To be perfectly honest, the main reason we went to Warsaw was that my cousin is getting married in Wisconsin in mid-August, and the cheapest tickets from anywhere in Europe to anywhere in the Midwest departed from here. But our day in town turned out to be quite lovely (and full of pierogies). Our train from Berlin was slow but comfortable, our Airbnb studio was central and convenient, and the weather was sunny but not too hot. We walked to the river for views from the university library, strolled through a small sculpture garden, lunched on blue cheese pierogies and cold Lithuanian borscht, explored six interconnected townhouses in the process of becoming the History of Warsaw museum, stumbled on the castle-like ramparts of the Barbican, and spent several hours at the fabulous POLIN museum of the history of Polish Jews, all in one day.
Our time in Warsaw was brief, but we look forward to spending time in Krakow and Zakopane when we return to Poland on August 22 after our Midwestern sojourn. In the meantime, our itinerary is as follows:
July 28: Warsaw -> Amsterdam -> Montreal -> Toronto
July 31 – August 1: drive to Madison, WI
August 2-3: Minneapolis, MN
August 4-9: canoe in the Boundary Waters with my dad and cousin
August 10-13: Madison, WI for my cousin’s wedding (different cousin!)
August 14-21: bicycle through the Driftless Region of Wisconsin
August 22: Madison -> Detroit -> Amsterdam -> Krakow
After three days in Prague, we set off on our bicycles again. Instead of biking to our next destination, though, we opted to take the train directly to Turnov, drop off our bags, and go for a day ride around the region known as Bohemian Paradise (Cesky Raj). We’d figured the 7:25 am train on a Saturday shouldn’t be too crowded, but it turned out to be packed with fellow bikers! We arrived in Turnov at 9:30, dropped off one pannier apiece at our hotel, and headed out into the hills.
The region’s fame comes from its bizarre rock formations, said to have inspired poets and artists for generations. Littered with castles and crisscrossed with hiking and biking trails, it was indeed a paradise for a day’s exploration – and we were glad for our sturdy tires as we churned through rocky passages and muddy trails! We stopped for lunch at a castle with hundreds of fellow explorers, but the operation was incredibly efficient and we soon feasted on grilled sausage and potato pancakes while watching jugglers in medieval garb. An extra loop brought us to our favorite castle, Rottstejn (“red stone”), perched high on a rock formation a few miles out of town, and we got back to our hotel just as the light drizzle turned to a real downpour.
From Turnov we biked north to Hradek Nad Nisou (“castles of the Niesse”) along the well-marked bicycle route 14, whose first stop was the chateau palace of Sychrov and which then wound down through scenic, little-traveled river valleys before a short section on a busier highway and then a series of switchbacks up our big hill for the day, some 800 feet above the plains below. Luckily for us, a small bar restaurant was serving sausages atop the hill, so we had lunch with a view on the back terrace before descending into the outskirts of Liberec, one of the larger cities in the Czech Republic and home to an awesome tower:
Beyond Liberec we detoured slightly on another bike route to another ruined castle, Hrad Hamrstejn, where just as we’d hiked up the hill from our bikes (and our raingear) it began to rain. We hurried back down and donned rain coats and waited twenty minutes for the storm to pass before taking perhaps the most awesome transport method of our trip, a pulley-powered people transporter whose route was totally unnecessarily connecting two sides of a river that were joined a few hundred meters on by a bridge. Nonetheless, we had fun tugging ourselves across the river!
From there we wound down the river to Hradek nad Nisou with one last climb to the nearby castle of Grabstejn and settled in for our last night in the Czech Republic with a dinner of a salad that somehow included both fried egg and lots of pork, followed by liver and onions (me) and schnitzel (Michael) and a lovely after-dinner walk before sunset.
The area where Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic converge is known as the Black Triangle due to historically high industrialization and correspondingly high levels of pollution, but by the time we arrived the air was fresh and clean, and we enjoyed a quick stop at the confluence of rivers where the three countries meet.
Our ride from Hradek nad Nisou to Zgorzelec, Poland, was entirely on the German side of the river, through an interesting convent (the longest continuously operating in Germany) and onto the town of Görlitz, which turns out to have beautiful architecture in its old town center. Unfortunately we couldn’t linger too long as we saw dark rain clouds on the horizon, so we pedaled across to the Polish side of the river. (Until WWII, Görlitz and Zgorzelec had been a single city, but the new borders separated them.) But I loved the clock tower and sundials!
A few miles later we reached our fabulous and inexpensive hotel (yay Poland!), a refurbished castle (!) with delicious meals (goat cheese tart with caramelized onions, pappardelle in sundried tomato cream sauce, molten chocolate cake) and cozy beds from which to listen to the rain. Not to mention our best breakfast of the trip, a gourmet spread of meats, cheeses, yogurts, olives, and pastries. If you’re in the area, definitely check out Pałac Łagów.
Our last day of biking, from Görlitz to Cottbus, was also our longest, but luckily it was largely downhill, first along the river to Bad Muskau and then across fields and woodlands to our destination, a small village outside Cottbus whose main attraction was the inexpensive pension Michael had found for the night. In addition to the castles at Bad Muskau and beautiful churches, we passed by a woodland adventure park complete with camels and crazy architecture, miniature architecture replicas, and a geology educational trail with informative signs about diapirs and other glacial remnants. Most impressively, we found that our improvised route across country, after we left the river path, continued to have amazingly well maintained bicycle-only routes through small towns and across fields, making our ride pleasant and easy to follow!
From Cottbus the next morning we caught the train to Berlin and onward to Warsaw, our biking adventure complete. We certainly got lucky with the weather, with only a few rain showers here and there, and the food was delicious and the scenery lovely, but what impressed me the most was the quality of the biking infrastructure here: labeled bike routes, amazing bike maps, beer gardens so you never get too hungry (or thirsty), and a network of fabulous bike paths in the most unlikely places. If you love to ride your bike, but worry that bike touring might be a bit much: come here!
Like everyone else, we’d heard a lot about Prague before we ever visited. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and it’s very much made it on the international tourist circuit. This was our first visit, and it lived up to expectations on both counts: a compact, walkable city with beautiful architecture, and a large number of tourists in all the major tourist hotspots. Luckily for us, it was also like all the other tourist hotspots we’ve ever visited (Ephesus, Paris, Barcelona …): as soon as you wander, say, a few hundred feet off the beaten path, you get a special corner of paradise all to yourself (or, in the case of major cities, shared with a few locals. Not so many locals in old Roman ruins.).
The buildings in Prague were simply fabulous. Art Nouveau, Baroque, mosaic, painting, turrets – you name it, and there was a Prague building to match. Our neighborhood was just north of the Old Town but across the river and up a big hill, making it well off the tourist track. We spent our evenings wandering the neighborhood marveling at the incredible buildings and watching hundreds of locals hang out in the park, where $1 or so bought you a nice cup of beer and the warm evenings lingered until 10 pm and beyond.
Temperatures were hot, and we learned two important things:
Sun hats really work. We had big floppy sunhats we’d been debating getting rid of, but they were a godsend in Prague. Yay hats.
Siestas turn out to be a really great idea. We’d go for a walk in the morning, have lunch, and then take the early- to mid-afternoon, the hottest hours of the day, to relax at our apartment and catch up on work and/or bike route planning before heading out again for dinner and an evening walk.
We ate well: Slovak dumplings and “Montenegro chicken” deep fried in a delicious mashed potato batter; crepes with all types of fillings; trdelnik, the traditional spiral shaped pastry baked on a rotisserie on a hot cylinder; breakfasts at our apartment with yogurt and muesli and nectarines. We did laundry, and watched our clothes dry miraculously quickly on the clothesline in the hot sun of the building’s courtyard. We enjoyed our respite from biking. And we walked and explored Prague beyond the bounds of the highlights, though we did stroll through Prague Castle and across the Charles Bridge. Life in Prague was pretty great. And then, after two and a half days of exploring and relaxing, we set off on the 7:25 am train to Turnov to continue our biking adventures. More on that later!
When we left you last, we had settled for the night in Litomerice, a small Czech town with a beautifully preserved town square. The next morning we offset the beautiful sunny day with a trip into the gloomy history of the region – the town of Terezin, some 3km away, was a Jewish ghetto during WWII, about 90% of whose inhabitants were killed during the war. We biked over there in the morning for a sobering look at what life was like in the town, which jammed in 10 times more people than had lived there before the war and then shipped residents off to concentration camps when things got way too crowded. As a painful counterpoint to the miserable reality of crowding, fleas, and insufficient food, the Nazis set up the town as a fake “model Jewish ghetto” to appease international concern, creating ice cream parlors and music concerts for the day of the Red Cross visit and even filming a falsified documentary on life in Terezin (Thierenstadt). Many poems and drawings from the residents survived and were now on display, as well as some recreations of rooms, barracks, and the prison used for political and other prisoners on the outskirts of town.
From Terezin we headed back to Litomerice to pick up our bags and set out in the early afternoon for a fairly level bike ride to Melnik, alongside beautiful churches and plentiful fields of wheat, hay, corn, and hops. Melnik itself grows wine on its hillsides, making for a beautiful approach to the town.
On our last day of biking into Prague, we stumbled on two different chateaux with incredible landscaping and ornate architecture. (Fun side note: both Czech and German have two different words for castle: Hrad / Burg for an old fortification, often in ruins, and Zamek / Schloss for a more palace-like fancy chateau. I found this very useful because I generally much prefer the former! These palaces were pretty cool, though we just explored the grounds.)
Other highlights included a ferry trip – in fact maybe Michael’s favorite part of the whole ride – on a boat propelled solely by the current, with a cable across the river keeping it from drifting downstream, and a long board inserted by the captain forcing the current to push it one way or the other. We also biked a long dirt section of forest along the river, watched kayakers practice navigating the rapids on a special kayak course (like the one we’d seen in La Seu d’Urgell!), and biked a number of cool bridges on the way into Prague!
As we entered Prague, the number of bike routes proliferated, and I was amused to see this sign explaining how to get to a variety of locations as we biked into a park on the edge of the city!
Luckily for us, we had our route to our airbnb all mapped out, so we biked through the park and to our apartment, where our friendly host gave us a map of Prague and an explanation of where to go. With three nights in Prague, we should have plenty of time to explore ahead of us!
Today was the third day of our grand bicycle adventure after our acclimatization days in Berlin and Dresden. Michael found awesome biking resources on the internet and planned our entire route, from Dresden to Prague and then back north to Cottbus, a German city between Berlin and Dresden from which we will take the train to Berlin and onward to Warsaw. It’s quite the grand adventure, nine days of biking through Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland:
And so far we are having a fabulous time! Biking here is simply astounding – well-marked bicycle routes crisscrossing the countryside, many on bicycle-only paths across fields, lined with trees and paved smoothly for easy passage. Most of our trip followed the riverfront trail that links Dresden with Prague, but we took a long detour up into the high country to see amazing rock formations and historic burgs with old castles – including one, made out of hexagonal basalt columns, in which the mistress of the ruler of Saxony was imprisoned for 50 years after falling out of favor.
We started with a series of manor houses lining the river front, biked by vineyards climbing the hills of the river valley, then stopped briefly by a Baroque castle before climbing out of the valley into Saxon Switzerland National Park, where otherworldly rock formations loom above the river, and winding toward our home for the night, a castle in Burg Hohnstein perched high above the plateau below. The castle had been converted to a youth hostel, where a communal dinner was just 7 euros for the two of us and full of German staples: croquettes, boiled red cabbage, and meatloaf stuffed inside roast meat; but also marinated tomatoes, dill marinated cucumbers, arugula, and four different kinds of mayonnaise-based salads. We were glad to be able to stay inside for dinner, as the rain that began as we climbed the last hill to the castle continued to fall for much of the night – but not before the sun came out for one final glow across the town and a beautiful view from our window.
On day 2, we set out for Stolpen, a town that was totally the wrong direction from our destination and about an hour and a half out of the way, but which had piqued our interest when we learned – on our walking tour of Dresden – about the castle and its imprisoned mistress back in the 1700s. Plus, we’d made it most of the way there on day 1 before getting frightened away by the dark dark clouds looming and the visible sheets of rain (as shown above). So we headed north, first on country roads and then on bike paths through the countryside, to the small town, visible from miles away with its three castle towers. The castle was balanced on cliffs made of basalt columns, and as we approached we found its walls were made of the columns as well. We didn’t linger too long, since we don’t have a good way to lock our panniers and bikes, but it was quite a sight – and we did stop for long enough to enjoy a waffle with Nutella on the picturesque town square!
From Stolpen we cut southeast across fields and farms and small villages back toward the Elbe river valley. The komoot bike app Michael downloaded has proven invaluable for figuring out a route, but in this case it was a little hairy, taking us down roads varying from well-paved to concrete to rutted, bumpy dirt-and-gravel farm roads, and and then on an 18% grade descent where we had to walk our bikes, it was so steep. We’d just about made it back to the river when the fire road we’d been biking on veered the wrong direction and we had to carry our bikes and gear down a flight of stairs! But we made it down to the river, lunched in Bad Schandau (a spa town that’s also the base for lots of hiking in the amazing rocks and cliffs), and then had a leisurely bike ride down the Elbe to our lodging in Decin and our first night in the Czech Republic (with a fabulous three-course dinner of grilled mozzarella with pesto and bacon, Caesar salad, chicken stuffed with sundried tomatoes on a bed of risotto, and crepes filled with fruit salad and topped with whipped cream for just $24).
Day 3 was a flat but scenic ride, right along the edge of the river, from Decin to Litomerice, with a quick uphill detour to the ruined castle at Strekov. Unfortunately for us, said castle turned out to be closed on Mondays, but we still got a good hill climb in and a peek through the gates at the castle beyond.
We lunched on grilled sausages at a campground for bicyclists, then continued along the river to the beautiful town of Litomerice, full of historic old buildings and an atmospheric central square. Dinner was again delicious, if more traditional: chicken soup with liver dumplings; roast duck with red cabbage and thin, tortilla-like potato pancakes; and pork tenderloin on a bed of parmesan-arugula tagliatelle.
We have two more days of biking before we reach Prague, then a two-day hiatus before we start the return journey. So far, the biking is a real joy, though both of us are wondering which of our scant items we can remove to lighten our loads. Not the rain gear, that’s for sure, as it’s rained for a bit of every day so far!
We arrived in Berlin on Monday morning only to find that the summer weather we’d anticipated was instead a veritable downpour, and opted for a taxi instead of the bus to take us to Bodo’s apartment, my dad’s former postdoc who generously offered to host us while we were in town. Exhausted, we proceeded to settle in for a delightful nap before heading out to walk around town for a bit, then returning to their beautiful, high-ceilinged pre-War apartment for dinner with Bodo and Linda, their sons, and a visiting grad student from UCSB who turned out to be from State College, my hometown!
The following days were not terribly different – jet lag hit us hard and so did the raindrops. But we fit in a long bike ride around town, to the Turkish Market and to a strip of the Berlin wall painted by artists in 1990 and then back through Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten, and we spent a full afternoon at the German History Museum, learning about everything from the 1200s to the present.
On our last morning we biked to the central train station and boarded the express to Dresden, which turned out to be jam-packed with backpackers, with no seats to be had and no room for our bikes to be stored! I finagled a seat and Michael stood with the folded bikes for the two-hour trip, ugh.
But Dresden! What a beautiful city, restored to its former glory over the past 20 years after being thoroughly bombed in February 1945 and then left to stagnate under Communist rule that favored wide boulevards and boxy buildings over historic luxury. Since 1989, however, Dresden has invested hugely in restoration, rebuilding all of the buildings in the historic core and to great effect. Now, as our tour guide pointed out, all it needs is to breathe life back into this district that has been a ghost town for the last 70 years.
We walked around the new and old towns, enjoyed a two-hour walking tour, and biked around the trendy Outer New Town where we browsed in board game stores, biked around a bustling park, and waited out the rain in a beer garden. That was actually our second beer garden in two days, the first with glorious views across the Elbe to old town, and on the way we’d visited the “Glass Factory,” a VW manufacturing site built from glass with full transparency onto the assembly floor and with public exhibits on electric vehicles and experimental car models.
We loved our day and a half in Dresden, feasting on traditional Saxon food (thick, sausage-laden potato soup and bratwurst) as well as homemade pastas (two nights running!) in a shop called the PastaManufaktur. The outdoors store in town had an incredible selection of biking books and maps, where we picked up maps both of Dresden’s surroundings and of Czech Paradise, where we’ll be biking in ten days or so. The bike infrastructure was incredible, with marked bike lanes often separated from cars and with our own traffic signals. And while the old town was beautiful and full of tourists, the new town was vibrant and full of life.
On Saturday morning, we bid Auf Wiedersehen to Dresden as we biked southeast along the Elbe river for the start of our bicycle adventures — which will have to be our next post!
After our week in Ireland, Michael and I headed back to the US for a suite of important events: my dad’s retirement after over 35 years as a geology professor; Michael’s brother and sister-in-law’s shared graduation from business school; and the semiannual West Reunion, wherein all my Burbank cousins and aunts and uncles get together with our second cousins and first-cousins-once-removed and play tennis, golf, shuffleboard, and ultimate frisbee for three carefree New Hampshire days.
We flew back to LA on May 18, picked up my sister Hilary, and drove to Santa Barbara for a weekend of celebrations with dozens of my dad’s former grad students, many of whom I’d accompanied on field trips as a kid or spent Thanksgivings with in the past decade or so. It was moving to see all the tributes to his work and the camaraderie he built in generations of students who’ve gone on to do all sorts of things.
We also got to walk on the beach, spend time as a family, and do other Santa Barbara-y things.
From Santa Barbara we took the train to SF and spent the weekend with friends and their adorable children!
We then flew up to Seattle for more adorable children (these ones related to us) and to assemble the folding bikes that will be our constant companions for the next few months. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We had a lovely week in Seattle, biking up the coast and then on the Kitsap peninsula and Bainbridge Island connecting friends’ and family’s houses for a wonderful vacation and reconnection with folks we hadn’t seen in 8 months. We also had spectacular weather, with clear views across to the Olympics and framing downtown in the shadow of the Cascades as we biked around Bainbridge. Gorgeous!
From Seattle we flew to Chicago for Patrick and Allison’s graduation from Booth – the same school Michael got his MBA from 5 years ago. Graduations are boring, but it was nice to spend time with them and with Allison’s and our families.
And then we embarked on our long USA roadtrip, from Chicago to New England and then down to Atlanta (which is way further west than I’d realized). Here’s a map of our adventures:
You may notice that our route was a little circuitous in the New England section, but that’s because we used the trip as an opportunity to reconnect with a whole lot of awesome people we hadn’t seen for a while, including my eighth-grade history teacher, our closest friends from business school, and friends of both of ours from high school (some of whom we actually hadn’t seen since high school!). It was unbelievably great to reconnect with everyone.
The West Reunion was fabulous, and we got to see more of our families in Vermont (where my aunt and uncle have a maple-syrup company and oxen farm), Manhattan, and Atlanta too.
After a few days in Seattle to pare down our gear to the bare necessities, we flew back to Europe on Monday – the end of our stateside sojourn and the beginning of our great European biking adventure! More on that next time around. For now, seeing all our friends in the US has made us appreciate how lucky we are to have friends like you – and how lucky we are to have a few months of travel left, as well!