The Czech Republic might not be the obvious first choice when it comes to a cycling holiday, but the countryside round Prague is beautiful, friendly and full of well-marked trails
I’d been looking for a family holiday away from the traditional two weeks by the beach. I’d toyed with the idea of a cycling holiday, as it’s something we all like, but the obvious countries of the near continent are all ones we’d already visited several times. Then, quite by chance, I happened on some brochures from the Czech Tourist Board, which included a number of pre-designed tours by bike. The more I looked, the more I was hooked, and soon we were packing for our trip.
The first bonus was the choice of discounted flights to Prague from most of the major UK airports. The city itself is wonderful, and worth a day or two in its own right. But we were itching to get into the saddle and out into the surrounding countryside. The Czech Republic is a wonderfully scenic country, with the regions around the capital offering rolling green hills, picturesque villages and winding river valleys. To the north, the higher mountains rise towards the border with Poland and Germany.
East of Prague is the fortified medieval town of Nymburk. Its impressive town walls, lined with regular pyramid-capped towers, give the town a dominant presence on the banks of the River Labe (later to become the River Elbe when it enters Poland). The huge Gothic cathedral has a distinctly Germanic appearance, and was one of the first brick-built cathedrals in what was then Bohemia.
Our first excursion headed south from Nymburk, on a perfectly flat tarmac cycle path that follows the banks of the river. For the first couple of miles it was surprisingly busy, with a constant stream of other cyclists, and nearly as many low-flying Czechs on roller-blades. Soon though, we had the path almost to ourselves, with just the sounds of the birds, our bikes and the gentle lapping of the river. The waters were clean and mirror-flat, with only the occasional craft to disturb the peace.
Our destination was Podebrady, which until a hundred years ago was just a small riverside community, with a modest castle. Then the discovery of a therapeutic spring led to the development of bathhouses, parks and other enticements for travellers. The castle had been developed into a huge chateau, which totally dominates the town centre now, and its blue-capped central tower can be seen from miles around. I liked the happy blend of medieval architecture and 20th-century vibrancy that Podebrady offered, with the relaxing riverside and pretty streets of the old centre. We felt very welcome, and the locals were happy to give us directions that were cycle-friendly.
There is something about cycling that brings you closer, and gets you better accepted, than if you are touring in a car. People seem happier to stop and chat, and are keen for you to enjoy your travels through their region.
After a pleasant overnight stay, we circled back by a gently undulating trail towards Nymburk, visiting the impressive chateau park at Lysa nad Laben along the way. The cycle paths are well-marked, with many useful, clear, multilingual information boards en route.
The following morning, we had time for a brief ride through the tall pines of the St George Forest to the Chateau of Loucen. Developed in the early 18th century, its main attraction now, much to the delight of my eight-year-old daughter, is its ‘Labyrintharium’ – believed to be Europe’s largest collection of labyrinths and mazes.
We made it back to Nymburk in time to load up for the journey north to the mountains. We had two days here, with plans to follow routes in the Luzicke Hory and Cesky Raj districts. My first impressions were of a magnificent and spectacular landscape, with high cliffs, tremendous views, and deep green forests. I also felt some trepidation about how we would cycle in such hilly areas. But I needn’t have worried. Once again the marked tourist routes were excellent and easy to follow.
The first took us from Novy Bar, with its splendid Baroque houses around the town square, through peaceful forest paths to Havrani Skaly, which means ‘Raven Rocks’. These large sandstone outcrops offer fine views towards Poland, and the nearby dramatic Virgins Rock. The previous days had been gentle and relaxing, but this was far more of an adventure. Just past the village of Rousinov we took a break to climb a steep hill, for the panoramic views from the remains of Milstejn Castle.
The serenity of this whole region is breathtaking, with very little traffic to disturb the tranquillity. So it came as a surprise when we passed a number of concrete bunkers from the Second World War, reminding us of the proximity to the border. Soon after, near the village of Myslivna, we were treated to views of the highest peaks in these mountains, before an even better treat – a restful downhill section several kilometres long. The day had been the toughest so far, but also the most rewarding.
Our final day was equally dramatic, taking us south from Turnov to the amazing town of Valdstejn. The latter is built on top of three separate rock mounds, connected by bridges. It’s an impressive sight, and quickly had me reaching for my camera. The undoubted highlight of this day, though, was the stunning Trosky Castle, which rises out of the surrounding landscape on two dark, imposing basalt rocks. Its tower stands like a beacon some 60 metres into the sky, giving unbelievable views to those who venture up the daunting steps.
As we stood marvelling at the panorama, I glanced at our bikes way down below. I remember thinking what a good choice this holiday had been. A wonderful country, a warm welcome, perfectly marked routes, and the most spectacular scenery. Who could ask for more?