Go East Part 2
Yossef Rides Into Eastern Europe
Leaving behind the magic two-stroke kingdom of Saxony wasn't easy but the big Beemer wants to move on. After living with it for a week, it feels much more docile; it even stopped lurching and clonking in traffic, so I'll let him have his wish.
In less than an hour I cross the border to the Czech Republic and it's really another world. Right after the border, the road is lined with makeshift gift shops that carry everything: souvenirs, clothing, wooden statues and Chinese made TVs and DVD players. Another few miles and the landscape turns flat, and the villages by the side of the road don't look so merry. Plenty of little houses that have seen better days, and if that's not enough, the road's quality quickly deteriorates. This is the kind of thing that you'll never see if you take the plane straight to Prague. As if to prove the point, some 30 miles from the capital, the road turns into a proper highway again and, after passing the airport, huge banners line the road, trying to fool me into believing that I'm in the West again. But even these sharp passages can't diminish the impact of entering that diamond of a city: Prague.
As I hit its periphery, the heavily decorated houses tell me straight away that I’m in a different place. Another few city miles and, as I cross the bridge that spans over the Vltava River, the city opens up in front of me like a fan. Amazing castles line the hills that rise from the river while their countless pointy towers stab the sky. My GPS brings me straight to my hostel; not having to take off my gloves in order to unfold and fold maps is becoming really addictive. The hostel is in the Zizkov neighborhood that overlooks Prague from the east and has a huge telecom tower as a landmark. I drop my stuff in the room and stash the K-12 in a locked parking area. BMW's PR officer has already warned me that in East Europe the bike isn't covered against theft....
From the first tourist map that I grab, it's easy to see that the historic city center is quite small, less than a mile by a mile, so I proceed by foot. Well, it might be small but what a pearl! I enter the center by walking through the old city hall gate and all of the sudden I feel like I landed in another century. If there's one thing that characterizes Prague, then it's the fact that for hundreds of years, through countless wars, it remained untouched, intact, and in some of the smaller streets it seems like time has stood still for the last 500 years.
The second thing to hit me is the almost exaggerated ornate style of the buildings. Many of the old buildings are spangled with silver and golden decors and statues animate the facades. The heavy Gothic influence is everywhere. Little towers spring up from bigger towers, iron poles hold feisty flags, a fairy-tale city for grown-ups. Some of the newer buildings are quite outlandish too. American architect Frank Gehry's "Dancing Building" fits nicely into this playful environment.
I stop by the city's Astronomical Clock or "Prague Orloj," which at close to 700 years old is seemingly the oldest in the world that's still in working order. This clock is so old that, in the celestial map in its center, all the planets turn around the earth rather than the sun. The legend is that the artist who created the amazing clock was so successful in its job, that in order to prevent him from building another one that'll compete with this wonder, the patrons of Prague blinded him! As an act of vengeance, the clockmaker climbed on the tower and stopped the clock for 50 years. As if that's not macabre enough, one of the two mechanical angels that steps out of the clock tower to announce the hour is the death angel. Considering the fact that Kafka was born just around the corner from the crazy clock, it's easy to understand why the guy tended to write mostly stories of torment.
By the evening, I get back to the hostel and find to my dismay that the place is crammed with British youngsters that are busy surfing the internet in the lobby while drinking gallons of cheap but excellent Czech beer. From the flyers I find there, it seems that thousands of young Brits get here with low-cost flights for weekends of drinking and partying rather than to follow Kafka's steps. Finding a bar that's not crammed with the young lads around the hostel is really difficult.
What about any motor-related sites? While not exactly motorcycle-related, the grungy Cross Club disco is quite a site for real iron lovers. The place started up as a really small venue for friends and grew up to conquer a whole labyrinth of dark underground rooms where excellent techno music is played. How do you decorate a big club with almost no money? Send a heap of friends to an old vehicle depot belonging to the Czech army! Huge motors, tank gearboxes, suspension arms and axles hang from the ceiling and are powered by electric motors. And while they pump, grind and shake, they also move colored lights and projectors. Quite a treat for motorheads. Talking about clubs, it's here that one of the old adages about the Czech Republic is confirmed: The women are simply amazingly beautiful. Just thought that my dear MO-ridians might want to know.
Pretty women and all, after three days, the herds of tourists have gotten on my nerves. Prague has impressed me with its frozen beauty, much less with the authenticity of the people. My girlfriend had been here 15 years ago, and judging from her trip stories, it seems that little of the sweet melancholy the place had right after the fall of the communist regime is left.
I put my sights on a motorcycling target for a change. The GPS guides me to a god-forgotten place south of Prague: Brodce. Rings a bell? After the beautiful two-stroke experience I had in Saxony, I was hoping for more of the same in the town of Jawa/CZ. The lack of motorcycles on the road to Brodce worries me somewhat and, indeed, as I reach the place, it looks downright depressing. It’s a small and quite ugly industrial town, and when I do find the factory, I'm in shock. The Czechs have an amazing off-road heritage. Roger DeCoster and Brad Lackey rode CZs at one point in their careers, yet the old Jawa/CZ factory is a huge, ugly and run-down building with broken windows and a decaying facade. As I peek through a window into some of the spaces, there is still some activity going on here: a heap of crankshafts sits next to a lathe, ready to be machined. The gray surroundings stand in stark contrast to beautiful Prague and reveal how the place really looked like before the fall of the regime.
Continuing south, I reach the town of Brno, home to the Czech round of the MotoGP series, and unlike Prague, there are few tourists around here and the locals seems much more communicative. What makes my day is a little known landmark in the city. Mies Van Der Rohe, the father of modernist architecture and founder of the Bauhaus design school, built here one of his very few buildings before fleeing Nazi Germany to the USA. The Tugendhat villa which was built in 1928 must have been quite a sight in those days with its pure, Zen-like minimalism in a country that adores ornamentation. Even now, 80 years after it was built, the place still has a futuristic quality.
By evening, I reach one of the most important sites in Europe's history: Austerlitz. On the 2nd of September 1805, 202 years ago, one of the deadliest battles in history raged here. On one side, Napoleon with an army of 75,000 soldiers ready to show Europe who's the new boss. On the other side, a 73,000-strong coalition of the Russian and Austrian empires headed by their Czars. It was quite rare, even in those times, for actual kings to head their armies, and for that reason, this battle is known also as "The battle of the three Emperors." After nine hours of terrible one-on-one fighting, 23,000 Russian-Austrian solders and 6000 French found their death. Napoleon's victory paved his way towards ruling Europe and was so important that he commanded Paris's "Arc de Triomphe" to be built to commemorate the achievement.
By evening, I reach one of the most important sites in Europe's history: Austerlitz.
I park the K at the top of the hill that overlooks the vast valley of the battlefield and get the chills. The place looks like the ultimate playground for three emperors. A strange place to set my tent for the first time in this trip, since the ground here has absorbed so much blood. And yet I sleep here much better than in my noisy and messy hostel in Prague.
The day after, the highway leads me on to Hungary. The direction is Budapest. The customs guard at the border seems a bit confused: "Let's see, you were born in Argentina, have an Israeli passport, live in Italy, write for an American online magazine and ride a German bike owned by BMW. That's very interesting." Eventually he lets me in and at the first gas station I call a friend back home. "Haven't you seen the news? The police in Budapest are fighting in the streets with rebels, they burned Hungary's TV station the other day!" Sounds rather interesting to me... let's go then – gas it!
Indeed, judging by the speed that the Hungarians maintain on the fine highway, there aren't that many speed traps here, and my comfy great whale swallows up the last 200 miles to Budapest in a hurry. At one point it starts to rain heavily, but by raising the electric-controlled windshield to its top position, the Beemer slices through the rain with amazing efficiency, fending off the heavy drops.
When I do reach the city, to my disappointment, there's not too much going on. Maybe the rebels went to sleep? I drop off my luggage at my friend's house and set off to find a restaurant and maybe spot some flying Molotov cocktails. The reason for all the disorder? Someone had secretly taped the Prime Minister in a cabinet meeting while saying, "We swindled the people of Hungary," and then sent the tape to a local TV station. Fair enough.
By the morning I step out to a nearby cafe and notice straight away that Budapest is totally unlike the sweet dollhouse of Prague. It's truly grand, wide boulevards cross the city, and the huge buildings are an amazing mix of West meets East. The Turks ruled Budapest for a long period and definitely left their mark. The city is split in two halves by the Danube River. The West Side is called Buda, and you can probably guess what the East Side is called.
Armed with recommendations from my local friend, it's much easier finding the interesting spots. Taking a dip in one of the amazing Turkish Hot Springs is a nice treat, while there are also countless castles to visit. The one that sits on top of the hill overlooking town is regarded as the biggest royal estate of Europe. So far I haven't had in this trip any amazing culinary experiences, but this is about to change.
Hungarian kitchens have some serious reputation, and by evening I hook up with a Hungarian Motorcycle.com reader that wrote me once, asking advice before deciding to buy a Moto Guzzi Breva. He chooses a really nice restaurant where the Goulash and Porkolt dishes of cooked meat are outstanding. He also recommends trying the road that twists along the Danube towards the city of Estergom. Apparently this is popular biking road. The road itself fails to leave a big impression and feels downright unsafe to go fast on, but the lunch in Estergom was well worth the trip. My friend and I order a typical dish of fish soup with plenty of paprika thrown in that is truly amazing. These Hungarians sure know their chilis.
Hungarians have a sort of reputation for inventing things. Nikola Tesla was more of less the father of alternating current, and Budapest was among the first cities in the world to have an electric network. And the inventor of the ballpoint pen, Laszlo Josef Biro, was Hungarian too.
The place is really pleasant, and four days are hardly enough to see all what I want.
It's not for nothing that Budapest is called "Paris of the East." Nevertheless, my holidays are about to end. It's Saturday and I have to be back at work on Monday in Milan.
I pack my stuff for the last time on the K1200, which by now has become a good and trusty friend. Got 500 miles now till Munich, but it's really a child's game onboard this mega sport-tourer. First quick leg and I am in Vienna, amazed at how close it is. Another leg and I am close to the German border when I spot a familiar name on a road sign: Mattighoffen. That one should be more familiar: KTM's hometown. It's just that I've seen enough bike factories for one trip – basta.
The small road that leads me into Germany turns twisty as I start my descent from Austria, a last chance to see how the GT handles. Well, a lightweight ballerina it ain't, but for a huge and loaded battleship it sure knows how to swing.
Last miles till Munich and at the BMW factory there's another sleepy guard on duty. I unload my stuff, hand over the keys – game over. The K1200GT looks at me giggling; those 2000 miles were hardly a real test for him.
"Well, wait," I tell him. "Next time it's the North Pole – I'll show ya!"