The plan: a long ride at least once a year. By long I mean at least 1000 kilometres on a bicycle.
The place: Europe, preferably Germany, with its long overland routes.
Over the last decade or more, I had enacted the plan intermittently. A long ride would be followed by an even longer gap. Sure, I ride daily, and at times I have ridden for a few days or even a week, along quiet tracks or through the mountains, camping on the way. But serious long rides had been too few.
During a quiet summer month I found myself buying a Brompton fold-up bicycle. I seemed to be a symptom of a shift of which I was only dimly aware at the time. As one would expect with such a unique bicycle, it has its appealing quirks, all the way from loving my company to hating cobbles.
But it is a strong, strong bicycle. It stands up well to nearly all conditions, from muddy forest tracks to occasional busy roads. Its six gears are more than enough for steep climbs and breath-taking drops. And the limit of 10 kilograms front and back means that I ride light – as I prefer to do. So compact and simple is its fold – in 10 seconds – that I can take it on a bus or a train with no fuss. If I could do that, then why not on an aeroplane to Europe. I began to imagine what it would be like to ride such a bicycle across Europe.
The next moment – or so it seemed – I was in Liège/Luik in Belgium, the country with a split personality. The bicycle was a still somewhat of a mystery to me. How does one remove the front and rear wheels, with their idiosyncratic constructions, to change a tube or tyre? What is the best setting for quirky gears? How would it handle the mountain climbs, the rocky tracks, the long quiet forest paths or the city routes? I was to find the answers to these and many other questions as the ride unfolded.
I arrived before the route had been decided. A rough idea perhaps, but nothing firm. Until I found the Mittelland route, or D4 – from Aachen to Zittau, west to east. It would take me through places I had longed to see, through the middle of Germany along the Mittelgebirge. It seemed like my route, but I was yet to find out how much.
Eighteen days I would need for the ride and often I would be the only one on this route. Germans love their river routes, understandably, for they are not so hilly and the paths tend to be better formed. Occasionally I would join them for a couple of hours on a river run, but soon I longed for the mountains and forests and the route would take me there once again.
Liège to Aachen (Germany): 67 km.
But first I had to get to Aachen, the ancient seat of Charlemagne and where the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned many hundreds of years ago. Leaving Liège, I was drawn to a well-signposted path that told me it would lead to Maastricht, where I had been many years ago in a different life. The path was all promise! Soon enough I was in the Walloon countryside: the signs faded and disappeared among the fields. I was lost. Frustrated and cursing, I aimed eastwards, in the direction of the Mass/Meuse river. Eventually, the river found me and I could pedal along its banks into The Netherlands. There, in the southern province of Limburg, I found bicycle paths everywhere, with maps at every intersection. Initially it felt like an immense relief from the haphazard approach in Wallonia, but I began to find it a little too easy – a little like a retirement village garden. I longed for more of a challenge.
Aachen to Heimbach: 65 km.
It would come soon enough, after this first day’s ride. Rain greeted me on departure from Aachen, and it would stay with me for the next three days. In itself, rain is not a problem. Wet weather gear sees to that, and the trees produce extra sap so the smells are wonderful. But add to this the German proclivity for running bicycle routes through forests and farmland. Often, the paths are paved radwege, glistening in the rain as you glide along. Equally often, they can become dirt tracks, through a farm or over a mountain pass. Mud and puddles soon appear and the bicycle has a distinct liking – even with mudguards – to gather as much of it as possible. At these moments, I gain the impression that my Brompton had a secret desire to be a mountain bike, given its love of mud and grit. So it was from Aachen to Heimbach, my next stop for the night. I was peddling through North-Rhine Westphalia, with some of it along the swollen Rur River, a tributary of the Rhine. Indeed, the weather over the summer had been unsettled, with much rain and flooding in parts. And with the rain came cold, so much so that at times my fingers tingled and threatened to become numb. After a day of rain, mud and cold, the sight of the Pension Dobrunz in Heimbach was heart-warming. A large dry room for which I paid very little welcomed me. As did the shower. Then I thought: why not give the bicycle a brief shower, washing away all the grit? I was to find that the bike did not appreciate my efforts so much – but only after a dinner that only the Germans in the countryside can produce. Vast, body-restoring, energy replenishing. On this kind of food I could ride a long way.
Heimbach to Bad Godesberg: 73 km.
In the morning my bicycle told me exactly how it felt about the previous evening’s wash: the chain had rusted up! It moved under protest, but I would really need to work much harder today unless I found oil. In a pattern that would stay with me for the ride, I found a shop down the road which happened to sell precisely what I wanted: good old-fashioned household oil. Soon enough the chain was glistening with oil once again. I would need it, since the rain and cold stayed with me for another day. Up mountain tracks in dripping forests, along rain-swept paths that marked the shift from forest to field, bumping over slippery cobbles in one village after another – for 73 km I pedalled my way from Heimbach on the Rur River to the outskirts of Bonn on the Rhine. With more than 200 km covered by now, I felt I was starting to settle into the ride somewhat. One reason was that I had managed to solve a curious German problem. While there are plenty of places to buy beer and baked goods, there are remarkably few toilets. But with their great emphasis on nature and the need to enjoy its simplicity, this problem was easily solved.
Towards the end of the day, another problem needed attention: my fingers were threatening to become numb from the cold! I needed a warm room and dry clothes, which became all the more desirable the longer it took to navigate the outskirts of Bonn. Turning a corner, I saw warm lights, glowing and urging me to enter: Hotel Adler in Bad Godesberg … But no, I had booked ahead to stay at the intriguing A&S Ferienwohnung up the street. Passable it was, but I realised that seeking an affordable bed in a city was not really the way to enjoy Germany. With the memory still fresh of the previous night at Pension Dobrunz, I resolved to seek out quiet villages.
Bad Godesberg to Niederhausen: 79 km.
Rain again for the fourth day’s ride … but now it seemed the norm, so much so that I would not be surprised if it would rain for the whole ride. Keen to get out of the city, I pedalled from the province of North Rhine-Westphalia into the Rhineland-Palatinate. But there was no let up on muddy tracks, swollen rivers (Rhine and Sieg) and flooding in parts – so much so that ducks were the only ones who could enjoy the bicycle path at certain points. In the meantime, I also found that my gears do not like oil all everywhere. The quirky shifter on the rear wheel simply clogs up with oil and refuses to move; I eventually learned to wipe it clean regularly and it responded gleefully with smooth shifts.
Like the bicycle, I too had my moment of glee: I had heard of a place called Landhaus im Kühlen Grunde, in a village simply named Niederhausen, a common enough name in Germany. Turning off the bicycle route for a few kilometres, I found myself on bumpy farm tracks, increasingly unsure of my direction. The Landhaus eventually appeared: 27 euro for the night, a large room, sumptuous food downstairs. To find it on a quiet country road after a long, long day in the rain was pure delight … as was the manager, Gisela.
Niederhausen to Lützel: 25 km (plus 50 km by train and 5 km walking)
I woke to blue skies with traces of cloud. The rain had passed, for now. I was – according to the map – to ride along the Sieg River for a while to the town of, yes, Siegen. But after only a few kilometres I was pulled up by a large sign: no safe route between here and the intriguingly named Niederschelderhütte. Given that main roads in Germany have no shoulders, bicycle paths prefer to stay off them. In this case – due to mountains and the ruggedness of the terrain – there seemed to be no viable alternative. Take the train, said the sign.
I will show them, I thought, so I set off into the hills, sweatily hauling my bicycle up a steep track into the forest. At the top of the climb, far from the main bicycle route, I found the same sign …. As if to say, ‘well, we knew you would try something like this, but it is really not the best route, so why don’t you give in and take the train for a while’. The Germans seem to have everything covered, or at least want to give the impression. So I took the train to Niederschelderhütte and rode into Siegen. There again, I faced a similar problem, so I opted to take the rail motor to Lützel, where I stayed at the small Pension Vogt – the only person there. But what to do about food? They did not serve an evening meal and the only place was out in the forest, more than 2 km away, I ended up walking about 5 km there and back for the sake of a meal. Total distance travelled: 80 km, but of this 25 km was ridden and 5 km walked. A rest day of sorts.
Lützel to Cölbe: 71 km.
Travel stories like to enhance the difficulties, making the day worthy of memory. But what of the days that run smoothly? Away early on a track well signposted, a bike enjoying the run, the sun shining, the forest completely absorbing, only villages along the way, accommodation easily found (and even upgraded), a meal and beers you can find only in the German countryside. So it was on the 71 km ride from Lützel to Cölbe (near Marburg). The signal of a good day was already there at breakfast: a whole table laid out – and I was the only guest!
The catch was that the ride went so well I began to push myself, as used to be my wont when my legs were slightly younger. I fooled myself a little with the thought that my old fire was back, forgetting the pleasure of a gentler, reflective pace that suited the bicycle and myself in these times. I was to pay the cost of this self-deception the following day.
Cölbe to Oberaula: 111 km.
Oberaula, now in the province of Hesse, was my destination for the day. I told myself that 80-85 km would be doable, assuming the clear signage and smooth passage of the day before. And so it began … until I arrived in the town of Neustadt: a dreaded sign told me that the route ahead was unusable due to major roadworks. What to do? The sign suggested a number of detours, each of which was somewhat of a puzzle. To make matters more intriguing, my online map was not working at this moment. I opted for a regional route detour, which seemed to be well-marked – the R2/R4. The result: a massive loop to the south.
By the time I felt as though I had ridden through all the villages in Hesse, I came upon a brand new D4 sign, except that it pointed in the opposite direction to the one I had been following. With a sigh I turned the bicycle around and set off, wondering how far I had to go. At the 86 km mark I found out: there was still 25 km to go! Late it was already and I had run out of water. It may not have been raining today, but there was plenty of mud on the track from previous flooding and over-full dams. Fortunately, the last 25 km followed a rail trail (an old railway line converted to a bicycle path). Drawing on my last reserves, I raced the setting sun, finally arriving at the Hotel zum Stern at 8.30pm. I laughed out loud in relief, staggered inside and refilled my empty stomach.
Next morning, I limped down to a late breakfast and my legs told me very clearly that I was not to be riding that day. After my burst of youthful vigour yesterday – 111 km on a fold-up bicycle – I realised on this morning that youth can be over-rated. A more sedate pace, a day of rest – these were more appropriate ways to enjoy a ride. So I relaxed, walked around town, washed the clothes I had been wearing for the last week, cleaned and maintained the bicycle and got some early sleep.
Oberaula to Dankmarshausen: 75 km; Dankmarshausen to Schwabhausen: 84 km.
Thuringia – on this day and the next I rode deep into the former DDR (East Germany). Initially, it required 75 km to Dankmarshausen and then another 84 km to Schwabhausen. Trouble-free on both days, with a bike now fine-tuned as I had become thoroughly familiar with its workings and settings. And I was familiar now with the search for village accommodation: Hotel Waldschlösschen in Dankmarshausen with fields and mines for a view, and Landgasthaus Schwabhausen, still being redone so it felt bright, airy and quiet (the owner here was perhaps better at renovation than cooking!).
Thuringia – the beginning of a far more interesting part of Europe. For hundreds of years radical politics have arisen here and in Saxony. The traces are everywhere. From more recent times, I encountered street names such as Karl-Marx Straße, Friedrich-Engels Straße, Clara-Zetkin Straße and Karl Liebknecht Straße – heroes of East Germany. The architecture here still represents the spatial efforts to construct a new society, with occasional samples of Stalin baroque and the clean lines of modern apartment buildings for workers. Of course, efforts have been made to recast this story as a negative, especially when I came across the ‘Iron Curtain Trail’, which runs all the way from the top of Norway down to the Mediterranean. Some 6000 km in total, although I was touching on only a small part between West and East Germany, before the former colonised the latter.
Dig a little further back and the town names themselves become part of this radical history. Erfurt was where the famous Erfurt Program was agreed upon by the powerful German-Democratic Party in 1891. Karl Kautsky’s commentary on the program formed the strategic basis for the Russian Revolution. And then there was Gotha, made famous by Marx’s late piece, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ from 1875. Further back still and you find the towns where Thomas Müntzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’, sought to inspire and organise peasants and miners for the Peasant Revolution of 1525 – Allstedt, Frankenhausen, Mühlhausen and so on. Of course, this part of Germany was where Luther also fomented his version of radicalism (protected by the Elector of Saxony), although he backtracked when he saw the implications.
Why this part of Europe? Mines past and present told part of the story. In many towns were memorials to their mining past; in others mines were still operating, such as the salt mine I could see around Dankmarshausen; or mines closed down after 1989, bringing economic recession into eastern Germany. Miners have a history of radicalism and militancy. But also weavers, given to communal organisation and efforts at alternative social formations. In other words, the early inroads of capitalism and its patterns of exploitation also produced some of the earliest and perhaps most radical forms of European socialist politics. It is not for nothing that Karl Kautsky searched for the forerunners of modern socialism in these parts.
Schwabhausen to Kipperquelle (Weimar): 67 km.
Despite my best intentions, the previous day’s ride to Schwabhausen – of 84 km – was longer than I had intended. Ease up, ease up, I kept telling myself. Yet the temptation to push a few extra kilometres was always there – like so much of my life, in which I tried to fill each day with more than was feasible, feeling the weight of tasks but also getting a buzz out of it.
So on my ride to Kipperquelle (just past Weimar) I managed to ease up. After all, a Brompton fold-up is happier when one pedals at a gentler pace. As I did so, I was able to savour some fascinating countryside. Early on I realised I was in a village that claimed to be Bach’s stamping ground (although he was officially born in Eisenach, through which I had passed a day or two earlier). Of more interest was the village of Neudietendorf, established by the Moravian Brethren in the 1700s (my final destination was to be the spiritual home of the Moravians, where their refounder, Zinzendorf, did his thing). And I paused long in Weimar, which turned out to be still a centre of radical politics, German style. Many were the dreadlocks, the tousled-hair children, the unkempt and baggy clothes. And many were the cobbles, of a particularly rocky kind, so the Brompton and I walked much of the town. Indeed, in the centre was a vast mural celebrating 100 years of modern communist revolutions, since the auspicious moment of October 1917. Of course, the small hotel at Kipperquelle was not only devoted to all cyclists, but also to wellness, organic food and meditation.
Kipperquelle to Bad Köstritz: 77 km.
The appeal of Weimar is not to be denied, but I enjoy more the radical history of these parts. The next day, to Bad Köstritz (77 km), revealed another aspect – plenty of renovated communist era architecture. But I also spent much time peddling through paths in forest reserves. These reserves are rarely recognised as achievements of the government of East Germany, which set about establishing widespread nature reserves in the 1960s and 1970s.
By the time I arrived in the village of Bad Köstritz, which is also – I found out on a late evening walk – the home of Köstritzer beer, I longed for another rest day. Not what I was used to, I must admit, but I was learning to enjoy them! My brief home for two nights was to be Pension Egerer, in a quiet corner of the village.
But what do you do on a rest day? Rest, of course. A long sleep, a snooze in the afternoon, a walk to see a dentist up the road – for I had an aching tooth that had arisen after the 111 km day. Nothing to worry about it seemed, except not to push myself to extremes. Ah yes, I also like to eat, to build up my reserves again. Massive country breakfasts, amazing German salads and solid dinners, anything you can get your hands on at lunch. And German küche. One is a meal normally, but on a ride and even a rest day I can eat three or four.
Bad Köstritz to Meerane: 56 km.
By now I had a week of riding to go, and I began to think both of its end and how I did not wish it to come. After my rest day, I was on the road again, on a relatively short ride – 56 km from Bad Köstritz to Meerane. More radical religious history, with my route criss-crossing that of Thomas Müntzer (‘theologian of the revolution’) almost 500 years ago, as also Martin Luther’s. I must admit that the latter was of less interest to me, but far more to the German authorities of these times. At every turn, it seemed as though he was following me – but then I realised that this year is the 500th anniversary from when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg and sparked the German Reformation (the Bohemian one, further to the east and under the inspiration of Jan Hus, had begun 100 years earlier). By the end of the day, I found myself in the matter-of-fact town of Meerane, staying at another great (and cheap) place, Pension zum Bauernstübel.
Meerane to Augustusburg: 66 km.
Leaving Meerane the next morning, the signs disappeared almost completely. I had been warned by one or two who had ridden this way before me, so I had scanned detailed route maps the night before. To be sure, there were signs for horses and walkers, but the only bicycle sign had been thrown down in frustration by some previous cyclist. All of this was offset by the serious climbing, usually in forests, and above all the last 2 km up to Augustusburg. The Jagdschloss or hunting lodge – really a castle – sits on a peak in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains). I had already managed quite a few climbs, only to roll down a long slope into a village by a stream. This is Augustusburg! I thought. But no, towering above me was the last challenge. Part of me said the dirt track up, up, up to the top was too much. The other part, fuelled by adrenalin and the prospect of a beer at the end, said otherwise. Halfway up and pouring with sweat, I was overtaken at some speed by a mountain bike. Wow, I thought, what fitness, what stamina! Then I saw the electric motor. Surely, a mountain bike with a motor is somehow a contradiction, cheating perhaps. Is not a mountain bike designed precisely to enjoy tough tracks? Why put a motor on it?
The top at last, under my own steam! After 66 km I had arrived at the Hotel Morgensonne. I was the only guest, but my host – an energetic septuagenarian woman who spoke German very loudly and slowly for my benefit – welcomed me warmly and even took me to a Czech restaurant for dinner.
Augustusburg to Tharandt: 68 km.
Still the route continued sans signs; still I puzzled over the route from time to time. It may have been a stony farm track upon which no bicycle had ridden for many a long year – I turned back and took a moderately busy road through the hills, thankful for a smooth surface and German care with bicycles. It may have been a path through the forest that began well but soon became in indentation in the grass of a farmer’s field. I had realised by now that the route was at times more of an idea than a reality, a plotting on a map that avoided main roads without actual surveillance of the route. So I learnt to make my own way when the route become a little impossible. But I had plenty of quiet corners on a sunny day, plunging into the forests of Tharandt – to find Altes Wirtshaus Tharandt after 68 km, where I was greeted on arrival in Dutch!
Tharandt to Stolpen: 68 km.
Passing through Dresden the following morning, I marked 1000 km on a fold-up bicycle. I felt as though I had covered a reasonable distance. Rather modest if you think of those who tackle rides of thousands of kilometres, but significant enough for me. Somehow, the four-digit number means it is a serious ride. And at the end of the day, at 1052 km (after 68 km for the day), I had ridden further on one ride than ever before.
Today’s ride was a mix, with some slow city riding (not my favourite) soon after I left Tharandt, a fast run – with many others enjoying a sunny day – down a section of the Elbe, which divides most of east Germany from the western parts. Later in the day, I rode into the mountainous sections of eastern Saxony. Now I was on my own again, quietly enjoying the pattern of forest paths, villages and farms.
Suddenly, an old castle rose out of the quiet fields! Stolpen. Cut out of a basalt outcrop, the castle dates back some 8 or 9 centuries, for long occupied by a bishop or two, as bishops did in those times. Somehow, it drew me, beckoning, full of promise. Dismounting on the sloping cobbled streets of the village, my feet felt the pull, past the pensione to the oldest hotel thereabouts – the Burg Hotel, right next to the castle gate. After more than two weeks of riding, I had become adept enough to communicate in broken German. I had to, since languages other than German were barely spoken. A room was available and the country luxury inexpensive. I sat outdoors looking over the cobbled streets and castle walls, savouring local beers and country fare. A late tour through the partially ruined castle reinforced the isolated peace of these parts. One sleeps well in such an environment.
Stolpen to Herrnhut: 85 km.
The last day comes sooner or later. And a tough one it was. Skirting the Zittauer Gebirge – which straddle the Czech border – I had climb after climb after climb. Much of the day was spent in first gear or pulling hard on the brakes. When a downpour hit soon after departure from Stolpen, I was preparing myself – reluctantly – for a wet day. But it cleared and the sun bore down upon me. By the time I was pedalling along the Spree River, close to its source (the river runs to Berlin), I was on tracks I knew. More than four years ago, I had ridden these parts, and the closer I drew to my destination, the more I remembered. Barely four years ago, but it felt like a very long time ago – almost another life out of many. The day would not let up. Forget a gentle and short ride to celebrate: this was 85 km of hard work. Perhaps this added to the inescapable mingling of deep weariness and sheer elation at the end of the ride, which of course produces thoughts and talk of the next ride.
After 1137 km, on a Brompton fold-up bicycle along what is regarded as the toughest long-distance route in Germany (and I vouch for that), I arrived in the village of Herrnhut to a very warm welcome indeed.
Day to day accounts of a ride can be – for those not into rides – a little bit of a drag. The routine is largely the same: wake, eat sumptuously, pack, set off, ride 60-80 km, arrive, eat, drink a few beers, shower, bed. To be sure, each day’s ride has its own variations, with signs suddenly disappearing, steep mountain climbs, missed turns, forests, villages and cities.
But what is a ride like this, what does it do to you? On the first few days, I imagine I might keep up with email, or perhaps keep up with the news, or productively use the quiet evenings to develop my next book, or study Chinese for a couple of hours. After about three days, these thoughts simply disappear. All that concerns me is the route, food, water, the state of the bicycle, and my next bed for the night. It helped that I was deep in the countryside, getting through cities as quickly as I could and staying in small villages. The wider world does not seem to affect such places as much, so you can in a way forget that world. A great forgetting, which is wonderful for unwinding and relaxing. Of course, this sense is a fiction to some extent, for all sorts of outside developments affect the countryside, and I have lived long enough in the countryside to realise its shortcomings. Better to pass through, with but few things to one’s name, enjoying the great forgetting in passing, thinking about the next bed for the night.
Riding each day seemed for a while to become a way of life, one that I imagined continuing day after day, week after week, month after month. Being a hermit and nomad all at once has an extraordinary effect on one’s mind and body – as if the two can be separated. For weeks afterwards, I had a truly clear mind, slept deeply, talked and walked the forests and farms of the Oberlausitz. The ride was far too transformative to do only once in my life.