Bicycling through Central Europe: Prague

Hello friends

I picked a bag of fruit from the trees at my campsite north of Budapest, and rode into the city at midday.   The temperature was in the mid 80’s, the hottest it had been.  I promptly got lost in the bustling traffic.   It really is a problem entering a strange big city on a bike.  No matter how you prep with Lonely Planet, it’s not easy.  One, you don’t arrive at a bus or train station.  2, you are peddling, and you can’t read your maps.  3 you simply may be tired.   So I took the first good room I could get, and then began checking out the city.

A few things:  the ‘Hungarian’ language (Magyar) is almost in a family of its own.  Expect no Latin root words.  Finnish is its only related language.  I couldn’t even see the Slavic influences.  The Magyar people/tribe entered this area around 1000 years ago, drove everyone else out, maintained control, and did not borrow words from other languages.

Budapest is actually 2 cities, ‘Buda’ and ‘Pest’.  Seriously.  On opposite sides of the Danube.  Both are quite different.  The historic Buda on the west bank, with its high hills, and the metro working Pest is on the east.  Public transportation is great, with subways, trolleys, and buses.

I hit the museums first.  The ‘History of the Land’ at the Szepmuveszeti National Museum was great.  There was a tremendous collection of the stone works and tools from 10’s of thousands of years ago, an amazingly large bronze age collection, impressive iron age works and a great gold ornamentation collection.

The upstairs of the museum was a series of dioramas of Hungarian life for the last 300 years.  I sequentially walked thru how the people lived, in their homes with their artifact.  I went thru World War I with all of its artifacts and the breakup of the Austria-Hungarian empire, and thru Nazi occupation.   I found the Kitsch Communist era proletarian ‘art’ and artifacts to be almost amusing, if life weren’t so hard.  I watched of 20 minute documentary of the 1956 Hungarian revolt and its brutal suppression.  25,000 Hungarians dead.   My neighbor when I was a child, Johan Benedict, was a refugee from the Hungarian revolt.  But to put it in perspective, Iraq has probably lost 100k from their ‘revolt’.

I have talked to many young people on this trip.  I find myself asking them about how life is under democracy.  They give me a puzzled look.  That is all they can remember.  Time passes.  But their reactions are not consistently positive.  They say life is tough, that they must go to the west, Germany or Ireland for better jobs.  Many say that their parents want the old system back.  They generally agreed that there is no going back, but they were missing the security net.

Time was getting short on my trip.  I could backtrack and ride my bike to Budapest in two days, or take the train in 2-3 hours and have an extra day.  I took the train.  This would be a hybrid trip for me.  Virtually all trains in Europe not only allow you to carry your bicycle on them, but they make it very easy.  Some trains in the Czech Republic have special bicycle cars with specific space for bicycles.  The cyclists can sit next to their bikes, work on them, and chat with other cyclists.  Can you imagine the United States having a real national train system with bicycle support?

From the Vienna train station I rode my bike to a very good hostel with private rooms.  From there, I spent 2 days visiting the famed Viennese museums.  The one that I had always wanted to see was the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  It has some of the best collections in the world of Rembrandts, Raphael’s, Vermeer’s, Bosch, and my personal favorite, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  I spent a half day there, with the audio listening device.  The museum surprisingly allows visitors to photo all works without flash.  I finally got to see some of my most favorite paintings, Peasant Wedding, Peasant Dance, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Children’s Games, and Return of the Prodigal Son series.  Vienna has a number of other fine museums worth visiting.  I rate Kunsthistorisches as one of the world’s great museums.

From Vienna I packed up my bike and left into a light mist at daylight pedaling back to Prague.  I gave myself 3 days.  I made a wrong turn early on and climbed a very large hill to the west of Vienna, instead of going around it by following the Danube.  From here on to the border to the Czech Republic, I had solid rain.  In the past, I have ridden in rain for days at a time.  So I just bore down and pedaled.  As I approached the Czech border, the road narrowed, and then finally, the shoulder disappeared.  I had speeding vehicles on my left shoulder splashing me consistently.  The riding was fine and I could live with the rain, but not the vehicles.  I was worrying, and this was not fun.

When I got to the border, it was heavy sheet rain and there was a very long line of cars.  I rode to the front, getting wide-eyed looks from the drivers.  They would open the doors of their cars and run wildly the 5-10 meters to the customs agent in the rain.

The border had a circus park amusement aspect to it.  Casinos, theme parks, carnivals.  I decided to find a room, but they were all taken, so I continued riding to Znojmo (don’t ask me to pronounce it).  As I was riding along, I saw a woman standing alongside the isolated roadside in the rain with an umbrella.  There was no bus stop.  I continued on until I saw a few more women standing along very isolated sections of the roadside.  One of them shouted something to me as I passed.  I stopped and we tried to speak.  She said a few things in broken German and English.  I asked where she was from.  I understood her to say that she was Russian.  “What do you with bike in rain?”  She pointed to my wet poncho with a half-wet cigarette and laughed.  Her face would have been pleasing except for her hard eyes.  “What do you stand here alone in rain?”  She lowered the bust line of her dress and laughed.   “Must work.  Man come soon for money.”  Ohhhh.  Was I slow to get it.  As I passed more women down the road, I asked them where they were from.  Mostly they were Russians, with two Romanians.

Later I met a Czech couple who told me that women lined up along all the roads coming from Germany and Austria into Poland, Czech, and Hungary, waiting for the moneyed West Europeans to drive by.  I wondered if these women knew what they were getting into when they ‘went west’.  Were they promised jobs, and then sold into debt slavery?  I had heard of many tales like this.  I wanted to ask.
Next morning I set off at sunrise to Prague.  10 miles out of Znojmo and I was again into solid sheet rain.  Could I get to Prague by bike?  Yes.  Would it be fun?  No.  So I turned around and rode back to the train station in Znojmo.  5 hours later, with quick excellent service, I was in Ceske Budojovice, the capital of Bohemia, and home of the real Budweiser brewery.  Bohemia is where most Europeans agree that the best beer is made.  I took the tour at the brewery to find out.  Yes it is fine beer.  Yes I’ll have another.  But the best brewery I have ever visited still is the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.

I rode leisurely back to my pension in the rain the check out.  I loaded up my bike, took it out on the streets, and it was chilly with solid rain.  So I rode to the train station, right up to the bicycle car and checked in.  Thus ended the bicycle part of my trip.


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