The land of wine, cycle lanes and border control

Published: July 3rd 2009
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SuperCity PendolinoSuperCity PendolinoSuperCity Pendolino

Quite predictably, I prefer the oldschool slam door trains to these modern ones with their god damn annoying american accent announcements ("Veen soodbanhaaarf!")
Břeclav (pronounced "brzhetslaf" by czech people and "breklavv" by american tourists changing trains from australia to crack-o) is like the Czech Republic's answer to Crewe, except with moar wine and flat. The town has three especially noticeable features: the first is the railway, being a huge international rail junction situated next to the borders with Austria and Slovakia, so any train going from or through the Czech Republic to Bratislava (and beyond to Hungary and ex-yu) or to Vienna comes through here. The second is, as mentioned, wine - the whole district is just flat, and most of the countryside around is vineyards. The third is what makes it so win - as a result of being so flat, the accepted way of getting around these ends is by bike. Bike is king in Břeclav and if you don't have one, you're weird. Source on that: my friend Gabriela, who is Břeclav břed, and the inspiration that made me choose to come here of all places for my 22nd birthday.

What took me aback about this town was exactly this. Cycle lanes! I haven't seen those in weeks! This must really be the only place in the entire Czech Republic

Church in the centre
where you see cycle lanes. The roads were almost as bike friendly as in Antwerp, which is pretty damn impressive. There was a real air of calm around the town - which I had sort of felt when I was here last summer for that hour at 5am changing trains to Vienna from Brno, though I wasn't sure at the time whether that was the place or whether I was still buzzing from Brno. It was probably a combination of both.

Another reason I like Břeclav and its surrounding region will involve me going off on a rant in order to explain it. Every travel guide about the Czech Republic will say something to the effect of "Czech people are generally very pleased and appreciative at foreigners attempting to speak their language". Let me tell you now, especially in Prague, from my experience this is complete and utter bull shit. Most of the time, people just laugh at or get fed up with me trying to speak Czech and, if they are able to, dismiss me in English or German. Obviously there are exceptions and this isn't true of social situations, but I can now comfortably not feel like
Road signsRoad signsRoad signs

except for bikes
an asshat saying this since I've been here nearly a month, and quite often this language barrier which I am so, so passionate about removing is made far worse by feeling the pressure that I'm just being a parasite on these people's existance.

This could not be less true of here though. Perhaps a result of it being a kind of extreme border town - it must be hard to live there disliking foreigners when two brands of such are just 10 kilometers away apiece! I still kept getting dismissed in English and German every now and again, but people were quite clearly pleased when it turned out I did actually know some Czech, and that I wasn't just trying to recite something written on the wall. So, this is the place to go if you ever want to practice your Czech in the real world without getting spat at.

Anyway, studying the literature in the tourist office, there didn't actually seem to be anything to do in Břeclav, all the hype was about the Lednice-Valtice cultural landscape, a UNESCO world heritage site around the area comprising two towns (Lednice and Valtice, about 8km away each) and the area in the forest between them. The tourist office also hired bikes, and this was clearly the best way of seeing it all, so I hired one for the day and got a map of the area from them with all the cycle trails marked, and after trailing around the centre of Břeclav once or twice, hit the path to Lednice.

This was easily the most pleasant cycle ride I've done in a long, long time. The path is just walking/cycling and leads through the forest (which is also a national park) and the cycle paths around here are all really clearly named and signposted, basically like normal roads. So an hour of very pleasant cycling without getting lost once later, I was in Lednice, sweating like a dragon's den contestant in a microwave since the temperature was around 30°c down there yesterday. I locked my bike up and went to see what the town was saying.

The chateau (zámek in czech) was what was attracting all the tour groups around, most of whom were German. It was an almost fairy tale like gothic building which on this particular day was covered in scaffolding - and the builders
Rune wardRune wardRune ward

The first rune is a variation on Hagalaz/Gebo used in scripts where the two letters (H and G) were interchangeable, which is a feature among Slavic languages generally.
working on the site were playing all sorts of music off their boom boxes including this ridiculous rave mix coming from one corner of the scaffolding, which amused me enough to sit down outside and read the literature about it which I'd picked up from the tourist office, but not getting very far (it was in Czech). As far as I understood, the princes of Liechtenstein in the 13th century - whose land assets then stretched far further than the little alpine blob between Switzerland and Austria today - built this castle and it was used as a summer residence for the princes who lived in Liechtenstein castle in Austria.

I didn't go inside as, like with a lot of these heritage sites in the ČR, you have to be on a tour, which isn't my thing. Therefore I took a walk around the castle gardens, which took me past this spooky little cottage with "HO" written on the door in runes (meaning "him" in czech, but with the runes signifying a very disruptive partnership and its separation) below a symbol depicting the trinity of man and woman and the sign for Mercury (communication) and with "ANO!" (YES!) scrawled in chalk on every door. My guess is that someone is having guy problems...

I took a long route to Valtice next - the quick route would have been to stay on the road, while the long route went first through endless fields on sunflowers, then over some lakes absolutely heaving with schools of fish (which apparently you can swim in if you're so inclined), right alongside the railway track from Lednice to Břeclav, then into the forest, passing various very random monuments and structures, such as "tři gracii" (presumably a monument dedicated to the three charites), a huge colosseum just in the middle of a forest clearing, and another gothic monument which looked like it may have been part of a chapel or something.

It started to get a bit hillier once I left the forest and hit the road for the last section of the journey to Valtice, and I was beginning to get a bit worn out. I went no further without some chips and kofola when I got there and then tied my bike up to look around the town. It was again very small, with a very picturesque town square dominated by a few old buildings which no doubt also had something to do with the house of Liechtenstein. The one thing that really became noticeable here however was the wine business - a wooden keg made into a sign reading "Valtice - Hlavní Město Vina" (Valtice - the capital city of wine) greets you to the street with all the Vinoteks (wine shops) selling the local produce.

One such Vinotek was doing a free tasting session that afternoon, so to my surprise I found myself joining in, despite the fact that I don't like wine! And indeed it was reiterated into me why I don't - that I do not have a taste for red wine yet, and white wine does not have a taste beyond being sour. The rosé, however, I could definitely drink without screwing my face up, and some of it actually had flavour, so I ended up taking a 90kč (£3) bottle back home with me of some of the stuff I liked. Most unexpected for an adamant non-wine drinker.

Over the vineyard-laden hills and out of the town, I reached a fork in the road and was given the choice of right: Mikulov or left:
Border CrossingBorder CrossingBorder Crossing

I went to Austria for half an hour!
Austria. Who am I not to cross a border when there's one right next to me? So I trundled past the police on this bike, showing them my passport and before I knew it, suddenly all the road signs were green and in German, and I was sailing down the hill into Schrattenberg, the small village you could see over the hill. I stopped there to read my map (and try and understand what the locals were speaking in - some dialect of German I'd never heard anything like before!) and worked out that I could probably make it to the next crossing at Reinthal, and across to Břeclav in the 2 and a half hours I had to return the bike. However, I was eventually ushered back up the hill to the same crossing point noticing that that route involved going a fair bit further south than the border, over a lot of hills and into a majorly dark thunderstorm - something which was brought to my attention by a sudden rumble from the sky.

By the time I started to wheel back through Valtice, it had started to rain, but very lightly, so pleasant for a cyclist stuck in humid 30° heat. The road from Valtice to Břeclav, which I managed to propel along at roughly the same speed the storm was moving, was the flattest, straightest thing I've seen in my life, perhaps a roman road, just an endless shiny tarmac line running through the forest. I got back to Břeclav just as the storm began, legged it back to the station, and waited there an hour as the town got drenched for my train back to Prague, enjoying the company of a barmy little old woman who kept coming over and talking to me in some Hana dialect, asking me for 2kč coins (which had a special slang name I've forgotten) to buy what she called "giňa" (bread rolls), something I was quite happy to do as talking to her was teaching me some of this dialect! Eventually the SuperCity back to Prague finally turned up, 15 minutes late crossing the border, which the train manager apologised for, informing us that it was "the Austrians' fault". Classic.

All in all a good birthday!


3rd July 2009

Birthday on the border
I like the way you gave yourself a country for your birthday. Good present. Love xxx

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