Too soon does the last day come. The kilometres tick down too quickly towards our destination. The last of the extensive and quiet forests – from Fürstenwalde to Erker – make up our morning. By afternoon, the stretch into Berlin becomes increasingly busy. Cyclists and walkers swarm on the tracks, willing warmth in the spring sun. The spreads of forest became parks, while the Spree fills with boat traffic: three section barges, ferries, standing canoeists, even though the full summer season of pleasure craft has not yet begun.
Yet the strongest impression comes from the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. A few kilometres before the end of the ride, it is a stunning example of such a memorial. I am not usually moved by these monuments, given as they are to nationalism, political myths and the glorification of war. This one has elements of that too, but it is suffused, both by the fact that the memorial is on foreign soil and that it celebrates the international victory of socialism over fascism. At Treptower Park 7,000 of the 22,000 Red Army soldiers killed in the taking of Berlin lie buried. Its world renowned designers, architects and sculptors produced a people-friendly place that reminds one of the immense struggle, by the fledgling USSR, to defeat the forces of fascism in the Second World War. One is led in through stone arches on either side, engraved in Russian and German. They lead you to the bottom end, where the crouched figure of the motherland weeps over her sons, and then along the memorial axis; you move gradually upward through the massive red stone banners, to view the stretch of stone wreaths for the dead, the 16 marble reliefs with depictions of war and peace.
But all eyes are on the massive statue on the mound at the end of the axis. It is of a strapping Russian soldier, holding a sword in his right hand that touches at his feet a broken swastika, and in his left arm a young girl, rescued from the threat of war and fascism. Beneath the soldier’s feet is a simple shrine to the fallen.
Perhaps the most gratifying of all is the extensive presence of communist and soviet symbols, ranging from red stars on each fence paling or in relief on the stone work, through prominent hammer and sickles at every turn, to quotations in Russian and German from none other than Joseph Stalin, the architect of the Red Army’s defeat of fascism.
What a way to arrive at our Berlin home! What a useful way to counter the annoyingly anti-communist ride report by an American school-teacher.
As it is, we are flushed with the thrill of riding from door to door, from Herrnhut to Berlin. Slowly my post-ride rituals unfold: bikes are rubbed down, cleaned, checked over and oiled; smelly clothes are reluctantly washed; bodies are shorn and made presentable once again for ‘civilisation’. As I do so my bodily memories retrace the ride, thankful that I could do so with this person now, that we took the time and space to do so and touch another way of being. Yet what also makes it a ride for the ages is the way it evokes earlier rides, with all manner of memory tracks, and makes me long for another.
Next time? How about the one of the great Europa paths, running from one end to the other, from Galway in Ireland to Moscow, or from Nordcap in Norway to Compostella in Spain?