In issue 5 of ABR, James Owens set out on an ill-fated, ill-informed journey to Ukraine. We catch up with him as he Czechs in to a biker bar in Prague…
My ride to Crimea had been cut short by bad weather and even worse roads. I’d limped out of Ukraine on my Honda Varadero and, with a mixed bag of emotions, I was heading back across Europe towards France. To do that, I would have to cross Poland and Germany. But then, I’m an adventure bike rider. I’m prone to changing my mind on a whim. This is what happened next…
‘Poland,’ I though to myself, ‘should be easy enough, right?’ I’d just ridden across this country on my way to Ukraine and had done so on a few other occasions, too. I knew the hostels look like rat holes and there was no way that Lola (my bike) was going to be left outside one, so making a quick dash back across Polish soil seemed like the best plan… Wrong! I’m riding long into the night already by the time I hit Katowice due to some trucker having jackknifed and cut off the main route.
So, I’m cold, tired, hungry and on my way back from a failed mission. It’s also my birthday happy birthday, James! That may sound sarcastic, but truth be told, I was loving this. There’s nothing better than falling flat on your face after your best efforts, only to have silly things go wrong. You have to have the mindset that laughs when faced with the absurd; you have to understand that the nature of life means the last laugh is always going to be on you!
I’d made some progress, though. Having pussied out some months back and fitted Lola with heated grips, I had warm palms at least. But it was raining and I was riding in fairly heavy traffic on the Polish version of a motorway, having to wipe my visor clear every few seconds… hold on! I had a Shoei. The rain should have be running off the visor, surely? ‘Great,’ I thought to myself, ‘the visor’s gone, too. C’est la vie.’ It was only when I started getting flashed by cars that I realised something was amiss. I lowered my left boot and felt resistance before I felt the road, like I was kicking through something. I picked on the full twin beams for a second and my vision was greeted with a flack-like explosion of white flakes, like tiny tracer bullets, as far as I dared to look. And then it dawned on me: I was in a snowstorm.
I laughed so hard my stomach hurt, but at the same time I slowed the bike down and looked for a cheap spot to call it a night. Being the well-prepared traveller that I am, I hadn’t packed a tent, but as it was my birthday I splashed out on an Ibis Hotel and had what felt like the most beautiful beer in the world. Sat at the bar, soaking wet, stinking and grinning, I supped that beer like Laurence of Arabia at an oasis, as I did the next four beers that came along.
After a few brews, ordering food seemed like a good idea. I don’t speak Polish, so it follows that I don’t read it either. Pointing at things on the menu worked though and I heard the immortal words, “Traditional soup?”, to which I foolishly replied, “Yes please!”. What I learnt is that ‘traditional’ doesn’t always mean ‘best’ and Borsht soup, made with boiled egg and ham and soured stuff is as disgusting as it sounds. I ate the lot. Had I not been within sprinting distance of a toilet, I don’t think I’d have been so brave! After a night of beer-induced rest I was soaring back across Poland to Germany. There were traces of snow for maybe 30 miles but nothing serious and the weather was picking up the closer I got to Deutschland huzzah!
But then, in Germany, I was met with a sign on the autobahn: Dresden or Praha CZ. Almost activating the ABS, I cut to the hard shoulder and sat looking at the sign. I’d not been to CZ Land before. The large blue autobahn sign with its social trust-inspiring white letters looked down at me. ‘Go go on, James, you know you want to,’ they seemed to say… so I did.
I chuckled and sang to myself as I rode along. Was I making a bad situation worse? I silently hoped so! But by now it was dry and sunny – even approaching something like ‘warm’ – and my spirits lifted as soon as I’d made the decision.
Riding up over the mountain passes (which surprised me, I have to say. Turns out CZ has rather a lot of them), the temperature dropped very rapidly. As I climbed higher patches of hard-packed frozen snow began appearing on the side verges of the pass road. ‘Oh, crap,’ I thought, ‘not another blizzard.’ But no! Coming back down the other side of the mountain, things began warming up again and the long full road descended into a frenzy of twisties at its base – glorious!
I defy anyone not to love the ride into Prague. The road twists and turns and sweeps and dips past amazing little villages, all pressed into the lush green back drop of the mountains. The odd biker coming the other way flicks you a cheery wave as he or she rides on. There’s not a car in sight. It’s perfect. I could have stayed on that road for all eternity.
So it was that the ride was over too soon and I found myself in Prague. ‘Oops’ was my main thought as I pulled the bike over the bridge that brings you into Old Prague Town. I now realised I didn’t know anyone, or the layout of the town, or where I’d be sleeping that night. I had a smoke and planned my attack. Looking into the town, the vista was beautiful with towering spires striking the skyline, cobbled streets, trams, historic buildings… and throngs of tourists. Well, you can’t have everything!
Among the clamour I could just make out the impressive angular architecture of the Prague Hilton Hotel.
‘That’ll do, ‘ I thought, ‘for directions to a hostel.’ Pulling my dirt-oil-and snow-stained bike back into the car park of the grand hotel, I was greeted with a smile by the doorman. A real doorman, whose job it was to open the door for you and not to break up booze-fuelled fights over birds. I was impressed.
I asked about hostels in the area as I wouldn’t be staying in the Hilton. ‘Why not?’ the doorman asked me and I laughed. ‘How much are the rooms?’ asked I. He smiled and said for a single room it was £250 a night. I smiled back and said, ‘That’s why not’. He chuckled and said with a discreet hushed tone, ‘I understand, sir’. Perhaps he thought I was one of Charley and Ewan’s mates. In I went anyway and spoke to the Concierge, looking like something from the Bash Street Kids and smelling like a New York cab driver. I stood next to a woman who was head-to-toe in Prada. While she asked about a private Spa in the area I got my printed list of hostels.
Ensconced in my £20-a-night three-bedroom suite overlooking Old Prague, I unpacked my top box and thought about things to go and see and do.
‘Biker bar‘ was my first brain wave and there must be one in Prague, I guessed. I asked the girl on the hostel desk. The workers at these places are invaluable, they know just about every cheap deal and bar in the city from where to get a free walking tour of the town to where the biker bars are. Brilliant! The biker bar is at the ‘dodgy’ end of the town, on the outskirts, she explained. Wonderful! Pass me the address, I’m off to Motoraj Club, Novovyso!
Tattooed blokes and leather clad women abound here and just about everyone speaks English. Live local rock bands play in dark sweat-infused rooms and large, soft leather sofas nestle among the bike and rock music memorabilia on the walls. A friendlier place you could not hope to find as a biker. Asking if my bike would be safe outside, the barman just smiled and leaned over the bar. ‘Dis is Motoraj’, he said with a wink and enough bass in his voice to impress Louis Armstrong. I took that to mean yes and said no more about it.
Leaving my helmet on the bar, I bounded into the band room and enjoyed the music. There was some great local talent who sang with the kind of passion that only comes with aspiring bands. Original works mixed in with some contemporary songs from the likes of ACDC and Iron Maiden. As the beer flowed (in them, not me. I would be riding back to the hostel) the bar got louder. I was bear hugged and back slapped as questions about where I’d been were screamed in my ear over the music. By the end of the night, (well, by the time the band stopped. They shut, and I quote: “When we fucking well feel like it.”) I was on stage singing Bat Out of Hell very badly.
I awoke the next morning after a great night out and found myself in the mood for some culture. My free tour of the town was meeting at 11am, as stated on the poster in the reception of the hostel. So off I went. And what great fun! Being walked around Prague by my American guide, I was delighted to be told not only the history of the place but also little insights into what goes on where and how to get involved in the local culture. It’s definitely the most informative tour I’ve done.
The amount of history in Bohemian Prague amazed me. My day was falling away too fast as I walked the streets, listened to the live jazz bands playing in the square and ate my fill from the various vendors selling Old Town Ham – huge slabs of pig on a spit turning before your eyes. The smell that’s produced wafts into the cobbled alleyways and leads you back to the square. A hungry man will never get lost in Prague.
The city is busy during the day, even during the off season, but at night she really comes alive with music clubs and bars galore. I went for Bily Konicek Restaurant & Jazz Club, the oldest jazz club in Prague, hidden away in a basement off the main town square. It reminded me of the famous Cavern Club in my home town of Liverpool.
Bily Konicek’s is quite and dark with a small stage. I adore music and as I sat at my little table down front, I closed my eyes, smiling to myself as my foot tapped along. It must have been because I clearly didn’t care about being ‘reserved’, lost in the music as I was, that the musician started chatting to me and inviting requests. By the end of the evening I was on stage and destroying a version of Wonderful Tonight, but the band was superb and I was honored to have been given the last song of the evening.
By morning, I was packed up and heading off on the road out of Prague towards England. But I still had a smile on my face as I thought about making a return visit; what a wonderful place.
James stayed at: Travellers Hostel, Dlouhá 33, 110 00 Praha 1, Czech Republic…
Also known as the Prague Astronomical Clock, the Orloj was installed in 1410 on the southern wall of the Old Town Square. Legend has it that the Old Town councillors blinded its clockmaker Master Hanus with a hot poker once work on the clock was completed, so he wouldn’t be able to build another such instrument anywhere else which might overshadow the beauty and fame of the Orloj. Master Hanus then allegedly asked his apprentice to take him to the clock, where upon he deliberately damaged it so seriously that nobody could repair it. Those who attempted to do so either died trying or went mad…