For our second IBA European RTE of the year we were going to the Pilsner factory in the Czech Republic. We didn’t want to hammer down the motorway to Pilsner then do the same on the way back so we extended the trip by a couple of days to make it more interesting.
Kevin worked out a route that took in part of the Castle Road including castles in Germany and the Czech Republic as we enjoy looking round old castles. We’d never been to the Czech Republic so it would also be good to have a reason to tarry a while.
We decided to leave on Thursday evening so our long weekend would start on the continent. 230 miles later we pulled into a basic but clean hotel in Genk and set off the following morning after a nice breakfast. The first castle on our itinerary wasn’t until late in the day but a few hours after leaving we saw an interesting building off to the right of the A45 so took a detour and found ourselves in Münzenberg.
Working our way through the tiny town and up what was probably a ‘no entry for vehicles’ road we found ourselves next to the castle walls. There were a few people milling around including a couple of children playing in the gateway; what a lovely playground.
Kevin parked the bike on a grass verge and we wandered through the gate where I spotted a sign for ice creams and toilets. I liked this place already.
The 3 Euros entrance fee was much cheaper than castles in the UK and it would have been rude not to have bought ice creams. Mine was a Bum Bum but was very nice! The leaflet I was given was in English so we were able to learn a bit about the castle which is known as the Wetterau Inkpot because of the shape of one of the towers.
Building started around 1160 but it wasn’t completed for several hundred years and the castle was partially destroyed in 1255 during a siege. In the 16th century it became derelict after being captured during the Thirty Years War and stood in disrepair until the early 19th century when it became a popular tourist spot. In 1846 a program of renovation began and continues to this day. Having sold me the ice creams and tickets we saw the same man up a ladder with an industrial ‘weed wand’ killing off moss, etc. from the walls.
We wandered through the defensive gatehouse and into the castle interior. Most castles in England have a central fortified keep which is used for accommodation but this one had two defensive towers known as bergfrieds (which is unusual even in this area as most castles only have one) with no accommodation space. The first one we walked round appeared to have no door through which to enter it. The second bergfried had a stone and metal stairway leading to a door about 30 feet up. Interesting. Inside was a series of wooden staircases leading to a glass enclosure on the roof; the steps had no risers and I remember hating those in WH Smiths when I was a child. Puffing a bit I decided to let Kevin lead the way and climb the rickety wooden staircases first to let me know whether it was worth the climb. It was, so 98 steps later I found myself at the top looking out over a wonderful view of the castle and the surrounding countryside. From there we could see the doorway part way up the first tower.
I’d like to say it was easier going down. Well I guess it was, but it did feel a bit wobbly (or was that my legs?) and it was a really long way down when you looked over the bannister. The little square hole at the bottom was actually a well. We made it back to earth and continued looking round the interior where it looked like they were setting up for a concert.
We had quite a way to our next stop and enjoyed mixed weather. It didn’t ever really rain but at times felt like it was about to. As we moved further east the towns began to look different – the churches all had pepper-pot tops and many of the houses sported pretty wooden frames and coloured plaster. One even had a road through the living room!
The rolling countryside had lots of large corn or wheat fields providing a myriad of colours. There were many forests and it would seem that most people use wood for their heating; I found myself with quite a case of ‘woodpile envy’.
Our next planned stop was Veste Heldberg and we wound our way up another narrow road that might also have been ‘no vehicles’ but we decided that if there were signs to a car park they must expect vehicles to go up there.
On reaching the castle we found it was closed (although having got back and translated the sign we photographed it should have been open, perhaps they closed early?). Still, the outside looked impressive, as were the views from the road.
A short ride to our next castle, would that be open? There was a good sized car park and it looked like we’d need to walk up to the castle. The road was interesting and we passed a couple of tiny doors, perhaps the entry point for ‘Hobbitses’.
The road wended its way round the castle walls and up to the entrance to provide another fantastic view. A further advantage of building at the top of a hill I suppose.
Callenberg Castle was open but only for another twenty minutes or so. There was no information about the building available in English so we just enjoyed the outside. Although the walls looked ancient the interior buildings looked much more modern with their blush pink coating.
Further down, just by the car park, was an old building which I assumed was perhaps a servants’ quarters. There were some other old buildings which looked in quite a state of disrepair. What a shame, they should be enjoyed along with the surrounding beautiful countryside.
Our hotel that night was in the ancient town of Coburg which boasted not one but two castles. The hotel room also boasted not one, but two rooms! After breakfast we walked from the hotel to the town centre to find Ehrenburg Palace which was encased in scaffolding and closed. We continued up the hill through a beautiful park towards Veste Coburg and wondered what the difference between a Veste and a Schloss was. Well now we know, apparently a Veste is a fortress and a Schloss is more of a Chateau.
Upwards and ever upwards they have put lots of steps in so you don’t have to scramble up the hill. We eventually arrived and after all that effort I was really hoping it was going to be open. As we recovered our breath just outside the wall we could hear a lot of excited chattering in the courtyard. Oh no! There was a big coach party in front of us. Luckily they were sent one way on their tour and we were pointed in a slightly different direction so we managed to get through the castle mostly on our own.
The fortress is one of Germany’s largest and dates back to the 11th century. Many additions were made over the centuries and it underwent extensive renovation during the early 20th century. It’s now mostly configured as a museum containing many interesting collections.
One room was completely decorated in wooden panels, one appearing to depict someone preaching in the woods. We later discovered that Martin Luther had spent some time at the castle and it was probably him in the picture.
Our route back to the hotel was supposed to have been a short cut through the greenery. There was a tarmac’d path and a sign that appeared to be pointing us in the right direction. Kevin suggested we ought to take the path to the left but I had the map so knew better. Never trust a female Weller to map read if you’re walking. We walked miles out of our way, right off the map in fact! Eventually we found ourselves on a main road and as luck would have it it was the right road and, hallelujah! we were walking in the right direction. I don’t ever remember feeling so relieved to see a hotel before.
Back on the road again through cobbled streets and up a steep winding road to Plassenberg which is apparently one of the most impressive castles in Germany. There appeared to be a wedding taking place there though so we turned round and headed towards the Czech Republic through winding country roads, tiny hamlets and friendly waving people.
Eventually arriving at the Czech border we were bombarded with signs and posters advertising casinos, massage parlours and clubs, all with pretty playmates available. The country redeemed itself somewhat at the next town where there was a fete taking place with lots of children dancing in the square and the scenery improved further as we headed into the countryside. Then, confusion as the two satnavs disagreed as to which way we should be heading. One was giving us a 60 mile ride to Pilsner and the other a trip of around 170 miles to arrive at the same place. We obviously took the shorter route and eventually decided there was a chunk of Czech map missing from the device giving us the longer route so it had done what it could with the information it had – three sides of a square along the only main roads it could find. We enjoyed the ride along smaller roads to Pilsner to meet the other IBA folk.
We had some time in hand so checked into the Ibis where we were nearly the last to arrive. The hotel was in the middle of an industrial estate but appeared to be very new and was clean and comfortable with nice large rooms.
It was time to go for the requisite ‘team photo’ so we went outside to find that most of the other bikes had gone. There were three lads from Lithuania and one of them had stopped at the roadside to check something out. The other two continued but I think the one who stopped was the one with the directions to the brewery. By the time we got there a small group was following us – including going the wrong way at a junction where Kevin had misinterpreted Mrs Sat Nav’s instruction!
There was quite a good turnout: 7 from the UK, 2 from Germany, 1 from Belgium and 3 from Lithuania (and not in the photo, Bob from the UK who was a late arrival). We all parked inside the brewery on a small terrace with a fierce steep turn. Coxy (who we later discovered is quite posh for a Northerner as he pushes his spoon away from him as he eats soup!) managed to wrap his bike round the wall after taking the tight turn on the exit. No harm done except to his pannier. I should have taken a picture but I was too busy trying to get off the bike so Kevin could dismount to help. Coxy said he only did it as there were enough people to help him pick the bike up.
The Ibis did us proud with the service and food and a jolly time was had by all.
I did my usual getting up in the night to use the bathroom routine. I knew the bathroom light was on the wall just by the bed so had my arms out trying to find it. Shuffle, shuffle, feel, feel. What was that? Felt like a jacket. Oh no, I was lost! Luckily I was making enough noise to wake Kevin who, seeing my outstretched hands in the darkness accompanying the shuffling feet, turned the light on to see who the zombie was!
We eventually got back to sleep and were up late enough the following morning to miss just about everyone which was a shame. We did manage to catch Werner who was able to help us with a better route home along the Rhine.
Pilsner is an interesting town with its trolley buses and trams and you definitely know you are somewhere east of home.
Having left Pilsner we were now well off the beaten track and riding through the remote villages was an interesting experience. Many of them look very run down with lots of large buildings that are now derelict. On the other hand some are very well kept with beautiful little (and not so little) chapels.
We’d planned to visit Teplá Abbey but when we got into the town/village we rode round the square and spotted what looked like a very tired looking church with one end swathed in scaffolding and plastic so we decided to ride on. On returning home we think we actually missed the building we were aiming for but as the reviews were somewhat mixed – lots of building work, many parts inaccessible, others dilapidated – we probably had a lucky escape.
A quick pause at Hrad Becov where the parking spaces were full with no nearby alternative and on to Hrad Loket which looked wonderful on the website. We rode down a smallish street and there it was, straight ahead at the dead-end of the road. Again, all the parking places were full so Kevin pulled up and I ran over to take a photo and make use of the facilities as I didn’t know when I would get another opportunity. I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect but a bright pink Georgian-looking façade wasn’t it!
While I was off the bike several people wandered past Kevin who was standing next to the bike with his crash helmet off. Usually people look at the bike with interest and smile. Not here. Kevin said people just looked straight through him even when he smiled at them. This was something we noticed as we rode through the countryside in the Czech Republic. People were not exactly hostile but they certainly don’t seem to welcome tourists riding through on a motorcycle (unlike the people in Bavaria who were all smiles). The exception was in the tiny village of Lazy where there was one person sitting on a trike who looked delighted to see us. He smiled broadly and waved excitedly. He was only about 2 years old and the trike was plastic. We, of course, waved back. Unfortunately the person standing next to him, presumably his father, subscribed to the ‘look sullen and through them and they might go away’ school of welcomes so the youngster will probably grow out of it.
As we rode away from Loket we noticed the castle was actually more extensive and more ‘castle-looking’ from the rear. Next time we’ll make more of an effort to find somewhere to park.
We were mostly riding on very minor roads, many just single track, which it has to be said were of varying quality ranging from patchwork to perfect (so not much different to similar roads in the UK); we were very glad to be on the GS. Just the right number of bends to make it enjoyable to ride and very few other vehicles to get in the way. Even the pristine motorway when we had the occasional short foray on to it was empty.
Our next planned stop was Kynžvart Castle. We couldn’t make up our mind whether the building we wanted was the one that looked like a hotel or the one next door that looked like a museum. There was a small car park with spaces and cones across the entrance to prevent ingress. We stopped outside while trying to make up our mind what we were going to do and the approaching scowling car park attendant helped make up our minds – through the cones, round in a circle, back on to the road and onward taking a quick photo of the ‘museum’ as we went past. By now the weather had improved and we were really enjoying riding round the country.
Our lunch stop was in Cheb. Making a wrong turn we found ourselves in a small one-way square where we parked while trying to get our bearings. Realising where we went wrong we found a nice little café under the town walls where we had cheese ‘n’ ham toasties and some cake. The castle was derelict so we contented ourselves with what we could see from the café and headed towards the Hermitage Castle in Bayreuth where we found a very large car park that was absolutely heaving – full of cars and people, many of whom were in fancy dress. Sunday is obviously a popular day for castle-visiting in Germany so we escaped from the crowds and headed for Bamberg. We weren’t having a lot of luck with castles today.
Finally we found a place we were happy to stop at – Altenburg Castle which overlooks the town and has wonderful, far-reaching views. There was a little café there too serving cakes. Just right to blow the diet! The road out of the castle was very narrow and we thought we would end up stuck there forever as a Mercedes and BMW faced off with neither wanting to give way. The Mercedes driver eventually moved over with much face pulling.
We had no hotel booked for that evening as we didn’t know how long we’d spend at each of the castles. We’d saved a lot of time by not going in most of them so we took the decision to head for Heidelberg and find a hotel there which would give us plenty of time the following day to ride alongside the Rhine and into Koblenz as Werner had recommended. Booking.com was our friend and we found a small hotel right by the High Street. There was even a spot for us to park in their courtyard.
The hotel didn’t have a restaurant but the central position meant we could find places to eat within a very short walk and we ate outside enjoying people watching. The evening was just the right temperature for eating al fresco, something we don’t get to do very often.
Kevin had read one of the castles we were visiting was supposed to be ‘the most important Renaissance structures north of the Alps’ but had forgotten which one it was. It had become a bit of a standing joke that each castle was going to be The One then we’d realise it wasn’t. Finally we’d found it – Heidelberg Castle.
The castle was first built around 1200 with many extensions over the centuries, including a Barrel Building which had been built to house The Great Barrel. They certainly knew how to throw a party in those days – the Barrel Room was built with a direct connection to the adjacent festival and banquet hall. The Great Barrel (which was actually the 3rd barrel made, each one being bigger than the last) had a capacity of 58,000 gallons and was built to hold the tithe wine from the region. (No picture as I didn’t have a wide-enough lens to get it all in).
One of the areas in the castle held a museum of Apothecary which had an interesting history of pharmacy, with English signs as well as German, together with several preserved chemist counters from various periods. One of the displays was from a convent where the pharmacist was a nun in the days when it was illegal for women to be pharmacists; I guess she had special dispensation… [You’ll no doubt be pleased to hear that I made Lynda go and stand in the corner for that pun! Kevin]
It was a very hot day and I’m sure we didn’t manage to do the castle justice. Reviewing the book there were quite a few areas that we missed but we did get a good feel for the place and we certainly enjoyed the extensive views over the town.
We left Heidelberg and made our way to the B9 that runs alongside along the Rhine. We’d been advised this was a lovely ride with lots of castles to look at. Werner wasn’t wrong – castles at nearly every corner. There was a train line alongside the road and the tunnel entrances had been built with care to ensure they were in keeping with the local architecture. It’s easy to see why this area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s beautiful.
Our last castle of the trip was the Ehrenbreitstein fortress near Koblenz. We could see the castle for miles as we rode alongside the river and then we rode quite a distance past it before practically doing a U turn to get onto the right road. We were pleased to see a nice big car park, especially when the attendant pointed us to motorcycle-only spots just by the entrance.
The castle, which looks very similar in construction to the Western Heights in Dover, is reputed to be impregnable although I’m not sure that claim has ever been tested. It was recently refurbished for a national garden show and now houses many different exhibitions such as wine of the area, a photographic exhibition and military use through the ages.
We lunched in glorious sunshine overlooking the Rhine and enjoyed watching the extremely long barges turning into the Mosel and kicking up all sorts of silt which floated around for ages. There is also the ‘largest cable car outside the Alps’ which runs from the town, across the river and up to the fortress. The whole experience was wonderful, what with the sunshine and the view and Kevin was really surprised that he enjoyed the not-sure-what’s-in-it omelette and salad, even the peppers and radishes; things are looking up on the food front!
Again we didn’t have a hotel booked for that night so, with only just over three hundred miles to The Tunnel and no interesting route home planned, we decided to book an earlier train and spend the night in our own bed. Having spent the last few days on mostly deserted roads it was a rude awakening round Brussels which we hit around rush hour.
Our train was nearly empty and we shared the carriage with another GSA and a Vespa. Jeff’s Vespa, which he’d just ridden up from Poitiers on his way to Ascot, is not exactly standard and we spent a happy 20 minutes talking to him about his adventures with it. Kevin had a sit on the bike and decided he had no idea how it could be ridden for so many miles. For someone not in the IBA we think Jeff must surely qualify for the title of iron butt or iron nut, we’re not quite sure which. Terrific guy, wave if you see him riding round as that bike is quite unmistakable.
And so another RTE ends. Thanks again to Giel for organising the meeting and thanks also to Werner whose route suggestion definitely made our ride home more interesting than it would otherwise have been.