Monday, August 24, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - the Elbe Bike Path

At the end of my trip, my impressions of the Elberadweg -- by most accounts, either Germany's most popular cycling path or at least in the top three -- is mixed. Culturally and historically, I doubt that any other routes can compete with this one.

But in terms of the actual path itself, I do not feel that it even warrants the name "bike path" in many stretches -- and a number of fellow cyclists I casually spoke with felt the same. Most thought it was a "catastrophe" in parts.

One of those parts is the section around Meißen, where you have to carry your bike over stairs three or four times, depending on the route you take. And speaking of the route you take, there is no single Elbe Bike Path, but instead at least two (one on either side of the river), but each of those often strays off into neighboring villages trying to keep themselves on the map.

The result is chaos in terms of signage. Your average intersection sends you every which way without any indication of the main route. Most people ride along the river either upstream or downstream, so there are basically two directions. I would therefore have expected to find the kind of sign pictured above all over the place, but in fact this was the first time I saw any indication of something like "Hamburg" as a general indication of "downstream". The sign is just outside of Magdeburg, nearly 400 kilometers downstream of Dresden.

Aside from the inability to ride the path without a map just by following the signs (at many intersections, you had to take out your map to see which of the tiny unknown villages indicated was the right direction), the quality of the paths themselves left much to be desired. There were sections of cobblestone at regular intervals, and they acted as a sort of speed bump (see the second picture). They may have even been intended as such because they seem to occur especially often in front of information boards along the way. In rain, I'm sure they are downright dangerous, and they are certainly a pain if you are riding a racing bike or any other kind of bike with a lot of luggage. I imagine that a family with children in a trailer would not enjoy the trip because of all the cobblestones. In the third picture, you can see how cyclists have made their own tiny track to the side of the cobblestones, but with a trailer you would not be able to do that -- you have to go over those cobblestones. And this was a part of the official cycling path that went on for hundreds of meters. The fourth picture shows a longish stretch of modern (not historic) cobbles intended, apparently, to slow everyone down. It's a loud, shaky experience - and totally unnecessary.

Of course, there are a lot of cobblestones in the villages themselves, and some of the cobblestone paths must be historic, but I don't really mind all of that. What I do mind is having cobblestones put down intentionally and then being called a "bike path."

So if I do this route again, I will not do it the way I did it this time -- mainly for exercise. Instead, it will be a cultural outing, where I want to spend a day or two in each town having a look at everything, with the cycling merely being the means of transportation in-between stops.

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