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READERS’ RIDE

Posted On 09 May 2024
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This entry is part 13 of 25 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#31

ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ
ANOTHER MOVIE DEPICTION BITES THE DUST… WORDS/PHOTOS CHRIS PRIOR

It didn’t start well. The strong westerlies that battered me as I rode from my home in Cheshire, in northwest England, to the ferry port of Hull on the east coast made me doubt whether this was the right time of year to tour Europe on two wheels. Being retired gives me freedom to choose so I’d decided to go when the main tourist season was past, but the weather still pleasant, or so I hoped. I’d lived in Berlin in the 1970s and had long wanted to see how it and the other former eastern block countries had changed since the collapse of communism. The hedonism of the West then contrasted starkly with the austerity of the Soviet dominated East.

Apart from that, I had no fixed schedule and would ride as the fancy took me. In addition to the tunnel there are many ferry routes from Britain to mainland Europe, mostly from the south coast.

Had I taken even the shortest of these I would not have set tyres onto continental roads until at least seven hours after leaving home. By taking the overnight crossing from Hull I could arrive in Rotterdam early morning, refreshed and ready for a full day’s riding.

Shortly after arriving the weather turned really nasty. The weather front had now caught up with the continent. High wind and heavy rain accompanied me through Holland and into Germany. German Winterberg is doubtless a most attractive town when the sun shines on it and the same must be said of Süd Sauerland as a whole, but that day it was not showing itself at its best. After a couple of hours or so I realised that the rain was in for the day, so I returned to the Bigger Hoff to warm myself, dry my riding clothes and indulge in the German practice of taking an afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen.

My next destination was Berlin. In the 1970s I’d spent two years there, employed as an aircraft engineer at Tegel Airport. In those cold war days Berlin led a somewhat artificial existence as an outpost of the West, surrounded by the notorious wall and a potentially hostile Soviet satellite state. I wanted to see how it had changed since German reunification. The weather had cleared by now, so staying off the Autobahn until Magdeburg I rode though the lovely Harz region on almost deserted country roads.

Then, what a change! Thirty five years ago the Autobahn from Berlin through East Germany (the Democratic Republic, as they styled themselves) to the West was the 1930s two-lane concrete affair with strictly enforced 100 kph limit. Now it’s three lanes – more in some places – densely trafficked by vehicles large and small and no observable (or observed) speed limit.

Once into Berlin I started recognising landmarks. I rode up to the Brandenburg Gate, from which it was just a short distance from my hotel, the Etap in Anhalter Strasse, close to Potsdamer Platz. Etap Hotels are part of a budget chain with basic rooms lacking any charm or local flavour, but they are clean, comfortable and quite cheap. Four nights in the centre of Berlin, one of the major European capitals, cost €144, about $A222. It was now warm and sunny, ideal for exploring the city on foot. I left the bike chained to a rail at the back to the hotel, although this may have been overly cautious, as I saw many locally registered bikes parked around the city, usually on the pavement, without any such safeguards.

Berliner delicacy…

The wasteland that once divided the East from the West has been transformed beyond recognition. The formerly dreary East with its constant odour of two-stroke oil from the once ludicrous, but now chic, Trabant is now the bustling hub of a revitalised city with the inevitable crush of tourists and vendors of trinkets and trash. Twenty and more years after the collapse of communism the quantity of Eastern Block uniforms on sale makes me suspect that some Chinese sweatshop is churning them out. Trabants still splutter their smoky way around the city on Trabi Safaris.

After Berlin I had no fixed plan other than to be at Belgium’s Zeebrugge ferry terminal in time for the homeward crossing, and that was more than a week away. Travelling alone I could, on impulse, take any highway and byway as the whim took me. Without companions to inconvenience I could stop at will to photograph and take my time about it.

It was even warmer as I left Berlin for Wroclaw in southwest Poland. The border was marked by a sudden deterioration of the road surface. The bike pitched and shook and I was forced to keep the speed well down. To be fair, they’re working on it; I just happened to hit a bad stretch. It was a relief to get onto the country roads again, noting that the slip road off the motorway was cobbled. That must be scary at speed in the rain.

Remains of The Wall.

One of the pleasures of motorcycling is the connection with environment. Riding at an easy pace through the countryside, passing through little villages and absorbing the local ambience put the widest grin on my face. Moreover, the rural roads in Poland were generally quite well paved. I daresay they don’t suffer the predations of juggernauts.

Wroclaw is a delightful old city whose market square is one of the largest of its kind. Painstakingly rebuilt after the destruction of the Second World War, it is bounded by buildings whose facades range from Gothic to Art Nouveau. At one corner is the curious 14th century Gothic Town Hall, now the city museum.

Poland is still relatively cheap, most of the younger people speak English and the food and beers are good. Everyone I met was friendly, and the Bonneville attracted some interest.

After two nights in Wroclaw I’d reached day nine of my 16-day trip, so I now headed westward over mountain roads winding through a forested landscape and into the Czech Republic.

From Liberec I explored the gentle rolling hills and neat, quiet villages of Bohemia. Riding on, I passed a filling station where petrol was priced in Czech Crowns and then a hundred metres or so along the road another displaying prices in Euros. This was the only indication that I’d entered Germany. Doubtless this is quite normal to the locals; perhaps it’s our island mentality that made it seem strange to me.

Sticking to minor roads, I enjoyed riding through towns and villages bypassed by motorways. In this way I found Waldheim in Saxony, a lovely old town where I stopped for lunch. A generation ago eastern block towns were dowdy and in dire need of a lick of paint. Things are entirely different now. Smart prosperity seems the order of the day.

“Soviet” memorabilia.

At Colditz I took a tour around the castle. As the only English visitor, I had a guide to myself. Young and pretty, Olsa showed me round and asked if I wanted the whole history or just the wartime part. It was not just to enjoy her company longer that I opted for the former. Only officers who were considered VIPs or were persistent escapers were confined there, but once inside it wasn’t too bad as far as prisoner of war camps go. The worst punishment for an escape attempt was a few days’ solitary confinement in a fair sized room with a view over the town and surrounding countryside. It was a fascinating tour and I was amazed at the ingenuity of the escape methods devised, successful and unsuccessful.

(Never mind what Hollywood would have us believe, the only Americans in Colditz were those who liberated the area in 1945).

It was late afternoon when I left Colditz with more than 100 miles to go to Erfurt, my next stop. As many of the lesser roads in the former DDR have yet to be brought up to western standards this wasn’t going to be a quick blast, but meandering through the countryside was what I’d anticipated for much of the journey. What I hadn’t planned was the bike playing up. Acceleration seemed to be ok, but the Bonneville misfired and banged and tickover was too low. Had I got water in the petrol, was it the 10% ethanol petrol I’d put in earlier? At the next refuel I put in 98 octane, ethanol free, but it made no difference. Was it an ignition fault, or dampness in the electrics? Thus I wasn’t too cheerful when the satnav misguided me into an industrial yard. It wasn’t far from the hotel, but that took some finding in the dark. The receptionist may also have been disconcerted by the noise my bike was making as he asked if I’d like to stay another night while I had it fixed.

Although an inspection hadn’t revealed anything I assured him that I’d see to it and declined the offer.

In the morning I took another look at the bike with the engine running and instantly saw that the secondary air induction system hose had come adrift from the induction manifold. I must have dislodged it while selecting reserve fuel. Once refi tted, all was well.

Making poor progress on the rural roads I decided to take the Autobahn most of the way to Koblenz, more than 200 miles away. Much of the ride was on a stretch of Autobahn with no speed limit. When riding at a sedate 110 km/h a vehicle that appears small in the mirror when signalling to overtake is apt to be right up your rear and fl ashing headlights long before you’ve finished.

The weather brightened again as I proceeded west. Two more overnight stops in Germany and one in Belgium completed the trip. An evening sailing from Zeebrugge allowed time to visit Ieper (formerly Ypres) and some of the Flanders war graves. The display in the restored Town Hall is well worth a visit, and requires at least two hours.

Europe has such a variety of landscapes and cultures. What better way to enjoy them than on two wheels?

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