The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 18, 2 August 2018: Ilsenburg to Stolberg: 69 km (934 in total)

2018 08 02 Ilsenburg to Stolberg (69 km)

Three problems confronted us today: getting to the bicycle shop in Wernigerode without her front tyre exploding; the expected storms; and finding a safe route to Stolberg.

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The first problem was resolved after about 10 kilometres at the Fahrrad Baron in the next town. The woman in charge was helpful in the way country Germans are and we left a hour later with two new robust touring tyres, the intact old one as spare, and two bright green panniers for her to store her stuff.

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By midday the second problem had resolved itself, for the heavy clouds had lost their threatening edge. True enough, the land needed rain and we would not have begrudged a wet day. But it was not to be on this day.

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The third problem took longer to resolve. For the first 20 kilometres we followed sundry bicycle signs, occasionally following the witches. But with a weird turn too many, we eventually lost our patience. At Wienrode (‘rode’ meaning a clearing in the forest and common in village names in these parts) we opted to take what the Germans call the ‘L’ routes. In some parts they are busy indeed, but in these mountainous parts they were quiet, smooth and a pleasure.

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Since we were riding through the heart of the Harz Mountains, we climbed and twisted and climbed some more. Given my liking for the mountains, I set myself in first gear on the Brompton and suggested she settle in behind and follow my pace. We climbed non-stop over four steep kilometres until we crested the first climb and dropped like stones to the village of Allrode. Here we paused, with an ice coffee for here and regular one for me (I still cannot get the German fascination with ice cream at every moment).

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The next village was Güntersberge, which entailed a slightly gentler climb over 15 kilometres along a stream. We crested the twisting climb on a stunning plateau where the sky towered above and the road wound ahead. It was one of those rare moments that you wish would go on forever. This was one of those roads in the sweat of the day for which you ride and ride and ride.

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Stolberg was still 7-8 kilometres away and we anticipsted it would require another climb. But the plateau should have told us we were at the top. A turn was all it took and we dropped from the top of the southern Harz mountains to Stolberg. We stayed at the somewhat ostentatious Stolberger Hof at 79 Euro.

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We had dinner up the road in one of those places that appear for a time and are gone when you turn to look for the second time.

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The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 17, 1 August 2018: Rest day in Ilsenburg

A day in Ilsenburg entailed the rest day’s obligatory rest. But we could not avoid the legacy of the highest of the Harz Mountains, Brocken. Relatively low at 1142 metres, nothing rises higher in an eastward direction until the Ural Mountains. Yet it has a climate, as well as flora and fauna, of much higher mountains that rise above the tree line.

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The Brocken was always in view, but so was its legacy. Everywhere we turned were representations of witches. Supposedly, it was once a site where those into the dark arts would gather for their festivals, calling on whatever forces of nature drive the world. It none other than Goethe in his Faustus who forever cemented this particular feature of Brocken into cultural memory:

Now, to the Brocken, the witches ride;

The stubble is gold and the corn is green;

There is the carnival crew to be seen,

And Squire Urianus will come to preside.

So over the valleys, our company floats,

With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

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It helps when natural features assist one’s imagination, such as the eerie the ‘Brocken spectre’: the effect of one’s reflection on the low clouds, a reflection that appears and even moves like a ghost. Yet, no matter how rational an explanation one may find, human beings still like to evoke the eerie and irrational, perhaps satisfying that part of the psyche that responds in such a fashion to the world.

Perhaps the witches were onto something all the same, for the peak has also attracted a good number of military and observation facilities due to its commanding views of the surrounds. In more recent history, the occupying United States forces used it as such until they – reluctantly – had to hand it over to the East Germans, who made the most of the site and its proximity to the western parts to keep an eye on the fascists.

While pondering such matters, I grabbed a couple of beers and checked the bicycles over very carefully. Her front tyre had a slash on ist side wall and a bulging tube. Who knows how long she ridden it in such condition, but at least the tube had not burst. I released the tyre pressure enough to reduce the bulging tube but also enough to ride. A quick check revealed that the only bicycle shop in town did not have the requisite touring tyre as a replacement, with advice to find one in the next town. That would have to wait until the morning.

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The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 16, 31 July 2018: Hessen to Ilsenburg (48 km; 865 in total)

36 degrees in the shade, with a total fire ban. All our Australian summer riding habits came into play: slower riding, frequent rests, even the briefest stop in the shade, and water, plenty of water. With one variation, for by now we had a regular concoction of sour cherry juice and mineral water. Mixed and even warm, it was remarkably refreshing – and disappeared very quickly.

Initially, we swung westwards, keen to spend some more time at the watch tower and border facilities just outside of Hessen. We had passed it – wearily – the day before on our ride into town. Familiar as we were with these by now, we were quite taken with how many are left and maintained. So we still liked to pause and reflect for a while at each one.

A turn southwards took us to Hornburg for some extra nourishment, for breakfast had been somewhat meagre. By now we in the territory of houses with bent beams, twisted windows and bright colours. Although the conventional reading is that time has given such houses their wavy lines and odd angles, my sense was that the trades people who constructed them had imbibed quite a bit of local brew for breakfast. Given that in the Middle Ages people drank beer instead of water (for brewing was the only way to ensure the liquid was clean and pure), and given that one needs to replenish one’s fluids after a sleep, it stands to reason that one would be rather jolly when setting out for the working day. A drunk builder has a somewhat different eye when it comes to lines, corners, windows, beams, and especially the ornamental flourishes they love in these parts.

At lunch – consumed on the ground outside a shop in Osterwieck – we were befriended by some wasps keen once again to saw away at her sliced salami and haul it away for whatever purpose.

The afternoon heated up even more and we were on the edge of the Harz Mountains. In the distance was the Brocken of lore, but we had some busy road roading, quiet lanes and cobbled villages to negotiate before rolling into Ilsenburg. Hotel Altstadt Ilsenburg, at 60 Euro per night, was to be our home for two nights, for tomorrow would be a rest day.

The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 15, 30 July 2018: Weferlingen to Hessen (68 km; 817 in total)

Two stretches of actual border trail today. Both were about 8-9 kilometres each, both were not signposted and both entailed some bicycle hauling up steep slopes and through dense undergrowth.

But not before we had a remarkable breakfast at ‘Zur Zonne’. We were joined at a table weighed down great food by a woman who was walking the Anti-Fascist Trail. She would walk about 15 kilometres a day, as close as possible to the border itself, and find a simple pension for the night. She loved the mountain trails, as well as finding parts only hikers could traverse, but she at times found a long bitumen road before her less appealing. Inspired, we set off to find some genuine border trails – the ones laid in the 1960s for support vehicles, maintenance and defence.

The first was from a turn at Beendorf, straight up and then through the forest. It took right into Marienborn, which had been the main border crossing between east and west. The crossing site has been preserved as a museum around which visitors may freely wander.

After some time doing so, and avoiding the lame effort at the narrative of repression, it struck me: there are many, many facilities to enable such a crossing. Multiple booths for checking passports and visas, customs, a restaurant, toilets, a duty-free shop, and so on. This was only on the eastern side. Photographs from the 1980s showed cars and trucks lined up on either side of the border.

The implication: there was a significant amount of cross-border traffic – contrary to the image perpetuated. Marienborn crossing was where it primarily happened.

The second section of border trail was from the Hoetensleben guard point, with its well preserved towers, wall and wire (and now a kiosk). We opted to ride the border trail from here.

At first it went smoothly enough, through farmland and avoiding the regular bumps of prefabricated cement slabs, until we stopped. Suddenly, the track was no longer used by farm vehicles and so was completely covered. Bushes, trees, nettles, thistles … we hauled our bicycles on foot for a couple of kilometres, eventually coming out on some more ridable road.

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By now the heat was bearing down upon us and we set out sights on the village of Hessen. If finding accommodation the previous night had been ridiculously simple, this late afternoon it was more of a challenge. We phoned ahead, were told by the man that he needed to check with his wife, and waited, waited, waited … until a few kilometres out of the village she called to say she had a room. 50 Euro at Pension am Bahnhof, although breakfast was 10 Euro each (after this price we agreed to limit ourselves to a maximum of 7 Euro each if we had to pay extra).

Dinner was either at a seedy restaurant or a Döner-Kebab trailer. We opted for the latter, which filled the holes in our stomachs. But … I found exactly the same smell was exuded by every orifice in my body for a couple of days afterwards!

The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 14, 29 July 2018: Neuferchau to Weferlingen (58 km; 749 in total)

2018 07 29 Neuferchau to Weferlingen (58 km)

Today we put aside the daily ritual of trying to find accommodation through online booking sites. From past experience, we knew that deep in the German countryside they do not like the internet so much. And over the last few days, we had noticed many more places to stay that were simply not showing up when we searched on our phones. Instead, we agreed that we would start looking out for places to stay after 50 kilometres.

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The morning was fresh after the rain and without the need to cover a certain distance, we took our time.

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A few kilometres past Neuferchau, we opted to ride along a forest track, only to come across a well-maintained guard tower and some of the extra defensive facilities, such as ditches, wire and concrete wall, along with the yellow, black and red post marking the actual border.

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On this post, the ‘DDR’ plaque had been souvenired some time ago, but were to find a few original plaques later. We lingered long in the quiet setting.

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For some kilometres afterwards, the road went right along the border (also between Saxony-Anhalt and Lower Saxony, for it followed the lines of certain German states). Through Rühen – in the west – and Oebisfelde – in the east – we rode. With this Sunday we were well-prepared, having bought food in advance. And we could still stop outside for a meal, for the wasps had not yet gone crazy with the death of the queens.

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On a bicycle sign to the village of Weferlingen I had seen a bed symbol – older ways of indicating what was ahead, but ways still used by many. Pedalling into town, we espied a ‘Gastäte’ on a side street. Here again the bed symbol turned up. We waited, phoned, explored the village, phoned again. Yes, a room was available, 50 Euro with breakfast.

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We stepped through the door and into another world. The proprietor was an absolute character, as was her husband. They had run the place for 36 years, including a small bar where one had a small beer, a shot and cigarette – ‘ein kurzer’.

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This was only the beginning: in the breakfast room was a large bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I, replete with helmet. He was surrounded by First World War paraphernalia.

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Into the dining room and we found hunting scenes, semi-naked women painted in forests, fittings from about 1952 and the best collection of DDR items we had seen thus far. Our host explained each item, even the bank notes with Marx, Engels and Clara Zetkin.

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‘Zur Zonne’ was the place’s name and thus far the highlight in terms of accommodation. And … the bedside lights were classic DDR items. How we wished to take one home!

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Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 13, 28 July 2018: Plate to Neuferchau (72 km; 691 in total)

This morning we opted to pay a little extra for breakfast, since we were back on the road. Charged up in a way that was by now utterly familiar, we followed the border in a more southerly direction.

After some discussion concerning the route, we opted for a quieter road through a string of villages: Langenapel, Ellenberg, Hilmsen, Peckensen, Mehmke, Stöckheim. I was struck again by how they were 2 to 4 kilometres apart, usually within sight of the next. This pattern was an ancient practice indeed, when agriculture – which was the economic basis – was organised along what has been called village communes. Remarkably similar in many parts of the world – Russia, Middle East, medieval Europe and especially Germany – it entailed communal ‘ownership’ of fields (which were regularly reallocated) and pasture. Friedrich Engels had come across this practice in the German states with the Markgenossenschaft, so much so that in the 18880s he proposed that communism would entail a dialectical transformation of such practices and that the communists were the true friends of the peasants. Today it has not entirely been abolished. I mean not merely that many places are still called ‘marks’ (as in Denmark), but that private property in land is mixed at best. For example, everyone has the right of passage through farmland – walking, riding and so on – so many of our routes used farm tracks. Not a ‘no trespassing’ sign to be seen.

This string of villages was no exception, except that on this occasion we found not a shop to share between them. It quickly heated up, food and water began to run low, with only some wondrously disgusting muesli bars to eat. At last, we spied a Gastäte in Rohrberg that was on the verge of closing. She had an ice-coffee, while my ‘ice-coffee’ was a cool dark beer. Finally, in Beetzendorf we stocked up.

Now the thunderstorm that had been brewing looked set to burst. We had hoped to outrun it along some farm tracks, but to no avail. As the wind whipped up, lightning flashed and large drops began to fall, we happened upon a cemetery near Darnebeck. The chapel had a large covered porch area, where we took shelter for more than an hour. As the rain belted down and lightning burst around us, we ate, talked of life and death, where we would like to be buried. Cemeteries seem to have this effect.

As the storm passed, we set off on wet roads to Neuferchau, a village on the edge of the Klötzer Forest. Landhaus Birkenmoor was our stop for the night, a place you can find only in the German countryside. The proprietor admitted that his hearing aids had been safely locked in the drawer for twenty years, while his partner – from Madagascar – gave the place a somewhat French colonial feel. At 60 Euro, including breakfast, it was in our league.

 

The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 12, 27 July 2018: Rest day in Plate: 8 km (619 in total)

2018 07 27 Plate to Luechow return (8 km)

A well-earned rest day, which involved the obligatory bicycle clean and check, especially since the machines were very dusty and clogged up from the dry conditions. We also rode a few kilometres to Lüchow nearby to stock up on a number of items. Meals back at Plater Hermann involved picnics on the floor of our vast room: cheeses, heavy breads, yoghurt, nuts, red raisins, bananas and grapefruit.

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We also wandered around the village of Plate to find out a little more. The village was named after the aristocratic von Plato family. Unlike their unfortunate class cousins east of the border (we were just on the western side), they had not been unjustly dispossessed by those evil communists. So the village and estates hereabouts remained in their hands.

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They were obviously not short of cash, for the large and well-appointed buildings were in very good condition. Like many of the old aristocracy who had made the transition to capitalism, they had done rather well.

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The church was intriguing – a massive structure in a small village. The legend is that one of the von Plato forebears of the fourteenth century had on one occasion become lost. As he was despairing for his life, an image of the Virgin Mary appeared, which guided him home. In gratitude, he had the church built. As one used to do, especially if you had the resources to build a church.

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In the churchyard we noticed another feature: a series of headstones in a semi-circle, with two dates, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Apart from the dates, the stones had a long list of names. Many of the von Plato family had died, but so also had men from a number of other families. No mention otherwise of the two European wars of the 20th century that engulfed much of the rest of the world. No celebration or proclamations of glory. No words at all, apart from the names.

We encountered other memorials of those wars in the villages and towns through which we rode – most in fact. Some did have words, at times on new plaques that had replaced an older one. But all of them kept it very low-key. Unlike the ones I see from time to time in Australia, where fighting wars on behalf of another country is celebrated triumphally, the German memorials had simply ‘To the fallen’, or ‘In memory of the fallen’. How do you remember wars you have lost? Indeed, how do you remember wars at all? Low-key in any context seems best to me.

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