Friday, October 24, 2008

The Rest of Germany

It is a bit embarrassing. We have been home nearly two months. My last entry describes our travels from the beginning of August. Since then we have crossed half of Germany and flew over the ocean all the way back home. Yes, I have excuses, like it was hard to find internet cafes along the way, or that our free time was spent visiting with family instead of blogging, and that once we got home life's distractions pulled me away. Whatever the case, it is high time I finish documenting our trip, and put an end to public display of my procrastinating side.

When we left Radebeul, we were no longer a pair of cyclists, but a party of eight. My cousin, her husband, a couple of teenagers, and another adventuresome couple that are friend's of my cousin joined us to cycle along the Elbe River. Traveling in a larger group had a rhythm much like a Slinky toy: the person in front gets ahead, the ones in back catch up, and then the front surges ahead again.

Our goal was near the geographical center of both Europe and Germany -- the small community of Kleinwansleben, my father's childhood town. When he lived there, it was a rural agricultural town that was dominated by the sugar beet processing factory located in the center of town. The old factory has been since torn down and replaced by a modern facility in the town outskirts, as seen in the photo on the left. The surrounding area is still open fields, often punctuated with wind machines.

As we cycled into town, I immediately recognized the house Dad grew up in from pictures from the family photo album. It has been renovated and now serves as the Rathaus -- city hall. The same stately tree, visible in those old photos, still stands in front.

Thanks to the organizational skills of my cousins, it was planned for weeks ahead of time that our arrival in Kleinwansleben would be a cause for a family reunion. Relatives from my father's side -- cousins, second cousins, my aunt from Nuremberg, their spouses and children -- met us upon our arrival. We posed for a reunion shot in front of the old house.

Now, Kleinwansleben is not a big town -- just a couple thousand people. It has been a town trying to reconnect with it's past ever since the Reunification. So this reunion of the family of my grandfather was significant enough for the Burgermeister to meet us on a Saturday and let us into the old house for a tour. My aunt, the only person there who actually lived in the house, stood in the center of the main room and described the layout of the house as it was when she was a child. I showed pictures of the house later to my father, and he said if he were there, he would have shown everyone where one of the household staff hung herself after the war. Dad's kind of humor.

We later walked down the main street to the building housing the sugar beet research institute offices. Established in Kleinwansleben in the 1920's, it continues to be a resource center for sugar beet growing and processing technologies, as well as a repository of history of the industry. A gentleman from the institute gave a presentation about my grandfather -- he had researched his professional life for a journal article several years ago, and shared his knowledge and obvious respect for the man. The hallways were lined with historical photos, including the one shown on the right of Friedrich Brukner. His life ended tragically at the age of 53-- he was imprisoned after World War II by the Russians who occupied that part of Germany. He died in prison. The sadness of a good man's life that ended too soon for us to know him hung over all of us that day.

Some old buildings from the former factory still stand solid, but abandoned. A stone arch with a sugar beet decoration stands as a monument to the past.

After the reunion, we were on our own again. We took a slight diversion to the west towards the Harz Mountains, seen rising in the distance . My father spent family vacations camping in these mountains and we were craving a bit of topography and pine trees as a break from the flat farmland along the Elbe River.

In the northern foothills we passed through the town of Quedlinburg, a wonderfully preserved medieval town. It's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is due partly to the concentration of 1,400 half-timbered houses of various sizes and states of repair.

A bird's-eye view of a residential district. Like everywhere in Germany, any open space is made into a sweet place to sit outside on a nice day.

We exited the Harz Mountains at the west end near the town of Bad Gandersheim. We took a regional train north to Kiel, a busy port city on the Baltic Sea. We covered territory that would have taken us a couple of weeks to cover, sheltered from rain that pelted the windows of our train.

From the train station it was an hour's bike ride north to where we would meet my northern Germany cousins. On the way we crossed a bridge over the locks that are a gateway for cruise ships and large commercial ships to enter the harbor.

My cousin has a sailboat docked in the harbor that was the center of the Olympic sailing competition in 1972. We traded the sport of cycling for the sport of sailing for a couple of days, until a wet storm dumped rain for three days. We appreciated the fact that in Germany, they don't mind if you sit all afternoon in a restaurant, even though all you bought was a cup of tea.

When it (finally) stopped raining, we started out in the general direction of Hamburg, swinging southeast to spend a day in Luebeck, another fine UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Holstentor gate is an iconic landmark (right). It used to be on the old 50 Deutsche Mark. And it is on every package of martzipan packaged by J.G. Niederegger GmbH & Co. KG. This is the beloved candy of my childhood, arriving in Christmas care packages from my grandmother.

Maybe it is just good marketing -- the outlet store, the cafe, the museum, the life-size notable figures in Germany history carved out of marzipan (left) -- but I think it is the best marzipan in the world.

Two days later we were in Hamburg, the home city of my dear cousin Baerbel. One of the largest cities in Germany, we easily crossed it from east to west entirely on bike trails that made navigating through the city nothing to fear. The city sits on the north shore of the Elbe River, the same waterway we followed for so many kilometers to the south. One public transportation ticket lets you ride rail car, subway, and ferry, so on our sightseeing day we took a lap along the busy water highway just for fun.

One of our favorite sights in the city included catching the once weekly glockenspiel concert at the St. here for a video.

The Rathaus was also most impressive. Grand from the outside, but more than opulent on the inside.

Like leather wallpaper.

The Chilehaus is an unusual building shaped like an ocean liner.

And like so many times on our trip, it changed from days of rain and overcast weather to warm temperatures and sunshine. We walked around the community of Blankenese, a upscale neighborhood on the west side of the city on the high bluffs overlooking the Elbe River. It had the feel of a beach town -- narrow streets and terraced lots, with the most exclusive homes having a view of the water.

Our last day, with its perfect summer weather, was topped off with a true German grilling session. We opted for the salad, and left the pork belly and wurst for our hosts.

We left Hamburg with a touch of sadness -- we had such a nice time, and I wished so much that Baerbel lived closer and that we could visit more than a few times in a lifetime. But I think my cousin's companion Lothar was sad to see us go, too. Although John spoke no German, and Lothar spoke an equivalent amount of English, they spoke the language of music. Whenever there was a chance, they both were in the basement, John playing bass and Lothar on keyboards, playing hit tunes from the 50's and 60's

South of Hamburg the is countryside is flat and dominated by lovely small towns surrounded by wide agricultural fields, with an occasional windmill...

...and decorated hay bales, like these.

As we headed south, the flatness changed quickly to steep ridges near the city of Hanover.

We arrived at the doorstep of the last relatives on our list to visit -- my cousin Evi and her family. Evi took us on a tour of the city, including the lovely Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen...

...and the Neues Rathaus.

As I write this, we have had time to reflect a bit on our trip. And my best memories is the time we spent in the homes of friends and family, eating way too much home cooked-food, drinking beer, and staying up late talking about our common history. And I think, too, we enjoyed sleeping on a real mattress, much more comfortable than the air mattresses that, by this point on our trip, deflated within a couple of hours into our slumber.

Evi lives in the country, in the village of Bad Munder. One afternoon she and I rode our bikes a couple of kilometers to the stable where she keeps her horse. Lucky for me, my steed was a gentle and patient creature.

Now Evi knows what is going on in town, and she talked to the local paper, and our little journey was thought worthy enough for publication.

Evi rode her bike with us on the day we left Bad Munder. We pedaled together until we were deep in the forest and the trail steepened too much for her to go up with her single-gear bike. So we said our good-byes, and I felt again like I was leaving behind someone that I felt as close to as a sister, even though it was the first time we met.

We now were on the last leg of our journey. With only ten more days until we had to be in Frankfurt for the flight home, our thoughts drifted more and more to the logistics of getting our bikes, gear, and ourselves all back at the same time. Soon John would not be able to smile at the friendly signs on the outskirts of most towns that wish a "Gute Fahrt".

It was our good fortune that the last stretch of our trip was along the Weser River, one of the most popular and beautiful bike trails in Germany.

A layover day was spent in the city of Kassel. Levelled during World War II, the center of the city is all glass and steel. My father lived here for a year after the war when he left East Germany in search of better opportunities.

Spared from the bombing of the war was the Wilhelmshöhe Palace, and we spent a morning wandering in the art museum now housed in the structure. We walked through one floor and saw painting after painting by Rembrandt -- a collection worth millions, I am sure. Surrounding the palace is a park with a fountain emanating from the high point and cascading down to pools at the base. The cascades happen twice a week in the summer months and, lucky for us, we were there on the right day. To see the leading edge of the cascade as it spills over the edge into the pool, click here.

It seemed like it turned from summer to autumn overnight. A big weather system from the north pushed rain followed by cold, cold temperatures and heavy winds. But we were lucky -- the wind was to our backs, and like so many lunch breaks over the past five months, we found benches where we could spread our gear, drenched by overnight condensation, to dry in the sun.

Our last day of cycling was a Sunday. It was a crisp, clear day, and we shared the bike trail along the Main River into Frankfurt with locals -- many on bikes, in family groups, or jogging.

We arrived a few days early, camping south of the city. We took the train into the airport to acquire boxes to pack our bikes and bags and make arrangements so they could be checked as baggage for the flight home. We had time to go shopping in the city and buy last-minute gifts. On the day of departure we took the train one last time, wheeling our fully loaded bikes through the main train station to catch the connection to the airport.

Fourteen hours later we were in San Francisco Airport. John reassembled the bikes so we could take BART to Pleasant Hill, where my sister lives. It was late afternoon, and by the time all the bolts and screws were tightened and we got on the train and traveled the hour to our destination, it was dark. We rode two miles from the station to my sister's house without headlights or the luxury of the German bike trails -- it was the scariest part of our five month journey!

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Aided by a tailwind, we cruised westward along the Elbe River into the city of Dresden. We pulled into the city in early afternoon, and from the opposite side of the river we could see the spires and towers of the skyline of the historic city center.

The dome of the Frauenkirche is once again is part of that skyline. The city of Dresden was essentially leveled during World War II. Decades of reconstruction have brought many landmarks back. This renovation was completed only recently. Previously there was just a pile of rubble as a reminder of the ravages of war.

Our ultimate goal was the suburb of Radebeul, west of Dresden. There live the “crazy” cousins that led us along the cliffs of the Dolomites a couple of weeks previously. For a s few days we stayed with them – a bit of R&R, a bit of sightseeing, and lots of good food and wine.

The town of Radebeul stretches from the shore of the Elbe River into some low but steep hills to the north. The buildings with in the town are large, substantial block structures. My cousin Pia and her family, however, live in a house that is very unique – a several centuries-old half-timbered barn converted into a dwelling for two families.
Previously used for wine processing, it now sits on a terraced slope surrounded by vineyards, bee hives, raspberry bushes, special al fresco dining spots and a little swimming pool.

Modernized with all the modern conveniences of plumbing and electricity, the interior is warm and roomy with many natural wood fixtures. It retains the rustic character of former times.
From a work shed on the property we could climb on the roof for a sweeping view of the house, a unique place on the edge of the city.

We rode our bikes along the Elbe River for a day trip in the town of Meissen, another former fortress town famous for its porcelain.

A day trip in Dresden also brought us to the building where my mother was born. Another (if not the most) significant historical site along the Elbe River!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Elbe Sandstone Mountains

We spent several days following the Germany-Czech border along the Germany side. Most of the time we simply had to look across a road, to the other side of a stream, or to the top of a ridge, to see land within the Czech Republic. We crossed through sub-regions with names like Vogtland and Erzgebirge, all with their own distinctive character. This is country with high relief, where winter sports are popular, and we climbed some of the steepest grades of our journey so far. One night was in the town of Oberwiezenthal, the highest city in Germany. After a day of over six hours of uphill, we rewarded ourselves with a night in a lovely old hotel, with a nice dinner, local brew, and the standard substantial German breakfast buffet.

One night was spent outside the town of Seiffen. This town is a tourist destination, primarily for the woodcraft and painted Christmas figures. John in his orange bike jersey fits in nicely with some of the local color, don´t you think?

This is our first trip to Europe. I came to Germany, the birthplace of my parents, with few pre-conceived expectations of what I would discover. But I was surprised to find things that have made me understand my parents so much more. Why they love wurst and potatoes - they are eaten at least once a day by most Germans, and admittedly the potatoes here taste so good. Especially the small new potatoes that my aunt purchased from a local farmer, so fresh and still covered with soil from the field. And why my mother loves to swim. Community swimming pools are in many German towns, and some are huge with green space all around. People come from all over on a hot day to swim and enjoy the sun (sometimes too much so they resemble the roasted sausages that they so love to eat). And many a German will wake up early in the morning to take a healthy dip in a natural lake if on is nearby. My mother did the same thing on many of our camping trips, even if it was an icy Sierra lake. And as our route took us closer to Dresden, my mother's birthplace, reminders from the German culture of my childhood pop up. One is the local style of woodcraft that we saw in Seiffen - the small Christmas figures were the same my mother set out during the holidays that I played with for hours as a young child. It made me miss my mother just a bit...

To the east of the city of Dresden is a landscape called the Elbsandsteingebirge -- the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. It is a mountain range dominated by distinctive weathering of horizontal sandstone layers. In this land of dense vegetation that obscures any indication of the underlying geology, we found that the Germans are quite proud of any rock outcrop. But this area is quite distinctive, popular among local rock climbers, and deserving of the attention it receives.

The mountain range can be experienced from roads that bisect the range, like the one we followed along the tracks of the tourist train to the town of Hinterhermsdorf.

From there we climbed high onto the plateau to a viewpoint known as the Bastei. From there the Elbe River could be seen far below.
The Bastei once housed a fortress, and a bridge was built connecting it to various strategic viewpoints. Now the bridge is choked with tourists that arrive by the busload.

A thrilling downhill ride dropped us to river level, where we once again viewed the celebrated rocks from below. We were now on the bike route known as the Elberadweg. Starting on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, it goes along the Elbe River all the way to Hamburg in Northern Germany. It is probably one of the most popular cycling touring routes in Germany, and that means a lot in a country where bike touring is a celebrated sport. The route is downhill all the way as it travels to the river´s outlet at the North Sea, but spread out over hundreds of kilometers it is essentially flat. Which makes it accessible to all kinds of bike tourists. The most common variety of bike tourist are retiree-age folks, traveling in groups on upright bicycles with really comfy seats. They usually carry minimal baggage packed in rear panniers. Some have a special suitcase that straps right on the rack on the back -- just seconds from biking to hotel check-in. They often stay in rooms or pensions that advertise on signs prominently displayed along the route, enjoying culinary pleasures each night as a reward for pedaling most of the day. By this point on our trip we look a bit different, with our laundry hanging off our packs and an odd tan that stops mid-thigh and is more dark on the front of the leg than on the back. But what we share with our fellow tourists is the constantly changing landscape, which has become much easier for us here in the valley of the Elbe.


Our journey has taken us to the southern Germany to the border of Czech Republic. Our goal is a thumb-shaped region surrounded on three sides by Germany, and located in the middle the town of Asch. Just a few kilometers across the border brought us to the town limits. Before World War II this area was part of Germany, and it is in this town that my mother spent some of the happiest years of her early childhood.

But my mother´s story of her time in Asch after the war is similar to many in the region known as Sudetenland. Following the surrender of Germany that ended the war in Europe, the land was declared as part of Czech and the German citizens were deported to areas declared as part of post-war Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and separated from their property and possessions. My mother never returned, and armed with a camera and what we could access on our bikes, we did our best to record images to give her a feel for what had changed.

The Asch of today is some ways very different from that of nearly 60 years ago when my mother walked in the streets, and in other ways it has not changed much at all. Going across the border, we passed rows of Asian street vendors selling everything from plaster gnomes to t-shirts and cheap luggage. Not far away were casinos and nightclubs and shops advertising massages.

Deeper into the city, many buildings showed the patina of years of unarrested weathering. Smokestacks, factory buildings, and multi-story apartments constructed after the war stand awkwardly between the older residential structures. The CR is now a member of the European Union (EU), and is currently in transition to change their currency to the Euro. And perhaps this association will lift some of the decay seen in the town. The construction work we witnessed in town - the pipeline replacement, the cobblestone street reconstruction, and many in-progress building renovations - may already be evidence of nourishment from this EU membership.

My mother spent a bit of time with Google Earth prior to our trip to reacquaint herself with the layout of the town. She drew me a simple map of the street of her uncle's villa and the route leading to another uncle's garden. We think we found both - above is the open space we believe was the garden.

Our day in Asch was under gray skies with periods of light rain, adding to the somber condition we found in Asch. We cycled east, out of the town into the countryside, and the clouds lifted. The feel of the towns and landscape was much different in the surrounding area, less decay and more like it may have been when my mother lived there. We ate lunch on a wooden bench covered with moss, next to a stone bridge just wide enough for a single car. And when we crossed the border back into Germany, immediately it felt like popping through a curtain back into the present time.

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