Of Gherkins, Fahrradstraßen and Ancient Steeds: Riding the River Spree

‘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 Allee 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’.

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Steeds and Route

It is the last day but one of our ‘drive’ along the Spree River, from the springs in the Lausatian mountains to Berlin. Our mounts are certainly not high-tech touring machines that require the sale of one of your children to purchase. Hers is a tank of a thing: a second-hand bomb-proof steel frame powered by a three-speed internal hub. Third gear is useless, since the ratios are too high. And the whole drive mechanism is 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 may have shifted smoothly many decades ago, a loose headset that I constantly hand tighten, and a seat that abuses one’s arse after about 50 km.

Yet they are all we need. They barely notice punishment and can carry unspeakably large loads. For a nomad like me, I am happy as long as they enable me to feel the kilometres roll away beneath me. Our ride covers more than 410 km over six days. It begins in the forests and snow of the Oberlausitz hills, with their icy tracks and wolf spoor and springs of the Spree. It ends in the bustle of Berlin, which is a culture shock after the solitary tracks in the sparsely populated parts of the east. On the way, the route hops over the Czech border, passes through the heart of east Germany, as well as old Sorbian lands. Throughout the ride, the Spree is our focus, guide and source of endless fascination. Beginning as a stream over which one can jump in the south-eastern parts of Saxony, it becomes 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 have powered mills and power stations and factories since the beginnings of industrialisation. Its dammed waters and lakes are for drinking, 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.

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Fahrradstraßen and Landscape

The Germans have a rather liberal understanding of fahrradstraße and fahrradweg, a bicycle path or route. It may be a glorious single-lane byway across a field that seems as though it has been made for me, today, or a lonely wet path in the rain through the forest. But it may also be a road full of trucks, a sandy track by a lake, or a sucking bog through a biosphere. Then there are the simultaneously charming and annoying cobbles: charming when the riding is going well; annoying when you are tired and the basalt cobbles jar your bones and rattle your ancient steed.

Yet these fahrradstraßen take us through some stunning territory. In Oberlausitz we fall in love with mountains, wind-swept fields, misty forests and ancient villages. Later, we pass into the biospheres and deep into the Spreewald (Błota). Here the Spree eases back and relaxes, spreading out over vast river flats. 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.

Here are well-heeled old fogeys in places like Lübben and Lübbenau; here are ghost towns in the off-season for tourism; here are popular locations for the Frei Körper Kultur (FKK), the nudism fostered particularly by the DDR. And here are the gherkins.

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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 – originally from early modern Dutch, ‘gurken’ – 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, consuming vast jars of them as we ride through.

Rhythms of the Day

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.

The food is one of the great pleasures of a ride such as this. 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, on the house in the European tradition, 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 my needs are sated. I relish 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.

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Encounters

Chance encounters are the spice of the ride, with both non-human and human varieties. On the fourth day, we turn a corner in the village of Leibsch, and 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. A stork! 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 this day we meet 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.

Earlier, in Neustadt, we engage in long conversations with two inquisitive little boys, who pepper us with questions concerning the distant lands from which we come. Or in the fascinating working town of Peitz a day later, we stagger into a bäckerei. 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.

Then it is the two women: middle aged friends, going for a ride every year along one of the 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, sending a suitcase ahead to each place, booking accommodation before departure. They had been ahead of us by a couple of days, but in Werder we meet, as the only occupants of the hotel. 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, bicycle conditions.

The most significant encounter is with the Sorbians. An ancient Slavic people, they migrated from further east 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 parts of western Poland. They were fiercely independent, delaying the process of Christianisation by a good few centuries. They also had to deal with waves of Germanisation and Polonisation. From time to time they have asserted 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. By contrast, in 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. 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, spoken by the older generations. With its own literary tradition and recognised by the German state, the region is bilingual. You see this in the signage: Spree is Sprjewja, Bautzen is Budyšin, and most names have clear Sorbian origins that have been Germanised –Hoyeswerda is a lightly Germanised Wojerecy. Upper Sorbian (Serbya) is found in the southern, hillier regions, while Lower Sorbian (Serby) is of the river flats, with Cottbus (Chóśebuz) at the centre. Riding through, stopping and pondering, you notice it in food, traditional dress, conical haystacks, flat-bottomed river boats, festivals, and so many other distinct features.

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DDR

The ride takes us through the heart of the country that is officially no more, but which resists and persists in so many ways. I mean the DDR, East Germany. I have written more about this resistance elsewhere, so here I mention three items that strike me as we ride: environment, most appealing places, and Treptower Park.

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 ‘environmental bandits’, all for the sake of industrialisation. In some cases, 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.

As for the most appealing places, they turn out to be towns such as Cottbuss, Peitz and Fürstenwalde – and not the touristy Burg, Lübben and Ans Schadow. Why? The former 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. All the better, it seems to me. 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 such 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 as it was annexed and colonised by West Germany. Perhaps it is the fact that DDR was constructed for precisely the inhabitants of Cottbuss and Peitz and other working towns.

I ponder such matters as a counter to the rabidly anti-communist ride report from an American school teacher, who rode the same route more than a decade ago. The best response is the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, which we encounter a few kilometres before the end of the ride. 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. Here 7,000 of the 22,000 Red Army soldiers killed in the taking of Berlin lie buried. 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 bring 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 sixteen 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.

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Dreaming of the Next Ride

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.

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.

What’s next? How about the one of the great Europa paths, running from one end to the other, from Galway in Ireland to Moscow?

2013 April 092 (Spreeradweg)a

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