Cycling Tour Day Two

September 26 – 

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.

We saw some goats trimming up the grass on the heights of the ramparts when we rode past.

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.

Reconstruction of a women’s living area in an attic

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.

Cycling Stats:

  • Ride time: 3 hours
  • Stopped time: 4:30 hours
  • Distance 36 mi.
  • Average speed: 12MPH
  • Fastest speed: 50MPH
  • Ascent: 225
  • Descent: 354

Cycling Tour Day One

Monday, September 25 – 

For the next five days, our suitcases and sometimes our bikes are to be trucked from start to destination by Ave; we have two Ave guides (one at the front and one at the back of our troop); tip sheets created by Ave; and most of the planning, pace, and stopovers all arranged by Ave.

This is a good news/bad news sort of situation. Foremost, it is truly advantageous that Allen did NOT have to ride or guide, because he was sick as a dog by this point. As were Michael and John—the sickest among us. So those three plus Laura rode in the van (Laura for only the first half of our first day, just to assure her wounds wouldn’t reopen). Others were coughing and snuffling, but no one was as bad as Allen, Michael and John. The bad news is that, for our guides, keeping track throughout the week of who was riding and who was in the quarrentine van—well, it was a challenge. Also, they had a steep learning curve to figure out our varied speeds, pairings, capabilities, etc., where Allen pretty much knows this already. As does Mary, who did ride with us and was likely quite helpful to Vlasta and Milan.

We bussed to the outskirts of Prague and disembarked at a start-point (Troja) convenient to the river trail, and well-away from too much of the urban traffic. Everyone was feeling out everyone else’s capacities, and many of us were either using or riding alongside (or behind) e-bikes for the first time. These are great for the less fit or less experienced of us, but they’re heavy, difficult to gear, and such an unknown quantity that all of us were watching out for the four of the group who had the electric-assist.

It’s not all biking and no fun. Here Damarius takes a quick zebra ride and one of our break/rest stops.

It became pretty clear quickly that we were actually two groups of significantly faster and significantly slower riders. Still, there were plenty of stops, including Antonin Dvorak’s birthplace with a statue nearby. Our guide, Milan, was the historian, but his delivery of his knowledge was ponderous (his English was not as good as Vlasta’s, but Vlasta’s knowledge of history is not as good as Milan’s—whatcha gonna do?). Either way, our stops/breaks were longer than most of us thought they needed to be, and from day one througout the cycle tour (writing today from the perspective of Berlin, two days post-cycle-tour) we were constantly late and rushed when there was an arranged meal involved.

Watching our group pedal by.

We ate lunch at Marina Vltava, and there we discovered that we’d lost track of one of our group. Everyone remembered where we’d all last seen Katherine, but realized we had not seen her turn into the restaurant. Vlasta rode back to see if he could find her at the place where we’d last seen her (one of their recommendations for all their tour groups is, if you get lost or separated from the group, return when you realize you’re alone, to the place at which you last saw the group and wait there). The support van/bike trailer driver, Hansa, drove ahead on the assumption that Katherine had simply missed the turn into the Marina Vlatava.

The rest of us moved on after a delicious goulash soup and a substantial salad, and since Vlasta wasn’t back from his check-back, one of us volunteered to “sweep” the back of the group, and Milan led. Our first pause after lunch was Dvorak’s birthplace, and Vlasta caught up to us without having seen Katherine anywhere behind the group.

In addition to stopping to see Dvorak’s statue, we hit two chateaus along our way, but still did not find Katherine. While we carried on, Allen and the van driver were trying to call her and getting more worried when her phone kept going straight to voicemail, and she did not call him to check in.

We cranked uphill to a lovely setting high above the river (the town of Melnick’s Nelahozeves Castle), where there was a winery that uses water from a well that’s been going strong since the 14th century.

Some crew rowers enjoying the confluence of the Elbe and the Vltava Rivers, just below Melnik’s Nelahozeves Castle.

Meanwhile, Allen found Katherine in our destination town of Melnik, where she had followed the map and ended up where she knew we were supposed to be, and never for a moment thought anyone would be worried about not seeing her over the course of a few hours. Still, we were all very glad to see her safely back amongst us after we’d all showered and headed downstairs in the impressive Chateau Liblice (our hotel) for drinks and dinner.

The Chateau Liblice is a baroque house designed by Italian architect G. B. Alliprandi. Our room, like many (but not all) of our group’s rooms, was huge with an “ante-room” and very high ceilings. No one took advantage of the spa, which offered a sauna and a Jacuzzi, with massage available, through 10PM. But we’d arrived so late that most of us didn’t even have time to walk around the grounds, much less have a massage.

Behind Jack, you can see the confluence of the two rivers. In the far distance, there’s a mountain we thought reminded us of The Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County (upper right).
Chateau Liblice.
One of the views from our room.

Our “sitting room.”

The fluorescent “Power Rangers” have invaded the countryside.

Cycling stats

  • Ride time: 3 hours
  • Stopped time: 4 hours
  • Distance: 33 miles
  • Average speed: 11MPH
  • Fastest speed: 22MPH
  • Ascent: 511 ft.
  • Descent: 500 ft.