Saturday 5 April 2008

The Great Tour of Brandenburg Part 2: Fontane's Country

Monday, May 24, 1999

I was determined to make use of the fine weather on the long weekend, going forward for Round 2 of the Great Brandenburg Ride: Neuruppiner Land. An early departure from Bahnhof Zoo on the RE4 regional train took me back to Friesack, my last point on the trip.

This time I was determined to avoid the bad stretches of sand and cobblestone, so had looked over the map quite carefully. The weather was good and I had an excellent fast trip north from Friesack along a very good Landstrasse with no traffic. The towns had interesting names: Zootzen, Wutzetz, Vichel, Garz, Manker and Protzen. They were all in good condition although the scenery was a bit flat. Crossing over the E55 Autobahn, the road took me towards Altfriesack and a small bridge that marked the southern end of a long, narrow lake, the Neuruppinersee and, to the south, the much smaller Bützsee. I stopped for a few minutes on the bridge and watched some kayakers loading their boats. There are many waterways in Brandenburg and they seem to be used heavily for recreational purposes.

Crossing to Altfriesack, I turned left on a road running parallel to the Neuruppinersee. It was smooth asphalt with trees on the left and a view of the lake on the right. After Karwe the road was less fun, however, as it turned into enormous crooked cobblestones. Luckily, there was no traffic of any kind as I wandered from side to side, trying to find the smoothest way. I had to stop once to rearrange my handlebar bag, whose support bracket was shaken loose. After bouncing around for about 5 kms, I reached the charming village of Gnewikow.

I saw a little road going down to a park on the lakeshore, so as it was lunchtime, I decided to take advantage of the amenities. The little road led past a series of impressive, but abandoned, buildings. In the DDR period, these seem to have been used for breeding and raising agricultural animals, although the buildings looked pre-1947. In the little park, I took off my jersey and sat on a conveniently-located bench to enjoy the sunshine. I had my sandwiches while looking out onto the lake and seeing the sailboats drift by. The wind was light and there were swans and ducks about, none of whom were very interested in my offerings, preferring to root around in the bullrushes. Children were jumping off a little dock and it was very relaxing.

Before departing, I checked the bicycle over. Of course, the cobblestones had done their work and I had to take out my screwdriver and tighten up various parts. The water bottle holders were really loose but after a few minutes, everything was right and I was going up the little road in low gear back into the centre of Gnewikow.

There was a very attractive church, with a little round tower, completely covered by flowers. Most of the houses were very well kept, much more so than I had noticed in my first trip in Brandenburg. I also noticed the election signs, which were almost all for the extreme-right National Party (NPD). The slogans were interesting; one read “Foreigners Out” and the second was “Jobs instead of Profit,” an unlikely economic concept. I have been told that the right-radicals have a significant presence in Brandenburg and I found it ironic that this wealthy and attractive farming area’s citizens (almost none of whom would have had any contact with foreigners) saw neo-Nazism as an acceptable political alternative. And I cannot see the investors that the region needs being too excited by “Jobs instead of Profit.”

In trepidation of more cobblestones, I turned left but discovered only smooth pavement. Although the road now moved away from the scenic lake, it was a good road with gentle hills, taking me through Wuthenow’s farm fields and across a bridge to charming Neuruppin. Neuruppin was the birthplace of my Lieblingsarchitekt, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, but is much more famous as the birthplace of the writer Theodor Fontane. Last year was the 100th anniversary of Fontane’s death, so there was a lot going on related to him, including readings, walking tours and new editions of his works. He was successful only very late in life, having been a bit of a dud newspaperman before. There is a very nice statue of him in Neuruppin.

Neuruppin itself has many attractive old buildings, most of which have clearly been restored since unification in 1989. Like many German towns and cities, the central square is a pedestrian mall. On this day, like all German holidays, everything was closed as tight as a drum, with the exception of a few café. Both the houses where Schinkel and Fontane were born are marked, but are not museums.

Leaving Neuruppin, I headed through some pretty suburbs, turning at a set of railroad tracks. These tracks, it transpired, were the right-of-way for a strange little railway, the Prignitz Eisenbahn. As I rode alongside the tracks on a very good bicycle path, I was overtaken by what looked like a streetcar, honking and beeping as it went past the level crossings not much faster than my own speed. This was the Prignitz Eisenbahn, a privately-operated train system that came into existence when Deutsche Bahn, having taken over the old East German railways, planned to close a stretch of narrow-gauge line in Northwestern Brandenburg. The little trains run a comprehensive schedule in the area and, apparently, turn a profit.

Passing through Darritz-Wahlendorf, my guidebook suggested heading east and going around the shore of the tiny Katerbower See. Before I knew what happened, I found myself on a sandy track in a forest, outback of the beyond. On several stretches, it was difficult to ride through the sand and I had to walk. Alone among the pines, I found it hard to believe that I was only an hour by train from Berlin. I just wished the road was better!

Fields of rapeseed flowers, a typical Brandenburg view

And then it got much, much worse. I was now attempting to ride a wide, sandy, rutted path through farm fields. The cows looked at me in stupefaction as I finally gave up attempting to ride what was marked as the National Bicycle Route N1 as my bike sank into the sand underneath me. Pushing and occasionally (well, regularly) cursing, I made my way between the cornfields. Suddenly, something big rustled next to me and I was so startled I almost dropped the bike. A young deer jumped up and ran off. It looked like a doe and was probably hiding in the corn. As well, I saw a hare running through a field at an amazing pace. If you also consider the extraordinary prevalence of hawks that always strikes me when riding through Brandenburg, the Mark is alive with wildlife.

Finally emerging from the sandtrap, I found another paved road near Katerbow and headed toward my next check point, Netzeband. I was a little concerned about Netzeband, since the road heading out of it did not look very impressive on my map, but was the only way to get to Schönberg, my next checkpoint, without 30 kms of backtracking.

Netzeband was a little strange as well. It seems to be completely devoted to horsemanship, with every farmyard actually housing stables and riding schools. The cars in the streets were not the little Opels and Hondas you normally see in Brandenburg, but big Audis and Mercedeses. Needless to say, everything looked restored and in good condition, obviously appealing to these well-heeled specialized customers. I am not sure for the reason behind all this horsiness in Deepest, Darkest Ex-DDR, but many of the stables looked as if they had existed in Prussian times as well.

The road was excellent and I crossed the railway tracks and the Autobahn. Then the road pretty well disappeared as a paved surface, turning once again into lovely Brandenburg sugar-sand. Riding the Marinoni became more like skiing, as with each pedal-stroke the bike sank and turned one way or the other. I knew that there would only be about 3 kms of this bad road through the woods. Unfortunately, it had become quite hot and I was constantly harassed by swarms of annoying flies every time I slowed down. To make matters even worse, I was passed by a middle-aged couple on sturdy commuter bikes who commented about the inappropriateness of my tires. Thanks.

Eventually the road solidified a bit and then outside Schönberg turned into decent asphalt again. I cranked up a few gears to make up for all that lost time (and to really lose the flies) and passed the couple at 45 km/h on a nice straight stretch. Childish, maybe, but I needed some kind of morale booster.

The road past Tramnitz was new and great to ride on, although I missed my turning point. I had planned to head a bit to the east and ride alongside another lake, but ended up taking a slightly shorter inland route. This took me to the town of Wusterhausen and then on to my destination for the day of Neustadt.

Between these two larger towns in the village of Kampehl is a genuine oddity. A knight, Ritter Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz was accused of killing a shepherd from nearby Bückwitz when the shepherd refused him the “Droit de Seigneur,” or the feudal right to the first night with a new bride. The Knight was not convicted due to a lack of evidence, the story goes, but he swore an oath as to his innocence. In his affidavit, he stated that if he was in fact guilty, his body would neither find rest in any grave nor decompose. The guilt or innocence was never determined, but his mummy (in fine fettle) has been on display in a vault in the village church for the last three centuries. Described by locals as One of the World’s Wonders (well, perhaps, if you are from Leddin or Metzelthin or Bückwitz, I guess), Ritter Kahlbutz can be viewed every day but Monday from 10 until 12 and again after lunch, from 1 to 5 pm. I passed on this big attraction, although I rode beside the church and saw the entrance sign, but felt the story was worth noting.

Neustadt, although a smallish town on the Dosse River, is a junction for several rail lines. The main line has been torn up and there is a huge construction mess around the platforms. It is one of the primary reasons for delays on the RE4, which continues through to Wittenberge. The station, like many in the former East Germany, is derelict although it was once a fine building and probably the pride of the town.

As I was standing with the Marinoni on the makeshift platform, guzzling the last of my Gatorade, a huge crowd of elderly people showed up with their bicycles. They had obviously been on a tour somewhere in Brandenburg, probably for the whole long weekend and looked very enthusiastic and in good health. They had to be, since they were riding huge, heavy bicycles (Hercules, a famous old German brand, was prevalent) with lots and lots of baggage. I could see we were going to have a problem, since the RE4 only has room for 20 bicycles and the group had about 30 already. They probably had reservations, which I usually do not bother with. After riding 88 kms and who knows how much pushing through the sand, I was in no mood to be left behind.

The train came and everyone got on in an orderly fashion. The oldies all headed to the bicycle storage areas, while I popped up the first half-set of stairs on these double-decker cars. The Marinoni is light enough that I can lift it easily, although it is a bit hard to walk in the darn cleated shoes and I knew that on this sort-of-landing, there are several seats and enough space for a single bicycle. My plan worked quite well until we came to stations near Berlin and more passengers got on, meaning I had to hold my bicycle and give up the extra seats, but at least there were no fearsome Hercules scratches on the still-pristine green paint. Except for the sand bits, it had been a very enjoyable day. But I will never ride a National Bike Route again.

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