It had been a while, and the combination of time, slight loss of confidence, some level of fitness, a major house move and a myriad of other everyday impediments had all conspired, in varying degrees, against the organisation, determination and initiative required to put together a bike tour holiday.
The days of plotting routes, throwing a change of clothes, some waterproofs and a couple of spare tubes into my Orliebs, locking the front door and cycling off somewhere scenic seemed a long way in the past. But still, the longing for that freedom, the opportunity to travel much further than possible on foot but still experience the immediacy of scenery, flora and fauna and culture in a close and flexible way still lingered.
And so, after a hectic weekend of coordinating onward and return travel, I signed up for the last place on Europe-Bike-Tours’ (EBT) final trip of the season from Prague to Dresden. Although very much a last minute decision and, even without too much scrutiny of the itinerary, this tour ticked all my boxes.
Prague and Dresden were two cities I had always wanted to visit; their Baroque splendour and influence throughout Central European history particular fascinations. In addition, they could easily be incorporated into my favourite type of European long-distance rail trip, providing the opportunity to stop off in Amsterdam and Berlin en route. And, with the clock rapidly ticking down to the removal of my treasured EU passport in 2019, it made sense to visit now, before the UK retreats into its self-imposed exile and travel restrictions are tightened.
Perhaps, most importantly, this was a guided tour; so, I wouldn’t get lost, I wouldn’t need to carry all my stuff, I wouldn’t have to struggle with oily fingers and five tyre levers if I got a puncture and I wouldn’t need to worry about where I could eat, or stay. What not to like?
Having booked through a specialist outdoor tour company in the UK, I had never heard of EBT and had no idea what to expect. I needn’t have worried – although I do have to admit to a first night of slight anxiety, having received the details for the self-guided tour and no indication when I would be collected in the morning, but it was resolved quickly next day, without mishap, other than a missed breakfast! – the hire bike fitted perfectly, the luggage transfers operated like clockwork, with the back-up van always in proximity, not just in case of mechanical breakdowns, but also as a very welcome provider of fruit, water and chocolate throughout the day.
But our guides, Lukas and Vitek, were undoubtedly the piece de resistance: multi-lingual experienced cyclists, well-informed, charming, endlessly patient and positive, both possessed a diverse and impressive skill-set that ensured the tour ran efficiently, safely and provided constant points of interest. But, equally importantly, their good humour, wide range of interests and engaging personalities enabled a diverse range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds to enjoy a very agreeable week off, as well as on, the bikes.
This tour linked two fascinating, vibrant cities with a route meandering along the Labe/Elbe, one of the great waterways of Europe, through some diverse and, at times spectacular, scenery.
But, although Prague, Dresden and the attractive border area of Czech/Saxon Switzerland, are established tourist areas, the start of the tour, to the north of Prague, passed through a region rarely visited by foreign tourists. One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was to wander around the small towns of Melnik, Litomerice and Decin, noting their impressive architecture and the changes that had taken place in recent years.
The Labe/Elbe has throughout history witnessed the constant migration of people and goods. Its strategic importance has also inevitably meant this region has suffered more from most in the turbulent history of Central Europe. The detour to Terezin, originally a Hapsburg fortress that became a Nazi holding camp for Jews en route to concentration camps during World War Two, provided perspective and a tragic and recent reminder; the many castles perched on the rocky outcrops high above the valley another legacy of the region’s tempestuous past.
The cycle route itself was to die for. Used to everyday cycling in one of Britain’s biggest cities, where dedicated bike lanes are few and often misused, where the holes in the road are as dangerous as the traffic and where you often feel every other road user is out to kill you, the long, flat, smooth, traffic-free stretches of tarmac path were heaven indeed.
As was the peace and serenity and the chance to glimpse a bird or squirrel and enjoy the subtle colours of early autumn. Berries and fruits were in abundance in the hedgerows, ripe and ready for jam/wine makers and birds alike.
Cyclists, like armies, depend on their stomachs and, on this tour, we were exceptionally well catered for. Both the lunch cafes and evening restaurants provided a range of local cuisine, and with meals in a chateau, brewery and the ride through two of the most renowned beer countries in the world, any thirst generated during the day was more than satisfied.
A few other personal highlights included: my room in the chateau, the ‘green’ ferry across the river, the walk up to Pravcicka Gate on the way to Bad Schandau, the market square in Pirna, beloved by Canaletto, and gaining my first glimpse of Dresden. the “Florence of the Elbe’, cycling along the banks and meadows of the river that has defined the city.
But above all, the trip reminded me why I love cycle touring, particularly this type of cycle touring, where everything else is taken care of and all I have to do is get on my bike and ride along excellent – preferably flat! – cycle paths to the next absorbing destination.
Many thanks to: Andy at Freedom Treks in Brighton who organised things in the UK; Vitek and Lukas for being such wonderful hosts and, finally, to all the other members of the group from various continents for being kind, supportive, interesting, great company and such fun.