Monday, August 8, 2016

Elbe Bike Route IV: Magdeburg to Torgau -- Many Surprises, and All But One of Them Are Good

This was a part of our trip where we had a number of surprises.  The not-so-good one comes at the end, so read on.

The first surprise was a segment of trail that our bike guide told us would be 8 km of dirt trail.  We've done two lengthy unpaved sections so far, one fairly easy one and one that was very rocky as well as hilly.  We weren't sure what this one would turn out to be.  What it in fact was, was a brand-new paved trail through a forested area that was super-smooth, fast and fun.  Every few hundred meters there was a short paved section in the middle, so you could "change tracks" to pass slower riders, then switch tracks back to the right side.  It became one of our favorite 8-km sections of the bike route so far!

Our next surprise was architectural, in the generally uninteresting city of Dessau.  Founded in Weimar, the Bauhaus School moved to Dessau in 1925 and in 1932 moved on to Berlin, only to close a year later.  In each instance, politics motivated the move.  However, only Dessau ended up with a physical architectural result. 

The names of those associated with the Bauhaus are some of the giants of early 20th century architecture and art -- for Bauhaus was an art school as much as an architectural one:  Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, among others.  When you think about what "modern architecture" meant in mid-20th century, you are probably thinking of buildings that are the direct legacy of the Bauhaus School.

However, Dessau had also been the home for a much longer time to the Junkers Aircraft company, builders of a sizable part of Hitler's Luftwaffe air fleet.  The war was not kind to Dessau, since Junkers put a gigantic target spot on the unfortunate city.  Many of the Bauhaus buildings were badly damaged.

However, both the school and the buildings are back.  We went past the main school buildings and several of the "Masters Buildings," where the "masters," i.e. head teachers such as the five mentioned above, lived during their time in Dessau.  These structures, particularly the homes, must have been shocking to folks in the 1920s, but not today given the ubiquity of the design ideas they exemplify which have drifted into our modern architectural language.

From Dessau it was only a few km but a world apart when we entered what is known as the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm.  The heart of this "realm" is Wörlitz Park, in a small town of the same name.  We found a charming hotel a few meters from the gardens and booked it for two nights so we could see the gardens at leisure.  As we went to bed we could look out at the tower of the town church just outside our window.

The gardens were built by one of the Dukes of Anhalt-Dessau, who had gone on the Grand Tour of Europe and been enchanted by naturalistic gardens he had seen in France and England.  He set out to create something even grander, and more than one guidebook says he indeed created the finest English garden in Europe outside England.  It contains two grand residences and a surfeit of "follies," statues, bridges, fake ruins and other points of interest.  Adding to the charm is the careful design which gives "peek-a-boo" views of these items at certain points in your walk.

We skipped the "gondola" tours but did take winding and mysterious paths to two hand-cranked ferries, past a Gothic confection that actually was used as a home, and along an edge of the English garden that looks out to the rest of the "Garden Realm" that the tourist brochures extol.

The Duke was nothing if not thorough, and made sure his garden included various interesting bridges and even a fake castle ruins, complete with underground passageways!

On the way back to our hotel we visited the town church and of course paid the €2 each to climb the tower after first admiring the church interior with its two balconies, no doubt crammed the day that Martin Luther himself preached there in the 1540s.  The last 15 m of the climb have to be the most claustrophobic section of church tower we have yet been in!

The view from the top was, as always, breathtaking.  That's about half the town of Wörlitz in the first photo, and if you were to use the binoculars we brought with us, you would see some of our hand-washed clothes drying just inside one of those windows across the street.  As for the second photo, we assume those farmers are doing more than just raising a dirt storm, but what it is that they're doing we have no idea.

We left town  via a road that brought us to yet another reaction ferry, such as the one we wrote about recently.  It uses the power of the river to propel itself back and forth across the water with no more energy use than a short cranking of the winches at bow and stern.  Like many such ferries, it comes with a bell (above Louise's head) at each shore for summoning the ferryman.  It also came with a pamphlet explaining the ferry, and letting us know that this one ferry travels about 3,000 km a year in its short journey back and forth across the Elbe.

Halfway across we got a good view of Coswig, a town not unlike many others in Germany with a large house or palace of the local noble, usually long since gone, and more modest homes lining the river nearby.  In a meadow a short way out of town we came upon yet another stork, this one apparently looking for some food.

After only 21 km we checked into our hotel, as we were now in Wittenberg, the city whose history is forever intertwined with that of Martin Luther.  In 15 months they will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of his most famous action, the posting of his 95 theses on the door of the church there.  However, the church in the center of town, St. Marien, is not  the one in question, although it is equally important since it was the one where Luther did most of his preaching over the years.  It has an interesting altarpiece painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son L.C. the Younger.  The centerpiece is of course the Last Supper, but the other paintings making up the ensemble feature Luther and his contemporaries, with one obvious exception.

The backs of many altarpieces are also painted, and this one is no exception.  However, it appears to be badly vandalized.  Well, sort of.  The students in the theological school way back when got in the habit of initialing this back part of the altarpiece when they got their final grade and found out if they had passed or not.  The ones who did graduate initialed or signed it in the part of the painting depicting heaven.  We've focused on the other folks, those who left their mark in Hell.

Wittenberg is an attractive town, perhaps particularly now that almost all the renovating for the Big Event on October 31, 2017 is done.  From the town square you can see the impressive Rathaus or City Hall, and notice how odd it is that the St. Marien Church is walled off from the town square by a row of buildings.  Of course there is a statue of Martin Luther there, and one also of Phillip Melancthon, his closest associate.  Turn around and walk a short ways down the street and the tower of the Palace Church comes into view.  This is the one with the famous door, except that the door was destroyed during the Seven Years War, in 1760.  The new door has the 95 theses cast in bronze, in the original Latin.

Down at the other end of town is the former Augustinian monastery where Luther spent most of his adult life.  It's now known as Luther House.  Tourists and pilgrims came by from time to time, but it's mostly a quiet place.  Across from the entrance is a statue of Katharina van Bora, a former nun who married Luther in 1525.

Jeff visited one other place, a museum about life during the DDR, i.e. the Communist regime.  Louise elected to walk down by the river, concerned that the museum wouldn't have any English and that Jeff would spend too much time trying to read the German labels on things.  As it turned out, quite a few photos did have English as well as German labels, and much else didn't need much in the way of labeling.  On the other hand, the museum was only mildly enlightening, so probably a good call by Louise.  One of the more interesting photos showed the monument the Russian Army (who were "guests" at an army base nearby) erected to the brave Soviet soldiers who saved Germany from the Nazis.  With all the tact they're famous for, they put the monument in front of the Palace Church.  At least they didn't point the gun turret toward Luther's famous door.

Among the other exhibits was a room typical of what most East Germans (and West Germans, though perhaps for a shorter time) had to make do with after the war.  So many houses had been destroyed and so many Germans had moved into Germany from former homes in Poland and Czechoslovakia and even Russia, that a family generally lived in a single room, and sometimes had to share even that.  The room in question housed a family of 5, with two people in each twin bed and the baby having the only comfortable sleep.  As you can also see, it's bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room, all in one compact package.  The last photo is the museum's recreation of a "typical" Soviet occupation office, complete with a picture of Lenin on the wall and a bottle of vodka about where today's tech worker would place his Starbucks.

We've mentioned from time to time that the roads have a variety of surfaces, from great to barely rideable.   We suspect that stretches like the one pictured below illustrate a road which is probably unchanged in decades, with a bike trail added in the past decade as the Elbe Bike Route has gained popularity and drawn in tourist euros.  And it is a big deal!  On a slow day we see around 100 cyclists with full panniers, and on more than one occasion we have seen as many as 400!

And yet  .   .   .  we have come almost every day recently to some stretch of cobbles that could not be avoided.  Sometimes it's only a few short stretches the length of a city block or two, other times we're not so lucky.  We've not been worried about losing control of the bike, but they do give us and the bike a bit of a pounding.

Well the bad luck really caught up with us on the road to Torgau.  For a week we have been hearing a clicking sound similar to that of a broken spoke, but each check of the spokes has shown them all to be just fine.  Then the sound became louder.  Jeff checked the spokes twice.  No problems.  The third time he got a paper towel and cleaned off some road grime from the rim and saw what the source of the noise was -- a cracked rim!  This was seriously bad news.  With care, perhaps this one would get us 50-100 km, but on the other hand, it might collapse at any time.  Not a good idea to test its limits.

We put new meaning into "riding gingerly" on the way to Torgau, our next destination, luckily less than 10 km away.  We headed straight to one of the two bike shops our guide to the Elbe Bike Route listed, and owner Dietrich placed a phone call to his distributor.  The good news was that he could get a rim in the correct size by 3 o'clock the next day, and rebuild the rear wheel that afternoon and evening.  The less than ideal news was that it would be the simplest possible rim out there, not a robust double-walled rim like the one that had just failed.  Well, we didn't really have any options, so we asked Dietrich to go ahead and promised ourselves "no more riding on cobblestones this trip."  Sure enough, the bike was ready for us on the second morning.  We'll let you know if the rim makes it to Seattle, where R&E Bikes are ready to rebuild it yet again with a hopefully even tougher rim for our future adventures.

We'll close today's entry with a few photos of Torgau's Castle Hartenfels, considered one of Germany's finest Renaissance palaces.  It helped keep our minds off the woes of Little Red, our tandem sitting in Dietrich's shop a few blocks away.  The castle has a dramatic entrance and an even more amazing Hof, or courtyard.  There is also a tall tower that, of course, we climbed.  The views were particularly grand, showing us our route along the river coming into town, and our planned route out assuming Little Red made it successfully through surgery, as it of course did.

We're now off to Meissen and Dresden, the cultural heart of the upper Elbe River.  Write to you next from there.

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