Elbe River Bike Ride
August 18-23, 2004
606 km   5.5 days

Slide Show

What do you do if you are a bicyclist and live for nine months on the edge of the Elbe River in Germany?   You ride 600 km (about 375 miles) up the river to Dresden.   One might think that a ride should go downstream to take advantage of the slope of the land toward the river's mouth but there isn't a huge drop in elevation, the land is pretty flat and the I was told the wind is generally blowing from the west and will be at my back.   The first two are true but unfortunately only one day was the wind coming from behind.

We came to live in Hohnstorf/Elbe Germany in November 2003.   Hohnstorf is about 40 km upstream on the Elbe from Hamburg.   I had retired from teaching chemistry at Sonoma State University in Northern California and my wife Margo wanted to continue her equestrian education in dressage in the country which has the best dressage horses and trainers in the world.   We live just behind the dike and only about 200 meters from the Elbe in a two-room apartment in which the bedroom doubles as the kitchen.   It has been fascinating to watch the changes in the river with the seasons and I wanted to see what the river was like upstream.   In addition, Dresden was reputed to be a beautiful city, much of which had been restored after the destructive fire bombing by British and American planes near the end of World War II.

Germany is one of the most bike friendly countries in Europe with miles of bike paths (Radweg) and bike routes with posted directional signs.   One is called the Elberadweg and runs from near the source of the Elbe in the Czech Republic to its mouth at Cuxhaven where it empties into the North Sea.   There are two books that are sort of like the AAA Triptik booklets with maps and information about towns and cities and interesting places that are on the maps and also a list of guest houses, pensions and hotels.   I bought these two and began planning my trip. Two small problems arose: 1) they are in German and 2) they are organized to go from the Czech border to Cuxhaven so when I was on the road I often had a hard time recognizing which direction the map was showing, following the detailed verbal directions in the reverse direction in German and reading about the descriptions of the places I was passing through.   I decided that I would do about 100 km (62 miles) a day and that it would take five to six days.  

There are two campgrounds here in Hohnstorf and I had seen many bicycle tourists this summer loaded down with panniers, cooking equipment, tents and sleeping bags.   I decided that I didn't want to travel this way as it would add weight, and since there are frequent thunderstorms or rain showers, I didn't want to sleep in the wet.   So I bought a clamp-on rear rack to fit my New World Tourist Bike Friday and packed three changes of bicycling clothing and one change of regular clothing plus some rain gear into two old panniers that I had used 15-20 years ago when the tour group had to carry all its stuff on the bicycles.   The two outside pockets were for diabetes related stuff and emergency snack food.   I planned on staying in the German equivalent of bed and breakfasts (but at much lower prices than in the US) and eating out in the evening.   In the end, I realized I had packed perfectly and used everything I had packed!

My expedition began on Wednesday, August 18 with very light showers for the first 25 km.   I had ridden this part up the south side of the river (or the left side going downstream as the map book referred to it) to Bleckede many times.   Here I made the first of many ferry crossings to the other side and headed upstream into new territory.   The Elbe was the dividing line between East and West Germany in this area and I was struck by the old lookout tower that was still standing as a memento of the repressive regime that existed for nearly 40 years.   One of the things I was hoping to do was to be able to ride on top of the dike to keep an eye on the river and there was a great Radweg with good pavement.   I later noticed that die Radwege on the East German side often were on the dike; perhaps so that border patrols could move and watch the river better?  

I got to Darchau about noon and ate at the ferry landing that went across the Elbe to Neu Darchau.   I didn't cross but was struck by the sign at the ferry describing the events that occurred on the first day that the border (Grenze) was opened in 1989.   Several people wrote about their joy at being able to cross.   Margo and I later drove to visit this place and were really struck by how terrible it must have been to be literally trapped behind a huge fence with razor wire on the top and perhaps having relatives or friends across the river.   We stopped at a restaurant at the top of the ferry landing and saw more pictures of the events of November 25 when boats carried more than 1000 people from east to west to visit.  

Leaving Darchau the map had a warning "Schlechte Wegstrecke!" or terrible road.   This was indeed the worst 1-2 km of the whole trip.   It had rained the night before so there were big puddles, the surface had stones like cobblestones but of varying sizes and heights, and then poorly placed bricks.   There was a lot of dike reconstruction so detours (Umleitungen) were common.   There was some riding on a main road with a fair amount of traffic. Roads in Germany have essentially no shoulders but drivers are very cooperative and respectful.   I don't recall ever having two cars pass abreast of me the whole time I have been in Germany.   The one coming up behind always slowed down until it could move into the other lane and pass me.

I decided to stay in Lenzen which is not a prosperous looking town and I got there 15 minutes after the tourist office closed where I would have asked for help in finding a place to stay.   Using the Radweg book I was looking for Frau Grünberg's pension at Mühlenweg 8 which was supposed to be near the Hotel am Rudower See at Mühlenweg 6. I was able to find the hotel but no number 8.   I asked a man where it might be as he was at some apartments with numbers in the 30s (the hotel was almost across the street, numbering in Germany often appears random) and he pointed in the direction I had come.   So I went back, found a lady in her garden, showed her the address and name I wanted and she said that today was Frau Grünberg's birthday and so she wasn't likely to want a visitor. I went back into town to Frau Rumsch on Neustadstrasse 11 and rang the bell.   A young woman answered the door and said that she wasn't Frau Rumsch and she didn't take guests.   But did she know of a place?   She went and made a phone call to a nearby friend and led me around the corner to Frau Salwiczek who did indeed have a place.   This place was great, had a kitchen and TV and was only 25€   plus 1€   for the beer.   There was only one close place to eat, Cafe am Markt that had four drunks and me.   I knew that I now was in the former DDR and two things struck me.   One was that many of the buildings seemed abandoned or even if they were being used were in general not as nicely kept up as where we were living.   I understand part of this is because the DDR government took property, especially farms, and it is difficult to trace the previous owners.   The second was that few people over 30 years old spoke any English.   Russian was their second language so I was forced to speak German.   I couldn't carry on a very complicated conversation but I was able to communicate enough to find places to stay, get directions and occasionally chat with other cyclists.  

The second day was 98 km from Lenzen to Arneburg.   I passed through the town of Rühstädt which is known as the stork capital of Germany.   Storks live along much of the Elbe (One time we had 7 sitting on the barn roof at our place).   There are supposed to be about 200 nesting pair in the town and many homes and barns have stork nest on their roofs or chimneys.   The countryside remained rural with lots of agriculture, mainly crops in large open fields of hay, grains, corn, already harvested rapeseed used for biodiesel fuel, leafy green kale and dirt already turned over from harvested crops.   There are lots of woods (conifers and broadleaf) that are planted and harvested when the trees are not too big around and apparently used for paper or firewood.   Unlike California in the summer, the general color is green.   The terrain is quite flat and so the dike is needed to protect buildings against high water in the winter and spring.

The man at the tourist information center in Havelberg had said that I should go through Altenzaun and Dalchau to get to Arneberg as it was shorter than the Elberadweg.   This route took me by the Altmark Gewerbegebiet which is a very large industrial area sitting out in nowhere that is dominated by a huge plant that makes wood into paper pulp.   Across the road is what looks like an incomplete, abandoned nuclear power plant.   Germany is very eco-conscious and is the world's largest wind power producer with 15,000 turbines.   It also is planning to scrap its existing nuclear plants by 2020.   Depending on the source of information, between 11 and 18% of Germany's current electrical power is generated by wind.   There are five windmills that we can see from our house.

In Arneberg the tourist office was open until 18:00 and the lady there tried several places on the phone before she found me one essentially across the street connected to a Backerei.   Again I had a kitchen, 3 beds and TV.   Unlike all the other places I stayed, breakfast was not included and they charged me for the rolls I bought at the bakery the next morning.   I washed today's bike clothes and hung them out before going to dinner and they were essentially dry in 2 hours due to the wind.   On the way to eat I stopped in the St. Georg Kirche that was started in, if I read things correctly, about 1100.   There is a neat statue of two fishermen, one with a cigar in his mouth, holding a fishing net and water drips down from the net.   I ate dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Elbe from a vantage point on a hill.   Where we live on the Elbe there is constant barge traffic and I have been surprised by the lack of boats so far.   Here there actually was a barge tied up at a dock.

The next morning for the first several km there was a nicely paved Radweg next to a dirt road!   Plum trees were hanging über dem Radweg and I had some ripe ones.   The apples were not yet ripe as I tested one.   In Tangermünde which is a pleasant tourist town with lots of very old buildings, there was a wedding party preparing to go in for the ceremony at the Rathaus (1430-80). ( http://www.tangermuende.de/eng/tangermuende.html is a good website for Tangermünde.)Leaving Tangermünde I missed an Elberadweg sign to Buch and got some directions from a woman who had come out of her home to buy baked goods from a local Backerei delivery truck.   To me this was an example of how a small independent business is adapting to changes in the economy.  

Today was one of frustration in trying to find food on the ride as I was going mainly through very small towns.   The map indicated that there was a restaurant in one of them but when I got there it was no longer in business.   In another town the little grocery store was closed for lunch from 12:30-13:30 and I was there at 12:45.   I finally reached the small city of Rogätz.   The first place I tried wasn't open until 13:30 and it was 13:15 so I rode around and found a little deli-like place and got a couple of cheese and ham Brötchen and some potato salad.   When I opened the package, I found the woman had also included a peach.

The highlight of today's ride was the visit to the Wasserstrassenkreuz near Magdeburg.   Germany is interlaced with rivers and canals that carry a lot of shipping.   The Elbe is one of them but there also are canals that seem to be used more because the level of water can be controlled. The Wasserstrassenkreuz was only completed last year after five years in construction and is a junction of two major canals and includes a bridge for one of the canals over the Elbe!   I rode up and saw the new Doppelsparschleuse (double lock) on the Elbe-Havel-Kanal although only one was apparently in use at this time.   Chains drive the cleats that tie up the ships as they move up or down in the lock.   This was the first time I had seen big canal barges on the trip and they weren't on the Elbe the way they are where we live but were on the canal.   I watched the lock fill for a while but then rode off to see the bridge where the Mittellandkanal crosses over the Elbe River and connects to the Elbe-Havel-Kanal.   I saw the same ship that had been in the lock moving down the canal over the bridge.

The Radweg started out great after leaving the Wasserstrassenkreuz-Magdeburg but then some construction screwed things up near Alt Lostau.   An 18-20 year old German was apparently also riding to Magdeburg and he got directions from a woman but apparently they were wrong as we ended up in the middle of some fields on dirt roads.   Fortunately a guy in a car came along and gave us directions on how to get to the Elberadweg and we were successful in extricating ourselves.   The kid spoke too fast for me to generally understand what he said but he pointed out we were riding through the Elbauenpark on the Radweg and pretty much were right along the river.   We also went by the Jahrtausendturm which is the tallest wooden tower in the world (60 meters) although it looks like a metal cone.   It contains a museum that covers a period of 6000 years.   He left me at a bridge to cross over into Magdeburg but I decided I had seen enough cities and decided to keep going upstream.   Also, the wind was finally behind me instead of in front or off the side.

About 6:00 I was getting tired and crossed the bridge to the small city of Schönebeck and was very surprised and disappointed to find no map of the city posted along the road.   I rode around and couldn't find a pension so I headed down the street that was going towards the railroad tracks assuming there was a station nearby and then housing.   There was no station but there was a garish Zimmer Frei sign in front of a Greek restaurant and I stopped there.   It wasn't great but it was a place to sleep and eat and I didn't even hear the trains in the night.

After breakfast the next morning I stopped at a large supermarket that was just a block off the street I was on but didn't see in my anxiety to find a room last night.   I got apple juice, Müsli bars and candy to make sure that the lack of places to by food didn't happen again.

Today's ride to Wittenberg had many different kinds of surfaces.   On the dirt and gravel road through woods from Tochheim to Steckby, I suddenly came across the gates to a Schloss-Friedrikenberg that had been started in 1704 for a princess but some problems arose so the castle wasn't worked on for 20-30 years.   There was no castle left, just the gates.  

In crossing the Elbe a local cyclist on the ferry asked if I were a Dane but when I told him I was from California he got very excited as he had driven trucks for the US Army near Bremerhaven.   He led me to the Radweg on a sort of back way showing me boats and gear.   One thing looked like a big engine that I think he said was used to pull ferry cables somewhere in Germany.   Many of the Elbe ferries are attached to cables and so there is little guidance by the captain.

The middle focus of today's ride was to get to Dessau which is the home of the Bauhaus school of architecture and has several buildings designed by Walter Gropius.   However, I was not pleased with Dessau.   Shortly getting into Dessau, I got my first and only flat from a small piece of glass in my rear tire.   It took more than 1/2 hour to fix it because it wasn't easy to find the glass and then my derailleur gave me problems in getting the wheel back on.   I stopped by Walter Gropius's Bauhaus but there was construction and I didn't take the tour.   I did hear one guide say that the round windows were to represent portholes on a ship.   I also went by the nearby Meisterhaus which was similar in design to the Bauhaus.

Leaving Dressau there were no Elberadweg signs when they were needed most.   I was looking for the Fürst-Franz Weg and when I hadn't seen any signs for it, I stopped a couple of older local cyclists and they turned around and led me to the path.   It is a well-used gravel or sandy Radweg.   A neat new covered bridge spanned the Mulde Fluss.   Two horse drawn wagons for people to ride in came over the bridge when I was eating a big Donar Kebob that I had purchased leaving Dessau.   A little farther along the trail was a set of brick gates (Tor) and then another one called Walltor am Serglizer Berg.   After passing by 2 statues, I think of the goddess Diana, the trail became single-track and was on top of a dike that was only 2.5-3 feet wide.   I stopped several times to let oncoming groups pass me.  

The dike deal ended at Wörlitz where a fest was going on so I stopped and walked around for a while in the Wörlitzer Park- saw the Schloss, heard a men's chorus sing a song on the steps, saw the lake, got an ice cream, etc., before riding off.   It sprinkled very lightly as I was leaving and on the way to the Coswig ferry.   A woman was riding towards me at one point with an umbrella and I pointed that she might want to keep it up.   While waiting for the ferry, I saw the first barge that I had seen on the Elbe.   It was a double one and was going v e r y slowly.   The ferry had to wait to come over and pick up the passengers and cars waiting on my side.   I got chatting with people on the ferry and got some help when I started to follow the Elberadweg sign that led me in the wrong direction.  

In Wittenberg I found the i with no problem but it was 6:30.   However, there was a map with places to stay and prices.   I tried one place that was full and then went to another.   The lady 1 st said she only had doubles but then said I could have the room for I thought 30 Euro.   I got cleaned up, was going to scout out the town but needed to eat and, as usual in Germany, that took a long time.   Lonely Planet had recommended Lutherschmaus (duck) at Zur Schlossfreiheit.   The duck was OK but it took too long and it had started to rain and get dark.   I had worn my jacket because it seemed that it wasn't quite dried from when I had worn it earlier in a shower.   Good thing I did.

I thought last night was only 30€ but it was 40€ but since the normal price for a double room was 59€, I guess I got a bargain.   I was surprised that my bike had not been covered during the night during the rain and my computer had fog in it most of the day.  

I scouted out Wittenberg in preparation for when Margo and I would come and also checked out storing bags and bikes at the station.   I also rode around to find the Arabian looking Hundertwasser Schule named for the Viennese architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser who designed it with a mosque-like façade.

Today in general had pretty good pavement surfaces and there was at last a strong wind behind me.   I was actually cold when I started and later when the clouds hid the sun.   At the town of Elster there was a band playing and lots of people clogging the bike path.   I had noticed a "cruise boat" between Elster and Wittenberg and though it very early and also it didn't look like people were on it.   In talking to an older man on a real road bike, he said that it was coming up to Elster to start service and today was the first day.   Another man was very interested in the gearing on my bike.

There were essentially no cities after Wittenberg except for Torgau which I had never heard of before. It had a very interesting monument with the inscription in Russian and translated on plastic signs in German and English.   It stated basically that the monument was to honor the Russian and American armies meeting there on April 25, 1945 ending the horrible National Socialist rule in Germany.   Somehow I had not realized that Saxony was in the Russian controlled area which then became the DDR.   I rode by a farm with 20 or so cows but had three huge derelict barns.   I also saw a DDR sign or "billboard" on a wall that was very faded.   I was struck by the poor condition of many buildings - having forgotten that both sides of the Elbe here were in the DDR.

Near my final destination of Strehla, I met an English speaking German couple and their 14-15 year old daughter who were also deciding what route to take - the main road or the Elberadweg.   As we were standing there talking, I suddenly noticed a haltered horse had come up beside us and on the other side of the highway was a guy riding a horse.   He slowly came over but never put a lead rope on the horse.   I said something like "Warum (Why)?" questioning the crossing of the road with no lead rope and his response was, "Warum nicht?"   The Germans pointed out that he was an Ossi (East German) and then this behavior and things about the landscape made more sense.  

After 122 km I finally made it to Strehla.   I looked at a map at the edge of town and found a couple of potential pensions listed - one of which was run by a Frank Dill (not of the former Frank and Mike morning show on KNBR).   Again I was unsuccessful on my first try for lodging but the woman at the desk spoke some English and made a call for me to the Hotel August der Starke way down on the other side of town next to the river.   My room had a great view of the river I think there were only four of us staying in the hotel which looks like it has about 30 rooms.  

The last day's ride was only 66 km from Strehla to the IBIS hotel in Dresden.   There also was monument at Strehla commemorated the meeting of the Russian and American armies.   The ferry I took to the right side of the Elbe had a sign saying that it couldn't take vehicles because the level of the river was too low.   Maybe that is why there is such a lack of barge ships.

The Radweg into Dresden stayed quite close to the river and alternated between asphalt, granite bricks on end and some streets in small towns.   I was taking a photo of the first ramp I had seen to get bikes up the six steps of the Radweg when a cyclist appeared so I got a picture of him coming down.   He spoke English to me when I unthinkingly said, "Thank you" instead of "Danke" for his being in the picture.   He said that the ride would get prettier going towards Dresden as there were more hills and vineyards.   I stopped at some point and as I was starting out again, a local rider rode along and asked a couple of questions of me and then we rode together to Nieschütz.   He pointed out how high the river had been during the disastrous flood of August 17, 2002 where it partially flooded the village.   There was also a spot where there were a number of large dead trees down near the river and I wondered if they were pushed over in the flood.  

At Meissen I pushed the bike up the two long ramps beside the steps to get to the bridge that led to Meissen and I was trying to decide if I wanted to ride to the Schloss and Dom (cathedral) which overlook the river from a bluff.   I had been seeing them for several km as I approached the city.   I decided to try, found the tourist office, got a map but still couldn't find a way up there except walking up a very long set of steps.   Meissen has lots of cobblestone streets and sidewalks so it isn't a fun place to cycle or walk.   Once again I was not happy with bicycling in a city.

The ride into Dresden itself was not fun.   The sidewalks were bad, there was the omnipresent construction and sometimes the Elberadweg signs weren't evident.   The area was not very affluent and I took a picture of an abandoned apartment building that had two small trees growing out where windows might have been on the third floor.   One time I asked some riders if they were coming from the Zentrum because the sign pointed the other way and they told me to go the way they had come to get to the train station.   After checking into the hotel I noticed my map book had fallen out of its place in my front pack.   I went riding off to the train station looking for it as it had notations about the trip but couldn't find it.   I was not going to ride against traffic back to where the streets were so bumpy and so gave up.   I bought another one at the tourist bureau which was right on the way.   I walked down towards the old part of town to check it out and then met Margo at the train.   The station is all torn up with new construction, as is much of the city preparing for its 800 th birthday in 2006 and the usual signs that tell what train is coming on what track were generally seen.   But I met Margo OK.  

After we went to the hotel, we walked across the river looking for a place to eat, saw the Goldener Reiter statue to August the Strong in the Neustadt and then had dinner on the Brühl Terrace with some great tortellini and spaghetti.   It was a fitting end to the trip.

Vin Hoagland

vin.hoagland@sonoma.edu