Friday, 25 May 2012

Praha Pivo


I'm sat in a park before a panorama of Prague. Above hangs a strange bunting of shoes on a cable suspended from the giant, functioning metronome to my left. To my right a scurry of red squirrels are practicing parkour. I am mildly hungover. Some of those shoes look new, testament to Prague's artistic streak (or didn't fit?). I'm tempted by some leather daps, they're slung low but I'd still need a triple, or at least a leg up. By the time I left, Germany was warm. The Czech Republic is scorching; crossing the border was not unlike stepping off a holiday plane. It is good to be in another country although I'll miss the functionality of everything German. And the language, not that I spoke it but after a month I could deliver my meagre range of bastard phrases with just enough confidence to invoke pitiful assitance. Back to square one with Czech. So it goes. I arrived in Prague last night, ditching Joe at the city limits to meet my couch surfing hosts Kamila and Ondrej at their local. The pub was out of Goulash so it was pork loin and mash with X amount of Pilsner before I slept on the absent flatmate's yoga matt. Perhaps tonight the yogi will return and I'll cook dinner for everybody. Even the most basic kitchen is a joy after my two pan camp stove plastic bag tupperware routine on the road. Meanwhile I'm waiting on a lunchtime rendezvous with Kamila and Ondrej. Gracious hosts are fast becoming a happy theme. After Bettina's tour of high culture in Dresden, the Gothic and the Baroque; the bombed and rebuilt, Felix and Kristine further indulged me with an equally edifying Saturday night concert party at an(other) anarchic but well organized Wagenplatz. Felix's band were great and I enjoyed seeing another functioning commune space. Tonight Ondrej will take me to a beer festival in the enormous Stromovka park; I am being spoilt (literally by beer). 

around the Czech border


It was nice, then, to spend some time in company to whom I felt no debt. Joe was one of a trio of young men with laden bicycles I found convened over maps in a square in Litoměřice on Tuesday afternoon. The two Italians were headed for the Norwegian fjords by way of Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg. Joe the Frenchman, like me, is headed for Istanbul. Mapless again I was glad of the geography seminar, the mutual exchange of topographical experience. Alone again it was with more than a sense of politeness that I suggested to Joe that we ride together to Prague. There are of course different ways of going about cycle touring. I tend to be bashfully well equipped (except cartographically), enjoying the fact that all my gear is high spec and works very well, but careful to avoid discussions of its cost. Joe, au contraire, is proudly ill-equipped; waxing lyrical about the virtues of budget fleamarket kit, boasting his bargains but complaining incessantly about his myriad equipment failures. We rode slowly and I enjoyed his company. Perhaps we'll catch up en route Vienna.

There was something about the overwhelming potential of cities in a previous post. Looking at all the Italians' maps I started to feel that same kind of vertigo about the spaces in between them. There are so many roads to Istanbul! So yesterday in Prague I visited a map shop and am starting to feel a little more on top of things in that respect. It gets more difficult from here, with hills and heat (I burned through my shirt on Wednesday) so I am trying to engage with the problems responsibly. I have three maps, new suncream (thank you, Shiv, yours was indespensible) and even some mosquito repellant. In a few minutes I'll head South again, this time along the Vltava. First proper stop České Budějovice, aka Budwies - no prizes for guessing what they make there.

Oh and with sixteen days riding (I think) I´ve just hit 1000 miles on the odometer. I'm sticking with miles for now because I get a better rate of exchange against the roadsigns. 

bike crew




Saturday, 19 May 2012

Dresden Dubweg

 It was tough leaving Berlin. In fact when I tried I made less than 20 miles, to a birthday party at a boat house on lake Sedinsee in Schmöckwitz. By misunderstanding I arrived some hours before Eva and Hiula who had invited me along. I didn't know the birthday girl, or any of the guests, I was wearing cycling shorts and jersey with my silly blue cap and still hadn't learnt to pronounce "excuse me" properly in German. Oh and on top of this I was kind of hope expecting a bed for the night. Soon I was happily ensconced next the lake with beers and mixed grill, Pablo the Ecuadorian Syphilis doctor and a young journalist intern from Burkina Faso whose name escapes me for a happy chat about Syphilis and the ambition of Africans given half a chance in Europe. Eva and Hiula arrived, wine and percussive Mexican music flowed and I slept top bunk in the dorm. Hospitality from strangers can be truly humbling. Sunday morning I said goodbyes to Eva & Hiula and bless them once again found myself pedalling off with tears in my eyes. It was a beautiful three days to Dresden. It seemed to me that the landscape changed somewhat, forest and wetland giving way to agriculture (Camomile fields in full bloom); flatland to faint contours. I had another dawn visit from another friendly farmer who was concerned that I might have been interfered with by pigs in the night. I don't recall.

'til next time, Eva & Hiula x

not a pig in sight

Camomile fields

chez Keyserlingk

Now I am in Dresden. As my hostess Bettina (Konrad's mother) pointedly said over dinner, "The first thing to know about Dresden is that it was destroyed." We didn't go into the by-whoms or whys, instead she told me about the surviving culture; Dixie music festivals and porcelain (produced locally since the 1700s, the formula having been discovered quite independent of the previous Chinese monopoly) famous paintings from August the Strong's personal collection, and a certain eccentric, bohemian spirit even through the old Communism. When Bettina arrived in 1991 there were still piles of rubble in the town centre. Cycling through town on Tuesday, happily along the Elbe again, I was struck by the harmony with which old met new. Admittedly I was riding pretty fast to keep just ahead of a thunderstorm, so I looked more carefully the next afternoon to see if that impression was born out by exploration. Bettina took me on a kind of cultural tour of galleries, museums and an exhibition opening. Many of the historic buildings have been painstakingly rebuilt and my surprise at the extent of the bombing was matched by admiration for the dedication and skill with which the reconstruction continues. Controversial bridges aside, Dresden looks a fine work in progress.

Thursday was Herren-tag, Men's day. Gangs of German men roam the countryside with trolleys of beer to sing and celebrate their masculinity. Not the best day to explore Sächsische Schweiz with Marie from Eschenhof, but we found some quiet spots and it was really special to arrive at my first properly foreign looking landscape. After 800 miles on the flat some hills felt a welcome development. Tonight I'll stay with Couchsurfing host, Felix. He is a member of "Dresden's finest reggae dub band", who'll perform somewhere in town this evening. I expect I'll get back on the bike tomorrow. Or Sunday. Perhaps Dresden will also be tough to leave.

the black stones are originals from the rubble

Waldschlösschen Bridge, ugly enough to lose Dresden's UNESCO World Heritage status

Friday, 11 May 2012

Berlin Multikulti

 I like Berlin. It is good to be here. Still I can't wait to get back on my bicycle tomorrow. Other than mileage and a general directional trajectory I'm not at all sure what my aims are for this trip. It is a question much easier to ignore (and perhaps, in solitude and mental quiet, to answer) if I keep moving. So the city stop-off, grand in culture and welcome in amenity as it may be, leaves me a little uncertain. I love the murals on the Berlin wall's remaining fragments and all they say for Berlin's character and resolve. I love the parks and street art. I love the Turkish markets and the German, Mexican, Swedish and English hospitality, the varied diet, the history and the zeitgeist, the bars and the beers in good company. The Multikulti. On Wednesday night I saw Dizraeli (from Bristol of course) and Lee Westwood do folk hip-hop with guile and guitars in the crypt beneath a Kreuzberg church and really it was excellent. On Thursday night I broke my Kindle screen and spent this morning on the Amazon, Parcelforce and Couchsurfer websites to arrange its replacement's delivery ahead of me to Dresden. In its frustrating way that was also excellent; efficient customer service, international logistics, my father's assumed good grace in postal errands and the promise of warm, Dresden hospitality combining to deliver a very useful tool to a willing host I've never met at an address I've never been. That's the theory, anyway. I guess it is the limitless potential of cities that leaves me uncertain. Perhaps it can take years of habit and routines, work, life, virtue and vice to even begin to navigate that potential. For me scooting around Berlin on the big yellow bike, even shielded with shades and headphones and faintly embarrasing technical clothing, it is a little overwhelming.  So I'll be glad to slip away tomorrow, bereft of ebooks and 3G internet, back into the excellent pine woods which I hope will line the roads bearing South.

Monday, 7 May 2012

out of the woods

Yesterday morning I woke up lost. Lost but with strength and purpose. Strength in sweet sleep and deep coffee, and purpose also twofold: avoid detection by breaking camp quickly and then establish my location and onward direction. The farmer (who from his moustache and get-up could just as well have been of the local militia), despite foiling my first purpose, quite obliged the second. Perhaps farmers have an inherent respect for early risers - he caught me wiping down the tent just gone 7am. Anyway I soon knew I was between Vehlgast and Damerow, just South East of Havelberg, and which way along the dykes would take me to Rhinow.

 I had left Havelberg the evening before in angry haste. Becoming enraged with a whole town just because its cobblestones rattle your panniers is clear indication that soon you should be stopping for the night. Stupid old town. So I took the wrong road on the wrong side of the river (Havelberg sits on a small island) and pigheadedly rode 15 miles through the woods still cursing the cobbles before giving up, lost, to sleep it off. But yesterday there were many helpful directions, notably from a man whose electronic voicebox whirring to life in sync with his precise gesticulations gave such a perfect impression of a cyborg that in my dawn mental fog I twice checked his limbs for some sign of a titanium skeleton. There were also two groups of deaf (or Deaf?) cyclists both of whom excelled at directing me. Anyway I made the 70 odd miles to Wustermark or wherever it was by midafternoon and skipped a train into central Berlin. Cheating perhaps; I had no map for the city and the motorways were increasingly getting in the way. Have a look at Emily Chappell's blog for a far less compromising cyclist!

I enjoyed riding along the Elbe, chasing deer and hares and looking at the big birds.

Less the Havel which seemed to me more a mess of a tributaries and impassable wetland than an actual river. It is good to be indoors, staying with German Eva (who I met at Eschenhof) and Mexican Hiula, just 10 minutes ride from the central train station. They are not only gracious hosts but have a washing machine and a PC computer...

Thursday, 3 May 2012

green pastures

leaving Eschenhof
 Yesterday afternoon I finally recieved my tent's 'footprint' at
Echenhof, the commune in Hamburg. The package's absence had been a
happy excuse to stop a week there, not that I needed one, or to rest
any particular fatigue - I'd only ridden 6 days before. Really I
stayed just because it was such a pleasant and inspiring environment;
six days flew. I must've spent 6 or 7 hours each day working on their
various construction jobs and amost as many eating of the excellent
and apparently infinite vegan banquet that was in a constant state of
being served to residents, guests, workers and indeed hangers on
alike. As well as gorging it was also good to learn how to use a
chainsaw, to give my two bits towards the tricky extrication of
failing ceiling joists in the barn and to install their replacements.
By night we had fires in the courtyard, wine and shandy; once to the
pictures in town; twice out dancing. May Day was of course a holiday
for the anarchists (the whole of Hamburg also) and was accordingly
blessed with full summer sunshine. I rode the hour into town, via a
quick swim in the Elbe, for sightseeing. I followed the 'Euro May Day'
parade for a bit (like a family friendly alternative to the hardercore
protests going on - still with placards and soundsystems but without
the kettling and baton charges) and thoroughly enjoyed exploring a
city where cycling is evidently completely mainstream. It was also a
joy to relax into riding one of Eschenhof's old and unladen guest
bikes; fun like a toy after a few days on mine with its ridiculous
load and spec. 

But it was an equal joy to settle back into my own (rather fine)
saddle this morning and to start heading South East along the Elbe. As
I write this, sprawled between the thin young forest of my camp and
green pastures sloping to the river, I am being barked at by a small
stag. He quite surprised me having snuck right up to within 20 metres.
I didn't know they barked. In the time its taken me to write that down
(the Kindle 3G makes a clumsy typist of me) he's circled back into the
woods and is crashing about and barking somewhere close behind
me. I hope he's not calling his mates for a midnight goring. Actually
the wildlife has been ace today (mosquitos and headburrowing, blood
sucking forest ticks (yes, just near my groin) excepting): loads of deer
and massive birds and hares even. It is nice to be out amongst it.

In other good news I got a huge haul of food out of the supermarket
bins in Bleckede. I hadn't thought to look anywhere yet but I will do
now and if it's that good regularly my outgoings will be almost nil
once I've invested in a trailer to tow all the food...

So anyway I'll add some photos to this once I get to a computer
somewhere, Berlin next week probably. Its totally dark now and the
barker is back so I'm gonna go hunt him.