This was an intentionally short day, so that the hikers among us could stretch their legs and see scenery to leave the viewer breathless, after our arrival in Schmilka.
Schmilka has been a part of Bad Shandau since 1973, although it was first recorded as a community in 1582. The Ilmen Spring rises nearby and is the most powerful water source in Saxon Switzerland. The stream resulting from this spring drives the Schmilka Mill, built in 1665, and restored in 2007 as a functional mill with lodging (this is where Jack and I and a few others of our group stayed). At this mill, they make beer (good water), bread, and other delicacies that are all locally-sourced and organic. Schmilka offers very limited wifi service (only at the tourist information center) and even a hand-drawn map. The Mill where we stayed is the blue highlight to the middle-right of the drawing.
Along the river ride, the sides of the mountains rose up on both sides of us, high into the sky, leaving us dwarfed. It was truly spectacular, and our route took us out of the Czech Republic 3 times as we crossed its border with Germany (once was on a ferry ride in the middle of the river).
Our last stop for the tour on Czech soil was a very popular village called Hrensko, a border town situated at the heart of the “Czech-Saxon Switzerland,” also a National Park. We stopped along here to exchange some currency and Vlasta bought a couple of bottles of Czech beer, as the price skyrocketed once we had crossed into Germany.
The group ate lunch at the mill, then settled into our rooms. Jack and I elected NOT to go on the organized hikes, though many of our group did so. I stayed in our room to edit photos (no wifi necessary) and Jack took a ride to get a few more miles in, up to Bad Schandau, around that spa town, and back.
During this day, we cycled through the hilly area of the Czech Republic known as “The Middle Mountains.” This was our best day yet of weather, and the ride offered views and perspectives aplenty. Here are one or two final looks at Litomerice as we began our tour.
Our route map for the day, following the blue band of the river northward. Litomerice is at the bottom and our destination, Decin is at the top. Decin is known as the Northern Gate to the Czech Republic; and also as the town with the lowest altitude in the country.
Among the small burghs we pass through was Pistany, one of the oldest communities in NW Bohemia, marking its name since the 1057. The name derives from its geology: sand used to be mined here, resulting in the large Zernoseky Lake. There once was a humble farmer named Bikut who would dutifully cart his tithes to Benedict the Provost of the Litomerice Chapter in 1218. He would load his cart on St. George’s Day (at the time, April 23) and on St. Gallus Day (October 16) and follow the road, still in use today, to the Cathedral overlooking what was yet to become the town of Litomerice. The paper I found near the setting of the next couple of photos said: “It may have been here that, eight centuries ago, farmer Bikut would rest along his journey, letting is draught animals graze. This is the reason this belfry was erected in 2017: for weary pilgrims to have a place to rest for a while and regain strength whether traveling by foot or bicycle. If, while resting, they remember the ancient farmer Bikut, thanks to whom we actually know the early history of Pistany, the humble structure will have fulfilled its purpose.”
The scenery along this stretch is truly spectacular. My camera was unable to capture its full beauty.
Our major stop of the day was to Strekov Castle. Built on the top of a cliff, it has been a ruin for many centuries. But it has had slight renovations, including our lunch stop in the structure, Kovarna, a spot carved out of the volcanic rock under the castle. We had a fun wander through the structure before lunch, where we learned the following: Strekov is one of the best-preserved ruins in the Czech Republic. It was built before the year 1319, by the command of the Czech king John of Bohemia, to protect and control the River Elbe. The castle was built by Pesik from Veitmile, the Prague burgher, at his own cost. Since then, the castle has had several owners. After 1563 it was bought by Vaclav Lobkowicz, and remains in the family’s holdings to this day.
It was a serious chug to get to the top and enjoy the views, but the work was well-rewarded.
We left Strekov and rode a while, passing an impressive suspension bridge along the way.
Decin Castle is where Chopin debuted his Waltz in A-flat major, and we had a lovely rest and walk-around, after another short climb. Our tour was accompanied by a peacock, a beautiful beech tree, and another cat sunning itself.
After settling into our Hotel (Ceska Koruna—not the building we saw from the castle), we were on our own for the evening. A gaggle of us watched the sunset develop while having beers on the Decin town square before heading off to dinner. With a couple of “the boys” Jack and I went across the bridge to a burger joint Hansa had recommended to us. Alas it was closed, but we had an excellent pizza on an outdoor patio raised high above the river. Very nice end to a splendid day.
Ride time: 3 hours
Stopped time: 6 hours (I forgot to turn the cyclometer off whie we had our beers)
We left Melnik and headed to Litomerice today. I’m sorry we did not have more time in Melnik—definitely a town to put on the “do-again-later” list.
As a settlement above the confluence of the two rivers, Elbe (Labe in Czech) and the Vltava (Voltava or Vitava in English), Melnik has been a town for over 750 years. Tours of the castle are available, and beneath the grand structure are wine cellars where wine tastings can be enjoyed. The town square is pretty and surrounded by lovely buildings, many reflecting the gradual changes in taste through the centuries of architectural styles.
The tradition of wine-making in Melnik is long. Historians associate it with the birth of Christianity in Bohemia, when St. Ludmila had vineyards planted, which then supplied wine for church services. Her son, St. Wenceslaus (the patron saint of wine makers) is said to have trained here, and grape harvests were scheduled for his name day each year. Visitors from all over the Czech Republic come to Melnik each year for the new wine (called “burcak”) of the year.
Alas, we had to leave, so off we cycled.
Riding along the river, there are many markers of historic flood levels. We passed one along our way today, and waaaay up at the top is the indicator, almost invisible, of the flood of 2002. Huge.
As we move north along with the flow of the river, and away from the confluence of the two rivers (Labe & Vltava), the Elbe/Labe gets deeper and more significant to shipping traffic for all of Europe. The ride this day was quite level and easy (including our precipitous descent from the height of the Melnik castle) and we had better weather than the gray, drippy day of yesterday.
Early, we got to a town called Roudnice nad Labem and saw a pretty church and a castle, stopping for info from Milan.
Soon thereafter, we reached the massive Terezin Fortress, originally built at the turn of the 18th century. During WWII, it was turned into a “way station” for political prisoners and Jewish people before they were transferred to the “death camps” farther east. For the Nazis, Terezin was their “poster child” for how well they treated and housed the populations they were “dealing with” and they actually invited the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups to see the “happy Jews” in their care. They also made a very creepy film in which Jewish actors played the parts of the community members who regularly listened to beautiful concerts, grew their own food by working in their own gardens, enjoyed social time after the work day was over, etc. Two or Three months after the film was completed, 7/8 of those actors were dead—sent to Auschwitz or one of the more infamous death camps.
What the world was not allowed to see, however, were the terrible living conditions endured by the prisoners held at Terezin. Before the war, about 7,000 people lived in the town, including the members of the garrison/fortress. In September 1942, when the number of prisoners reached its peak, there were over 58,000 men, women and children crammed into the same space. The average lodging area for one prisoner had fallen to about 1.5 square meters (not quite 2 square yards).
The dormitories, apartment buildings/houses, newly-built barracks, and many “emergency” spaces (unfurnished attics, for example) were used to place the number of people who were imprisoned there. By 1942, 6,000+ people lived in attics.
Of course, this close accommodation resulted in disease, hygiene problems, and epidemics. The cramped circumstances in the “dormitories,” the total absence of privacy, and the unending struggle with parasites were a never-ending part of daily routine in the Terezin Ghetto.
Among the displays we visited to remind us of the Nazi horrors, was an art gallery. While the Nazis allowed Terezin creativity that carried their official “stamp of approval” there was also a sub-culture of art produced (including writings, theatre, music, and other “underground” depictions) to show the real life of the camp. Because of the threat of imminent deportation and certain death if caught, not to mention the scarcity of materials, most of the written forms were short — poetry, diary/epistolary works, skits, etc. We saw drawings of endless queues for food, the overcrowded living areas, suffering and death of prisoners, and masses of coffins piling up daily in the morgue.
The underground artists tried to smuggle some of their works out of the camp when the “sanctioned” Red Cross visits happened, hoping to draw international attention to the reality of the Nazi genocide. On July 17, 1944, Bedrich Fritta, Otto Ungar, Leo Haas, Ferdinand Bloch, architect Norbert Troller, and collector Leo Strass of Nachod, all arrested for spreading the “propaganda of horror,” were deported with their families to a Gestapo prison in the Small Fortress. Most did not survive the suffering that followed. The works they had managed to hide in various places in the Ghetto was found only after Liberation.
After Terezin, we headed along the river ride and saw many lovely sights along the way, but it was a fast day and the photos are rather sparse along the way. There was one notable rest stop thanks to Hansa.
Carrying on from there, it was not long before we got to our destination, Litomerice, a lovely town first documented in 993. The famous Czech poet, Macha lived here. Most of us stayed at the compact but nice Hotel Apollon, with a lovely courtyard in which we could have sat outside if it had been warmer.
For dinner, we hit a Czech brewery whose name I cannot actually figure out. I think it’s Biskupsky Pivovar u sv. Stepana. Anyway, we had a nice tour of the brewing process at this very new production facility (only about a year old) and also a lovely meal.