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|Bike Profile - Posted 21st December 2011|
Steve MacGregor travels east on his BMW 750 triple, surviving early morning aural assault by the Family von Trapp...
After a restful night's sleep courtesy of my earplugs, I went down to the breakfast room under the castle. Even at 07:30 this was filled with exuberant German teenagers. I'm not at my brightest in the mornings, but I was just about able to preserve my sang-froid in the face of so much ebullient good humour.
Until they started singing.
It was like being trapped with a huge, maniacally jolly version of the von Trapp family. I stumbled groggily out into the peace of the courtyard clutching my coffee, and sat there quietly while the early morning sun gradually illuminated the castle.
I rode east across Germany on the autobahn, passing through the Teutonoburger Wald, the remains of the mighty forest where the ancestors of modern Germans fought the Romans over 2000 years ago. There were frequent signs in the forested areas warning of the possibility of elk on the road. I imagine that having one of these giant creatures wander out onto the autobahn as you approach at three-figure speeds would really get your attention.
Happily my journey was entirely elk-free, and late in the afternoon I passed into what used to be East Germany near Leipzig (the line of old border watchtowers is still visible in some places) before arriving at my destination for the day, Colditz. As a young lad I spent many happy Sunday evenings watching the Kommandant and Major Mohn trying to stop lots of British stiff upper lips from escaping. So I certainly couldn't resist going to see the castle.
First impression was that it didn't look anything like I remembered from the television series. A bit of research when I returned confirmed this - it turns out that many of the exterior shots used in the television programme were filmed at Stirling castle in Scotland. Oh well, another illusion shattered. Still interesting to see, though I was disappointed to find that Colditz castle is also a hostel run by Hostelling International, so I could have stayed there, rather than at the somewhat desolate camp site I found myself in.
The town of Colditz was similar to several I saw in the eastern part of Germany - an odd and slightly uneasy mix of pre-war German architecture and squat, brutal, soviet-era housing blocks sprinkled with lots of very new Lidl and Aldi shops and MacDonalds and Burger King outlets.
Next morning I set off again east, heading for the Czech Republic. I stopped at a rest area just before the border to find out whether I needed a vignette to travel on Czech motorways. Vehicles using motorways in the Czech Republic are required to pay a fee, and to display a sticker (the vignette). These can be purchased with validity that ranges from a couple of days to up to one month. While researching the trip, I wasn't sure if this applied to motorcycles, but in the booth at the rest area I'm assured that 'Motorrad' were 'Gratis'.
Hurrah! I crossed the border at around mid-day and headed on motorway towards the town of Usti nad Labem ('nad' is a common part of Czech place names. It means 'on the'. So Usti nad Labem is Usti on the Labe river - the Labe being a large river which becomes the Elbe when it crosses the border into Germany). When I arrived, Usti turned out to be a large, dusty, largely industrial city. Many buildings were abandoned and decaying, but on the outskirts of town I passed a very large, very new Tesco superstore, with a sign exhorting me to use my Tesco Clubcard (in Czech, of course).
The roads in the city were very busy and not in especially good condition, but I navigated my way out of town without any major dramas. My next destination was the town of Decin, in the north. The twisting road followed the Labe river, on which were a number of large barges. After so much riding mainly on autobahn and motorways, it was very pleasant to be back on a smaller, slower road where I could take my time and enjoy the scenery and the experience of riding. The only minor gripe was that it was very hot and the road was very dusty.
After Decin the road became even narrower and started winding up into the mountains towards the area known as Czech Switzerland. This was very pleasant as the temperature dropped and the dust started to lessen. Traffic was heavy, but generally seemed to be reasonably well disciplined, with little of the wild driving I had read about on the Internet.
My route took me through a landscape of rolling, thickly forested hills and deep river valleys. I passed a number of small but well-tended villages. Strangely, the landscape and architecture here seemed very familiar. I know that I haven't been in this area before, and I'm not even aware that I knew what it looked like, so this struck me as very odd. The only memory I could dredge up was a very vague one of seeing something similar on television a long time ago. I can only guess that some of the terrible kids' TV which characterised my childhood (much of which originated in Eastern Europe) was set in this area or somewhere similar. A continuing concern was that I might stumble across the Singing, Ringing Tree still lurking sinisterly in some remote spot.
My intended destination for the day was a campsite in the town of Virchlabi, in the Giant Mountains and close to the Polish border. To get there I had first to cross the Lusatian Mountains, a beautiful area of rolling wooded hills and steep valleys. However, I soon found myself caught up in several very long stretches of roadworks.
When repairing roads, the job is often done by first scraping off the existing road surface (I believe this is called scarifying) before re-laying the top layer of tarmac. When the top layer is scraped off, an under surface is exposed which is made up of lots of small grooves and ridges in the tarmac. This isn't a problem for cars, but it can make a bike very difficult to control.
On these surfaces I found that the BMW wobbled continuously and started to weave dangerously at anything over 30mph. Where in the UK one might have to put up with this for a few hundred yards, here this surface continued for many kilometres at a time. I was forced to ride very slowly, and to stop often to let traffic clear which had built up behind me on the twisting, mountain roads.BMW K75 - Setting off from home...
For much of the latter part of the journey I followed the river Jizera as it wound through steep wooded valleys. However, the poor roads and heavy traffic prevented me from appreciating the picturesque scenery. By five o'clock I was hot, tired and thoroughly fed up. At the entrance to the village of Jabonlec nad Jizera I stopped at yet another set of temporary traffic lights. While the lights were red I switched off the bike and looked around, stretching cramped muscles.
Way down below me I could see a wooded valley floor close to a fast flowing river. It looked very pleasant. Then I realised that I could also see a campsite beside the river, and it seemed to have a bar where people were sitting outside in the sunshine drinking beer…
I was still 30km short of my planned destination, but I quickly decided that I had had enough for the day. The lights changed and I took the first turning in the direction of the campsite. The route took me across a railway line (not via a level crossing - the dirt track just crossed the rails) and over a very wobbly wooden bridge, but less than half an hour later the tent was set up and I was sitting at the bar in the sun enjoying a cool beer by the fast flowing river. Joy!
During my research for this trip I had read some fairly negative comments about riding a motorcycle in the Czech Republic, and so I had been apprehensive about riding there. In the event, it was better than anticipated. The roadworks and poor road surface were an irritation, but other drivers generally seemed to be considerate and disciplined.
During the evening I enjoyed a stroll round the town of Jabonlec - it's a popular ski resort in winter and a climbing and walking centre in the summer. It rather reminded me of Aviemore in the Cairngorms, close to my home. I found a small restaurant and had a very pleasant meal cooked to order for less than the equivalent of three pounds before returning to the site. I spent a pleasant hour in the bar drinking Czech beer and watching 'Allo, Allo' dubbed into Czech before retiring to my tent next to the river.
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