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.

Prague Part Three

Sunday, September 24 – 

Today was the beginning of our cycling tour, in that we got fitted for our bikes and took a very short “shake down” ride along the river near the company’s (AVE) headquarters. Before that happened, however, we had our morning/early afternoon to ourselves.

But before we all headed off to our self-determined mornings, we met at The Green Wall to talk about options for getting ourselves over to the place and the company that would rent us our bikes and lead the cycling aspect of the tour.

Having someone else be responsible for all aspects of the beginning parts of our cycling adventure was a good idea, because Allen came down hard with the yuks (along with a growing number of our group). We’d already lost one among our number, not because of illness, but rather because her goal was to join us for the Cesky Krumlov and Prague parts and not do any cycling at all. So Kathy jumped a taxi while we were all still sleeping and headed to the airport to start grinding her long, long way over to California.

And then we were 20.

Jack and I headed off with two of our group to hit the Jewish Quarter early. En route, we ran into a riverside park with a memorial to the death of Jan Palach, a Czech student of history at the Charles University, who self-immolated in protest against the end of the Prague Spring — ended due to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies. The sculptures and poem were quite moving there, on a gray day beside the Voltava, to remember how difficult it had been for the citizens of this country to rid themselves of tyranny. Palach’s wasn’t the most recent instance of protest-immolation: in the spring of 2003 a total of 6 Czech students burned themselves to death, noting their inspiration for their own act by Palach’s example.

There was a poem inscribed on granite near the sculptures.

The Funeral of Jan Palach (by Basen-David Shapiro, 1969—translated by Preklad-Thomas Mika, 2003):

When I entered the first meditation/I escaped the gravity of the object./I experienced the emptiness/And I have been dead a long time.

When I had a voice you could call a voice/My mother wept to me:/My son, my beloved son/I never thought this possible.

I’ll follow you on foot/Halfway in mud and slush the microphones picked up./It was raining on the houses/It was snowing on the police cars.

The astronauts were weeping/Going neither up nor out./And my own mother was brave enough she looked/And it was all right I was dead.

We began at the cemetery, and once we figured out the ticketing system, went into that area, the memorial within, and afterwards, a couple of synagogues. Craig and Rosemary accompanied us into the cemetery and memorial, but peeled off for other adventures when we went to the Spanish synagogue.

It’s difficult to express in words the utter sadness and deep sorrow in seeing walls and walls and walls of names of the deceased Jewish populations from so many purges and erasures. And the persecution endured by less-horrific but nevertheless devastating acts such as prohibiting Jews from hiring Christians for tasks such as mending, cooking, or anything else. This area was seen in the 1700s as quite “tolerant” but such prohibitions resulted in those of the Jewish faith having to cluster together to hire one another; and to move away from the Christian areas because they would not be able to access basic services.

And to view the “old” Jewish cemetery with its helter-skelter gravestones and tombs, with loved ones piled on top of the previous generation, and none of them appropriately designated, is just another type of centuries worth of persecution, when the community was not allowed to bury their families beyond a certain area. 

Visitors added small notes and messages in this wall.

We noticed that small rocks were placed on several markers near the walkways, in the Jewish tradition of Yahrtzeit (literally “time of [one] year”), which refers to the anniversary of the day of death of a relative. Yahrzeit is usually a day-long remembrance of the day of death of a loved one, and the custom of placing a stone on the grave using the left hand is also old. First, it shows tha someone visited the gravesite and in a small way participated in the mitzvah of burial. Leaving flowers is not a traditional Jewish practice, and the stones left are also a way to “tend to” a grave. In Biblical times, gravesites were marked only with mounds of stones (a cairn), so when visitors place or replace the stones, it helps perpetuate the existence of the gravesite. It is a common practice when visiting Jewish graves, even of those we do not know, to place a small stone on the marker.

An extra remembrance was placed on the top of this headstone.
We left the cemetery, hearts filled with sadness.

While the Spanish synagogue was seriously pretty, it was quite odd to see an organ and a choir loft – but the excellent (and unfortunately, printed very small) light boxes with documents and explanations pointed out that the government would tolerate synagogues, but only if they behaved like Christian churches by having organ music and angelic singing for their services. Quite strange.

We left the Jewish Quarter and walked back along the river toward Bishop’s House, stopping for a nice picnic at a park along the way. It had rained the night before, so the seats and little table we found were wet, and Jack had to pay the price of a pair of beers for two bottles of “Italian” water – but it was a nice interlude beside a pretty river in the heart of Prague. Not too shabby.

Some “seens” from our walk.

I have not the first clue what this could possibly mean. Nor what the illustration might relate to. Ideas?

For all my artist friends and family.

Arriving back in the Bishop’s House neighborhood with a little more time before we gathered for our boat ride and dinner along the river, we quickly headed over to the small island beneath Charles Bridge, where some of our group had discovered a display of photos about that infamous flood of 2002, called “After the flood: 15 years later.” They are large photos framed in a series for a “walking gallery” along the river. We checked that out and found a few extra things to take photos of, just for the record.

No wonder the underground wasn’t working back in 2003 when we were in Prague last.

Then we joined the group to bus over to Ave (on the outskirts of Prague) for our bike fitting, met our new mechanical best friends for the next week, adjusted seats and such, and took a quickie ride to assure everything fit and shifted and worked right. We had our first “casualty” during the shake-down ride, when Laura turned too near a parked car and lost her balance, taking a header between the parked cars. She hit her upper lip and chin, and needed a couple of band-aides, but otherwise was okay.

Finally, we embarked on our private dinner cruise along the river. The food was quite good, and the best beer we could get came out of a can. But that was fine, because after the meal on the main deck, we took our drinks up to the top deck and many photos were taken as the light faded to black on our stay in Prague. (Apologies for the grainy pix. My camera’s not great in low light, but you can get the general feel for Prague at night.)

Two boats at a time go into the canal locks to navigate the different levels of the river. We hit this lock twice: outgoing to rise to the next level; and incoming, to lower back down.

You might recognize this building from an earlier, daylight photo. Never did find anyone who could tell me what it was.

Charles Bridge from below.

Prague Part One

Friday, September 22

It was about a 2.5 hour drive by bus to Prague, and when we arrived, we had a mass lunch at the crepe restaurant across the street from our hotel, Bishop’s House, both owned and operated by the same family (as was our dinner spot for our first night, a restaurant called Pod Vezi, where they really put on the dog with a four-course meal and lots of local wine exclusively made for Pod Vezi).

This street artist was working on our hotel’s side of the Charles Bridge on our first day in Prague. This is what we saw when we left for our guided tour, and the next photo shows the nearly-completed work we saw when we returned.

But I digress. The crepes were fine, although not extraordinary, and we exited there to head straight to a pre-arranged tour of the city with a guide whose name I never quite “got.” We got started about 2 and stood around our lovely hotel for waaay too long, so she could tell us a bit of background and history of the city. It was at this early stage that I knew I was going to have a problem with our guide, because she told us with great conviction that Prague has no crime because the Czech Republic doesn’t allow Muslims into the country. She then explained that they do have some small crimes committed by other “problem” populations including Hungarians, Roma, and Poles.

Shortly thereafter, she led us off into Prague, over the Charles Bridge from Bishop’s House (which is right at the end of the bridge on the “Little Town” side of the river Vlatava, or Moldau (if you’re a Smetena fan), or in the anglicized pronounciation, Voltava, or sometimes Vitava. 

A canal that separates an “island” directly below the Charles Bridge from the rest of the neighborhood it sits beside. That little island community was under water the last time Jack and I traveled to Prague.

Scads of people heading under the Charles Bridge “gate house” to and from the famous bridge.

I could not believe how many bodies were traipsing across Charles Bridge, which is pedestrian only. When Jack and I were here last, a mere 14 years ago, the bridge was quite habitable. Now, it is thronged with trinket-sellers, caricature-drawers, folks taking wedding pictures, and billions and billions of tourists and tour groups like ours. 

Getting off the bridge was no better, but we threw in the added chaos of traffic. Jack and I kept trying to figure out where the trolley had left us off (near Charles Bridge, we knew, but exactly where, we never quite pinned down) those 14 long years ago when we had not the first clue what we were doing. On top of which, that time was very soon after the great flood of 2002, and Prague was still quite devastated by that catastrophe.

When she stopped again, near the University, and someone asked about government-sponsored higher education, she said that she and her husband (I now believe that she meant that her own generation) were the last people who had had to pay for their college/university educations, because shortly after they graduated, the Czech government came into its own after the Communist era, and made higher education virtually free to its citizens. But then she said, “Even Slovaks are allowed to get their educations subsidized by the government.”

It was at that point that I stopped listening, because I thought I would certainly have to confront some of her — shall we say, “biases” — if I didn’t just walk away. I did not confront because I was rather certain we’d have a serious issue with the language barrier; and also I did not want to hijack Allen and Mary’s schedule (nor did I know at that point what the general political views of our group were, although I came to discover later that the majority, and possibly all, are like-minded; and they, also, had issues with our guide).

Anyway, it was a very long but comprehensive tour, and we saw parts of the city that Jack and I had missed before, and also that we marked for more thorough study later during our 2.5 day stay here (including the Jewish quarter and the Jewish cemetery and memorials to the Holocaust).

One of the interesting plaques I read, near the University (and which our guide never mentioned) was about climate science. It said, “You stand before the place where regular climatological measurements, are taken from the height of the first floor [we would say “second floor” in the US]. These were started in the Klementinum as early as the middle of the eighteenth century by Jesuit scholar, Joseph Stepling, the founder of the observatory here. An uninterrupted series of measurements taken every day date back to January 1, 1775, and ranks among the oldest in Europe.”

This rooster crows at the end of the elaborate chiming and dancing of the famous Astronomical Clock that is a centerpiece of Prague’s Old Town Square.
I especially loved the dancing skeleton on the Astronomical Clock.
To see the brief working of the clock, check out my Facebook page and you can view its works.

One more thing about our guide: Very late in the tour, someone asked about a poster we read near the theater presenting a “Black Light” show. She said that Black Light Theater was invented by Czechs, and that it involved a dark theater with a stage on which actors dressed all in black presented a show. Because that statement was patently untrue, I came to discount even more of what we managed to hear and understand from her that day. We got a much more accurate description of the theater’s magic from our excellent hotel staff, including our primary “go-to” guy, Marek. Yes, it’s a dark theater, and yes, the actors wear black, but on those clothes are painted fluorescent designs and when the black lights hit them, they glow. Thus, the audience sees colorful designs capering around in the dark, dancing and interacting in ways that allow the black light paint to “trick” the senses.

Sculptor: Anna Chromy. “Il Commendatore” in memory of W. A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni, premiered in this theater October 29, 1787.

In any event, the tour took longer than expected, and while some went off to recoup at Bishop’s House, a small gaggle of us enthusiastic beer appreciators retraced some of our walk back to a brewery, to sample their wares. Staromestsky, or Old Town Brewery served a nice flavorful lager-style beer, and we indulged long enough to capture sunset over the Charles Bridge before racing to the truly stupendous dinner at Pod Vezi by 7PM. During that dinner we toasted friends old and new, and raised glasses to loved ones and missed ones who, for various reasons, were unable to be with us on this trip. Here’s to y’all, Woody, Gaye, and Larry.