In Europe it seems different countries have their own unique “tourism claims to fame”. In France it may well be the haut cuisine, fashion and art. Austria has a world renown tradition of theatre and desserts (read Strudel) that are worth dying for. And then there’s the Czech Republic.
A century ago the Czechs were the top economic dogs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But after surviving almost half a century of Communism, the country has found itself entering the 21st century markedly behind their Austrian neighbors. Despite their slow start, the Czechs has emerged in better shape than many of its Eastern Bloc cousins with an average GDP per capita at purchasing power parity of $27,100 in 2011, which is 85% of the EU average.
The principal industries are heavy and general machine-building, iron and steel production, metalworking, chemical production and the making of a host of other simple manufacturing products. Its main agricultural products are sugarbeets, fodder roots, potatoes, wheat, and hops (what more do you need to make a fine pilsner?). A growing and increasingly important industry for the country today is tourism.
Since their currency is relatively weak compared to the Euro, local goods – particularly food, beer and wine are exceedingly inexpensive. This has made Prague (with a rich history jammed with all sorts of monuments) and its surrounding cities a principal destination for visits from swaths of German families, broke student travellers and English stag parties. While the country has sometimes faced criticism in its bigger cities for rampant pick-pocketing and over-charging tourists, its countryside is increasingly coming into its own as a destination spot for a particular niche: European and North America’s cycling community eager to experience Czech food and culture without the headache of the tourist trap cities.
Thanks to an influx of millions of Euros investment, the Czechs are leveraging their cheap currency (and hence cheap food), their world class beer (hit a different region and try a different type), incredible Central European historical monuments and a vast network of 24,000 miles of color coded farming roads to create a virtual cycling Disneyland.
The project was originally inspired by the Hudson River Valley Greenway, a revitalization project in New York that has spurred recreation and culture along the riverfront from Westchester County to Albany.
According to an article in the New York Times, the Greenways project is the brainchild of Lubomir Chmelar, a retired architect who splits his time between New York City and Mikulov, a small southeastern town near the Austrian border. Since 2005, the country has been blanketed by millions of red, blue, yellow and green trail markers. The trails use the patchwork of old country roads, forested trails, hiking paths and small town centres to guide cyclists through the heartland of the republic.
The Czech people seem to be taking to the new and rapidly growing tourist tradition. Many pubs, wine caverns and small restaurants have sprung up along the main cycle routes. Bike stores adorn every mid-sized town square (next to the super-kitsch and somewhat tacky tourist traps). A flat tire or bewildered look at the map quickly leads to a friendly helping hand from a local. No one smiles in this tiny country, but most people seem to be very helpful.
This summer my wife and I embarked on a self-guided cycle tour through the south of the country climbing through sleepy villages and dozens of ancient towns of Moravia and Bohemia. The weather was similar to Vancouver with a mix of sun and clouds with the temperature hovering in the mid to low twenties.
Because our cycle trip meant we were on the road early and for most of the day, museum touring was kept to a minimum. Most closed within an hour or two of our arrival. That was fine with us. Our highlights of the trip were not the old museums or churches (we’d seen plenty of these in Paris and Vienna earlier in our trip) but the impromptu rock concert in the pouring rain in front of a three century old palace maintained by the House of Liechtenstein or sampling the delicate carp delicacies of the fish ponds of Trebon.
If you’re looking for a unique off the beaten path experience that combines exercise, great food and country-side sight seeing, consider the Greenways. You won’t be disappointed.