East Germany

For the last six days we have been cycling through the former East Germany, and will stay in the East for the remainder of our time on the Elbe Radweg. It’s been interesting. Twenty five years post reunification, the differences are easy to spot … and as non German speaking tourists, we’re only catching the most obvious of them. The East is noticeably less affluent, particularly in rural areas. Dilapidated and abandoned buildings are a common sight. Most of the post-war architecture is plain and utilitarian, often cement block.

On a ferry.  This area has very cool ferries, powered solely by the river current.
On a ferry. This area has very cool ferries, powered solely by the river current.

And then there are the bike route surfaces. When you’re on a bike, things like grade and road surface become very important. In fact, those are our two most important route planning criteria. We like ‘em smooth and flat. For complicated reasons that I won’t bore you with, our tires are narrower than they should be for this type of touring, making for dicey cycling on uneven, bumpy or loose surfaces … which we found plenty of on this route. It’s okay; it’s all part of the experience, but has caused us to reconsider continuing on the Elbe to Prague. From what we hear, some of the surfaces are in very rough shape over the Czech border. Cycling has its strengths and limitations.

A not so fun surface.  The strips were about a foot wide, with a lip.
A not so fun surface. The strips were about a foot wide, with a lip.
An even less fun surface; this one was shared with light car traffic.
An even less fun surface; this one was shared with light car traffic.
With Wilhelm, whom we rode with for awhile.
With Wilhelm, whom we rode with for awhile.

Most people we run into do not speak any English. Prior to 1990, East Germans were taught Russian in school. Surprisingly, many of the young people don’t seem to have learned much English either. We have not heard any native English speakers for at least 5 days. I’m sure that will change as we get closer to Dresden.

Since 1990, Germany has had a dedicated reunification tax that has channeled billions of dollars into East Germany to upgrade the infrastructure. From what I have heard, the allocation has favored large cities. It would appear that it will take longer to truly reunify Germany than the forty five years it was actually divided.

A covered bench, with an e-bike charging station.  E-bikes are big here.
A covered bench, with an e-bike charging station. E-bikes are big here.

The riding itself has been lovely. We’ve been mostly in rural or agricultural areas, with little or no traffic. The terrain is flat, open and expansive. The towns are further apart than has been the case for much of this trip … and strangely devoid of people. Sometimes we’ll ride through a small town, and not see a soul; it’s surreal. We are both feeling very peaceful and relaxed. The weather has been kind to us, despite some threatening skies, and discouraging forecasts. For a few days, we rode with grey skies and rain all around us, yet never got nailed. We were amazed. We gave in to our fears and took a rain day earlier in the week … only to have it not rain! I know there’s a lesson in there.

Good cloud meets bad cloud.
Good cloud meets bad cloud.
Ya think it's windy?
Ya think it’s windy?
A wild flower field
A wild flower field

We celebrated our 31st anniversary in Tangermünde, a beautiful, well preserved little town with three pairs of nesting storks!  Very cool.  They have enormous nests, perched on the top of tall, old, historic buildings.  We somehow wound up staying in a medieval themed hotel and eating in a similarly themed restaurant.  The hotel had a toilet that was supposed to look like a throne, but was actually more reminiscent of an outhouse.  And the restaurant gave us daggers to cut our veggies with!

A stork and her hungry little one.
A stork and her hungry little one.
The king and his throne.
The king and his throne.

Leaving the Elbe

We finished our ride on the Elbe a couple days ago. It was an interesting trip, although I must confess that by the end we both found ourselves yearning for something other than the flat, open terrain and fields of wheat, barley, corn and rape seed that we’ve been cycling through for days. We were also ready for something other than the Soviet era concrete architecture that so defines parts of the former GDR. There were some interesting towns — Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, where Martin Luther first railed against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, and a mecca of sorts for Protestants throughout the world. Then there was Riesa, the noodle capital of Germany … I kid you not. Tours of the state-of-the-art noodle factory were offered.

The motherloaed of bing cherries on the path.  Yumm!
The motherloaed of bing cherries on the path. Yumm!

On Tuesday we made it to Dresden. Now, that is a city! It’s beautiful, historic, relaxed, young, lively, cultured and artistic. It boggles the mind to think that seventy years ago, 3,900 tons of explosives were dropped on the city — an act considered by many to be a war crime. The bombs and ensuing firestorm left 25,00 dead, and the city in rubble. I still can’t wrap my head around how Dresden was able to rebuild the historic section of the city from such devastation. But they did, and it is glorious!

A famous and iconic photo of Dresden in 1945 after the bombing.
A famous and iconic photo of Dresden in 1945 after the bombing.
Dresden today
Dresden today

We took a day off the bike in Dresden, and spent it kicking around the city … just being. No museums, or attractions; just walking around, enjoying the energy and flavor of the city. We also took the time to figure out what next. We had about a week to work with before heading back to Mainz to pack up the bike. Dresden provided a perfect opportunity for planning. They have a great store called Globe Trotter. I can only describe it as an REI on steroids. Four floors of gear, gear, and more gear. There’s even a pool where prospective buyers can try out their kayaks before buying. Needless to say, they have maps of all the German bike routes. We settled in with cappuccinos and a pile of books, and got ‘er done! A half dozen rivers were on the table … the Wesar, the Neckar, the Lower Rhine, the Isar, the Danube and the Ems. We finally settled on the Ems River, in the far Northwest, by the Dutch border and the North Sea.

A restored building in Dresden. The black blocks are from the original; the white are new.
Jeff relaxing in Dresden
Jeff relaxing in Dresden

Our last day on the Elbe was spent cycling to Bad Schandau, the gateway to the Saxony Switzerland National Park, about 20 km from the Czech border. The river runs through a gorge, with amazing sandstone rock formations. On the top of a mountain plateau is a facility that housed WWII prisoners of war, and later was an East German re-education camp for those who strayed from the party line. Today it is a museum.  We planned on doing some hiking in the national park, but it was just too hot.  In less than two weeks, we’ve gone from cold, blustery, overcast days to a heat wave. Give me the cold weather any time!

Sandstone  formations on the way to Bad Schandau, and an amazing foot bridge.
Sandstone formations on the way to Bad Schandau, and an amazing foot bridge.

From Bad Schandau, we will take a nine and a half hour train ride to Emden for the final leg of this journey. This has been a long trip.  In the beginning, I rarely thought about home. Now I think about it often. I think we’ll both be ready to board that plane on July 13th.

Winding down

We got off to a rough start on the Ems River. Our 9-1/2 hour train ride morphed into 12 hours — in the sweltering heat, with no air conditioning. Ten hours into the ride, the train made a stop, and then just sat … for nearly an hour.  There were periodic announcements, none of which we could understand. After one such announcement, people cheered, then just got up and exited the train. With the help of some passengers who spoke English, we were able to figure out that the train was cancelled and we had to quickly switch to another one — which of course, meant getting the bike and trailer up and down two sets of steps.

A temperature map from our train day.  Yowza!
A temperature map from our train day. Yowza!

It was complete mayhem, with throngs of people everywhere. The Germans don’t queue up politely like the British. It was a free for all. I ran to the track, frantically trying to find the train car, struggling to get close enough to see the writing on the cars. Meanwhile, Jeff was getting the bike and trailer to the track, carrying the bike up stairs, against a sea of people going down, none of whom would budge an inch to let him by. Stressful to say the least. But we did eventually get on the right train, and make it to Emden. I had a mini-meltdown after walking into our 100 degree room with no air conditioning (and its requisite down comforter), but calmed down in the hotel’s garden restaurant over a beer and dinner.

A sheep looking for shade from the blazing sun.
A sheep looking for shade from the blazing sun.

Change is always a theme, in life, for all of us.  But bike touring has a way of bringing it to the forefront of our awareness.  From adversity to pleasure, and back again.  Sometimes we lose it (e.g., my hot room meltdown), but mostly we learn to take it in stride.  We know that whatever it is, it will change — weather, wind, surface, terrain, fatigue.  It all comes and goes, quickly and over and over.

Fishing boats outside of Emden
Fishing boats outside of Emden

The Ems river route was a pleasure, particularly after the heat wave broke. The terrain was interesting and varied; starting at the North Sea, where it was decidedly maritime, with harbors, locks and dykes, transitioning to country lanes and forested paths. It was really quite beautiful. We were both sorry to see it end. But end it did. Thursday was our last day of cycling. We are in Münster now – a lively city, with a great feel and a lovely, shaded promenade circling the center where the city fortification used to be. Today we take the train to Mainz, and pack up the bike.

An old ship trapped in a canal in Papenburg.
An old ship trapped in a canal in Papenburg.

This journey feels so long. We started riding May 16th. Some of the experiences feel fresh; some of them seem so long ago, it’s hard to believe it was the same trip. The season has changed; birthday and anniversary come and gone. One thing that hasn’t changed is our wardrobe. I’m still wearing the same damn black pants and gray shirt! Bike touring is not for the fashion conscious.

A very cool old time manual time piece.  In addition to time, it tracks the sun, moon and planets.
A very cool old manual time piece. In addition to time, it tracks the sun, moon and planets.

I don’t have many pictures for this one.  We’re so engaged that we just forget to take them.

Together

It’s been a long and wondrous journey. We have cycled for 46 days, ridden 1500 miles, followed 8 rivers, slept in 50 different towns and cities, not to mention the hundreds we have ridden through.  We have experienced many beautiful and amazing sights, emotions, places and people. Lissa and I have experienced all of this together.  Riding a tandem bicycle gives us a profound feeling of being connected. We pedal each stroke together, stop pedaling together, feel every bump in the road, every hill, every blast of wind, every sound. We’ve gotten lost and found our way, together. We’ve been challenged, elated, tired, joyful, hot, cold, wet, amazed, and awed, together. I feel deeply connected to Lissa. She is my best friend; we are truly intertwangled.
DSC01425-C
We have lived each day in the moment, barely able to think about tomorrow. It has reinforced the importance of today, a subject that I have learned a lot about.  Thank you to everyone who has followed us on this beautiful journey. It has touched our hearts to know you are with us.

Home Sweet Home

The bike packed up easily, which isn’t surprising. It’s always easier breaking it down than putting it together.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed that it makes it home safe and sound.  Travel bikes have a hard life.

We were quite the spectacle in front of the hotel with the bike in pieces.
We were quite the spectacle in front of the hotel with the bike in pieces.
All ready to go. We just hope that TSA stays out of it!
All ready to go. Let’s just hope TSA stays out of it!

After a long, but uneventful flight home, we landed in Asheville.  Bob, half of our fabulous house sitting team, picked us up at the airport and drove us home for a happy and raucous reunion with all the furry creatures, followed by a lovely home cooked meal, complete with wine and cut flowers from the garden.  It doesn’t get more perfect than that.  How sweet it is to be home — with a kitchen, a washing machine, different clothes and our very own bed with season appropriate covers! We are so very lucky.  What an incredible gift this has been.  Thank you all for your support!

Ciao! … or as they say in Germany, Tschüss!

Home with the kids ... in different clothes!!
Home with the kids … in different clothes!!
Bob and Karyn who took such good care of everyone and everything.
Bob and Karyn who took such good care of everyone and everything.
Home sweet home
Home sweet home