Czech Republic… The first few days of the trip were a fairly monotonous blast on the motorways across Belgium and Germany; places we have visited before so the plan was to get through and on to new lands. The roads were heavily congested and it wasn’t until we spied some accidents in the opposite direction that we fully appreciated the volume of traffic on this major east-west artery. First-up, a lorry fire with the whole engine compartment burned out leaving the shocked driver and a bunch of firemen staring at the blackened, gaping maw at the front of the artic’ and a four-mile queue of stationary traffic that was lengthening as we rode by. The second was even worse; various lorry parts sticking up at incongruous angles above the high hedge in the central reservation suggested a monstrous pile up, this time with a tail back of over six and a half miles in the scorching afternoon sun.
Going our way, the most we encountered was a bit of early morning rush hour congestion around Wiesbaden and Frankfurt. What struck each time was the sheer number of lorries piloting this east-west traverse. They totally block the inside lane reducing the motorways to the outside lane(s) only for cars and bikes. Being limited to 60mph these lorries drive nose-to-tail and it’s not hard to imagine how difficult it must be to maintain concentration for hours on end, every day for the drivers. One lapse and… well, we’d seen twice what happens.
Bypassing Nuremburg set us on the E-50 running east to the Czech Republic and all of a sudden the stressful traffic in the west magically disappeared. It was a beautiful road winding through the rolling countryside and pine forests of the Oberpfalz. It even had a name; ‘Via Carolina’ an ancient trade route linking Nuremburg with Prague.
Crossing the open border into the Czech Republic we stopped to enquire if we needed a ‘vignette’; a tax disc for using the Czech highways. “Motos free from tax in Czech Republic’ said the smiley man at an exchange kiosk. Fourteen miles out from Prague and we’re still on an empty highway. I thought of London and what that would mean; M25 to city centre; how many hours at 4pm? Suddenly the motorway ends and GPS says we are only a few miles from our city centre apartment. In no time at all we are crossing the Vtlava river and follow the line of the Charles bridge, an arched finger pointing out the delightful skyline of Hradčany castle and are blown away by the fairytale beauty of it all.
A couple of days mooching Prague (see the gallery) found a trashy ugliness there, a complete contrast with that first observed beauty. There is mindless graffiti everywhere and I’m not talking your Banksy clever wall art here. There didn’t even seem to be a repeat theme, a political slogan or motto, just moronic outbursts from a spray can. In places they’d even graffitied the wooden frames and glass of the windows themselves. Then you turn a corner and you are back to that architecture of such outstanding beauty. Prague really is a beautiful city in spite of the vandalism…
Good beer is also on tap; the Czechs supposedly drink more per head of population than anywhere else in the world. It’s cheap too – a ½ litre costing less than a quid. We rose 5am one morning to nip down and take some photographs on the famous Charles Bridge. The previous day and it was a complete morass of tourists from every corner of the globe, all compacted onto this thin pedestrian span. Wandering the streets of early morning Prague, we encountered a number of zombie, up-all-night stag / hen revelers, most of them in a sorry state and looking for somewhere to die. The early start was well worth it to catch the golden rays of dawn backlighting the bridge and then we meandered on up to explore the deserted castle for amazing views over the city.
The motorways may have done their job to get us quickly to these new lands, but they left no impression of the places we’d passed through other than differing combinations of speed and traffic. Leaving Prague the trip has now settled to a gentle pace as we headed east finally on back-roads with that golden rolling countryside continuing and gradually climbing towards Slovakia.
Our last stop in the Czech Republic was a rather quaint little apartment in the town of Olomouc (pronounced ‘Olomouts’) and we had duly instructed the GPS to take us there. Our destination proved to be a large apartment block in an area full of tower blocks in what in Britain would be termed a huge ‘council’ estate. This couldn’t be right, could it? It was supposed to be a 15-minute walk to the city centre yet there was neither onion-dome nor church tower in sight. We double-checked the booking details; postcode, street and house number were all correct. We called the owner and five-minutes later a tall young chap by the name of Dominik arrived and took us to our home for the evening. Our young host made us feel very welcome with some fresh and delicious apricot cake made by his mum and introduced us to Kofola; Czech’s very own cola drink.
Wandering up into the centre of the old city (it was indeed a 15-minute walk), we found it mostly closed, as it was early Saturday evening. Over a beer in the main square, we pondered the outcome of this day on the road. The apartment was a gem of a find but not somewhere we’d have thought of looking for an overnight stay. What did strike us was the huge contrast here with the ugly side of Prague; Czech council estate v’s Bohemian capital, which one would you expect to be in a bit of a state? In the housing estate, the brightly painted apartments were all in pristine condition. There was no graffiti anywhere, grass was trimmed and the tree-lined avenues were immaculately kept. The people too have been friendly and smiling and life seems good.
Tomorrow the journey continues into the splendid mountain vastness of Slovakia.