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Sentinels

 Look!  Another castle! Look!  Another bunker! The past three days we cycled from the Western Czech Republic in Bohemia to the East Moravian town of Mikulov, closely following bike routes along the Austrian border. The remnants of centuries of conflict as kings and countries and religions fought and defended this land are strewn everywhere. They are mounted on hilltops like sentinels to command the view and the fortified advantage. They are built to impose power just by their size, as well as to defend if attacked. They are deliberately conspicuous, and scream STOP! To both keep out enemies coming from outside. And later, to keep their own people behind the barriers.  By the third day of riding near the border, the bunkers and castles and look-out towers had become so commonplace they barely warranted a mention as we pedaled east.  Before history and international committees designated this line as the current border between the Czech Republic and Austria, this region was the boundary between the kingdoms of Bohemia, Moravia and Austria. Today castles stand guard at the old borders, built and expanded and renovated as they changed hands as the ruling families intermarried and then died off over the centuries. Each generation building their new fortifications and palaces to mark their territories. And rule their serfs. Collect their taxes. And defend what their entitlement. This borderland was also central in the early efforts to challenge the Catholic Church when the Hussites broke from the church with their own vision of religion, forming an army that eventually disintegrated into basic looting and marauding. They sacked towns in the region in the name of God and wealth. Earlier this week we saw a painting of a beautiful chateau surrounded by elaborate gardens displayed over a mantle at the massive castle at Cesky Krumlov. We asked the guide the location, and

Heritage

"I learned English because when I was young I was infatuated with Jon Bon Jovi." We have stopped in the small village of Kojakovice on our 50 mile bike between Cesky Krumlov and the Bohemian town of Trebon to the east. After steep hills and miles of rocky dirt roads and grass paths as we cut our way east, we were ready for a break. Stephanie (as she explained was the English version of her name), greeted us as we pulled up to the Czech Immigration Museum in this tiny village with a warm smile and a welcome offer of coffee. "How did you hear about this place? Do you have Czech relatives?" I explained that I had found a website with very helpful explanations about this area, and we had detoured here to visit in person. She took us inside an old building filled with an assortment of tools, kitchen gadgets, and cardboard wall displays. And, as we admired some of the finely decorated gingerbread for sale along with packaged cookies meant to feed hungry cyclists who ventured through this town as part of the extensive bike trail networks surrounding the town of Trebon, she invited us to see her workshop. Stephanie makes this local gingerbread art, and like learning English, this is also self-taught. A tiny bag of icing and a needle is all she needs to trace intricate designs on gingerbread hearts and hedgehogs and pumpkins and other creations. She tells us that she has been invited to sell her gingerbread at a local fall fair, and so she is making her inventory to be ready. Last time she sold out in two hours. She can sell them for a decent profit ... they are prized as gifts and can last four years. I tell her how honored I would be

Living Through Normal

When I was very young, I believed that Olympians from the Soviet Union or Soviet block states would be punished if they failed to win a medal. This was the late 60s and 70s. Back then, I would still play in the occasional bomb shelter dug in the occasional family backyard. I remember nuclear attack drills in grade school. The news was full of disarmament talks and Soviet military aggression and nuclear war and communist threats spreading around the world. For many Americans during the Cold War, the televised Olympic games offered one of the few glimpses behind the Iron Curtain. And this made the Olympics mean much more than a simple athletic competition. It seemed that the entire superiority of nations, culture and values hinged on whether the Soviet Block countries beat the US and Western countries in these games. And my child's logic reasoned that with so much at stake for civilization as we knew, it must be especially bad for communist state athletes if they lost. Because surely those scary, militant authorities behind the iron curtain would be looming and punish anyone who did not win and bring glory to their country. I truly had no idea what life was like behind the Wall. I suspect very few Americans then understood more than we were led to believe. Forty years later, as I travel behind the Iron Curtain for the first time to the former Soviet Satellite state of the Czech Republic, I'm slowly catching glimpses of a history and the upheaval that people survived in the last century. We are in the town of Cesky Krumlov, deep in Bohemia near the Austrian and German border. This town is a Unesco World Heritage Site ... dominated by a massive castle and preserved as it was in the 15th century. Truly beautiful. Truly

Beer … and other Czech Priorities

"My sister lives in Oklahoma." He says this with a slight crinkle of his nose ... We are talking to Ludvik, the chef and owner of the best (maybe only?) restaurant in Tynec Nad Savazou, a small town on the banks of a river 50 km south of Prague where we spent our first night. I say, "Oklahoma! They stole our basketball team from Seattle." His face lights up. "Ah ... you know (insert some basketball player I have never heard of). At my blank look he mimics shooting a hoop. I'm busted. That's the end of my basketball talk, but obviously Ludvik is a fan. We met Ludvik when he came out of the kitchen in his chef's apron at the bequest of his staff, who immediately called him when they saw two non-Czech speaking hungry people walk into the restaurant. Ludvik had welcomed us and took us to a table and then personally translated the entire 5 page menu. All of it. I tried to ask him just to recommend a dish, figuring he's the chef and probably had other things to do running a kitchen at dinnertime, but nope. We needed to know all of it. Ludvik was magnificent. There is a lot to like about the Czech Republic. The most immediate "like" coming to mind is the 15 Kronar (75 cent) glass of very drinkable local vino I'm enjoying as a write this post at a Vinotecha at our next stop, Tabor, CZ. Here, the beer and wine cost less than juice, water or soda. The local wine ... still learning about the wines here but I've been very surprised at the quality. And the beer is great and a national pride. The sanctity of that beer is taken very seriously. In fact, our third day of cycling took us to the Bohemian town

We are Off: Cycling the Prague-Vienna Greenway

We debated staying in Prague one more day. Staying was easy. It's Prague. It didn't matter if it rained. No need to find new hotels.  Or figure out how to ride in a new country. It's always easier to stay. But I'm so glad we pushed passed the inertia that makes staying easy and doing something seem so hard.  I'm glad we started cycling. We left Prague (Praha) after three days in the tourist center and rode out of town following the Prague-Vienna Greenway. We are self-supported, and came with our own bikes and two panniers that are mounted to a rack on the bike with everything we are willing to carry for 3.5 weeks. The Prague-Vienna Greenway is a signed bike and walking path that leads from ... Prague to Vienna ... part of a network of greenways through Europe. In the first two days of cycling 140 kilometers between Prague and the medieval town of Tabor have biked over lightly trafficked bike paths, dirt tracks, forest trails and gravel roads. This greenway is terrific. There are ACTUAL SIGNS with directional arrows pointing you in the correct direction with distances printed on them. There are COMPREHENSIVE BIKE MAPS that - in conjunction with occasional GPS use to save mistaken detours - is a terrific assist to plan and navigate. The route so far has led past beautiful countryside. An accompanying BOOKLET has descriptions in three languages of sites to visit in the villages and towns along the way. And organized CYCLE FRIENDLY hotels are conveniently listed and don't give you dirty looks when you drag your dirty bike through their lobby. I never knew bike touring could be so easy. What I would give to have networks like this in the states. The first day of riding always brings the biggest challenges, most which are

Prague

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

Back on the Bike …

For a day, at least.  A sturdy yellow three-speed, with the saddle too low and chunky tires and a funky shifter that you had to stop peddling in order not to pop the chain.  I was joined by a couple from the Netherlands, and we were led by a waif-sized African woman with mismatched clothes, a jaunty straw hat, a lot of spunk and some very strong opinions which she let fly for the full four hours.This made for a very interesting and educational morning.She issued us effective yellow safety vests, marginally effective helmets, had us sign a lengthy liability waiver and then delivered a lecture about how - when we do this tour - we are not observing the animals in Etosha and staying in a vehicle aiming our cameras at the people.  Instead we are going to bike into the community and be part of the community.  (It is worth noting that we saw nobody else on a bike the entire four hours.)We are not going into the poorest areas with the shanties and no water or electricity and desperately poor people because there is nothing to be gained from gawking and it's not safe ... plus they might take the bikes.  Can't have that.  And we aren't going down the streets with all the shebeens (bars) because that's where all the fighting and dangerous people are and ... again ... they might take the bikes.  And we aren't going into the children's home or the hospitals or other places because she doesn't like tourism like that and this isn't a poverty or a save the children tour.Instead we will see the markets and the houses and learn how Katutura functions.  Because all Namibian people and Namibian life aren't like the marginalized Bushmen and the exploited Himba people

A mountain before breakfast (PEI/Cape Breton bike travel)

The sign on the restaurant said Open at 11 AM.We were in St. Anns, Nova Scotia where there is one motel, one restaurant, the Gaelic College where we had spent most of the morning, flocks of seagulls and two bald eagles. When we asked where the nearest place for breakfast was, the curmudgeonly motel owner pointed on the map a decent distance away towards Sydney.St. Anns Bay, Nova Scotia"There is a mountain in between", he said with a half-smile.Right.  We pull out the remnants of cheese and crackers and split the remaining banana.  And off we go ... up and over the mountain for 15km to get breakfast before heading on into Sydney on the last ride of this trip before we fly home.What a difference a year makes.A year ago, I had to cancel a bike trip through Asia because two side effects from breast cancer treatment made my hopes of willing my body back to its strength and normalcy a pipe-dream.  Now I can ride over a mountain before breakfast.  In hindsight, it was completely unrealistic to think I could have ridden a bike through Asia a year after intensive breast cancer treatment ended.  But I didn't know that at the time.  I had biked through India a few months before diagnosis and I was eager to pick up my life where I left off.But I learned there was too much damage from surgery and chemo and radiation, and two side-effects from treatment weeks before the trip began finally forced me to admit I wasn't ready, and my body was not - and might never be the same.So I cancelled the Asia trip and spent the next months recovering from the self-inflicted damage from training.  And when the pity-party was over, I sought the help I needed to

Dirt in the Music … Cape Breton Music

This is high praise and what many Cape Breton fiddlers hope to hear from their audience.  Because having "dirt in your music" means you can communicate the feeling and spirit of the land and family and Gaelic culture through your instrument. Cape Breton is a place where music and dance is foundational to the Gaelic culture that remains remarkably pure here.  In this place, conveying the essence behind the tune is more important than hitting every note perfectly.Perhaps one of the reasons I connect strongly to this place is the strong Gaelic culture.  This part of Cape Breton was settled by Highland Scots who were forced from their lands and moved here for a new start.  And since Cape Breton did not have a bridge connecting it to the mainland until the 1950s, much of the music and way of life remained un-corrupted from outside influences for generations.But it is familiar because many Highland Scots emigrated to North Carolina and I hear the the same musical roots in the Cape Breton fiddle music that I grew up hearing in our hometown bluegrass.   Here they play in community halls and in homes.  Back in North Carolina we had bluegrass every Friday night at the community college and at local events and weddings and celebrations.  In both places the music is danced with a similar step dance or clogging or square dancing.  The same musical roots, but they evolved differently.  The sound here is more traditional - you can imagine hundreds of years ago the same tunes were played in ceilidhs all over Cape Breton and in the Highlands before emigration.  (Ceilidhs is pronounced Kay-lees - literally visitations when neighbors go visit neighbors and bring music and stories and company.)  The fiddle is the star, and most play with a piano

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