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 from our temporary home in Herrnhut, in the far east of Germany. 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 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 would 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.