Clustered about as closely as 19 adults and bicycles could, we gathered alongside a steep, two-lane road in a part of eastern Germany nicknamed the “Saxon Switzerland”’ for its rugged beauty.
Our mission: Join the uphill parade of cars, trucks, buses and RVs, without benefit of a bike lane or even a ditch to plunge into if all else failed.
Our goal: A lovely old spa town nestled along the Elbe River near the Czech border.
“Do as I say, and you will be fine,”’ our leader, Dirk Broeren, told us with hearty cheer. Yet the Munich native, who survived World War II as a child and countless American bicycle tours as an adult, sounded ever so slightly apprehensive.
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“Don’t get too near the wall,” he said of the high retaining structure close to our right shoulders as we climbed. “And don’t look at the cars as they pass or you’ll go…” He gestured toward the traffic.
“Just look at the rider ahead of you. All will be well,” he shouted as he rode off.
When it was my turn, I locked my eyes on the pink-clad back of Carol Morasch, riding ahead of me. Up and down and around the road took us until we emerged onto a bridge with a stunning view of the river and — more impressive at that moment — a wide walkway where Dirk had stopped to make sure the eight men and 10 women in his charge all made it safely.
Exhilarated, I turned to smile at Susan Walker, a Colorado family therapist, who rolled in next. “I like following you,” she told me. “You’re such a solid rider.”
Exactly what I had been thinking about Carol, an avid gardener from Virginia.
We were a week into a 12-day bike tour from outside Berlin to Prague. Our low-speed adventure of under 300 miles offered a closeup view of how dramatically life has changed in the former Eastern Bloc nations, yet how history endures. Our tight-knit team learned to navigate country lanes, wooded paths and city streets with confidence. We enjoyed German pastries and Czech beer without guilt. We talked geopolitics and family drama, commiserated over sore body parts, shared sunscreen on hot days and agreed that the rainy ones weren’t so bad.
My husband, Logan Mabe, and I spent years looking for a sport we could do together before we rekindled our childhood passions for bicycling.
The Berlin-Prague journey appealed to us because of the route. Friends recommended the nonprofit educational travel company Road Scholar, formerly known as Elderhostel. They provided bikes, a guide, a van and a driver to carry our bags and rescue us if needed. Hotels, meals and airfare all were booked for us.
Next, we told Logan’s mom, Sylvia, about our plans.
“Can I come, too?” was her only question. In a day, she enlisted her friend Leah Hayes.
Our only reservation: Could we keep up with these fit 70-somethings?
We met our group at Berlin’s Tegel airport early one Sunday in May before boarding a bus to the small city of Dessau. There, we spent a day learning the rules of the road and getting to know our blue Raleigh 7-speed city bikes — as well as each other.
Ranging in age from 52 to 76, we had among us teachers, writers, a psychologist, a lawyer and retirees from a variety of professions. There were first-time Road Scholars like us and couples like Larry and Nancy Hembree of Miami, veterans of nine tours. Some were avid cyclists. Others were a little nervous about the challenge ahead — starting with proving to Dirk that we were competent cyclists.
Dessau may be most famous as home of the world-renowned Bauhaus Foundation, dedicated to the influential art and architecture movement. The main attraction is the Bauhaus building itself, architect Walter Gropius’ 1926 structure of reinforced concrete and glass. It survived the Nazis, who commandeered the design school in 1932 to train party officials. Allied bombings destroyed the glass, but the structure endured and has been fastidiously restored.
Our next stop was a museum dedicated to aviation pioneer Hugo Junkers, whose opposition to Hitler got him kicked out of his own factory. Klaus Lehr, vice president of the museum, learned as a child in 1960s Dessau that Junkers was a Nazi and therefore an enemy of the Communist state. Klaus’ grandfather, who worked for Junkers, set the boy straight — but warned him to keep it quiet. Now Klaus shares the true story proudly, presiding over a collection that includes a U-52 plane recovered from a Norwegian fjord.
We left Dessau the next morning on the Elbe Radweg, or bicycle path, which starts at the North Sea and ends at the Czech border.
The path took us to Wittenberg, buzzing with preparations for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his famous 95 Theses to a cathedral door and starting the Reformation. Luther’s story is a fascinating one, and Wittenberg does a great job of telling it. In the former monastery where Luther began as a monk and later lived with his wife and children, you can stand in his old classroom, see his books and wander through the rooms where he taught eager students and debated other great thinkers of his day.
The longest riding day of the trip — 42 miles — brought us to Torgau, the Renaissance town where U.S. and Soviet forces met up on April 25, 1945.
Anita Berge, a language teacher there, grew up in East Germany in the 1960s. She told us of the repression and deprivation of the regime. Yet, like others we met, she also expressed some nostalgia. “In the GDR, children were taught manners and social relations. They were much better prepared for school than they are now,” she said.
Anita took us to a riverside monument to the U.S.-Soviet meetup and told us about Joe Polowsky, an American soldier at the scene who became an antiwar activist. After his death in 1983, he was buried with military honors in Torgau, where a high school — and a rose variety — were named for him.
After a 36-mile journey to the village of Moritz, we enjoyed our customary hearty dinner. Our new friends from Chicago, Kate and Elliot Kaufman, announced that their daughter was expecting twins. As we toasted, it felt like we were celebrating the happy news of a family member.
Meissen, with its storybook castle and famous porcelain works, was one of our most scenic lunch stops, with its wonderful little cobbled lanes full of restaurants and shops. A threatening sky sent us scurrying for bikes, though we couldn’t outrun the rain. When the lightning passed, we kept riding, knowing we had to make 37 miles to our next stop.
Despite the gray chill, it was exciting to ride into Dresden, the first big city we encountered by bike. We’d all seen photos of its devastation by Allied bombs near the end of World War II and wondered what we would find 70 years later.
The mood brightened as we encountered a park with a modernist fountain that looked sort of like a giant shower.
Sylvia announced she was riding through, given she couldn’t possibly get any wetter. Everyone followed her, laughing all the way.
The next day, we left our bikes in the hotel garage and set out to discover Dresden. The scars of war can still be seen if you know where to look — vacant lots and unevenly aged stone in restored historic structures are but two signs. Yet this is a beautiful city, still under restoration, that merits far more than we could cover in a 48-hour visit.
Guide Elisabeth Reschat started us at the Zwinger, a Baroque palace begun in 1710 that today holds a complex of impressive museums — most of the artworks had been moved to safety during the war. The Zwinger was one of the first landmarks to be restored, opening in phases as early as 1951.
One of the most recent restorations is the Lady Church (Frauenkirche), which many thought should be left in ruins as a monument to peace. A major donor to the effort was the English city of Coventry, itself flattened by Nazi bombs.
Thirty miles later, we rolled into the gorgeous resort town of Bad Schandau for a one-night stay we all wished could be longer. The next morning, a bus took us up the mountain to the Saxon Switzerland National Park for a field trip to the Basteibruecke, a cliff formation with the best river views of our entire trip.
On a riverside trail, we crossed the Czech border. No one checked our passports, but we clearly were in another country. The paths sported the occasional pothole, the parks had a few weeds, the towns seemed grittier. It felt more like home than ultra-tidy Germany did.
But the sights and experiences were every bit as remarkable.
Our next major stop was the village of Terezin, site of the Nazis’ “show camp” that fooled the international community into believing the Jews were being well cared for. Our guide, a young man with an obvious passion for ensuring that the world never forgets what truly happened there, took us on an exhaustive tour, including the frigid little cells — a holdover from Terezin’s 18th century roots as a Bohemian fortress — reserved for political prisoners.
After we visited the enormous cemetery, with its moving monuments to Jewish and Christian victims, the skies produced a cold drizzle. We rode off, too lost in thought to worry about getting wet.
Our final day on the bikes was a 15-mile ride to picture-postcard Melnik, with its Renaissance chateau situated at the crossing of the Elbe and Moldau rivers.
We somewhat wistfully handed over our bikes to driver Karl Heinz Schneider, who had been looking after us for nearly two weeks, and boarded a bus for our final stop.
We had a couple of days in magnificent Prague, just enough to know we wanted to return soon. We snapped photos together, swapped emails, friended each other on Facebook and considered Nancy Hembree’s question: “What’s your next trip? We always talk about that on the way home.’’
If you go
Road Scholar is offering the Elbe River bike trip twice in 2015, June 20 to July 3 and Sept. 5-18. The package price starts at $3,295. For information on this and hundreds of other trips, go to roadscholar.org.