Friday, August 7th, 2020 – Magdeburg to Uelzen to Lutherstadt – Wittenberg

Distance travelled 463 km

I woke early feeling refreshed and went for a quick turn around the precincts of the Green (which is actually pink) Citadel to catch the sights it offered in a different light. It really is something to see. Photographs just cannot do it justice, like the Grand canyon, it is something you need to see with your own eyes.

Almost right next door is Magdeburg’s cathedral. That is an impressive building in its own right, but I expect few people, when confronted by the citadel, even notice it.

Because of the ongoing Covid problem, what would normally have been a buffet style breakfast was served to us in little boxes. It was, nonetheless, fresh, varied, generous and tasty. We ate it, in the warm sunshine, at a table on the broad pavement. We could not even eat it all, so we kept some for a mid-morning snack.

Because we could not get one in the Czech Republic, we had ordered a new blade for our garden shredder to be delivered to the hotel and it was awaiting us on our arrival. We packed it into our luggage and it probably says something about how “light” we were travelling to remark that this more or less doubled the weight of our bag !

Then we went left the hotel and set off to find our third and fourth attractions in Uelzen and Lutherstadt – Wittenberg. According to my “plan” which involved avoiding the motorways for smaller, more direct, roads this should have given us a ride of around 370 km. Lucie was quite pleased about this because, after a few months out of the saddle, what she calls her sciatic muscles were aching slightly. We cruised sedately out of Magdeburg at about nine in the morning, again in bright warm sunshine. It was a pleasant town and I would happily go back there.

Regrettably, almost immediately after our departure, hopes of a relaxed and leisurely day faded when we came across the first of the detours that were to accompany us all day. My hopes for a leisurely cruise on secondary roads went out of the proverbial window as we encountered a seemingly endless series of stationary queues of confused motorists or chugged slowly along in the neatly spaced lines that were moving.

It was hugely frustrating because the signposting was so bad that none of the cars really seemed to know where they were going and that meant riding required a very high level of concentration. Being on a motorcycle meant that we could cruise up the side of stopped traffic, but all that did was give us a few minutes clear road before we joined the back of the line in front. We were getting nowhere and we were not getting there fast. After a slow and tedious first ninety minutes, we decided to take our first break. Because of the high levels of traffic, I chose a side road at random and drove a few kilometres down it until we found a nice gateway to chill out in for a few minutes.

When we went to leave, the SatNav indicated that, instead of retracing our steps, we should continue ahead and (presumably) rejoin the main road farther north. Why not go that way ? I thought. We wended our way through a series of tiny roads until we came to a small village where we were diverted off of the SatNav’s choice by a dug up road that stretched into the distance. The diversion arrow that we first followed appeared, retrospectively, to be the only one and in a matter of minutes we were totally lost in a network of spidery little roads. To give it its due, the SatNav was trying to help, but every way it took us led to a new set of excavations. It seemed simply impossible to drive anywhere. I do not know how far we drove, but we circled there for more than half an hour. In the end, having sighted cars moving along the far end of a street that was blocked by barriers, we rode along the path, rounded the barriers, found that street and finally located the main road. Phew !

Predictably, we drove only a few more kilometres before the diversion signs came out in front of us again. In other parts of Germany, I had learned to trust the diversion signs. No matter how crazy they had sometimes appeared, by trusting them I had always got to where I wanted to go. In that part of Germany where we then were, the detours were marked even more poorly than their Czech counterparts and that is saying something. Once we came to one,your destiny, not to say our destination, was wrenched from our grasp.

For example, in a line of diverted traffic, we came to a T junction with no suggestion as to whether to go right or left. My SatNav was still at the point of trying to get me to turn around and go back. Intuitively, I would have turned right. There were two cars in front of us that we had been following since the diversion sign. They were obviously “touristy” because of their crammed roof-racks and attached bicycles. After a few minutes during which I could see them consulting both their own SatNavs and even a paper map book and then a conversation out of their windows between the drivers, they turned left. I followed. My SatNav continued not to like this and kept suggesting routes that would allow me to reverse course without doing a u-turn. I was going very slowly to allow the SatNav to think about a “new” route, but it resolutely refused to do so, continuing instead to suggest I went back the way we had come.

I was becoming agitated and even Lucie, normally the most placid of companions was far from happy too. In the end we were forced to stop, get off of the motorcycle and, so to speak, reconsider the situation. Consulting the map programs on our iPhones to get an overview did not help us either. We were in the middle of nowhere, miles from our projected route and our SatNav was having a personal heart attack. In the end, Lucie did insist we resort to her Czech map program. Like our SatNav, all it could come up with was to retrace our steps and so we did. Eventually, we came back to the T-junction that those of you with long memories may remember. This time, both Lucie’s map program AND our SatNav agreed we should go straight ahead (my original “intuitive” right !) and about ten kilometres later we located and rejoined our original route. Ho hum !

If all that sounds like a total fiasco, believe me, it was. I later worked out that the SatNav always initially tried to get us to turn around without u-turning and, only after this kept failing, probably based upon the distance from where it thought we had gone wrong, would it try and recalculate. When we originally came to the T junction of legend, it was still trying to do the former and so had not then worked out that the right turn would have corrected things. It actually works quite well once you understand its idiosyncrasies.

All the messing around cost us a lot of time and navigating the lines of slow and confused traffic was very tiring. At last, our destination, which had, somewhat perversely, moved farther away several times during the morning, started to move closer. We finally came to the outskirts of Uelzen and, almost as if having let us down, it now wanted to prove how clever it was, the SatNav guided us unerringly through a long maze of side-streets and directly onto the station forecourt.

What a remarkable place that station was. It seems that in addition to actually conceptualising entire buildings (like our hotel complex of the previous day) Hundertwasser also applied his talents to converting drab existing structures into things of wonder. What had once most likely been a colourless, utilitarian, provincial building where you would go solely to catch a train, was now a thing of endless wonder. In addition to the building itself, the platforms and even the lifts shafts had been embellished.We were not alone in going there just to see it, most of the people wandering around with their mouths open and their cameras clicking were not intending to leave on a train.

The inside was, if anything, even more impressive and also blessedly cool in the heat.

There was a small room with an exhibition and we discovered that the transformation took place in the year 2000.

The whole effect was quite beautiful, but achieved in a cheerful and lighthearted way. The cares of the morning just melted away, we felt good just to be standing there.

We had to resist the tempting railway station café because we still had a lot of food from the packed breakfast in our saddlebags. It was our intention to stop somewhere peaceful out in the countryside and have a little picnic. So as not to retrace our inward journey, I had planned a slightly circular but certainly more rural route to our next destination. In truth, given our tribulations on the way to Uelzen, I would have not wanted to return by those roads anyway.

We set off towards the town of Stendal and it was quite a time before be managed to spot a good place to eat our sandwiches. In the end fate brought us an old windmill with tables made of millstones and smooth stones for sitting on.

I had accidentally planned what was a very nice route. We drove through a relatively forested landscape, sometimes interrupted by fields and villages. In the heat, even the broad leaved trees of the deciduous forests had a captivating scent. It was very much a “ride with your visor up” time so we could literally drink it in. The architecture of the small villages had also changed compared to the day before. there were lots of neat houses and outbuildings and small red brick factories. When we passed a column beside the road that marked the position of the former frontier between West and East Germany, the buildings we saw immediately had a drabber look about them and some of the roads were quite appallingly bumpy. We realised that, even over thirty years after re-unification, the former DDR still had a way to go to catch up.

A curious thing about that afternoon’s riding was an almost total lack of people. Whether it was the Covid-related restrictions, whether it was the heat, or whether the world had somehow ended while we were sitting by the windmill I could not tell, but there was simply nobody, full stop. All of the small towns we passed through seemed shuttered and deserted. No people, no dogs, no open cafés, not even any traffic. It was quite spooky.

Finally, we did spot a cheery looking café/restaurant, close to a monastery, in the village of Jerichow (Restaurant “Wirtshaus Klostermahl”, Am Kloster 1, Jerichow). It was like an oasis in the desert and, unsurprisingly, quite busy. The proprietress was a cheerful lady who was very liberal with the cream in our iced coffees and my chocolate sundae … Here, for the first time, we had to fill out a form with our names and contact details and the owner added our arrival and departure times. Whether this was a throw back to the procedures for foreigners of the former DDR or a measure aimed at controlling community transmission of Covid, I cannot say. They have not called and, so far, the Stasi has not knocked on our door either.

The location of our fourth and last Hundertwasser site was the city of Lutherstadt – Wittenberg. Even though it is a fairly important ancient university city, neither of us had ever heard of it. Well, in truth I had heard of Wittenberg, in the context of the Reformation and perhaps the honorific “Lutherstadt” should have given the game away. It was indeed the town where, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 indulgences to the door of the church.

Our friend Friedensreich Hundertwasser had also left his imprint in the town at the Luther-Melanchthon-Gymnazium (Str. der Völkerfreundschaft 130, Lutherstadt Wittenberg). What was once a standard, communist style Gymnazium (Grammar School ) had received the full treatment including a Hundertwasser “signature” of trees growing from some of its windows. The school, named jointly after Martin Luther and his fellow reformer, Philippe Melanchthon, was being renovated when we were there but was still pretty spectacular. As it was holiday time, we were able to park right outside the front door, but we were unable to see inside.

The SatNav then led us safely to our lodging for the night at the Hotel Garni Wittenberg (Kurfürstenring 32, Lutherstadt Wittenberg). The lady who checked us in was particularly friendly and only a tiny bit scatty. Whilst not as visually exciting as our lodging of the previous evening, the hotel was clean, bright and functional and about 90 seconds walk from the rather picturesque old town. We could see the distinctive round tower of the castle church, where Martin Luther had fun with his hammer, from our window, but, when we got there, no nail hole could be detected in the door.

The centre is not large – but it is remarkably preserved for a place that has had so many battles fought in its streets. According to signs on the houses, almost everyone powerful from the post-reformation world had stayed there. Shakespeare’s fictional Hamlet was stated to have studied in the town as did the “real” Czech Doctor Jan Jesenius, who went on to perform the first human dissection in Bohemia before being executed in 1621in the aftermath of the battle of the White Mountain (Bilá Hora).

The old town is a pedestrian zone and has two main thoroughfares that run parallel and which also contain small canals whose railing are hung with flowers. A picturesque square, where statues of Luther and Melanchthon glare balefully at passing sinners joins the two streets. There are cafes and restaurants scattered on both sides of the canals. Overall, it was a very pleasant and nice city, which we did not really expect to encounter in “East” Germany.

After a long, hot day, we treated ourselves to beers as we walked through the old town. This prompted the production of yet another form upon which we had to record our details. It was warm work which prompted another beer for me !

Interestingly, when we sat down to eat dinner, half an hour later and only about a hundred metres away, we did not have to fill out any form. So what the regulations actually were, we never found out. If it was like most places, they probably did not know either.

Wittenberg sits upon the river Elbe. In the severe floods of 2002, a sea-lion called Gaston escaped from his enclosure in Prague Zoo and entered the Vltava, which becomes the Labe and eventually the Elbe. Defying all attempts to apprehend him, Gaston became a Czech media star and national hero when made the entire 300 kilometre trip to Wittenberg before being recaptured. Sadly, his efforts exhausted him and he died there before he could be repatriated.

The place we chose to eat was The Wittenberger Kartoffelhaus (Schlossstraße 2, Lutherstadt Wittenberg). Our waitress was a tiny bit off, probably the least pleasant of all the Germans we met, but I may have annoyed her by insisting on keeping the German menu when she gave me an English one, because I wanted to see what the comparative translations were. Obviously, given the restaurant’s name, potatoes were a big part of the menu, but both of our meals were well cooked, tasty and excellent.

We returned to the hotel for some much deserved sleep. In the darkness, the now illuminated tower of the church was beautiful to behold.