20 May Trip Diary – Berlin to Prague
I made it to Prague, the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, as it’s known. When I last posted, I was just leaving Berlin. Since then, I’ve slowed the pace of my riding down, partly because I felt like I was rushing before and partly because my recent rides have been some of the best I’ve encountered so far with scenery that deserves attention, rather than concentrating on achieving my self-imposed distance targets.
The route I’d originally planned from Berlin to Dresden was pretty much a straight shot south but after a bit of research, I decided to take the longer and, I was told, the more scenic route following the River Elbe, which meanders its way through East Germany. Sure, it added a few days riding, but it was well worth the extra effort. It rained for pretty much the whole day as I left Berlin but I didn’t let it dampen my spirits, glad to be leaving the hustle and bustle of city life behind me and regain the peace and quiet of the countryside. Don’t get me wrong, Berlin’s great but I’m a country boy at heart and I’d missed the feeling of space and tranquility that comes with riding and camping in the wild. Over the course of the next four days, I drifted along not a lot faster than the current of the Elbe itself, stopping at will at any town or village that took my fancy and, in this part of Germany, there are many little gems to choose from.
The city of punts
One of my favourites was Lubbenau, a city steeped in history, a lot of it involving growing pickles (you’ll find, amongst much else, a pickle museum, a pickle market, pickle-based alcohol and, rather mysteriously as I really can’t think who’d buy one for their child, pickle dolls). It’s not, however, I’m glad to say, its only draw. The town is beyond beautiful and, dare I say it, maybe even more so in the rain as it was when I cycled into the centre. The rain made the cobbled streets shine (not great for riding), the tiles roofs glisten, and the other tourists run for cover, giving me the place almost to myself. I’m sure it’s lovely in the sun too, but I never saw it break through the clouds so I can’t say for sure. The town is surrounded by water and since the mid-19th Century it’s known as the ‘City of Punts’. Ferrymen were ready to take tourists along the labyrinth of waterways on a scenic journey under low bridges and wispy willow trees around their town. On the day I visited, the rain had made business poor and the ferrymen were left to stand around the cafes, drinking cups of coffee and no doubt sharing tales of younger days and fighting sea monsters. The ride out of Lubbenau provided the best cycling I’d experienced on the trip. The cycle path ran almost entirely amongst the forests and streams that surround the town. At one point, there was a stream either side of a very narrow path for what must be ten kilometres, giving the impression of almost riding on water. For the entire day, I don’t think the tyres touched tarmac.
That evening, I rode through the small town of Spreetal and out into an area of reservoirs and thick pine forests. It was getting quite late by the time I’d found the right path amongst the maze of smaller footpaths, logging roads and dead-end access tracks that criss-cross the entire forest and decided I’d find somewhere close by to set up camp for the night. The clouds had just started to disperse and the low cold light of the setting sun filled the forest, making the trees glisten under their coating of rainwater. I rounded a bend to see something ahead. Now bear in mind before I go on, I hadn’t seen a single person since leaving Spreetal about two hours prior (nor did I see anyone for a good few hours the next morning) and am quite convinced that I may have been the only one out in the area, especially considering it was almost 9pm. Ahead of me, around 120 meters farther down the narrow track I was on, stood what appeared to be a rather large dog. Maybe I saw it for two seconds, enough time for it to glance in my direction about the same time I saw it and turn 180 degrees before bounding off into the woods. When I was in Berlin, my friends had told me about the growing number of wolves that had started to appear in eastern Germany and my research on this brought up a figure of around 200. A healthy number, to be sure, but still low enough to make sightings very rare. I can’t say for absolute certain it was a wolf, but I’ve played the scene over and over again in my head this last week and I can’t come up with anything else that it could have been. The colouring was right, a mix of dark and light greys and the shape fit perfectly with that of a wolf, unlike the shapes of the other big animals I knew to be in the area, mainly deer and wild boar. But, I hope it was. To see a wolf in the wild has long been a dream of mine and sure, I can’t say it definitely was and even if it was, as I saw it for only the briefest of moments, but it would have been the closest I’ve come yet to see one of these elusive creatures. It certainly gave that night’s camping an extra degree of excitement though.
The best gift a man can receive
I flew through the city of Cottbus the next day. Berlin had given me my fill of cities for a while, so I carried on through the town of Spremberg and down into Hoyerswerda. It was here I met Marcus and his son whilst I was sitting in a park enjoying the first day I’d had so far of clear skies and bright sunshine. It even had some warmth to it. We chatted about my trip for twenty minutes in a mix of English and German (always interesting as my grasp of the German language, at best, can be described as dismal) and parted ways. Twenty kilometres down the road and Marcus passed me in his car, signalling for me to pull over. When I did, he produced bottles and bottles of beer and proceeded to fill what little space I had left in my panniers with beer, which unfortunately amounted to just enough for two bottles. With a handshake and a smile, he was off again only to reappear ten minutes down the road to request photographs with me. I happily obliged. Marcus is the type of person who makes these trips so special. The kind who takes time out of their day to speak with you and shows great kindness to complete strangers, as I was. I slept well that night.
Late the next afternoon, I made Dresden and as it had been longer than I would like to admit since I’d had a shower, I booked myself into a campsite around 4km from the city. Leaving a fully loaded touring bike in big cities, even locked up, always worries me for obvious reasons and becomes a distraction from enjoying the place, so it’s another reason why I prefer to book into a campsite so I can go and explore without worrying I’ll come back to everything gone. As it turns out, I ended up staying in Dresden for two days; I enjoyed the place that much. The inner city of Dresden was largely destroyed near the end of the Second World War. Most of the damage was done in the controversial raids by the British and Americans in February, 1945 when, over two days, 2,431 tonnes of high explosive bombs along with 1,475.9 tons of incendiaries were dropped on the city. Today, if it wasn’t for the information plaques around the cities, it would be hard to tell. Dresden now claims to be one of the most visited cities in Germany with over 4 million tourists flocking to see the many royal buildings, classed as some of the most impressive in Europe, which I agree with, at least out of the ones I’ve seen.
Of all I went to look at (the Martin Luther memorial, the very sparkly golden equestrian sculpture of August the Strong and the interestingly named Zwinger Palace, to name just three), my favourite, and arguably the most prominent of all Dresden landmarks, was the Frauenkirche Church. Entirely destroyed in the raids of 1945 apart from a few small sections of external walls, it lay ruined as a war memorial before being rebuilt in 2005, incorporating some of the original walls that were left. I took a look around inside and planned to pay the fee to take the trek up to the cupola on top, considered to be the finest example of it type in central and Eastern Europe, but the queue was longer than the River Elbe itself so I made do with admiring it from outside. Still, it is a beautiful building.
One other thing I learned about Dresden and found somewhat surprising, and to be honest disappointing, is that it holds the unfortunate claim of being the only location in Europe, and only the second in the world, to lose its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Dresden Elbe Valley was an internationally recognised site of cultural significance but when a highway bridge was built across the valley within one mile of the city centre, UNESCO removed its status. Sad, really.
A few days later, after continuing my journey along the River Elbe amongst the sandstone gorges that dominate each side of its banks and the pretty little towns that nestle amongst, and occasionally, within them, I crossed the border into the Czech Republic, country number 6. Later the next morning, after a camp along its banks, I left the Elbe and joined the European cycle route number 7, running along an offshoot of the Elbe called the River Vitava. The Vitava snakes off west before turning south and running straight through the heart of Prague. Halfway along, a look at the map showed me I had a choice to make. In order to stay on the cycle route, I’d need to cross the river and to do so, I had two options. The first, and the one I planned on taking, was a bridge located just east of a town called Luzec nad Vitavou, but as I approached it, huge flights of stairs provided the only access to, and decent from, either side. The remaining option was to board what my map identified as a ferry in the town itself. Ferry, as it turns out, might be a bit of an exaggeration, at least in my mind of what I imagine a ferry to be. The signs to the water’s edge took me off the cycle path and down a dirt road to an old house by the river, which turned out to be the ferrymen house. The ‘ferry’ itself was an old wooden boat, big enough for a few people and their bikes at best. The boat had no motor, rather it was connected to the opposite shore by a long overhead wire and pulled across by a winch. On the rusty gate of the house was a bell and a handwritten sign displaying the prices to cross, equivalent to about 40p for me and the bike. By the time the ferryman came out, I’d been joined by a few more cyclists and we all pulled into the little boat as it rocked alarmingly from side to side each time the weight of another bike was added. It all ended well; less than minute later, I was on the other side and the city spires and terracotta roofs of Prague soon loomed into view.
Prague ranks fifth in the table of most visited European cities behind London, Rome, Istanbul, and Paris and with its large historical centre that largely survived the destructions of the 20th Century, it’s easy to see why tourists flock here. The price of campsites had almost halved since I crossed the border with Germany so decided to treat myself again to the pleasures of warm water washing and booked into a campsite a little over 3km from the old town. The walk in through Stromovka Park just across the river from me is beautiful, full of outdoor enthusiasts running, cycling, and rollerblading along its many paths. Within the hour, I’d reached the old town and was immediately whisked along in the mass of people squeezing their way through the labyrinth of narrow streets and ultimately pour out into the old town square. The square is surrounded by an array of various architectural styled buildings, including one of the cities most famous, the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn. The version we see today has stood since the 14th Century and features the world’s oldest working example of a medieval astronomical clock added to the church in 1410. Just how you go about telling the time, I’m not quite sure, but it is exceedingly pretty in its unconventional appearance. Every hour it comes to life with its moving figures, including my favourite, a skeleton that represents death and strikes a bell along with the chimes. Local legend has it that the city will suffer if the church is ever neglected.
I spent a little over two days wandering from old town to new town and along the banks of the Vitava, visiting as many of the landmarks I already knew about and a few that I discovered with the help of one of those obligatory tourist maps that get thrust into your hand in cities like Prague. I went across Charles Bridge, spent half an hour gazing at the very colourful John Lennon Wall (somewhat ironically named, John Lennon never visited the city but the wall instead represents the notion of peace and love and is filled today with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and selections of Beatles’ lyrics), to Prague Castle and the wonderful old Jewish sector and a whole host more. By the end of each day, my feet well and truly hurt.
I liked Prague but it is so incredibly busy, the narrow streets cramming everyone together, that it can be hard to appreciate the place at times; you’re simply swept along with the masses. It also has a rather seedy (for want of a better word) underbelly, in my opinion. I sat having a beer just off the Old Town Square and found myself watching the (always male) staff of bars and restaurants enticing people inside by the curious method of swatting passersby on the bum with their flyers or wolf whistling or some other equally unorthodox and, as it transpires, unsuccessful tactic. Funny how they only seemed to focus on the younger females though. This is, after all, a city that places a museum complete with artifacts (if that’s not too rich a word to describe them) on the pavement outside, dedicated to the history of erotic pleasure-giving devises just meters away from its UNESCO World Heritage Old Town Square. If that’s not saying something, I don’t know what is. But, ignore all this and Prague really is very pretty: every turn holds a new surprise and if you can peel yourself away from the mass of swirling tourists then the quieter backstreets are just as pretty as anything marked on the tourist maps.
It’s now Sunday night as I write this tucked up in my tent just outside the city on the banks of the River Vitava and I remember again some sage advise. Before I left on this trip, I spoke to a friend who had done a similar trip, having completed around the world tour himself a few months before I started my attempt. He gave me a lot of valuable advice during our Skype call but finished with what he said was probably the most important tip he could pass on: Don’t rush. It was remembering this that made me slow my pace and appreciate the here and now of where I was, not to worry about achieving unimportant distance targets (at least for now, Europe doesn’t have any visa issues for me, but that’ll change once I leave) and take time to appreciate my surroundings. Something I need to keep reminding myself of: the world’s a beautiful place when you take the time to look around, and eastern Germany and the cycle paths to Prague prove that.
This diary entry covers trip dates from 8th-20th May, 2017
For more photos from this part of my ride visit the gallery page or click here
Edited by – Emer Garry