What an amazing day ! This ride had everything you could possibly imagine in a single day’s riding. We left the hotel in Prague at 9.30 and quickly found our way onto a lovely bike path that followed the banks of the Vlatva River for quite some distance. Like most of the previous days of our ride, we were once again blessed with a perfect cycling day – fine and mild with absolutely no wind.
When the smooth bitumen finally petered out we continued on a rough and stony path for the next couple of km. For those who are not used to mountain bike riding this provided something of a challenge as they fought to maintain balance on the uneven terrain. At first it was a relief when the bitumen resumed, but that was only until we realised that we now had a quite steep climb through some reasonably bust streets.
We had been told to look out for small signs marking the bike path but we soon found that these signs were very much a hit and miss affair. This meant that the esteemed members of the “Route Committee” had to adjourn numerous meetings to interpret which way to follow whenever we met an intersection. This mostly resulted in a correct decision, however an unwise selection found us battling on a narrow road with a continuous cavalcade of passing heavy trucks. We were relieved to finally turn off onto a quiet side road where suddenly it was like stepping into a time warp and winding the clock back 60 years.
We passed through a succession of seemingly deserted and derelict towns. I started to wonder if the nearby Russian nuclear reactor had suffered a radiation leak and the entire area had been evacuated. Time and time again we passed huge old houses with overgrown gardens and crumbling facades. Since we had not been able to find any suitable place for either morning tea OR lunch, everyone’s throughts were turning to food and coffee. Time and time again we looked for anything that looked like a cafe, only to find it closed and boarded up. After a circuitous route throug old factories and sheds we saw a Coca Cola sign that promised that we might at least be able to get a cold drink. What we found was really quite weird. The track opened up into a large courtyard, surrounded by tumble down buildings on all sides. A couple of umbrellas suggested that there might be an eatery in the corner. Closer inspection revealed another deserted ruin with only a couple of rabid dogs barking a warning not to approach any closer. It really was a strange feeling wondering where al the other human beings were.
A couple of km further on we stumbled upon a palace, a REAL palace complete with gardens, statues, massive buildings, everything in fact except people. The sign indicated that there was a restaurant here but it must have vanished. We wandered the grounds for some time before a limping and lopsided caretaker appeared (I think his name was Igor). While exploring the grounds we made an amazing discovery. Hidden in a corner was an automatic coffee vending machine and a snack machine. Neither looked like it had been used in years,however we decided to risk a couple of coins and see what happened. To our surprise we were rewarded with hot coffee and chocolate bars. Very strange but true.This place was so macabre that I am sure it will never be forgotten by anyone who was there that day.
After leaving the palace we continued through even more derelict small towns, each one still clearly showing the signs of its Soviet history. This very much reminded me of similar towns we had seen in Slovakia and Hungary on our 2009 ride.
Although the ride was only meant to be relatively short it was not until 3.30 pm that we finally arrived at the town of Melnik and got our first view of the Elbe river that we will now be following all the way to Dresden. We stopped at a superb elevated vantage point and enjoyed a rest and panoramic view. We also took the time to visit the crypt under the nearby church. This contains hundreds of thousands of bones and skulls, all decoratively arranged and stacked to the ceiling. It would be impossible to estimate just how many thousands of people would have been burried there.
Another couple of km and we arrived at our hotel. Not a small Gasthoff, but rather a huge old soviet style health and recreation resort. Very tired looking but the room was quite OK, even if it had the lingering aroma of old cigarettes. It would be hard to imagine that tomorrow’s ride could possibly bring us so many surprises.