Not a History Lesson
I will be honest, as a newly transplanted ex-pat to Berlin, my understanding of Eastern Europe was and still is limited. Aside from the occasional Czech brew… OK maybe more than occasional… and head banging to a certain song made popular by Queen, I felt no connection to what was once the power and cultural center of Europe. To make matters more embarrassing, somewhere in my own lineage sit genes from this part of the world.
Instead of getting trapped in a Wikipedia hole, I wanted to see this far off place which was now in my backyard. Maybe then I could begin to put history into a context.
Berlin to Prague
Prague sits about 400km from Berlin with a profile so flat it allows you to cover the distance in 2 days. Trying to decide how to arrive though was another issue, as there are countless roads crisscrossing the countryside. Compromising a little bit of time with scenery, I was able to plot a course with a bit of everything. Evenly spaced villages every 5-10km connected forests, fields and river side paths.
Loading up for the 2 day haul was the usual assortment of tools and nutrition. Though I would encounter many villages along the way, the regularity of seeing a bike shop or convenience store is less than you think. Because the distance was so far, and the solo nature of the trip meant I couldn’t hide from the wind, I needed to limit my stops and keep pedaling. The limited daylight of March in Northern Europe means every photo taken or water stop made brings you closer to riding in the dark.
Bikepacking this time of year means you have to expect the weather to change at any minute. For me, the best approach is to overdress a little. The idea being you can always remove layers. Shivering while in the saddle for 8-10 hours is fast track to not being able to ride the next day. With this in mind, staying dry was my second priority. Adding some lightweight road fenders to keep the shoes and bum a bit drier on damp roads is a welcome luxury.
Setting off early, I left Berlin and headed South to Brandenburg. The roads are well kept as you would expect from many German States, but there is also an extensive cycle path network which parallels nearly every road, some of which are in immaculate condition. Riding on the main road, even when there is a path, never seems to bother drivers. Common courtesy though dictates taking the cycle path when you can.
Day 1 was not only the longest, but windiest. The first 160km of the ride was pure grit. A 10-15kph wind constantly crossed or piled into me for hour after hour. The only respite was the occasional block from a patch of forest. Once I reached the Elbe River outside of Riesa, my fortunes changed as the river funneled the wind to my back for the remaining 50km into Dresden. With 6km remaining, I decided to take what I assumed would be a quiet route through a park. It was certainly quiet for a reason, as the road turned to golfball sized stones in sand for a 700 meter gravel grinder up 12 percent pitches. I could only laugh as my bike and legs screamed.
Meeting up with friends in Dresden, I was treated like a Prussian king to a pasta dinner and cold beer. I’m pretty sure that’s how all the pros end the day after burning 4,000 calories, right? It was also mentally recharging to have a chat. Sitting alone with nobody to talk to but yourself for 10 hours is meditative and peaceful, but even for an introvert like myself, I’m sure I babbled on more than my friends were expecting. Batteries recharged, my friend Paul joined me for the first couple hours the next day. Though the wind wasn’t as strong as we continued down the Elbe, it was a vacation to sit on his wheel after battling the breeze the day before.
Knowing the region like the back of his hand, Paul pointed out castles, bridges and most importantly, a coffee stop in Bad Schandau that hit the spot after a brisk spin down the river. Saying goodbye, I continued on deeper into the Bohemian Kingdom, which was now growing skywards around me as I drew closer to the Czech border.
The romantic beauty of it all quickly dissolved after I passed an owner and her 3 dogs. I cautiously kept an eye on the largest one who was off his leash. Now 50 meters away, I suddenly hear the owners faint voice in the distance shout something unintelligible. Turning my head, I see the largest dog barreling toward me. I picked up the pace and figured he was too far to catch me. Another look back and he halved the gap. Now I can see the dog seething, he’s determined. Trying to remain calm, I summon my inner Cavendish and burn every match in my legs. Acid building quickly, I again look behind me, he’s still gaining. An untimely headwind picks up and I’m in full TT mode, and I can now hear the snarling dragon tucked into my draft. For what felt like a lifetime, my heart ready to explode through my chest, I see the animal now on my left. With one final surge of energy, I summon the loudest roar my depleted lungs can muster and swerve slightly INTO his path. He then stopped, turned away and trotted back to his owner, more than a kilometer away by now. Not sure of his surrender, I pushed on for another 5 km, constantly expecting to hear the rapid approach of nails on pavement behind me. For the rest of the day, I made sure to give a nod of approval to every owner who had a leash on their dog.
Tracing the Elbe southward, wildflowers and flocks of birds canvas the fields and skyline, it’s an endless succession of nature. As I wound my way up through the Bohemian Switzerland National Park, I finally found a few hills to make the shorter distance of the day another demanding test. The earlier effort of the day and hundreds of kilometers covered in 2 days, my legs filed their ignored complaints. Reaching the city limits and picking my way through the cobblestoned spiderweb of Prague, I was in awe of the shear amount of detail in the ornate facades. My energy restored by the mystical forces of curiosity, the next next I spent the afternoon exploring the cafes, squares and spires dotting the city in every direction.
I didn’t expect to come away with any grand connection or conclusion to Prague or the history of the Bohemian Empire. But I think it has given me context in where there was previously none. Sometimes the most exotic places are the ones we already know about, but never dug deep enough. Prague is undoubtedly beautiful, but so are the hardworking people who rely on the Elbe and the oceans of fields on either side. Empires rise and fall, but the people and land remain the same. Now I can dive into that wiki-hole!