Monday, August 1, 2016

Elbe Bike Route III: Storks and More on Our Way to the Midpoint, Magdeburg

We have now come 350 km from the start of the Elbe Bike Route in Cuxhaven, and crossed into the State of Saxony-Anhalt, part of the former DDR (aka East Germany).  The countryside doesn't look all that different than what we have seen so far in the area that was West Germany before reunification.  However, it is a very rural area and we have no idea what it was like before the Wall fell.  What we can say is that there are a lot of roads which look like they're fairly newly paved, perhaps part of Germany's effort to equalize the infrastructure throughout the country.

We found a more nuanced story in our first large city, Wittenberge [not to be confused with Wittenberg, the city Luther made famous, which is on the Elbe 300 km further upstream].  It's a city which has been in decline, with a population drop of almost 50% since it peaked a dozen years before the end of the division of Germany, due to reduced demand for the sorts of things its factories were producing, such as sewing machines.  Still, much of the city looked better than American cities in similar straits.  We headed to see a famous Art Nouveau building from 1906 called the House of the Four Seasons.  It's quite striking.  Although flamboyant, it still fits in reasonably well with its neighbors and with the houses across the street to its right.

However, on the same block as the House of the Four Seasons, directly across from the renovated hotel, was a corner building which looks like it barely survived WW II.  On first glance it appeared abandoned.  We chanced to meet the owner of the hotel, a German fellow who grew up in Montreal and came here 20 years ago.  He told us he has been trying to buy the derelict building for years, but could not because a single one of its dozen former apartments is still occupied, by a stubborn ancient lady.  "Without her agreement, we couldn't do a thing," he said.  However she just recently agreed to move out by the end of the year.  72 years after the war and 27 years after the fall of the Wall, it might finally look like a proper home once again.

We rode a few miles around town and found one other place that perhaps has a similar story, though parts of this building clearly didn't  survive the war.  Of course all of Germany, east and west, had devastation like this for a long time after the war, but we're not aware of anywhere in the western part of the country where one can see buildings still in ruins.  And while these two buildings struck us as stark anomalies, it's well to remember that they are anomalies -- the rest of Wittenberge looked pretty good for a city seeking to find stability in a changing economy.

Only 14 km from Wittenberge and we were in a different world, almost on a different planet.  This was Stork Village Rühstädt (yes, that's the official name, seen on road signs everywhere).  It has the largest stork population in Germany, at least during stork visiting hours, which begin in late March and end in late August.  On average lately they've been having about 33 inhabited nests and seen close to twice that number of new storks fly off at the end of summer with Mom and Dad.

It's not a large town, so it's not hard to find those 33 nests.  The one on the left is atop the former water tower, and during supper we monitored two nests across the street from each other and not far from us for that matter.  We're not sure what storks eat, but thankfully no one came swooping down to take a bite out of our wild salmon filets (which, by the way, were the tastiest, best-cooked pieces of fish we've had since landing in Europe 5 weeks ago).

These are very large birds, similar to the Great Blue Herons we see regularly near our home in Seattle but about 10-15%  larger, and with quite impressive beaks.  Here are a few hanging out in our stork town.  And BTW, Europeans write March 28 as 28.03, if you're puzzled by the dates on the sign for Nest #6 below.

No, there are no storks or stork nests in that last photo, but that is the Schloss, the former home of a local Count, where we stayed.  After the War and the abolition of aristocracy in the DDR, the palace became a senior home, but that closed in the 1990s and it was converted into a hotel about 2001.  Our room was wonderful, spacious vertically as well as horizontally, and it had two huge windows.  It certainly added to the magic of our night in Stork Village Rühstädt.

About an hour after we started out cycling the next morning we were pulling into Havelburg, mentioned in church records as early as 948 AD.  There's a lower town on a tightly-packed island where the Havel River meets the Elbe, and an upper town where there was once a castle and where there is still a very impressive cathedral, on the bluff where Louise's hand is pointing.

The cathedral is similar to many in this region, but quite different than one sees elsewhere in Europe so far as we know.  The front is described as Romanesque, but "fortress-like" would be closer to the truth.  The rest of the church however is Gothic.  Not the light Gothic of French and English churches, but Gothic nonetheless.

We're going to hit the 'Pause' button on the travelogue for a moment to discuss the roads and trails we ride on.  As we said above, quite a few roads and trails seem to be newly paved.  But there are still many roads which look as they have for a century or more, and bike trails on dikes that are not exactly highways.  Here's one stretch of road that only lasted, thankfully, for about 2 km. While we could have ridden on the cobbles, we and all the other cyclists we saw there used the dirt track on the side.  Our teeth thanked us for that.

Here's a dirt road where the cyclists have a paved trail on the side!  Brick paths like this and in the following photo, a dike trail, are actually almost always very smooth, and almost as fast as a new asphalt road and actually faster than a bumpy asphalt path (which we've encountered, but not often).  Incidentally, that's another church tower in the distance in the second photo, but one also sees towers that look just like this but shorter and skinnier, on the edge of a village.  It's where the power lines go from overhead outside the village to underground.  You do not see power lines in these village photos, because they're not there!  They are all underground.

There are indeed plenty of smooth new roads to ride, such as this one taking us through fields into a small town.  But while a smooth ride is always nice, all but the very roughest roads are wonderful to ride in this garden of nature and (mostly) small towns, gliding through the landscape like a boat gliding down a stream.

Here's one more interesting road in a forested area, where car wheels are on the outer tracks and the center track stays smooth for bikes.  If bikes are coming from the other direction you can ride on the outer part -- it's a little bumpy and noisy, but rideable.  We'll use one final road to get us back into our usual pattern of travelogue.  This one takes us through the last remaining gate from the medieval town wall in the small city of Werben, a city largely passed by both in DDR times and today.

It's too bad it's generally overlooked.  It's the smallest Hanseatic city in Germany, with about 800 inhabitants today.  The church was built over many years, a common occurrence, in this case more or less between the 1100s and the 1400s.  No other towns of 800 people come to mind as having such an impressive church as this.  Adding to the mystery of the town is a tower buried elsewhere in the fabric of the town wall, known as the Hunger Tower.  No guidebook seemed willing to say why.

Another town that provided a nice break near lunchtime fed our spirits as well as our stomachs, with views over the Elbe not far from our lunch nook.  And the nice part was, the "climb" up to town was so gradual that we scarcely noticed it until we came to the lookout!

Far upstream, once can see a clever type of ferry we have ridden in several locations as we've moved from one bank of the river to the other.  It's called a Reaction Ferry.  A cable is anchored about 250 meters above the ferry, and floating markers show the path of the cable every 25 m or so.  Close to the ferry the cable forks, one end going to one end of the ferry, the other cable end to the other ferry end.  The ferry operator uses a winch to pull one end of the ferry upstream and loosen the other cable to let that end drift downstream.  With the ferry angled 45 degrees to the river, the river current now pushes the ferry across the river toward the side where it points upstream.  To return, use the winch to reverse the pattern.  Ships can pass by by simply noting which side of the river the ferry and its cables are on, and passing on the other side.  Bingo, fast movement across the river (about 5 minutes shore to shore), with almost no use of energy other than the push of the river which nature provides for free, plus 30 seconds of winching at the start of each trip.

Every day brings some gem of a location, and Tangermünde was one of the best.  It owes much of its beauty to the fact that the Holy Roman Emperor and later the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia made it home for a while.  It kept its beauty because it lost its political connections and industry went elsewhere in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  The towers were particularly remarkable, including the Prisoner's tower in the local castle, the impossibly tall tower of the church, and several towers that have survived from the ancient town walls, including one right outside our hotel room (the yellow hotel in the third photo below).

There's still another town gate leading to the river, yet more half-timbered architecture, and a town hall that looks like a brick wedding cake in the center of town.  Yup, pretty impressive little city.

The very next day we rode 60 km with nothing worth stopping to photograph.  Then, 1 km from our destination, came the daily moment:  the Midland Canal (in German Mittellandkanal).  It was built from Dortmund to Magdeburg from 1905 to 1938.  Then the war stopped further work.  Then came the Cold War.  There was almost no traffic across the border, which was several km west of Magdeburg, and in 1977 the West German government built a canal parallel to the Elbe so that boats could reach Hamburg while staying west of the border.

Reunification 25 years ago changed all that, and in 2003 the canal bridged over the Elbe and on to Berlin and Poland.  The bridge is an impressive piece of engineering which we explored from the canalside itself (there is a bike path on each side of the canal) and from below, behind our hotel on the Elbe.  If you look closely you can see the top of a boat headed west and two cyclists heading east in the last photo.

After a short 20 km ride the next day, we were in Magdeburg, the exact midpoint of our 1000 km trip up the Elbe according to our cycling guidebook.  Funny thing though, our bike odometer says we've gone 556 km from Cuxhaven.  Gee, didn't think we took that many wrong turns!

Coming into Magdeburg we saw something we have scarcely seen on the Elbe, heavy industry.  Luckily it was only on the north end of the city and across the river from where we were riding.  The city itself now has a wonderful bike and pedestrian way all along the Elbe.

We were able to get rooms in a very special hotel, the ArtHotel Magdeburg within the Green Citadel,  This was the last building designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, although it was not completed until 2005, 5 years after the architect's death.  And no, it's not green, it's pink, we don't know why.  But it was quirky, comfortable, and charming.  Check out the bath in our room!

We spent three nights here to recharge our mental batteries after 9 different places in the past 9 days, and to catch up on things like writing this blog!  But we did take time out to climb the tallest church in town for some photos, and to wander through the cathedral and take a photo of the wise and foolish virgins (check Matthew 25 for the full story).

We had one challenging section of trail in a park coming into Magdeburg, our narrowest yet, and hopefully it is the last such trail.  Our guidebook says it's all roads leading south, and that's where we'll take you in our next episode, toward Dessau, Wittenberg, Meissen and Dresden.

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