The Boys Take A Big Bike Trip To Mělník & Kokořínský Důl
The view from the castle in Mělník. A complete slideshow from the trip can be found at the end of this post.
5:45 a.m. Saturday, May 3, 2008
My bike has been washed, the chain and sprocket set have been cleaned, and I am making peanut butter sandwiches, bleary-eyed. My backpack is stuffed to the gills with spare tubes, a set of dry clothes, a few Power Bars, three tubes of Gu, and my toothbrush.
I am going on an overnight bike trip. Finally.
We are four -- Stewart Moore, Mark Baker, James Gogarty (whom I met through this blog), and myself. And we're heading to Kokořínský důl, a small valley northeast of the city of Mělník, which is itself north of Prague.
The valley is part of a protected zone and is famous for its castle, fantastic sandstone rock formations and the caves carved into the soft rock, which as "The Prague Post" has pointed out, have been used by Stone Age man, Roman soldiers and medieval bandits. It's my understanding that pagans, fleeing the wrath of Christians in Prague, also used the caves for protection.
The area is also known for the hiking and cycling trails that wind through the valley's attractions. Small country roads link the small villages that dot the landscape.
Another friend of mine, Lucian Stefanescu, has cycled in this region before and highly recommended it. Sadly, Lucian couldn't accompany us on this trip.
James, Stewart and I met in Roztoky for the 7:53 a.m. train to Vraňany, a village southwest of Mělník. Mark jumped on in Bubenec, a few stops earlier. We figured we'd take the train a bit outside Prague to give ourselves a little head start so we'd have more time to explore Kokořín.
From what I remember, our three tickets cost 83 CZK total (about $5), with something like another 80 CZK for our bikes. We didn't have to reserve seats or spots for our bike. We just hopped on the last car and kept our bikes with us. The train ride was all of 25 minutes or so.
I think the most challenging leg of our two-day bike trip was getting from Vraňany to Mělník, about 35k north of Prague, where we figured we'd seek refreshment. We wanted to stay off the roads as much as possible, and so ended up sort of stuck between the Vltava River and a canal that passes through the nearby village of Lucez nad Vltavou.
After some furious map-checking, we did manage to link up with the trail, which took us into the former royal city of Mělník, famous today for its Ludmila wine (named for a princess) and its Renaissance-style castle. And yes, we did manage to pedal all the way up to the castle, situated on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Vltava and Labe rivers.
From the top, it seems all of the Czech Republic was laid out before us, the landscape decorated with fields of taxicab-yellow rapeseed standing out like squares in a massive painting by Mondrian.
By this time, it was around 9:45 a.m. or so, and obviously time for a beer or two. We stopped at a local pub for a few half-liters and the first bad grilled sausage I think I've ever had in my time here in the Czech Republic.
It's 5 p.m. somewhere. James (left), Mark, myself, and Stewart stop for a few beers in Mělník, early in the trip.
The castle in Mělník looms over the rivers below.
We left Mělník on the 203 and 142 bike trails -- country roads, really -- and headed for Kokořín. The road immediately outside of Mělník was a tough one, especially after having sat in the sun for an hour or so drinking beer. But we all managed to make it to the top. And from there, as I remember, the route to Kokořín was quite pleasant. Slowly, the sandstone cliffs and caves and rock formations that the area is famous for began to show themselves through the trees along the road.
Check out our exact route from Vranany to Kokořín on this map. Ignore the other stuff. I forgot to reset my Garmin GPS device, so it's showing some other rides:
View Larger Map
It was the May Day holiday weekend in the Czech Republic, and accommodations were scarce. At the last minute, I'd managed to book a flat in a house very close to the castle. It was nothing to write home about, but it was clean, and cheap (1,000 CZK for the four of us, around $60, plus the 34 CZK, or $2, for electricity!).
We dropped off some of our stuff and then headed for the hills. James had been hiking in the same area recently, and knew a few trails. We headed off the road and into the forest.
We were suddenly enveloped in a magical landscape of towering sandstone rocks, tall trees, and paths softly upholstered in pine needles and leaves. It was a cyclist's paradise.
After touring for a bit, we ended up in a little pub in the hamlet of Jestrebice, where we quaffed two or three more beers and shots of cold slivovice, which we did in solidarity for James, who said he was on doctor's orders to drink some for his sore throat. Ahem.
We explored a few more trails and cool sandstone formations, at one point putting down our bikes and leaping from the top of one tall rock to the other, a yawning chasm dropping off below us. I've always loved climbing on rocks, and this was a veritable playground, with no adults around to yell at me for standing too close to the edge.
Then, it was an exhilarating downhill trail between the cliffs and towering trees. You couldn't ask for anything better.
I must confess to wanting to have ridden some more (we cycled about 45 kilometers on the first day), but from there we ended up at another pub/restaurant up the road from our flat, where we ate some dinner (I had something on the menu called Chicken Florida, a chicken breast with half a canned peach on top, smothered in a blanket of melted cheese and which I'm sure has never been served in that southern U.S. state) and drank more beer and slivovice.
We never did make it up to Kokořín castle itself. Next time!
We moved on to a different pub nearer our flat, and from there the evening floated away from us on a swiftly flowing, golden carbonated river. The pub doubled as a cheesy disco at night for all the visitors. James threatened to break out his moves, but never made it to the dance floor. Instead, our gums flapped for hours as the beer glasses kept arriving, miraculously full, at our table.
Later that night, we somehow managed to unlock our bikes outside the pub and ride the few hundred meters home. Whereupon James pulled out a bottle of Czech champagne that he'd somehow procured at the pub. It did not go undrunk. And we also managed not to go to bed undrunk.
We awoke to a gorgeous day, warm, with sunny skies filled with big puffy clouds. I couldn't wait to get out there. After wolfing down the peanut-butter sandwiches I'd made the previous morning, we managed to snag a real breakfast at a nearby pension and then set off, only to head into a cool pub and restaurant in the nearby village of Raj 20 minutes later.
Oddly enough, I was the only one who ordered a beer, but I think I was one down from the night before.
We then headed up Route 259 in search of the Bludiště (literal Czech translation, Getting Lost Place), a famous natural sandstone labyrinth. Unfortunately, the road headed up, and up, and up. It was quite a climb, but we all managed to make it without dismounting (although I'll admit to having circled back down the road a few times to give my aching quads and heaving lungs a respite). About three-quarters of the way up the hill is the maze. We chained our bikes to a nearby tree and descended into the Bludiste.
It was like a visit to Middle Earth, or a scene out of John Boorman's "Excalibur." I made a video inside the maze. For some reason, it sounds as if I'm about to pass out from the exertion. Have no fear, I did make it out alive:
Tall, sheer sandstone walls rose high above us on either side, often with only a shoulder-wide passageway between them. Sometimes, the walls were so high and the crevice so narrow that the sky all but disappeared.
A tall stump of a tree stood covered in a dozen or so huge shelf fungus. Boulders were covered in a thick beard of moss. The whole maze was dark and moist and cool. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a hobbit run past.
From the tops of the rocks in the maze, looking out over the Kokořínský Důl.
Back on our bikes, we ascended the rest of the way up the hill on Route 259 toward Romanov, where James discovered a path off the main road that appeared to lead toward the town of Mšeno. Hats off to James. It was a beautiful, paved downhill run, a sweet reward for the tough hill climb we'd just made.
Check out the video I made over part of the run:
Lots of folks were out hiking and riding, including a local woman who'd made herself a princess' crown of dandelion flowers. I just had to stop and take her picture.
In Mšeno, we stopped to replenish our water supplies, and figure out where we wanted to go. The weather was gorgeous, and I was feeling good, and wanted to try to cycle all the way back to Prague. Everyone else felt the same, so we set off.
Check out our exact route from Kokořín toward Prague on this map. Unfortunately, my batteries on my Garmin GPS ran out near Liblice, but it will give you a good idea of how we came home:
View Larger Map
Even though the trip back to Prague was on roads, not trails, it was mostly great. The trip from Mšeno to Nebuzely to Lhotka, as I recall it, was one of the loveliest routes I've yet taken on a bike -- no traffic, well-kept country roads, a big blue sky stuffed with clouds, those fantastic rapeseed fields, poplar trees, fruit trees and flowers abloom, and no big hills to climb.
On the road somewhere between Mšeno and Nebuzely.
We eventually did encounter quite a bit of traffic as we headed home, especially on the road between Kostelec nad Labem and Měsíce. But as James promised, once we crossed Route 9 and headed toward Bast, the traffic dried up and we largely had the roads to ourselves again.
I think we all did great on the ride home. It turned out that we cycled 75 kilometers on that day. I had a chance to try out a couple of packets of Gu energy gel that I'd received as a gift. They seemed to give me a boost just when I needed it. And I gave one to Stewart, and it seemed to help him when he felt himself flagging during that car-clogged stretch to Měsíce.
The road beckons somewhere near Bast, as we neared home.
We rode down the steep, hairpin turns into Klecany, just across the river from Roztoky, at around 6 p.m. on Sunday, just as a few ominous clouds appeared overhead and a few raindrops fell heavy on the hot road.
The ferry to Roztoky runs on the hour and half-hour, so we decided to have a few beers and wait for the 7 p.m. crossing. As we replenished our lost fluids, the sky grew even darker, and as we talked about the trip, we lost track of time, and suddenly it was a few minutes past 7. We thought we'd just catch the 7:30 ferry, but Stewart hopped on his bike and high-tailed it over the ferry on the hunch that it might be the last crossing of the day.
He was right.
He whistled to us loud and clear, and we gulped our beers, jumped on our bikes, and pedaled furiously over to the ferry.
We'd made it.
The church in Mšeno's main square.
Just then, one of the most violent thunderstorms I've ever been out in let loose. The sky was gray-green. The river had whitecaps. And the wind sent the rain into the ferry horizontally. I felt like one of those crab fishermen in a storm on the Bering Sea on "World's Deadliest Catch."
We found cover in a rickety, tin-roofed shelter on the Roztoky side of the Vltava and waited for the rain to let up. Which it finally did, so abruptly that it was as if a spigot had been turned off somewhere. Not even a few stray sprinkles could be heard pinging on the tin roof.
We parted ways in Roztoky, wet and exhilarated and more than a little drunk -- intoxicated by both the beer and by the journey we'd just taken.
Distance ridden (2 days): 120 kilometers
Average speed: 16.4 kph
Maximum speed: 56.1 kph
Time on the bike: 7.15.08
Pivo Index: Too many to count
Distance ridden so far in 2008: 608.5 kilometers
Click on this slideshow for full-frame photographs.