Category Archives: Germany

Berlin to Gdansk 22 May – 1 June 2012

Campsite comparisons, getting the miles in, and beautiful but Baltic Gdansk.

Staying at a ‘paid-for’ campsite rather than camping wild has a number of attractions:

• Showers (free if we’re lucky – more often we have to buy tokens )
• Toilets
• Wifi (at varying expense)
• Washing machine (usually expensive)
• A relatively safe place to leave your kit whilst sight-seeing

But also a number of annoyances:

• Shower-token running out whilst still shaving legs (Tamar, not Keith, as he’s currently not racing)
• Washing machine not rinsing clothes properly
• Extortionate cost of wifi in some campsites
• Teenagers running past tent shrieking
• Queues for showers and toilets
• No room to hang clothes in tiny showers so everything gets soaked
• Reception closing for half the day and taking with it the only access to electricity
• Campsite owners deciding to chain large, amiable, long-haired Alsatian next to our tent overnight, on a chain that is just long enough to allow him to sit on the tent and get tangled up in the guy-ropes. We shortened the chain to prevent tent-damage but couldn’t do anything about him barking all bl**dy night long.
• General noise and mayhem – our current site is undergoing some expansion work, with builders arguing and dropping large metal beams all over the place (AND it’s full of shrieking teenagers AND has the barking dog.)

I’m enjoying our trip…honestly I am! I’m just having a ‘campsite moment’ and hope you’ll indulge me.

Another evening relaxing in the Chateaux

Wild camping is, by contrast, usually lovely and peaceful. We can occasionally hear a little more road-traffic than we’d like to, but as a rule the only things to disturb us are the deer (at least I’m assuming it was a deer that was making the throaty grunting sound outside the tent at 2am whilst Keith snuffled peacefully and obliviously at my side) and the mosquitoes. But since mosquitoes are a nuisance whether you’re in the wild or on a campsite they kind of cancel themselves out of the equation.

In fact, the only reason we stay at paid-for campsites is to wash ourselves and our clothes (which will be less of a draw when the weather is warmer and washing in rivers becomes a more pleasant option), to charge the netbook and post the blog, and to allow us to go sightseeing unfettered by our baggage.
It doesn’t always go to plan though and the Berlin campsite was one of those occasions. We’d done our sightseeing and on day two had planned to have a lie-in, pack the tent away and then ensconce ourselves at the reception with the intention of plugging in the netbook to sort through photos, draft the blog, and then finally, pay for an hour or so of internet access to get it all posted.

What actually happened was we arrived at reception at 11.30 to find it closed from 12-3 (an oversight on our part….it was advertised as such on the door so we should have realised) and so we ended up sitting outside sorting and labelling photos and writing the blog before riding into Berlin to post, with dwindling battery, from Potsdammer Platz, which offered free wifi. This was not ideal as our solar panel struggles to keep the netbook going at the best of times so to set off with next to no battery life was a bit irritating.

As a result we decided to head to another ‘paid-for’ campsite early the following day just 40km or so from Berlin. After establishing they had free internet and an outside electric point, we spent the best part of two days there catching up on some online activity.

I was slightly concerned as we approached this new campsite as it was advertised as ‘natur-camping’. Thankfully it turned out to be a nature camp not a naturist camp, but given the amount of, err, German sausage on display beside a lake back in Potsdam the latter would not have surprised me.

We left the nature camp quite late the next day (making the most of our night’s fee and the wifi) and then spent the rest of the afternoon in a vain hunt for camping gas. The result of all this internet and gas-related faffing was that two days after leaving Berlin we were still some distance from the Polish border, whereas our original expectation had been to be in Poland the day after Berlin.

Anyhow, we eventually pulled our fingers out, set foot to pedal, and crossed into Poland at Kostrzyn on 25 May. We still couldn’t find any gas so bought some paraffin and switched to our multi-fuel burner.

If you’re wondering why we carry two burners, it’s because we really like cooking on gas, but it’s not always easy to find. Weight-conscious (and some might say more pragmatic) travellers simply accept that and get on with using a multi-fuel burner (which is cheaper to run and you can get petroleum-based fuel of some description pretty much anywhere). But we think the gas burner has sufficient advantages to warrant bringing both.

If it’s peeing with rain then gas can be used, with extreme care, inside the vestibule, whereas a multi-fuel stove absolutely cannot. The large yellow flames that can occur on priming are just not safe anywhere near the tent. We also think the gas has a much better simmer control than the multi-fuel. So as a rule, we use gas when it’s available, and when it’s starting to become harder to find we switch to multi-fuel and try to keep a gas canister in reserve for the days when it’s really too unpleasant to cook outside.

Cue childish snigger

The area of Poland we we’ve been cycling through is fairly heavily forested so finding somewhere out of sight to camp has been pretty easy. Keith, however, is on a mission to have a mosquito-free evening (they do seem to be particularly prevalent in forested areas) and keeps a constant look out for a nice, open field. It’s getting to be quite amusing as we ride through lots of lovely fields at lunchtime, and then by the late afternoon and early evening seem to be surrounded by nothing but forest.

Can I have some tarmac please?

We’ve now left behind the detailed Bikeline R1 cycle-route map book, but our 1:300,000 Polish map shows national, regional and local paved roads and also local unpaved roads. The quality of the road in any of those categories is a bit variable though, so the success of our route-selection has been a bit hit-and-miss. Local paved roads range from pristine tarmac to brutal cobbles. Regional roads can be quiet and delightful, or can be full of articulated lorries squeezing past each other on heavily rutted tarmac. National roads might have an excellent hard shoulder or adjacent bike-path, or might be like the worst regional roads: narrow, with lots of lorries and rutted tarmac.

Bilingual signage in Polish and Kashubian

On the whole the cycling’s been good though, with the only bad day being on approach to Gdansk – unsurprising really as it’s a busy port, but the roads are really struggling to cope with the number of HGVs.

Cities are always a bone of contention between me and Keith as I think they’re better approached on a bikeless, city-break type of holiday. I just don’t like the traffic: the relentless noise, the overbearing HGVs, the random pedestrians that leap with gay abandon into the road and the feeling of imminent doom that hangs over my every pedal stroke. To make the experience even less pleasant than normal, the Baltic coast lived up to its stereotype and the temperature dropped noticeably as we approached Gdansk, forcing us to stop and add a few layers of clothes. So my first impression of Gdansk, as we negotiated our way along a busy dual-carriageway, desperately trying to find signs for the campsite, was not a good one.

The campsite’s quite noisy and cramped too so that didn’t help my mood, although it is cheap, has unlimited wifi and also unlimited hot water (in the tiny little showers).

Gdansk’s old port – the mediaeval crane is on the right

It’s amazing what a difference a detailed local map makes though. At the campsite we bought a 1:26,000 map and the next day headed back into the city on a much less traumatic route (although still fairly heavy with lorries in places due to port traffic and disruption caused by the building of a new road).
Gdansk itself was well worth the pain of the busy roads though. We started off with a ride out to Westerplatte – a large sand-bank about 7km north of Gdansk main town, which formed in the 17th & 18th centuries, came to life as a beach resort in the 19th century, became a naval post in the 20th century and was the site of WW2’s first battle when a German battleship attacked the Polish naval post.

Gargoyles & perrons (terraced entrances) on Mariacka Street

We then made our way into Gdansk itself and fell immediately in love with it. Despite being extensively damaged in WW2, its historic centre has been restored with care and has retained a feeling of authenticity. Whilst undoubtedly catering to tourists, with a glut of restaurants, street-stalls and amber jewellery shops, it manages to avoid the ‘theme-park’ feel of some restorations, particular as the day draws to a close and the crowds of tourists disperse.

Shipyard Workers Monument

We ambled round, admiring the 15th century crane (which was powered by men in giant treadmills and could lift an impressive 2000kg), the huge basilica, the jutting gargoyle waterspouts and ornately decorated frontages, and then visited the old shipyard where there’s a photo exhibition about the Solidarity movement, and a huge monument to the workers who were killed in riots in 1970.

Yesterday (31 May) we spent the morning sorting photos & drafting the blog and in the afternoon went on a bike-shop hunt. We’d tried two shops the day before but neither had the brake-pads we need. However we struck gold yesterday on our third shop and as well as buying two set of pads (at an astonishingly good price), we got a couple of bottle cages to go on the trailer, I replaced my sunglasses (which were falling apart) and Keith bought two new pairs of shorts. A most successful outing.

Gdansk’s quirkier side

The weather remains cold and we awoke to rain this morning, which stopped for an hour or so but is now lashing down again, so today is being faced with some reluctance…but it’s time to get back on the road. We’ll be heading through the Polish Lake District of Warminsko-Mazurskie over the next few days on our way to Lithuania.

Munster to Berlin 13 – 22 May 2012

Hailstorms, heatwaves, broken spokes and one cool capital.

Old bike transformed into a cycle-path sign

One of the quirkier pieces of signage on Europa Radweg R1

We left Munster on the Europa Radweg R1.  This cycle route runs 3,500 km through 9 countries, from Boulogne-Sur-Mer in France to Saint Petersburg in Russia.  We’re using the Bikeline Cycle Touring Book, which is the same series we used to follow the Danube last year.  They have good maps showing which sections of the route are paved, unpaved, traffic-free or otherwise, and where the campsites are.  They also have loads of information about tourist attractions en-route, but unfortunately the one we have this year is in German so we can only understand about 1 in 40 words.

German village seen across field of rapeseed

The sunny yellow fields didn’t make us feel any warmer in the bitingly cold wind. Nice to look at though.

The R1 cycle route does meander somewhat, avoiding busy roads and taking in as many tourist attractions as possible, so we’ve adapted it to our own needs.  We’ll often cut corners by taking busier roads, or set out ‘off the page’, relying on the compass to pick up the map a few pages further along having missed out a lengthy meander.

Apart from a couple of hilly days skirting around the edge of the Harz mountains, the route has been predominantly flat – perfect for getting us back to fitness without destroying ourselves in the process.  We’ve passed through picturesque villages and towns, across rolling farmland, through dappled forests and leafy glades, and bumped our way over more ‘ye olde cobbled streets’ than our wheels would really appreciate.  Apart from the indifferent weather it’s been a really relaxing and enjoyable start to the tour.

Quedlinburg Rathaus

In front of the Rathaus in beautiful Quedlinburg

We haven’t done a huge amount of sight-seeing en-route, deciding to save it for Berlin.  We’re concentrating for the most part on getting some distance covered as we’re very conscious of the lateness of the season if we want to get to warmer climes by the winter, but most days we seem to arrive in a picturesque town at lunchtime and spend some time admiring the old buildings.

Places of note have been Dessau (home of the Bauhaus movement), Wittenberg (where Martin Luther did some reforming), Einbeck and Quedlinburg (both of which have lots of beautifully painted old half-timbered buildings) and Park Sanssouci in Potsdamer (palatial gardens).

Date on old house of 1545

‘Ye Olde Painted Woodworke’ in Einbeck

It’s been quite a challenge to spot the difference between former west and east Germany….there’s no obvious border, but just a gradual realisation that there’s perhaps a higher proportion of utilitarian buildings in amongst the pretty ones, and that more and more roads, particularly the lower-category roads, are cobbled instead of tarmac, and that there’s far fewer solar panels (which seem to be in abundance on barns and farms in particular in the west of the country).

To be honest though, the most significant differences don’t seem to relate to former east/west divides, but are rather more to do with current area administrative boundaries.  Some areas have invested heavily in silky-smooth tarmac on their cycle-paths, and others have not.  In fact, in Brandenburg, the cycle-path surfaces are so superior to the road surfaces that Keith has actually been using the cycle-paths without demur!

Bauhaus architecture in Dessau

One of the ‘Meisterhausers’. Bauhaus architecture in Dessau

The only downside to the trip so far (rubbish weather notwithstanding) has been the mysterious breakage of three spokes in two days.  Last year we broke just one spoke in 11,500km, so this year we weren’t too pleased to have our brand new ones start to go after just 1000km.  Usually spokes break at the elbow (the bend where they insert into the hub)….but ours have all broken inside the nipple (where they insert into the rim)…and all are on the non-drive side.  Any idea what’s going on….anyone?

The weather (as mentioned) has been pretty cr*p:  very cold and windy, and until a few days ago, very wet, with the odd torrential hailstorm thrown in for good measure.  But at last the summer seems to be arriving and the last 3 days have been a bit of a heat wave, which has made a nice change.  Prior to that Tamar had been so cold at night that she’d not taken her clothes off for the eight days straight that we’d been wild camping.  A big thumbs-up for merino wool!

Despite being bundled up in winter clothes a tick still managed to attach itself to a momentarily bared leg, but we now have some fine-tipped tick-removing tweezers that worked a treat (unlike our efforts last year).

The terraced vineyards at Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam

Terraced vineyards at Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam

The route has taken us through lots of forested areas so finding wild campsites has been pretty easy. A variety of wildlife has taken a keen interest in the tent.  One site was awash with caterpillars….from tiny threadlike ones, to pale green inchworms, to sturdy black undulating b*ggers…all intent on attaching themselves to the tent.  The following night it wasn’t caterpillars, but spiders who were determined to take up residence.  Small black shiny ones, spear-head-shaped stalking ones, long-legged fragile ones and some interesting radioactive-looking bright green ones.

The Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate….a symbol of both division and unity

On arriving in Berlin, the sun finally decided to make an appearance.  We found a nice campsite about 15km out of the centre, but with great bike-route leading in to the main tourist attractions.  We then spent a day looking at the few remaining bits of the wall and sating our curiosity at the DDR Museum: a small but fabulous, privately-run museum that’s set out in an innovative hands-on way. Several happy hours were spent poking around inside a mocked up ‘concrete slab apartment’, opening cupboard doors, looking at clothes, books, magazines and foods, watching movie clips and listening to music.  We read about state-run communal potty-training, sat in a Trabant and then in a somewhat more luxurious Volvo used by party leaders.

Artwork from the East Side Gallery - on the remains of the Berlin Wall

An image from the East Side Gallery….1.3km of artwork on what’s left of the Berlin Wall.

We’ve been impressed with Berlin.  It’s a great city to cycle in. Flat, with wide roads and sensible, workable cycle provision.  Not too much traffic either.  It’s a nice mix of old, new and ‘still-under-construction’, all set around a web of waterways.  Add it to your list of places to visit if you haven’t already.

The Reichstag, Berlin

Berlin’s impressive Reichstag…but you have to apply 3 days in advance to go inside. 🙁 The dome looks great…full of enticing spiral walkways.

We’re about to head off again this afternoon (22 May) and should reach Poland in a couple of days time.