Published: April/May 2009
Bike Around the Bloc
Central Europe’s new backcountry cycling routes show off the Old World’s wild side.
Text by David Farley

Trains might still be the easiest way to zip across Europe and collect stamps in your passport. But if you’d rather stretch your legs, now there’s a means to see the landscape up close. Since the Wall’s collapse in ’89, a series of bike paths has sprung up across central Europe, granting access to rural valleys, villages, and forested mountains those trains never touch.

Today the Greenways Project links Prague, Vienna, Kraków, and Budapest, but you needn’t hit them all to experience the region’s variety. In as little as five days, you can pick fruit on the fly in Poland, roll through once verboten zones, and taste the Czech Republic’s burgeoning winery scene. And with airlines desperate to unload summer seats and the euro down 20 percent from last year, now is the time to go. We’ve mapped out the best routes to maximize your time in the saddle, and plenty of outfitters offer guided tours. There aren’t many bike rental shops in Europe that allow riders to pick up and drop off in different countries, so at trip’s end hop a train back to your starting city, put up your feet, and explain to your fellow passengers why you only needed a one-way ticket.

If You Have Five Days . . .
Cycle a Miniaturized Europe

Countries: Poland, Czech Republic & Austria
Distance: 250 miles
If you shrank the best of the Continent—stunning alpine valleys, historic sites and castles, local wines and cheeses—into the smallest space possible, it’d look a lot like the 250-mile stretch between Kraków and Vienna. The path connecting the two cities can be biked (painlessly) in five days, so take time when you arrive in Poland to explore medieval Kraków. Then rent some wheels from Art Bike and hit the road ($10 a day; art-bike.pl).

The path’s first 50 miles are bordered by a thick strip of apple orchards—a nice (and edible) perk. Towering rocks replace fruit trees near Mników, a valley studded with Jurassic fossils. Overnight in Oświęcim, next to one of the most unforgettably haunting sites in the world: the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial (three-hour tour, $70; auschwitz.org.pl). Day two takes you across the Polish-Czech border, past ruined castles spiked with Gothic towers. Have a nightcap brew (or two) in the Czech college town of Olomouc and bed down at the comfy Hotel Gemo (doubles from $140; hotel-gemo.cz). Farther south, skip commercial Brno, but don’t miss a subterranean cruise through the Moravian Karst’s 1,100 caves ($7; moravskykras.net). Sleep at Penzion Kopecek, in Blansko (doubles from $50; kopecek.cz).

Fifty miles south, the low-rolling Palava Hills give way to the Czech Republic’s up-and-coming wine-growing region. (You’ll see plenty of Cabernet Sauvignons, but try Frankovka, a local red varietal.) Your last day on the trail, the language shifts from Czech to German as the path flattens out on its descent into Vienna. No one except for Czech border guards could get this close to the Austrian line during the 41 years of communist rule. Now you can cycle right through without even having to flash a passport.

If You Have Ten Days . . .
Hit All the Czech Points

Countries: Czech Republic & Austria
Distance: 250 miles
For a country the size of Maine, the Czech Republic maintains a staggering quantity of bike trails—some 24,000 miles’ worth—all well marked and color coded. (Is it possible the Czechs prefer pedaling to pilsner?) The best place to begin is on the trail that started it all: The Prague-Vienna circuit kicked off central Europe’s Greenways movement in 1995. It threads right along the Iron Curtain, taking in ruined castles, Renaissance-era villages, and the dramatic cliffs flanking the Dyje River along the way.

Get your fill of Prague’s stone sights and party scene, then hit up Praha Bike for some wheels and access the 250-mile trail straight out of town ($35 a day; prahabike.cz). In the southern Bohemian town of Český Krumlov, take a break from the saddle for a lazy trip down the Vltava River. Rent a kayak from Malecek and the owners will drive you back to your bike from Zlatá Koruna, ten miles downriver (two hours, $25; malecek.cz). Come evening, try some goulash soaked up with bread dumplings at the cavernous, firelit Krčma Šatlava (satlava.cz), then sleep it off at quiet Villa Conti (doubles from $80; villaconti.cz).

As it nears the Czech-Austrian border, the trail is pocked with World War II–era bunkers and a few stretches of barbed wire that once separated East and West. In stunning Podyjí National Park, trek along the rim of the 720-foot-deep Dyje River canyon through beeches and firs, and watch for rare orchids, river otters, and eagle owls. The next day, via Mikulov, you’ll pass into the gentle hills of Austria’s wine country. (Whites are big here: Grüner Veltliner is the classic.) Rounding out the trip, you’ll pedal through the steep, limestone Leiser Mountains before cruising into stately Vienna. Your reward? The city’s signature Sacher torte (heavenly chocolate cake).

If You Have Two Weeks . . .
Two-Wheel the Tatras

Countries: Hungary, Slovakia & Poland
Distance: 190 miles
The ancient Amber Trail served as a trading route as far back as 1500 b.c., and in many ways, the area feels little changed since then: Cycling north across the Tatra Mountains between Budapest and Kraków, you’ll pass farmers using horse-drawn plows, isolated fortress-topped villages, and vast stretches of undeveloped woods. Rent a bike at Velo-Touring and take some time to pedal Budapest’s streets, lined with art nouveau facades, before hitting the trail (from $20 a day; velo-touring.hu).

Twelve miles in, you’ll enter colorful Szentendre, an artists’ colony packed with two dozen museums, 13 galleries, and a horde of pubs and cafés. It’s worth a stop—but the secret’s long been out, so expect some touristy kitsch. A better spot for lunch is down the road in Visegrád, one of Europe’s best preserved Romanesque towns. Try the venison ragout at Renaissance Restaurant (renvisegrad.hu). The next few miles of trail hug the curves of the Danube past the fat, green mountains it borders. After crossing into Slovakia you’ll head straight up into the Tatras. Take a load off at the Kupele spa in rural Dudince, known for its healing waters since the Middle Ages (kupeledudince.sk). You’ll need the rest for the steep Štiavnické Hills ahead. From there, you’ll cycle into UNESCO-protected Banská Štiavnica, a great base for exploring the surrounding silver mines.

The next day, veer off into Banská Bystrica, where Travel Slovakia can set you up for a one-day horseback tour through the Low Tatras (from $40 per person; travelslovakia.com). The trail soon hits its high point, at 3,600 feet, before winding down into bucolic Poland. A few miles farther is the holy town of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska (all the beer in Poland won’t help you pronounce that name). Its baroque basilica and 42 churches draw religious pilgrims year-round, especially for the open-air feasts and Passion reenactments on Good Friday. Twenty miles later, the trail concludes in the cobbled lanes of Kraków.