I have been planning to visit Prague for months now. It's been high on my list of European cities to visit. I wanted to reenact scenes from Amadeus, minus the powdered wigs and nails-on-chalkboard laugh, and walk along the romantic, narrow, cobble-stoned streets admiring the Baroque architecture while drinking a bottle of Czech beer. Hand-rolled cigarette dangling from my lips. (Just kidding, I quit years ago.) The trip began as an idea while cycling and photographing along the Polish border back in June; a friend mentioned that there is a dedicated bike path from Dresden along the Elbe River, all the way into Prague. 150km, hmm... not bad. Sounded fun to ride. This trail being a part of the former East Germany and Eastern Bloc, I was also of course interested in exploring some of the abandoned spaces dotting the rail yards along the river, left standing since the fall of the Soviet Union almost 25 years ago. So my friend Michael and I, who occasionally get together for cycling-photo day trips around Berlin, decided to make Prague happen. Our first available chunk of time was in August, just as Michael's classes ended for the summer break and before I start full time work for Media Consulta. Unfortunately, the only bike I have to ride is a hefty 25-pound, 3-speed Dutch cruiser (aptly named "Tank"), with a basket attached to the back rack. No problem! Tank is a tank – I'll get to Prague eventually, but I'll just have to work a little harder, right? Right.
Photo: Self-ghosting, Pirna, Germany
One of my buddies backed out at the last minute, so it was just Michael and me riding. A Berlin friend was allowing us to stay at her Prague Airbnb, and we had no other plans or expectations for the first two days except to be in Prague by Friday night. On Thursday morning early, we took the train to Dresden with our bikes, and planned to cycle 75km per day for two days until we reached Prague. Easy, right? My camera, a couple changes of clothing, a water bottle, and food for one day was piled high in my rack basket, and off we went!
Highlights of day 1 included me falling into a hole in the floor at an abandoned warehouse outside Pirna, and almost plummeting 15 feet into the basement below. I knew the hole was there and had avoided it previously, until I was so excited about the pictures I was making that I forgot, and stepped back into it. My knee and elbow saved me, thankfully, and I had the cuts and the-mother-of-all-knee-bruises to prove it. Michael, in the same space, cut his finger open on a shard of glass as we shimmied through the window into the warehouse, and started bleeding all over the place. Not a good sign. We continued on our journey, battered and bruised, but at least happy with the photos we made. Totally worth the battle wounds.
Photos: Before and after falling down the rabbit hole, Pirna, Germany. Below, courtesy of Michael Kroetch.
Continuing on, we passed some gorgeous scenery and were charmed by the German country homes, the cliffs and forests lining the Elbe River. We lost the river path on several occasions, ended up biking on a single track path over rocks and dirt and cliffs (obviously made by other cyclists who'd been lost there as well), then found the path again, and then really lost the path once we hit the Czech border. By the time we reached Decin around 6pm, we were hungry and beyond exhausted, and ready to find a pension for the night. My tire pressure was low, and my legs were cooked from the hill climbing (and heavy load, naturally).
We ended up biking all around Decin looking for a hotel, which seemed like three large cities separated by two rivers and three very long, large bridges. The first and second pensions we followed signs for, but didn't actually find them until after we'd found the third place – two hours and many kilometers later – and it turns out the first place only rented rooms "by the hour" anyway. We got lost following the signs for the third pension, hit a couple dead ends, and wandered around an industrial area. When we finally found it, the pension was full anyway. I'm teary-eyed by this point from exhaustion, took a deep breath and decided to back-track to find the second pension again, Andy's. Well, Andy's was also full, but Andy's also had a bar – and I was thirsty! So I had a very tall glass of beer, started to feel pretty relaxed, and though the Andy's staff hardly spoke any English at all, they were really kind and helped us locate another hotel on the map.
That hotel was across town and through some less-than-pleasant neighborhoods. Michael and I hopped back on our bikes as the sun was going down. This was our last hope. The hotel was located on top of a very steep hill overlooking all of Decin, next to an old church and cemetery and surrounded by woods. I could barely ride at this point, but we finally get to the hotel and I'm so sure, so hopeful that they'll have a room for us! We walk into the bar... and the receptionist tells us there are no rooms left.
I know that we're out of options. I also know that the safest place we could possibly be at this point is right where we were: at the top of a steep hill where no one except hotel guests would walk, next to a cemetery, and surrounded by forest. Michael and I did not have blankets, so I suggested we walk back into the bar, order LOTS more beer, and drink until we're ready to pass out on the forest floor. So that's what we did! The bartender was so lovely and kept feeding us beer, and we were relieved to be off our bikes and sitting in a nice, warm bar. When last call was over, Michael and I stumbled outside, found a flat place to lay down, and curled up together for the long, cold night. Neither one of us slept very well, but I kept my eyes closed for the 7 hours and pretended to sleep. By the time the sun rose, we were ready to start the day and my legs were rested enough to continue on the journey. And what a good story to tell! Bad sleep, cold night, lots of beer – great story!
Photo: Warming myself in the sun, post-forest floor snooze. Courtesy of Michael Kroetch
We'd biked 55km by 1pm on Friday, when we reached the halfway point between Dresden and Prague – Litomerice, where the bike path marker told us that we still had 120km to Prague! How did that happen? Somehow we thought it was only 150km total between the two cities. Could that be in highway distance? It was a really beautiful, quiet morning ride along the Else in the Czech Republic though. The landscape changed the second we left Germany; this was less fancy, more real, with small, modest villages centered around a square and an old church, lots of texture, and old men drinking beer at 11am. People there were curious and friendly. I am grateful for the little towns we passed through, the gorgeous marshland we passed, and for a couple old buildings I was able to photograph that morning. In Litomerice, we collapsed in a park to rest and have lunch (the only thing available: chocolate milk, chips, and a store-bought sandwich filled with mystery meat and mostly mayo, ew and awesome at the same time), then came to the conclusion that it was just better for us to take the train the rest of the way to Prague. Tank needed a rest anyhow!
Photo: Near Lovosice, Czech Republic
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