THE CZECH REPUBLIC

The Czech republic is, in many ways, the most western of those Central European and Eastern European countries that were, for so much of the second half of the 20th century, unwilling members of the Communist Bloc. From the point of view of the motorcycle tourist, this very westernization is both a strength and a weakness.

It is a strength because the Czech Republic is easy to deal with. Even before its accession to the European Union, it felt very much like an EU country: limited border controls, plenty of accommodation at all levels, English reasonably widely spoken (though German is a lot more used), and so forth. It is a weakness because it can make the country feel surprisingly un-exotic. The country with which it was formerly twinned, Slovakia (in the days of Czechoslovakia) is more exotic, but often less easy to deal with: stricter border controls, less accommodation, and so forth.

Then again, some of the things that make the Czech Republic most interesting are precisely a consequence of the country's historically Western European stance. The National Technical Museum in Prague has some superb Czech motorcycles (especially the 3-seater Bohmerland), Czech cars and Czech (and other) cameras: it is one of the best camera collections in any museum I have ever seen. And on the subject of cameras, Skoda Camera in central Prague (37 Vodickova, www.fotoskoda.cz) is possibly the best camera store I have ever visited, including the great New York dealers.

With all this in mind, the Czech Republic is well worth visiting, with delightful scenery, pleasant people, excellent (and very cheap) beer, superb food, and some very attractive towns and cities -- though I have to say that there's a lot of pedestrianization in the bigger cities, which can be a nuisance when you are riding a motorcycle which you cannot simply park and lock up in the way that you can a car.

Many towns and all cities maintain Information Centres which are typically open from 0900 to 1800 on weekdays (week-end hours are shorter). In the two we visited, the staff were extremely helpful and spoke good English.

Bear in mind that Czechoslovakia was nailed together after World War One from fragments of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, and consisted essentially of three provinces: Bohemia (in the west), Moravia (in the middle) and Slovakia (in the east). Slovakia split on New Year's Day 1993 so the Czech Republic is now Bohemia and Moravia (and Czech Silesia, if you're being pedantic).

The highly touted spas are expensive and pretentious, geared more towards Victorian-style 'cures' than towards rest and relaxation, and while Prague is undoubtedly one of Europe's great cities, it seems to me to have an unconscionably high opinion of itself. When I went into a Prague bookshop to buy a guide-book to help me with the present work, I found some fifty or sixty books on Prague, and only four or five indifferent picture books about the whole of the rest of the country.

The tourist web-sites are indifferent: www.czech.cz has rather less 'hard' information that I would have liked (and an awful lot of things that didn't interest me or, I imagine, anyone else much) and www.travelguide.cz is dedicated purely to selling you things, without giving you any real information about anything.

Many excellent maps and atlases are widely available inside the Czech Republic, though you will do better to go to a decent-sized bookshop in a fair-sized city if you want a good selection. We found the Freytag & Berndt 'Ceska republica' atlas very useful, with its scale of 1:200,000 (1 cm = 2 km or 1 inch = 3.16 miles). At approximately 17.5 x 23.5cm or 7 x 10.3 inches it is small enough to go into a tank bag, too. Go to www.freytagberndt.com or www.freytagberndt.cz. For still more detail, we were well taken with a 'Plan' map of the 'Three Borders' area (Czech Republic, Poland, Germany) which on the back has tourist information in all three languages (though not, regrettably, in English or French). The 1:75,000 scale is equivalent to 1 cm to 750 metres or 1.2 miles to the inch. There seem to be little or no publication data on the map save 'Phare CBC' and 'Projekt dofinansowano ze srodkow Unii Europejskiej'. Maps of other areas are, we believe, available on the same scale.

MOTORING AND MOTORCYCLISTS

By and large, Czech driving standards are on the unremarkable side of average, and much the same is true of Czech motorcycling. An alarmist statistic I found on the Web is that the accident rate in the Czech Republic is twice the EU average, but this looked a bit like breast-beating and special pleading. Certainly, I didn't feel particularly unsafe there, and I get more cowardly (but also more cunning) as I get older.

There are many more big motorcycles in the Czech republic than there used to be, both Czech-registered and ridden by tourists, but they are still not exactly common.

Helmets are required for both rider and passenger. When riding outside built-up areas, goggles or other eye protection (eg visor) are a legal requirement. A first aid kit is compulsory as is a set of spare light bulbs. Daylight riding lights are required at all times.

No-one is supposed to use horns in central Prague from 0900 to 1700 from 15 March to 15 October, or 0800 to 1800 the rest of the year.

ROADS AND RIDING

The best Czech roads are neither remarkably good nor remarkably bad, and the newer motorways (of which there are about 500 km) are very good; but many of the older roads are absolutely abysmal. As in Poland, the road bed on many country roads is simply not substantial enough for modern traffic, and the asphalt has been pushed all over the place creating deep ruts that do a very good job of steering your bike for you plus rippled mounds that bounce you about like a pea on a drum and could conceivably break your wheels. In towns, a manhole cover that is on a level with the surrounding road surface is the exception rather than the rule. Most are deeply sunken, but a few are raised. Riding very slowly is the only answer to such awful roads.

Motorways are paid for with a stick-on 'carnet' available from post offices, border posts and some filling stations. At 200 Czech crowns for one month (800 for the year) these are not expensive, but it rankles to have to pay the same as for a car, especially in view of the fact that you are not allowed to go as fast as they can (see below).

These carnets were introduced between our first trip and our 2003 trip, and I did not realize that they were required until the day before we left. When I enquired at a local tourist office (which I thought would be a good place to buy them) they gave me such a blank stare that I gave up; besides, I reasoned, I hadn't used the motorways yet, and I wasn't planning on using them. Well, I didn't, until a very badly-signposted detour pretty much forced me on to one. No-one checked whether I had the carnet or not, but I may merely have been lucky.

Right of way is the usual priority-to-the-right, unless otherwise marked; which it usually is, with the bigger road having priority. Trams and trolleybuses always have right of way.

For cars, speed limits are 50 km/h (31 mph) in built-up areas, 90 km/h (56 mph) on the open road, and 130 km/h (81 mph) on motorways and dual carriageways. Motorcycles are theoretically limited to 90 km/h on motorways and dual carriageways but no speed limits are meticulously observed in the Czech Republic. Look out for speed traps though: black cars near places where speed limits change. This is apparently all that most Czechs worry about.

The main things to note about overtaking are that on a dual carriageway it is legal to pass on either side, and that it is illegal to pass trams on the left. Otherwise, it's common sense. Parking is not permitted on the sidewalk (pavement) and motorcycles seem to be subject to all the restrictions that apply to other motor vehicles. Car parking is permitted only on the right (the near side of the road), and not within 5 metres (16 feet) of intersections, pedestrian crossings and public transport stops, or within 15 metres (50 feet) of railway crossings. If you park beside tramlines there must be at least 3.5 metres (12 feet) of clear space between you and the rails.

On the other hand, when we checked with a Prague policeman about a place where we had parked, he said, "It's not legal, but it's OK." Many of Prague's finest seem more interested in chatting to their colleagues -- and there are a lot of police in Prague -- than in actually doing very much about anything. This wonderfully laid-back attitude may be commendable, but you can't help wondering why there are quite so many of them. And there's no doubt that parking (cars or bikes) in central Prague is a nightmare.

WHEN TO GO

The weather in this entirely landlocked country is typically Central European, with warm (though rarely very hot) summers and fairly long winters which can be very cold and are often foggy. Average daily maximum temperatures in Prague rise above 10 degrees C, 50 degrees F, only around the beginning of April and stay there until late October; from June to August they top 21 degrees C, 70 degrees F.

The wettest months are June, July and August, all with over 50mm (2 inches) of rain falling on an average of 12 or 13 days a month, often in the form of thunderstorms. Paradoxically, these are also the sunniest months, in between the rain. Again, these figures are for Prague, in Bohemia; in Brno, to the east in Moravia, temperatures are a little higher throughout the year, so spring comes a little earlier, and summers are slightly longer but also wetter.

Quite honestly, anything from mid-April to mid-October should be good, though a great deal depends on altitude. The Czech Republic is not as mountainous as Slovakia, but it still has some very fair-sized peaks, and a surprising amount of the country is over 1000 metres (3300 feet).

PUBLIC HOLIDAYS

PRACTICALITIES AND PAPERS

Going into the country is much like entering any EU country, though they look a little more closely at your passport when you enter from a non-EU country.

You need a passport, which must be valid for three months after your planned departure date from the country.

Visitors from most European countries do not require a visa: the exceptions are Albania, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia (FYROM), Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Yugoslavia.

Visitors from most non-European countries do require a visa, with the following exceptions: Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Israel, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, Uruguay, USA. Tough, Australia and Canada! Visas are not issued at the border but must be arranged at the nearest Czech embassy or consulate in advance.

Modern EU-format driving licences are acceptable but for other countries (or if you still have a pre-EU national licence from an EU country) you need an International Driving Permit (IDP) as well. The minimum age for driving a car is 18, but it is 17 for motorcycles over 50cc and 15 for motorcycles under 50cc.

Otherwise you need the vehicle's registration document, a letter of permission from the owner if it's a borrowed bike, and proof of insurance.

There are no special health requirements, either from the Czech authorities or from the point of view of personal safety: once again, the Czech Republic is a perfectly normal European country from this point of view. The water is drinkable everywhere; anywhere that it's not, people will be sure to warn you.

Visitors from many countries can get free emergency medical treatment (paying only for drugs and other materials) under reciprocal health agreements, though obviously this does not apply to US nationals.

Once the Czech Republic is in the EU, normal EU customs limits will apply (free movement of personal effects). Until then, and for non-EU citizens afterwards, the limits are the same as the EU standard anyway with an 'other goods' limit of 6000 Czech crowns, about 200 euros or US dollars, or GBP 140.

Currency in excess of the equivalent of 350,000 Czech crowns per person (call it 10,000 euros) must be declared on arrival and departure.

On the way out, once, into Germany, we were asked to pull off to one side. We expected the bike to be searched but it wasn't. He just handed us our passports back and said thank you. We said, "Can we go," and he said, "Of course." That is the extent of our hassles (so far, anyway) on entering and leaving the Czech Republic.

SHOPPING AND TIPPING

Currency is the Czech crown (koruna) running at about 30-35 to the Euro; for ease of calculation, assume 25-30 to the US dollar or 40-50 to the British pound. Bureaux de change are widespread; hotels will change money; and hole in the wall money machines (autotellers) are reasonably widespread. Even respectably-sized towns may however have only one machine, where a comparable French or English town might have two or three. If that is out of commission -- as it sometimes is -- you may need to ride quite a bit further to find another.

Credit cards are very widely -- perhaps universally -- accepted by petrol (gas) stations, and by the more expensive hotels and big shops; but cheaper hotels, even quite good ones, and many restaurants, take only cash. Many places will accept euros as well as Czech crowns, and indeed a few quote their prices in euros, but you can't rely on it. Keep a 'float' of koruna or at least euros handy; do not be reduced (as we once were, because the only cash machine for miles around was out of order) to credit cards alone, as you may find it very hard to find somewhere to stay.

Shopping hours vary according to where you are. Out in the country, in the villages, shops tend to open earlier (anything from 0500 to 0800); take a lunch break; and close fairly early in the evening, usually at 1800 or before. They will also close on Sundays and (usually) Saturday afternoons as well. In the cities, lunch breaks are rarer, they may close later, and they are likely to be open on Saturday afternoons and quite possibly Sundays as well.

Banks, unexpectedly, keep longer hours that most shops: 0800 to 1800, again closing early on Saturdays. Restaurants tend to close fairly early: the last orders may be taken as early as 2100 in the smaller towns, though 2200 or later may be expected in Prague.

Tipping is normally done by rounding up the bill by about 10 per cent, though no-one is likely to object if you give more.

FUEL, OIL AND REPAIRS

The network of petrol stations is excellent -- you would have to try quite hard to run out of petrol -- and they are mostly open on Sundays. Almost all (all, as far I know) take credit cards. There are up to four kinds of petrol, Lead Replacement 'Special' 91 and three lead-free 'Natural': 92, 95 and (sometimes) Superplus 98. All octane values given are Research, in the usual European manner. Prices are at the lower end of the usual European range: many Germans cross the border just to fill up.

Most lubricating oils seem to be readily available at petrol stations, at prices that are so low I did not bother to check supermarket prices.

Repairs should be no problem: the ability of Czech mechanics is legendary. Parts may take a little longer to arrive than at home, but it should only be a matter of a day extra if they have to be special-ordered.

MOTORCYCLE HIRE

I have not yet been able to find anyone who hires motorcycles inside the Czech Republic but HC Travel should be able to rent you a machine in Britain (or some other European countries) with insurance for the Czech Republic: go to www.hctravel.com or www.hctravel.co.uk. Or hire in Germany which is obviously handier!

POLICE, ACCIDENTS AND EMERGENCIES

According to Czech sources, the Czech police will not go out of their way to help you, but equally, they will not look for ways to make your life difficult. Besides, unless you speak Czech, you may have some difficulty in communicating with them anyway.

The police need not be called to minor accidents if both parties are happy not to call them but they must be called when there is personal injury or if the parties cannot agree in writing a version of the events. It is a good idea (as ever) to call the police in order to smooth any subsequent insurance claims.

Emergency numbers are:

ABA -- Autoclub Bohemia Assistance -- covers the country for breakdowns, though I was not able to find out what the charges are (if any). Call 1240 for assistance.

FOOD

Czech food is remarkably adventurous; not in the sense of improbable (and often inedible) local delicacies, but in the sense of good, plain food with the kind of intelligent spicing that really lifts the taste without frightening off any but the most timorous of palates. Pork features heavily, as do dumplings and cabbage -- all standard Eastern European fare -- but everything is very well prepared, and by Western standards, a bargain as well. Game (in season) costs rather more but it is still not expensive.

Our second (and fairly brief) trip to the Czech Republic was because we were in Germany, fairly near the border, and vastly preferred the prospect of a good Czech meal to the prospect of a good German meal. It meant an extra hour or two on the road, and we were tired, but we decided it was worth it. On the third trip, when we ate at the Svejk in Frantikovy Lazne, the meal was particularly excellent, with the best garlic soup either of us has ever had, and lots of good beer: the bill was the equivalent of around 17.50 euros, under US $20, GBP 12.

Breakfast can be anything from German-style, with several kinds of bread, cold meat, cheese and more, to a fairly scanty Continental-style breakfast of bread, butter and a few spreads.

On the road, the numerous Moto-Rests sell very good food at very modest prices; the difficulty lies in resisting washing it down with Czech beer (see below).

DRINK

The first thing you need to know about drinking in the Czech republic is that the maximum permitted blood alcohol level is zero. This means, in effect, that you can never drink more than a litre or two of beer, once you have stopped riding for the day, and that you have to sleep it off. Drink any more than that, especially if you round it off with the delicious slivovice (sleevoe-vitza) and you will almost certainly have detectable alcohol in your bloodstream next morning. This does not seem to worry the Czechs unduly.

Regardless of how you may feel about the safety aspects of this, it is rendered doubly vexing by the excellence of the Czech beer. Beers are normally sold on draught, in sensible half-litre quantities, at wonderfully low prices: anything from about 12.50 crowns a glass (37 euro-centimes, 40 cents US, 25 pence GB) to about twice as much: pay more than 25 crowns, and you are probably somewhere pretty fancy.

Wines, even domestic Moravian wines, are inclined to be expensive as compared with the beer, and spirits are extremely variable in price, with imports running at two or three times the price of good local spirits including vodkas and slivovices but also a rather nice butterscotch-tasting rum and the best absinthe I have ever tasted. Becherovka is a celebrated local spirit, allegedly dating from the days when spas were the cutting edge in medicine. It certainly tastes medicinal.

There are plenty of cafe-bars and hotel-bar-restaurants, and (perhaps unexpectedly) the Moto-Rests noted above sell beer as well. But you'll only be able to enjoy them when you've stopped riding for the day.

For those who do not drink alcohol, or would prefer not to be nicked, there are excellent mineral waters. For those with long eye-teeth who do not drink... wine! consider crossing the border to Hungary or Romania (Transylvania). But watch out for the garlic.

ACCOMMODATION

As already noted, a wide range of accommodation is available at an equally wide range of prices. In September 2003, the cheapest room we took (at a small country bar-hotel-restaurant) was 816 Czech crowns for a double room with shower and toilet, including dinner and breakfast. Large quantities of excellent Czech beer pushed this up to around 950 crowns, or about 27 euros, US $30, or less than GBP 20. That's for two people, remember. The dinner was filling rather than memorable, but the beer was superb, and hey, look at the price!

At the other end of the scale, in the spa town of Frantikovy Lazne (near Cheb, in the west), a suite, with bathtub and shower and two WCs, one for the sitting room and one for the bedroom, cost us 54 euros, breakfast inclusive, plus a totally ridiculous 1.50 parking fee. We probably wouldn't have minded 60 euros all-in -- it was one of the best rooms we have ever stayed in, anywhere -- but adding on 1.50 euros for parking in the open in the hotel car park was just plain stupid. Separate fees for parking seemed to be normal in that particular spa.

In between, we have to mention the Hotel Drnholec, unsurprisingly in Drnholec, run by a Czech woman and her English husband: Daniella and John Wornell. The room, with private toilet and shower, was very good though not remarkable, but was very reasonably priced at 40 euros (week-end rate) and both the food and the service were outstanding. Also, they speak excellent English, which can be a useful introduction in any country.

Drnholec is a little village in the middle of nowhere but its great advantage is that it's an easy ride from Vienna and a lot cheaper than Vienna (we found it more pleasant, too): go to their web-site for directions, www.hoteldrnholec.cz. It's maybe 20 miles or 30 km from the E65/D2 motorway junction for Breklav, or you can do what we did and go via Laa an der Thaya in Austria via Hevlin, Hrabetice and Hsrusovany nad Jevisivku. This is about 15 km or 10 miles in total. The attraction of Laa is that it's a recreation-oriented (and not horribly expensive) spa.

Prices for rooms in many hotels are quoted per person, rather than per room, so check this carefully -- our ultra-cheap room was quoted as 408 crowns each -- and while breakfast is normally included, this is not invariably the case, so check this too.

Youth hostels are a relative novelty and have only started to flourish since the fall of communism but the Czech Youth Hostel Association www.czechhostels.com is a model of such sites. Prices range from around US $10 for a bed in a multi-bed dorm in a cheap hostel to over $30 for a single room.

There are plenty of camp sites, but I was not able to find out anything about 'wild' camping.

LANGUAGE

The Czech language is of Slavic origin, but is written in the Roman alphabet. It also has lots of diacritical marks and accents which are hard or impossible to reproduce reliably on the computer, especially the famous little curve above the C which turns it into a 'ch' as in the name of the country, Ceska republica.

Anyone who is not familiar with Slavic languages may have some difficulty with Czech -- I do -- but fortunately German is very widely spoken, and if you are both making fools of yourselves in bad German, it's not so painful. Many Czechs speak flawless German, on the other hand. Relatively few speak English, and even fewer speak good English.

CAPSULE VOCABULARY

DISCLAIMER

This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

last updated: 10/11/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks