The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 6, July 2018: Rest Day in Bad Bramstedt

A rest day: in earlier times, both of us had scoffed at the idea of a rest day, thinking they were for softies. How wrong we were. After five days of riding, a rest day is welcome indeed.

I gave the bicycles a careful clean and mechanical check. We slept, went for a small walk around town, avoided communicating too much with the outside world, and generally did nothing much except rest.

But it did give us a chance to reflect on the last few days. Clearly, riding through a popular holiday season in July was not going to do our budget much good. Later, we would find that one third of our expenses were burned up with these five days. So we looked forward to getting deeper into the countryside and its pensions.

At this point, our minds were still processing many things. She had not had a proper break for many a year, so found all manner of thoughts running through her head. As for me, I continued to be surprised at what came to mind when it was left to its own devices. It would be a few days more before all the mental rubbish had been deposited somewhere along the ride.

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At the same time, I did find something new to ponder: Bad Bramstedt is one of the ‘Roland’ towns. What on earth could this mean? Signs pointed to ‘Roland’, shops were named ‘Roland …’ and there is even a famous statue of aforesaid ‘Roland’.

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I knew of the ‘Chanson de Roland’, one of the first real pieces of French literature dating back to the eleventh century. As an epic poem (chanson de geste), it is set in the time of Charlemagne and the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. Full of Christian-Muslim struggles and court intrigues, it recounts how my namesake was betrayed by his stepfather and died in a Saracen ambush. He dies not from an enemy sword, but by blowing out his temples while blasting away on his ‘help us’ horn, ‘olifant’. As one does. The rest of the poem tells of Charlemagne’s success in defeating another Muslim army and the trial and somewhat gruesome execution of Roland’s betrayer.

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What has all this got to do with Bad Bramsted? Was Roland from these parts? Not at all, at least as far as we can tell. He was actually from Breton March in western France and tasked with guarding against the Bretons, not the Muslims. He does indeed seem to have fought in Spain and died there, but it was the Basques who did him in – again, not the Muslims.

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No matter: because of the song and his subsequent entry into a wide range of medieval European literature (he even turns up in the Faroe Islands), my namesake became a mascot for the early ‘free cities’ in Europe. The Hanseatic towns in particular loved him. I guess – at a stretch – that the fiction of fighting the Muslims on behalf of the emperor who systematically introduced feudalism into Europe can be seen in some way as a symbol of ‘freedom’. Bad Bramstedt is one of these places, boasting a statue with Roland holding his sword high.

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