I have one eye nervously on the road from the front seat of our van. The driver is showing me a map of the best bike route between Prague and Vienna as we wind down a two-lane switchback between the airport and the city. “Four Hundred kilometers minimum by bicycle”, he said.
Thomas – our driver – is a cyclist. He has already shown me a photo of his bike, a 40-year old Czech-made hand-built white Festka, “A beauty,” I croon. “A classic ride.”
As he shows me the tiny map on his phone, he looks concerned – and a little impressed. Like we jet-lagged middle-aged women sitting in his van with two boxed bikes propped awkwardly in the cargo may not really know what we are getting into. But, he has already plotted the best route and is determined to advise us before we leave the van. If we ladies of questionable-looking athletic ability are really going to ride, he is taking it on himself to make sure we take the best route.
Bless him. Because actually he’s right, we only nominally know what we are getting ourselves into. We have a flight into Prague, a hotel in Prague for four nights with time built in to figure out the details of how we will get to Vienna in time for our flight back on the 28th. We have found some incredible websites and resources on a Prague to Vienna bike Greenway trail system that looks terrific. Downloaded the Lonely Planet to help find hotels and with logistics. But that’s it.
And that is just the way we like it.
So our time in Prague has been part tourist and part bike travel planning and part jet-lag recovery. Tonight we are meeting the Vice President of the Greenways organization at a local bike shop and he’s bringing maps and going to share some tips … so our lack of preparedness is about to end with the experience of an enthusiastic booster for Czech cycle touring.
While we had planned to ride out of Prague tomorrow morning, at the moment we are considering staying and giving this city another day. Neither is sure we will come back, and Prague is hard to know beneath the suffocation of tourists and everything that supports the tourist industry here.
But beneath the buskers and the shoulder to shoulder crowds and the roaming gangs of pick-pockets that take advantage of the distracted crowds, the bones of this city are incredible. Gothic and baroque architecture masterpieces are truly worth the lines. The medieval history at Europe’s largest ancient castle is worth the trudge through the packs that trudge alongside you up the hill. The view of the famous Charles Bridge is more interesting from the less-scenic graffiti painted walls down river than from the tourist center.
I don’t think the true heart of Prague has much to do with the touristy historical town center. The center has been ceded to the visitors and the money and international interest we bring.
The real energy of the city is in the New Town and bustling surrounding neighborhoods. And in the people like Thomas the taxi driver who is making sure we know the best route by bike to Vienna. And Daniel who is meeting us after work with maps and bike-travel tips to answer our questions and share his insights with two strangers. And Michael, graciously sharing dinner tonight with two friends who know his little sister back in Seattle.
Prague is a place that a visitor will never understand in a mere four days. It’s overwhelming and exhausting to embrace, and the frantic bustling to all the top tourist sites will keep visitors busy but not immersed. I have not connected with the city, and as we debate staying another day, I can’t honestly think of one thing I want to stay to see or do or experience that might be more interesting than getting on the bike and figuring out how to ride it to Vienna.
But as usual a city is never just buildings or history or even art, it’s the people who make a place. And in that we have been very fortunate.