Sunday, August 28, 2011

2011 Tour Summary

Just concluded, this tour is now history. It doesn't mean the memories of it will fade in the short term as it was a valuable experience. Wet, windy, many punctures and some difficulties. No mechanical problems but, for a number of reasons, we found this tour more challenging than those we took in the past.
The team: wife and I. Same old bicycles, 20 Kg (44 lb) luggage - including water and emergency food - on each bike.
This was our third long-range tour and human power, along with determination, makes a wonderful way of traveling. This time I left the tent at home as it was never pulled out once during our previous tours, but we had sleeping bags which we used when hosted by friends. We kept pace as per our schedule through the clockwise loop tour with only slight changes made along the way to the original project. Again, the outdoors-type GPS proved an invaluable tool. Our curiosity about former Eastern Germany was fulfilled. The significant figures are:
- Exactly 1,600 Km (1,000 mi)
- 20 stages (longest stage: 125 Km)
- 9 punctures fixed

Stage 1 - Weidenhain (D) to Dessau/Rosslau (D) - 87 Km
A long drive from home, but almost without traffic, took us all the way to Weidenhain – and the idea to leave Torino at 11 PM proved an excellent choice. We're keen to boycott the use of oil and the initial idea was to reach our start/finish point by train from Torino, unfortunately this option turned out to be both inconvenient for the number of needed changes and more than twice as expensive as by using the car. This said, the meaning of the "No Oil" label on the rear of my bike still has a strong general significance as I put more mileage per year on the bike than on the car and the motorcycle combined. The pension we booked is in a small village, the hosts only speak German but we manage to understand each other despite their Eastern German twang proves difficult to understand at first. We can explain that we need a parking place for the car for nearly four weeks and they are very kind to give us a dedicated spot. Also, we make a further reservation for the night when we’ll return at the end of our tour. The rooms are in a detached building across the restaurant and ours is upstairs, under the roof with swivel windows. One of these is right above my head while lying in bed and a dim light outside plays with the sound of raindrops tapping on the glass pane. Zapping from one weather forecast to another doesn't help. The wet and cold front is long, wide and supposed to hover for a week.
It's been pouring the whole night through and it still does outside the breakfast room, a good reason to indulge and linger. Taking the bikes out of the car and putting them together under the rain is not an encouraging start. No alternatives but getting ready for a wet day and hit the road at 9:30 AM. Most of the stage develops inside protected areas and along a couple of lakes. Not only the initial stage takes place under the rain but a nasty headwind keeps us company for the whole time. With a day like this, what do you want more? A puncture, of course, which happens on a rough stretch of the Mulderadweg where we ride for too long on sharp crushed rocks and gravel. My bike feels heavy to push and I think it's because I'm somehow tired. It takes me about 15 minutes to realize that pushing hard is due to a very low rear tire pressure and the consequent rolling resistance caused by the 18 Kg of luggage load. The good thing is that the puncture must be very small as I can ride nearly 10 Km between pumping chores. I decide that, if it holds, I'll fix it at the end of the stage. My mini-pump makes it hard to inflate to a pressure above 3 bar, therefore there is some "drag" feeling as the normal pressure I apply to these tires is normally 4 bar. Country side, not much life and no gas stations either to “refill” the rear tube. We anyway manage to reach our friend Falk’s place in Rosslau at 5 PM. A welcome beer and it doesn't take long before the table in the garden is covered with home-made dinner! Thanks guys, nice evening and luxurious accommodation. Next morning I wake up early to fix the puncture before breakfast, let's leave our friends to their normal daily life and off we go!

Stage 2 - Dessau/Rosslau (D) to Magdeburg (D) - 77 Km
Done with the Mulde, which meets the Elbe in Dessau, we're now inside the Middle Elbe Biosphere protected area where plenty of birds don't seem to be bothered with our presence. It's headwind all day, it rains but no punctures at least. The river Elbe is hardly seen and it only briefly shows itself as we ride below a levee for most of the time. First ferry crossing to Brambach is puzzling. There is no dock in sight but just a minor slope in the grass. The only nearby person assures it's here and suggests to yell and notify the small boat manager on the opposite bank. We watch him quickly getting off a tractor and take the slow boat towards us. No fee but we obviously want to give him a good tip. Next ferry crossing is just before Barby. Human presence is scarce in this part of the world and small villages appear deserted. Many, if not all, must have fled to former Western Germany to seek better fortune. We can't find any store, or cafe, or anything open that would sell us water. We have enough but this is something to keep in mind for next days, therefore we assault the first supermarket of a certain size we find in Magdeburg for food and liquids. Our accommodation for the night is the fine Gruener Zitadelle, an unusual building designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser and built after his death. His vision of nature-inspired shapes has shared points with that of Antoni Gaudi. Columns, curved features, unusual shapes and sharp colors. Warning: the bathroom tiles may cause dizziness!

Stage 3 - Magdeburg (D) to Havelberg (D) - 115 Km
If only the cycling path would all be paved as shown in the picture. The roads converted into cycling paths are often only paved with two stripes of concrete blocks placed to suit a car's wheel tracks, therefore unpaved in between. Solid blocks with unleveled joints can be unpleasant, but those with spaced holes are worse. When riding on crushed gravel instead, one must expect punctures and in fact we have two today. Enough to slow us down and barely make it to the Sandau ferry before they stop the daily operations, we reach our reserved accommodation in Havelberg by 5:30 PM. Which is late! It seems it's normal practice for hotels to give away the reserved rooms if not reconfirmed before 5 PM on the day of arrival. Bad news, our room is gone but I prefer to avoid arguments and rather beg for a solution especially after a long and troubled stage. The owner then lets us share a room in his private portion of the facility, it's somehow weird to sleep in his home but we have a roof at least. Lesson learned, we will never take for granted that a reserved room is assured and we will make a call if foreseeing to reach a place close to or after 5 PM in this part of the world!

Stage 4 - Havelberg (D) to Hitzacker (D) - 112 Km
The route unfolds, like before, through pastures and cultivated fields. Grazing sheep and plenty of stork in groups. The Elbe is again hard to be seen. About middle-way of this stage, in Stresow, we come across the former border separating the two Germanies, therefore trespassing the "Iron Curtain" back into the "West". The point where the cycling path passes is now a memento park where sections of fencing and border facilities can be seen. This was a highly watched zone extending for miles and actually forming a wide no-man's-land gap. It's now a protected area and wildlife sanctuary but, considering that this area was banned to humans for years, one can assume wildlife was left in peace here even before. A museum in Schnackenburg should explain but we better move on. From this point the path runs below and on top of the levee where occasional tables invite for a break. The asphalt is smooth and optimal for a fast pace, although frequent gate-style features have a bump that must be approached at low speed to avoid breaking something. There aren't many tourists at the time we reach Hitzacker and a friendly cat perched on a bell laying in the church yard is in need of company. The almost-dormant town is gracious with its half-timbered houses and all we can do here is gaze around on the occasion of a relaxed walk.

Stage 5 - Hitzacker (D) to Lauenburg (D) - 62 Km
Back into "West" Germany one can feel a certain difference, like the presence of more biker-friendly facilities - such as a Biergarten and stores - and certainly better pavement. We're now rolling on smooth asphalt and the placid Elbe shows up more often under a menacing sky. Time for some rest and a snack before the rain to contemplate the river to be soon abandoned for good. The statue of the "Rufer" in Lauenburg welcomes us to the city and, despite the rain is diluting my cup of chocolate, we sit at an alfresco table as there's no nearby sheltered option. The berry cake is half soaked but rain is something to take into account at this latitude and after a few wet days we're now used to it. We have time to wander around the city before meeting our friend Wolfgang who shows us around the old town, takes us to his favorite pub and later to his home for a late dinner and good conversations. He shows us his self-made "green" installations at home such as the solar panels array and the rainwater collection tanks and heating system in the basement. He built a solar electric boat and I'm delighted to see we're on the same page concerning environment-friendly ideas.

Stage 6 - Lauenburg (D) to Luebeck (D) - 85 Km
The GPS helps us finding our way and get back on track when leaving Wolfgang's house. Abandoning the Elbe doesn't give us bad feelings. It wasn't that bad but, considering that the Elberadweg is advertised as one among the best and most popular cycling path in Germany, we found it - at least the part we did so far - a bit overrated. We haven't met as many cyclists as we thought. All of them were going in the opposite direction (upstream) in order to ride with the wind, as all information regarding the Elbe suggests. We chose the other way around for strategic reasons. Four days along this river are not to be preferred to, for instance, an equivalent amount of time along the Mosel which we did two years ago. The way we chose to Luebeck goes along the Alte Salzstrasse, the "old salt route" used to convey the salt mined near Lueneburg to Hansestadt Luebeck, the capital of the former Hansa trading league. This route crosses the Launburger Lakes park and it's quite a nice ride in the nature. We're going to have our first full rest day and stay at the Jensen Hotel located near the stunning Holstentor, the city icon. The old city is actually an island in the Trave river, appearing like protected by a moat instead, and it's a real jewel definitely worth our endless strolls to discover it.

Stage 7 - Luebeck (D) to Wismar (D) - 81 Km
Our way needs a passage on a bus between Herreninsel and Rangenberg because the tunnel road under the man-made canal is banned to cyclists. A little ahead we find the ferry to cross the Trave river after which we are on the Baltic coast. We follow the North Sea Cycle Route where some ups-and-downs let us feel our 20 Kg of luggage. A mix of clouds and sun, nice ride only marred by a rear puncture inside a coastal park area. While fixing it, an gentle elderly local couple felt compassionate and offered unnecessary help. Keen for a chat, they insisted in giving us a box of sharp, pungent but excellent ginger candy which we had to accept while exchanging information about where we're from. Why not, I had a piece of such candy while Deborah had three or four at one time, which took seconds to bring tears to her eyes for it's so strong! A welcome little tailwind makes the news. We exchange a couple of text messages with Ulrike and define to meet at Wismar's station. She is on a train from Rostock with her bike and will join us for next day's stage from Wismar to Rostock. Prior to starting our tour we had arranged a few days' worth of shared riding but some of her commitments prevented it from happening. Luckily, she could at least join us for one stage. Meanwhile we also exchange messages with Alf, our local friend who is going to host the three of us in his downtown apartment. After getting together with Ulrike we meet Alf at the Wasserkunst, the splendid water works in Wismar's Market Square. This city was part of the Hanseatic League and Swedish territory for about 150 years. We're now in former GDR again although one wouldn't notice major differences from the "West". Dinner at Alf's favorite Italian restaurant and plenty of talk for the rest of the night.

Stage 8 - Wismar (D) to Rostock (D) - 77 Km
Differently from the previous days we're not having an early start today. It takes some time before we're all up and it's aleady 11 AM by the time we spin wheels. Will it rain today? It's been raining through the night and the dark clouds are still looming in the direction we're going. For now it's dry and sunny, let's see. Not so dry instead is a stretch of coastal woods where deep mud from the overnight thunderstorms can't be avoided. Our mountain bike tires provide sufficient grip, which isn't the case for Ulrike's bike and she has to dismount and walk ankle-deep. At one point I'm leading and crossing puddles when half of the front wheel suddenly dives and disappears up to the hub. I'm pedaling hard already and I'm fast enough to get out of it even with the rear wheel which obviously gets the same fate. Luckily, Deborah behind me could witness to choose a different path and avoid the inconvenience. Guess it would have taken a while to get the bike out the thick mud! Nearing Rostock, Ulrike seems to add a gear and speed up. She knows the weather won't hold off for long and, in fact, we just reach the front door of her place when it starts pouring. The thunderstorm doesn't last long though and by the time it's over we have already stowed our bikes in the building's dedicated room and dropped our luggage in her cozy apartment, ready for a sightseeing walk through the city and a fine veggie dinner at Warmbad, an organic restaurant serving interesting dishes and warm drinks. The occasion is proper to taste Rostocker beer while looking through the window pane at the complex where this beer is actually brewed on the opposite side of the street. Back at Ulrike's place we are pleased to chat and share ideas over a cup of tea with her friend who is involved with ADFC, the German Cycling Association. The use of a bicycle in town, in most places in Germany, is much wider than in Italy and so are the infrastructures. These guys are light-years ahead of us and the reason why we choose our riding vacations outside of our domestic borders.

Stage 9 - Rostock (D) to Busene (DK) - 114 Km
We're prepared for rain and we're quite fast in reaching the port from Ulrike's house. Finding the ticket office and boarding the ferry Rostock-Gedser is easy and fast, the bicycles and motorcycles board first and we secure ours against the ship's hull with the existing straps, ready for 2 1/2 hours of sailing. Denmark welcomes me with a puncture, and the side wind welcomes Deborah by tipping her while waiting to cross to Bogoe by ferry from the island of Falster. In another attempt to keep the bike up, her left calf collides with the blood-thirsty metal pedal. At the dock we meet a mellow young Dutch guy who's on a who-knows-where-I'm-going bike trip. He left the Netherlands on a clunker bike with the rough idea to go north-east. He said he chose which direction to take when going out his house's door, accordingly to the wind. Still he has no idea whether he'll head to Sweden or maybe Estonia, all he wants for now is keep going aimless.
Don't they say Denmark is flat? Well, not here at least. True, we're not speaking of terrible grades but the eastern portion of the island of Moen has consistent ups-and-downs which put our legs to test all the way to the reserved B&B in Busene. Scope of our visit here is the stunning Moens Klint cliffs which we'll visit tomorrow for it's almost dark already and rainy. Also, we better hurry up for dinner as there won't be alternate options in the range of a few kilometers. The dining room has an ocean view and we take advantage of the remaining buffet food, it's in fact late accordingly to the local standards and we better eat now without complaints. The fridge is full of different types of local brews and we must test a few of them, so we take out our share and mark the quantity on the sticker attached to the fridge's door. Our room is cozy and warm, the hosts kind and talkative. An excellent overall accommodation (Bakkegaard Gaestgiveri B&B) which we can definitely recommend. After dinner I take advantage of the late sunset hour at this latitude to fix the latest rear puncture, then putting the bike to sleep in the huge barn along with those of Dutch cycle-tourists.

Stage 10 - Busene (DK) to Roedvig (DK) - 93 Km
Epic journey trough amazing gale-force headwind, at times pushing on the side which is even worse. Definitely the most difficult stage of the entire tour so far. The weather forecast called for “windy” today and, considering we found very strong wind during the previous stages and that was not even mentioned as “windy”, we suspected a memorable stage. The westerly wind isn’t desired at all as most of today’s stage is westbound and straight into this incredible force of nature. Furthermore, we cycle on a rather long stretch of Cycling Route #9 which isn’t a dedicated path but rather a shared road with high traffic including heavy trucks. Swerving here with such a tipping wind is a no-no, period. The good part is that before starting the stage we can visit the beautiful Moens Klint, 125-meter-high sheer white chalk cliffs partially contrasting with a deep blue sky. It requires some effort though, as we walk from our B&B for a round trip of about 6 Km, take the 500-step stairway down to the beach, and another 500-step stairway up at a different location. Enough to warm up our muscles before fighting against a gale-force wind!

Stage 11 - Roedvig (DK) to Copenhagen (DK) - 3 Km
Today's stage was supposed to be 75 Km but it's raining too hard and we have enough of it for now. Our bones haven't dried up, the forecast calls for a whole rainy day and we wisely opt for a train hop instead. The Danish railways provide an excellent service for cyclists traveling with bikes, provided one knows how to overcome this Roedvig small station's locked entrance doors. Following the locals we learned to go around it - like all others do - to reach the platform. An automated machine takes our request for passengers and bikes and spits our tickets out for a reasonable fare. There's no step to board the clean Danish regional trains and the space for bicycles is to be found in the passengers' cars. Seatbelt-style straps secure the bikes against folding seats. Quick and easy solution.
We change in Koege to board a larger red-color train. Only some cars can take bikes and these display a large, unmistakable white bicycle logo on the side. Same easiness as on regional trains, cyclists just roll the loaded bikes in. The dedicated spaces are different here with flexible holders to host the rear wheel and it doesn't take long before we reach our destination to enjoy two full relaxing days in wonderful Copenhagen. We've both been here before and it feels good visiting again, this time our friend and host Palle takes us for an unexpected tour in and behind the scenes of the local theater where he works as set and costume designer. Elegant and very practical architecture, not to mention the fabulous location overlooking the Oeresund. A one-hour boat tour is a good option to see the city's main features, so we walk to the bottom of Nyhavn and take a boat from there. It goes out to the Oeresund first and reaches the Lille Havfrue (Little Mermaid), the small statue sitting on a rock and normally surrounded by tourist crowds. We had seen it before and despite its notoriety I admit it being of zero interest. At least, considering it's not that close to the city center, I wouldn't waste the time to walk back and forth to the site like I did several years ago. The boat then enters a couple of interesting canals with nice houses before making it back to the starting point. A guide describes the various features in different languages and it's a good option for a quick understanding of the city's main attractions.

Stage 12 - Copenhagen (DK) to Skanoer (S) - 36 Km
Reaching Sweden from Copenhagen is just a matter of boarding the (expensive) train that reaches Malmoe through the Oeresund Bridge. We actually expected it to be a bit more bike-friendly, the train access door is quite narrow and it has two steps. The train is quite full and we can't even access the dedicated space for the bicycles. Too many people - most with suitcases - clogging the aisle and the bike area. The train officer keeps telling us to bring the bikes there, as if we could make all of those passengers disappear with a simple snap of the fingers. Not our fault, we paid an expensive ticket after all and therefore we decide to park the bikes and ourselves - standing - in the only viable space that is right at the vending machines. Should somebody need to buy a drink, I'd send them straight to the train officer! I start moving the bike towards the exit door a few minutes before reaching Malmoe and it's a good move, we would have otherwise probably missed our stop due to the impossibility to dribble unpleased passengers and their suitcases. Sorry but, again, it isn't our fault. Today we take it very easy as the stage is quite short and we have time to kiss Copenhagen goodbye, go through Malmoe city center, and slowly roll through quiet and deserted minor roads heading south to Skanoer. We're in the southwesternmost corner of Sweden to meet Sara and Anders' family, plus one of their friends from Goeteborg who waiting for us. It's Saturday but the weather is not much fit for a day at the nearby beach, therefore we take the great opportunity to savor the Swedish family life and play with the kids. Making paper airplanes, sketching our country to show where we're from, are activities that keep us busy while a typical dinner is being cooked and under way. With the complicity of a bellyful our intriguing conversations probably go beyond the normal bedtime as we note our hosts' eyelids getting heavily affected by gravity, that's when we call it a day to avoid interfering with the family rhythms despite tomorrow is Sunday. A perfect night of rest followed by an early wake-up call and ready to hit the road after the formal family-style abundant breakfast.

Stage 13 - Skanoer (S) to Binz (D) - 40 Km
Again, it's overcast and we have light rain to Trelleborg. Let's hope we'll find different conditions after the four-hour ferry ride back to the German island of Ruegen. Which is what happens between random sprinkles. North of Sassnitz, the point of debarking, we see the white cliffs from the ferry and decide not to ride there as planned. We move straight to Binz passing through Prora, a decadent location with massive housing establishment built to be a resort at the time of the Third Reich but never actually used as such. Ironically, it was used by the Soviet Army as a base in 1945. Let's reach the hotel and make sure our reserved room is still there for us. We had paid a portion in advance, but I get a curious response when I ask the hotel owner if I can drop our bags in the lobby and go put the bikes to sleep in the dedicated shed. I get a loud, sharp and somehow rude "nein!" in return. "Pay first" he then says. Well, I was just trying to avoid carrying our luggage here from the bikes shed. Anyway, no arguments and after paying the due remainder we can occupy the room and venture out in the rain in search for a restaurant. The temperature and the empty beaches remind us of our Mediterranean shores in winter time, when most of the buoying folks can be Germans indeed.

Stage 14 - Binz (D) to Greifswald (D) - 68 Km
A cloudy but dry morning is a pleasant reward while we head to the small ferry taking us back to the continent for good. A couple of convertible cars sprint past us and check the efficiency of the brakes before the turnpike, they'll have to wait like us anyway, but it must be fun. After debarking the cycling path goes through the countryside and we follow the official GPS track for it, but I wonder if it wouldn't have been be better to stay on paved roads. The path is too rough to enjoy. Gravel would be acceptable but these single-lane roads through the fields have concrete blocks with uneven joints. We keep trying to avoid the bigger bumps and we pull over to the side to let the occasional cars pass by. The point shown in the photo isn't bad at all, but it gives an idea of the type of pavement. Just think of what can it be when the blocks are vertically displaced to create a 10+ cm (4+ inch) difference. Going slow is a must and mosquitoes seem to know it! Like several other cities that we touch through this trip, Greifswald was part of the Hanseatic League. It has an unusual gridlock-style street layout, nice and clean buildings, and a relaxed atmosphere. Our friends Anna and Thomas live right on the Ryck river where boats are docked, a quiet and perfect location near the city center. Their cozy household is kept alive by their own kids and John, the foster boy, their obedient Weimaraner dog, and Julia, Anna's niece from Berlin. Despite countless mosquitoes, the nice dinner by the garden table is a great occasion to discuss about their extensive travels through Europe and Italy. After this, extended beer time can't be more relaxing than on a nearby permanent boat-pub. We hope to see them in Torino someday!

Stage 15 - Greifswald (D) to Swinoujscie (PL) - 87 Km
Today is going to be Baltic galore all day long. The path runs almost always along the coast on the island of Usedom which is a prime touristy destination dotted with small villages featuring back-to-back hotels. The beaches are full of typical Baltic chairs and kids at play, the water temperature is 17C but we're not in the mood for a dive. At times we go through a thick forest where short but noticeable 16% grades add some fun. Suddenly comes Poland among works in progress. Borderless Europe is here as well and we ride on a straight stretch of walkway and cycling path where a simple line marks the passage into Poland, so we find ourselves in Swinoujscie before we know it. The ambience and architecture are similar, it's just the language to tell us we're in a different country. Only two words of English are spoken at the reserved hotel, and zero German, but enough to understand there is no locked parking place for our bicycles. Well, this isn't exactly what we had read on the website at the time of our reservation. The man in front of me speaks Polish and seems very unhappy about my "parking" question accompanied by a gesture meant for "bicycle". He looks drunk and seems to say: "what parking?" while he reluctantly and mumbling leads me to an open area on the street, without a door, that doesn't even have a pole to lock our bikes to. "Thanks", I tell him with a fake smile while walking away. I have in fact already decided that I'm going to carry our bikes inside our room up the third floor. A walk to the city center in search for an eatery isn't productive, they must all be by the seaside a few kilometers to the north where all life seems to be. Lively place, plenty of bars and restaurant and hordes of strolling vacationers. Probably too busy for our mood. We don't have local currency and we may face payment problems, so we enter a supermarket bearing the credit card logo on the door to shop for food and drinks. Dinner is satisfactory in our clean and quiet room with bread, cheese, herring, tuna salad and local beer to be sampled.

Stage 16 - Swinoujscie (PL) to Szczecin (PL) - 106 Km
It takes a free ferry to cross the Swina river to the east, we just lost it but service is every twenty minutes and we are among the first in line on the dedicated pedestrian/bicycles/motorcycles narrow lane on the left side. All other vehicles line up in the two other main lanes and, given their quantity, probably not all of them will be able to board and should wait for next ferry. Crossing is a matter of 10 minutes and soon after we are back on track. The cycling path is a dedicated dotted lane to the right side of the shared E65 road. The lane is large enough but the high speed of the passing vehicles, especially the turbulence created by fast large trucks, makes us feel more comfortable when trying to ride to the very right edge of our lane - almost on the grass. The good side is that the asphalt is wonderfully smooth, totally free from debris, and we can pick up speed as there is no wind to fight with. This road goes through rolling hills until Wolin, the only short detour to a minor road comes some 15 Km before such town. Probably to avoid a dangerous section of the E65 road or maybe due to the absence of the dedicated cycling lane. I had been looking for a place to buy some lubricant oil for long lately without success. Our needy bikes are too dry after riding long hours under the rain. So far we found almost no gas stations in former GDR and I'm not going to miss the one I spot like a mirage before entering Wolin! They accept debit cards and I'm then happy to shop for oil. On the shelf I can't find what I'm looking for, so I take a small bottle of chainsaw oil (for fuel mix) and go to the cashier. Well, oil is oil even if not specific. I'm wearing my unmistakable bike helmet and I mimic the turning pedals with my hands to show what I'm using it for. I'm trying speaking English and German but I'm not understood. Next customer in line taps on my shoulder, asks to wait and leaves, just to come back with a small oil spray can which is exactly what I was trying to find! So kind of him. Our chains are completely dry and I carefully lube them out in repeated sessions. I can almost feel like hearing the chains moaning from pleasure. We finally have oil now, let's make good use of it! Better safe than sorry. Beyond Wolin the cycling path downgrades to minor and and further minor roads where the pavement had seen better days. Lots of potholes and unleveled surface. The worst stretch of the entire tour is now a road through the fields where concrete blocks and slabs are really out of place. They lay on sandy terrain and are very badly displaced, I would later regret not having taken a couple of photos of such a disaster. We may break our loaded bikes here and need to ride extremely slow and carefully, we are close to nowhere and it would be a bad place to be stuck with a problem. No cyclists in sight and no vehicles either in this forgotten land. The road then progressively gets back to decent conditions and we reach Szczecin where we meet Zofia, a friend of Anna in Greifswald who was very kind to put us in touch. Zofia is ready to host us and we highly appreciate it, but we decline because it's too late for riding to her place out of town. We then choose a pleasant stay at Focus Hotel near the city ramparts. Zofia used to work in the tourism sector and she's happy to lead us on a sightseeing tour, and much generous to invite us for dinner to her place. We tried to convince her that it would be more efficient to find a restaurant in town - our idea was to buy dinner - but she insists. We have to accept her kind offer and she takes us back and forth by car to her quiet new house.

Stage 17 - Szczecin (PL) to Schwedt/Oder (D) - 64 Km
We're leaving Poland today although we can still see it for quite many kilometers along the Oder cycling path. After entering Germany the path follows the river, marshes and wide wetlands which are refuge to thousands of birds. Once in a while we pass by an observation shed but there's no need to stop. Most birds seem to be used to human presence and the occasional cyclist. Bike traffic is next to zero and it's quite relaxing to be here. Red-and-white posts on the opposite bank remind that we are at stone-throw distance from Poland. Such square posts most always have their black-red-yellow counterpart next to us all the way to Schwedt. We don't have a reservation for the night but only a few references we've got during the past days. The waypoints are in the GPS and there isn't much to worry. These are located outside the city, a few kilometers past Schwedt and not too far from each other, we can just stop by and ask for a room. Luckily, by the time we reach the city center, the tourist information office is still open and we can check accommodation options. I pull out the priority list and the sweet lady makes calls to verify for us. One, two, three, four....they are all sold out! Finally, a hotel located a few blocks away gives a positive response and we head straight to it. We're staying in town and it turns out to be an excellent place. There aren't many restaurants around and we opt for an in-room picnic based on our emergency food.

Stage 18 - Schwedt/Oder (D) to Berlin (D) - 125 Km
If Stage #10 was a memorable one in terms of wind, we believe today's stage can be worse. As a matter of fact, yesterday was a calm and sunny day and we wish we would have kept going as much as possible instead of stopping in Schwedt. Of course one isn't aware of the upcoming conditions for next day!
Very strong constant headwind from the very start. The cycling path keeps following the Oder on a levee like yesterday and there's no place to hide or hope for gentler wind. Despite pushing hard our speed doesn't exceed 12-14 Km/h (less than 9 mph). I'm leading all the time to spare Deborah's legs for we have 125 Km (78 mi) ahead of us. This wall against us must be pushing at 70 km/h at least and after two hours I need a break in a sheltered place. Non much for my muscles, but rather for I can't stand the noise drilling straight into the core of my brain. A small building aside the path is exactly what I was desperately waiting for during the last hour. While leaning to the building in a lee area, the noise gone, I feel I'm in paradise and I have to ask my nerves to stay quiet and get ready for next load of torture. Ten minutes of brain training are now enough, let's move on! We still have 90 Km to go. A couple of loaded bikers approaching us in the opposite direction look at us with merciful eyes, they are probably doing 40 km/h and they are NOT pedaling!
Abandoning the Oder doesn't help. We're now following the Oder-Havel Canal and it's painful riding, we really can't wait to reach Berlin's outskirts in hope to hide behind some buildings. Finding ourselves in the urban sprawl tells us it's soon to be over and we finally ride "under the linden trees". We have anyway to be cautious when stopping at the Brandenburg Gate for the wind might still tip us over. The flags are so flat to appear painted on the sky. Well, enough of it, let's get to the hotel as soon as possible!
Our room near Leipziger Platz is actually a two-room apartment and ideally located. Not much fancy, we chose it based on its position. The only inconvenience is that our netbook must be kept near the window, with the window open, to get a minimal and flickering WiFi network. After a day like this, it's certainly the least of a problem and we're now set to enjoy two full days around Berlin.

Berlin to Dresden (train) and 38 Km of city rides
When one has the impression to have walked forever, technology helps. Our GPS recorded a 21-Km walk during the first full day in Berlin. We walked less the following day, say only 15 Km. Yes, a large city with an excellent public transit system but we wanted to see it by foot. It's time to leave Germany's Capital and we head to the main train station. We bought the tickets two days ago to prevent overbooking and, due to the limited number of bike spaces (eight) on board, we had to select a convoy leaving around 2 PM. Earlier ones were sold out. The bike area is full with our two bikes keeping company to six more and it's an occasion to lend a hand and share a chat with two ladies in their late 60s. They are also going to Dresden and will return to Berlin by bike in a week. After Berlin's imposing buildings and the overall greatness of its scale, what would one expect from Dresden? Nothing but a wonderful and enchanting city and we're happy to spend two nights here. Right from the station we head to our friend Jens' place in Neustadt, a fast-developing district to the north in terms of bars and nightlife. Buildings are being renovated and it's the "cool" place to live these days. Jens is an avid cyclist who rode some solo 9,000 Km across Australia a couple of years ago. He's currently building a recumbent reverse tandem and who knows if we'll see him knocking on our door one day. The safest thing is to take our bikes in his apartment up the third floor like he does regularly. We then take them out again as he leads us on a twilight tour of the city. Not knowing how long it would take, we don't even think of taking the detachable lights with us and we end up following him in the dark on the way back. Thanks to Jens, we've seen places which we would have otherwise missed around this city of 500,000+ souls. I take the opportunity to discuss that we've been surprised by the common difficulty to find gas stations throughout our journey across former GDR. Especially after numerous punctures, it would have been good to take advantage of compressed air. We wondered where the local people do find gas. Jens reports that he knows three or four gas stations in town, which I think it's too scarce for a city with a population exceeding half a million. This would have been insufficient even at the time of the mighty Trabant I guess.

Stage 19 - Dresden (D) to Strehla (D) - 69 Km
While at Jens' place, he asked if our bikes were in order or in need of something but no, everything was fine. I actually just did a general careful check on tires, hubs, wheel bearings, chain and brakes. All good. It's then an upsetting surprise to see my rear tire go flat in seconds not even one kilometer after leaving Jens' house. This time it's a good sized spike of brown glass and I better use a new tube, at least I can do the job inside a shaded city park and wash my hands at a nearby public fountain. It's the sixth punture I fix on my bike plus Deborah's three so far through this tour. Enough!
With two stages left, and awareness that it's almost time to go back to our normal life, let's take it easy. We find this portion of the Elberadweg to be more user-friendly than the first stages we had. The pavement is nice, it runs along the river, plenty of bars and Biergarten places, more riders to be seen. A stop in Meissen reveals its elegant city center with inviting shaded restaurant tables which are perfect for lunch. The climb to the castle is too steep with a full stomach and I mount guard to the bikes while Deborah goes up a more direct route with stairs for a closer look.
Strehla, our destination for the day doesn't have much to offer except its fine but underexploited castle. The hotel is super clean and cozy, we have an attic room with rose petals tossed on the candid bed surface. Not much around town and we're in the mood for an in-room picnic. After all, we better get rid of the emergency food we've been carrying along for a few days.

Stage 20 - Strehla (D) to Weidenhain (D) - 61 Km
Getting ready for our last stage has multiple meanings. Tomorrow a long drive will take us back home but not before stopping for a few hours' worth of sightseeing in Leipzig. Tomorrow it will probably feel strange not sitting on the small saddle, this will make us even more aware that our vacation is over and that the sudden comeback of back-to-work thoughts is to be expected.
The day and the last kilometers flow away with ease and Torgau has the flavor of the precious cherry on top of the cake. Unexpected fine small city with a fate which is difficult to comment. It has a nice restored city center and the fine Hartenfels Castle featuring a beautiful external staircase in its courtyard. A couple of bears sadly kill their time in a portion of the moat and can be seen while walking on the access bridge to the castle's entrance. Their pain can be read in their eyes and redundant movements, I hate the concept of confining animals for mere display purposes.
A better sight is a monument by the river. It is here that the US and the Soviet armies had met on the meaningful "Elbe Day", April 25th, 1945. The monument commemorates the event and its intrinsic meanings. The end of a terrible war that had swept away millions of humans, and the Yalta decisions re-drawing borders and changing the lives of millions for a long time to come.
After more than twenty years the Germans are now reunited under the same flag with mixed feelings. Some like it, some don't. The topic is too complex to be commented with a few words. We received insight from our friends but I prefer to avoid a subject involving past and present political aspects and views.
It's sort of strange to conclude the adventure by arriving from the other direction to the B&B where our patient car has been waiting for nearly four weeks. My odometer clocks 1,599 Km which seems too odd of a figure, we then decide to go around a few blocks to get a sound, round 1,600 Km reading and call it over. We had reserved a room for the night and it's time to share a few words with the Nerger family, the owners. They say it's been unusually warm during the past days with temperatures of 35C and we shared the experience as well from Dresden on. It's hot under the sun but the car is in a partially shaded area which is a privilege while putting our bikes and stuff back in before our last German supper. Tomorrow we have to take the long way back home.

This tour is not indicated for beginners. Lots of cobblestones and rough terrain encourage the choice of suspended bikes and sturdy racks/panniers. We don't regret having taken it, an adventure is always a positive experience regardless that some criticism can be expressed as a tip to others. The Elberadweg is promoted by several official German websites as "the most popular" among the domestic cycle paths and "easily managed with children". Whether this may only be true for its Saxony part, I'd personally use different words if asked to describe the Elberadweg as a whole. Riding with crossed fingers may be insufficient to prevent mechanical problems and crying children far from services. Except for Saxony we haven't seen as many cyclists as we would have expected. We didn't make friends on the road and we had rare occasions to exchange words, therefore cyclists should be prepared and equipped to repair punctures or deal by themselves with mechanical inconveniences.
I would personally rate the tour by sections starting with the portions we enjoyed the best. Our overall score doesn't take into account the local variables and conditions at the time of our visit such as rain or wind, but it refers to a generic "cyclability", relevant difficulty/services for cyclists, cultural aspects, sights and overall enjoyment:
1. The Baltic coast (Stages #7 through #15)
Nature, beaches, Copenhagen and a handful of fine Hanseatic towns
2. The Alte Salzstrasse and the Oder river (Stages #6, #17 and #18)
Beautiful Luebeck and nature
3. The upper Elbe (Stages #19 and #20)
Decent pavement, services and sights
4. The Mulde and the lower Elbe (Stages #1 through #5)
Rough terrain, lack of services and not much to see in between a few pleasant cities
5. Stage #16
Except for Szczecin, worth a visit, shared roads and rough terrain were an experience but not the best part of the ride.

- To be continued/edited -

Tour GPS tracklog available here:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tour Project

Next cycling tour is currently in the making.
If all goes well, wife & I will go for another European loop formula through pedal-friendly countries. Considering Germany and Denmark in first place, a study of the cycling paths network helps developing an interesting clockwise itinerary along rivers and the Baltic Sea coast. Preview:
- 19 stages, 1600+ Km
- Mainly riding on cycling paths
- Nature and cities to visit
- Ferries
- Train section to complete the loop (due to time constraints)

Setting the Naturpark Dübener Heide as the starting point seems a good place to leave our car after paying a visit to Leipzig. We would then start moving wheels along the Mulde river and the Elbe up to Lauenburg, then Hansestadt Lübeck to reach the Baltic. Ferry to Denmark, bridge to Sweden and another ferry back to Germany. Some more coastal riding and a peek into Poland on the way down to Berlin. Train to Dresden and final ride back to the start point.
This preliminary map shows the proposed stages (red dots for estimated overnight stops), ferries (black lines) and trains (green lines). Longest stage about 125 Km. Resting days in Lübeck, Copenhagen and Berlin. Time is always a constraint and, should we decide to spend more days visiting cities or expand the ride to other areas in Denmark, this itinerary would allow to cut the four stages in between Greifswald and Berlin by catching a train instead.

The route is currently being refined for GPS use, including various points of interest and a collection of potential overnight accommodation facilities.
We received positive and welcoming response from great friends-to-be-made through the CouchSurfing community. We can't wait to meet them to share views and certainly a good time, a peerless enriching experience to enhance our fascinating on-the-road freewheeling adventure.