Ciao to the Czechs und guten tag to Deutschland
Family reunions in Prague, racing to Nuremberg in one mad dash and salvation from madness in an Irish pub
So we’re currently recovering in the chilled-out university town of Heidelberg, after suffering from a terrible case of cycling fatigue and getting ripped-off for a few days in the most German of German cities, the bastion of Bavaria, Nuremberg.
Anyway, in this instalment you’ll get a taste of the Brothers Maycock in Prague, drinking away our five week blues with the Irish and a short visit to a Nazi stadium. Without further adieu, Czech it out below (I make no apologies for this pun)…
Two Maycocks for the price of one in Prague
As we checked into our hostel Prague we were greeted by the beaming face of Ryan, one of my oldest and best friends, and on a lesser note Iain’s brother. We told him not to hug us, or even touch us, until we’d showered and changed.
He had flown out for a mini-city-break and to enjoy our company for a couple of days, and as Iain put it, he got the exclusive chance “to be a part of it all.” Whether ‘it’ is worth being a part of, is very debatable though.
He commented on how knackered we looked, but we had just hauled our fully loaded bikes up two flights of stairs, so that was probably as much due to the immediate effort we’d expended as it was to the hard riding to Prague.
Sadly our hostel was quite quiet, so we were lucky Ryan had come out or Iain and I would have been left alone to drive each other slowly mad in the beautiful backdrop of Prague. I suppose it’d be like a less funny, less gangster version of “In Bruges”.
But Ryan was there, so instead we went out for many enjoyable cheap beers (the beer in Prague is cheaper than soft drinks) and strolled around the winding streets of the old town chatting bollocks as only two Maycocks and a Martin can.
Prague sits astride the Vltava river with a mercantile city on one bank and a heaped up pile of palaces, castles and cathedrals n the other. It was once upon a time the capital of the old Kingdom of Bohemia, but has remained an important city throughout its history, avoiding any relegation to a provincial fate.
As a consequence it has a fine collection of architecture spanning every era from the early medieval through to some flourishes of Gaudi and Gehry. But, given this continuous status as something of an urban node, it’s remarkable that the city’s old town has remained one of the best preserved of any of Europe’s ancient capitals.
It’s this taste of a medieval never-never-land that is the draw for tourists from all over the world. Though these tourists, unlike the lost boys, have definitely grown up (and old). There are hordes of them. Flooding in from every corner of the Earth. Wandering about wielding selfie sticks and go-pros, documenting every waking moment to bore relatives back home with.
I’d say this detracts from the charm of the place, but the twisting streets with renaissance porticoes, looming Gothic towers, painted merchant’s houses, baroque churches, flashy theatres and the occasional shabby art-deco edifice have enough charisma to handle endless posses of wide-mouthed tourists that move with all the purpose and self-awareness of a fat bumblebee in late-summer.
Though, I have heard if you head to Prague in July or August the clammy heat of the city and the unrelenting crowds can make the place a cocktail of unbearable humid humanity.
We did our best to take it in. To tick the boxes so to speak and feel we could claim that we’ve “been there”
After our wanderings, I took myself to write the last instalment of the blog in the cubist style “Grand Orient” café, which is apparently a work of note in art-history, having played a formative role in the evolution of this relatively obscure branch of modernism that sits somewhere between art-deco-decadence, quirky art-nouveau and the clean orthogonality of the internationalist style.
But, aside from the architecture, the cafe offered cakes that were works of art in and of themselves and there was cheap coffee you could drink in a peaceful quiet lounge upstairs, all of this did help indulge a brief fantasy of feeling like a proper writer.
Iain and Ryan left to do some fraternal bonding, which apparently involved going up a tower. Iain has described this to me by saying:“yeah it was pretty good” and “they just let you stand on the roof”.
Though, the Maycocks are a family with the psyche of engineers; they’re the boys you’d ask to build you a tower, not the ones you’d want to describe it. So I’m sure said tower offered thought-provoking and beautiful vistas over the city.
Sadly though, there was nothing like the Bacchanalian events of Bratislava going on in our hostel. The best on offer were a few 19 year olds having a particularly 19-year-old conversation around how a hip-hop album had changed one of their lives. I believe this was an attempt to impress a statuesque Parisian beauty with knowledge of an urban art form that was likely outwith his homecounties accented idiom, but we’ve all been there.
Listening to this, we politely decided we didn’t want the best socialising that was on offer, to paraphrase Ryan, “anyone who says an album changed their life is probably a cunt”.
Eventually the time came to say goodbye to Ryan. We apologised for the lack of riotous events (sadly adventure isn’t really something you can always conjure up), he said he understood and also emphasised how tired we both seemed, saying I should mention that more in the blog.
And to corroborate this, that night we just ate a huge portion of Iain’s signature dish (500g of penne, a jar of pasta sauce, four tins of tuna and two tins of sweetcorn) and zoned out watching TV in our room.
Czeching out (yes I’m using the same pun twice)
We headed out aiming for Nuremburg and cut right through the Czech countryside in a straight line. I did my best to pick a manageable route, but still we were met with hill after hill after hill.
We reached the famous brewing town of Pilsen, where we wolfed down hearty Vietnamese meal before pitching up behind a rubble heap on a building site on the outskirts of town. This was a more pleasant campsite than it sounds. As it had dry flat earth, with short grass, we got a good dose of morning sun, we were hidden from the road and there was an easy path to wheel our bikes down.
Iain said if someone pitched up on a site he was working on, everyone would find it hilarious for a moment, but mostly not give a shit and get back to work. But we were worried that we were close to Germany so some caring about petty rules might have bled through the border.
Escaping the Czech Republic presented us with one of the hardest days of cycling out of the whole trip, as we bashed out 100ish kilometres. We at least had the wind with us, which was of some help, but the highest climb up to 700 metres was a bit of damned bastard.
At least as we neared the top the views were incredible, with what looked like the whole of the Czech Republic stretching on for miles offering us one last glimpse of what we were leaving behind. I took a long look, and a relatively philosophical moment came over this very tired man, as I thought that this might be the last time I’d ever see this view, so I should drink it in.
After the punishment of the Czech climbs we raced downhill into Germany, then promptly went up another long steep hill, and so the process continued, seemingly without end.
Eventually as dusk began to fall and ominous clouds gathered, we reached a “campsite”. But it looked like a Fort Knox inspired caravan farm and there was not a single tent in there, our we’ll be “ripped-off by the caravan club” alarm bells started ringing.
So, we debated the pros and cons of either camping on a grassy patch behind a parked lorry in a public carpark opposite the caravan fortress. Or going back to camp in a sandy patch left behind from a bonfire in a field by the cyclelane about a mile ago. The carpark won on the grounds that “it was right there”.
We were nervous about being hassled, as this was our first night Germany, where in our experience the citizens are diligent and any bystander will politely, yet firmly, inform you that you are making an infraction upon the local bylaws.
With this in mind, we prepared a number of excuses ranging from the believable “the reception was closed” (the logic of which we reasoned would please the average Bavarian busybody, ie we only didn’t obey a rule out of fear of breaking another rule), to the absurd.
At the more elaborate end of the excuses, we imagined a scenario where Iain was a foreign cycle tourer, pitching up his tent, and I’m another cycle tourer who stumbled across this scene and tell him off with words to the effect of “it’s people like you who give bike tourers a bad name”, whilst he pretends to speak neither English, nor German just going; “scusi, scusi, me scusi”.
We also prepared our old faithful excuse, where we both just pretend to be rude aloof Frenchmen.
In the end, we were left completely alone and even enjoyed a bit of a lie in, because when we woke up it was chucking it down with rain. So we napped and waited for it to ease up before doing our best to avoid getting wet as we packed up.
We’ve resolved to be a bit more brazen with our free-camping in Germany, as people don’t actually seem to really mind, provided you’re quiet, clean and leave early the following morning.
Nuremberg — ripped off and bummed out
Upon reaching Nuremberg we checked into a truly terrible hostel.
If this place ever had a soul it had been sold to whatever corporate Sauron wrought the spirit of Ryanair, and the A&O Hostel Hauptbahnhof has been warped into a being whose sole purpose in life was to squeeze every last penny out of desperate travellers with no-where else to go.
The price of a dorm bed was roughly double what you’d expect, the beds and mattresses looked like they had been bought from a prison supply wholesaler, the manager was rude, there was no wifi, the breakfast cost extra (anything nice cost extra), the bar was unwelcoming and hot, and the receptionist looked as if I’d kicked a puppy when I asked if we could store the bikes inside anywhere.
As ever, hostel life gave us an odd selection of roommates, one was a friendly Syrian man, he was an eye doctor in Nuremburg for a conference (he explained the college of eye doctors were “misers” and only offered this hostel for accommodation).
And there was middle aged couple who I can only assume ended up staying in the dorm bunks as a result of a serious booking error, or else were on the worst romantic city break of their lives.
Expanding on thi,s I said to Iain [in my strong independent woman voice, which Iain has pointed out sounds like Catherine Tate’s Derek]:
“Now, I’m a strong independent woman, and you know I believe in paying my own the way in the world…BUT, and not being funny, BUT, if my man, took me, to a *hostel*, for a romantic city break, just well, well, let’s just say, I would not be happy, and there would be talking, lot’s of talking.”
We spent the evening moping around the walled old-town sitting on various benches. Iain claimed he was hoping to meet a posse of fun-lovin’ chilled-out Aussie backpackers “because they get everywhere”, claiming that he was either going to go out-out big time or go home. However he neither looked, nor acted, like a man who wanted a big night out.
Which leads neatly to the point that Ryan was saying I should emphasise more. We’re absolutely tired all the time. Exhausted. Fatigued. It transpires that cycling over massive hills for over a month, carrying your life with you, keeping Iain entertained, having to plan everything on the fly, kind of takes it out of you both physically and mentally. Iain commented:
“Can we just draw a chalk mark here, take a week off and come back?”
I think we’re just in a lull. It happened on our last tour across Europe at around the five week mark, but hopefully we’ll get back into the swing of things again soon. I’m doing my best to find a river course we can follow to Heidelberg to make the going a bit smoother.
Anyway as much as rip-off Nuremberg was, we were too tired to plough on and coughed up another €30 each to stay in a different guest house rather than return to our prison-grade hostel and had a day meandering around Nuremberg.
We decided we should go take a look at the Zeppelin Stadium, a relic of Germany’s Nazi history, created for the rallies you see in all the school history text-books. It remains more or less intact as it is apparently too difficult and/or costly to demolish. Effort has been put in to treat the place with as little reverence as possible, and it seems they’re hoping it’ll eventually just decay into the oblivion it deserves.
Fortunately, a bar tender at Nuremberg’s Irish pub, where we went for a much needed spiritual fry-up (this was required for both mental and physical reasons, to quote Iain “if I was only allowed continental breakfasts for the rest of my life I think I’d just die”), warned lain to not goosestep or do any Hitler impressions there.
Besides the obvious reasons to avoid doing this in Germany, there’s an on-the-spot fine of €1000, which is apparently enforced by secret non-uniform police (which ironically seems a tad gestapo-esque).
It’s just as well Iain was told this as he didn’t believe me it was illegal to do that here. I think this is fair enough, but Iain says “we should be able to laugh at it, it’s the best way to take away the power and respect of the thing”, which is also a good point.
Anyway, I just sang a rendition of “Hitler has only got one ball” as I strode around the podium, which seemed a fitting tribute to the fallen friends of our collective grandparents (and other such Churchillian platitudes) as well being as much of an insult to memory of the trumped-up absurd aberration of Nazism as I could muster at that moment.
We’re back on the road tomorrow and heading on to Heidelberg, hoping the hills will ease off as we edge ever nearer home.
The luck of the Irish — an unexpected addendum to this entry
Iain stared at me balefully as wrote this, assumedly missing his customary free tour, hostel friends to talk to, or having something else to entertain him whilst I write-up and plan our lives.
I gave him my phone to watch videos on, but I’ll concede it’s a poor substitute for conversation with someone other than me (which we sporadically need for mental-health reasons). So we set off to the same Irish pub where we were served our spiritual fry-up and sage advice earlier.
As we walked in we heard a loud, Irish accented:
“Look, it’s the big bastards on the bikes!”
It was our bar tender from this morning, now off-duty and mildly soused, he welcomed us in and introduced us to his friends. We learned his name was Paddy and he had moved to Nuremberg 13 years ago.
We stayed until late, talking about a mixture of nonsense, rugby, motorbikes, and what we needed to learn about German culture from an Irish expat.
Relaxing with a few drinks and good conversation gave us a much needed break from the lonely monotony of travel, as even the best adventures can wear you down round the edges.
The road to Heidelberg — banishing the blues on the Neckar River
I had put some considerable effort into finding a route that we ‘d find a bit more pleasant after our struggling over hills had began to sap our spirit for cycling.
I discovered if we took the train south, whilst it’d take is in the wrong direction to go home, it should give us a pleasant few days cycling along a river valley instead of up and over the undulations of Germany’s crinkled terrain.
So we dragged our hungover bodies to the small village of Braunsbach, were we spent the night in a rather pleasant bunkhouse by the river, sleeping a solid 11 hours as a thunderstorm rumbled over and away from us.
Then we raced 120 kilometres to the outskirts of Heidleberg, enjoying the picturesque small towns and pink-stone castles of the forested deep-valley of the Neckar River.
We sneakily erected our tent at around 9pm, in a small field by the river, it was strewn with what was either decomposing mown grass or old horse-shit, a lengthy debate ensured over which it was, but we were tired and pitched up anyway.
We discovered the tent was still damp from the rain a few nights ago and a heavy dew was already settling in. We resigned ourselves to getting a bit wet and slept soundly as dusk turned to night and the river rolled by, disturbed only by the chattering of birds or the rumbling of a cargo train on the far bank.
When we awoke the scent of rotting grass had added to the cocktail of odours that clung to our bodies and gear, which included insect repellent, three days’ worth of stale sweat, general damp, sun lotion, old-socks, fart, and a healthy dose of “man”.
We concluded this is the worst we’ve smelled thus far on the trip, and showering and washing was needed as a matter of public health as much as personal hygiene.
Having checked into the charming Steffi’s Hostel in an old tobacco factory in Heidelberg, we’re now washed, clean and feeling generally much more upbeat about life on the road.
Our next stop will be in France and the final leg of our journey will begin.