Getting the bike, getting to Prague
I'd read about the Czech Greenway in National Geographic many years ago and had always wanted to ride it. I finally created the opportunity in July 2011 and asked my non-cyclist girlfriend, and she was game! Since we were of disparate cycling experience, I thought a tandem would be the ideal equalizer and keep the relationship healthy. We found a place in Vienna that rented tandems: It wasn't a high-end bike shop, but had a big enough inventory that they had at least two tandems I thought would be satisfactory for the trip.
We unpacked our luggage and packed what we needed into our panniers. The shop was kind enough to store our luggage in their basement. After paring down to just what we'd have on the trip, we made our way to the Wien Meidling train station where I a train for Prague would be leaving shortly.
I assumed in Europe there are constantly trains running anywhere I want to go and that I could just jump on any train with a tandem! But there are only 8 direct trains between Vienna and Prague, not all of them can take bikes, and the cars that can hold tandems don't go every day. The bike spots get booked early, so don't expect to just show up and get a spot like I did!
We couldn't get a train to Prague that day with a bike spot and had to spend the night in Vienna. To make the most of it, we went to see the Hundertwasser House and the Kunsthaus Wien.
We purchased tickets for the two of us with reserved seats and for one (single) bike. The car was open seating with single bike spots on each end of the car. We didn't tell them it was a tandem, and had a hard time getting it in, but stuffed it in and were finally on our way! Without the front wheel, the tandem just cleared the ceiling when held vertically, but that wasn't the hard part. The toughest was getting it in the car through the narrow door, then making a 90 degree turn into the seating area. We wanted to do it quickly, for fear that a conductor might see our struggle. Then we'd have to wait a couple of days for the train that had the bike storage car that could accomodate tandems.
Prague used to be my favorite city. The architecture is incredible and it was one of the best places to buy little presents from local artists. I hadn't been to Prague since the late 90's and it had turned into this crazy disneyland like city, still beautiful, but with so much tourism and tourist related business that it felt kind of gross. In Prague, English was the primary language. You didn't even need to ask whether people spoke English. You could just start rattling off whatever stupid question you had in English! This ended up being a function of being in the center of Prague. If they don't have a Prague Drinking Club T-shirt in your size, just walk 50 feet further to the next t-shirt shop and they might. But try to find a t-shirt with The Good Soldier Švejk or Krteček, two of my favorite Czech characters, and you'll have a hard time. Once we were even in the outskirts of Prague, and the whole rest of the trip, it was rare to run into English speaking locals.
Finally Putting the Rubber Down
We couldn't find much detailed information about the Greenway online, so we knew we'd be doing the trip by the seat of our pants. I planned on buying a guide book or map for the route in Prague, but had no luck finding anything. I now know where some map stores in Prague are, and won't make the same mistake again! Download this simple pdf map of the Prague-Vienna Greenway. For more detail, purchase the SHOcart greenway map. One of the best things to have would be a list of the bike path numbers along with the town you pass through in sequence. I'll try to put one of these together soon. Feel free to send me a reminder!
We took the Prague metro to Hůrka in Prague 13, to the official trailhead. Get out of the metro and follow the retro-future enclosed train bridge to the other side of the pond. There is a map there that designates the official Northern end of the Prague-Vienna Greenway. Head East-Southeast away from the sign. The markings were few and far between initially, but once we left greater Prague, the Greenway signage become pretty consistent. The start is the most difficult part to figure out. Try to orient yourself at the trailhead map, then head due east. You can either go under the highway, and follow the road to the left, or go the higher route, and take the pedestrian bridge over the highway. Look for RE-HL trail markers to get you to the A33 and, eventually, the A12.
Once you leave the confusion of Prague, the signage becomes pretty consistent. The top sign in the picture to the left indicates that you are entering the town of Dobřejovice. The next two down indicate that bike route 8100 goes left and route 11 goes right, with distances in km to the listed towns. The bottom sign is a Prague-Vienna Greenway sign. In this stretch, the Greenway is following bicycle route 11. Occasionally, you'll see blue rectangular signs with different km distances to the same towns. In those cases, the distance on the bike route signs is the distance following the bike route, and the blue rectangular signs are distances for motorized vehicles following the main roads.
Future Trips, with Hindsight
I hope to do the greenway again soon! In the future, rather than starting at the official trailhead (trail in blue), we'll probably opt to take the metro to the Opatov station and start from there, or simply start in downtown Prague and follow the A2 trail (trail in green) along the eastern Bank of the Vltava. Because the route is poorly marked in the first part, I would recommend these options to anyone. You really won't miss much scenery at the beginning anyway. If you choose to take the A2 along the Vltava, perhaps you'll even have better scenery!
Cities have hotels, but along the way in smaller towns, a better bet are Pensions. Interestingly, it seems that Pension can be spelled with an 's' or a 'z' in Czech, as we saw many examples of both (and makes a big difference when doing web searches for places to stay!). Ubytovna seems to mean lodging, but am not sure how it differs from hotels or pensions.
The Greenway is often billed as a great way to meet Czech people and see their crafts, but we didn't allow ourselves enough off-bike time for that to really happen. The only time we really interacted with locals were when buying food or getting places to stay. Even when we pulled over to see if we could help a Czech pair whose rear rack had lost a bolt, we found them standoffish compared with US Americans. Despite the significant language barrier, I think their reservedness was a cultural difference. However, once they did interact, the Czechs always seemed to be friendly. A future trip will definitely include more down time, especially in the larger places: Tabor, Jidrchuv Hradec, and Znojmo, where we hope to get to know Czech culture even better.
Finding our Way
The route was mostly country roads with hardly any traffic, along with some gravel trails, and a lot of paved bike paths. Europe is really well networked with bike paths, and this is only one of many similar paths that are mostly connections of existing marked paths. The last section of the route, once you turn south towards Vienna follows EuroVelo Route 9, another collection of paths and roads that's part of a huge and ambitious criss-crossing of all of Europe. If you're looking for a trip that's longer than a week, consider combining the Prague-Vienna Greenway with some EuroVelo routes.
I think that you could do this on almost any bike. The bulk of the way is paved, but there are many gravel sections. If you go too skinny on the tires, you might have trouble in the gravel, but you'll be much faster on the pavement - go too fat and the gravel will be a breeze, but you'll be slower on the road. Our rental tandem had Schwalbe Marathon XR tires which is probably a one of the better compromises for this route - higher pressure, touring tread, but FAT tires. Other than difficulty getting the tandem into trains, we found it to be an excellent choice for us.
Due to my unrealistic scheduling and delays with the train, we bailed and took a train for the last portion back to Vienna, but had a great trip and really loved it. Next time we hope to do the entire route.
If you're contemplating a week long tour, and you're not familiar with Europe, this would be a fantastic and adventurous choice. I'd highly recommend it. It wasn't cheap, but so much more fun being in an unfamiliar culture. There are small cities along the way that are really beautiful and, compared with Prague, quite unspoiled by tourism.
There are many tour companies that will organize Greenway trips for you as well as guided tours of the route. If anyone has feedback from any guided trips, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below. I prefer planning (or a lack of planning!) on my own. I think that between this page and my official Greenway Route page, I've given you enough to plan a trip of your own. So get to it and tell me how it went!
Someone Else's Trip on the Greenway
I also found this slideshow from a group of friends that did the Greenway in 2011 as well. They started by taking the train to Olbramovice and riding to Tabor, where they picked up the Greenway. Their itinerary and links to where they stayed after the video.
Prague to Olbramovice by train 40 miles
Olbramovice to Tábor 30 miles
1st night in Pension Alfa in Tabor
Tábor to Nova Bystrice 49 miles
2nd night in Pension na Bojisti in Nova Bystrice
Nova Bystrice to Vranov nad Dyji 45 miles
3rd night in Pension Relax in Vranov nad Dyji
Vranov nad Dyji to Hevlin 44 miles
4th night in Penzion Semerad in Hevlin
Hevlin to Wilfersdorf 51 miles
5th night in Tour Motel in Wilfersdorf
Wilfersdorf to Vienna 46 miles