02 November 2012

European Expedition - Part 3

Day 4

Weather: Clear
Destination: Czech Republic

When we discoved that we'd be going close to the famous Schloss Colditz, we thought we'd add it to the itinerary. It's in the town of Colditz, about an hour from Leipzig. I lead us out of the city, and for some of the journey we were accompanied by a group of Porsches on British plates. They turned off at the Autobahn while we carried on cross-country.

The key word when driving in Germany is "Umlitung", meaning diversion. There were a lot of roadworks going on and the previous evening we'd got in a bit of a muddle on one diversionary route as they tend to be signed with just a "U" and an arrow. Taking the diversionary route to Colditz, we approached the town with plenty of time to spare before the 10.30 tour that we'd decided to do.

Unfortunately there was a lack of signage within Colditz as to where the castle was, and we were well out the other side of it before I realised my error. I blame an ambiguous direction sign on a roundabout in the town centre.

Disaster was avoided though and we arrived in the courtyard, again via a slightly illicit-feeling route through narrow streets. Also parked there were the British Porches from earlier, and they were also on our tour.

I decided to put as much of my bike kit as I could in the panniers, and that's when I discovered that my pannier keys weren't in my pocket... Not of my jacket, not of my trousers, and not in the glovebox of the bike either. Bother.

Still, one disaster at a time and all that, so I decided to worry about the keys later. Assuming we were allowed out at the end of the tour! Our guide was a German lady who took us around and showed up the Pat Reid cellar, the meadow where POWs were allowed to exercise, the hall where the famous camp dances and shows were staged, numerous tunnels that were dug in various parts of the castle, and all the while introducing us to the stories of various inmates who either escaped or were caught escaping.

When you see that the castle was built on bedrock, you can understand how the Germans thought it would be escape-proof. But if you bring together a lot of talented POWs with a desire to escape, it seems nothing is impossible. Some of the schemes were downright ingenious.

Various useful items were sent through in the Red Cross parcels that were allowed to be sent, including maps, dye and items of clothing, including wigs, under the auspices of being needed for the stage shows. Permission was also given for inmates who were officers to go to the bars in the town, and even do a little work locally - all on their word that they would come back. And they did. The ability to get out and about, to scout out the local area and mingle with the town's residents was too valuable to risk losing by someone escaping that way.

The stage shows were so well regarded that German officers from other camps would regularly travel to Colditz to see them, so one of the easiest ways to escape was to dress as a German officer and simply walk out. Unfamiliar faces were common, so it didn't arouse any particular suspicion with the guards.

Once our guide said that, for us, ze tour was over, the question of the keys returned. There's something slightly ironic about losing your keys at a prison camp, but I'd had a memory while on the tour. That morning, I remembered dropping my keys whilst loading the bike, and where they fell I couldn't reach them without moving the bike. I got distracted, got on the bike, and moved it all the way to Colditz. I had a spare set with me, safely locked in one of my panniers...

Being 95% sure of what had happened we retraced our steps to the hotel, and there, nestling amongst tufts of grass in the corner of the car park, were my keys.

Having wasted an hour or so each way, we had a bit of time to make up if we were to cross the Czech border that day. That meant an Autobahn run across to Dresden, before turning to more cross-country routes.

We crossed in to the Czech Republic near the town of Děčín, on the banks of the River Elbe, and took a moment for a photo-call at the sign. As the night was drawing in, our plan was to find a hotel and call it a day.

Having used a variety of methods to locate hotels, including the lists on our respective sat navs, we gave them a try: and we found a Formula 1 hotel. Except we didn't. It just had the same name, and was up a very dark, narrow side-street... Maybe not...
Back on the main road we found what looked like a hotel, so I went to investigate. It was, and they had a room, and could do dinner. But not English: Czech or German were the choices. So, a bunk bed it was, in a building that resembled a eighties nightclub. Dinner was superb though, as was the beer, and it was all very cheap. We both had the most expensive dish on the menu (~£4.40) and a couple of pints of beer (77p). In total the bill was less than £50 all-in.

Overnight: Hotel Kovarna, Děčín
Food: A 'mixed grill' of chicken, beef and ham, chips and salad.
Language: German

Next morning, breakfast was waiting for us, but it was good and tasty, and we hit the road heading for our next destination. We meandered across the country, sticking to the more minor roads and generally enjoying the journey. The scenery throughout most of the trip was so familiar that we could be riding in the UK. The roads were reasonable too, and whenever we saw something of interest we'd go and have a look.

One of the places we spotted was Trosky Castle, which was perched on top of a couple of basalt columns left behind by glacial erosion (I read the info board!). Unfortunately it was closed when we visited, but it still imposing when viewed from the outside.

The roads in general weren't too bad, and traffic was light. One thing we did notice is that in every town or village, no matter how small, there were loudspeakers on top of the telegraph poles or lamp posts. They were often new-looking, so not a relic of past times, and in one place we actually heard them broadcasting - although of course we've no idea what was being said ("There are foreigners in town - smile and look happy!" perhaps?).

We continued heading east, and spent a second night at a rather upmarket (for us) hotel in the city of Ostrava. We'd ridden around looking for a likely hotel, and tried a Park Inn by Radisson, but its prices were distinctly western at £100 for the room! Turning to Trip Advisor, I spotted a budget hotel with good reviews, so we decided to go and take a look.

Turning on to the Ostrava equivalent of a council estate, we found the hotel. Craig wasn't impressed. The bikes won't be there in the morning, he warned. Hmm...

There was, however, another hotel just literally around the corner, with a man in a hut operating the car park barriers... Looks promising. Looks expensive.

It wasn't. Whilst far more upmarket than we were used to, the rates were reasonable. The reception was obviously furnished from the local branch of IKEA, and the rooms had an aura of the seventies about them such that I wouldn't have been surprised to see Miss Moneypenny and James Bond having a flirt in the corner.

For dinner, we decided to try the hotel's restaurant; there wasn't much choice. It was a very upmarket affair, the waiter with a cloth over his arm, and a deferential manner. Despite the "no shorts and T-shirts" sign on the door, we were shown to a table, and the candle was lit... Hmm...

The food was superb, but the portions small. That said, if you think what you'd pay for a meal in an upmarket hotel in the UK, £9.50 for two including drinks was very good value.

Overnight: Vista Hotel, Ostrava
Food: Silver service chicken with a selection of onions.
Language: English

Next time: Oświęcim, Poland, and a very well known museum

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