Spend any amount of time in Germany and you’ll learn that the locals don’t do things by half measures – it’s all in or nothing. You can read a lot into that.
After a hugely enjoyable couple of weeks touring homeward from the country’s eastern borders, we pitched up on the Wein Strasse in time for pretty Freinsheim’s Stadtmauerfest.
“Seen one Wein Fest, seen ‘em all!”, we overheard an American say. Not true. In Germany each village, town or wine region holding its own annual celebration has something different to offer.
Neustadt is the self styled capital of the northern wein strasse. We arrived on a quiet Friday afternoon and cycled into the hills above the small old town centre. There wasn’t too much to see and we weren’t surprised on learning later that it was literally, a new town, built on a successful wine trading route. So much for that then!
Baking in the evening sun
In Freinsheim they go early as the harvest isn’t due for another three months. The allure of the festival is the meander through its intact medieval stone town walls that circle a half-timbered centre of bijou shops and pretty homes.
Passing through inner courtyards of shaded planting and inviting seating we joined an initially thin-on-the-ground late afternoon gaggle which quickly became a boisterous throng, pushing en-masse through the narrow cobbled walkways.
On the trail to wine
Inside the walls
The Walls Fest in action
Riesling from a pump
Germans, it seems, like to wear jeans to these occasions. Despite being a key date for every local in the vicinity the event was markedly casual as groups of friends and families variously chatted, drank, sang and partied their way around the walls.
The going price of a glass of Riesling varied from €2 to €9.50. We tried the bottom end and ventured to €5 for a glass, honestly, we couldn’t tell the difference. We did appreciate that on payment of a small deposit we were given a wine glass to waft emphatically about. Glass! Not plastic! It felt terribly grown up.
The food stalls were astonishing. Ranks of sweating grillmeisters tended racks of pork steaks smoking on skewers, whilst a lone fishmonger cooked slabs of salmon nailed to wooden planks over two fearsome fire pits.
Smoking the salmon
Tasty porky treats
Life’s a pig
It was a wobbly but hilarious bike ride home through the quiet vineyards at sunset. The festival was set to continue for another two days and we wondered how everyone would cope – the frantic bar staff, the visibly deteriorating grill-meisters, the already salmon-coloured fishmonger and indeed, the locals.
Dallying in the fresh saline air of the town’s remarkable gradierbau the next morning, we pondered that the wine fest’s lively experience had proved once again that the Germans go for broke and sometimes that’s not a bad attitude to have.
A salt air recovery
Cooking up a hangover cure
With just a handful of days left before the ferry home from Dieppe, it was time now to plot a course through France to slow down, remember, and celebrate some wonderful experiences and encounters.
Time also to prepare ourselves to return to the routine of home and work, and the uncertainty of life in Brexit Britain, seemingly more unsettled than when we had left it in April before the General Election. It has been good to have a break from Blighty.
For just a few days more then, we will be currently away…
Some places you visit because you are drawn to them throughout your life, others wantonly sell themselves to you.
Some places you stumble across whilst heading somewhere else, and others you visit as way of sharing an experience with people who care about you, and you about them.
Heidelberg was that for us. Earlier this year we lost a good friend, Peter, our ‘old boy’. A 20th century adventurer he travelled in Europe and Australia finding work to fund his way. His beloved Germany stayed with him in his dreams and in his animated talk of Hamburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Heidelberg.
For us it was time to visit Germany’s oldest university town and walk in the steps of Peter and the earlier German Romantics, Goethe, Eichendorff and Höldelin.
On the Neckar
Me and G
Heidelberg’s ruined red sandstone castle dominates the forested skyline above the town, an example of renaissance architecture it stands squatl and proud on Königsthul hill.
Its impressive Romantic heritage boasts Goethe, Eichendorff, Mark Twain and our own William Turner amongst its many enraptured fans. We trundled up the steep stone walkway past workman labouring to repair broken walls and tour groups piling out of the funicular railway.
Kings of the Castle
Romantic and Ruined
The old town itself maintains its tightly packed and cobbled streets, three big university campuses from 1386 onwards form the its heart with a merry collection of beer halls, upmarket hotels, bistros, fashion and art houses and historic churches adding to the mix. What a place to study!
Mark Twain, visiting in 1880, had lots of insightful and gently humorous thoughts to share about the culture of boozy students and their preference to declining drinks rather than German adjectives. The worst and most inebriated offenders were cast into the student prison, studentenkazar, for at least 24 hours and fed only bread and water… inevitably a stint in the slammer became a badge of honour.
Today’s students mingled amidst a lively backdrop of music posters for concerts, recitals and performances as well as dance shows and art exhibitions. The English style pubs and micro-breweries are candle lit and wooden panelled, and refreshingly, you order and pay for your beers at the bar!
We scrambled up the steep and snaking Schlagenweg to former terraced vineyards now allotments facing back to the Old Town. The German romantic poets and thinkers walked here. We bumped into an overheated American family lamenting their earlier lunch of kebabs. Chuckling, we left them panting behind for spectacular views back across to town.
It was a lovely day in a very lively and enjoyable town, busy with modernity but unashamedly wearing its romantic history on its sleeve.
We sipped a bottle of local beer on the Altebrucke with views back to the castle and university whilst watching the local rowing crews practice their sculling. William and Kate were due to arrive to soothe ruffled EU feathers and allay Brexit concerns. We still had our own, but for now raised a Heidelberger each to Peter, a good friend, sorely missed.
Bavaria’s Bamberg is a remarkable example of a central European town with a still intact medieval street pattern, and surviving ecclesiastical and secular buildings from the same period.
It boasts timber framed buildings painted in bright colours and frescoes, impossibly lop-sided or leaning into each other over narrow passageways, as well as a smart collection of baroque buildings introduced when Bamberg was the centre of the Enlightenment in southern Germany.
UNESCO has awarded it World Heritage Status primarily because of its influence on urban design and evolution in central Europe from the 11th century onwards.
When Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, became King of Germany in 1007 he made Bamberg the seat of a bishopric and intended to create a second Rome. Over the next 500 years the town developed across seven hills where the Regnitz and Main rivers meet and perhaps its loveliest individual sight is the Altes Rathaus, perched on a tiny island in the Regnitz, decorated with frescoes and reached by two bridges.
Frescoes flags and flammenkuchen
Bamberg was the seat of prince-bishops until the early 19th century and they built many beautiful and baroque private and public buildings. A particularly lovely fountain commemorates King Maximilian I of Bavaria, the emperor Henry II and his wife, Conrad III and Saint Otto, bishop of Bamberg.
The town had darker notoriety during the Bamberg Witch Trials which reached a terrifying climax between 1626 – 1631 and claimed around one thousand victims, women and men. Later in the 20th century it was briefly linked to the Nazis in 1928, when Hitler used it as a meeting place of the then young Nazi party in Bavaria.
Bamberg survived the second world war intact and since the 1950’s it has taken on a programme of small and manageable renovation and restoration works. It was a delight to wander through on a sunny late afternoon.
Dettelbach along the river Main’s right bank is prettily set amongst the hillsides of vineyards above the river’s green waters. The almost complete medieval town wall circles the cobbled streets of half timbered houses. Dettelbach has managed to keep two medieval towers and two of its original fortress gates.
We pottered around it on a quiet weekday afternoon when the local shops and businesses were all, inexplicably, closed. It gave the small picturesque town, little more than a village really, a quiet museum like feel as the only other people around were visitors and cyclists like us.
Cycling a round route along the Main we visited Kitzingen, a larger and busier town with a riverfront setting. Lunching locals and office workers were taking their seats outside bustling cafes and inns.
The annual ‘White Dinner’ was about to be hosted on the riverbanks and publicity shots showed diners all dressed in white, seated at white liveried tables above the water and dining by candlelight. It seemed a lovely thing to do!
Crossing onto the right bank we pedalled through large fields of open vegetable plots, all meticulously tended. It was a quiet and unsung corner of Bavaria but a very gentle and genteel one, which struck a note of charm with us both.
We hadn’t visited the Main river before and had only ever passed through the region. After spending three days alongside the busy waterway, it’s an area we would like to return to.
Dresden is Germany’s phoenix, rising from the ashes and rubble of World War II in all its former baroque splendour.
For us Brits it’s an uncomfortable reminder of perhaps our most heinous wartime act, the bombing of a city packed full of civilians and refugees fleeing the chaos of the disintegrating Eastern Front and which contained no obviously strategic targets.
The city will not let you leave it unaware of the devastation wrought by the allied bombings on February 13th – 15th, 1945.
Black and white photographs of Dresden in the immediate and horrific aftermath are blown up in high resolution around key sites, and tour guides carry folders full of the images of shells of historic buildings, smouldering piles of rubble and burnt wooden buildings.
In four raids, 722 heavy bombers of the RAF and 527 of the US Air Force dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices on the city. The bombing, together with a resulting firestorm, destroyed the majority of the historic centre.
The death toll has been controversial, initially inflated by Nazi propagandists howling with moral outrage at the act, but it has proved hard to fix on a figure precisely because the city was swollen with refugees fleeing the Red Army’s advance from the East. The city authorities at the times estimated 25,000 deaths, which has since been supported by post war research.
There’s no excusing the act and although it had nothing to do with us directly, we couldn’t shake a sense of shame.
It’s fair to say that Dresden is trading on the notion of its own reconstruction. After the war ended the city was absorbed by the DDR, and the Eastern Bloc.
Work began on some churches, the historic Zwinger and the famous Semper Opera House. However, large areas were rebuilt in a socialist modern style, partly as it was cheaper, but also to break from Dresden’s past as the royal capital of Saxony and stronghold of German bourgeoisie – notions repugnant to communism. Many damaged churches, palaces and royal buildings were simply demolished in the 1950s – 60s and new buildings erected in their place.
Modern skyline and cranes
Today’s massive construction work, highly visible around the historic centre is doubtlessly traceable back to the bombings but is also the current initiative to demolish unwanted socialist era buildings and create ultra-modern and architecturally sympathetic housing, hotels and entertainment venues, particularly around the central Neumarkt.
Tourists happily move their way around the dust and construction fences, whilst being shown images of how the square looked in 1945. The slogans on the scaffolding proclaimed, “Our beautiful Dresden”.
The remarkable Frauen Kirche, the baroque jewel in the city’s crown, was rebuilt after the reunification of Germany from 1994. It was consecrated in 2005 and 250,000 people celebrated a festival over its first three days of opening, amongst them the incoming Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It is truly beautiful and a faithful rendering of the original, with added improvements in its structural engineering. The church collapsed two days after the bombings, in a firestorm, when its supporting columns exploded and its foundations gave way.
The tragedy of 1945 is utilised very effectively in the marketing of Dresden’s ‘reconstruction’ which in turn encourages visitors to smile ruefully at the noise and dust rather than complain about the inconvenience of the works.
A commonly heard remark (it has to be said by Americans) is on the filthy black colouring of the sandstone centre; “That must be smoke damage from the bombing”, we heard time and again. Actually, it’s a natural accumulation of urban dirt and weathering which for whatever reason Dresden hasn’t seen as important to clean up. Rather the authorities furnish blackened sites, like the Zwinger, with shiny new concrete and plaster statuary. It’s odd.
Hof Kirche Platz
Dresden has a long history as the capital of Saxony and its Kings and Electors furnished it with cultural and artistic splendour.
In return, they were immortalised in the Fűrstenzug, ‘the procession of princes’, a large painted mural of 335 feet showing the rulers of the House of Wettin between 1127 and 1904. In the early 1900s the mural was replaced with more than 23,000 porcelain tiles and it is known as the largest porcelain artwork in the world. It survived the bombings fully intact.
House of Wettin insignia
We strolled along Brühlsche Terrasse enjoying views of the waters and across to Neustadt. Groups from river cruise boats were gathered, taking their first views and being shown black and white images from 1945.
We ducked in to the Albertinum museum, where I especially enjoyed wandering amongst the collection of German Romantic paintings of the Elbe region by Caspar Friedrich David.
The Zwinger is one of Germany’s best baroque buildings, created as a place of entertainment and amusement for the court. The bizarre name reflects its location as a part of the city’s original fortifications.
A series of pavilions and galleries around a central courtyard and orangery, it is now home to two art galleries, the best of which is the Alte Meister gallery, where we saw paintings by the Dutch and Flemish Masters, as well as some Italian Renaissance works.
New clean statuary
Walking across the building site on the famous stone ‘Augustusbrűcke’ – busily running with trams but for some confused visitors ‘still being rebuilt’ – we learned that the neighbouring traffic bridge cost Dresden its UNESCO world heritage status title in 2009.
Musing over a view of the city’s skyline, we both concluded that a project to rebuild an historical centre in a city with modern needs, and with a thriving tourism industry, is necessarily fraught with difficulty.
Old town skyline
Bureaucracy and arguments about architectural authenticity aside, the sheer logistics of managing more than 4million overnight stays every year on a permanent building site is mind boggling.
I suppose if anyone is going to make a success of it, the Germans will, but it’s also fair to suggest that the ‘reconstruction’ project is given a lot of good grace by the multitudes of paying visitors who don’t look too far below the surface veneer of the tragedy of 1945. It’s wonderful that the phoenix is rising again, and it’s deserving of a little help from some smoke and mirrors.
Along the Elbe and first documented in 1233, Pirna was a thriving Middle Ages town based on favourable river trading rights which profited the Electors of Saxony and through their significant investment grew into a Renaissance jewel.
Although subdued in the Thirty Years War, and later Seven Years War, the town flourished again in the 1700s when it was painted by the court painter, Bernado Bellotto, commissioned by the King of Saxony Freidrich August II.
Bellotto practised painting with the help of a camera obscura. A nephew and pupil of Canaletto (whose name he used as his own in Germany), his eleven views of the town are on display at Dresden’s Old Masters Gallery.
Bellotto’s style was characterized by elaborate representation of architectural and natural vistas, and by the specific quality of each place’s lighting. The constantly changing light on this stormy day would have no doubt thrilled the Venetian.
Bellotto’s “Marketplace at Pirna”
The town boasts Medieval, Renaissance, late Gothic and Baroque buildings, some of them public places most of them merchants’ or private homes.
Devils, angels and dragons are a common decoration and one house, remarkable for its two story Renaissance oriel window supported by devils carries the inscription ‘Ich wolds so haben was fragstu darnach’ I wanted to have it like that, why do you ask? Quite!
Alte Superintendentur 1585
St Mary tower and rooftop views
At the top of the town, we admired rooftop views from the terraced gardens of the castle, continuously built from the 1600s and throughout the 1900s. A fortress, a hospital, a care centre, it now holds the town archives and is an entertainment venue. It’s beer garden, on the old sentry walkway, dates to 1740.
Pirna didn’t escape the madness of the 20th century. A moving memorial commemorates the victims of so called ‘euthanasia’. 13,720 mentally ill people and at least 1,031 prisoners were murdered in the strictest secrecy in the town between June 1940 and August 1941. At the time Saxony, like neighbouring Bavaria and Sudentenland was a stronghold of Nazi Germany.
Town Hall 1300
Today, Pirna is a busy and enterprising town with, seemingly, a festival or major event taking place every week.
With stormy skies and the ever changing light, we enjoyed looking back to it from across the water at our motorhome stopover. Every half hour we heard the blast of the steamship that plies the summer waters up and down between Dresden and the Bastei. A beautiful spot on the Elbe!
Following in the footsteps of that most famous of German romantics, Goethe, we went north into Saxony to climb above the Elbe at the rock formations of Bastei.
Towering 194 meters above the river level and 305 meters above sea level the jagged rocks were formed more than one million years ago by water erosion.
“Here, from where you see right down the Elbe from the most rugged rocks, where a short distance away the crags of the Lillenstein, Königstein and Pffafenstein stand scenically together and the eye takes in a sweeping view that can never be described in words”, wrote Goethe. Helpfully so, as it is truly difficult to express the enormity and majesty of the sandstone mountains looming like sentinels above the winding course of the river far below.
The small village of Rathen at river level
Valley floor view
Travellers have been scaling the forested sides of the Bastei for more than 200 years and in 1824 a wooden bridge was built to link several of the rocks at its pinnacle.
In 1851 the bridge was replaced with a sandstone version of seven arches, which blend harmoniously amongst the sandstone boulders. It was a humbling experience to stand awhile against its walls looking over the ravine below and across to the gigantic rock faces of the steep mountains, worn rugged with age and weather.
The Bastei is part of the Saxony Switzerland park, which stretches south into the Czech Republic’s own Bohemian Switzerland park.
Apparently early travellers commented on its likeness to the Swiss mountains and so the name stuck. It’s a shame as the landscape sells itself, without pertaining to be elsewhere, and the reward of the spectacular views having hiked up the 200 or so meters through woodlands is thoroughly worth the physical effort. (Although we did notice that the flip flops and heeled shoes sported by most visitors meant that they were driven up to the summit hotel’s car park!)
305m above sea level
Skywalk above ravine
Bastei finger formations
Descending was also a challenge. The ‘Schwedenlöcher’ or Swedish Holes is the prosaically named steep and narrow gorge that drops down the Amselgrund to end prettily at the green waters of the Amelsee lake.
The path today has 777 steps and 20 bridges so the going is made easier than an attempt to otherwise follow the rocky course that falling water has carved through the mountainside.
Descending through the gully
In 1639 during the Thirty Years war after the Swedish Army had attacked nearby villages, peasants fled into the gorge with their scant possessions for safety. It’s hard to imagine how they may have lived out many days there perched on, or tucked within, the mossy green boulders.
It’s easy to see that it provided a place of natural refuge. Indeed, it was called to do so in many later wars including in last days of World War II.
To reach the park we cycled along the Elbe from our hillside campsite at Struppen. Puffing the steep way back to the hillside village in the late afternoon sun we had a rewarding view of Königstein, the tremendous fortress built 400 years ago on a rocky bluff.
For centuries, it was used as a state prison, but seen from amongst golden harvested fields with swifts wheeling overhead, it was almost hopelessly romantic and a wonderful image on which to end a full day exploring the local landscape and history.
From Medieval times, Bohemia was synonymous with wildly beautiful landscapes, cut through by the sandstone canyons of the Elbe which provided a trading and transport route for the heavy freight of quarried fossil fuel as well as luxury items of exquisite cut-glass crystal chandeliers and tableware.
Populated by Germans, who received the invitation of Czech kings to settle the forested uplands it became one of the most wealthy and industrialized areas in the Austria-Hungarian Empire, and later in Czechoslovakia after World War I.
In the early 20th century North Bohemia was known as Sudetenland and in 1938, at a time of high political unrest, it was annexed by Nazi Germany.
Today, even according to Czech tourism promoters the region is not well visited and is one of the poorest parts of the Czech Republic with comparatively high unemployment rates.
Large parts of its landscape were destroyed by intensive coal mining under communism, and the wealthy and architecturally interesting enclaves and villas of the German communities were left abandoned and forlorn after their owners’ mass deportation from the country following the end of World War II.
However, much of North Bohemia is stunning. On today’s borders with Germany and Poland are the Ore Mountains, Lusatian Mountains and Jizera Mountains.
In contrast, the Elbe valley is at the lowest point in the Czech Republic and is Central Europe’s largest and most impressive sandstone gorge, created by the magnificent passage of the river on its way from the Krkonoše mountains to empty into the Nord See at Hamburg.
Into the forest
We stayed at a lakeside campsite at Stará Oleška, in the Lusatian Mountains close to the Czech border with Germany.
In a stroll around the nearby hillsides we found contrasting down at heel hamlets of ramshackle-looking rural homes, with grubby ground floor windows and doors all barred and guarded by noisy barking dogs, and well-heeled villages of renovated wooden framed homes in large and pretty garden plots.
Further west we visited Děčín, the German name for which was Tetschen, a North Bohemian town that unfolds in the wide basin of both banks of the Elbe River.
On the south side the impressive castle towers over the river bank, hewn out of the giant rocky sandstone cliffs.
Opposite, Pastýřská Stěna or Shepherd’s Bluff, is now a climbing rock face leading up to a prettily situated hotel and restaurant. Remarkably, we saw people scaling the rock face to reach the top. Apparently, climbers come from all over Europe to ‘enjoy’ this activity!
The Elbe river dissects the town from south to north, and is lined with roadways, a rail road and innumerable chimneys that once were the powerhouses of light industry along its banks.
Crossing bridge under bluff
Baroque walkway to Castle
Being the first week of July, it was the start of a two-day Czech public holiday, so the normally sleepy town on the Elbe was a hive of activity with hikers, cyclists and the afore mentioned rock climbers.
As we discovered on a steeply challenging 20km hike out of town, the Elbe wanders its way through a megalithic landscape of towering and tottering sandstone formations edging over the waters at heights of more than 300 meters.
Alone in the deep forests of tall pine and beech trees that line its towering banks we scrambled up woodland walkways to romantic lookout points along the river. Romantic in the artistic and high cultural sense of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
German Romanticism was later than in England when the poets, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth explored nature as a conduit towards spirituality.
In some ways, it was more thorough, encompassing not just literature and philosophy but also music, Beethoven, Lizt, Shubert, Wagner, Schumann and painting.
Caspar Friedrich David (1774 – 1840) painted gorgeous and mysterious Elbe landscapes seeking to express the connection of the soul through unity with, and reflection upon, nature. Two of his most famous works are inspired by walking in the Elbe canyons.
Wander above a Sea of Fog
Communism ended the romanticism of Bohemia and gave it a heavy dose of reality in the form of industry, extensive mining for coal, mass building of power stations and the carving up the countryside with railways.
After the tragedy of World War II and in its aftermath the mass expulsion of millions of German people from their lands in Bohemia, the Communist regime repopulated the area with Czechs, some of whom commented that they were being given a home and land to which they had no claim and no connection.
Yet even today, we heard elderly people in Děčín speaking Russian and some even speaking German, a living reminder of the changing fortunes of this corner of the Czech Republic and its tumultuous past.
Děčín was a very thoughtful final stop for us in Eastern Europe. It’s a small corner that’s not widely promoted to travellers as a place to visit, but we really enjoyed spending time there!
Standing on a grassy bank opposite an innocent looking and soggy line of forested trees on the other side of a stream was not how we imagined seeing a view of 20th century Europe. But truthfully, we were in Germany, whilst opposite was both Poland and the Czech Republic.
More poignantly we were in three former Soviet Bloc countries, now all members of the European Union and since the Shengen Area Agreement in 2007, without borders and viscously policed state lines.
After the Yalta and Potsdam agreements carved up post war Europe between the allies – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – Germany lost 25% of its land mass, comprising some 12 million people, to the lands of Poland and Czechoslovakia, but ultimately to Russia.
Poland referred to its new lands as ‘recovered territories’ as they had indeed been Polish before being appropriated by the Prussian Empire. It regained Gdańsk (Danzig), Silesia, Pomerania and lands east of the natural border created by the Oder and Neisse rivers. Poland lost parts of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania to Russia.
Border crossing 1964
Czech-Polish Border 1982
Germans in the annexed territories fled, were forcibly removed or were killed. Heroic stories of Polish and Czech people still abound, telling of those who saved German families by pretending they were their own.
German civilians were horrifically ‘punished’ by the retreating Red Army as it was encouraged by its leaders to maraud its way home. Mass exodus was organised as people fled or were forced into the German Democratic Republic, the new East Germany.
Today the borderland between all three countries is open country. Where an ugly gash had been cut through the dark forest and filled with barbed wire to prevent Polish and Czechs from meeting, it is now a scenic cycle path.
Germany is in part across the water but is accessible in both countries over forest foot paths and traffic and railway bridges. Market stalls sell cut price cigarettes, local produce and cheap Chinese clothing at all three borders. Germans whizz about in flashy cars, Poles and Czech tend to drive older ones.
The sun always shines on… Poland
A rainy day in…Česká
In one day, we woke up and breakfasted in Germany, cycled into and about Poland and bought a porky lunch to munch in the Czech Republic before making it back to the rather grand Marktplatz in Zittau, for the Kaffee und Kuchen hour at 4pm.
This might sound like an epic tour, but we had only cycled ten miles by the time we arrived back into Germany.
A notable incident – at the Czech border an elderly German couple had been pulled over and fined €200 for not having the headlights on their car on and dipped. We commiserated on their being only two meters into the country.
The Czech police officers smiled and shrugged… and carried out the paperwork and punched numbers into a Visa card machine.
Polish border bargains
Česká border fleecing
It was incredible, and sobering, to think of the dream of the late 20th century that dared believe a peaceful solution could be found to bring not just these three countries, but all other countries of Europe together in free trade and free movement.
The senselessness of Brexit and the uncertainty of our own situation at home was magnified simply by standing in the rain and watching it fall, indiscriminately, on Poland, the Czech Republic and that great anchor of modern Europe, a reunified Germany.
Quietly, on a rainy Friday morning we made a ‘back door’ border crossing by climbing 900 meters through the Karkanosze mountains out of Poland and dropping down into the Czech Republic.
The smooth tarmac of the road’s surface ended abruptly at the country’s entry sign and we bumped along a patched and weather-beaten version.
The route was interesting as it passed through former light industrial centres of glass and textile manufacturing. There was ski season paraphernalia in the larger villages but everything looked ramshackle and unkempt.
People plodded through the rain to wait for buses or to buy items at little local shops. We couldn’t work out what kind of living people made here and saw no schools, doctors’ surgeries or administrative centres. It seemed a rough life in the mountains compared to the wealth of the bohemian towns that we had previously explored around Prague.
Like elsewhere, the campsite we aimed to stay at appeared open at the gates but not open for business yet. It meant travelling further so we stopped at a busy local café for a very tasty lunch of meat and potatoes. Food and fuel was great value on our daily budget so we hoped to find a base to stay for a few days to explore.
At Liberec, we admired the splendidly fading old main square. It offered clues to its ancestry. Its beautiful and overly ornate Town Hall sported spires, statues, gothic tracery and a Ratskeller. Close by a definitive art deco building from 1929 featured motifs of industrial and agricultural workers standing above the streamlined barrelled windows. Surely this was a German town?
Liberec had once been part of the Austrian Empire and was settled by German and Flemish peoples. Named Reichenberg for its wealth, the striking similarity in architecture to Bolków and Jelenia Góra was now obviously apparent.
The towns had all prospered by light industry and manufacture and benefited from picturesque locations which allowed for leisure resorts to pander to the Germanic love of the ‘great outdoors’. Liberec had high culture in its late 19th century Opera House, art galleries, museums and a glitzy social live that revolved around cafes and hotels. After the First World War, it was initially declared to be the capital of German Bohemia but was quickly occupied by the Czechoslovak army.
Behind the facades
Art Deco shopping centre
The depression of the 1930s hit the town hard as it was reliant on light industry for employment. Hunger, anger and unrest with the Prague government led to the sudden rise of the Sudenten Democratic Party which became a political hotbed of Nazi fervour leading to the city being ‘awarded’ to Germany and Hitler laying out his plans for the Hitler Youth in a speech in the town’s square.
1900s faded splendour
After World War II the town again became part of Czechoslovakia and the German population was expelled. Czechs were resettled but only to become part of the vastly increased Soviet State. Old borders east had been pushed west by Stalin and the Eastern Bloc now included Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany.
Former industrial site
Hot water still being piped
We cycled along a track following a bizarre metal pipe construction that crossed roads and bridges and occasionally belched out hot steam.
Stopping to ask passers-by we learnt it was the town’s historical hot water system, still feeding apartment blocks and high-rise flats. Free hot water for the workers! Communist state-controlled personal hygiene regulations in action!
We pitched up at the only campsite in Liberec, one of three vans but many motorbikers – it was MOTOfest and that meant only one thing – strong beer, scrubby bearded men, scary looking women and heavy rock!
Escaping the soundcheck we went to have a beer at the campsite bar before Act of God, Anarchia, Deathward and De Bill Heads all took to the stage.
It was going to be a long night…
Trip days can sometimes frustrate best laid plans. We had only expected to do 80 miles from Kraków, to a countryside campsite, to rest up tired legs and eager minds full of thoughts provoked by an interesting few days.
Instead, a wrongly missed exit off the motorway meant we drove 200miles to Bolków arriving wearily in late afternoon sunshine.
Parked alone at an empty municipal camp next to a public swimming pool, we were cheerfully welcomed by two workers preparing the site for its big opening on July 1st – the start of the summer season.
This is something that has amused and perplexed us throughout our trip. Since the middle of May central Europe has been variously baking in weeks of hot weather, yet summer businesses of campsites, activities and entertainments have remained resolutely closed. Officialdom rather than enterprise seems to be the order of the day.
Clinging to curtain walls in flip flops
Advised to see the town’s castle we meandered up a steep cobbled street, dressed for an easy visit to a museum.
We ended up skirting the castle walls along the local’s path, clinging to the rocky sides of its curtain wall defences, dodging giant nettles and a loose and barking Alsatian dog before heading gratefully down and into a, by now, overcast and gloomy centre.
The square was impressively arcaded with thick stone buttresses but very run down. The brightest and cleanest building was the church, together with its statue of the Pope outside.
We couldn’t place it but it felt almost Alpine and very much out of season. Which technically, it still being the end of June, it was!
New arcades meet old
Shiny John Paul II
Further west into Lower Silesia we stayed at bustling Jelenia Góra, an open-all-year destination perched prettily in the foothills of the Karkonosze mountain range.
Its charming old square, like Balków, was arcaded with buttress walls but was in better condition and freshly painted along one side. The campsite was open and busy, squeezed amongst hotels and a new supermarket, the car park of which we had to drive through to pitch up.
Freshly painted arcades
Spending a day on the bikes we cycled a demanding 50km round route up 850 meters to the mountain resort of Karpacz.
On the way we passed de-commissioned Polish army trucks, disused railway stations, one street villages, a western-style rodeo centre and gorgeous open high pastures dotted with cows and goats.
God is a DJ in Karpacz
I want my MTV
Karpacz was buzzing with day trippers and hikers tucking into mountainous lunches of meats and salads. We joined them hungrily, before slogging up the final ascent to see the wooden ‘Wang Church’.
Incongruous-looking with elaborate wooden reliefs of leafy vines, dragons and bearded old wizards it made sense once we understood it to be a Norwegian ‘stave’ church from the village of Vang, near the Winter Olympic town of Lilehammer.
Norway in East Europe
No ice cream at the top
It was saved from dereliction in the 1800s by the then King of Prussia. At his considerable expense, it was dismantled in Norway then transported and rebuilt here. The foundation stone was laid on August 2, 1842 in the presence of King Friedrich Wilhelm himself.
Two years later Prince Frederick of the Netherlands together with huge crowds witnessed the consecration of “The mountain church of Our Saviour of Wang”. Vang became Wang because the native Polish alphabet doesn’t contain a “V”.
The number of car parks dotted around the church attest to the claim we read about Wang being the World’s most visited stave church. 200,000 people clearly drive rather than cycle up here to see it every year!
The hair-raising descent on a steep road down the mountainside took us past other, derelict and frankly bizarre buildings.
At home on the south coast where every square foot of space is at a premium, disused buildings get knocked down and built upon. Here was the opposite and the few very ‘grand design’ mountain homes overlooked neighbouring and decaying monstrosities.
Were these buildings former hotels and entertainment venues built under communism and now ownerless and abandoned? It was something to ponder upon.