Dwarfed by rock and ancient cravings.

I had thought that riding the valleys would be straightforward. How wrong I was! Very quickly the terrain has become monumental in scale, and to describe it as breathtaking would be doing it an injustice. When I rode my first gorge, it was so deep that it was impossible to look at the tops from the riding position. Human beings are reduced to a very insignificant scale.

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The sheer mass of the valley sides is impossible to show in a photograph, but to give you some idea of their size, in the following picture there is a large winding-house for the chair lift in the left third, almost invisible to the naked eye.

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The Austrians are well practiced at living and working on almost sheer slopes. I watched a tractor driver yesterday on a side slope gathering hay. I hardly dared look it was so precipitous. Local knowledge. The housing can be equally impressive. Bad Gastein is at the junction between two valleys, and consequently holds a commanding position. It must have been a popular resort for some time because many of the hotels and casinos date from the 19th century. I walked up through it because the streets were too steep to ride, and even that had the heart thumping.

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The great joy about going up on a bicycle is that invariably there is a down. Having taken the train under a mountain( which you are obliged to do as the road ends) I was confronted with this superb downhill. A fully loaded touring bike can reach some impressive speeds on a road like this, and it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

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Having made bad decisions about provisions yesterday, I found myself without food, which will never do. I decided to treat myself to a full meal, and escape my usual bland cuisine. Great decision. I have developed a craving for fat, something I don’t tend to eat much of at home. You may remember the peanut brittle episode in Norway, well this is just an extension of that. I suppose if you are shedding weight the system calls out for a rebalance, as it always did in prehistory. A clever thing the body.
Anyway, this is how I found myself seated at a table in the Landgasthof Bertahof waited on by some very friendly ladies who made the solitary traveller feel most at home.
The appetizer cosisted of several bits and pieces, one of which was Boar fat in a runny state, flavoured with chopped garlic and onion. I have never tasted anything like it. It was delicious. I couldn’t resist the Pork knuckle as a main course which came out sizzling on a stone. It was enormous, with crackling all over it. That satisfied my fat craving. The waitress even tied a bib around my neck to stop the spitting joint spoiling my immaculate dinner jacket. Probably the best meal I have ever eaten. This is all that was left of the fish soup starter.

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Tomorrow I will turn a corner and head west towards Lienz, which is a short ride from the Italian border, my final country. Somehow I feel that many adventures await me there.

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Hannes’s hospitality

Having ridden the Danube and the Inn, I am now tracking south beside the Salzach which runs north from the Alps. The last two days have been wet and to be honest unpleasant, as there is no way of drying out. The prospect of crawling into a soggy tent for a second night was praying on my mind, as I guided the bike in the general direction of the camp site. Down the hill towards me came a character who looked interesting, and so it proved to be. I knew he would stop and talk ( months on the road alone give you an intuition about people). Hannes was on his way to buy tobacco but when he saw my mud splattered bike he launched into an excited conversation,firing questions at me about my journey. It transpired that he was planning a similar venture but just needed the push to send him on his way.
“Come and see my bike” he said, taking me into the cellar of his large family home. There were about fifteen bicycles down there, mostly old steel ones of the sit-up-and-beg variety, including a Japanese post bike he bought off a farmer in Thailand. Before I knew it he had handed me a bottle of beer from a large collection on the floor. ” Stay the night” he said. I wasn’t about to argue with that offer.

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Hannes had the apartment at the top of the house. Firstly I had a piping hot bath with water heated on the log-burning cooker in the kitchen. Then more beer, and an animated conversation about all subjects. It turned out that he had been a professional chef on cruise ships and in various hotels. He had a remarkable collection of knives, some very old, and these were used to make a wonderful meal with what was lying around in the cupboards. More beer and coffee followed before the Shnapps was produced. We talked until three in the morning interspersed with Hannes playing on one of his seven piano accordians. What wonderful hospitality. I hope he makes his trip.
I have noticed more goat herds in Austria than any other country so far. Their products in the supermarkets bear testimony to this. They are intelligent creatures, and very inquisitive. Consequently this group were more than willing to have their picture taken.

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I found myself on a terrace overlooking the river and across to Germany the other day. All in the name of research and your entertainment. The cake was chocolate and cherry tort laced with alcohol of some kind. 8 out of 10.

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I passed through Salzburg in glorious sunshine today which showed the place in its best light. Riverside caf├ęs were packed with lunchtime diners and the city had a feel of prosperity about it . The castle on the hill reminded me very much of Edinborough.

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The valley has much higher ground around it now, and looking south it really feels as if I am getting closer to the Alps, which is quite exciting. I shall be riding the valley floors as much as possible for obvious reasons. There’s still a few days riding in Austria.

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Austria

It’s a short ride to the border from Vyssi Brod and the frontier posts still exist, about 200 metres apart. The Czech one is now a shopping outlet ( of course), but the Austrian building is just abandoned, which seems a shame. Even the large house behind was totally empty, falling into disrepair.

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Once over the border the change is immediately apparent, with well paved roads and an orderly feel to the place. Even the fields seem more regimented and tidier. This one in particular looked as if Julie Andrews might suddenly appear over the skyline surrounded by a band of dancing children.
I’m glad she didn’t as it might well have spoilt my day.

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This day was tailor made for cycling. Clear blue skies and a gentle breeze from the north. Away to the south I could just make out a mountain range with snow covered tops- the first of the white stuff I had seen since Norway.
A very long descent bought me down to the Danube and the city of Linz.
It wasn’t blue, more of a milky green colour, and there were no waltzing couples, but nothing is ever perfect.

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This is the home of the famous Sturgeon and very large Catfish. It’s sobering to think what monsters lurk in these deeps.
Huge cruise boats run the length of the Danube, and it must be a good way to see the views on both banks, of which there are many.

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The photos give a false impression of the weather recently. Today I rode all day in virtually continuous rain of Biblical proportions. During the one break at lunchtime I dipped back into Germany on the other bank, and the city of Passau. A great university town, it formally had a reputation for sword making.

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The Austrians not only like to decorate their buildings in a lavish style, but their rivers as well. This floating garden was on the Inn, which joins the Danube at Passau. Whatever floats your boat!

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Finally, I have had my first Austrian cake. They have a reputation for them I believe, so it would be churlish of me not to experiment further.

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A fond farewell.

It has taken me about one week to ride through the Czech Republic. In that time I have seen city, town, village and countryside. I have talked to old and young, and observed their customs and way of life, and it has definitely grown on me.
If I wasn’t currently taking heart medication, I would just cycle through the quiet lanes here with the same result, because it has the most calming effect. Very few people and fewer cars. Only the odd Alsatian to disturb the peace, and even they soon lose interest in you.

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The Czechs are great fungi foragers, and it’s quite common to see individuals emerging out of the woods with whicker baskets laden with all varieties. I saw this Chicken of the Woods today beside the road .They are delicious, and strangely taste like chicken with a meaty texture, but this one was just too close to passing traffic for my liking.

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Some of the towns in Bohemia have very grand squares, one of my favourite places. It’s a fine place to sit and look at the architecture and observe your fellow man going about their business. Easy to linger too long.

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Cesky Krumlov is one such town, and just happened to be where I stopped for the night. Tourism has probably spoilt it, but there’s no denying the grandeur of the place. History oozes out of every stone and no wonder that UNESCO have named it a World Heritage site.

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I have mastered just five words of Czech, but I have used them frequently and hopefully in the right context. As I look south towards my penultimate country, I would just like to say to the the Czechs and their country, ” Dekuji”
It has been a pleasure knowing you.

Lost and found

It seems to be very easy to get lost in the rural Czech Republic. I had a gap in the large scale maps which didn’t help, and riding down what is effectively a very long reservoir inevitably means there are some truncated roads.
Walking back up a very steep hill you have just ridden down loses its appeal after a while.

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I stopped to ask a lady walking her dog if I could make it through to the next town. She replied in rapid Czech what sounded to me like ” Give it a go but you’d be mad to try” She could of course have been saying ” I can”t stop, I’ve got a hair appointment in 20 minutes”
So I carried on until the tarmac finished, and the track became rougher by the yard until it was unridable. Eventually I was scrambling down a goat track, and a very steep one at that. Still at least I didn’t have to turn back, and I was treated to a grand view of the town from above.

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I suppose what I’m trying to say here is, the unexpected invariably happens.
It was hot today, and I was walking up a particularly steep hill (unsure of my position), when glancing to my left I saw the most perfect specimen of a Camberwell Beauty butterfly basking in the sun. By the time I had dropped the bike and readied the camera it had flown across the road into the shade, so the photograph is poor as I was sliding down the bank. A wonderful sight,
deep chocolate wings with electric blue spots and a cream border. I might have to celebrate tonight.

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The Czech countryside South of Prague is rolling and wooded and very easy on the eye. I was wandering around here in my unsure situation, and I spent a lot of the day just looking at the views. It didn’t feel like wasted time.

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My friend the Stork builds an impressive nest. In Germany they erect platforms on poles for them, but this pair had built theirs on an old chimney stack. How it stays up in strong winds is beyond me, but they obviously know what they’re doing.

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I’m back on the map now, so progress should improve. Then again, anything could happen.

A fifth country.

Without even knowing it, I had ridden into the Czech Republic and the outskirts of Decin, the first town upriver from the border. There was nothing to say anything to the contrary on the riverside path, but suddenly the signs and car number plates were different.
The ride from Dresden to this point is a real treat as you disappear into deeply cut sandstone gorges with imposing rock formations high above.
This is Caspar David Friedrich country ( he died in Dresden). The great German romantic landscape painter wandered these tops and used them as inspiration for some of his works. It was heavily overcast, turning to torrential rain when I passed through, lending to the atmosphere of the place.

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Initially, the river valley is quite industrial, and on a wet afternoon frankly doesn’t appeal much to the solo traveller. This soon gives way to a wider and leafier aspect with small villages and the ever present church as you sweep along the riverside path, past anglers catching some impressive fish. One had landed a large Carp which he was descaling. As I watched, he saw me and just said “Carp”, so it must be the same in both languages. Handy that if you ever need to buy one.

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I had planned to stay one night in the town of Melnik, an imposing hilltop settlement 40 kilometers from Prague. The view from the top is stunning, and you can see all the way to the capital. Down below the river divides, one arm stays as the Labe, and the other the Vitava which runs into Prague itself.

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Looking back up towards the church you become aware of all the grape vines clinging to the hillside. Surely they can’t need all they produce for the Communion wine? I suspect there are some fine vintages maturing away in the crypt. This town does apparently produce one of the Republic’s finest varieties.

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Prague. Everybody must have seen the pictures of this city, so I have decided not to inundate you with lots more. The centre is impressive for the fact that it’s totally original, and as far as I’m aware, untouched by warfare.
What it does have is some remarkable Art Nouveau touches, including the finest restaurant in Europe in that style ( apparently ). It was good to see.

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The centre was thick with tourists which takes the gloss of the experience, but I suppose that goes with the territory.
The top delicacy in Prague is Pig’s knees, which I declined, opting for some very good smoked sausages washed down with some Czech beer. They are very good at that.
I found the ultimate cabin by the river in Prague, which doubles as a Trojan horse if needs be, and almost became a Seahorse in 2013 when they suffered bad flooding here. Unfortunately it wasn’t for rent.

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Tomorrow I head off upriver again, riding in the general direction of Linz in Austria. There’s still much of this country to see yet.

Dresden

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The Elbe cycleway meanders across the broad floodplain, passing through small farming communities and between fields rich in alluvial soils. Easy riding this, but I’ll take that as payback for the gruelling conditions earlier in the trip.
The birdlife here is wide and varied. Storks, Cranes, Kites (Red and Black),
Buzzards, Egrets, Herons, Lapwing, Geese and Ravens all compete for airspace. It’s difficult to know which way to look and steer the bike.
Storks are a favourite of mine, they have a strange manner as they go about their business, and they make an unusual sound with their bills.
A river is a wonderful thing; it had a life force of its own. Even when it’s out of view you can smell it, and the villages you pass through have a dependency on it as they have for centuries.

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I had a mad moment in Meissen today. The town famous for its porcelain
became a tea stop, which also evolved into an ice cream extravaganza. It does wonders for those low ebb moments. Try it sometime.

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I approached Dresden under a brooding sky, which eventually turned into continuous rain. The name of this city is synonymous with a dark page in History, but when you actually arrive and wander around the streets, it has a
vibrant feel to it. Canaletto painted the city many times and my first impression was of the sheer size of the buildings. You feel dwarfed by it.

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They have made a remarkable job of rebuilding the centre. The original buildings have been sympathetically restored and the new ones are very much in keeping.

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I spent a leisurely day wandering back and forth, watching river activity and generally soaking up the atmosphere of the place.

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Dresden is one of my top ten cities at the moment, and they make a very good beer apparently, according to these locals.

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Tomorrow night all being well, I should be in the Czech Republic. Just as as I start to have a grasp of the German language, I’ll have to start again with Czech. That’s travelling for you.