Spreeradweg, Day One (Herrnhut to Bautzen, 62km)

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With the last farewells done, gathered from over six weeks in Herrnhut, we mount our ancient, second-hand bicycles and curse: we have far more to haul along than expected. So decisions have to be made concerning what to throw out and what useless items to bring along. She carries a pair of worn out shoes; I carry some busted woollen mittens … just in case.

Before the ride I have been watching the weather assiduously, hoping that the resilient winter would finally be driven away by a reluctant spring. The bitter winds may have passed, in the open the sun may have melted some snow, but still in the shade of forests and in corners hidden from the sun the snow remains thick. We wind out way through the Czech border towns – Eibau and its brewery, Neugersdorf and Ebersbach, with small secondary sources of the Spree, north through Neusalza-Spremberg, Schirgiswalde, and then Obergurig. These earlier towns have Sorbian history, but only with Obergurig do the bilingual signs appear – it is Hornja Hórka.

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The route itself has the simultaneously charming and annoying habit of taking you through the cobbled cores of villages and towns: charming when the riding is going well; annoying when you are tired and the basalt cobbles jar your bones and rattle your ancient steed. In the upper reaches of the narrow stream that is the Spree in these parts, it passes over rocky outcrops deep in the forest, where ice is still thick and snow piled high.

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The best parts are those glorious single lane byways that cross over fields in a way that seems as though the path was made just for you – today. Still we wear our winter gear – long johns and gloves and jackets to cut a bitter wind that is decidedly untimely in a time that is supposed to be spring.

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We ride past countless Lausatian cottages, with the characteristic braces-effect on one corner. Three braced arches of timber on the end, with two or perhaps three more from that corner to the door. Above is a steeply arched roof, with eye-windows and slate tiles. Each locality has its own tile patterns, whether black or white pattern, overlapping grey that reaches to the ground, or what have you.

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The end of the day’s ride is the walled medieval town of Bautzen, Budyšin in Sorbian. The way residences form part of the curving wall is intriguing enough, as is the town’s history as a key component of the six-town Lausatian League (dating from the thirteenth century), as is the largely intact wall and its defence towers. But I am most taken with the fact that none of the buildings is constructed with ninety-degree angles. Each is at oblique angles, jutting out here, and bending to the curving streets and lanes there. The contrast is sharpest between the domkirche, with its noticeable bend in the middle, a bend that is different on either side, with the later rathaus that is  neatly angled in a way to which we have become accustomed. Why these varying angles? Why these bent streets? Why the jumbles of houses and buildings? It speaks of a production of space, a notion of lived reality that is far from our own under capitalism. It is not as though they didn’t have the wherewithal to construct neat right angles, but rather – and this is only a guess – the sense that human existence was a much more complex affair, in contrast to the supposedly clear calculations of life in our own time.

After sampling Sorbian fare, with endless varieties of mustard, we sleep long and hard in a room at the youth hostel that feels like an Ikea display bedroom.

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