I'm in the West now! - Bohemian Rhapsody - CycleBlaze

August 23, 2019

I'm in the West now!

Eisenach - Röhrenfurth

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I awoke refreshed on what was going to be my last full day. I'd made great progress, much better than I'd anticipated really, and though it had taken it out of me a bit - I hadn't really slowed down since entering Germany, 334km over three days and some quite difficult terrain - it seemed that Kassel was now within my reach. I knew it was 120-odd km away, with a mass of confusing contours in between, but also that I could keep to the valleys of the Werra and the Fulda respectively - and follow the railway to cut between them at Bebra. I didn't have to get to Kassel itself today - my train was in the mid-morning, so as long as I was within striking distance, I could start early and make it fine. In many ways this was preferable, since it would mean I wouldn't need to find somewhere to stay in what would be, by far, the biggest town I'd cycled through.

This would also be the day that I'd cross out of the old East Germany (Thuringia) and into the West (Hesse). As a superficial visitor, the differences between the old East and West no longer seem too pronounced: while I'd seen evidence of, say, the unemployment problem in Frankfurt O., the villages through Thuringia looked prosperous and neat as all German villages seem to. Still, it's sort of amazing to me that the country was physically divided within my lifetime, and it felt like a nice coda to the ride to say that I'd crossed the width of the old GDR. 

As pure coincidence, I'm writing this on 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. In these rather troubled times, crossing and re-crossing the old border, as I was to do on the tour, was a reminder of the promise and hope of internationalism and liberal democracy. The title of this entry comes from an East German joke (which I suspect I got from The Lives of Others):

Erich Honecker [the General Secretary of the GDR] is having his breakfast, and looks up and sees the sun. "Good morning sun!" he says, and sun greets him back, "Good morning, General Secretary!".

At lunch, he is sitting outside, and looks straight up and there's the sun again. "Good afternoon, sun!" he says, and again the sun replies, "Good afternoon, General Secretary!".

When the day is done, Honecker is walking back home, and sees the sun low on the horizon. "Good evening sun!" he says. The sun replies: "Screw you, I'm in the West now!".

There is, in fact, still a (micro-)brewery operating at the Alte Brauerie hostel. The Wartburg is the castle on the big-ass hill I fruitlessly climbed yesterday. Sadly I didn't get to try any of this...
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My room included breakfast, so I made sure I was down there with plenty of time to fuel up. It was really excellent actually, hotel quality really. The breakfast area was full of visitors on some kind of organised tour, to see the Luther-related sights of Eisanch I think. I ate my breakfast and studied the map opposite a rather shy fellow, who touchingly offered to fill up my coffee when he got his. I also saw a chap that I'd had a brief chat with, about the commonwealth of all things, outside the hostel the night before.

The Shift was where I left it, so I thought it was time to gurd myself up and ride. The day was fantastically clear, hot and still. I passed west through Eisenach, seeing some of the charming architecture I'd not really appreciated the previous night. I quickly picked up the signed cycleways: I could follow the prominent route with the unlikely name of the Herkules-Wartburg-Radweg along the river, and picked my way through the dense streets.

Big church in Eisenach, and Radweg signs. Looking at that sky you can see we're in for a hot one...
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The main square in Eisenach
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I found my way out of Eisenach with only a small amount of tangling with the main road. To avoid this, I ended up going down side streets parallel, which worked fine until they converged on the gigantic Opel factory. It looked like it was physically possible, at least, to cycle on through it, but figured I would likely to turned around at some point so cleaved back to the main road.

I crossed the railway and soon was on the cycleway again. The route followed the valley and rail-line on a flat and well-surfaced route. Near Hörtshel I met up with my old friend from yesterday, Autobahn 4, which crossed the valley over a mighty viaduct.

Leaving Eisenach. Kassel on every sign now.
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The big Opel factory, to which I seemed magnetically drawn
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I was mightily tempted to just keep cycling past the barrier - I don't think I would've been stopped - but was sceptical I could make it all the way through
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The cycleway followed the railway for most of the journey. This was taken when I got off the main road and found a place to cross.
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The spectacular viaduct carrying the Autobahn 4 near Hörshel
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Some nice engineering, there
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Elaborate cycleway directions at Hörshel. The suggested route to Kassel (110km) heads north from here, over rather hilly ground. I didn't much fancy this.
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The viaduct really did look rather strange as a backdrop to the village
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Traditional farm
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I continued on, eating up the kilometres down what was now the Werra valley on the radweg. I was quite unprepared for the huge, simple and rather affecting sign as I crossed over what is now the invisible state border just past Neuenhof.

"Here, Germany and Europe were divided until March 24, 1990 at 9 o'clock"
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As I was taking photos of the sign, I saw a couple of touring cyclists receding into the distance. I never caught up with them, unfortunately...
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I was, in theory, following the main cycleway, but since it seemed determined to pull me to the north and well out the way towards Herleshausen, I decided to take a short cut across some fields and to cross the river using an old iron pedestrian bridge I could see. It wouldn't have been the first time the designated cycleways took long and pointless diversions, and I was happy just to find a clear way to the back road through Göringen on the far side of the river - but got more than I bargained for.

I pushed the bike up onto the old bridge with some effort, and made my way over the jangling and slightly loose metal surface. It was only when I reached the other end, and saw the little booth on one side was full of cold war-era photographs, that I realised that this was one of the crossing points over the inner border as well.

More hilltop towers. I'd seen a lot of these as I approached Tübingen on last year's tour
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The mysterious footbridge over the Werra, and back into Thuringia. There was a sort of path leading over the fields going to and from the bridge, but it wasn't any kind of thoroughfare
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The information booth. Unfortunately the photograph isn't really good enough to make out the details, and I can't seem to find out any more about it. If it was an inner border crossing, it would have been real "bridge of spies" stuff.
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I found my way back to the road, and feeling rather thankful that I lived in a time where it was so easy to cross over, continued on the good and level road that followed the river towards Neustadt and Gerstungen. The day was heating up, and the villages were prosperous and neat. I was cutting across a large salient of Thuringia tucked in the bend of the Werra.

Lots of fachwerk (even the bus shelter!)
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I really like the papier-mache architecture
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Pretty idyllic riding
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As I made my way towards Gerstungen, a strange white shape started to peep between the trees on the horizon. I genuinely had no idea what it could be; as it came closer, it became clear that it was some kind of spoil heap, pyramidal and rather blinding white, and clearly enormous...

First sighting of the strange white spoil heap in the distance. In the bright sunshine, it was almost dazzling against the green fields
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Entering Gerstungen, which was a pretty place
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Oil! A petrol station for fans of Upton Sinclaire
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At Gerstungen I would leave the big red Werra cycleway and, as per the plan, cut off the long loop to the South through Herringen by following the rail-line towards Bebra and the Fulda. It was easy enough to pick up the minor roads peeling off to Obersuhl - and even though it was a secondary cycleway, there was of course a separate cyclepath and I could avoid the now more frequent traffic.

Before I entered Obersuhl I crossed the inner border one more time. After passing the divided-Europe sign once more, there was an interesting information board with photos of the inner border as it was in unhappier times.

Crossing back into Hesse before Obersuhl
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Information board with cold war-era photographs of the border near Obersuhl. It is very difficult to imagine the massiveness of the wall cutting through the countryside I'd just come through, or the blocked off streets by the border
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A timeline of the fall of the wall and the aftermath. A hopeful sight.
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Passing through Obersuhl, I picked up a sandwich for lunch at a supermarket, and was soon out in the open countryside. The cycleway disappeared, but the traffic wasn't too bad and I made good progress, though the temperature was now very warm. To my surprise, the strange white mountain continued to loom closer and to show its evident size.

The open road out of Obersuhl
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The huge pyramidal mountain comes closer. I figured it was some kind of spoil heap - and wondered whether it was one of the notorious dumps that were set up just inside the GDR towards the end of the cold war, that would take material for all over western Europe. But it's actually (just) in Hesse, and is known locally as mount Kali (or "Kalimanjaro", apparently)...
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...and it's apparently made of salt. Yes, table salt, as the biproduct of potash extraction in Herrenburg. It's 250m high, is marked with contour lines on my map, and 900 more tonnes of the stuff is piled up on it every hour. So much salt leaks out of it, the Werra is apparently more salty than the Baltic. This explains why it's such a blinding white colour.
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This gives some indication of the gargantuan size of this salt mountain. It looks like a ski slope! Photo credits Wikimedia.
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What it looks like from the top. Photo credits Wikimedia.
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Passing out of Hönebrack, the gradient picked up and I had a steady 100m climb out of the Werra valley. I was anticipating some climbing to pass between the rivers, and, despite the steady traffic, this wasn't too bad. Passing down past Ronshausen I picked up separate cycleways again, and made good time to Bebra.

It was a bit of a relief to get off the road and back of these perfect cycleways
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Mostly I was following the railway, so I knew the gradients couldn't get too bad
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I did give a bit of a cheer when I reached the Fulda. This would take me all the way to Kassel, and following the river would mean my serious climbing days were behind me.
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I was making really good progress, and the feeling was now of optimism and some relief. In every tour, I've somehow managed to get into a situation where there's been significant doubt as to whether I will get to my final destination, or whether I'll have to bale and find alternate transport. In Sweden, I ventured far too far into the interior, and had three days of rather empty riding over the Norwegian border. In the Black forest, I didn't account for the heat, the hills of the Eifel and the indirectness of the river routes. Ever since entering Germany, it has seemed a stretch that I could cover the 350km+ to Kassel in only three days - given the surprisingly wild terrain. But in each tour, there came a tipping point where I knew that - barring real disaster - I would make it.

Now, all I had to do was make as much time up the Fulda as I could, find somewhere to camp, and make an early start the next day. The whole way was on a good cycleway, the Weser - Romantische Straße. My next stop was Rotenburg; beyond that was Morschen, and the edge of my ADFC map.

Spire in Bebra
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The valley of the Fulda was broad and open in the heat
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Rotenburg was pretty delightful. Foolishly I sped through it, and didn't stop for lunch
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Waterside building in Rotenburg
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My failure to have lunch bit me hard here. The afternoon was wearing on, it was now very hot, and the broad valley was open and completely exposed to the cloudless sky. The cycleway weaved between fields of maize without coming near any of the villages. Eventually, I spotted a sportsground with a bench sheltered from the sun, and happily occupied it to eat my sandwich. After lunch, I found a tap around the back of the sportsground, and continued on the way towards Morschen.

The broad valley of the Fulda was agricultural and really exposed to the sun.
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My lunching spot. The camera really hasn't done well with the very bright sunlight out of the shade
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Huge village solar array outside Niederellenbach
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Impressive children's play area
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As I entered Altmorschen, I passed  through an impressive cloister - the old Kloster Hayda, which now seemed to be a rather fancy hotel. Still, I could cycle right through it on the signed cycleway. Leaving Altmorschen, I continued along the valley which the high-speed railway crossed in an amazing, elegant concrete span.

Coming into Altmorschen through the old cloister
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The Kloster Hayda, now a fancy hotel
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Kloster Hayda
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The cycleway continued along the broad and flat Fulda valley. The railway crossed the valley on an amazing elegant concrete span
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The high-speed railway bridge
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I passed through Morschen itself and Binsförth, continuing through the wide valley. I was approaching the confluence of the Fulda with the Beise, at Beiseförth, and the edge of my map. As I came close, I passed an intriguing reference to the Fulda-Seilfähre on the cycleway signs..

Getting to the edge of the map. The Fulda-Seilfähre looked intriguing...
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It was a self-powered cablecar crossing the river!
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You needed to winch the car over to your side, load the bikes in securely, and then winch yourself across
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The Shift inside the self-service cable car crossing
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Crossing the Fulda powered only by my own arms. Exhausting, but worth it!
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It was definitely the strangest cable-car I'd been in since the tiny cableway to Dursey island in Ireland (population: 4). There is a way around to a bridge - at another 2km it isn't much of a shortcut, but is worth it just for the odd experience.

After Beiseförth I passed off the edge of my Thüringer Wald ADFC map. I would have to rely on my giant all-Germany map now (and the GPS) - though I had little worry about getting lost, as I knew the Fulda cycleway would continue all the way to Kassel.

The changing of the map. Farewell, ADFC, with your excellent contours and slightly unreliable accommodation indicators...
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Less than 50km to go to journey's end. I knew I could make it, now
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A weight limit for ... tanks? Crossing the Fulda
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I passed through Melsungen, which was a substantial place, and had a campsite - but it was a bit too close to the town for me, and I decided to keep going. I was flagging a bit though - it wasn't particularly late, but I'd had a long morning, and the heat was still intense. I wanted to get close to 100km so I'd be in good striking distance of Kassel the following morning, and the GPS indicated that there were several campsites further up-river.

More fachwerk in Melsungen
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Impressive building in Melsungen. It's so clean and well-maintained, it almost looks modern.
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In the even, I was pretty bushed, and didn't go much further. Along a really idyllic lane near Röhrenfurth, a nice looking and informal campsite, with a bar and restaurant, appeared. With 97km on the clock, and something like 35km between me and Kassel, I didn't hesitate too long before I wheeled in the gate. There didn't seem to be anyone around, but I picked a likely looking spot tucked under the trees, and put up the tent (which, amazingly, was still a bit damp - alarmingly I don't think it had properly dried since the Czech republic).

My campsite in the Fuldaweise Campingplatz. A really great place to stay
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I poottered up to the bar, but it was closed, and a jovial fellow camper let me know they'd be back around 5ish. After I saw the bar attracting customers, I wondered up there and found my way inside the very dark, wood panelled interior. The older lady inside served me with a kind of very polite formality, carefully counting my change, after I had a surprisingly effective exchange with her in German. I bought a token for the shower and happily washed off the salt in the basic but clean and rather charming facilities.

After this, I changed into some cleaner clothes and installed myself outside the bar. I was served with the same sort of quiet politeness by the husband, who efficiently filled up my beer glass. A nice place.

After a couple of beers I retired to the tent, and cooked up the last of my pasta. It was still pretty early - just past 9 - but I knew I'd need to make an early start to be sure of getting to Kassel in time for the mid-morning train. I set an alarm for 5, and pretty much passed out.

Evening comes down in the campsite
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Sunset and mist over the Fulda
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Today's ride: 97 km (60 miles)
Total: 1,306 km (811 miles)

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