Posted on March 10 2019
We had travelled by train to Františkovy Lázně in the Cheb District of Karlovy Vary Region in the Czech Republic. It is one of the three towns forming the West Bohemian Spa Triangle. It all seemed like Bohemian luxury in a rural setting, with a grand opulence from the past when European royalty and people of note visited this spa region. But we were not here to discover the spas and the opulence of a past era of royalty and wealth. It was our first experience of the Czech Republic and for Jenny the start of the discovery of the land of her father’s birth (Bill Stukely formerly Jaroslav Stuchlý). The discovery of a part of her own being. We decided cycling would be a great way to discover some trails mentioned in notes and discussions with Bill and get closer to how he may have traversed this country. After attempting some comical miming actions to our hotel staff to indicate we wanted to hire some bikes we were directed to one of the local spa hotels (Hotel Bohemia).
We were here to explore the border region with Germany in an attempt to find the location of a secret border crossing carried out in April of 1948 by Jen’s father and a group of likeminded Czechoslovak army officers. He, like many others, refused to accept the political oppression of a communist regime and chose to flee his country, leaving behind his family, his home, and everything dear to him. It was following the communist coup of Czechoslovakia on 25th February 1948 that it became apparent to many Czechoslovaks who had been aligned to the Western allies and the exiled Czechoslovak Government in Britain during World War II, that the future was not at all positive and in fact was likely to be one of imprisonment, persecution or immediate execution. Their lives were radically changed overnight. Many thousands quickly chose the option to escape their country via the western borders into the American sector of Germany and moved on to settle in Western countries around the world.
|The sense of adventure and discovery was almost overwhelming|
Cycling proved the perfect way to explore this small area of farmland, forest and small villages on less travelled roads and tracks. It gave us the time to stop, explore, walk in the forest, get a sense of place and a feeling for what it must have been like to be hiding for a week and waiting for a guided night-time crossing of the guarded border over the River Ohře and into Germany. To be discovered attempting a border crossing in 1948 was ‘to be shot without question’.
We didn’t really know what we were looking for. Jenny had some notes from her father’s memoirs to give us some guidance as to where this crossing had been made and some landmarks. We found some cycle track signage with numbered cycle ways. We had a road map and should we get hopelessly lost we felt we’d be able to find a road to return us to our starting point. It was exciting and quite exhilarating to be on a quest of discovery. To just ride and explore and discover as we went along. We had a purpose for our journey. We headed south to Slatina then turned west along #2063, and into the small village of Cetnov on the north shore of the Skalka water reservoir, which resulted in a dead end. Backtracking we re-found the cycle route #2063 again and continued through the forest until we came upon the ruins of the fortress at Pomezná. Some old buildings were the remains of this old settlement, abandoned and destroyed (around 1950) as it fell into the ‘forbidden’ zone of the border fortifications between Germany and Czechoslovakia where no civilians could reside. The country is rich and wild, and plants grow quickly, so we could imagine the entanglement of plants one would have encountered when travelling on foot, at night.
Quiet country lanes perfect for exploring the border country of Bohemia
We could hear the water in the river and could just see some kind of crossing like a weir through the thick greenery beside our path. There was no access through this thick vegetation for us to make our way to the water’s edge. Was it the weir where Bill crossed the river? The building of the reservoir had obviously changed the course of the river so it is unlikely we would be able to find the exact crossing place. We believe we were very close to where Bill had been. Being in this place and imagining the clandestine border crossing activities where the local guides put themselves at great risk helping people like Bill (Jaroslav) leave the country, was quite a spine-tingling experience. Always under cover of darkness and in strictest silence, inching their way across a slippery surface with water flowing over, in single file. Each holding the hand of the next person to stay connected as a group. A few days later in Prague we met a lady whose grandfather had been one of these border-crossing guides in 1948 and had spent many years in a communist labour camp as a result of his activities with these illegal border crossings during this period. Another eerie meeting and story told.
Our trail turned into a track with loose blue-metal, then cement blocks with rough joints, and many potholes. Indication of the past habitation long since moved on. The forbidden border zone that was. As we walked our bikes over a steep hill our track joined route #2243 which led us to a bridge over the river.
Tentatively crossing this rickety bridge our hearts took a jump as we came across a man with a rifle over his shoulder. Jen was lost in thoughts of what Bill had been experiencing in April of 1948 and the many others who made similar decisions to him and those who didn’t make it or suffered because of it. The appearance of this man with a gun frightened the life out of her. Our first day of touring in Europe was feeling bleak. When visiting an ex-Eastern Block country for the first time and knowing some of history of the past 70 years, not knowing the language and unsure of how things work, being isolated out in the country, you do have odd thoughts running through your mind when you meet a man with a gun. A polite “dobrý den” (hello) and a friendly smile was easy to offer and, with relief, reciprocated. He was a local taking his red hunting dog for a walk and no doubt on the lookout for some game he could shoot. Not on the lookout for two wandering Australians.
|The rickety bridge where we met the man with the rifle.|
Our trail took us through some flat riverside farmlands with fruit trees blossoming beside the track. A slight side detour towards the woods revealed the almost hidden Czech/German border markers. Simple white stone boundary markers and some white poles with blue tops disappearing into the woods. Marked ‘D’ on one side to denote Deutschland and ‘C’ on the opposite site denoting Czech Republic was the only indication of a national border. Nothing stopping us jumping into Germany and jumping back into Czech. No watchful eyes, no guards, no passport checks, no persons at all. Only the insects and birds flittering in the woods to see our border jumping. Not at all obvious as a border between two countries that was once intensively patrolled by guards and with regular guard towers and heavy fencing, a physical manifestation of the “Iron Curtain” during the period of the Cold War.
|The Czech German Border markers almost lost in the forest.|
We continued cycling through this now peaceful countryside with flourishing crops and spring flowers, overlooking the Skalka Reservoir on the Ohře River, through the border town of Pomezí nad Ohří and arrived in the town of Cheb. We approached the town via a wooden bridge and sand gate on the Ohře River below the castle. Venturing along cobbled streets, we found ourselves in the medieval square, alive with Saturday morning activities of a cycling event for all ages. Hardly a geometric square but a true town square, Náměstí Krále Jiřího z Poděbrad is very long and very much the centre of activities in the town. Wide at one end and narrowing at the other. Stunning buildings line the outside of the square including the Špalíček, a group of eleven medieval merchants’ houses from as early as the 13th century.
What better place to stop for lunch and watch the activities? We found the perfect viewing place on a deck overlooking the square. Soup and a beer to start and not being in a rush to move on, we continued with apple strudel and a coffee. It was a scene we were happy to sit and watch for quite some time. Soaking up the sunshine and watching the local children, many aged nine or younger, feel the exhilaration of racing around their cobbled streets on their little bikes being loudly encouraged by their families. A sense of community, fun, activity and family life happening on a sunny spring Saturday.
|Cheb wooden bridge and sand gate at Cheb Castle|
|Cheb Saturday bike races in the town square|
Leaving the town of Cheb we followed signage for routes #204 and #2133 north east through the villages of Doubi and Třebeň. More stunning Czech villages. Quiet roads, small villages, fertile farms, high and flat with views west to Germany and east into Czech.
So, this is Bohemia! The name to us has always portrayed adventure, artistry, culture, intrigue, running wild, enjoying life …. And here we were, the first of many visits.
Now travelling on the roads as we’d lost the cycle track – through Nový Drahov, Skalná and Seniky and back into the northern end of Františkovy Lázně. We explored some of the local streets with their elegant buildings, discovered a lake with white swans gracefully gliding over the water, the sun sparkling on the water in the late afternoon. A perfect place for a bar offering a good Czech beer. Moving on after refreshment we discovered the local tennis courts and the soccer field where their Saturday afternoon games were still in full flight. Returning our trusty bikes to the Hotel Bohemia at 7 pm ended an unforgettable day of exploring many delightful small Czech villages and the quiet countryside and continuing a journey of family history and discovery.
This was our introduction to the Czech lands and to the possibilities of cycle touring. We were excited as we had planned a week of cycling in Burgundy, France after our visit to Czech. One small step and one day of cycling on a couple of hired bikes was to be the start of many more cycle trips and so much fun planning and deciding where to cycle next.
Jen & Greg