By Ken Hegan for The National Post
I’m in a bar in Prague inside the ancient Hotel Neruda. It’s Sunday night, I’m painfully jet-lagged, and there’s a lunatic at the next table who’s flying into a rage.
He’s a short bull of a man, about 60, wearing a red soccer jersey under a battered blazer, and pounding his fist on the table.
With his pale blue eyes and curly receding hair, he looks like Paul Newman, except shorter and alive. He hunches over his Czechvar beer, and rages at the barkeep.
“I can’t bring my beer to my room?” he shouts. “What kind of city is this?”
He squints, glares and scowls at me. Great. There’s more than a million people in Prague, and I’m facing the angriest man in the city.
“What a jerk,” I think to myself. “He’d better not be on my study tour.”
Most people come to Prague to see the art, the astronomical clock or Kafka’s house. Or, if you’re Russian, Austrian or German, you visit Prague when you’re taking over the country.
I came to fix my broken life by biking drunkenly around the country. The Czech government invited me on a “study tour” of their South Moravia region. Basically, they’re hosting a wine-and-cycling trip for wine reviewers and other boozehounds.
I’d never heard of South Moravia. It sounded made-up, like a renegade state in a James Bond film that steals a nuclear warhead and threatens to blow up the North Pole. So I said, “sure,” because I figured South Moravia was probably filled with leggy brunette Bond girls who would woo me, steal my secrets, and then sell me out to the Russians. Why not? Life is short. Bring it on.
Our tour started early the next morning. And you know that guy who I didn’t want to be on the bike tour? He’s on the bike tour — and sitting right beside me on the bus.
But I quickly realized I was totally wrong about him. I don’t know what happened overnight, but sunlight transformed him into a charming Norwegian named Tore. That’s one thing I’ve learned about travelling. My first impressions are often wrong, especially when I’m in a nasty mood myself.
Tore only looked like he was glaring at me last night because his sight was ravaged by Leder’s disease, leaving him with only 5% vision. Despite that, Tore is a bike tour guide who’s travelled to 110 countries and met Pope John Paul II. Tore’s company is Bike for Peace and he’s been organizing international “peace rides” for 33 years.
Now, given all the wars raging around the world, biking for peace is about as effective as eating freedom fries to bankrupt France. Then again, Bike for Peace’s tour was in Northern Ireland in 1978. It was a war-torn mess then but perfectly peaceful now. Well done, Tore! For your next mission, we’re parachuting you and your 10-speed into lovely downtown Kabul.
The other people on our tour included two Italian wine critics and three Ukrainian women who didn’t speak a word of English and were all named Svetlana. I’m not making this up.
Everyone was most excited about the biking. The Czech Republic is perfect for bike tours. It offers a dense network of small roads that are ideal for cycling. They’re quality roads with very little traffic. You can hire a guide, or pick a self-guided tour with pre-booked accommodations.
You can choose a route that’s easy (like following a river downstream from Spindleruv Mlyn to Hrensko), moderate (Moravia to Bohemia, or the Czech Gothic Trail from Brno to Prague) or challenging (ride the densely forested Sumava Trail from Domazlice to the fairy tale, medieval town of Cesky Krumlov).
As for our tour … over the entire three-day trip, we biked a grand total of 95 minutes from Lednice to Valtice. Yep, that’s all they gave us. Granted, those 95 minutes were quite lovely. The area is called the “Garden of Europe” — we biked past castles, temples and ponds, and I only had to look at Tore’s rear end for about an hour.
The rest of my time in the Czech Republic I:
• Walked through drafty chateaus once owned by the powerful Liechtenstein family (Czech Travel Tip: the Liechtensteins owned everything);
• Chuckled at the sour looks on the Italian wine critics’ faces when they drank the local Pinot Gris (Czech wines are still young and sweet);
• Absorbed Tore’s advice on how I could live a wonderful life.
When Tore heard my marriage ended, he took my arm and said:
“When men divorce, you must not look back. You must not worry about why you broke up, young man. You will drown in negativity that way. Instead, for the year after your breakup, you should travel, experience the world. It opens you up to cultural exchange.”
Just then, Tore saw a pretty woman out the window.
“Stop the bus! I want to make a cultural exchange with the locals,” he shouted. [Note: Tore was a bit of a dog.]
Later that day, we were given a tour of Lednice Castle by a pretty 20-year-old guide. Tore took a shine to her right away.
“You sure look fit, Sara. What are your hobbies? You like gymnastics?”
“I like shooting,” she replied, which both shut him up and impressed him.
Later, I admitted to Tore that I didn’t think I was able to fall in love again.
“Everyone enters new situations and countries with handicaps,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulder. “Thinking too negative about a place before you’ve seen it … that’s a handicap. I have a handicap. My eyes are weak. But I see into your future, Ken, and it’s looking really amazing.”
My favourite experience was our night in the town of Valtice. We descended into the Valtické Podzemí wine cellar of the Sedlácek winery. Under the cool brick arches of a 700-year-old cellar, we tasted seven wines such as Rulandské modré (a terrific 2008 klaret) and a good 2008 white wine called Sylvánské zelené. The evening could easily have been nice and dull. But we had Tore as our team leader, and he insisted we must sing for our wine.
So we each sang a song from our home country. The Svetlanas sang a beautiful Ukrainian folk song, the Italians sang Arrivederci Roma. And I belted out a baritone version of Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi.
Then we all sang Que Sera Sera together. It was magical, like a miniature United Nations. I smiled as our voices boomed around the ancient cellar. When the song ended, we cheered and toasted the Czechs and “to life’s wonders!” Just then, I asked one of the Italian critics what she thought was the best wine in the world. She smiled and said, “The best wine depends on who you’re drinking with.”
In the end, maybe that’s the secret to finding peace and moving past your devastating losses. Gather great people in an inspiring location — and get bombed in an underground bunker.
• Travel supplied by CzechTourism and CzechTourism Praha. Visit KenHegan.com or on Twitter @KenHegan.