Biking From Salzburg to Prague
Come hills or high water, Lisa Schwarzbaum and an old college buddy were determined to bike from Salzburg to Prague—with nothing but a GPS device to guide them.
You know how sometimes you make ambitious travel plans and the trip turns out to be even more delightful than you ever dreamed possible? Every adventure you anticipated lives up to your expectations, everything you didn't anticipate turns out to be even better, and the weather is picture perfect from start to finish?
This isn't a story about one of those trips.
It begins like this: My boyfriend and I were supposed to go on an eight-day bike trek from Salzburg to Prague organized by Top Bicycle, a Czech company that specializes in self-guided itineraries. We'd be relying on a GPS throughout the journey, and as the grateful owner of such a satellite-driven gizmo in my car, I was intrigued by the idea of trading badly folded maps for a GPS clipped to my handlebars.
But as soon as I booked the trip, the relationship went irreversibly south and...well, never mind. Instead, my best friend, Donna Zalichin, said she'd be happy to squeeze in some training rides, wave good-bye to her husband and kids, and pedal off with me into what was supposed to be early autumnal sunshine.
"It's his loss," she said. "But you'll be in charge of the GPS stuff, right?"
Right. The beauty of the Top Bicycle plan is that the company books the hotels, transfers your overnight luggage in a van, and provides the bikes, helmets, water bottles, and assorted repair gear. And—this is crucial—Top Bicycle also supplies the preprogrammed GPS consoles, a local cell phone, backup maps, and precise cue-sheet route descriptions bound into a spiral notebook ("kilometer 13.1, turn right after church"). On Donna's and my to-do list: Find day packs and muster the leg power needed to roll from place to place. We were expected to cover an average of 35 miles per day, which may not be a piece of linzer torte for a weekend joyrider like me, but it's certainly doable—with plenty of stops to admire churches, castles, and chocolate shops along the way.
Getting in gear
So that's how Donna and I found ourselves in Salzburg on a mild but gray October day, lugging suitcases filled with moisture-wicking, super-synthetic, long-sleeved shirts; padded-crotch shorts; stiff-soled bike shoes; fleece vests; and lots of sunblock. Our destination was the Best Western Hotel Elefant, where we'd shake off any jet lag before meeting our Top Bicycle contact—and our top bicycles—the following morning.
Turns out we could have skipped the sunblock: Rain spattered the windows of our taxi as we headed for the hotel. "How long are you ladies here?" asked the driver. (His excellent English had followed him from his home state of Michigan when he moved to Austria a few years before to play soccer.) "Eight days," I replied. "That's too bad," he said, shaking his head. "Cold rain is forecast straight through to next week!"
After dropping off our luggage, we pulled on our windproof parkas to visit Mozart's birthplace—a must for this classical-music major who can still sing the alto part of Mozart's Requiem. Today, the composer's former home looks more like a trendy restaurant; golf balls decorated with Wolfgang's likeness were selling like hotcakes in the souvenir shop.
The next morning, hyped up on Kaffee mit Schlag (coffee with dense whipped cream), we met up with Jackson, our patient British bike outfitter. We were, Jackson explained, two of his last clients of the season. "It's good to say that the weather is a bit unsettled," he said with British understatement. "It's a pity because, last week, we were enjoying Indian summer conditions." Donna shot me a look that translated to something between "just our luck" and "thanks for sharing." Before we could reminisce about the balmy weather we had left behind in New York, Jackson led us to our bikes and proceeded to demonstrate how to access the GPS system from town to town. "It's good to say that you can ring me anytime," Jackson said, handing me a Czech cell phone. We were eager to set off—just as some significant raindrops began to fall on our heads.
As soon as Donna and I strapped on our damp helmets, the heavens opened for a cold, hard rain. Even attired like human lasagnas in layers of shirts and pants, we were sodden and shivering. Bicycle in this pneumonia-inducing precipitation? This was a vacation, not an episode of Fear Factor. And thus, on our first day of intrepid two-wheeled adventure, the driver loaded our dripping bikes back into the van and drove us the 31 miles to our next stop, the mountain-ringed village of St. Gilgen.
We checked into the Hotel Gasthof zur Post, a rustic inn that started life as a coach house in 1330. It turns out there was a Mozart connection here, too: His sister, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl), held her wedding reception in the drawing room in 1784. After staring at the rain for an hour, we decided to venture out to buy umbrellas and sample schnapps named for Nannerl at a tiny shop around the corner. (She was, from the taste of things, apparently fond of pear-flavored spirits.) Our preparatory conversation went like this: "How many layers are you wearing?" I asked. Donna: "A long-sleeved tee, a fleece, and a windbreaker. Plus a hat and mittens." My strategy was slightly different: two moisture-wicking tees, as well as a fleece vest over my fleece zip-up.