A Travellerspoint blog

Germany

No minster in Munster?


View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

The back garden of the B&B in Vreden was scattered with life-size metal sculptures, and the first to greet you was a life-size crocodile, somewhat surprising in a sleepy German town. I had been warned that my room wasn't quite 'ready',but what the owner actually meant was 'not quite yet built'. She was having a loft conversion done, and while there was some semblance of walls and wiring, there wasn't what you'd ordinarily call a light-switch, and although there was a door to the room, it wasn't anywhere near the room itself, but leaning up against a wall on the other side of the house. The room consisted of a couple of camp beds, and despite everything else was clean and habitable, and after my 100km dash, I was about ready to sleep anywhere. I wandered into the centre to find a plate of carbohydates for dinner, then wandered a little further to find a convenient bench close to an open wireless network for a spot of wifi-jacking. (The B&B was supposed to have internet, but the owner had ripped out all the equipment earlier that day in a bout of paranoia). I was struck by how close to the border I was, and yet how quickly the lingua franca changed. Particularly now there is nothing more than a sign to mark the boundary between countries, much like there is within the United Kingdom, it left me wondering what effect political union will have in Europe in blurring languages at border towns over the next generation.

I had no idea where I was going to be staying the following night, or even where I'd be. It depended largely on the weather which seemed somewhat erratic. It was due to be sunny in the morning, then rain all afternoon. There not being much to hang around for in Vreden, I decided to head off and see how far I got. If I could make it all the way to Muenster, 75 km away, then that would be ideal.

I didn't set off in the end until 10am, but as the R1 route took a much-extended scenic route, there were lots of oppportunities for short-cuts without compromising quality of environment much. The few short stretches I was following a main road, there was always a separated cycle path, so high-speed traffic was never a problem. However, while I had three methods of following the route - on the GPS, paper maps and signposts - it was still possible to take a wrong turn, especially when these three options didn't agree with each other. At one point, I chose to follow the signposts and regretted it as I ended up on a track that got muddier and muddier - too difficult to stay on the bike in points, and not ideal for walking in sandals. I had to give that up as a bad job and retreated back to one of my other routes.

Stopped on a country road

Stopped on a country road

I could see the rainclouds gathering in the distance behind me, readying themselves to race me to the city, so apart from a couple of brief road-side pauses, I continued nearly 50km before a lunchtime break in pretty Billerbeck - and that was just to a bakery and a town bench.

I had expected the weather to have beaten me by now, but I braved onwards. It looked like I might reach Muenster that day. I had originally not expected to get there for another day and had arranged a couch to surf for Thursday night. I texted my host, Babsy, to see if I could come a day earlier.

Signpost near Munster

Signpost near Munster

Then, a kilometre outside Billerbeck, I felt the drops of rain. I found the shelter of a couple of trees on the road-side just in time before the dark cloud let rip, and I busied myself finding and attaching the waterproof covers to my luggage. I also pulled out my raincoat, ready to wear it for the first time on this trip, but no sooner than I had done so, the rain stopped. The cloud seemed to disappear into thin air, and I rode in sunshine all the way to Muenster.

When I reached the city, I tried texting and phoning Babsy again, but got no answer, so I took the last available bed at the local youth hostel. This was just 1km from the city centre on the edge of Lake Aa. Someone was desperate to be first in the list when they named that. While the bed in a shared dorm was not as cheap as I remember hostels to be at €27, an evening buffet meal for €5.50 was excellent. The rain had started again by now and I spent the evening catching up on my Dutch diary entries - more than one of you had wondered what had happened to my blog - but with much of the day taken up with cycling, and finding decent internet not easy, it was easy to slip behind on ths.

I didn't sleep particularly well in the dorm; no sooner had the last person come in to go to bed, it seemed that the first early riser was clattering around having a shower and packing to leave. I'd not helped myself by forgetting that I had to make the top-bunk bed, and once I'd remembered, the light was already off and I was keen not to make too much noise, so the ensuing mess that might otherwise be called bedclothes were lumpy and uncomfortable.

I tried to contact Babsy again in the morning, both by phone and email, but resigned myself to searching foralternative accommodation that night - it was time for a rest-day in Muenster in any case. By lunchtime I had an email back from her; she realised she'd mistyped the phone number she gave me so had no idea I'd been trying to reach her. All was good - I'd explore the town for a few hours before heading over to her place.

Muenster is famous for being as much a cycling-city as any Dutch town. Bikes tend to be parked not in ones and twos, but in dozens and hundreds, on every corner and anywhere there's a bit of free space. Rarely do people lock the bike to a fixed object - there just simply aren't enough of them to go round. They just prop it up on the stand, nestled among other bikes (what's the collective noun for bikes?), and turn the key on the build-in lock, which prevents the back wheel from turning. Of course, bikes do get stolen from time to time, but that's just the way it is. Cars get stolen from time to time, but we don't throw a ball and chain round a tree to keep it in place. The built-in stand is an absolute necessity... and back in my day (the early 1600s) all bikes came with a kickstand of some sort. It was part of the bike, just like the wheels and handlebars. But when I bought this bike and asked for a kickstand, they looked at me like I was mad. 'What do you want that for?'. Well, duh. It took them 6 weeks to get one from their distributor, but I'm glad I persevered - every time I stop on a country lane for a break, or in busy towns with nowhere obvious to lean the bike against, it gets used. The only argument they could give me for not having one was, they claimed, it would make the bike less aerodynamic and weigh it down. Clearly they hadn't actually seen one in a while.

So Muenster is Germany's cycling city, huh? So WHAT'S WITH ALL THE COBBLES?!!! At least it gave my bones a god shake in lieu of a much-needed massage. There was also some confusion (to me) about where in the Altstadt you could actually cycle. Some bits were pedestrian-only zones, some allowed bikes, some only between certain hours, most (but not all) one-way streets allowed bikes in both directions. To confuse it further, signs were often placed with a symbol of a bicycle and the word 'frei'. Talk about amibiguous... does this mean 'free of bikes', or 'bikes are free to go here'. It's the latter, but I still have to pause for thought whenever I see the sign.

Munster

Munster


One of the smaller bike parks

One of the smaller bike parks


Munster Promenade

Munster Promenade


Munster Chinese Art

Munster Chinese Art


Archways in Munster

Archways in Munster

After a couple of hours exploring this charming city (full of DOZENS upon DOZENS of churches, though none of themare actually called the Minster), I went back to the Youth Hostel to collect my bags, then pedalled round the leafy Promenade to Babsy's address. Most city Couchsurfers are in flats or small houses,but this was a large house not far from the centre. Babsy occupied the attic floor, but shared the house with several generations of her family - it used to be one big family home, but is now subdivided into floors. As a child, the attic was where they used to hang out the washing, but was big enough to convert into a two-bedroom apartment with lounge, small kitchen and bathroom. I spent the evening with Babsy and her brother, and some of her friends including Julian,a tall airline pilot, and his girlfriend Lily who I decided must be the tallest woman in the world. We sat in their parent's kitchen eating traditional Westfalian food and sampling the local brew. This was to be a pitstop before going out to a party (or clubbing, I'm not sure which), but we were still there at 1 a.m., and after a week on the bike, I was flagging, so eventually passed up on the early-morning 90s disco music experience.

In the morning, I let myself out, bypassing the offer to raid her parents fridge for anything I could find for breakfast (I didn't feel entirely comfortable doing that!), instead finding a bakery on the way out of town.

The cycling was feeling easier, if not easy, and I found myself less interested in stopping to see places, pausing long enough for a rest and then onwards once more. One of these rest stops was a cafe I spotted on the other side of the street. Like any good German, I waited at the pedestrian crossing. And waited, and waited. Eventually, we could get across. As I sat at an outside table with my sandwich and drink, I watched other people waiting and waiting at this crossing. Geekily, I timed the phasing. This was a junction of a not particularly major road, with a side road running off it. The main road was given a massive 7 minutes of green light before pedestrians could cross, and cars turn from the side road. What interested my here was the behaviour of the people waiting to cross. In the UK, there wouldn't have been anyone there after 7 minutes - even the most die-hard waiters would eventually have taken the opportunity to cross in the many gaps between traffic. But while I sat enjoying my lunch, I saw people tap their feet, look at their watches, jab the button repeatedly. Eventually one man broke ranks, and darted across, looking very shifty as he did so. Anywhere else, this bravery would be joined by others like sheep in a flock, but no-one else dared break the red-man rule!

Posted by bhambidge 12:24 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Up, up and away


View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

The cycling is getting easier, and the aches and pains less noticeable, though Sudocrem seems to help with saddle sores (though parents: what's with Sudocrem? - it's horrible stuff to wash off your hands, especially if you're trying to be sparse with the soap).

There's a fair way to go yet

There's a fair way to go yet

The ride to Guetersloh was pleasant but uneventful, mostly cross-country, through farmland (with all the country smells that entails), then skirting round the outskirts of Harsewinkel, then stopping for an ice-cream before cruising into Guetersloh. Famous only for being the home of washing-machine manufacturer Miele, I didn't spend any time exploring this town, but went straight round to my host for the evening, Svenja. Once again, a very friendly host. Conversation flowed, we popped out for pizza, fixed her computer, out again for a pint at the pub, then a comfortable night's sleep and I was on the way again.

Sunday held some apprehension. I'd been on the levels for so long, but today I'd have to face a hill! How would I cope? Would I manage it? A little way out of town, I stopped at a roadside kiosk for some strawberries. They were being sold in the most enormous punnets, but I asked for just a few - she could see I couldn't carry more, and she dug out a smaller box and half-filled it for me. "Present!" she said. No charge. I then explained what I was doing, and she and the other waiting customer were so impressed, and waved me on my way. I enjoyed the strawberries as I rode along, trying to ensure I didn't drip juice on my clean white shirt. They were the tastiest strawberries I think I've ever had. All perfectly firm and the right colour; just delicious, and spurred me along.

Surely Unweltfreundlischewiederaufbereitunghof?

Surely Unweltfreundlischewiederaufbereitunghof?

Many of the towns and villages seemed to have Saturday markets; often the equivalent of our car boot sales with all sorts of junk being sold. They were very popular, and some of them even had an entry fee. That put me off browsing, so I pedalled on. I had to watch my route a bit here; I was keen to go over the hill the easiest way, but it took some finding to get across country to the right way. I needn't have worried too much about the gradient - it took some effort of course, but it was all manageable, and a pretty diversion through the Teutoburger forest led me down the other side into the town of Detmold. I hadn't ruled out stopping here, as I didn't know how onerous the hill would be, but instead I passed a couple of hours in a pub garden (finally opening my reading book for the first time) before heading over the next hill to Horn Bad Meinburg.

I don't know either

I don't know either

I had intended to stay at the Youth Hostel here, but they wouldn't let me for some obscure reason, so I rang ahead to a guest house. I arrived to be greeted by one of the two sisters who run the place. I told her about my trip, and she was so excited. After she had shown be to my room, she turned up again five minutes later to say that they had been talking about me, and wondered if I would mind if they contacted the local newspaper to tell them about my journey. I agreed, and thought no more of it. In the morning, I went down to breakfast, and as every other guest arrived, one sister or other would tell them about me. 'Well, you'll never believe who we have here. Our guest, Mr Hambidge, is cycling all the way from London to Warsaw, and raising money for WaterAid'. And I'd repeat the story to them again in broken German, wishing I'd bothered to memorise some of the key words. Sister number 2 apologised that they hadn't managed to get hold of a reporter, as it was the weekend, but that they'd write something up themselves, if I didn't mind. Then just as I was leaving the breakfast room, in rushed excited sister number one to say that a local reporter was coming after all to interview me, and could I stay until half past ten? Of course I could.

I've not spoken a huge amount of German since school, and my efforts were more akin to leprosy than rust, but neither the reporter nor the sisters speaking more than a few words of English, I managed to battle through his questions, and even embellished on some of the details. We went outside and loaded up my bike for a posed photo, then when the reporter had gone, the sisters took it in turns to have their own photo taken with their new-found celebrity.

They refused to charge me a penny for the night's stay, and sister number two produced a packed lunch that she'd prepared for me. Sister number one then dashed back inside, and returned to present me with a boiled egg that she'd cooked for me specially. Before they waved me off down the street, they asked my permission to display the newspaper article (assuming it was published, of course) in their display cabinet in the hallway. How could I refuse anything to two such lovely and friendly ladies?

The sisters at Bad Meinberg

The sisters at Bad Meinberg

Posted by bhambidge 13:10 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (4)

Heart of Harz

I had a decision to make. I'd stayed somewhat off the route, and there was an easy shortcut that bypassed the peak of the hill. Or I could backtrack slightly, go up the hill and see the sight at the top. Lazy or virtuous?

The free night's accommodation pushed me to be virtuous, and as I started to climb the hill, the heavens opened. No cafe nearby to duck into, I donned my rain-gear for the first time and faced the elements. The Externsteine is often referred to as Germany's 'Little Stonehenge', though I'm not entirely sure if it's an in-place rock formation or carried there. Certainly there's something about the light shining through the right way at the solstice.

Externsteine

Externsteine

The path up through the wood was steeper than I'd had to deal with so far, but the trees offered me some shelter from the rain, and the surface was very good. Back out the other side, I had easy paths running alongside a small river, and I found I could race along at 30km/hour even on the flat. I had more power in my legs than a week ago, and the hills had helped strengthen them further. When the route turned uphil through the fields, I slowed but wasn't always finding myself switching down to the granny gear.

Which way?

Which way?

By lunchtime, the sun had come out properly. I'd faced rain and hills together in the morning, and survived.

Sunday roads are very quiet. No shops are open, and large lorries are not permitted to drive on Sundays. The towns and villages are almost ghostly, unless you pass through at the start or end of a church service. I found a pub with a few drinkers sitting at the bar and checked the kitchen was open. A full menu of 18 dishes was presented - all of them schnitzel. I settled for the 'devils' schnitzel (well, it was Sunday) served with a pepper sauce. The food soon arrived and the plate was overflowing. A huge slab of breaded meat with a pile of fries and a salad garnish. On a separate plate came a side salad - you could tell that even the salad had a salad garnish on the side. All this cycling was making me very hungry, but even I couldn't finish it.

Largely a gentle downhill for the rest of the day to Hoxter made for a pleasant, easy ride, and I sailed into the town about 4pm. I checked the map for the location of the youth hostel. I checked it again, turning it around. Surely some mistake. The direction of the youth hostel would appear to be incorrectly marked near the top of the most enormous hill. No-one had told me that. I checked again, and set off, a bit miffed, having thought I'd done my work for the day. I found myself very quickly in the lowest gear, determined to tackle this hill on the pedals rather than walking. I could see a large building in the distance - the hostel. At least I had a target to aim for. It felt like a 1 in 1 incline all the way up, and long before I reached the building I was puffing and panting, wishing I hadn't bothered with any luggage for the month. As I approached the building, I saw a sign for the youth hostel... pointing FURTHER UP THE HILL. This wasn't it at all, it was a school. So I kept going, crawling up in second place to a tortoise. I could see the top of the road not too much further ahead so fixed my eyes on that and counted the revolutions of the pedal. I got to the top! Only to find it wasn't the top at all... just a bend in the road, as the gradient got steeper. I was now basically riding vertically up a cliff-face, my wheels gripping to the road surface from a combination of sheer force of pedalling and some kind of magic curse. I tried to cycle from side to side, the way you can walk up a hill to make it easier, but soon found this doesn't work so well on a bike. Soon, finally, at last, the entrance to the actual Youth Hostel appeared - the real one, not a mirage, and a muttered under my breath some kind of self-congratulatory blaspheme, and a vow never to come here again.

Well of course, the hostel, only having two guests that night, wasn't doing evening meals. I'd have to go into town. And you know where that is, don't you? I considered trying to find some abseiling gear to hire, but set off again down the hill, this time on foot, for the mile-long trek down to the town centre, knowing I'd have to face it once more that evening.

The town was absolutely stunning; most of the buildings in the centre were up to 500 years old, and have been kept as close as possible to their original form, half-timber with colourful decoration and ornate writing along some of the beams. I would later see much more of this in other towns like Einbeck and Goslar, so is obviously characteristic of the region.

Typical Hoxter building

Typical Hoxter building

Down the hill again in the morning was a very careful affair - I could feel that my brakes weren't in top condition, and I daren't let the bike go more than walking pace. I found a bike shop to replace the brake pads before continuing on my way.

I had a few miles of flat alongside a river before heading back uphill again. Like a child dragging a sledge up a hill to be rewarded with a few seconds of blissful speed downhill, I spent quite a lot of this day alternating between stamina and speed. I decided that endless flat can be tedious, but cycling hills is uneven: timewise it feels like you're always going up, bevause the downs are over soquickly. And so often you have to waste hard-earned freewheeling on the brakes because of rough surface, tight bends or junctions or oncoming traffic. Worst is when there's a junction at the bottom of the hill, and you have to face the next uphill from a standing start again instead of using the momentum you'd built up.

Thought for the day: why do we consider heaven to be up, when all cyclists know it's downhill?

Harz mountains ahead

Harz mountains ahead

I was being very lucky with the weather overall - so far just the one monring of rain, and usually overcast or sunny (never too hot) with little wind. I made good progress to Bad Gandersheim where I stayed overnight. The next day was much the same, though the hills were becoming more numerous and pentiful - I was now skirting the edge of the Harz mountains. This still involved a lot of country lanes through cornfields, and butterflies danced around me as I sped along (or heaved myself uphill). The biggest clue that I'd reached the Harz mountains was the signs for the R1 cycle route had changed to include the symbol of a witch on her bicycle, broomstick safely stowed behind. I'd follow these signs for the next 2 days as I crossed the Harz region.

Following the witches

Following the witches

But as I got into the wooded areas, the going was much more rough. It was muddy under the trees where there hadn't been enough sunlight to dry the path, and the bike slid around with its narrow road tyres. I concentrated hard to navigate a course that was as smooth and dry as possible, but slipped a couple of times, and wished I hadn't worn sandals that day!

To make things harder still, my Sat Nav had given up on marking the R1 route for me a couple of days ago, and even the off road paths that used to be marked noo longer were, so I was reliant on the paper maps and signs - but they could be easily missed, or misunderstood. (Actually it turned out after 3-4 days that the sat nav had switched itself onto a 'road map'mode rather than the cycle map, so I was struggling unnecessarily. You'd think I'd know how to use the technology, but I can assure you that this GPS is renowned for being quirky and difficult).

Wind farms everywhere

Wind farms everywhere

A brief note about the route numbering. It is (pretty well) marked as the Euro-cycle route R1, but on any German publicity (e.g. Tourism offices) it is known as the D3. They also mention that it is part of the long distance Euro-route EuroVelo 2. The publicity makes no mention of R1 which is actually signed. Very confusing.

I was due in Goslar that evening, which wasn't too far away, but I'd allowed for the hills. Despite their number, I didn't find these as bad as I'd thought - I just got on with them and had a rest at the top. I made good time and got to Langelsheim in time for lunch. I stopped at a cafe- just in time! At 1 pm, the cafe was shutting for lunch! I think they're taking the mittagspause a bit too seriously. I was allowed to sit at the only table outside and instructed to leave the plates there when I was finished. The door was locked behind me as I took my sandwich and cake out.

In Germany, just as it used to in Britain decades ago, most shops shut for lunch; they also close for a half day on Saturday, and often one day midweek. And everything, bar petrol stations, transport hubs and tourist sites, is closed on a Sunday. There are no 24 hour supermarkets - you'll be lucky to find anything open past 6pm (or maybe 8pm for the bigger supermarkets).

Goslar street

Goslar street


Goslar market square

Goslar market square

Every time I think I'm at the top, another summit looms ahead. The couch I was surfing tonight was a little beyond beautiful Goslar, and looked like it was just round the side of another hill, but I seemed to manage to go over the top of it. A very pretty ride nonetheless, and I wasn't completely exhausted when I arrived at Quint's house. He was sitting in the back garden in his big beach chair. His house was nestled between the steep slopes of the hill I'djust tackled, and the one I'd face tomorrow. We sat and chated for a while before popping to the shops to buy things for an evening barbecue, which we enjoyed when his girlfriend Astrid got home. Then we had to discuss my destination for the next morning.... school!

Posted by bhambidge 13:04 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (2)

When the going gets tough

overcast

Quint and Astrid were particularly interested in my trip because Astrid had been on a placement in Ethiopia last year, and experienced first-hand the importance of water and the scarcity of it. Quint was an English teacher, and wanted me to come to school the next morning and talk to two of his classes about both my trip and WaterAid. I was surprised that they were at school in the beginning of August, but apparently in Germany, the regions take it in turns for holidays, so the whole country is not off together.

The weather forecast for everywhere east of here was pretty good for the rest of the week, and the next stage was more down than up, as I was almost at my highest point of the journey. Particularly exciting was that I HAD REACHED HALF WAY! Goslar was roughly the half-way point, just shy of 1000km on the odometer, and the former border to East Germany a mere half-hour ride away. I'd done the hardest part - plain sailing from here. So it was with some dismay that I woke up to the pouring rain. Quint offered to drive me to school (we could put the bike in the back of his car), but I refused. That would be cheating... and with my uploading all the maps and stats of my rides, someone out there would pick me up on it fast enough! But mainly, I would be letting myself down - no transport shortcuts, except for essential ferries of course. Luggage, however, was another thing - I could let him carry that for me for 5 km of my journey!

First lesson was at 8am, so an early start to ensure I got there in time. Quint had gone ahead in the car, and I arrived at the school a little lost, and asked someone where Mr Gembus' office is. I thought I'd asked a member of staff or parent; she looked mature enough, but she shrugged back in Teenager-ese (its the same the world over) "I dunno, he's not my teacher". Evenutally I found someone with a full moustache andlots of wrinkles and decided he COULDN'T be a student, and wastaken through the magic door to the staff area - where it seems quite a few people knew I was coming. "Ah, you're the cyclist. From England. Incredible". (I'm not sure if it was that I had cycled from England that was incredible, or an English cyclist).

The two classes went off pretty well. Year 10 (16 year olds?) were first, and I started by telling them the basics about my trip, and how I met Quint (Mr Gembus to you), and then it was over to them to ask me questions in English. There was the typical boy-girl divide - the boys were too cool to ask anything, and sat there looking bored. The girls were more talkative, and asked some good questions. Next lesson would be to write up an article about me based on their 'interview'.

The second class were a year younger, and the difference in their English reflected that, but again they were motivated and interested, enough so that a couple of them came up to me afterwards to talk some more. Their next lesson was to make some posters; Im looking forward to seeing them!

At breaktime, it was time to head off. Next stop, Quedlinburg, home of the witches apparently (I gather several were rounded up here at one point). That was at the foot of the far side of the Harz mountains, so I headed back towards the woods to follow the witches' trail. Luckily, the rain had eased off to no more than an occasional spit.

First though I had a stretch of country road to follow, and just before I turned into the forest, I crossed the border to the 'DDR', what was East Germany. There was a sign acknowledging the former border, (and division of both Germany and Europe). In the forest, a short distance on, the trees suddenly stopped for a strip about 50m wide, and stretching into the distance over the hill. This was the 'green band' - rather than erect a border like the Berlin Wall across the entire landscape, here they did the opposite - made it impossible for people to avoid being seen if they attempted to cross, and of course they were shot on sight.

At the East German border

At the East German border


The Green Band

The Green Band

Although I was supposed to be going more downhill, there were plenty of ups, and the path was full of rocks and potholes. Had to concentrate hard to avoid dangers so even the downhills were a crawl, and very hard work on the hands, if not feet. Occasionally I'd notice a dip too late at bounce over a hole causing my luggage to jump. Frankly, I'm surprised I've suffered no punctures so far. This section would be far more suitable with a mountain bike with the wide tyres with good grip. At one point in the forest I was overtaken by a jogger - how embarrassing! But even on the downhills I could only manage to hold a speed of about 15km/h, when on a good surface, I'd be racing down at 40km/h plus.

Down into Wernigerode, I started noticing the difference with East German roads: many were in a very new condition, but those that weren't had been badly patched over the decades, and again racing down hills wasn't possible - in fact it was more precarious than on the forest paths as the potholes were deep with sharp edges.
I headed straight through the town, and could see from the map I'd soon be back in the forest. A pretty castle was perched on the top of a steep hill. I laughed that there was no way I'd be visiting that up there, but then it dawned on me that the R1 route was going to take a sharp backward-turn and up this incredibly steep hill. Somehow I stayed on the bike until it flattened out, by which time my face was beetroot read and hot enough to fry an egg. Fortunately I didn't have to go all the way up to the castle, but it was still hard work... only then to be back in the forest for more rough path torture.

Well before Blankenburg I was thoroughly sick of these picturesque but treacherous trails and was cursing at the top of my voice. When I finally found a route out, I took it, ignoring my planned route - I didn't care where it was taking me, I just wasn't going back into the wood again. Proper asphalt! What a luxury! I'd taken it for granted across the first half of my journey, but now I was being punished. But there was no escape - the road I was on led down to a rounabout where every exit led me back into the forest and onto the Europaradweg R1 - and this time the path didn't even pretend to be leisurely well-planned stretch for all-comers. It narrowed to a thin track, hopping over large tree roots and abruptly round handbrake-turn bends and up steep sections of track, like a gruelling BMX course.

After that, the descent into Blankenburg on the boneshaking cobbles was a godsend, and I was relieved to find somewhere to stop for a well-earned late lunch. Bulgarian cuisine seemed an unusual speciality for a pub at first, but just 20 years ago, Bulgaria was the Florida of commie holiday destinations.

I checked the map. Downhill or flat all the way to Quedlinburg. All roads - no more forest! But it seemed there was a mystical kilometre of sharp uphill that the map lied about. Then, finally, the reward. 4km of constant downhill, on a perfect asphalt road. OK, there was no cycle path and I had to share it with some traffic... but I didn't care. This was a few minutes of bliss. At the next village of Timmenrode, I looked for the signpost left to the following one, Warnstedt, 3 km further on. I was somewhat confused to see the signpost pointing the other way, with a distance of 9 km. Strange. I checked the map, and then saw the name of the street - Warnstedterstrasse - well surely that must go to Warnstedt. Indeed it did, but I soon found out why traffic was sent the very long way round. These weren't potholes. They were craters. This was the worst condition road I'd come across, and although it was perfectly flat, it must have taken me half an hour to cover the three kilometres. I stayed on the bike, but I'd have been no slower walking. By the end of it, my hands and shoulders were tingling from the constant vibration and jolting.

The final short section to Quedlinburg was smooth, flat and easy, if a little heavy on the traffic. As a student of Transport Planning I know that the key requirement often considered for a good cycle route is the traffic level, followed by the gradient. But from my first-hand experience today, we perhaps take for granted that the surface will be solid and smooth. That's now number one criteria on my list. As if to confirm that, Quedlinburg greeted me with the biggest, bumpiest cobbles possible, and my innards wobbled their way into the town centre and on to my B&B. Several detours were necessary to avoid major roadworks and random flights of steep steps at the end of paths - but eventually I found it! As there was no breakfast provided, I intended to head straight back out while the shops were still open to get some provisions and see a bit more of this UNESCO heritage town. Then I promptly lay on the bed and fell asleep.

Any pretensions I'd had at the beginning of the day that the hardest part of the journey had already been conquered was well and truly shattered. What was East Germany and Poland going to throw at me for the rest of the ride?

Quedlinburg

Quedlinburg

Reminder that water is precious in Quedlinburg

Reminder that water is precious in Quedlinburg

Posted by bhambidge 13:40 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Water, water everywhere

rain

I set off from Quedlinburg with dark grey clouds looming. Unfortunately I didn't have time to explore the town; I'd arranged to stay tonight in Dessau, over 100 km away, even with shortcuts (the R1 route would take me over 150 km). I had decided this was doable, as there was a big of downhill and otherwise flat, and my fitness level now should surely allow me to cover that distance in a day? Of course, those thoughts had been before the experiences of the day before, and I dreaded to think what road quality lay ahead of me. Maps just don't provide that kind of information.

My bike was still in pretty good shape except for the brakes - the front one in particular was scraping against the wheel every revolution. I tried to remember what to do about it (I went on a one-day bike maintenance workshop a couple of months before setting off) but couldn't for the life of me think which screw to turn and which way. Having found the only bike shop in town closed for the day, I decided to disable the front brake altogether and stop at the next town. (That of course assumed that the back brake was still working, or I wouldn't be stopping anywhere!)

I'd planned my route as carefully as I could, shortcutting my way back to the R1, then following it where it made sense (on the assumption that it would avoid the worst of roads), and short-cutting when it was just being frankly silly. But a few kilometres outside Quedlinburg, my initial plans were thwarted, as a road was completely closed to roadworks, and I had to find a major detour round, adding nearly 10km to my journey. The black clouds had opened now; not heavily, but enough to cover up in full raingear, though it didn't look like it would last too long. Sure enough, after about half an hour it seemed dry enough to strip off again. I needn't have bothered: 5 minutes laters, the heavens opened again, and I stopped to get kitted out once more. And it rained. And rained. And rained. There were no clouds visible in the sky. It was a single shade of dark grey, as far as the eyes could see, in every direction. All day. Rain meant covering my luggage, including the handlebar bag that the map was on, so I could only see that by pulling it out occasionally to glance at.

Fotunately the surfaces weren't generally too bad, though about half an hour before Stassfurt took me along a track so overgrown that I was being whacked on all sides by plants, nettles, and low-hanging tree-branches. The alternative was the farm track running alongside, with all the rocks and potholes that entailed, so I preferred to ensure the arboreal bruising, even finding some of the ducking and dodging exhilirating, and keeping quite a pace.

This is an international cycle path!

This is an international cycle path!

In Stassfurt, I found a bike shop, where they attended to my brakes free of charge, and after a spot of lunch, I set off again - there was still 65 km to cover. Unfortunately, just a few short kilometres out of town, I could hear the brake scraping against the wheel again, and could certainly feel it slowing me down. With the rain still falling (ironically there was a brief respite just while I stopped for lunch), I wasn't in any mood to consider looking at it, so I just disabled the brake again and pedelled on. I can't say today's ride was particularly pleasureable; it was just a matter of getting through the distance. I'm not as bothered by rain now as I was - it helps to be prepared - but after several hours of constant wet, it becomes a chore. The waterproof clothes are doing a better job than it feels, but they still feel wet on the inside and the trousers cling to my skin. The waterproof shoes that served so well in the morning seem now to have allowed some water to run in, and I can feel it sloshing and squelching with every turn.

Another short-cut takes me along a main road, but it is an excellent surface, and I pedal hard and count down the kilometres. By Aken I'm flagging - less than 20 km from Dessau, but find an ice-cream cafe (the most popular kind of cafe in Germany), and fortify myself with a hot chocolate,

Earlier in the day, I'd given myself only 50:50 odds of reaching Dessau that night, but finally I plough on and into the city. 105 km later, my longest distance yet, I arrive wet to the bone, at Bernadett's house. She has the very dubious pleasure of hosting a soggy dirty couchsurfer, with his soggy dirty luggage.

A hot shower and dry clothes puts me quickly back in good spirits, and we set about putting clothes in the machine, and leaving shoes out to dry. I also discover that despite careful packing involving lots of plastic bags, some of the things inside my luggage has got wet, including my hardly-read book and my passport. Nothing irrecoverable though, but it reminds me how important it is to pack well - the bottom of one of the pannier bags seems to have acquired a puddle.

I've earned a day off. I've been on the move for 7 constant days since Muenster, so Bernadett has kindly agreed for me to stay two nights. We spend the first evening at the local 'Kartoffelhaus' with some interesting friends of hers. She's Hungarian, and we meet up with a Kosovan and a couple of German friends, and later joined by a Pole who is astounded to hear an Englishman speak Polish. We don't stay out late though; if I was exhausted the day before, I'm just as much so after the day's slog.

The next day, Friday, I get on my bike for no more than a few hundred yards to a bike shop, to have the brakes checked one more time. I think the bar-bag isn't helping as it's gently pressing on the brake cables, so I make sure that's attached while they attend to it. Hopefully, that will make the difference this time. For the rest of the day, I decide to head to Leipzig for a day-trip on the train. With rain forecast all day, I go prepared, but never need the coat. I've long wanted to visit Leipzig, and often meant to but never made it. It played a pivotal role in the fall of the DDR that kept us glued to TV sets in 1989 (especially during German lessons at school). It was bigger than I was expecting, with many beautiful buildings (and of course many building works, as seems to have been the case across Germany constantly for the last twenty years). I found time to visit the Stasi-museum, hosted in the former Stasi building (with some of the rooms left intact), and a museum documenting life in East Germany. Both of these were excellent and fascinating. I spent too long here to get to the Bach museum which I'd also hoped for, but I headed back to Dessau in the early evening. Bernadett was out working a night shift that evening, so I had the place to myself, and finally read a bit more of my book - now nearly twice the size after having expanded from getting wet!

I'd worn sandals that day as the shoes were stil wet, leaving the shoes by an open window to dry, but they were still soggy that night, and the next morning. So on Saturday I set off again, fully prepared for rain from the outset, wearing full raingear and sandals.

Destination: Belzig. Via the R1: 90km. Direct route on Google Maps: 52km. Well, I could compromise. I found a route that used some marked paths that would be a 65km ride; that was acceptable. My destination was a cheap hotel recommended by another cyclist. Brian raved about the comfy room, friendly staff, but mostly about the power shower and big fluffy towels! That sold me.

From Dessau I started off east following the river Elbe towards Worlitz. Not far out of town, the roadside cycle lanes turned into good countryside paths, with glimpses of the river through the greenery. Then a covered bridge, reminiscent of Madison County, if not as pretty, crossing a stream, and down into a dip. This was the Elbe floodplains, and things were certainly waterlogged now. The path turned into something of a ford and I cycled through a long puddle a couple of inches deep, the bottom of my feet just getting wet. A short distance on though, and I could see a much longer stretch of underwater path, and this time a little deeper. I checked the map, and decided to detour to a nearby road. But just a minute or so away, the road turned into something of a lake. A car approached from the other direction, and quickly turned back. It was too deep for the car, and way too deep for me. So back I went to check the path. I could head all the way back to Dessau, or I could brave this and continue. I didn't like retracing my steps, nor admitting defeat, so I set off, gently gently to minimise the splash, keen to keepmy luggage dry. I was glad I was wearing the sandals now, and I didn't care if my feet got wet.

I made it through to the other side unscathed, and the water hadn't quite touched the underside of one of the bags. A group of cyclists were soon behind me, and I stopped to watch them enjoy the experience. Another few hundred metres on though, we rounded a bend and were confronted by yet another water obstacle, this time clearly a little deeper and longer. The group rubbed their chins. I now had spectators, and couldn't admit defeat, This time though, I pushed my bike across, wading through the water, carrying the more precious (and less waterproof) of my pannier bags. Glad not to have turned back for a long detour, I then cycled on as adry path stretched ahead of me. The group had stopped rubbing their chins and decided they weren't as stupid as me. They clearly didn't have big fluffy towels waiting for them.

Elbe floodplains

Elbe floodplains


Cycling through the floods

Cycling through the floods

Inevitably, the next water-crossing came, and I tackled it much like the last, wading through water above my ankles. I wasn't going to turn back now! I did have to pause and think at the next one though. Not only was it deeper, there was a visible current running across! Still, I'd come this far. I didn't get where I am today by (mumble mumble mumble), Big Fluffy Towels. The last crossing had dipped the bottom of my bag into the water, so this time, I lifted one bag to rest on the handlebars, so that I could hoist the back wheel off the ground lifting the other bag to safety. I then wobbled my way across, knee-deep in riverwater, steering the front wheel while trying not to drop the balancing bag. Halfway along, the two sides of the floodplain joined forming a reasonable current, and shoals of small fish swum about my feet. But I got to the other side, rearranged the luggage and set on my way again. Who needs the Amazon rainforest when you've got Northern Europe?

Fortunately, that was the last of them through this nature reserve, confirmed a kilometre further along when I met people again! I warned them about the path that faced them ahead, and as they didn't have big fluffy towels waiting for them in Dessau, they decided not to bother. The next stretch to Worlitz took me along a raised path and felt something like cycling on top of a wall, but at least it was keeping me above the water-line. I detoured to cycle round Worlitz, worth a look apparently, but quickly came back out to press on. I wasn't following the R1 now, but was on another recognised route that would take me across the Elbe, and I'd hope that the roads northwards were well paved.

Five or six kilometres on, I reached the bridge over the Elbe. That was strange. There was no bridge. The road simply ran straight into the wide river. There was a stop sign, and nothing else. I checked the map more closely to find it was marked with a tiny ferry symbol, but becuse it followed a cycle route, it looked like a road. There was no obvious ferry to befound, and I asked in a nearby cafe, and was told that there wasn't a ferry. The next bridge back the way was the Autobahn, which I couldn't use, or all the way back in Dessau. The next one on was a 26km detour to Wittenberg. Either way, the only road back took me through Worlitz again. So finally I was defeated, as I retraced my steps, and found the road round to Wittenburg.

Defeat - can't cross the Elbe

Defeat - can't cross the Elbe

At least it had stayed dry above the surface. I was still kitted out prepared for rain, and the clouds threatened, but it was a new road all the way to Wittenberg, and I was determined to make up for some time, and pedalled as hard as I could. Being the weekend, the roads were pretty quiet, and it was flat all the way. I put these extra miles behind me with the reminder of the big fluffy towels awaiting me. What could have been 52km was now creeping up to a 90km day.

I stopped in Wittenberg for lunch (yet another schnitzel I'm afraid), and pulled out the details of the hotel - time to check out exactly where it was, and program the address into the GPS unit. Oh horror! It turns out that the hotel isn't actually in Belzig at all, but like any good Ryanair airport, TWENTY-NINE KILOMETRES AWAY. ON THE OTHER SIDE. I'd put 50km behind me (some of those underwater), but now found I still had 70 to go.

Or did I? I hadn't paid for this room. I didn't have to go all that way, especially as the next day I wasn't going much further to Postdam. I could just find somewhere else on the way to stop. (Big fluffy towels). But did I want to admit defeat a second time in a day? Big fluffy towels. Well I didn't have to decide straight away. But I did decide that as the rain hadn't yet come I'd risk being back in T-shirt and shorts.

Chess-like monks in Wittenberg

Chess-like monks in Wittenberg

Apart from one gentle hill, the area was flat. I had to decide between the R1 route, or some unknown roads that may or may not be paved; the distance was now about the same. I opted for the R1, but it was pretty variable... maybe the grass would have been greener, but I propelled myself on, thinking of the towels. The kilometres that had flown by coming in to Wittenberg were now taking longer and longer. While the surface through a forest wasn't full of potholes, it was soft and slighty shaly, and doubled the effort required. Eventually I got on to a nice tarmac path, and a sign for Belzig 22 km away. It should be easier from here, but I was tired, and the 30km/hour flats that I was managing earlier in the day were halved. I wasn't sure I'd make it past Belzig. (Big fluffy towels, big fluffy towels).

Eventually I reached the town, and searched around for a rest stop. I'd done 90 km now, and still had thirty to go if I was going to make it, but I was seriously flagging. Being a Saturday afternoon, hardly anything was open, but I finally found a bakery cafe, and ordered my magic potion of hot chocolate, and treated myself to a slice of Apfelkuchen to go with it.

That, and 30 minutes rest was just what the doctor ordered. Back on the bike, I had energy again, and was quickly back up to 25 or even 30 km/hour, and while I couldn't maintain that all the way, I could count down the final kilometres quickly enough, and the hotel got closer and closer. I arrived that evening at about 6.30, though it felt much later, greeted by the friendly staff who were expecting me. I struggled not to just collapse on the comfy bed again, but had a top-class dinner at the hotel (after 120km, I wasn't going another metre on the bike).

Oh, and the towels. Well, they were a bit of a let down! Certainly wouldn't describe them as fluffy, or particularly big. But compared to the ones you're given at most hostels, then I suppose they were ok. Not sure they were worth racing 120km for!

Big fluffy towel

Big fluffy towel

Cyclists welcome at the hotel near Beelitz

Cyclists welcome at the hotel near Beelitz

Posted by bhambidge 08:46 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (6)

Brandenburg, Berlin and the Border

overcast
View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

It had ooccurred to me that the path suddenly improved during the journey the previous day, right in the middle of the forest. That point also marked the border between two regions (Laender) in Germany, from Sachsen-Anhalt to Brandenburg. Apart from the city of Berlin, I would be in Brandenburg until the Polish border, so I had high hopes that the worst of the German cycleway was behind me.

Also, having come so far, I was now only 30km from Potsdam, and 60km from Berlin. This made the capital an easy day ride, but I was planning to couchsurf in Potsdam on Sunday, so had an extremely leisurely two days to spread it over.

I could afford myself a reasonable lie-in. The bed was indeed comfy, and more importantly the curtains were thick and shut out the light, and I got up in time for a late breakfast ready to head off by 11 am. However, this was not before checking my shoes again, that had got so wet three days earlier. They were still soaked. So I took advantage of the facilities in this hotel, and armed with a hairdryer, took it in turns to blow dry each shoe until it was at least in a fit state to pack into the bag without risking soaking everything else.

I'd expected to find today's short ride a breeze; it was almost entirely flat, and almost entirely on asphalt paths through woods and by large lakes. But my body was complaining from the recent endurance and I had to force the pedals to turn.

Fiona wasn't expecting me so early, but she was home so I arranged to drop off my bags before 'doing' Potsdam for the afternoon. However, when I got there, she had a better idea. Her boyfriend Florian had a kayak. The two of them had been planning to go out on the lake for the afternoon, and now I was in time to join them. First we had to cycle over to the other side of the lake to the boathouse. There was a short-cut over a railway bridge that involved hiking the bikes up some steep steps then walking along a narrow path next to the railway tracks. I was glad I'd been able to dump the luggage - the bike was eminently more carryable. Florian explained that this railway line had been of particular importance in the years of the GDR - with West Berlin closed off, the main Potsdam-Berlin route was useless, and this bridge carried rail traffic that detoured round to East Berlin. The line is still in use, but nowhere near as heavily.

At the boathouse, we fetched Florian's kayak and rented a canoe suitable for two. My job at the back was to steer, but I never really quite got the hang of it, and while somehow we stayed afloat, and even managed to go generally in the right direction, it must have seemed more like the drunkard's walk (or row) with us zigzagging around trying to avoid obstacles like buoys and distant boats. Fortunately our motto was 'less speed, less haste', and after a while we pulled ashore on a small beach for a break.

I then tried out the kayak. It was awkward to get into at first, as the opening is at such an odd angle, and your legs stretch all the way into the boat. But I surprised myself how much more easily I could control this with the two-ended paddle. Before you get too impressed though, this is entirely relative. A short circle round the beach was one thing; I then stayed in it for the next stretch out on the open water. Now the larger boat was racing ahead, gliding effortlessly in the right direction, while the kayak was flailing around in a random pattern, struggling to keep up. I had mastered left. Turning right, I had got down to a tee. Going straight ahead? Now that was the tricky bit.

Time was pressing on, and while we had hoped to get far enough to see Potsdam city from the water, we decided that if we turned back now, we could afford a leisurely pace back, allowing for my slalom style. It was time to swap over though; there's very little back support and I was aching, so we rotated: Fiona in the small kayak, and Iwas at the front of the larger boat.

It soon became apparent that Fiona was having as much difficulty with it as I had done - she was pretty adept at making it go backwards (though not when she actually wanted to), and soon after we heard a rumble of thunder. The storm seemed a little way off, but any science teacher will tell you that the middle of a lake is not the ideal place to be in a lightning storm; we tied the two boats together, rowed back to the beach to consider our next move. We were actually much closer here to Fiona's flat, but the bikes were back on the other side of the late, and we had to return the boats. Time was ticking along, and my hosts had an engagement that evening.

We had a farmerly discussion about the weather, Fiona pleading caution, Florian insisting that the wind wasn't blowing the storm in exactly our direction, just as the rain started. There were a couple of lightning bolts, followed shortly by thunderclaps, but aftera while we agreed that the nucleus of the storm didn't seem to be getting closer yet, and that we may as well go for it. With the boats tied together, and Florian's steering skill, we pushed as hard as we could to the next point of safety - directly underneath the railway bridge that we had cycled across. We got there as the storm brewed a little thicker, so took some shelter under the bridge. We were already soaking wet from the rain (and I thought I was done with getting wet), though being a railway bridge, it wasn't a solid surface and we still continued to get wet through the tracks. We counted the time between flashes and rumbles, and argued about how to calculate the distance of the storm*, but agreeing that perhaps we'd best wait here awhile. I clung on to a metal post that protruded from the water to avoid us drifting out into the open water. It soon died down though, and we could row back over to the boathouse, pack up and cycle home in the glorious sunshine.

(* It turns out that I was wrong. We were taught at school that it was an additional mile away every second; apparently it is actually five times closer than that, or about a kilometre away every three seconds gap.)

Fiona and Florian had a family dinner that evening, so I cooked for myself, then went for a bike ride around town to see the sights. Potsdam is famous for its parks, palaces and other buildings, and while the main park was closed, I could ride around the outside and see much of it from the other side. Sanssouci Palace was the venue for Stalin, Churchill and Truman to carve up Germany after the Second World War.

After a delicious breakfast (where we lamented the state of typical English bread - a common peeve among Continental Europeans in Britain), I set off towards my major landmark: Berlin. This took be across Glienicke Bridge, closed for over 40 years to the public, but played host to the occasional secret spy swap.

Glienicke Bridge

Glienicke Bridge

Over the other side, I was surprised how suddenly rural it had become. I drew a parallel with Hong Kong, where a major city is confined in such a small space, and yet there is still so much open landscape if you go beyond the centre. I cycled for several kilometres through forest and woodland, round the Wannsee, until up near Spandau I joined the long straight road that would take me right up to and beyond the Brandenburg Gate. It felt like such an accomplishment as I approached the heart of Berlin, like my journey was already complete - Warsaw was but a short additional hop. I had an evidentiary photo taken at the Gate, and smiled as I continued east along Unter den Linden past many other Berlin landmarks. I was staying in a hostel tonight on the eastern side, so checked in there, before cycling back to the centre for a victory lap, past landmarks like the Reichstag, Fernsehturm, Tiergarten and Checkpoint Charlie.

Arrived at the Brandenburg Gate

Arrived at the Brandenburg Gate


Past the Reichstag

Past the Reichstag

I wasn't couchsurfing in Berlin in the end for some mundane practical reasons, and the hostel afforded me somewhere easy to sit with a drink at a table and catch up on earlier sections of this diary. I had planned to stop a day or two in Berlin, and in other circumstances I might have, but I was keen to press on and complete the journey.

Reaching the border in a day is too ambitious, so I phone ahead to book a room in Buckow, and head off. There are good paths out of Berlin, including a great rural stretch by the Muggelsee. Out of the city limits, the rain starts. Fortunately, it doesn't last long, and 10 minutes shelter under a big tree suffices. Similar small showers pepper the afternoon, until I'm just 2km out of Buckow, when the tree I've found just isn't doing the job. This time it doesn't look like it's going to stop, so I don full wet suit and brave it into the town to find the accommodation. I arrive looking soaked and bedraggled, but it is only superficial, and I soon dry off - as does the weather within 2 minutes of my arrival of course. In turns out to be a picturesque small place perched on the side of a lake, and host to a beautiful sunset.

On my final morning in Germany, departure is delayed as I wait for the drizzle to stop, or at least die down. First up is a hill, about the only one of any note in Brandenburg that I've had to face. This is also one of the few stretches without asphalt, as the road turns cobbled for several kilometres. However, helpfully a narrow brick strip is provided down the side to make cycling bearable and I quickly put the distance behind me. I had planned to take shortcuts from the R1 route as it seems unnecessarily lengthy, but I think it is only along the marked stretches that such consideration has been paid, so I follow the long way round. About mid-day, I reach the banks of the Oder, and there see land on the other side - Poland. I just have 14 km to race down along the Oder to the nearest bridge and border crossing, and I'll say goodbye to Germany.

First glimpse of Poland

First glimpse of Poland

One more obstacle awaits me: a flooded foot tunnel. There's no other obvious route to the border bridge, and accustomed to such things (and to the surprise of another cycle tourer pondering the same difficulty), I hoist up my bike above the water level, and wade my way up to knee-deep again through the 200m-long tunnel.

Poland is now part of the Schengen agreement, which means there are no passport controls here. The buildings for immigration and customs still stand, but are abandoned, and we can pass straight through. I've achieved another significant step - Germany complete, just Poland to go!

Posted by bhambidge 09:16 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (2)

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