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.

Thuringian Forest

Our vacation from our vacation ended. We came back from our week in the Dolomites challenged and with limbs and ligaments in tact. For a few more days we spent time with my Tante Christel in Nuremberg, living life at her speed and style. We walked to the grocery store, did a bit of laundry, and were well fed with fresh and tasty home cooking. To sleep in a bed with sheets, to eat at a table from plates, and have some chilled yogurt with our muesli in the morning was a real treat - traveling certainly breeds an appreciation for the small things in life.

Leaving the city, we headed north along the canal that connects the Main and Danuabe Rivers. Our ultimate destination was Dresden, but we had two weeks to get there. We took a route with stops in the historic town of Bamberg, with its Rathaus (city hall) built literally on a bridge over the Regnitz River which passes through town.

The building is wonderfully restored with vibrant frescoes on one of the exterior walls.

Further north was the town of Coburg. An almost impossibly steep road took us to the Veste Coburg overlooking the city.

Restoration has brought back many of the details of how it appeared when in service during the Middle Ages, including this entrance door.

Our route along the canal was virtually flat, but that soon ended as we headed into the foothills of the Thurnigian Forest. We have come to love the German forests - so rich with shades of green and often much cooler than the valleys below. With a couple of days of steep uphill climbs, we reached the main road that travels along the ridge of the range. The route was punctuated by periodic downhill grades, soon followed by another steep uphill climb, all soothed by the beauty of cycling under a forest canopy.

John has gained a whole new respect for wasps. It took just a second for him to swat at one and to have it respond with a sting on his index finger. Within a few hours his hand swelled so much that the skin was taut and I could not recognize it as his hand. We wrapped it and he elevated it as much as he could that night. The next morning the swelling had extended to half his forearm. We packed up that morning, fully intending to continue our journey after a brief stop at the pharmacy. The clerk took one look at his hand and said he needed to see a doctor. She called the only one in town, alerting him of our situation and that we were on our way over.

We walked into the small office, with a full waiting room and people standing in the hallway. But the patients were seen quickly, and we were soon attended to by the doctor. He was friendly, relaxed and spoke good English, and we chatted about our travels and how great Schwarzenegger looks on TV fighting the California wildfires. It was a warm day, and I can only imagine that the cool tile floors felt so nice as our doctor padded around the office in bare feet. The nurse applied creame and wrapped John´s feverish hand and arm, and the doctor provided allergy pills for to take over the next three days. He sent us on our way with no fee, and we parted with a thousand thanks of appreciation for his care and generosity.

Doctor´s orders were to take a day of rest to ice the hand, so we headed back to the campground of the previous night. We sat under the shade trees and did crossword puzzles and applied iced packs generously provided by the campground matron. It was probably our only day of total leisure on our trip.

We continued our journey in the area of the former East Germany. It did not occur to us immediately, but we noticed the buildings were a bit more run down, and a greater general drabness to the towns. The quality of the roads, however, were as good as any we encountered elsewhere in Germany. And everywhere houses were being renovated, and construction companies were providing renovation services were prominent within even the smallest towns. Some of the prosperity that came with the reunification nearly twenty years ago has allowed some to give their dwellings a facelift.

The Thuringian Forest transitioned into the Frankenwald and back down to the lower rolling countryside near Selb. By now John´s hand was fully back to normal size, and we spent two nights at a lovely campground outside of town. We spent a day visiting the Porcelain Museum which chronicled the porcelain manufacturing industry prevalent in the area. And we were rewarded by a most beautiful sunset on our campsite on the edge of the forest.

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