History Lessons in Central Europe
I'm in Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. The railroad tracks beneath my feet...if they could talk, what stories might they tell of the cattle cars and the breaking apart of families and the dehumanization and the death? I am at a loss for words and struggle with capturing pictures as well - how can you encapsulate in a photograph, the horrific efficiency with which this death camp operated?
This is just one story of Central Europe, long the battleground of kingdoms, nations, ideologies, and peoples. Over the centuries, borders have been drawn, erased, and redrawn here, and the vanquished marginalized, imprisoned, and more than once brought to near annihilation. But there is indescribable beauty in the art and architecture here too, the likes of which a generation of Westerners are now just beginning to discover. It's a complex story in a complex land, and for our small group of world travelers, Edelweiss Bike Travel's BMWs are our seats in this roving history class.
Day 1 - Dresden to Wroclaw: Changing Times and Reconstruction
We start in Dresden, Germany, nearly leveled at the end of World War II, when almost 4,000 tons of Allied devastation fell upon the land known as the "Florence of the Elbe." It lay on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, and while many old buildings were rebuilt, large areas of the city were left fallow, and others reconstructed in a more modern, state-sponsored style. The fall of the Berlin Wall and Reunification accelerated reconstruction and restoration, and Dresden seeks to once more be a center of art and culture. The skyline remains a Baroque collection of domes and towers - and construction cranes, too. One can spend a day wandering among the gardens of the Zwinger Palace, admiring the Semperoper Opera House, climbing the tower of the Kreuzkirche, or Church of the Cross, and marveling at the reconstructed Dresden Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady.
A sign of changing times can be found in the underground pedestrian walkways, where Dresden's youth regularly roll a homemade sound system - a car stereo mounted in a plywood box - and breakdance. It's a far cry from when Frank, one of our Edelweiss tour guides, had his grandmother smuggle AC/DC cassettes into East Germany, in her undergarments, for him.
Heading east, we ride through the countryside of the former East Germany. Money has flowed here from the West, and it shows. The towns and farms are neat and well maintained. There are few buildings in disrepair, perhaps remnants of the Communist era. After lunch, we cross into the Czech Republic. The borders between Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are unmanned and unguarded. The now-empty guard stations are a ghostly reminder of the time when movement of people and goods between countries was heavily monitored and restricted.
Borders notwithstanding, the difference between neighboring countries is palpable. If Germany is a meticulously crafted model train set, the Czech Republic is built from a collection of Medieval, Gothic, Baroque and other model buildings in the toy chest - a bit less coordinated, perhaps, but still compelling. Small towns come and go in the valleys of this hilly countryside. We begin to climb the Jizera Mountains, where the woods are thick and the roads tight. Jizerské Hory, as they are known, would make for enthusiastic mountain riding, but for the carloads of people here for an afternoon outside. It's encouraging to see the embrace of the outdoors - the granite and basalt mountains rise over 1,000 meters and are a popular winter sports area as well - but it limits our speed and enthusiasm.