Valtice-Lednice

Noble rot in Moravia's wine country

I'm sitting on a terrace, sipping a glass of local ryzlink and listening to marsh birds twitter in the pond just beyond our parked bikes. Near my left foot, a line of gray bricks marks where Austria used to meet Moravia.

Hraniční zámeček, the Border Chateau, was neatly bisected by the provincial boundary until 1920, when the young nation of Czecho-slovakia expanded a few kilometers south so that the rail line between Břeclav and Znojmo would not have to pass through Austria. The Austrians, freshly divested of Moravia (and the rest of their empire) by World War I, were in no position to object.

We had come to bike the Moravian wine country but found ourselves on an enchantingly odd ride through the area's ancien regime. The chateau is one of several imposing, incongruous classical monuments dropped into the forests around Valtice and Lednice in the early 1800s by the Liechtenstein nobles who had the run of the place. Columned Olympian shrines, Moorish minarets and huge triumphal arches appear suddenly along trails or around bends, like remnants of some extinct civilization.

Which, I suppose, they are: the extravagant legacy of people with little better to do than lavish money on grand Romantic follies. The Liechtensteins spent generations remaking this landscape, having been left the richest family in the area by the 17th-century expulsion of non-Catholic nobles, says Jan Richter, historian at the Regional Museum in nearby Mikulov.

"It was a common Renaissance aesthetic concept of 'cultivating' the natural environment," Richter says. "What makes the Valtice-Lednice area unique is the fact that they managed to keep working on the project for about 300 years and invested an incredible sum of money into it."

The overall effect is charming, silly and a bit eerie, especially at the statue-studded Rajsta Colonnade, so close to the reconstituted Austrian border that it was off-limits to the public through the Communist era. It's like the scene in the 1970s cheese-fi movie Logan's Run where Michael York, lamming it from some futuristic underground dystopia, stumbles upon the ruins of the US Capitol.

The Border Chateau isn't quite that ghostly, even if the hotel and restaurant that now occupy its classicist bulk are ominously still. Our stiff-legged waiter has the place more or less to himself. A puppy sniffs at a gully where the Iron Curtain might have been if not for a minor land snit. We pay our bill and pedal off.

NEED TO KNOW
Arriving: Mikulov, with its charming square and reconstructed castle, makes a good base. It's about 250 kilometers from Prague by car or four hours by bus or train (change in Brno or Břeclav).

Exploring: A 40-kilometer bike loop from Mikulov to Valtice and back will take you by most of the classical follies; detour another 10 kilometers through Lednice for the lot. (If you want to do less pedaling you can cover part of the distance on one of the bike-friendly local trains.) Rides, maps and advice are available from Greenways Travel Center (Náměstí 32, 519 512 203, info@gtc.cz).

Sleeping, eating, drinking: Pension Anna (Vrchlického 8, 728 631 804, tic@mikulov.cz) offers kitchen-equipped rooms and an attentive hostess for Kč 600 a night plus a nominal charge for breakfast. Hotel Reva (Česká 2) has decent pastas and pizzas alongside Czech standards. U obřího soudku (Náměstí 24) is a good spot for a light bite or after-dinner drink.

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