7 Surprising things about bicycle touring Eastern Europe
This guest post comes to us from our friends Tyler Robertson and Carolyn Bys at Two Wheel Travel. They’re Americans living in Poland, exploring Europe by bike, and “mapping the bicycle travel revolution.” Check out their blog!
Bicycle Touring Eastern Europe
Over the past year we have covered more than 5000km by bicycle, most of it in Eastern Europe and a large portion of that in Poland, where we currently live. While every day bicycle touring is a revelation in its own right, there are always a few little surprises along the way worth noting.
1. No crowds
The thing about cycling in Eastern Europe that you won’t find in Western Europe is the lack of crowds. Yes, there are plenty of must-see tourist attractions which draw visitors, but never have we encountered the crushing masses of tourist hordes in Eastern Europe like in Paris or Amsterdam. Not taking anything away from these fine Western European cities, but Eastern Europe is dominated by a countryside with far less people. Not to mention the roadways. The crowd of bicycle tourism is only just now making its way eastward, past the former Iron Curtain. Many days in Poland we are all alone even on marked and ‘well-travelled’ historical routes.
One tends to think of places like England or Bavaria for magnificent castles, but historically there were lots of knights and kingdoms dotting the landscape of Eastern Europe. In some places, the castles are very well-preserved and known tourist attractions. Some of our favorites have been the ones that are a bit of a crumbling ruin. The quiet remains can really transport you to another time. The stone work, the architecture and the landscape views are as romantic here as anywhere in Europe. Both Czech Republic and Poland are particularly well covered with ancient Castles, Knights’ Quarters and Guard Outposts. We have been known to veer significantly from our route in order to visit these relics.
We’ve been to the grand churches in the big Western European cities, like Notre Dame in Paris or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and they are indeed spectacular. But the old village churches of Poland, Czech Republic and Slovenia in particular possess a quaint, old-world charm to remind you what grandeur meant for the common folk. Our special favorites are the old wooden churches in Poland, some of which have amazing persevered interiors with original artwork. No need to fight the crowds here—besides of a few of the practicing faithful, you’ll have it all to yourself. They also make great landmarks between towns because a village is always defined by its church and most are marked on maps. Some are definitely more striking and impressive then others, but when you come to a particularly unique one, it is really one of the best sightseeing treasures.
4. Quiet roads
This is a slight extension of #1, but it bears repeating on its own right. Most of the secondary roadways in Eastern Europe are small and quiet compared to their Western neighbors. In Czech Republic, which has an excellent freeway system that draws away most of the heavy traffic, the secondary and local roadways are often so free of autos that we feel like we are on a private cycling road, even in the height of the summer season.
In addition, there is an abundance of farm and agricultural roads at your fingertips. While people may warn you about the awful drivers (and they are right!), luckily for bike tourists, you can generally avoid them through this wonderful network of back roads. Sometimes the farm roads can have a bit of gravel or dirt, but they are generally rideable and enjoyable on just about any type of bike. The solitude in the countryside gives you a heady feeling that is in part to the fresh air and in part to the lush, surrounding greenery.
5. Fresh food markets
At first this may sound a bit strange, but when you appreciate the easy access to fresh foods along your cycle route, you begin to see why bicycle touring in Eastern Europe can be a gastronomic delight. Pack light on the food as there tends to be a market about a meal’s ride away. This is especially true in Poland, where every village has at least one small food shop or farmer’s market, on or near the village square. These markets have more food–and real food, with fresh dairy, meats, vegetables, fruits, breads, nuts and anything else to make a meal–than most large convenience stores in the US. Local markets are often social centers, too. There are usually a few chairs and benches where the locals will gather, and they can also make a great rest stop for a snack.
6. Beer and wine
Of course there are regional variances, but you can generally find some great local and regionally produced Pilsner beers in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and even through the Western Balkans in Slovenia and Croatia. We have stumbled across some small breweries in Poland with fine handcrafted beer, including a terrific cherry beer and some fine honey beers, too. In Poland we have also seen the recent rise of “micro-brewed” style beers, covering some styles normally only seen in US Craft breweries.
Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungaryare also known for their fine and inexpensive wines. These wines are typically high quality and a fraction of the price that you’d find in the West. Of course you can find these at the local shops and farmer’s markets, but for a special treat look to the local Monks.
Especially in Czech Republic, many monasteries still produce wine for sale to the public. In Zloty Koruna, Czech Republic we were pleased to buy a 2€ (about $3.00), 2 litre bottle of white wine from the local monastery that might well have been some of the best wine we ever had.
7. Friendly, helpful locals, but you have to ask first….
Eastern European manners may take some getting used to. People generally don’t smile at first and won’t typically greet you as ride by. But if you need to ask for help, or directions, or to ask them about their local sights, you will be surprised at their genuine excitement that you are interested in their little slice of the world. One of our favorite people moments was sharing a beer and getting some local advice on the best routes and the best things to see from a Silesian local in a combination of broken English, German and Polish (again at the village square food market). All we had to do was pull out the map, point to it and a conversation was born. In the smaller villages and towns, if there are any tourists at all, they generally aren’t foreign and the locals are so pleased to see people from far away places as visitors.
When bicycle touring in Eastern Europe be prepared for a different experience from Western Europe. The cities don’t quite have the smooth veneer of their Western cousins, but that is no reason to shy away. In fact, from our perspective it is even more of a reason to go East. We have been pleasantly surprised with our bicycle excursions into Eastern Europe, and it is a great place for bicycle tourism to expand. You’ll find warm, friendly people, lower costs than the West and local communities that can greatly benefit from increased tourism, with much to offer in return. Head East. You’ll be glad you did.