Rain pelting our faces, my husband, Tom, and I dove into a flimsy bus stop shelter and squeezed our bicycles in after us. We had been battling a fierce headwind since breakfast and, at 3 o’clock, were still several kilometers from our destination. Dark clouds raced across the sky. The drumbeat of raindrops on the shelter intensified.
We were holed up in a subdivision of tidy brick houses outside Riesa, Germany, where small saplings planted in the new yards bent with the wind. We had no choice but to continue to Riesa: Our suitcases awaited us. I was cold and wet, nearly cashed in. We had cycled only 15 miles.
Tom rifled through his front pack, looking, I thought, for a map. He straightened up, a triumphant grin on his face. “Time for Emergency Chocolate,” he announced, and produced a Ritter Sport special dark bar.
Tom and I were on a six-day, 150-mile bicycle trip in early October, tracing the legendary Elbe River that cuts a shimmering swath through the southeastern German provinces of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. The Elbe Radweg is mostly off the radar of American cyclists, but it is Germany’s most popular route in a country full of paved bike trails. We had begun in historic Dresden. Broad and slow-moving, the Elbe originates beyond the Czech border and flows north, through Dresden, Meissen, Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, and farther north, Germany’s major port, Hamburg, before emptying into the North Sea. The river looked exhausted after Europe’s hot, dry summer. We could see cobbles protruding on its margins. Low water levels prohibited large boat traffic on the upper Elbe. We would be on paved paths nearly the entire way, and could see up close the river and the many migrating waterfowl resting on its waters. Outside Dresden, there were a dozen mute swans, strung in a row, white pearls on the blue water.
We met Hans, representative of Rueckenwind Radtouren, at our Dresden hotel. He handed us our rental bicycles, sturdy conveyances with upright handlebars, front packs and back panniers, locks and odometers. I fell in love with my bike the first morning. The gear ratio was excellent and nothing fazed the stoic chain, not even the occasional bobble of cobblestone streets. We received maps, a travel guide to the towns we’d be cycling through, and directions to each hotel that Rueckenwind had booked for us. Rueckenwind would shuttle our bags between hotels. We would carry the minimum: a rain jacket, wallets, water and binoculars. We hoped to see not only geese and ducks, but hawks on the wing and songbirds in the woods. Hans told us that the Elbe was a fall migration flyway.
Perks of a slow, bicycle pace
Our first day of cycling was a trial run upriver to the medieval town of Pirna. We wanted to get the feel of the bikes, and see the Elbe cutting through a sandstone layer, creating high bluffs and a much different feel. The honey-colored sandstone blackens upon exposure to air; the cliffs appeared ancient. They echoed the weathering we’d seen on the restored Frauenkirche, Semper Opera House and Albert Bridge in Dresden. Those structures were built with locally quarried stone. It’s easy to discern detail with the slow pace of a bicycle. We began to point out other sandstone structures.
At Pirna, we realized that the Elba River stitches together towns that figured prominently in the Protestant Reformation. Pirna was the birthplace of Johann Tetzel, the Dominican friar whose enthusiasm for selling indulgences (springing souls from Purgatory) to poor folk enraged Martin Luther and propelled his penning of the 95 Theses. Tetzel’s house still stands 550 years later. A sculpture in Pirna’s center depicts the industrious friar collecting coins from a skinny waif.
Confident with our bicycles, our ability to put in 25 to 30 miles a day and to follow the Elbe Radweg signs marked by a little blue “e,” the next day we headed downriver, going north. Over the course of the trip, we never got lost. Every intersection was well marked.
One of the pleasures of cycling is the ability to explore the tiniest towns with no barrier between you and local inhabitants.
Passing at lunchtime through tiny Kotzschenbroda, with one main street, a woman beckoned us into a cafe — we thought. The sign on the chalkboard out front read “Mittagsessen” (lunch) and featured herring — we thought. But inside, the place seemed like a community center offering low-cost midday meals and conviviality to those on the edge: young single mothers, seniors living alone, young men. For the equivalent of $4, we were handed plates of fish sticks, fingerling potatoes and carrots. The sunny room, heated by a green tile stove, sunflowers and asters adorning the tables, offered respite from our exertions. Later, we learned that Saxony has suffered from high unemployment since Reunification, and blue-collar men are particularly hard-hit. Many women have left the region for jobs in the West, significantly skewing the sex ratio of small towns.
We could discern the silhouette of the Lutheran cathedral at Meissen, Day 2’s destination, from a distance. Pedaling against an increasing headwind, I reflected on how many other travelers had viewed that silhouette with relief and anticipation as they approached on foot or by horse and cart.
Into former East Germany
The next day, we left the tourist draws of Dresden and Meissen, and it became clear that we were deep in the former East Germany, which has not seen the prosperity of the West. We pedaled through tiny farming communities where long, half-timbered barns sagged with disuse. Calico cats sauntered through empty streets, patrolling the neighborhood. Church yards, suffering neglect and drought, were parched and weedy. The path cut through farm fields where the crop had been taken up (we heard that due to drought, some fields had zero yield). The fields were American-scale, not the tidy patchwork we had seen in England or even western Germany. Was this the legacy of communal farming?
Day 3 between Meissen and the small burg of Riesa was the Day of the Headwind. We debated taking the train, but it would be indirect and time-consuming. Instead, we battled it out and stopped for lunch at a winery.
Saxony along the Elbe River is a wine-producing region, although most of its wines are consumed locally. Lunch included a famous Saxon dessert, Eierschecke, which is creamy and redolent with vanilla. We each had a piece, with coffee, because, you know, the headwind.
Leaving Riesa on Day 4, we passed through the tidy burg of Lorenzkirch. Nestled in the semi-wild Elba Meadows, the little town became the site of a massacre as World War II ended. With the U.S. Army approaching from the west, refugees were slaughtered by the advancing Red Army and the retreating German Wehrmacht. Within an hour, the two allies met there for the first time. The Soviets commemorated a sanitized event with an official monument on one side of town. On the other side, townspeople erected a rough boulder bearing only the date, April 1945. Pedaling on a bicycle, there was ample time to reflect on how much blood had soaked into the soil here. A few minutes later, we passed a yellow brick church with a sign proclaiming “Jede neue Tag ein Geschenk von Gott” (every new day a gift from God).
Signs of history all around
On a calm, sunny day, we approached the medieval town of Muhlburg, looking for lunch. Muhlburg dates from a time when humans relied on their own two feet or horses to get about; its scale is human-sized. On bicycles, we appreciated that.
We stopped at a bakery that had sparsely stocked shelves, but “Ja!” the proprietor said, she served lunch. There was no menu, not even a chalkboard — one entree: “Bohensuppe!” a highly seasoned vegetable soup thick with green beans. Another remnant of Saxony’s communist past — yes, we’ll feed your hunger, but there’s only one choice. It was terrific, served with a freshly baked roll.
As we left Muhlburg to resume our journey, we passed a Sleeping Beauty, half-timbered manor house, shrubbery embracing the unoccupied mansion. Manor houses aren’t a proletariat thing.
Torgau, our next stop, is a major community in Saxony and played a large but mostly forgotten role in the Reformation. Hartenfels Castle rose over the river as we approached from the south. It was home to the electors of Saxony in the 1500s, the rulers who protected Martin Luther when the pope put a price on his head. What we couldn’t see from our bikes was that the castle moat is, to this day, guarded by roaming European bears.
Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife, fled to Torgau in 1552 as a widow, when the plague came to her home in Wittenberg. A former nun, brewer of beer and renowned for her farm’s excellent hams, Von Bora died in Torgau and is buried in the town church.
Our bikes a-rattling, we juddered over Torgau’s cobblestone streets on our way to our lodging. Here as elsewhere, Google Maps was invaluable in getting us to each night’s hotel. Torgau is a Renaissance town, with its historic center intact, but we arrived late, as the afternoon was graying into dusk. We left many sights for another visit.
Our last stop on the trip, Wittenberg, was 43 miles from Torgau. We opted to break the distance into two days, with a side visit to the resort town of Bad Schmiedeberg. October is its low season. We conversed with townspeople there in halting German and halting English. They were amazed we had cycled from Dresden. They were amazed we were from the United States. They were hazy on the location of Minnesota.
On Day 6, our last, we followed the silvery Elbe River into Wittenberg, where Luther began debate on reform by attaching 95 theses to his employer’s castle church door. The silhouette of that church rose over the fields as we approached Wittenberg. Suddenly, the turning chestnuts and browning oaks gracing the meadows seemed melancholic. We had seen a great many waterfowl resting on the river’s backwaters in the past week and had stopped to appreciate their beauty. Like them, we would soon be on our way.
Author Sue Leaf lives in Center City, Minn.