Germany is full of surprises, and I am continually finding out about new places here. Last Saturday has to rank as one of the best days of this year. We spent the weekend cycling on the Saale bicycle trail in Thuringen and Saxony-Anhalt, an area of vineyards, castles, ancient archaeological finds, medieval villages and beautiful countryside. Here it how it all began.
Prelude: Friday Evening
It was Friday evening and we were at a crossroads. Sometimes I think of life as a timeline with continuous forks at each decision, each one with a probability, the future ahead not yet solid. Although it wasn’t a serious choice on Friday, I still wondered what we’d find ourselves that weekend! The three options were:
1) go to Czech to fetch our marriage certificate and pick up wedding presents we left behind due to lack of space in the car
2) go on a last-minute weekend trip to the Saale bicycle trail, which sounded fantastic but which meant a long train ride hauling bikes around into unknown terrain
3) stay in Berlin for what would probably be the last hot weather of summer 2016, have a relaxed weekend and go to the lakes
One choice was eliminated when it turned out the marriage certificate had not yet been collected from the office. In a way I was relieved as the last trip there was stressful due to the wedding and being ill, and I think I need a little break before going back again.
The choice was then Berlin or the Saale river trail by bike. In the end my logic was that I would definitely regret NOT going to Saale, even if there were a slim possibility I might regret going. So because of the possibility it’d be great and I wouldn’t regret going, I decided we should go. Anyway, the bags were already packed.
We hauled our bicycles to the train station and set off on our three-train ride (the others left earlier but their route involved five trains, i.e. four changes with bikes, one of only 5 minutes, which we wanted to avoid). The good thing is that there are pretty good weekend specials for travelling on the train within Germany, especially within groups, if you take the regional trains.
In the later stages of the long train ride, I have to admit that I was so tired that I wished I were back in Berlin in bed! But as soon as we arrived the adventure started and my tiredness disappeared.
We exited the train into chilly, misty air at Porstendorf station in Jena. The person organizing the trip had sent us instructions how to get to the campsite and where to find the rest of the group (we were five in total). After a short but chilly ride in the dark (past a baaing sheep) we heard her calling my name as she had spotted me first. We gladly cycled over to find that upon their arrival not long before, some friendly locals had invited their group (three until our arrival) to share their campfire and even offered beers. After putting up our tent (stopping every now and then to gaze at the universe of stars spread above us in the sky, better visible without all the light pollution of the city), we joined them at the campfire. They even gave us barbecued meat on a roll and a seat to sit in! We stayed outside until about 2:30am around the fire under the shooting stars before heading to our tents to sleep. I don’t think we’d camped this year yet, so that was also fun.
Since we went to bed so late, we woke up at 9, packed up, and went to the campsite cafe for coffee, plum cake and Kartoffelpuffer (potato cakes) with apple sauce. Now that it was light we could see that we were surrounded by low hills, ponds and people floating past on river rafts.
After breakfast we headed off on the route. It was beautiful landscape: green hills, cornfields, forests, little towns, medieval villages with half-timbered buildings where knights used to live, castle ruins… There’s nothing like the feeling of the wind in your hair and the sun on your skin as you ride along on a bicycle. There were more hills than I’d hoped for, but it was manageable. That is typical wineland country, the many low hills.
Not far from the building complex that used to be for knights was a group of buildings from different historical periods.
It was on a hill, however, and it was baking hot (unusually hot for September) so we preferred to continue to Camburg, where there was a public swimming pool filled with spring water. The water was freezing but it was a lovely spot to refresh ourselves and relax. Food and drinks were cheap so we had a snack too. Camburg itself is an old town, dating from 1088. Since there are many connections between the languages of Europe, I wonder if the Cam of Camburg has a similar origin to the Cam of Cambridge?
After freshening up in the icy water, we headed on through the lovely countryside, stopping now and then to take photos. We were well into the winelands now, so we stopped at a winery with a restaurant for lunch. They had Federweisser (new wine), which is usually just a few days old and is made from freshly pressed grape juice. I wasn’t so hungry as it was really hot so just ordered some cheese and fig bread.
After lunch we cycled towards Saaleck, where we were rewarded for biking up several hills with a beautiful view of a bridge over the Saale and two castles, Saaleck and Rudelsberg.
There was a nice little stretch through forest, where lots of pink-purple flowers sweetened the air, then a steep hill to climb – my bike got to try out all its gears. Finally we were on top and the reward was an amazing castle, Rudelsberg, built in the Middle ages by the bishop of Naumberg and subject of a German folk song. It stands on the Via Regia, a road which ran across the Holy Roman Empire in Medieval times. It also lies on the Romanesque route, a favourite figure 8 tourist route through Germany that takes in many of the famous sights.
After exploring the castle, our next goal was to reach the campsite before it got dark. In fact we managed it just in time, arriving at 20:10. There was one more surprise waiting for us along the way. The next section of the trail went through beautiful winelands in the region of Saale-Unstrut, and one farm, Kloster Pforta, had had the brilliant idea of planting all sorts of different wine grapes along the fence, with signs saying what they were called and some information about them. So we had a great time trying all the different kinds of wine grapes, at dusk. The flavours are really surprisingly different, and the grapes were all different colours, sizes and forms.
After reluctantly leaving the delicious grapes, we cycled the last bit and arrived at the campsite, Blütengrund. After checking in, building our tents, having something to eat and listening to the folk/polka music at the canoe club party next door, we headed to our tents for bed.
Sunday was a shorter day so we saw less – it would have been great to have more time. After having a good breakfast at the campsite, we headed for the nearby town of Naumburg, which was an important trading town on the Via Regia in the Middle Ages. One of the main attractions in Naumburg is the beautiful cathedral, so we headed there for a look around.
Next, we headed back off into the countryside. Our aim for the day was to reach the Goseck circle, which meant leaving the Saale river trail for a bit and crossing the river. This involved ringing a gong to summon the ferryman, who duly pulled his ferry across the river to come and pick us up, bikes and all.
After crossing the river there was some lovely countryside with many vineyards and apple trees laden with apples – the Italian in our group said it reminded him of Tuscany, especially with the hot, dry weather.
So what was this Goseck circle we were off to see? Well, there is archaeological evidence for Bronze age settlements in Saaleck, and the whole area has a history of ancient civilizations. One amazing find in the area is the Goseck circle, a Neolithic structure from the 49th century BC (i.e. about 6800 years ago!), which may be one of the oldest solar observatories in the world. It was formed from wooden poles, based on similar principles to those used at Stonehenge, with entrances aligned with sunrise and sunset on the solstice days. Now it has been reconstructed using old building techniques, so that you can get an idea of how it must have looked. I remember the trip to England where I saw Stonehenge, and was surprised to learn that there are many other stone circle around England. Now this weekend I was surprised to learn that similar structures had been found in Germany and other parts of Europe too. The thing I find fascinating is that no one really knows what people were thinking when they built these structures. Probably it was like a giant calendar for them, to keep track of the passage of time in a year. Without watches, newspapers, cellphones or calendars, it would otherwise be easy to lose track of the days. However it also looks like a place where people might like to meet for ceremonies or parties, with its large circular structure.
Another amazing archaeological find in the area is the Nebra skydisk, a bronze plate with a blue-green patina inlaid with gold moon, stars (possibility including the Pleiades) and sun, from around 1600BC. This amazing artifact was found by treasure hunters, and after being sold on the black market was eventually returned to the state so that everyone can now view it in the museum in Halle. In Nebra is apparently a museum with a replica of the disk and the whole history, which is now on my wish list of places to visit.
After the hard work climbing the hill to reach the museum about the Goseck circle at Schloss Goseck, going down to the circle and then back up again, we were all pretty hungry. The idea was then to rejoin the Saale trail along the river and winelands, and have a nice lunch with new wine somewhere along the way. Unfortunately we didn’t find a spot for quite a while, and it also turned out that most of the new wine in the area had been sent to the annual wine festival at Freyburg (sounds like an outing for another day). As some people preferred to be back in Berlin before it was too late we ate something at the first open place we could find and then headed to the train station. So, many more kilometres of the Saale bicycle trail still wait for future weekend trips!
…And one bonus, the train ride on the way home involved stopping at Halle, famous for having the oldest chocolate factory in Germany, Halloren chocolate factory. There is now a chocolate shop selling their chocolates at the train station, so it was a good time to stop up on a few boxes of Halloren Kugeln, delicious little chocolate balls!