I brought my own pedals to Germany, and a pedal wrench to install them.
I knew the vast majority of my cycling in Dresden would come in daily commutes around the city. But I knew there would be days when I wanted something more, and today was one of those days. Clipless pedals with cleated shoes make for speed and distance. I was headed to Meissen, the intact medieval city 25 kilometers west of Dresden along the Elbe. And my tour guide would be none other than Marina Jach, the Meissen architect and town planner.
Urban geeks: Her job is to coax back into use the scores, maybe hundreds of medieval buildings that were run down under the communist government of the GDR time. She talks to landlords, floats ideas, helps them navigate many of the same kind of redevelopment challenges we know in Cleveland. But the buildings are older. And the burden that wore them down was not the march of so-called free market capitalism, but instead the stagnation of communism. She is a friend of a friend. We met one night drinking.
This is the story of a day, a bit of an odyssey, a trip out and back with adventure in between. Regular readers of this blog will know that the bike I ended up with is the Checker Pig 6000, a full suspension mountain bike with big, fat tires—not a bike for 50 kilometer round trips. But under stunning blue sky I mounted my road pedals, changed my shoes, slung my backpack around, and got on the road.
Regular readers will also know how my travel stories spin out of control. Something happens that I didn’t plan for. Here in Germany the effect is compounded by the language barrier, and my willingness to go far into the realm of what you might call “improvisational living.” Stuff happens. By the end of this, for example, I might be headed to the opera. You just never know.
But getting back on track: I have marveled at the ways Dresden reveals its history. You can tell, for example, where the Allied bombs fell during World War two: Just look for the new buildings. Where they stand now, after February 1945 there was rubble. New buildings map the footprint of the bombing. The exception is the old Baroque neighborhood around the Frauenkirche, the Semperoper Haus, and the Zwinger complex of museums. Those were also leveled by bombs, but in recent years have been rebuilt, stone by numbered stone.
Meissen, though, was not bombed. It’s an entire town of buildings 400, 500, and 600 years old, tightly clustered in a rolling landscape along the Elbe, its skyline dominated by a palace and cathedral on the highest hill.
So I rode. The Elbe bicycle trail—which runs from Prague through Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, and all the way to the North Sea—winds along the green flats on both sides of the river: planted fields, meadows, groves of trees, small villages. It is paved, level, and altogether gorgeous. The skinny and smooth tires on my road bike would make hardly a whisper on such pavement, but it’s not that way with the Checker Pig 6000. The big, knobby tires on this borrowed bike hum along the asphalt, generating a pitch that wavers up and down with the pressure on the pedals. As I rolled, I could hear each pedal stroke in the hum of the tires, the wavering pitch like tuning a guitar string: sharper is faster. That’s the pitch we want.
I crossed farm land and passed through villages. I saw a windmill. I arrived in Meissen. And there, standing on the Eastern side of the bridge at exactly noon, was Marina. We parked my bicycle at her office, and we set off to tour the town. We visited the stunning Meissen cathedral, gothic, stark, bare stone interior with muscular pillars and vaulting, big but not huge, mostly built in the 13th century. I generally don’t take photos inside churches, and so I don’t have pictures here. Unlike the big cathedrals of Rome, and despite a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we shared the space with perhaps a dozen or twenty other, respectfully quiet people. One could feel the gravity of the space.
We also toured the Castle, built in the late 15th – early 16th centuries.
But enough about the spectacular buildings. As profound as those are, I am at least as taken by the fabric of the city, the narrow cobbled streets with their small grandeur, two- and three-stories, peaked roofs with ornate gables, most beautifully restored, thanks in part to encouragement from Marina Jach. The town planner of this ancient place deals with many of the same issues as her counterparts in Cleveland, and likely wherever cities are recovering from something: “We talk to landlords,” she says. “And then we wait.”
The town square, with its 15th century town hall, was the sight of a familiar battle: whether to allow cars, or not. Here, in a great victory for humans over cars, the people won. On weekends, in the town’s historic district, there are no cars.
Meissen — like Dresden and many towns along the banks of the Elbe–deals with periodic flooding. Marina showed me a building with plaques marking historic high water marks through the years, many of which are above her head.
I stayed in Meissen much longer than I expected, or wanted. My plan was to ride home in daylight, at least mostly. But the excellent guidance of Marina kept me pushing departure back to the point that it was getting dark in Meissen before I even arrived back at my bicycle. Neither of us was concerned about this: I could just take my bike along and ride the train back to Dresden. So she gave me directions to the train station, I got back on the Checker Pig, and off I went.
It was at the train station that I met Chris Bruckman. He had arrived at the station a minute ahead of me, long hair well kept, with red cotton pants and a sweater, riding an old mixte three-speed. I couldn’t tell by his accent if his English was spectacularly good, or if he was a native speaker, and the edges of his words had picked up a Germanic flavor after years living here. The latter, as it turns out. Chris is from New York.
He could read the signs at the train station, which told us something all of us knew, but all – including the town planner – had also forgotten: The engineers were on strike. There would be no train. It was fully dark by this time, and I had no light. Chris did, however, and he was also headed back to Dresden. So off we went together, following the path along the Elbe.
Chris, it turns out, is a rehearsal pianist with the Semperoper company, one of the great opera companies of Europe. He just moved to Dresden to take the job, having worked for smaller companies in the Rohr region of West Germany for several years, since studying at Lucerne. It was a slower ride home in the dark, but under clear skies we talked about music, orchestras, and the arcs of both our lives, for about two hours. We had to stop once in the middle of a field to look up, so distracted were we by the stars.
So –like a prophecy being fulfilled–by meeting a pianist on a trip to Meissen, I ended up going to the opera, to hear Beethoven’s Fidelio a few nights later. But that is another story. Back in Dresden, after a great day and moonlight ride, we ate middle eastern food at the Durum shop on Rothenbergerstrasse, and made plans to hear jazz the following night. This is how it goes. Stuff happens.