Feels like heaven

13-08-2006

Every summer the last few years my wife and I have regularly planned vacations around the Czech Republic and areas we've travelled through have included southern Bohemia, the Moravian wine region in the southeast of the country, and the Czech-Moravian highlands. Each year we take mountain bikes as our main means of transport and combined with the railways the match-up usually works great: many trains offer special cars for bikes now and the system works fairly well, as long as you remember a few important things.

For example, if you're taking the train back - absolutely, positively reserve room for your bicycle in advance. Otherwise, you may find yourself stranded at a station in the middle of nowhere on a busy Sunday, when the train conductor may tell you the bike car is full and that's tough luck.

We've seen it happen on some busy routes, made busier these days by ever more happy cyclists; we've seen people stranded in the sticks.

But, recently booking space for our bikes alone hasn't been enough. It happens we learnt the hard way we should also be booking seats for ourselves well in advance. One recent misadventure took place along the "notorious" Tabor route, where trains are often stacked full of young people returning from weekend jaunts. A Sunday or two ago, we almost didn't get on. It would have been funny if the train had left with our bicycles that we'd stored just seconds earlier!

Getting on, with the train threatening to pull out, we had little choice but to put politeness aside and squeeze and bash our way through more than half a dozen other unfortunate people just to make sure we fit. Then, we spent the entire trip squashed in the train car's hallway, staring at each other: everyone sweaty, tired, and breathing in the fumes from the car toilet, wishing and wondering why we'd forgotten and not reserved a seat - or not taken the car instead. I'd take the car, if we had one!

Instead, I spent the ride squeezed at an odd angle, one eye pressed against the glass watching the Czech countryside fly by. I saw... snails racing along in adjacent fields. An 80-year-old lady with a cane who beat us to a nearby town. A lame dog chasing its tail that got further.

At the few stations where we stopped...

...nobody bothered to try and board our car. One look at my smiling face in the window did it. The one time the door did open we overheard a conductor telling disgruntled backpackers not - I repeat - NOT to take the train if they didn't like it. Well, they must have taken his advice, they didn't!

But, by then we were almost in Prague more than 40 minutes late! In the end my wife and I made it, though in truth I think our much-adored hunks of metal travelled in greater comfort. Oh well, the point is we survived!

To be honest, I love cycling around the Czech Republic - and I usually, usually don't mind taking the train. But highly recommended are those reservations. Oh, you don't mind standing in a stuffed hallway, beating back "toxic" washroom fumes, staring at ten other dishevelled and furiously-squeezed strangers and are willing to pay for it?

Well, you might just have a point: when you get on your bike after that, it truly feels like heaven.

13-08-2006

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