Eternal Winter in the Zittauer Gebirge: Cycling in an Eastern European Winter (Part 5)

The hills of the Zittauer Gebirge beckon – another part of eastern Europe that continues to fascinate me. With the Gebirge, the border between Germany and the Czech Republic reveals its sheer artificiality, for the mountains are a region to themselves, ignoring an imaginary line that human beings may have constructed.

We set off south, lulled into a false sense of security with the tail wind from the north-east. The drop from the heights – via Nineve and the mill at Birkmühle – helps too, so we barely feel the ride. We carve our way through villages, along country roads, around the back streets of towns. Our legs are light, the bikes fly, the ride is effortless … until the first snowflake.

It comes at a crucial moment. Thus far, our ride has seen us glide by familiar places – Ninive, the old mill of Birkmülle on the way down to Oderwitz. But as we turn right, to push our way to Eibau and its brewery, that snowflake drifts down and landed on my wrist. I look up: the sun which has shared our ride thus far is gone, retreating behind the opaque, off-white sheet of snow clouds. I prefer not to notice, for we need to negotiate some back streets and then farm tracks. More snowflakes fall, attempting to get me to face reality. Ah no, I reply to the snow god, there is no wind, so you are not serious.

Little do we realise that the river valley with its houses is sheltering us from a wonderfully biting wind. So it is as we cross the Czech border. The multitude of German signs gives way to the occasional battered yellow bicycle arrows of the Czech Republic. We relish the scruffiness of Varnsdorf, a welcome relief from the apparent orderliness of Germany – apparent, for it desperately seeks to control what it cannot control. Of course, the Czech arrows bear little relation to the German map we carry. At the first corner or two we debate endlessly about which is best, or indeed correct. We opt for the wisdom of the Czech signs and are not disappointed. They lead us unerringly through the quieter streets and then country roads, bringing us precisely to the point where the imaginary line of the border brings us back to the German side. It seems as though the bicycle maps produced in Germany – like the one we are using – make vague gestures as to routes outside that country, with little concern for actual routes and distances. Do they thereby suggest that, in their opinion, all outside Germany is chaos, while simultaneously exhibiting a lack of interest in anything outside its borders? Both, I suspect.

Now it is time to climb, into the Zittauer Gebirge proper. Up and up and up we grind, the very effort ensuring that our hearts are pumping and our circulation is good. Waltersdorf at last, with its twisting mountainside streets, churches clinging to cliff faces, and obnoxious holiday houses and hotels for the well-heeled German burgers from distant parts.

With relief we turn homeward … and are smacked in the face by the wind. It is blowing directly from the north, precisely the direction we need to ride home. A drop from the mountains is usually a time for catching breath, enjoying the silver spin of the front wheel, and occasionally touching the brakes. Now it enhances the effect of the wind, chilling fingers and toes, hands and feet, arms and legs.

This is merely the initial cool down. Valleys – like the one along which we need to ride – are wonderful devices for channelling and accelerating any wind that may be about. Given that winds like this one also have the intriguing effect of producing significant wind-chill, we soon become icicles in motion. Each push of the pedals is an effort. Each bend in the road brings another gust of wind. We beat our hands on our sides, stomp our feet on the pedals – all to no avail.

I look across during one particularly gruesome stretch, laugh out loud to my snow-encrusted companion, and shout, ‘Fantastic! It doesn’t get much better than this’. Here we are, in the midst of a driving snow-storm, ice pellets cutting into our faces, the glorious single-lane road that we have to ourselves a treacherous and slippery ribbon between snow-covered fields.

She can’t help smiling, cracking off some of the ice on her face.

On the last climb into Herrnhut, we opt to walk up the slippery ice of the hill, Langsamer Tod. Instead of a slow death, the effect of walking is to bring circulation, slowly and painfully, into our numbed legs and feet.

Today, I do not begrudge the hot shower at the end of the ride one little bit.

2013 April 003 (Herrnhut)a