‘So you have come all the way from Australia to drive your bicycle in east Germany?’ she asks.
‘Much better than the western parts’, I say. ‘Here you have streets called Karl Marx Straße or Friedrich Engels Straße and much more. But tell me, what is the German for “ride a bicycle”’?
‘Fahrrad fahren’, she says, smiling. ‘To drive a bicycle’.
It is the last day but one of our ‘drive’ along the Spreeradweg, the bicycle route that winds its way to Berlin from the three springs that make up the source of the Spree River, on and about the mountain of Kottmar in the Oberlausitz region of the far east of Germany. The ride covers more than 410 km (we added a few more by departing from Herrnhut, where we were staying to the east of the source at Kottmar). It skirts and at times hops over the Czech border, passes through the heart of east Germany (the main attraction), but also through old Sorbian lands, tribes of a Slavic language with links to the Serbs.
The main story and focus is of course the river itself, beginning as a stream over which one can jump in the hills of the south-eastern parts of Saxony and becoming a river full of barges, ferries and river boats. It passes through medieval towns, through vast wetlands (the Spreewald) full of canals and dykes, and through almost endless forests and lakes. Its running waters may once have powered myriad mills and early industries, although they continue to be the focus of industry today, whether power stations or tourism. Its dammed waters serve as drinking water, for swimming and boating, and for the multitude of nudist places throughout the east. In a country with little coastline, the rivers and lakes become the locus for whatever waterside activities one can imagine and a not a few unimaginable activities. Throughout the ride, the Spree was our focus, guide, and source of endless fascination.
Day One: Herrnhut to Bautzen, 62km
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Day Two: Bautzen to Neustadt, 60km
The morning is tough as we mount the bikes for the second day, not helped by the falling snow as we leave Bautzen and by the sucking mud of the tracks in the ‘biosphere’ between Guttau and Uhyst. By the afternoon it becomes easier, assisted by a great lunch at Uhyst. We are slowly regaining our cycling fitness.
Today I rediscover an old pleasure, ponder the environmental heritage of the communist era in the east and am struck by the relative sparseness of human population. The pleasure first: when cycling over long days, my body burns up the energy at an unbelievable rate. So I find I can eat and eat and eat in a way that I have not done since I was in my twenties. A massive breakfast, courtesy of that European tradition of including breakfast in the accommodation cost, involves mountains of muesli, bread rolls, cheeses, jams, yoghurt and honey. Lunch is a bakery, with yet more of those wonderful German breads, topped up with calorie rich slices that the locals love so much. And dinner is a succession of courses until at last my needs are sated. I fall in love with the sumptuous Bauernfrüstücke and the Sorbian dish of potatoes and quark (a fresh and very soft cheese). Do that in one’s usual life and the midriff expands even for someone like me.
As for the environment, I begin to notice the dates when lakes were declared natural areas, when forests were demarcated as wild areas, when the river itself became an environmental concern. Those dates are typically in the 1960s and 1970s. But was that not the era of the DDR? If we are to believe the propaganda of trendy environmentalists in the West, communist governments were supposed to be environmental bandits, destroying swathes of forests and lakes and water courses for the sake of industrialisation. In some cases, of course, they made mistakes, but they seem to have learnt from those experiences and fostered more environmental projects than many care to remember. After all, communism is keen not merely on human flourishing, but also of the earth as a whole, of unleashing the forces of nature in a way that is stymied and atrophied by capitalism.
In these parts, the communist governments inherited a feature of eastern Europe that goes much further back. The swathes of forest and field, of rivers and mountains are a signal of the sparseness of human beings hereabouts. To be sure, it is a relative scarcity, for regions of desert and cold are sparser, but for conditions genial to human habitation such as Europe, human beings are relatively scarce on the ground. Complex factors play a role here, such as the waves of invasions and migrations from further east that rolled over eastern Europe, or the appeal of the warmer coastal zones to the west rather than the chillier inner reaches of Europe, as also distinct economic developments in the east. So it was already in the years of early capitalism. In western Europe, the density of population meant that land was scarce and people moved about more readily to find sustenance, even reclaiming land from the sea as in the Netherlands and throughout greater Frisia, along the Waddenzee and up to Jutland. In the east, land and not labour was plentiful, so the ‘refeudalisation’ of eastern Europe sought to bind farm labourers to the estates – legally and economically, by force if necessary. That scarcity of labour continued in communist times, with collectivisation another mode of economic security. Today, one can ride for half a day, through forests and steppes, over mountains and through wetlands, and come across only villages and towns scattered here and there. Readymade, it would seem, for the celebration of nature and the wild that you continue to find. Readymade also for those extraordinary tracks through such land: a fahradstraße (bicycle road) through a forest; a solitary lane across a field, a lane that twists and dips a little as you pass through; the energy sucking mud of a spring thaw in the biospheres that cover the landscape.
We stop gratefully in the village of Neustadt, where a dark-haired mother with a sad face and two inquisitive little boys greet us. She and her mother run the gasthaus, although her mind is elsewhere, tracing perhaps a long and difficult story that ends up in a small village in eastern Germany. Meanwhile, the boys pepper us with myriad questions concerning the distant lands from which we come and the variations in the times of day and night between such places.
In between, we eat yet more Sorbian food, and restore our bodies with another endless sleep.
Day Three: Neustadt to Burg-dorf, 84 km
Wonderful it is to feel the kilometres roll away beneath you once again. The nomad that I am never tires of that feeling. But what are those wheels like? They are certainly not the high-tech touring machines that require the sale of one of your children to purchase these days, with all manner of bells and whistles and whatnot. We had bought them second hand in Berlin a year and a half earlier. Hers is a tank of a thing: a bomb-proof steel frame powered by a three-speed internal hub. The catch is that the third gear is pretty much useless, since the ratios are too high. And the whole drive mechanism is pretty much shot. A patch up or two has not removed the crunking sound on every revolution. Mine is an ancient Pegasus, with the grand claim of 18 gears that shifted smoothly many decades ago, a loose headset that I constantly hand tighten, and a seat that hints at comfort only to abuse one’s arse after about 50 km.
Yet they are all we need. They cover almost any terrain, barely notice punishment and can carry unspeakably large loads. Today they carry us on long loping runs through the biospheres and along what they call ‘deichs’ in these parts. Yes, dykes: initially I think they are levee banks along the side of the river. But soon enough I realise we are entering the extensive river flats and wetlands that soon enough become the Spreewald. Here one enters a region of lakes, swamps, canals, dykes and pumps. Here one encounters that topsy-turvy moment, when the water in the canal is higher than the land around about it; or indeed, that of two parallel bodies of water, one considerably higher than the other.
Up on the dyke, to get into one those kilometre-eating rhythms for a couple of hours, with the wind on your shoulder, is one of the great pleasures in life. Of course, the precursor to that run is inevitably a tough grind into the teeth of the wind while we are running low on fuel. So it is as we ride north from the working town of Cottbuss and towards Peitz, skirting the lakes that supply the power station near town. Once at Peitz, we stagger into a bäckerei in the heart of the old town. The proprietor, a laughing woman who enjoys reviving exhausted riders, promptly carries out some chairs and brings out a steady stream of coffee and pastry, heavy with butter and sugar and flour. Thoroughly recharged, we set off gleefully, on a late afternoon burst, feeling as though our charges are unburdened machines made of the lightest carbon fibre.
We find ourselves drawn to towns such as Cottbuss and Peitz, for they are industrial working towns, having been so for quite some time. Cottbuss has been described as a ‘DDR hole’, retaining many of the features of that era. That it had to be largely rebuilt after the Second World War, with many of the buildings having that functionality and simplicity of form characteristic of DDR times, probably helps. Yet there is also a structure of feeling about both places that is different from other parts. Perhaps it is the shops, still small ones specialising in but one item – bras or curtains or poles or bags or toe ticklers – rather than the supermarkets the Americans introduced to Western Europe after the war. Perhaps it is the tough resilience, in an east that has felt the punishing roughness of capitalism for more than two decades. Perhaps it is the fact that DDR was constructed for precisely the inhabitants of Cottbuss and Peitz and other working towns.
Day Four: Burg-dorf to Werder, 73 km
We are deep in Sorbian territory. But who are the Sorbs (also called the Wends in medieval sources)? An ancient Slavic people, they apparently migrated from further east into these parts in the fifth and sixth centuries, establishing their tribal networks in the forests. Their home is Lausatia, as the Romans called it, predating the German states of Saxony and Brandenburg, as well as a parts of western Poland, in which Lausatia is found today. They were fiercely independent, fighting off the efforts at Christianisation and delaying that process for a good few centuries. They also had to deal with waves of Germanisation and Polonisation. From time to time they have asserted, requested, and temporarily obtained recognition as a distinct political entity. It is worth noting that in recent history the Third Reich denied them any distinct status at all, asserting that they were Germanic and spoke a Slavic-inflected dialect of German. By contrast, during the period of the DDR, their distinct identity was recognised and institutions established – schools, cultural organisations, literary foundations and so on – to preserve and foster Sorbian culture, language and identity. This was in line with communist policy to recognise the autonomy of different ethnic groups. That legacy continues today, with those institutions still providing a basis for Sorbian culture. Even so, as a minority, they struggle to maintain their identity, with the young people typically less than keen to speak the language and follow the customs of their parents. Of course, in their own maturity, that tradition is rediscovered and then they have to deal with their own children.
Their language is Slavic, most closely related to Czech and Polish. Spoken by the older generations, it has its own literary tradition, and is officially recognised by the German state. Thus the region is bilingual. Travellers notice this most readily in the signage, in which the Spree is the Sprjewja, Bautzen is Budyšin, and most names have clear Sorbian origins that have subsequently been Germanised – the one that strikes me is Hoyeswerda, a lightly Germanised Wojerecy. Upper Sorbian (Serbya) is found in the southern, hillier regions (including Herrnhut and its environs), while Lower Sorbian (Serby) is of the river flats, with Cottbus (Chóśebuz) at the centre. Riding through, stopping and pondering, you notice it immediately in the food, the traditional dress, the conical haystacks (that remind me of Transylvania), the flat-bottomed river boats, festivals, and so many other distinct features.
Not only are we deep in Sorbian territory, but we are also deep in the Spreewald (Błota). Here the Spree eases back and relaxes, spreading out over vast river flats of what once was called a swamp, but is now designated as a unique biosphere by UNESCO. Full of canals, pumps, punts, and dykes – for both irrigation and flood mitigation – we find ourselves wheeling through swampland thickly populated by alder trees and then over sandy ground covered in pine. The sand, dumped here over centuries through flooding, has that distinct knack of working its way into every working part of our bikes and making a light crunch, crunch at every turn of the crank.
The Spreewald may be famous in some parts as a tourist destination, which has resulted in well-heeled old fogeys swarming to places like Lübben and Lübbenau. Or indeed, in turning other places into ghost towns in the off-season – as we found when searching for accommodation. It might even be famous as one of the popular locations for the Frei Körper Kultur (FKK), the nudism fostered particularly by the DDR. Often we pass by signs with an arrow, water symbol and FKK upon it.
But it is most famous for its gherkins! Gherkins? Yes indeed. Trucks with massive gherkins plastered on their sides carry loads of the green, pickled cucumbers. A special cycle route called the Gurken-Radweg takes you through all the key locations. The gherkin from these parts is even recognised by the EU as a protected geographical indication (PGI). Why the fuss? Apparently, the secret to the delicate taste of the local gherkins is due not only to the rich, moist soil and local climate, but to a process of pickling that remains secret to all but a score of furtive picklers. I can attest to the quality of the Spreewald gherkin, having consumed vast jars of them over the past few weeks. In fact, the gherkin was one of the few items that did not suffer cutbacks or complete shutdown when the DDR was annexed in 1989.
Today’s ride is not complete without a simple discovery: the word ‘gherkin’ derives from ‘gurken’, from early modern Dutch, and then secondarily from ‘Gurke’, cucumber in German. And today’s ride is not complete without the storks. Turning a corner in the small village of Leibsch, my riding partner whistles and gesticulates wildly towards the sky. Up on a man-made pole in the midst of the village is a vast nest made of sticks, and upon it sits a big white bird with red beak and red legs. Perfectly comfortable with human beings staring away, it performs a series of preens and yawns and handstands and loop-the-loops … At the end of our ride we are to see yet another stork – more than most people in a lifetime. This one is at our lodgings for the night, prancing up and down the river bank and enjoying the local fare of grubs and whatnot for dinner.
The storks may have their comfortable nests provided from village to village, but we are lucky to find any inn open at all. Too early in the season, it seems. The tiny village of Werder is the thankful exception.
Day Five: Werder to Fürstenwalde, 64 km
The look out of the window this morning is not good, with the rain beating down. ‘It will clear by noon’, says the expanding young man on duty for breakfast. Of course, the four cyclists cling to his words like prophecy; yet prophecy has a tendency to fail. It clears only by late afternoon.
A day of driving rain has its benefits. The rain may do its best to work its way through the most careful waterproofing, it may even delight in filling one’s shows like buckets. But the rain also brings out the smells of the conifers in the magnificent forests, and it provides the gift of a lonely wet fahrradstraße among the trees. By now we are used to the rhythms of the day, largely determined by our bodies: morning glide; noon grind; afternoon flight. The morning is a gentle easing into the day, of loosening bones and muscles. But the morning glide passes soon enough to the mid-afternoon grind. A knee begins to throb; a bum aches on an ill-fitting seat; a hand tingles; energy is low. Yet the late afternoon is something else again, aided and abetted by the feast that goes by the name of ‘kaffe und küchen’. Nothing but sugar, flour and butter – in vast quantities. Powered up, the rest of the ride is sheer flight.
Two items strike me today, the first concerning our encounter with other riders. Today it is the two women: middle aged friends, going for a ride every year along one of the German Rivers – Ems, Oder-Neisse, Spree. I am drawn to them, two friends putting aside everything else and sharing a deep pleasure. One is a smoker, the other not; they prefer shorter rides each day (no more than 50 km), sending a suitcase ahead to each place, booking accommodation before departure. They had been more than two days ahead of us (at Neustadt the hotelier had mentioned a couple of riders passing through); yesterday we had passed them on the lakes as they rested. Last night we meet, as the only occupants of the hotel in Werder, and I suspect it is open because they have booked ahead. We speak often, of the things that are most important to riders: one’s origin and destination, the weather, where a good stop may be, the condition of the bicycles.
The second is the importance of the whole biological and ecological dimension to German approaches to life. In contrast to some countries where politicians play with the issue for their own gain, here the decision has been made many years ago to pursue modes of ecologically sensitive ways of living. We ride past many nature paths, wild tracks, solar farms, windmills … all espousing the benefits of the natural. But this naturalism may be twisted and appropriated by fascism, which perverts the purity of nature and extends it to the purity of the volk. How to prevent such a perversion is the perpetual question one faces.
Tonight we splurge a little, enjoying the comforts of the Kaiserhof Hotel in the middle of Fürstenwalde. With some time to explore the town, to note its destructions and rebuilds through a number of wars, and to see the ongoing effects of deindustrialisation and annexation into West Germany, we find ourselves wanting to return. Like Cottbuss and Peitz, here too is a sense of the resistance and persistence of the DDR, of an east that keeps its identity. That the hotel is on Friedrich Engels Straße certainly helps.
Day Six: Fürstenwalde to Berlin, 73 km
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!
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?