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.

By Lisa Schwarzbaum, Tuesday, Sep 23, 2008, 12:00 AM

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.

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