The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 3, 18 July 2018: Aabenraa to Flensburg (53 km; 124 km in total)

The first few kilometres out of Aaberaa turned out to be one those roads that simply happen from time to time. A pure delight: a single lane through farmland and hills, completely to ourselves. You never know when such roads appear: it depends as much on how you feel and the time of day as the road itself. But they stay in your bodily memory, so much so that I can recall them years later.

We continued through parts of the peninsula that leads to Sønderborg, where we had ridden many years ago. Already we had to find our own way, using our phones, occasional maps printed on boards and other means to find a route suitable for bicycles. It would be good practice for the rest of the ride, since much of it was not sign-posted.

Later in the day, we arrived in Gråsten on the Flensburg fjord. Now we followed the coast route to the German border, looking out over the fjord that led to the ancient Hanseatic cities and its Baltic trade. Much mythology surrounds Flensburg, with romantic images of small white houses clustering the old port area.

But we were somewhat thrown by the town. Why? It is full of Danes! After crossing the small cycling bridge into Germany, with its many small pillars from different eras marking the border, we expected to enjoy the passage into Germany. But everywhere we turned, people spoke Danish. There was even the stunning Flegaard: just across the border, it sells Danish products, has Danish signs and uses Danish staff. But the items are subject to German rather than Danish taxes. So Danes flock to them. The catch is that the prices are perhaps a little cheaper than Denmark, but still higher than German prices. I simply could not figure it out.

Our accommodation for the night was a puzzle. We had booked ahead due to the holiday season, but the mysterious ‘Werkzimmer’ gave its address only after booking. We soon found out why: it was a spare room backstage at a grungy concert hall in the industrial district. Nylon sheets and some dope-smoking and heavy-drinking fellow guests – who also made use of the share toilet – saw us pack up an hour or two later and find the Altstadt Hotel, which still had a room to spare. Soft? Perhaps. But we slept well after a simple dinner in our room.

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The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 2, 17 July 2018: Christiansfeld to Aabenraa (42 km; 71 km in total)

2018 07 17 Christiansfeld to Aabenraa (42 km)

Perhaps today was a foretaste of what was to come, at least weatherwise. It was hot, even for Denmark (southern Jutland). The country was already in drought and total fire bans were in place. We did not notice it so much today, given the undulating farmland and smooth bicycle paths hereabouts.

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The day was mainly about getting used to being on the bicycle again for a slightly longer time and sorting out our riding rhythms. Having grown up in Denmark, she loved the flats. One could pedal all day in one gear without stopping. If there was a slight rise – which the Danes tend to see as a challenging climb – she would get a run up and be over the top in no time through momentum.

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I loved the real climbs, so even with a Danish hillock, I would change down and get into a comfortable rhythm for the climb. I also like to stop frequently – for a photograph, a drink, a piss, a minor adjustment.

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Brief though they may be, such stops can be frustrating for another rider. So she rode in front and I behind. At times the gap between us was larger, at times shorter, for she could stop, rest and wait for me at a time of her choosing.

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We found an old-style Danish hotel: Sølst Kro was directly opposite the roll-on-roll-off port facility in Aabenraa. The price was not old-style. Then again, a bargain in Denmark is unexpected. It was 800 Danish kroner, plus 100 for breakfast – or over 100 Euro.

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The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 1, 16 July 2018: Christiansfeld to Haderslev return (29 km)

The first day was what they call a ‘positioning ride’. She needed a maintenance check on her new bicycle (a Dutch Batavus) at the bicycle shop in the town of Haderslev, since the village of Christianfeld does not have such a shop. Spare tubes, a pump and some chain oil would also come in handy.

I needed to make sure that the seat on my fold-up Brompton was in the best position and that the machine in general was running well.

That evening, we decided what to take with us and what not. We would leave our laptops behind, for it was to be a month without work. This caused somewhat more separation anxiety for her rather than me.

We were certainly not the conventional tourers, for we did not have matching panniers and outfits. She began with an old bag strapped to the back and a granny basket in front (rear panniers were bought on the ride). I had my special Brompton front bag and a small makeshift one with the heavy material strapped the to the rack on the bag. My ride last year along the ‘Mittelland Route’ through the middle of Germany had taught me what I did and did not need. Less of the former and more of the latter.

 

The Anti-Fascist Trail on a Brompton

The ‘Iron Curtain Trail’ some call it, running from the northern border between Russia and Finland to the Black Sea. It is a cycling and walking route, designated ‘Eurovelo 13’, that runs more than 6000 kilometres – although it intriguingly includes Yugoslavia in ‘Western Europe’.

Some call it the ‘Iron Curtain Trail’. But the Germans seem reluctant to do so. Very few signs appear with the ‘ICT’ logo. Occasionally, you see ‘Grenzetour’, Border tour, or ‘Grünesband’, the ‘Green Belt’. But rarely ‘Iron Curtain Trail’.

Is it because German unity has always been a problem, arriving late on the European scene and always struggling in light of regional differences? Is it because of the increasing assertion – in unexpected ways – by those in the east of Germany of a distinct cultural and historical identity? To call it the ‘Iron Curtain Trail’ would add further insult to the three decades of ‘western’ denigration of the eastern parts.

We reflected on these matters, among many others, as we rode our bicycles along the ‘Innerdeutscher Grenze’, the ‘Inner German Border’. Or what I prefer to call the Anti-Fascist Trail. Why? To begin with, we need to discard the influence of that English racist, Winston Churchill, who popularised the ‘iron curtain’. Further, the border was seen by people in eastern Europe as the clear line between a communist east and a fascist west (many former Nazis had found employment in the German Federal Republic as well as the United States of America, for their anti-communist credentials were second to none). The border was in those times called ‘The Anti-Fascist Rampart’. Now that it has to some extent gone and now that NATO has aggressively expanded eastward to aggravate Russia is only further testimony to the importance of the defensive line that once existed in military terms. This is not so say that it does not exist today in cultural terms.

Enough of an introduction. Unlike most previous travel stories, I will provide a day to day chronicle of the ride. We – the two of us – began in the village of Christiansfeld in southern Jutland (Denmark). For almost a week we rode along what the Danes call the ‘Hærvegen’, the ‘Army Trail’, and what the Germans call the old ‘Ochsenweg’, the ‘Ox Trail’.

This was was an ancient trading and military route between northern Germany and Denmark’s Jutland.

From Lübeck we rode southward towards the Czech border. Given the absence of signage and a clearly marked route (it exists largely in theory in German parts), we had to map our own way.

The total ridden was 1528 kilometres.

Refugee Train across Europe

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

Geometry, Land and Track: Bodily Memories on a Bicycle

The feel of the air, the sense of a track, the lie of the land, the geometry of a bicycle – many are the triggers for unexpected bodily memories. Even a reasonable amount of long distance cycling in different parts of the world is enough to build up a collection of memory tracks; except that they are not mere memories but intensely felt experiences, returning with a bodily intensity and vividness that continues to surprise and delight.

The preconditions: leave the world for a couple of days or more. Mount a bicycle, loaded with enough supplies and gear, and set off into remote parts. Soon enough, the great pleasure of a ride is upon me. To be a dualist for a moment, while my body settles into its rhythm, my mind is free to wander according to its own preferences. Or rather, my mind finds itself subject to the messages my body is sending. And unexpected messages they are.

Geometry

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On a recent ride and on a new bicycle (a Surly Long Haul Trucker), I began to recall my many rides in Germany on an old Pegasus. I had bought it second hand, and over a couple of years I had cycled the route of the Berlin Wall (Mauerweg), along the Spree river from its source (Spreeradweg), and many rides around Herrnhut in the far east of Germany. Fond I became of that worn but reliable German bicycle. I even began to taste lunches of ryebread, cheese and cherry tomatoes, as well as the chocolates for energy that cost next to nothing. I felt intensely the bumpy farm tracks, the empty single lane roads through forest and farmland, the dirt paths through biospheres, and even the dedicated bicycle paths that criss-cross the country. But why those rides, tastes, experiences? And why that bicycle? Unable to answer the question, I let my mind wander again, only to return the Pegasus. At last I realised: the geometry! Both bikes put my body in a similar position. The position of the seat in relation to the pedals, the places for my hands on the handlebars, the angle of lean – all felt the same. But it went further, for the gear shifts and ratios, the cornering, and the comfort with a load brought the two even closer together.

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Lie of the Land

Moments later my memory tracks were in the Netherlands, on a glorious ride of self-discovery a decade ago. My body began recalling not the bicycle I rode then, but the way seas and land are inescapably part of one another. Dykes and polders seemed to be about me, as did the exhilarating experience of finding myself all alone on the Waddenzee in the north of the country. Mostly, however, I felt I was in the midst of waterways and opening bridges, which would be raised to allow canal traffic to pass. Why did I recall the Netherlands so vividly? I pondered this question while salt spray hit my face, born by a sea breeze that ruffled the waves and formed white caps on the chop. I was actually passing through Swansea, south of Newcastle. Here Lake Macquarie passes into the sea, the passage winding its way like a sea canal. The low-lying land on either side is bolstered by seawalls to protect the land in a storm. As I rode up to the bridge crossing the passage, the red lights came on and I pulled up. The bridge began to open to allow some boats to pass through. The Netherlands indeed.

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Sense of a Track

A little later, my senses of balance, sight and smell had me transported to a glistening wet fahrradweg (bicycle path) through a deep European forest. A ribbon of black twisted its way through ancient and dripping trees. Rain spattered on my jacket, soaked through my helmet and splashed up on my shoes (mudguards seem designed to direct all water into the tops of one’s footwear). About me I felt a biosphere, and I began to recall that intense feeling of wishing that the path and its forest would never end.

2013 April 092 (Spreeradweg)a

Actually, I was cycling along a relatively rare experience in Australia: a dedicated bicycle path through a forest. These paths tend to be rail-trails – old railway lines (for coal mines, sugar cane or fruit orchards) that have been converted the bicycle and walking routes. Rare though they may be, I seek them out whenever I can. On this ride, the day was cool and threatening rain, and soon enough the track was a glistening wet black ribbon through a dripping forest. No wonder I found myself in a European forest.

Warm Bed

As I gradually became soaked from the driving rain, an intense anticipation came upon me. A dry, warm hostel, with a massive meal and a chance to dry out – my body leapt at the expectation. Now I could have been anywhere: towards the end of that endless fahrradweg through the dripping forest; crossing the border in Jutland between northern Germany and Denmark; the soaking rain along a quiet track in the Dutch Veluwe; autumn rains on the North Sea Bicycle Route in Norway; or a squall blown in from the sea in Denmark. On each occasion, I felt the bodily pull of dry clothes, a grand meal, a shelter for the bicycle (after its wipe-down), a warm and dry bed.

The Best Stretch of Road in the World

A paradox lies at the heart of cycling over great distances: some stretches of road you want to go on forever, but that feeling can be generated only because they do come to an end. That is, eternity can be eternity because it always ends, inevitably too soon. How does that work? The best way to gain a sense of the paradox is to tell the stories of a few of those roads. Some of them you experience once; others call you back, a call you try to answer.

The Netherlands: Thick leaves of ancient trees shade out the sun of a late northern European summer. A turn, a small drop and the narrow road is cool away from the sun. The hoary trees soften the sound, so I slow the bike and make the few kilometres stretch out a little more. Uncharacteristically for the Netherlands, the road turns and twists a little, over rises and drops, past low banks cut in the earth. And uncharacteristically, the smells are not the sharp ones of cattle urine and shit, working overtime fertilising the polders. Instead – and welcoming – are the softer smells of moss and leaves, old bark and forest animals. So I savour the air, suck it in. As I do, I feel the large Dutch breakfast providing plenty of energy reserves, and my legs feel toned from a week on my steed. Until now I have been exploring the length and breadth of the Netherlands, from where my parents came. The sheer pleasure has been enhanced by the enjoyment of being on my own, relishing the time to myself after being freed from a disastrous relationship. But of all the many cross-country fietsrouten with their careful signposting, of all the many curious corners, out-of-the-way villages, of all the dykes, fields and loping runs along flat fields, this piece of road remains etched in my bodily memory.

Italy: That magical piece of road does not always appear when my legs and the day are fresh. Some years ago in Italy, it appeared unexpectedly after a tough climb up a spur of Apennines from Pistoia (near Florence in the valley below). On the winding road, snaking ever upwards, sleek Italian pelotons sped past me, haughtily sneering at my strange, small-wheeled cycle. Yet I have the last laugh, since I sail past them at San Baronto, where they have fallen off their machines, eager for wine and smokes and abundant carbs. It’s only half-way, I think as I smile at them, tackling the next climb to Vinci. Now the midday sun of a Tuscan summer bears down, while I kept a keen eye out for ‘aqua’. Then it comes upon me: a single-lane road winds its way along the spur, past centuries-old low stone walls on either side. On the mountainside terraces, olive trees mingle among the grape vines. Small houses with semi-circular red tiles sit in folds of the land. Washing hangs on short single lines on the side of the road. A goat looks up at me, pausing with whatever tasty morsel it has found to chew. Absorbing the smells, view, and feel of the road, I barely notice my dry throat and weary legs.

Germany (eastern): To be on a bike on the first real day of an eastern European spring – especially if you happen to be with a frisky riding companion – is almost a guarantee of a great ride. Bitter winds, the threat of snow and sub-zero temperatures have only just passed. But for some reason they are suddenly a distant memory, for now one’s body responds to the turn of the season in a wholly different way. Sap is rising, clothes come off without noticing, sun-starved skin is eager for exposure. So we ride, slipping out of town in the far east of Germany, heading for the Czech border. And there it is once again: a ribbon of road over gently undulating hills, lined by trees eager to grasp the sky and push out buds. We sprint, race, ride in circles on the road, laugh and play – for what seems like an eternity.

Denmark: The pressure of a sprint to make the last ferry – so it is when we have to catch the boat from Southern Jutland to the island of Fyn (from Fyndhav to Bøjden). After a sleep of the dead, we wake too late and leave in a hurry from Sonderborg. Before us are a stiff climb and then a drop. With no time to settle into the saddle, to loosen up legs, to stretch stiff shoulders, and gently ease into the day, we set off at breakneck speed. The seconds tick by. The hill grows ever longer. Lactic acid burns in our legs. Breath is raw in our throats. At long last, soaked with sweat, we crest the hill to see the ferry below preparing for departure. We drop like stones, the spokes spinning in the sunlight. We bank low on curves, pedal furiously and whoop as the wind dries our sodden clothes. The ferry captain sees us coming, fires up the engine and … holds the boat for a little longer. We collapse on deck, trying not to think too much of the crossing of Fyn before us.

Australia: Rarely does a dedicated bicycle path, with its obstacle course of dogs and walkers, measure up to a great stretch of cycling. Instead, those roads appear serendipitously. Most of the day may be spent dodging potholes on the side of the road, with cars buzzing your shoulder. Then, an unassuming turn opens out onto a whole new vista. Here is a single track, with not a motorised vehicle to be seen or heard – a road that has forgotten it was originally built for cars. It passes over hills with stunning views, is pressed in by trees and bushes that have not been allowed to grow as they will, slides past quiet farms without a dog in sight and offers spots that invite you to stop, light a fire and boil a billy for a quiet drink. That road exists in my Hunter Valley. It is one of the best pieces of cycling road I have encountered, precisely because it was never intended to be so. I hope it will be there forever, but it is threatened by the coal mines that keep expanding thereabouts. Who knows if it will be there when I seek it out once again?