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.

In the evening, we ate venison and rabbit beside a crackling fire in the hotel's dining room, while outside the rain turned to serious snow. We found this hilarious. In fact, I found myself thinking how relieved I was to be on the trip with Donna, because my ex would certainly not have laughed.

We were still giggling as we scrambled to add more layers the next morning. But it wasn't until we were both fully swaddled that we took note of a sign at the front desk that predicted an afternoon high of 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Ach! With no debate, we piled our gear back into the van and hitched a ride to the provincial city of Linz, where the Mozart leitmotif of our trip continued: This is where he composed his "Linz," Symphony No. 36 in C major. And that's when something amazing happened: For the entire afternoon, nothing fell from the sky.

Donna and I nearly ran through the Mozart House museum so we'd have enough time to suit up and really test the bikes, the GPS, and our stamina for the 10-mile uphill climb toward the Czech Republic that awaited us the next day.

Spinning our wheels

At long last, the open road! There was just one glitch: I pushed the on button for the GPS and nothing happened. When I pressed it again, a map eventually came up, but I couldn't sync the program to the start of our route. "Don't look at me!" Donna said. We must have pulled off to the side of the road at least a dozen times to squint at the matchbook-size screen before deciding that it was easier to read the low-tech cue sheet booklets clipped to our handlebars. Donna, a quick study in the use of the miniscule odometers attached to our bikes, instinctively became the reader in chief. "At 0.1K, pass church on right-hand side," she yelled, cycling ahead of me. And at 0.1K, there it was!

The next morning, of course, brought more rain. Rather than walk our bikes up a wet hill for 10 miles, we took our designated seats in the van. But once we crossed the Czech border into the village of Ceský Krumlov, with its gingerbread-like châteaux and castles, we agreed that we had to get with the cycling program. And so for one whole day, we biked—all the way to Hluboká nad Vltavou. We were wet, windblown, and always too cold, but as the kilometers rolled by, the yellow bike-path signs that lined the route seemed to salute our determination. For 26 miles, we relaxed into a rhythm of passing woodlands and wild pheasant, lone farmers and old women for whom the sight of two foreign ladies on bikes in bad weather was hardly worth noting. One problem: This being a weekday in October—i.e., not exactly peak tourist season—many of the churches and castles on our itinerary were closed. The other problem: The rain blurring the already indecipherable GPS rendered it more or less useless.

Truth be told, of the 235 or so total miles we were meant to bike, we probably managed about 35 on our own leg power. The more memorable truth is that we kept devising creative solutions to keep from being rained out—and bummed out. With downpours starting up again as we prepared to leave Hluboká nad Vltavou, we figured out that we could at least pedal, even in gusts of sleet, to the train station. "Turn left!" Donna shouted into the whipping wind. "Are you sure?" I hollered. "No!" she screamed back. "OK, let's go!" Need I say that we missed the express train by 10 minutes, forcing us to wait an hour for the milk-stop local? Amazingly, we still laughed.

"Have a Mozartkugeln chocolate ball," Donna offered as we collapsed in the station. "Dekuji," I said, thanking her in my best Czech. A pantomime-enhanced exchange with a ticket agent resulted in the purchase of two seats in the not-so-roomy cargo hold of a train bound for Písek. Upon disembarking, we shrieked into the wind some more while pedaling to Hotel Bílá Ruze—where the concierge looked none too pleased when we rolled our sopping bikes into the lobby. "Verboten!" she chastised. Of course, she didn't know the troubles we'd seen.

Torrential rain followed us from Písek into Prague, where we took a walking tour under the umbrella of a Czech woman who was eager to expound on the price of beer. (It's a bargain.) And it poured all the way to the airport. Naturally, sunshine greeted us when we landed at JFK in New York.

But all the ideal weather in the world couldn't have produced the laughs Donna and I had shared. While the weather didn't hold up, our friendship weathered the trip, and we had fun discovering each other's strengths: I could read signs at a distance (Donna's eyes don't work like that), and she could convert Czech currency into dollars faster than I could. We were also well matched snack-wise: I sampled the beer at all price points, while Donna became the chocolate connoisseur. And both of us loved cesnecka soup, made with caraway seed and potatoes, which we ordered every chance we got.

This trip was supposed to be about relying on a fancy gadget to travel the world in a newly independent way. GPS snafus aside, what I discovered is that the true joy of travel is experiencing rain (and the occasional shine) with a good friend by your side—and at least one spare pair of socks in your day pack.

EUROPE BY BIKE

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