaurant.

We crossed 1,000 kilometers today for our trip so far, despite our short day!

            

Day 3, Sept. 18: Hřensko to Pištany, 61 km.

Enjoyed a free breakfast at the hotel and then packed and stumbled downstairs with our crazy number of bags. We found that an entire shop had been set out on the sidewalk in front of the shed with our bikes, so we stood beneath rows of backpacks, straw hats, and striped shirts to unlock the gate and snag our bikes. We then had to unpack our bikes a few minutes later when we realized that there wasn’t a ramp down to the ferry. Crossing quickly to the other side, we reloaded the bikes and set off, once again in Germany. The path here is cycle-only and is well maintained. The forests cascade down to the Elbe – called the Labe in Czech – and the river path is hemmed in along the entire path by steep hillsides. This is certainly the most striking landscape that we have crossed through on our trip, accentuated by the sunny day and blooming flowers along the way.

We soon crossed back into the Czech Republic, following the same cycle-only path until we are nearly in Dečin. Here we passed through a short industrial area before meeting the bridge into the center. The bridge stands under a castle high on a cliff, although the city’s eponymous castle lies in the middle of the city. We cross into town and, after finally getting Czech currency from a bank, sit in a small plaza under a church for espresso and ginger ale. We decide to have lunch later and coast back down to the river, passing the library with its large, brightly-colored fake book bindings with the names of different Czech authors written along each book. At the Elbe we quickly leave the center of town, passing the main castle and its garden, then crossing a stone bridge with statues from the 1700s. Houses, industry, and then a series of villages follow, and we cannot find a good place to stop for lunch. Here we are along roads, although often we could took to the sidewalk to avoid the trucks and cars hurtling past us. Finally we stop at a small abandoned-looking park in a village for our lunch, and sit there eating our sandwiches across from an abandoned-looking church and a small shrine where the buses stop.

Following lunch we continue along the road, eventually reaching a cycle-only lane again. As we get to Usti, a larger city, we find that the cycle path as been very recently extended and is popular for not only cyclists but also rollerbladers. The city is a mess of industrialism, with a massive mine eating away at the mountain just north of the downtown area and factories lining the river. We cross through some locks, and – stupidly – follow the signs for the path instead of following the people, which leaves up needlessly towing our bikes up and down a few flights of stairs. We then return to the Elbe for a short while, passing through holiday towns on the lake created above the locks. The path seems to have been washed out at one point, and we are forced to detour through the countryside twice, the second detour coming with three massive hills that exhaust us entirely. We coast down into the town with a campsite marked on our map, but find it closed – and next to a concrete distributor. Following the path towards the next city we find a sign for another campsite and, after a brief mistaken detour to the marina, we find the camping area along a lake next to the Elbe.

The camping area initially seems abandoned, although several people point us there and affirm that it should be open. Eventually we find the restaurant/reception area, where a single woman sits drinking and smoking in the dim evening light at the first of a long series of wooden tables. She indicates that we can indeed camp here, even though there is no one else around, and waves at the large field ahead of us for choosing a tenting site. We choose a spot near a small covered table area, set up camp, and cook a quick dinner. We then join the restaurant, which now includes a few other people, for beers and chips. A new bartender has arrived, a younger guy that speaks English. Apparently he also works for a company that produces underwater motorcycles. After pulling a few beers he gets a glossy brochure for the diving drive machines that he works on and tells us about the vehicles. At the bar we also discover that there is an entire category of Czech country music, and I am shocked and delighted to hear is a Czech cover of “Jolene”!

           

Day 4, Sept 19: Pistany to Melnik, 58 km.

Heavy rain and lightning through the night meant a wet tent and sleepy people this morning. We woke to find ourselves still in a deserted campground, although a few fishermen stood on an island down the way and sheep and goats ambled by our tent, herded by a man on a bike. We aired out the tent, ate some of the usual breakfast materials, and soon went on our cold way.

Just after leaving the camp we met a couple cycling in the opposite direction. They told us that the section of the route just past Litomerice was unpaved and incredibly muddy after the rain, to the point at which they had to push their bikes. We took their advice for the first part of the stretch to stay off the route, and we kept to a busier road until we thought we could see dry sections of the cycle route. Of course we should have followed their advice, as we ended up slogging through slick mud that coated our tires and left us walking along a thin strip of grass at the river’s edge.

The day remained cold, so I spent it tugging up my cycling leg warmers. The left leg doesn’t want to stay up at all, and the right one – being slightly less terrible – stays up a small percentage of the time. My calves are kept warm, my thighs chilly, and I am left annoyed. I compose a lot of sassy emails to the Pearl Izumi company in my mind when wearing these leg warmers, although I haven’t sent one yet.

Before lunch we rode through some lovely Czech countryside. This is Bohemia, and the landscape around the Elbe does often feel of the Romantic persuasion. This seems especially so in the autumn weather: the fields are either about to be harvested or already in the process of being tilled up, and the leaves are turning yellow on the trees. We stopped for a late lunch in Roudinice, decided to splurge on some nice pizza at a restaurant in town as we are both tired of the food we have with us. After lunch we rode along the riverfront to find an old Jewish cemetery. Its seems that old tombstones have been relocated here from previous, destroyed cemeteries, and some of the headstones date from the 1600s. Ivy grows over all of the markers and climbs the trunks of every tree in the cemetery, creating a stilled, quiet hillside set apart from the rows of houses below.

We left Roudinice in the early evening, cycling first along the river, then along country lanes, and next along a slightly busy road. Thankfully a brand new cycle-only route connected us for the last 13 or so kilometers into Melnick, so we could escape the roadway. We cycled along the river for this last stretch, passing people jogging, walking, fishing, chasing dogs, and sitting quietly. We also passed through Melnick’s industrial zone, including a huge power plant with massive cooling towers and a near-boiling stream of heated water pouring right into the Elbe. We coasted into town in the dwindling light and under Melnick’s striking central castle.

With just a slight delay we found our way to the large and well organized camping site. For only $5 more than a tenting site we decided to rent a “Wine Barrel” for the night, which we’d seen in other camping spots on our trip. The space inside the barrels is even smaller than it seems it will be, like a tiny train compartment where the seats can be connected across the central space to form a bed reaching from wall to wall. Sitting in our strange little room we did some research on the path ahead of Prague, ate hot soup on this very cold night, and went to sleep too late yet again.

                   

Day 5, Sept 20: Mělnik to Prague, 67 km.

One month ago we left Copenhagen, and we have biked for 23 days of that month. Amazing how that time goes by!

This morning we woke up to the sun shining through a chilly day. After packing our things out of the wine barrel and back onto our bikes, we chatted with two German girls – also in a wine barrel – who had just left Prague yesterday and are biking to Hamburg. We crossed back over the bridge to the far bank of the Elbe, the path first winding past a massive empty mansion behind iron gates, and then quickly into fields. We stopped at a covered bench area to eat breakfast and look again at the Eurovelo 7 map, which this – and only this – section of the route has posted, and in abundance. The route goes from the north of Norway to Malta, and we are following it along this section of the Elbe and then, most likely, until we reach the Danube.

After the late breakfast we continue along the river path until its abrupt end at a bridge with narrow stairs crossing the river. Signs led us back to a small road and then, a few kilometers away, to a ferry crossing. This is the smallest ferry that we have taken so far, consisting just of a flat-bottomed boat attached to a huge wire strung across the river. We rang the buzzer for the ferryman who duly appeared and loaded our bikes into the small boat. The boat has no motor, but instead is propelled across the river by the boatman directing the rushing water through different parts of the bottom of the boat by using what looked to be a plastic snow shovel. A wire linked to a large pulley system strung across the river keeps the boat headed back and forth at the same points, and in 30 seconds we were on the other side.

   

We rolled through fields and small villages for a brief while before needing a bathroom break. Fortunately we found a man putting out signs for his restaurant in the small town of Dědibaby (pronounced, we think, as: dejibeb). The restaurant is a small café run out of his house, linked to the hotel that he runs here as well. The building is one of the beautiful old run-down farms, with long stone buildings in a U-shape and in various states of repair. This particular farm is clearly in the process of being restored, and, as we soon learned, the restoration has been the passionate project of the owner for the past 20 years. It turns out that this spot has been the home of Jan’s family since the 1300s! Although many of the buildings suffered significant damage during Communist rule, and Jan’s family was prevented from working the farm during those decades, he has been working diligently to repair buildings since then. One central building was storage for food (grain, I think) and still has remnants of paintings on it from the 1570s! We end up talking with Jan for over an hour, and he shows us photos of the farm from a hundred years ago, information on his family crests, and more details of his renovations and the impacts of the 2002 floods on the area. We communicate with Jan in a muddle of German, English, Czech, and gestures, but somehow find a way to have a fascinating and impactful conversation. We would have liked to stay much longer to talk with Jan and see more of the farm, but the afternoon was already quite late and we had 35 km more to go.

 

Following more farmland we entered a wooded preserve with a large castle, some smaller fancy buildings, and scattered ruins. We cross the river – now the Vltava, which merges with the Elbe at Mělnik – on an old iron bridge closed to vehicle traffic, right over the site of a kayak white-water adventure course. After passing some early parts of Prague’s suburbia we turn left underneath a massive castle covered with detailed, painted scenes. Here the route becomes a mountain bike path through the woods and along the train track. The path is actually quite fun to ride, although yesterday it would have been horrible to attempt following the night’s rain. We meet another town at the end of the mountain bike path, cross another large bridge, and then follow residential streets further south along the Vltava towards Prague.

At the edge of a larger village the path ends and we cross to a street, noticing that the large sports center has a sign for tourist information. The building turns out to be the official information center for the Dresden-Prague cycle route! The only information about the route contained in the large building, however, is a small table-top kiosk located inside the gymnasium and no one seems there seems to know anything about it at all. Instead, people stand around drinking beer and a soccer game starting on the field nearby.

The route next begins to climb uphill, and, unfortunately, continues to steadily climb for quite some time. We hadn’t expected the hills here to be so significant, and are suffering from the long time since our last meal. After climbing hills and crossing villages/suburbia, we stop outside a closed restaurant in one village to eat the rest of our easily consumable food and check the route into Prague. Although we have a reservation at a hostel, the site is off the map in our cycle guide and I only have my hand-drawn directions, which obviously leave out a lot of the complexity of biking into a city we’ve never visited before.

Following our early evening lunch we bike up some small hills before finding a very steep and very twisty downhill all the way back to the river, and to the first sight of the city itself. Here we follow the river again, first along a truly horrible, barely-cobbled mess of a path, and then along a nice paved multi-use path frequented by inline skaters. The evening has gotten dark by this point, and we decided to veer from the path in the cycle map, assuming that we could cut through the city to our campsite in a more direct path.

While this was a nice plan, it didn’t quite work out the way we had hoped. First, our nice path turned into a very dark, very abandoned cycle route. Fortunately we made it through this area without problem, and upon meeting the road and lights again we headed south. Crossing through industrial Prague we were partially guessing at the route and partially relying upon the GPS, which, by then, was on its last moments of battery life. Turning a bend we suddenly realize that a massive, dark, train-filled hill separates us from our destination. I duck into a hotel and a very helpful clerk printed us a map to our hostel. Despite a few wrong turns that took us up a long row of casinos and erotic clubs, we found the correct street that would take us up the massive, dark hill. A helpful walker waved us up an old side road under the highway, which led us to a crazy circular ramp up to the road. The route is not one that I’d like to take again, but we hauled ourselves and our bikes up the hill with the last of our effort and found the hostel/camp area without much more problem.

A rockabilly band was playing at the hostel’s bar as we arrived, and they finished their set as we stumble down for food, too tired to cook or look for a grocery shop. In the bar we are surrounded by images of Native Americans and the U.S. Southwest, somehow a particular obsession of the Czech, creating an equally surreal end to our long and surprising day.