Two Wheels in Eastern Europe

Snow stretched out over fields and hill-tops and mountains, ice sealed off any stretch of open water, and the wind bore that particular bite that touches your core. Instead of the bus, we had decided to ride our bicycles from the last railway station at Löbau to the village of Herrnhut, laden with more than a month of books and clothes and food. The bicycles were second-hand, purchased cheaply back in Berlin on Karl-Marx Allée, down past the Stalin Baroque buildings. Creaking and groaning, with odd wobbles and strange clunks that suggested less-than-round wheels, they undertook their tasks with as much willingness as ancient nags with shot knees and arthritic backs.

But my mind was not on the bicycle, not even on the fact that my overloaded backpack did not allow me to lift my head for a clear view ahead, not even on the fact that the extra load on the back rack forced me to sit on the pointy end of the seat. No, my mind was on the options that lay on either side of the road. To one side was a snow-covered field or an icy pond, bordered by the mix of mud and dirty ice that finds on the edge of such a road. To the other side was a constant stream of traffic on what was supposed to be a quiet road. Driven by grim-faced, solid Germans with five-day stubble and cigarettes hanging from thick lips, they were in no mood to grant any road space to a couple of rusty and overloaded bicycles wobbling along on the edge.

What in the world had possessed us to ride? The anticipation of a month of early spring weather deep in eastern Germany. The chance to ride daily along quiet roads through ancient villages. The appeal of our own transport in a place where the bus came twice, once in the morning and once in the evening. All of these seemed good reasons before we departed, but now, desperately negotiating icy sludge and streaming traffic, all while pushing up an interminably long hill in the teeth of an icy wind, they seemed like utopian dreams.

The cobbled streets of the village of Herrnhut – in the far east of Germany and close by the Czech and Polish borders – eventually appeared. Now we had the intriguing task of negotiating those worn stones covered with a slick layer of ice. But our bikes, having shaken off the cobwebs and rust of long neglect, laughed at us: ‘We’re German bicycles’, they seemed to say. ‘You think this is tough?’ They were to become close and trusted companions.

Villages

Our base was to be Herrnhut, the small but stately headquarters of the Moravian Brethren (Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine). Invited to move to these parts in the early 1700s by Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the local potentate, aristocrat and would-be spiritual leader, the ragtag group of 300 Brethren had come here to escape persecution in nearby Bohemia. A village built, a spiritual revival experienced, a musical renaissance fostered, an astonishing world-wide missionary movement undertaken that saw their numbers blossom to almost one million – all from this small village, which is still their spiritual home.

But Herrnhut was a relatively recent affair in a much older landscape, where the Sorbians and Germans first began clearing the forests about a millennium ago. In the cores of villages thereabouts – Berthelsdorf (Zinzendorf’s home), Ruppersdorf, Rennersdorf, Strahwalde, Großhennersdorf and so on – a jumble of a few houses are separated by twisting laneways. They cluster about the stream, used for drinking, washing and rubbish dumping. This tumbled and seemingly unplanned spatial arrangement actually provides a unique window on a very different understanding of life: interwoven, overlayed, intimate and complex.

But even with the slow spread of villages since, so much so that they link up in parts (only 2-3 kilometres separates many of them), the smell remains: the concentrated odour of cow’s piss and shit, melting with the thaw and running in rivulets off the fields and into the streams. Less than 2% of European land now remains untouched by human beings … as well as cows, sheep, pigs, chicken, grains and what have you.

Nineveh

After exploring these local villages, I became bolder and set off further afield. I was in search of the biblical Nineveh, which I had heard was hereabouts. I pedalled down an ancient path, through a dank and dark German forest (Wald) and into the back of Rennersdorf. Here the cottages had the characteristic white-dotted black shingles on their upper stories, but I pushed on, riding through mist-enshrouded fields to Nineveh. A metropolis it was, with about three houses on either side of the street. Having determined that they had indeed repented from their sins, I returned home. Only to find out why they called the return climb, ‘Langsamer Tod’, the slow death: the path wound its way slowly and endlessly upwards, to the berg on which Herrnhut sits. The villagers of a couple of centuries ago, hauling with them their potatoes and beets and leeks and sides of beef for the Herrnhut market, used to curse it every step of the way.

Bernstadt

Soon enough she joined me on a chilly, windy day to wind our way to Bernstadt, a few kilometres down the road. It was old cobbles nearly all the way. Cobbles along winding village paths make for somewhat stimulating riding. Bells jingle, teeth chatter, parts of the bicycle rattle loose. Women tell me it can have a curious effect down in the seat area. I can vouch that the family jewels need to be kept clear of hammering seats. For some reason, German bike paths have a knack of choosing every available cobbled path between you and the horizon. Obviously, traffic is less, they wind more, they are far older and take you through some intriguing villages. But hitting a smooth piece of road feels like you are riding on silk cushions.

But Bernstadt was worth the ride. It is nestled on the Eigen Creek, climbing steeply up to the height with its towering church steeple, narrow streets and plenty of memories of the communist era. Trabants still putter about and appealing odd pieces of communist-modernist architecture are to be found at almost every turn.

I was taken by the extraordinary garages. A simple concrete-on-brick structure, rectangular with a sloping roof, solid timber doors painted all colours or none. I was mesmerised. Now that they had registered on my radar, I spotted them everywhere. One may have been decorated with a glass brick or two and an amateur artist’s efforts on the door; another may not have been touched since it was first built in the 1950s or 1960s; one had obviously become a second home for a man and his tools. Some were solitary affairs, standing beside a traditional village house, but others liked company, gathering in rows, each with variegated doors in a sheer celebration of what one can do with a timber door. Above all, they all had the same simple, solid design. If you don’t have a system full of advertising and the false of freedom of ‘choice’, then all you need is a design that does the job efficiently and is made to last. Something to be said for communism …

By the time we had loosened up our bones and stimulated our nether regions, we agreed that a direct return home was on order. But that involved a gut-busting climb, cars buzzing by and the cold winds sweeping across bare fields. At least the wind-park had plenty to celebrate.

Spreequelle

Finally, I was ready for a decent expedition. I had ascertained that in this part of the world was the source (Quelle) of the mighty Spree River, which cuts a convoluted path over some 400 kilometres, through Berlin and into the Atlantic. Within a few minutes of setting out, I also ascertained that a stiff wind was blowing from Siberia, proudly bearing with it a massive wind-chill factor. It cut straight through my carefully assembled winter gear – thermal socks and long johns and woollen gloves and scarf and a hat that normally kept my skull warm and toasty. So by the time I began to climb into the forest of the Spreewald, I had lost feeling in my toes and fingers and other tender extremities. Now ice covered what had become a rough dirt track, which ran at right angles to what the map was telling me. For some strange reason, not another cyclist was in sight. Actually, no walkers were out enjoying the fresh air either.

Find the spring at the source of the Spree I did, led there by a tumbling stream that was encased in ice. Being on German soil, that source inevitably had a sign announcing its existence, just in case one should be in doubt. After a pause to add my contribution to the Spree, I realised a number of things: these parts are known for wild boar, I had little feeling below my knees and elbows, it was still 25 kilometres back to my base and the sun was setting. Yet these insights had at least one effect as I sped home along the Czech border and over bumpy farm tracks Germans like to designate as bicycle routes – feeling slowly returned to my tingling outer parts.

Großhennersdorf

Once again she joined me on an expedition, out on a long loop to Großhennersdorf. The highlight was a muddy track winding its way up a barren hill, with the bitter wind turning westward and in our faces, the bike wheels bogging in the mud. Actually, the highlight was the foulest look she could muster.

It had seemed like a good idea at the beginning: make our way along quiet tracks following the banks of a stream as it bubbled its way to a larger river; turn to peddle along narrow country lanes with the wind on our back; make it to the intriguing Großhennersdorf, with its massive schloß-turned-orphanage-turned-retirement home. It used to be Hennersdorf, but at some time it simply grew too large, so the ‘groß’ was added.

Here almost 300 years ago the daughter of Count Zinzendorf had established an orphanage; here the fabled count had visited, walking – or, more likely, riding – along the old forest path between Herrnhut and Hennersdorf; here were ruins of great breweries and bakeries and a mill on the stream. Now, of course, a great sweeping road cut its way close by, making the journey by self-propelled motor machine between the two towns a matter of minutes – necessary of course in a world of speed.

We had come by a more round-about route, drifting gently downstream with the wind at our backs. The return entailed the opposite. At first it seemed bearable enough, for the bitter wind was broken up by the forest ahead, the gradient on the road persistent but not unbearable. In the forest itself, the road became even more acceptable, pleasant perhaps. But on the outskirts of Niederoderwitz we had to veer more directly homeward. The map called this road ‘Mittestraße’, the wide road to Birkmühle. The reality was a rough, muddy and steep track into the teeth of the wind.

The more we peddled, the more our wheels clogged with mud. We leaped off our bikes, or rather we barely managed to avoid being thrown off our two-wheeled horses. With every step she cursed the wind, the mud, bicycles, the world and me … Colder it became, the sun was setting, our noses and eyes ran and the path through Ruppersdorf and Langsammer Tod seemed long indeed.

The step over the basalt threshold and into the warmth was never more welcome. Eventually hearts warmed too …

Oder-Neiße

Within a few days, the weather warmed too. Spring came early, although it seemed an interminable wait. Coming into spring from an icy, snowy winter … creatures emerge from their holes and hideaways, sap rises, flowers – both literal and metaphorical – open to the world, sun beckons, skin is bared, eyes rove eagerly, smiles are contagious. A decent winter is worth undergoing at least once for this extraordinary experience, if only because it reminds us how much we are part of the natural world.

An early spring it was, so we threw a few items on our old bicycles and set off for the Czech Republic. We had some idea of where we would ride, a destination for the first day at least. We swooped by the Hengtsberg – the horse’s hill, since it once required teams of fresh horses held at the bottom to haul heavy carts to the top. Villages rolled by – Ruppersdorf, Nineveh, Buckmühle, Oderwitz. Initially, we cycled over open fields, following narrow cement tracks laid for heavy farm machinery. Atop the crest of Buckmühle, we could see the river valley to which we would descend soon enough. Beyond that were the low, regular hills of the Zittauergebirge spread out before us, and beyond them the higher, still snow-clad peaks of Neuerschweisse to our right and the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland to our left.

After the snow and ice of but a week or so earlier, the day began to feel almost tropical (it was really only in the high teens centigrade). As the revolutions on our pedals multiplied and multiplied again, we began to peel off layers. Soon enough we were in short sleeves, sweating in the heat, chasing each other along the bike routes, playing and joking in the year’s signs of life.

The kilometres rolled by and soon enough we had followed the Zittau river valley to that liminal zone of the Drieländereck. Here Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic shared the land, a traditional border zone. At the specific point, where the three countries touch, I threw my arms around the pole, thereby having a part of my body in each country.

With tired legs we looked forward to Hrádek nad Nisou, in the midst of a former coal-mining and industrial area. Now we were into the Czech Republic and one could immediately notice the economic effects of more than two decades of post-communist life. Even this close to the German border, the Czech Republic – like so many countries in the former Eastern Bloc – had been buffeted by the ill winds of capitalism. Rapidly de-industrialised and re-agriculturalised, many of its inhabitants had become itinerant and cheap workers in German industries – which really was the agenda all along of invading the east of Europe.

Hrádek nad Nisou’s lost glory had left it with one hotel. It was a pub, casino, nightclub and restaurant all rolled into one. The beds might have been sparsely padded boards, but the restaurant produced some extraordinarily good food. I ate and drank enough for three people, replenishing what had been burned up during the day.

We began the next morning with a plan to return to Herrnhut. Our first achievement was to get lost, head deeper into the Czech Republic and then roll into Poland. At last we found the Neiße River, now (post World War II) the border between Poland and Germany. Here was a gentle slope downstream; here a bike path along which you could roll all day. So as we paused to ponder the map, she smiled and said to me: ‘why don’t we ride for another day?’

About 50kms north along the Neiße was the fabled town of Görlitz. We pointed our front wheels in its direction and followed the river all the way. We rode in dappled shade from the trees at the water’s edge, sucking in the warmth of the sun and the quiet, bladder inducing sound of the water. We stopped by ugly, old Roman Catholic monasteries that claimed centuries-old heritage. We wondered at the red and while poles, clearly demarcating the Polish bank, facing off against the yellow, red and black poles of the German side. Given that the border was one insisted upon by Stalin and the Poles, a slab of the west that was returned to Poland from Germany (while a section of the east went back to the USSR), the Oder-Neiße has always been a temporary zone. Or it is in the eyes of some Germans. Visitors to the Polish side are known to opine – loudly – that this is really part of German, much to the great displeasure of Poles.

In their own way, the Poles get back at the Germans. Vast cigarette and petrol outlets line the border on the Polish side. Germans regularly cross the border to fill up – tanks with petrol and boots with all manner of produce. So on this ‘open’ border German customs regularly check cars for supposed contraband. To little effect, it seems. Whenever you encounter an empty cigarette pack tossed aside in Germany, you can bet it will be festooned with Polish writing.

They get back in another way even in Germany itself. Take any village in the east and you are bound to find streets named Dorfstraße, Untere Dorfstraße, Obere Dorfstraße. But you will also find Karl Liebknecht Straße, August Bebel Straße, Rosa Luxemburg Straße, Karl-Marx Straße … And these names are there to stay, reminders of a communism that refuses to disappear.

But we were getting hungry, so we lunch was on order. Lunch is always a simple affair. Our great love is to gather odds and ends to last a couple of days and then find a quiet spot to make our lunch. We sit by a stream, under a tree on the side of the track, on an old log in a field. On this occasion we spread out on a vast field in the sun. A few bread rolls, some solid rye bread, a couple of bananas and oranges, perhaps a small tin of tuna and some boiled eggs, a huge swig of water and a refill.

As we drew near to Görlitz in the afternoon, the track was no longer our own. A Sunday it was, the day to leave indoors behind and celebrate spring. Swarms of children and adult were out, walking, on bicycles, lazing by the water’s edge. Dogs joined them, leaping in the water, tearing about the bush, sniffing each other’s arses. The mood was summed up by an ancient fossil in her motorised wheelchair. She had every reason to be grumpy, with her body failing, death imminent, the cacophony of children and young people (pretty much everyone from her perspective) all about. But no, as we rode past she was grinning widely, her few teeth celebrating the spring, her face full of delight. ‘Guten tag!’ she cried.

Görlitz at last, with its stately homes of an old bourgeois centre. We twisted through its streets, following the signs to ‘Hotel Europa’. We knew nothing about it, its name being its only appeal. At last a door which led up some stairs. I managed the whole transaction in German, such was the day. And the bed was wonderfully soft and sensuous.

Early spring can, however, be a fickle mistress. The next morning she made off early, taking her scant clothes with her. In her place came a bitter wind from the south-west, precisely the direction in which we had to ride. Whereas yesterday had been one of t-shirts and knowing smiles, today began with frozen fingers and growls. After grinding uphill out of Görlitz and passing through the forest, the full brunt of the wind hit us. Each pedal was a strain, each metre hard-won.

At the first sign of shelter, the map came out and the glorious route over hills and across open fields was thoroughly revised. That way would entail the same wind all day, so we located river valleys, tracing out a more sheltered path even if it was along busier roads and less direct. Through Friedersdorf, Schönau-Berzdorf and Bernstandt, stopping for hot chocolates and big feeds for warmth as much as energy.

By the time we climbed the last hill, we felt as though we had ridden three times as far. The basalt threshold, the warmth of indoors, the hot shower, the beer – all were deeply welcome.

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