#18 Czech Republic (available 11/16/03 )
While in Poland Bill teasingly asked if I’d like to visit the Tatra Truck Museum in the Czech Republic and I surprised him with a resounding “Yes!” I am hardly the car, train, and plane fan that he is but Tatra trucks are one of my roadway companions. In Italy and Germany the first year it was the brilliant orange poppies that accompanied us for months; along the slow moving rivers of central Europe it was the baby swans, the cygnets, that we were eager to spot; and on our previous 2 visits to the Czech Republic, it was the Tatra trucks that I noticed over and over again. These often monstrous, ugly, and battered trucks rumble along looking like they were all built in 1950 and that they must require a bit of athleticism to wrestle on the road. Part of my secret fun in visiting the Tatra Mountains was to see the namesake these trucks, so the prospect of going to their museum to meet the whole family only expanded the fantasy. Oh, what a commentary if the Tatra people do a better job with their museum than the Ferrari folks did in Italy.
Gleaming replica of Tatra's first car.
-Koprivnice, The Home of Tatra Trucks-
Wow! That Bill sure knows how to thrill a girl. The for the $2 entry fee the Tatra folks delivered what the Ferrari people didn’t even get close to providing for $10. The Tatra exhibit included a fully-functioning exact replica of their first auto built in 1897 (which also appears on the city’s escutcheon [shield]) and displayed 75-100 more vehicles. In contrast, Ferrari only displayed 15 or so cars. Plus, the Tatra museum had 30 short videos available for viewing in 3 languages, including English, of which we saw 5. They also had a dozen or more chassis’s and engines on display to illustrate design changes over the years (like leather boots on the drive train). And the vignette of an early repair garage with a partially disassembled vintage car was a nice touch.
We must have been the only guests quietly giggling—both at the silliness of actually thinking such a museum was exciting and at the surprising awesomeness of their really big trucks. These guys are still building monster-trucks, one’s that expose US monster trucks for the ‘posers’ that they are. These dudes won the Paris to Dakar rally for the first time in 1988 while the crew was on a 3 year world tour from 1987 to 1990 and have won it 4 more times. You know these are serious competitors when they list the blood types of the crew on the cab door. I couldn’t help but laugh at my strong image of antiquated old Tatras when I looked at these serious, competitive machines called “Grand Tourist Caravan”. (A 1959 model took a group of students into Africa to deliver medical supplies at a Schweitzer hospital.) And they build other huge trucks that are still raced on European tracks, though the thought of racing these huge trucks seems utterly bizarre to me.
A close-up of those blood types....
Paris-to-Dakar champ from the Grand Tourist Caravan line.
I quickly learned that Tatra has a long history in the racing field and not just with trucks. We saw a number of Tatra sports cars and racing cars as well as passenger models and limos. In addition, they also manufactured railroad coaches and airplanes in their long history that began with horse drawn carriages in 1850.
But trucks have been their mainstay. Their first model was introduced in 1898 and had part of its engine’s air cooling system on the roof of the covered cargo area. Their air-cooled engines proved their merit in the harsh winter conditions on the Russian front during WWII. And Bill was dazzled by this 1943, 18 cylinder, air-cooled engine on display.
This 18 cylinder air-cooled engine would make your VW fly.
They began producing indestructible, all-weather, all-terrain vehicles before WWI and continue to do so into the 21st century. By the late 1930’s their trucks with wheels, not tanks with tracks, could clamber up a 34% grade and later models maxed-out on 58% grades. One video showed a relatively early open-air model truck rumbling along underwater—the water was armpit-high on the driver. And their 10-wheeled, 2-axeled all-terrain trucks were amazing to watch on the videos as they climbed up stairs and steep banks, rode along with one side of the vehicle in a deep trench and toppled low-brick buildings in their path. One model even had an extra pair of smaller wheels mounted about bumper height to help hoist the front end up out of ditches as it ground its way through the muck. These 1940’s model Tatras made the US military’s recent Hum-Vee’s look like Tatra feed.
The entrepreneurship and creativity of the Tatra people was inspiring. We laughed and gasped at the prototype in this photo. Yes, the 1942 contraption has 4 skids, a propeller, and a drum-like roller that was used both for power and braking. We assume it was designed for use on snow or ice and that it never made it into mass production.
|What a Tatra!|
We barely satisfied ourselves with the 2 hours we had to visit the Tatra museum and rushed back to the room to admire our photos and souvenir postcards, still giggling at the absurd fun of it all. If they weren’t closed tomorrow (“museum-less Monday”) I’d drop by for another quick visit but today’s visit will have to do for our Disneyland-like excursion into Tatra-land.
The Dreariness Factor
In the fall of 2001, the Czech Republic was our first encounter with Eastern Central Europe (ECE) and the dreariness that have we assumed is a remnant of the communist era. We felt pretty clobbered by it, especially in the northwestern agricultural region where we entered and spent so much time. And yet on this our 3rd visit to the Czech Republic (CR) we again see that it is our favorite of the ECE countries we have visited and is overall the least dreary of the bunch.
The lush rolling hills that are covered with a mix of cereal fields and replanted forests have a welcome serenity about them that we don’t feel in the flatter, more intensely used plains, both north and south of the CR. And the towns and cities of the central and southern parts of the CR still frequently reveal their old glory days in their architecture.
Their architectural golden age began in the 1500’s, though some structures had to be rebuilt during their late 1600’s recovery from devastation by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War. And the grand building tradition continued into the early 1900’s with Art Nouveau. But whether the buildings have been restored to their original proud and colorful facades or are faded and flaking, they reassuringly speak of a lively and spirited past. Over and over again we are reminded that at some point there was enough abundance in this country for it to spill over into public spaces in a joyous way. Our dreariness scale has gotten recalibrated: when in the CR the first time the sight of so many deteriorating old buildings was depressing; now we savor what is left of the art and style that they once boasted—something that isn’t as prevalent in the other ECE countries.
A spiffed-up Czech facade.
We have struggled to understand why there is such a high percentage of Czech towns and cities with spirited architecture, especially compared to Poland and Hungary. In part, the country wasn’t as heavily bombed during WWII as some of their neighbors, but that doesn’t explain all of the differences we see. Bill’s latest theory sounds the most promising: that it was the Czech Republic’s proximity to Vienna--the power center of the Austria-Hungarian Empire—that brought it more affluence and an abundance of splendid architecture.
The Austria-Hungarian Empire was indeed powerful and had a strong influence on the region for centuries. Prague (the CR’s current capitol) was even the Empire’s capitol in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, bringing a substantial building boom and prestige at that time. The Austrian Empire only extended into the most southern fringes of Poland, though included Krakow. The Empire included Hungary but surrendered most of it to the Turks for several hundred years until the end of the 17th century, including half of Budapest. At Hungary’s request it was partially spun-off to form the Austria-Hungary Empire from the Austrian Empire in 1867 and we wonder if that also diminished some of the capital investment in the Hungarian regions. So, it’s Bill theory that the areas closest to Vienna--the strongly Austrian-controlled part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire--benefited the most from the Empire’s domination, which includes the CR.
The foreign capital investment notion is interesting when looking at the current map of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the CR. None of them are located in the northwestern third of the country where we spent so much time on our first visit to the CR. That is the area we found so discouraging and so drab. That is where we were repeatedly surprised that abandoned-looking homes were still occupied and the muddy yard areas were completely stripped of vegetation. And it seemed like everywhere we looked there was deeply rusted metal: on the fences, the utility poles, and odd metal scraps being put to a new use. The people looked fearful and cheerless and we frequently had to fortify ourselves against the heaviness of it all to continue exploring the countryside. It looks like aside from the small thermal spa towns of that region that there hasn’t ever been much prosperity in the area. And it didn’t help the health of the region that the more highly skilled Germans were kicked out or killed at the end of WWII. Whether Bill’s theory holds up or not, it is startling how many Czech towns and cities sport proud, playful architecture, often for dozens of blocks at a time.
Much of the ECE dreariness comes from the most visually oppressive remnants of communism--the endless parade of enormous gray-brown, drab buildings through out their former territories. The pre-communist era architecture is radically more interesting and spirited than that done under the Soviet influence. But the other trademarks of communism show up in the oddest places. In Olomouc, CR we were simultaneously horrified and captivated by the 2-3 storey high astronomical clock on the exterior of the town hall. Astronomical clocks, both indoor and outdoor versions, were very popular in Europe for centuries and show the positions of the sun, the moon and the stars; astrological signs; and other such information. Olomouc’s clock, which in its first incarnation dated back to the 1400’s, had been modified by the communists in the early 1950’s.
The ‘modernized’ clock no longer was bordered by the 12 Apostles which lined the arch framing the entire clock but had been replaced by 12 barefoot, downtrodden field workers using primitive hand tools. The 12 moving, three-dimensional figures are now also seriously engaged as cheerless workers in very drab, droopy clothing. They did have one panel showing a parade of townspeople in traditional finery, but they too had lost their smiles and any sense of pageantry. It was so odd to look at this clock and know from the others we have seen that it originally would have been much more colorful and playful. It no longer was intended to delight and fascinate but its artwork had been shifted to teach a lesson about good workers. Though the execution of the communist mosaic was nice, the original spirit of the clock’s artwork had clearly been sucked out of it. And often other works of art from the communist-era art grabs our attention as we cruise by, startling in its heaviness and cheerlessness.
Classic communist-era 'inspirational' public art.
In our Olomouc hotel room we didn’t bother to turn on the communist-era TV with its 8 channel selectors knowing that it likely only received a couple of stations if it worked at all. A bit music starved, I eagerly fiddled with the rare radio in the room. Scanning the length of the 4 different bands shown on the display only yielded 3 stations. Four different ECE major cities were written on the face of the dial and I assume the radio was one ‘fixed’ by the communists. In many Soviet controlled countries radio access to western stations was prevented by tinkering with the radio receivers and our old radio probably couldn’t receive any if the new stations in town.
The affects of communist oppression lingers more in the people of the CR and eastern Germany than elsewhere—most have shaken it off but others all but tremble in our presence. But despite this greater occurrence of skittishness, we have had more people reaching out to us in the CR than in any other country in ECE. More than half of the Europeans that have gone out of their way to guide us to or through the best bike route into their town have been in the southern half of the CR. And interestingly, it continues to be the gray-haired men in the CR or near its borders that are eager and willing to chat with us. The only extended conversations we had had this year with local ECE residents had been Czech’s until just this last week. Then it was an elderly Polish man who interestingly lives on the Czech border that stopped to visit. He only knew a very few English words and a few more German words but was quite intent and successful in with chatting with us one morning while we were loading our bikes. This 79 year old man mainly wanted to talk about bikes, both his and ours, but included a teary mention of spine damaging beatings while in a Nazi POW camp that continued to interfere with his biking. We treasured this and the other rare opportunities for a prolonged conversation with the people we meet on our travels and are surprised that it is most often with people substantially older than we are that will talk to us.
Back in CR
We’re enjoying being back in the Czech Republic, both for the more reassuring old artwork in the public spaces and for the kinder drivers on the road. It just took crossing the border out of Poland to feel the difference. No longer were we getting cut-off by over taking cars, no longer were so many motorists driving like they were the only one’s on the road—it was civilized on the roads again. And when we crossed back into Poland a few days later, the nuttiness immediately began again: the excessive tailgating, the reckless passing, and speeds all seemed like they belonged on a freeway and not our narrow secondary roads. And darn it if I didn’t find myself getting elbowed out of my place in the grocery store line again in Poland, even when I was actively trying to hold my own.
“What happened to summer?” we keep asking. It seemed that we went from the endless heat wave to unseasonably cool weather in a blink of an eye. Sacks of potatoes have replaced the watermelons at the roadside produce stands and we find ourselves struggling to keep warm instead of trying to come up with new ways to beat the heat. Pauses to read road signs or to eat lunch are now taken in the sun instead of the shade and the volume of water and sunscreen we use each day has plummeted. Now we think twice before doing laundry at night, evaluating the odds of our garments drying in our chilly room by morning before soaking them down. And packing has gotten more complicated. When it was hot, I wore the same set of clothes each day and in the evening I’d immediately change into a tank top and shorts and wash my riding outfit. Now, I am wearing more items of clothing each day and each night I’m digging through the rain gear poised in the top layers of my pannier for additional warm clothes to put on. No longer do the few things I need each night float on top of the pannier but instead extra warm clothes, gloves, vests, and rain gear all vie for the top spot.
European History 101
For the beginning history student, untangling the history of ECE is a nightmare. It seems that the regionalism of the history is more extreme here than in many other places in Europe. Thinking in terms of countries doesn’t cut it: I have to learn regions or sub-regions to track the stories. So Panonia, Silesia, Sudetenland, Bohemia, and Moravia are the names to know rather than Poland or the Czech Republic when reading about the past. And the history of Eastern and Central Europe is a story of constantly changing borders—we feel like we need a set of maps showing the border changes every 50 years over the last 600 years to understand what has gone on in a particular area of ECE. It is amazingly difficult for us to figure out whose flag was flying in an area at any given point in time.
And the important outside players in the dramas have shifted too. The Turks are less important and those war-like Swedes (news to us) were the ones doing the devastation in the 1600’s. And I can no longer avoid sorting out which King Charles or King Ferdinand belongs with what century or country—it matters too much now to ignore.
All of this is made more confusing by buying history books written by regional authors as their rendition of history tends have a different slant than that of western scholars. I have to be on my toes and cross-check some of the major points to weed-out the aggrandizing slant on the country’s history that I am getting from some books. But despite the confusion, we crisscross some parts of Europe repeatedly so I know if I don’t get the story quite right on the first pass through that I’ll have a second chance.
Disneyland for adults.
Sandstone Fantasy Land
We took a break from our history lessons and customary sightseeing from the saddle and spent a day hiking between 2 major sandstone outcroppings in the CR: Bledne Skaty & Szczeliniec Wielki. Once sea bottom, these sandstone outcroppings have been wind carved into various odd columns and plateaus. Apparently it is the varying hardness of the different sandstone layers that accounts for the unexpected shapes. There was an amazing jumble of mushroom shapes and tilting slabs that created an adventure park experience as we squeezed through narrow passageways; walked down steep, narrow cuts; and ogled the huge masses of rock. We often had to remove our day packs and turn sideways to make our way, sometimes scuttling with 1 foot in front of the other or ducking down low. We heard the laugher behind us as a pot-bellied man couldn’t make it through one passageway without going down to his hands and knees were the gap between the giant rocks was wider.
One of several tight squeezes.
We were especially puzzled by the inches or foot long sticks that we saw braced or leaning at the bottom of some of the tilting columnar rocks. We tried in vain to imagine how the work of the wind or water could account for the aligned sticks. Then we wondered if the park service people were making the space less inviting for the poisonous snakes in the area by creating little barriers. Fortunately a young man volunteered his English when we were discussing another question about the John Quincy Adams quote on a plaque from his1800 visit to the area. (Those Americans show up in the oddest places.) After hearing the Quincy translation, we learned that these sticks were the work of kids. The boast is that it is their stick braced against the base of the huge rock or boulder that is keeping it from tumbling down the hill. We were so grateful that he volunteered to talk to us as so often we leave areas like this with more questions than answers.
Prague was just a day trip for us this year—a day with the mission being to pick-up a much needed and difficult to find Germany guide book. Map Man needs his resources before we arrive in a country for the best crafted start of our tour. And as we learned before, getting into Prague is slow and rough going by bike and it’s an expensive place to stay, so we took a bus into the city from a town 60 miles away. Only half of our 10 hour day was spent actually being in the city, but it was worth it for another peek at it.
I had lobbied for Prague as Bill was considering possible cities for the book purchase--I wanted to see if it still ranked high on my list of visually interesting cities. After being recently under-whelmed by the much lauded Budapest and Krakow, I wondered if I now would find Prague ho-hum the second time around.
After more than our share of frustration in using the public transportation, I had my answer in the first minute after we popped up from the metro—Prague still thrills me. I immediately forgot my grumbling about the hassles of getting into Prague’s old town. Prague must have more square feet of creative facades per city block and more city blocks of them than any other city we have visited. As Bill said, “No other city has as much eye candy.” And eye candy it is. As we slowly strolled down a sidewalk looking up, the “Ooo’s,” “Ahhh’s,” and the “Look at that one over there…” rival those uttered at a stunning fireworks display. It’s just one after another and it goes on longer than the fireworks do. A part of me wished we were spending days there ogling, but another part of me knew that it is like eating a luscious dessert: no matter how much you love it, at some point you have to stop consuming.
Prague has so many stunning Art Nouveau facades. Aside from the sheer volume of them, the height of the buildings is also greater than the other Czech towns with nifty facades. Most towns have 2-4 storey facades; whereas Prague’s are often double that, further intensifying the experience.
But especially on the grandest avenues, one does have to filter out the unfortunate commercial signage that interrupts the visual play. It is easy to crop-off the street level visual junk that is the product of the very modern and all too-familiar retail marketing but it is more challenging to convince the eye to hop-over the more columnar McDonald’s signs and other’s like it. But we have learned that to enjoy Europe we often must have very active filters so to not be distracted by the unpleasant and sometimes we are more successful with that filtering than at other times.
In southern Italy, Greece and some other regions our visual filters become clogged with seeing too many piles of garbage and we ceased to be able to look beyond it. And often we have to excuse regrettable odors, whether it is too many minutes of the overwhelming smell of rotting manure in the countryside or the peculiar but distinctive whiff of unpleasant but seemingly ancient sewage-like smells that emanate out of the basements and courtyards of many European villages and cities. Sometimes it is the noise that we struggle to filter so we can enjoy what is before us. And in Prague, it is the retail signage and marketing that we have to look beyond to take in what it has to offer. Fortunately, the advertising clutter is still within my filtering capacity so I can appreciate the city’s delightful architectural elements.
Another mini-mission in Prague was to visit a museum as we realized that in our long previous stay in Prague we didn’t visit a single museum, we just satiated ourselves with the exteriors. We predictably chose the technical museum, which didn’t have enough English but nonetheless had some delights for us. Though their display of old vehicles wasn’t up to snuff with the Tatra truck museum, I was fascinated to realize that trains were developed and in use before bicycles. Looking at their transportation exhibit really drove home that most of the transportation that we know so well: trains, planes, cars, and bicycles were roughly products of the 19th century. What a whirlwind of inspiration for mobility there was then. And we were once again surprised to see that the forerunners for trains were horse drawn wagons on tracks.
One of the rewards of cyclotouring snail’s pace is being able to watch the small regional changes. In our westward meander along the mountains and foothills of northern Slovakia, the Czech Republic and southern Poland, the changing preferences in home building materials have been interesting to watch.
It was in Hungary that we finally understood that most of their stuccoed homes had mud brick instead of the more familiar and more brittle block core. It seems that all of Europe is built of stucco-covered block homes that vary from hollow red blocks to gray, concrete-looking blocks, to the newer white or pink composite blocks or traditional red brick. So it was a surprise to see mud brick peeking out from the sloughing stucco in Hungary and then to realize how widely it was used.
Czech-styled timber home.
With keener eyes, we watched for more surprises as we left Hungary. The use of mud brick dwindled and the more usual hard, brittle blocks reappeared. But just as we were getting lulled back into building-block-monotony something new appeared: squared-timber homes. These logs overlapped at the corners like an American West log cabin but the logs were all roughly milled squared instead of being left round as in the US. Like the mud brick, the more we watched for the timber homes, the more we saw them. In the lower lands of the eastern reaches of our journey they tended to be stuccoed or painted white or light blue. When we were farther west or in the more mountainous regions, the timbers were usually left uncovered but treated (with creosote??) to a black-brown color.
The gaps between timbers are usually filled with a moss or straw and mud mix. In western Czechoslovakia the gaps are often celebrated as the mud fill is coated with a harder material like stucco and then painted. White is the favorite striping color, though we’ve traversed pockets where bright yellow, orange, or green were fancied.
And as with all good traditions, there are even some ‘modern’ imitations, perhaps from the turn of the 20th century. These are dark brown, horizontally lapped siding boards that have a groove imitating the depression of mud-fill which is then usually painted a mustardy yellow.
Wood pile humor.
Aside from the home construction techniques, we monitor the transitions in other pressing matters as we ride along, like how hay is stacked. In some areas hay is stacked for drying on a tall vertical post, creating a huge mound. Other areas sport a vertically anchored branch with stripped limbs still attached to form a narrow column of drying hay. We’ve also seen horizontal rods where hay is dangled like sheets from a clothes line. Others leave the cut hay lying in the field and methodically turn it by hand or dry it on roof tops. Roofing and fencing materials, traditional patterns for painting wrought iron fences, favorite breeds of dogs, and flowers in the yard or not are all interesting preferences we watch vary from region to region. Sense of humor is a harder one to spot, but even bits of it are out there for us to discover. And then there are the other surprises like the piles of coal out front of homes; the air-to-air missile hanging on a house wall; and the rare, more exotic animals like camels and ostriches that we have seen.
The Training Table
We watch the subtle changes in the landscape and culture from the bike saddle and in the grocery stores we watch for inventory changes that affect our diet. Fortunately, we ate better this time through in the Czech Republic and Poland, which was a relief. Overall we were in larger towns more often, which meant fewer successive days of buying our food from barely lit, closet-sized markets with most of the food behind the counter. Most days we were able to get our fill of fresh or high quality frozen produce and other foods we were happy to eat. In previous years we would be selecting the best from a pile of brown spotted, rubbery carrots; diced, soup-mix frozen vegetables; and jars of canned beets or cabbage salads for too many days in a row. Expensive frozen “Fruits of the Woods” with some tasteless, fibrous berries mixed in with more palatable bits were our big treat from those little markets.
Not really our training table meal but a bakery in Lyon, France.
Though our diet was much better this year, it was pretty much the same every day. For breakfast we’d split a quart of boxed orange or grapefruit juice and a pile of muesli cereal. If we couldn’t buy a non-sugary cereal mix we would assemble our own by buying bags of rye and wheat flakes when available and spiking them with almonds and sunflower seeds (which amazingly were always US imports). Yes, it’s a lot of chewing to eat all those uncooked grains that were usually floating in water and not milk. We’d always carry extra breakfast grains in our inventory to make sure we have what we needed when the local store didn’t stock our favorites.
Lunch was usually sharing a can of the most expensive tuna we could buy that we would then spread on slices of bread or rye crackers. On big riding days we’d also split a can of red or white beans if we were still hungry. Then we’d begin munching our way through our 10 servings per day of fruits and vegetables, which at lunch was almost always carrots, and whatever else was available like cauliflower, bell peppers, grapes, apples, or nectarines. And my high point of the day: splitting a 3 ounce bar of bittersweet chocolate—ummm, I savor it long after it is gone.
Dinner was our immersion heater meal of splitting a half pound of pasta--Italian if we could get it. Eastern European pasta knows no intermediate stage between uncooked and gummy—“al dente” isn’t an option. And more than once we have left a bag of ECE dried pasta behind for a passerby when we could replace it with a bag of Italian, which is never gummy. Our most often eaten pasta meal was tossing 2 chopped tomatoes and a handful of green olives into the pot to warm just when the pasta was cooked and sprinkling the drained entree with olive oil and garlic powder. Dessert was usually cooking a big bag (1-2 pounds) of frozen broccoli and finishing up our remaining produce servings for the day.
It’s a simple, cheap, and relatively easy to find cuisine but we are ready for a change. As usually happens in a country, we find a limited selection of foods to routinely meet our dietary preferences and eat pretty much the same menu over and over. We rely on changing countries for changing our cuisine. As we move into Germany we are looking forward to adding hearty brown breads to our lunches, having less difficulty finding pleasing muesli’s for breakfast and occasionally running across a jar of yummy Italian red pesto sauce for our evening pasta. No doubt we’ll find a few things to add some variety into our lunch menu too.
We eat out very little when traveling. Avoiding beef and the risk of mad cow disease is always on our minds as is keeping our cholesterol levels down. But the biggest problem is getting the foods we need: restaurant food in the US or Europe is long on saturated fat and short on carbohydrates and produce. We need to eat a pile of carbohydrates at every meal and we just don’t get them in restaurant food. More than once we’ve eaten out and gone back and cooked up a pot of pasta for the carb’s we needed and didn’t get. (“Where’s the carb’s?” not “Where’s the beef?” is our cry at the dinner table.) We do try to do a little sampling of regional cuisine but our eating emphasis is definitely on fueling our pedaling and letting our tourism experiences be more visual and less culinary.
Decin Deja Vu
We were both a little nervous and excited to return to Decin, CR 13 months after narrowly escaping THE flood. It was on the knoll of Decin’s old town that we had planned to sit-out the flood until it became apparent that there might not be any such thing as sitting it out there. We grabbed what turned out to be one of the last trains out of town, which got us far enough away that we could then bike into the next river system before dark. Map Man’s hours of pouring over his maps to plot our escape worked like a charm and we left the disaster area behind us.
This year, we decided to take advantage of the rare opportunity to get closure on such a dramatic personal story by returning to Decin and then resuming our previously planned, scenic route to Dresden, Germany. We desperately hoped to talk to someone in Decin about the flood and how high the water rose, but from our past language barrier experiences there we knew that such a conservation wasn’t likely.
A lingering reminder of last summer's high water in Decin.
It felt a little like a homecoming as we checked into the same hotel and knew right where the bikes would be stored and where to find the “Staff-Only” shortcut-stairway from the bike area. We picked-up some groceries at several of the same shops as we did last year and headed towards the bridge from which a year ago we and many others had monitored the rising waters and had pondered what the next days would bring. The snap shots of the flood waters that we were unexpectedly able to buy at a photo developing shop told the story we knew would be hard to hear from a person. The pictures showed us exactly how high the water rose—over twice the level that it was at when we had left town in a hurry. We stood on the bridge (it held through the flood) and looked at the buildings with still-missing facades that are serving as high water markers. We looked down at the place where we remembered seeing the encroaching waters and knew from the photos that when we saw it that it was covered by less than half the 30’ above the normal water. The photos helped us understand what happened in Decin after we left and will take a place in our album for the photos we didn’t think to take at the time (we had been focused on survival, not documenting).
When we were buying the snapshots of the flood I gasped to see 2 different run away barges: one inappropriately ‘parked’ on a field after the water receded and another barge banging against the high bridge deck that was barely above water. In my last sleepless night in Decin I had feared that if we stayed in the hotel that a break-away barge would bang against the hotel. My nightmare-scenario was wrong, the hotel wasn’t surrounded by water, but those renegade barges I feared weren’t all that far away after all.
We struggled to take it all in—standing on the bridge with the slow moving water so far below us and the warm sun on our backs. Last August the rapidly rising waters were so threatening and had filled us with turmoil. We had struggled to find information in English or German to help us make decisions and in hindsight, the flood waters crested days later and feet higher than any of the predictions upon which we had been making our decisions. And on this pleasant return trip we noticed Decin’s architectural curiosities that had escaped us a year ago as we had our heads down in the rain and were focused on what was below us, not above.
11/15/03 Where We Are Now
After a very long month without our laptop and dealing with delays caused by an unusual string of health concerns we are just outside of Barcelona, Spain. We are enjoying the warmer weather with highs in the low 60's and hope the series of fierce rain storms that have been hitting the region are over.
We don't believe that we lost any data from our hard disk, which is a tremendous relief. Fortunately we had sent a backup CD to Portland about a week before the electronic glitch so the loss would have been limited. But we weren’t excited about risking losing that disk in the mail by having it sent to us, so it's great to not have to make that decision. I am busy trying to get the 2-3 additional files that are in the works out to you, including one describing the trials during our month-long black-out.
We will be in the Portland-Vancouver area from 12/10/03 until 2/9/04 and hope to visit with our Portland area friends while we retool for our next cycling season. New bikes with more available mountain bike wheels and disc brakes are in our future if things go according to plan.