Sunday 23 March 2008

The Great Tour of Brandenburg: Part 1

Coat of Arms of Brandenburg

I lived in Berlin, Germany from August 1998 to September 2002. Soon after my arrival, I purchased a book "The Great Bicycle Tour Around Berlin, in 40 Stages" and determined to ride the whole thing. The route described were all around 40 kms each and took the cyclists in a huge circle around the city. It was organized around train stations, with the idea that you could take the train to the start of the stage, do your ride and then come back from the next train station and then start again the following week from where you left off.

The Great Tour was enormous fun and gave me the opportunity to see Eastern Germany up close and personal.

Saturday, April 3, 1999: The Great Tour of Brandenburg Begins

After a Good Friday of perfect weather spent doing housework, I was resolved to get out and start my first leg of the Great Big Bike Ride around Brandenburg. Of course, on the Saturday, the weather was not quite as good as the house-cleaning day, with overcast skies, but with no rain in the forecast, I thought it would be okay even if not very photogenic.

I got to the train station in plenty of time to get my “Regio”, as they call regional commuter trains here, but in the best tradition of bureaucracy, I could not figure out how to buy a ticket for me and Mr. Bicycle. The vending machines were only for local traffic and the other machines did not cover Regios, but only long-distance traffic, so I decided to just buy the ticket on the train, which is allowed but usually costs somewhat more. There were several other cyclists waiting and they said I could do this. They were probably scandalized by my non-German lack of preparation, but the train was about to come in and we had to get ready to drag things on board.

The Regios are nifty red doubledecker trains, with special sections for bicycles. Unlike Switzerland, where local trains use hooks to let you hang up your bikes, the German system lets you sit next to the bike, but wastes huge amounts of space since the bicycles are just upright. There is an elastic cord you can wrap around several frames, but the whole thing is not very efficient and bikes fall over easily. Unlike hooks, other people’s bikes are near yours, which is a bad, bad thing for owners of brand-new, super-expensive custom-built English Racing Green sport-touring bikes who live in complete terror of having their babies scratched. Luckily, the train was not crowded so the danger was minimal.

Sitting next to me was a young man with a pretty short haircut and wearing camouflage motif clothing. He had a duffel bag and was listening to a really loud Walkman, which I could hear from about 3 meters away, although I could not make out the music but only the thumping bass. At 0 meters, I would have thought early-morning deafness was guaranteed.

Off we huffed and puffed and before I knew it, we were at my stop, Brieselang on the outskirts of the Berlin urban area, about an hour from Bahnhof Zoo. No conductor had appeared to take my money, so my introduction to the Regio was a freebie. My camouflaged friend got off as well and as I rode away, he was standing on the platform for the train heading back to Berlin, singing to the tunes on his Walkman (“Jawohl!”). Of course, Mr. Innocent Canadian suddenly realized this was one of those Neo-Nazi thugs we read about in the papers at home.

Not much to see in Brieselang, so off to the west towards Zeestow, a charming little village where I stopped to take a few photographs of the Real Brandenburg. As I was to discover subsequently, all towns in the Land are somewhat similar in layout, grouped around the village church. The area was historically staunchly Lutheran and it was remarkable to see just how many churches there were. They survived East German times but some of them did not appear to make the transition into the post-1989 Germany and were derelict. It seemed to depend on the size of the town or village involved.

Following the directions in my guidebook, I turned right off the main road and onto a country pathway lined with cherry trees in blossom. Although the cherry trees cheered me up, the road surface did not. It quickly dwindled from a hard-packed pathway to what appeared to be tractor ruts in the sand. And what sand! Brandenburg is famous/infamous for its sand, which is as fine as sugar. Good for white asparagus, perhaps, but this is not the ideal surface for a custom-built English Racing Green sports-touring bicycle with darn narrow, 145 psi-inflated tires. I did learn that you can push a bicycle in the sand even if you have cleated racing shoes since the cleats sink too. This went on for about 2 kms until I crossed some railroad tracks and came once again onto a hard-surfaced road that took me through a little industrial park.

After getting mildly lost, I found the right road towards my next goal, Tremmen. The road was now quite good and I was cruising nicely through a flattish agricultural region at a good clip. The guidebook warned me that the untrained would suffer going up the hill to Tremmen, but I did not even notice it. This meant that I was either well-trained, thanks to Mallorca, or I was going the wrong way. Luckily, I was going the right way, but the guidebook, which was accurate in saying that Tremmen had perhaps seen better days, was coy about the next stretch of road towards Wachow. Here I was to really discover the cobblestones of Brandenburg.

Tremmen is a typical Brandenburg town, with a main street of cobbles leading past the church. The houses are well-constructed and quite substantial although there is a bit of monotony since there were not a lot of colour varieties of brick used. Most are a brownish tone.

The cobblestones deserve some mention, and will get a lot during the entire ride. They come in several different flavours: the Yellow Brick Road, which is yellow bricks in a herringbone pattern, tightly-laid and somewhat smooth; the Small Cobblestones, which are not so tightly-laid and give a jarring ride; the Cyclist Smashers, which are gigantic rocks with arched tops that make you feel as if you are being hit with a great flat object as you ride. The Smashers really cut down your speed, not only because you cannot ride fast, but because after you pass over them you have to stop and tighten up all the bolts and screws on the bicycle or things will fall off. Riding on the shoulders does not work very well, since they are the already-noted sugar sand and bring you to a complete stop immediately.

The main street in Tremmen was composed of Cyclist Smashers, but I was fortunately able to ride on the sidewalks, which are just smooth brick, like the ones in Berlin. After Tremmen, there was an ordeal of Small Cobblestones partway to Wachow, but then things improved to an excellent regional road. This road had a first-rate bicycle path running alongside of it. I am not sure of the need for such a path, since the road is not heavily travelled and paths are expensive to maintain. I noted these unnecessary paths in a number of other sections of my ride.

Wachow was small and charming and, following an alley of chestnut trees, I was soon riding along a smooth road through an extensive marshland. Off to one side was a large field with a gigantic flock of large white birds. I stopped to look at them, thinking they might be the famous Brandenburg storks, but the more than fifty birds I looked at were surely a type of egret, a member of the heron family and quite common in the American South. I have seen lots of them in the Carolinas, in particular. In the USA, they were heavily hunted in the early years of the century nearly to extinction to meet the demands of the women’s hat industry and this ridiculous slaughter resulted in establishment of the Audubon Society on a national basis to successfully combat the hunt. These now-German egrets (from Africa, I guess) looked very happy standing around in the fields.

But better was to come. I stopped in the tiny town of Päwesin, on the east bank of the Beetzsee, to look at an enormous tripod between two houses on the main street. This structure was about 15 meters tall and my suspicion that it was a stork’s nest was happily confirmed when a tall, white bird with black wing patches looked down at me. I observed the stork for a few minutes and was delighted when the stork changed position and I had the chance to see another one beside the first. A nesting pair! This was very exciting to a Canadian who is not used to such large birds calmly sitting in an urban environment, although perhaps Päwesin might not be considered urban. But there they were, right on Main Street.

Heading now in a southerly direction, I passed quickly through the villages of Weseram and Klein Kreutz, arriving in Brandenburg am Havel (Brandenburg on the Havel River, as opposed to the Land of the same name) just before lunchtime.

Brandenburg/H., as they write it, is an old cathedral town, founded in 928 AD, but I did not find it terribly interesting. I spent no time exploring it because the traffic around it was terrible. Everybody was doing their Easter shopping before the stores closed and they would all starve on the weekend. Getting only moderately lost, I went up a very busy street on the west side of the Beetzsee, looking for a bicycle path that my guidebook claimed existed. Since the path was supposed to run alongside the lake, I turned right to go towards the Hotel Seeblick, or Lakeview, which I cunningly calculated must also be on the lake. Luckily, the hotel had a large map of the area outside and I discovered I had ridden right past the bikepath. Retracing my steps, I found a quite good bikepath, marked by a sign slightly larger than my hand. The Germans could certainly take another lesson from the Swiss, who use great, big signs that you cannot overlook and then show you are on the right path with regular confirming signs.

I stopped for my sandwich lunch on the shores of the Beetzsee at Brielow. Brielow had a nice big sign dedicated to its stork population, showing how many young had been hatched and where they lived. The bicycle/walking path was called the “Storchwander-weg” and I hope that they are successful in attracting visitors because of the storks.

The lake is fairly narrow and was very calm. There were plenty of bulrushes and although it was overcast, the whole scene was very peaceful and pretty. Compared to Ontario lakes, though, Brandenburg ones feel more like large ponds.

At this point, I had a slightly annoying equipment failure. My handlebar bag, which is supported by an odd bracket-and-string arrangement, chose this time to start flopping down onto the front wheel. After struggling for some time, I realized that I was using the wrong-sized screwdriver head to tighten up the bracket screws. As someone who always begins a project by reading the instructions and assembling it backwards, this did not come as a big surprise. Since the ride was meant as a test run for the new equipment, I was not overly concerned and everything functioned properly after this brief fuss. I suspect that when the people at Mountain Equipment designed the bag holder, they did not include the loosening effects of cobblestones in their calculations.

Refreshed, I returned to the road, a lovely stretch through Radewege, Butzow, Ketzür, Gortz and Bagow where I easily maintained a 35 km/h pace. There were some nice little hills and some gentle curves to enjoy and even a nice downhill stretch through dense forest. At the crossroads in Bagow, there is a very attractive Jugendstil/Art Nouveau church, highly unusual for the region, which was constructed in 1906. It was a most unlikely coral sort of colour, with brown half-timbering. It still seems to be active as a church.

On to Riewend, on the Riewendsee, which I could not see from the road. Then, without warning, began an astonishing stretch of Yellow Brick Road cobble, running for more than 5 kms. This looked as if it had been designed to last an eternity and it also felt as if it would take that long to ride it. After seeing my average speed plunge, and after losing a lot of the feeling in my hands and wrists, the village of Klein Behnitz was reached.

Consisting of the usual church and cobblestone main street, Klein Behnitz looked as if it was in an amazing state of preservation. If you would take the cars away, it would not have been out of place to see Frederick the Great to ride through, or watch the stage coach to Potsdam bounce over the cobbles. There were no new structures of any kind that I could see. The place would make an excellent location for any film on 19th Century Brandenburg village life. Or 18th Century even.

To make up for the bone-jarring cobblestones, the next stretch of road to Groß Behnitz was beautifully and smoothly paved. It is a mark of pride in Brandenburg to have cobblestones in your town. After reunification, many Eastern towns sold their cobblestones to wealthy Wessies who used them for paving their driveways. As a cyclist, I cannot help but think this was an excellent practice since it led to smooth asphalt, but now some towns are re-cobbling.

The Borsig family, famous locomotive builders in Berlin, had a Renaissance-style chateau in Groß Behnitz, constructed in the 1870s. Ernst von Borsig used the house as a base for the German Resistance and meetings with members of the old Prussian aristocracy, a number of whom were implicated in the July 20, 1944 plot, were held in 1942 and 1943, unnoticed by the Nazis since von Borsig often held hunting parties in his forests. The house burned down in 1947.

A little way further and I found myself in the large town of Nauen. An attractive cathedral, an old Rathaus and an important train station (for the region) later, and I was off on a so-called Landstrasse in the direction of Fehrbellin.

The Landstrasse is an East German thing. An agricutural road, clearly similar to those in France that I have ridden, these streets are look smooth but the asphalt is quite rough. As cars approached from the other direction, I also quickly realized that Landstrassen are very, very narrow, about the width of one car and one bicycle. This is not so good when the cars insist on taking the centre of the road. I had been warned often about the quality of driving in Brandenburg, where people are unaware that drinking and driving together constitute bad policy, but part of the bad accident rate must be due to these surprisingly narrow streets. Luckily, everyone seemed sober and the traffic was light. After all, who wanted to go to Utershorst or Hertefeld or Dreibrück or Hakenberg on a Saturday afternoon anyway? Hakenberg was actually a place people had once wanted to go, but first a description of the area.

Looking at the map, one is impressed by the number of rivers and canals in this region. Also, the towns all seem to be exactly 3 or 4 kilometres apart and constructed to an identical plan (yes, a cobbled main street and a church alongside). Apparently, the Great Elector, Friedrich Wilhelm Frederick the Great’s great-grandfather, encouraged French Huguenots to settle in Brandenburg after their civil rights were reduced after the Edict of Nantes in 1685. It seems that a number of these were clever engineers who were able to drain the marshlands and turn them into productive farmlands. More than 20,000 Huguenot families came to Prussia and more than a few of them settled in the little towns through which I was riding. At one point, one-third of the population of Berlin itself was actually French!

It was tiring riding the rough asphalt and cobbles through Deutschhof and Sandhorst and Königshorst and Dechtow (incidentally, all the names ending in “ow” are actually Slavic in origin rather than German and are pronounced “oh” rather than “off”). But up ahead in Hakenberg I could see something unusual: a monument. Just off the road stands a Siegessäule, a Column of Victory marking the defeat of the Swedes at the hands of the Great Elector’s army on June 28, 1675.

The Great Elector had a tendency to forget with whom he had forged alliances. With Prussia in the centre of Europe, this was a Bad Thing. An alliance with the Netherlands had flopped and ended up with Louis XIV taking pieces of Prussian territory on the Rhine. These were given back but Francophobia reined. Then Prussia joined an alliance against France headed by Austria, with Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark. This did not work out well as the Alliance suffered bad military defeats in France. While the army was camped for the winter in Franconia, far away in the South, the Swedes invaded Prussia in December 1674 and were making a mess of Brandenburg. No alliance troops were coming to the Great Elector’s rescue and his general, the 70 year old Derfflinger, had to move the 7,000 man army right across central Germany, with all the baggage and the soldiers’ 3,000 dependents. Within two weeks, the army was back and Derfflinger chased the Swedes out of the fortress at Rathenow and caught up with them at Hakenberg. The Swedes outnumbered the Prussians but did not realize it. Derfflinger was able to position his 13 artillery pieces to command the field, while the Swedes could only get 7 of their 38 guns to fire. The Swedes lost 2,000 men to 500 Prussian casualties and the Battle of Fehrbellin, although minor in European terms, marked the establishment of the fame of the Prussian army and the Great Elector received that nickname due to this success. General Derfflinger, anxious to boot the Swedes right out of Prussia, took a cavalry force and covered 500 kms in 10 days and inflicted another defeat on the Swedes in Tilsit. Considering that 17th Century cavalry mounts were more like draft horses, this was a remarkable feat.

Fehrbellin, centre of the regional peat industry, is an attractive and active old town. It is linked to Berlin by the A24 autobahn and judging from its prosperity, is probably used as home base for commuters. There is a lot of residential construction going on, but the old part of the town remains intact and is quite charming. Unfortunately, Fehrbellin does not have a railway station, so I was going to have to figure out how to get to Friesack, where there was one.

My guidebook suggested going from Fehrbellin to Brunne and then by a path to Vietznitz and on to Friesack, a trip of about 12 kms. When I reached Brunne, nobody could explain how to reach Vietznitz. In fact, locals suggested that the route, wherever it was, would be quite unsuited to anything but a mountain bike. I took an alternative route that was closer to 25 kms. Unfortunately, 6 kms of it was over really terrible road. This consists of two parallel paths of concrete plaques, each about 1.5 metres in length. It was like riding over endless expansion joints and one had to keep looking for traffic as the whole road was only one lane wide. I would have thought that it would have been easier just to lay down a simple asphalt road through the countryside instead of going to all the trouble of these concrete things, but perhaps they needed them for moving tanks around or something.

Exhausted as I was by this “road,” the last ten kilometres from Warsow to Friesack went very well. The road was superb and interesting, with little hills and no traffic and, as always at the end of a long bike ride, the closer the destination the greater the magnetic pull it exerts. The train station is beyond Friesack itself, in the middle of a field. The station has seen better days as well and although there was a snack bar/pub, the rest of the station was boarded up. Switching from my racing shoes to sandals and finishing up the last of my Gatorade, I rested on the platform and twenty minutes later the hourly train to Berlin pulled in.

This time the conductor collected some money from me. I had had a whole day of adventure in the Prussian heartland, covering 156 kilometres, for a total cost of DM 11, or less than C$ 10. And probably 3500 calories! And I had learned that my bicycle, which I had only ridden 200 kms total in Canada, was superbly comfortable over a long day of riding. I had no stiffness anywhere the next day, to my amazement. I had also learned that the plan of taking the train to a jump-off point and coming back from another worked very well. And I had learned not to trust the guidebook, whose authors have a rather different idea of what constitutes a rideable surface for a bicycle than I do.

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