Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gunfight At The Okoř Corral

The old-fashioned mechanical shooting gallery.

I'm always amazed, but never surprised, at how much can happen on a short bike ride in Prague. Saturday's ride was no exception, filled as it was with wildlife, wild weather, heavy guns, and a mysterious disappearance.

It had been awhile since I'd been out on my bike. I've been recovering from minor surgery for the past couple of weeks, and the family and I spent the Easter holiday in Berchtesgaden, in southern Germany.

The weather on Saturday (March 29) looked promising enough -- milder temperatures, some blue sky and sun -- so I decided to ease back into the saddle with a short solo ride. I figured I'd take an easy route from my house in Černý Vůl, just west of Prague, to the village of Okoř and its 14th-century castle ruins, one of my favorite cycling destinations.

I decided to take a slightly different route, cycling from Černý Vůl up Route 240 to Velké Přílepy. It's a busy highway, and I don't need to get into the disregard that Czech drivers routinely display toward cyclists, but I'd only be on the main road for a kilometer or two before turning off onto a smaller country road.

The highway route wasn't a total loss, as I did get to watch about six or seven deer grazing in a farmer's field. Surviving the main road, I turned off in Velké Přílepy and headed toward Noutonice, from where I began a fierce battle with a raging headwind. I'd ridden a few weeks ago during the deadly windstorm in Prague, and Saturday's gusts ranked right up there, I have to say.

My average speed during that chunk of my ride must have been around 8 kph.

In Noutonice, I passed a nondescript little pub called "U Evžena." These little places are always interesting to me, for it's in just such out-of-the-way establishments where I'm likely to find a record-breaking price on a half-liter of beer.

Regular readers know that I'm on a quest for the cheapest half-liter of beer in Prague. So far, I've found a half-dozen or so places out in the country where a half-liter sells for 17 CZK. The record is 15 CZK (about 93 U.S. cents), and in fact "U Evzena" had a fading sign out front that advertised a half-liter -- of Gambrinus, I believe -- for 15 CZK.

I'll have to stop in for a swallow one of these days to make sure.

On my way to Noutonice, I saw lots of huge European brown hares -- as big as cocker spaniels -- frollicking in the fields, and I passed a single deer -- a buck, with small antlers -- staring intently at me as I passed close by.

From Noutonice, I took a wonderful forest path -- partly paved, most of it dirt -- into the woods behind Okoř, and then headed into the village proper, coming in just behind the castle ruins.

I discovered a small children's fair set up on the grounds beneath the castle. I'd seen the same fair here last summer. I recognized the creaky merry-go-round:

Then I saw something I'd never seen here before. Or more precisely, I heard something I'd never heard here before. The sound of guns cocking and "shots" being fired.

Next to the merry-go-round stood a perfectly preserved, brightly painted, mechanical shooting gallery, circa 1895. It was fascinating. You could shoot at tigers and antelope and deer and oddly dressed men who passed across the top of the range, and at a big revolving sun and an organ grinder, as well as two men on a see-saw on which balanced two large steel ball-bearings.

And the guns! The guns were made of dark wood and cold steel and were very heavy. For 30 CZK ($2), the gallery attendant gave me seven metal bullets -- not BBs, but heavy pellets the size of small buttons. I inserted a pellet into the stock, cocked the gun, and fired away.

The pellets ricocheted everywhere -- steel off steel. I'd be surprised if the attendant and her two or three small kids didn't routinely get hit. I wouldn't be surprised if the shooters also didn't get hit from time to time.

Check out this little video I made:

This shooting gallery is the kind of thing that would never be allowed to operate in the United States, for reasons of liability. In addition to the ricochets ("You'll shoot your eye out!"), there's nothing stopping a person from aiming and shooting the gun at someone on the merry-go-round.

You've got to hand it to the Czechs for not only preserving this kind of thing, but for letting people enjoy it the way it was intended, lawsuits be damned. Fantastic stuff.

Sadly, while I was busy felling elephants on the Serengeti, my iPod must have fallen out of the exercise case on my wrist and onto the ground. I looked around for it, and even asked the attendant, but it was gone. One of her kids -- he must have been about 5 -- kept looking at me intently as I searched the grounds, and I think he probably picked it up. I wasn't too upset. It was old, and I still had the earbuds and all the music on my computer at home.

If the kid can just find some earphones, he'll have a great old time listening to National Public Radio podcasts and the latest Radiohead CD.

Just outside of Okoř, heading home, I was caught in a torrential downpour of rain, snow, and sleet. Of course, I'd left all my winter-weather gear at home. I was soaked, and my fingers were freezing.

Then the sun came out, I began to warm up, and I saw a rainbow near Lichoceves.

Jeesh. What more can you ask for in a ride?!

Length of ride: 15.5 kilometers
Average speed: 15.0 kph
Maximum speed: 44.2 kph
Time on the bike: 1.01.20
Distance ridden so far in 2008: 363.5 kilometers

Rainbow and storm clouds near Lichoceves.

The trail between Lichoceves and Okoř (above and below) is free of cars and full of fun.

Forsythia and grape hyacinth in my yard as I arrived home.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My New Blog, Called 'Gusto'

Why do these hot dogs feature a drawing of a scantily clad woman? Go to "Gusto" for the answer.

Despite some spectacular weather over the weekend, especially on Saturday, I wasn't able to get out on my bike.

I had some minor surgery last Tuesday, and am having to take it easy for 10 days or so.

But I hope to be posting about new rides very soon.

I haven't been idle, however. I've been working on a new blog, believe it or not, and it's finally online.

It's called Gusto, and it's basically about all of the things that I'm passionate about or that I find interesting -- food, drink, music, travel, photography, life in Prague, writing, and lots of other stuff.

Take a look by clicking here.

Your comments and suggestions are welcome!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

'With the Devotion of an Orchid Farmer'

A tip of my helmet to Steve Smith, a local writer whom I've never met but who was kind enough to mention my blog in an article he wrote on biking in Prague for the popular website Prague TV:

"Grant has been documenting his excursions into the countryside for years now, with the devotion of an orchid farmer.

"His blog is stacked full of photo-documented routes you can follow when you need some nature and solace.

"Forget about the city. Here's a man who knows how to sniff out amazing spots way in the muddy deeps of farmland.

"Trust me, you'll be in good hands. Or good quadriceps, as the case may be. Check it out."

Thanks, Steve! I am into my second year of this blog, so I guess it's fair to say I've been documenting my excursions for "years now." In fact, my last blog entry was the 100th since my first post on February 17, 2007.

See you on the trails.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hares, Beers, Highways & Archways

This is some fine riding, my friends. This is the path that starts near Hole and leads down into the woodland behind Okoř castle. It's a spur of the 0077 bike path, I believe.

A few weeks back, during a particularly challenging ride, I coined a new term for the adventures that Stewart often leads me on -- bhiking:

bhiking /buh-hike-ing/ n. -- A sport played on rocky, overgrown or hilly terrain in which a cyclist is just as apt to be carrying his bike as to be riding it.

I like to actually ride my bike. Stewart appears to take his along as an accessory, as a hiker might carry a walking stick, ropes or crampons.

Stewart's approach to the sport was in evidence on Sunday (March 9), when we met up at Koliba in Roztoky for a ride. After looking at a picture I'd taken of him upon arrival, he said, "Look at me! I dress like a hiker, and you dress like a biker."

Yes, he was wearing hiking boots, but he looked to me more like an auto mechanic out for a pedal than your average hiker, what with his overalls and wild beard and hair.

But it's not the clothes that make the cyclist. Stewart easily kicks my butt going up steep trails, leaving me in my cycling Spandex to watch his overalled ass steadily pull away.

I met Stewart and his lovely family -- who were all on bikes -- at Koliba for a quick bite before Stewart and I headed off.

It was already around 3 p.m. by the time we saddled up, so we decided not to bite off anything too ambitious. We headed from Roztoky down the Vltava River to the train station at Úholičky, where we headed up the steep road toward the village proper.

Along the way, however, we spied a promising trail heading off to the right, up into the woods. I wouldn't say I've become a full-fledged bhiker, but I'm starting to see the pleasures of casting off into the unknown.

Without a moment's hesitation, we headed up the unknown trail.

Stewart took this picture of me riding along our newfound trail. It got a lot more difficult.

It wound its way through some lovely forest, before turning steep and rocky. I made it only part of the way up before my gearing failed me (I kept popping wheelies, it was so steep), but Stewart managed to make it almost the whole way.

Steep. Very steep. And rocky. Very rocky.

I filmed part of his slow but steady ascent:

We ended up coming out in a field near what we call Garbage Mountain (a huge landfill), and from there we wound our way toward Tursko and Svrkyně (gotta love those consonants).

Somewhere between Turkso and Svrkyně, Steward yelled, "Deer! Straight ahead!"

I looked, but didn't see any deer.

"Up in that field!"

Sure enough, there were about six or seven running across a freshly plowed farmer's field, but they were European brown hares, not deer. That's an easy mistake to make, though, because the hares around these parts are huge. Massive. They look like German shepherds running through the furrows.

Once we got to the top of the new trail, we found ourselves gazing out at this stunning panorama of the Vltava River. That's the village of Řež across the river.

From there, we unfortunately found ourselves at busy highway Route 240, between Velké Přílepy and Tursko, with no escape route. There was no alternative but to head back whence we came and try another path, or swallow hard and ride for a kilometer or two on the highway. Despite Stewart's pathological hatred of cars (at least while he's riding), he chose the highway.

You've never seen two guys cycling harder than we did on that stretch, with cars whizzing by us at high speed every few seconds. By my odometer, we maintained about 35 kph (22 mph) for the entire sprint.

From Svrkyně, we headed toward the hamlet of Hole, before branching off on a fantastically picturesque bike path -- a spur of the 0077 bike path, I believe -- that deposited us at the beautiful arched railway bridge a few kilometers behind Okoř castle.

(Check out the details of our entire route by clicking here.)

Being so close to Okoř, and our favorite watering hole, the Family Hotel Okoř, we just had to stop in for a beer. Or two. OK, it was three.

We were sitting outside. The sun began to set. Our fingers began to freeze. I began to shiver. We decided to set off for my house in Černý Vůl so that Stewart could warm up a bit before he had a longer ride home to Roztoky.

Daisy was cooking dinner. I built a fire in the fireplace.

Two glasses with a couple fingers each of Jameson's appeared.

And the color in our fingertips reappeared.

Length of ride: 34 kilometers (21.1 miles)
Average speed: 16.2 kph
Maximum speed: 42.6 kph
Time on the bike: 2.04.45
Pivo Meter: 3 each (6 for the year)
Distance ridden so far in 2008: 348 kilometers (216 miles)

This striking arched railway bridge spans a small valley behind Okoř castle. It's very similar to another arched railway bridge in the southwest of Prague (and which is part of my Bakerloo Run.)

Any cycling backpack worth its salt should contain the "New York Review of Books," "Private Eye," and a book of your choice. You never know when you'll have to drink alone.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Ride Bike The Wind

The early morning Sunday sun and a small pond near Únětice, west of Prague.

I saw some old friends on my ride on Sunday, and I didn't see someone I wish I could have.

I decided to ride the 20 kilometers or so to work again, doing my part for global warming and my waistline (not necessarily in that order), despite the fierce windstorm that continued to batter Prague, the Czech Republic, and Europe in general.

Two people were killed in the Czech Republic, including an 11-year-old girl, and 14 lost their lives throughout Europe.

Saturday was the worst as far as the wind was concerned, but it was still blowing pretty good on Sunday (March 2).

On my way between my home in Černý Vůl and Roztoky, I ran into the farmer and his team of beautiful horses pulling a wagon, just as I did a few weeks ago.

I also saw the stunning white horse named Uba -- half Arabian, apparently -- that I passed last week on a ride.

From Roztoky, I rode along the river to Stromovka park, where I discovered, much to my delight, that a section of the park that had previously been crisscrossed by a dirt path full of roots and ruts had been repaved with a lovely new cycling and walking trail.

I was so pleased that I even made a video as I rode over part of the new trail, complete with commentary. Unfortunately, the wind was so strong that my voice is largely drowned out, but you still get a good idea of how nice the trail is. I recommend watching this video with the sound muted:

It was truly a pleasure to cycle on this newly paved path in Stromovka. I even passed a few joggers, an unusual sight in Prague.

Frankly, I didn't see as much storm damage in the park as I'd expected -- a few big branches down, and lots of small twigs and things littering the path. But that was it.

Crossing the park, I emerged at the fairgrounds at Výstaviště, and rode along the city streets to Štefánikův Most, the bridge across the Vltava River that has the ridiculous "bike lane."

The streets were largely deserted, at least on Sunday morning, and I felt fairly comfortable riding amid the cars and trams.

I'd forgotten, however, that along this route, chained to a light pole at a complicated intersection near the bridge, lies the Ghost Bike. It's a memorial to cycling activist Jan Bouchal, who was killed at this intersection back in 2006. I wrote about Jan in a post last summer.

Since last I visited, the bike has been swapped out for a regulation-size model. What hasn't changed is the emotional impact of the memorial. Sadly, however, I'm sure most drivers passing either don't notice it, or have no idea what it is.

I paid my respects and pedaled on.

I made it to work just before a rainstorm hit.

Prague Castle and the Vltava River from Štefánikův Most.

My ride back, along the same route, was largely uneventful, other than passing some forsythia bushes in full bloom. (It's early March. I believe this is quite a bit earlier than normal.)

The ride was most notable for what it didn't contain -- daylight. Much of the ride was in near darkness. I had my bright and blinking front and rear lights, so I could be seen. My front light didn't help much in helping me see the trail, though.

It's rather exciting to be cycling through mud and muddy puddles, over roots and rocks and fallen branches, when you can't really see anything except the vaguest shapes, and only then when you're right on top of whatever is in the middle of the trail.

Especially when strong winds are either trying to push you off your bike, or hitting you in the face and making it twice as hard to move forward.

I made it home safely.

Length of ride: 37.5 kilometers (23.5 miles)
Average speed: 17.1 kph
Maximum speed: 44.1 kph
Time on the bike: 2.10.03
Distance ridden so far in 2008: 314 kilometers (195 miles)

I've always admired this billboard for Pepsi on the side of a commercial building in the center of Prague. The medium appears to be spray paint. It's been there for quite some time, but it's not an antique billboard. I'd like to know more about it.

From the highway near the river, you can look up and see the remants of a sign advertising a once-famous restaurant on a prominent bluff overlooking the Vltava River. The restaurant was a popular pavilion in the Czech exposition at Expo '58 in Brussels and was reconstructed in Prague. Nixon once dined here, it's said. Today, it's no longer a restaurant but, sadly, an office building, albeit a very cool one. At least it was saved.