Go East Part 1

Touring Eastern Europe on a Beemer


Just as I am getting near to town, a full golden moon gets out of bed and positions itself right in front of me, low over the horizon line, showing me the exact way in, as if the timing was written in the stars. Don’t think that even the great Wim Wenders could have thought of such a scene, a truly perfect and touching welcome to his beloved Berlin.

Another few dark junctions and flyovers, and I am riding along a wide boulevard. Now it’s Berlin’s huge telecommunications tower that takes over the task of leading me in, and just like the moon, it too is bathed in golden light. It’s been a very long day, nevertheless I felt secure and relaxed being accompanied by these huge lanterns. What a good start.

I knew that this summer’s big ride would be different; I wanted it to be so. Less V marks on the map, less peg dragging around fast sweepers, more feeling. Less low flying, more taking it all in. Instead of waking up in another motel on every morning I want to stay, mingle and absorb. Not that I have chosen a slow mount for the task, a 152 bhp K1200GT can hardly be called a slouch. What a good start.

But this time I planned to give much more attention to places rather than roads. The target: East Europe. Yes, I know the Berlin wall fell 20 years ago. Now there’s only one Germany and the Czech Republic and Hungary are members in the European Union. But something about the denseness, gothic-ness and darkness of the area managed to pull me away from my beloved Alps this time.

Sunday, I leave Milan, and after 350 miles I’m in Munich in time for lunch with a friend. After lunch I reach BMW’s fleet parking, the bored guard gives me the key for my K. Another hour of stuffing, pushing and shoving my stuff into the hard bags, some bungee-ing and my gear is secured to the gray Bavarian whale. Not a small item this Beemer, and even after starting to move on I can’t say it sheds pounds. It’s been four years since I last rode an across-the-frame BMW four, a K1200S unit I tested back then had left good memories. Instead this one feels much harsher, has got plenty of backlash when closing the throttle, clunky. My first urban miles on the GT are not fun but I know from experience that Beemers require adaptation time. Will two weeks be enough?

 “These German drivers are a bit nerdy” I hear myself saying...

As a warm-up act I’ve got 400 Autobahn miles to cover until Berlin. Enough time to find the right riding posture and let all the work pressure from the last weeks evaporate, time to enjoy the deep green landscape. Landscape in Germany? I'm a bit surprised. I happen to travel to Dusseldorf often for work, and that area is boring and flat. But after leaving Munich’s plateau behind, the autobahn starts bending and sweeping around lowish 1,800 ft mountains and wide valleys. These are not the Alps or the Pyrenees, but when booming along at 110 mph, this road certainly keeps my interest.

Thankfully, this balloon won't be delivering death at four knots.One thing surprises me though. We all heard the legends about no limits autobahns, but the reality is that at least on this one there often are 130-kph (80 mph) limit signs, and as a friend told me, that’s exactly where the police like to position their speed cameras. Only about 40-50 percent of the time the sky is the limit. My feeling so far is that even in Italy if the legal speed limit is 80 mph, people there drive much faster than here. “These German drivers are a bit nerdy” I hear myself saying when a high beam flash on my mirrors gives me a wakeup call. I let the 6 series BMW Sedan pass me as if I’m standing still even though I am doing 110-120.

As it passes me I manage to catch a glimpse of the “Alpina” stickers on the back of the 635, a tell-tale sign that the thing has got a massaged engine. Time to wake up my gray whale and see what she’ll do. Downshift twice, and my whale does wake up, albeit slowly. One hundred fifty-two horsepower is respectable, but with a huge fairing and hefty weight, anything over 130 mph and the GT piles on the mph rather relaxedly. Looks like the car is topped out because by now I am keeping at a steady distance. Thing is that the autobahn is starting to twist and turn again and this local guy seems to know where he can leave it pinned while I have to guess where the road disappears behind the soft hills.

What is a child’s game at 120 becomes quite a bit more hairy at 160 while my loaded GT is nowhere as precise as the S at these speeds. At the end the 635 pulls slowly away, but I have to say that pushing 160 mph on the GT while sitting almost bolt upright as if on a big trailie and with a full fairing and luggage set is quite a surreal experience. I can't think of anything else on earth that can pull this trick.

Here's Yossef at a café trying to decide if he should stop speaking Italian and take up Turkish
A museum in Berlin dedicated to recounting the 1,000 year history of the ashkenasi, Eastern Europe's Jews
Before Leipzig the landscape turns flat again, but now huge and different objects fill the landscape. Big electricity-producing windmills populate wind harvesting farms. From afar they seem to rotate slowly, but as I stop as close to one as possible, the sheer length of the blades and their height hits you. With a diameter of 200 feet, blade tip speeds approach hundreds of miles per hour as a friend who works on the things for a Berlin-based company would later reveal to me. As I climb back on the bike, I also understand why they are so popular around here. The winds here are extremely strong, and I am literally blown off the road. Just trying to cruise at anything above 90-100 becomes really difficult.

A couple hundred miles more, and night falls. That beautiful moonlight, poetic as it is, won't bring me exactly to my hotel. For the first time in my life I betray my honed navigation skills for GPS guidance. Positioned in the clear pocket of my tank bag I find the directions extremely easy to use at night. It might not be as romantic as stopping to unfold and fold a map by the roadside, but now I'm free to enjoy my city riding and the new sights, never fearing taking the wrong turn and ending up at the wrong side of town. Before I know it I am suddenly in front of my hotel. I’m sold on GPS, and from experience, a similar navigation deep into such a big city would have required twice the time.

I take my helmet and ear plugs off; the first big leg is over. Without my helmet on, not only can I perceive the lovely and warm September evening, but also a friendly and welcoming vibe. After I drop my helmet and tank bag at reception, I head off to meet my friend to have some good Turkish Shawarma, the typical oriental minced-meat dish. Did I ride all the way here for a Turkish plate? Well, culinary speaking, with all my respect to salted herring and mashed potatoes, East Europe can't hold a candle to Italy and France in terms of cooking. Also, Berlin is home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey itself. So if you know where to find it (and my friend does), this is an excellent chance to try the rich and yummy Turkish cuisine.

We end our night out in a small but wonderful bar – a good opportunity to mingle with the locals. The place is just in front of my hotel, smack in the middle of the Kreuzberg quarter, Berlin’s answer to NYC’s East Village where David Bowie spent his time while in the "exile" years. The atmosphere inside the bar reminds me of the little watering holes I used to frequent around Tompkins Square in downtown NY. A truly Bohemian ambience in the best sense of the word. The décor is half communist, half ’70s retro, the music smart and sophisticated, and everybody here looks like a real character. Last but not least, the constant flow of Polish vodka from the friendly female bartender fits in perfectly. I don't drink much, but here the Superb Vodka shots go down in a jiffy. Luckily I can simply crawl to my hotel room.

...there’s an area where they really excel: Bread and sweet pastry making

The next day greets me with sunshine, and I go looking for a nice café to have breakfast in. I find plenty of options along the beautiful canals that branch off the Speer River. I didn’t imagine I would find this here, but Berlin’s cool canal area fools you into thinking that you are in groovy Amsterdam.

Along the canals there are wide green parks, and the Berliners are out en mass enjoying the wonderful sun before winter’s arrival. Despite the not-so-great German cuisine tradition mentioned before, there’s an area where they really excel: Bread and sweet pastry making. And their breakfasts are superb, too. It’s easy to spend hours with a book in hand just munching and sipping coffee in this wonderful corner.

Berlin has too rich a history, though, to kill time in a café. First site on my list is the Jewish museum that opened just a few years ago and tells the 1000 years of history of the ashkenasi, Eastern Europe's Jews. About 1,000 years ago the Jewish settled in the area and learned German, the base of the Yiddish language. As someone who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking house but never really cared to learn it, I feel like I am sort of atoning for my childhood sin with this visit to the museum. The metal plate structure of the museum is impressive. It was designed by the de-constructionist architect Daniel Libskind, and its broken and zig-zagging floor plan draws its inspiration form the contorted history of the Jewish people and the hollow that the holocaust left. The exhibition inside is extremely innovative in its approach, rather than simply spouting dry historic facts; it develops around personal stories of individuals. It gets a bit too sweet at times, but definitely worth visiting.

Checkpoint Charlie

After dealing with Berlin's traffic during the morning on the Beemer, I choose to move on to a rental bicycle. The Germans are very mindful of cyclists; there are loads of dedicated cycling paths crossing town, and you can stop easily at any interesting spot. I begin by pedaling in the old industrial zone along the Speer River. Each of these old factories has a beautiful internal yard, and while exploring one my eye catches a glimpse of polished aluminum parts through a window. I knock on the door and it turns out that I just discovered one of Berlin's biggest classic bike enthusiasts. The architect who maintains this little museum as a hobby also runs a business of producing replica Steib BMW sidecars as a source of income. So if you are looking for a chair for your '59 R69S, this is the place.

The evening is a good time to catch up with Berlin's art scene. This city has almost as many contemporary galleries as NYC. As if this wasn't enough, there are also some 300 theater groups, three opera houses and an infinite number of dance and performance groups. Dance clubs with the most updated techno and trance tunes fight for my attention too.

An MZ: just another method of transportation in Zschopau
A proper Communist remain?
I spend the next few days pedaling around. The huge amount of ultra-modern architecture built in the Potsdammerplatz area is simply breath taking, and how can you be in Berlin without visiting the remains of the famous wall and Check-point Charlie. Trying to find other signs of the past Communist regime is not easy, though. Ex-East Germany neighborhoods such as Mitte have become ultra in these days. I find what I'm looking for in a huge park near my hotel. Smack in the middle is a huge Soviet monument in remembrance of the city's war victims. The monument depicts a soldier holding a spear protects a child with a shattered Swastika underneath.  The Soviet taste in sculpture is questionable, but the huge monument punches me in the head like a hammer.

After four days here I have to admit I am falling in love with the place. I am falling in love with the beehive-like energy, the freedom that is in the air. I am even falling in love with this city's motorbikes: Guzzi cafe racers, smoky DKW two-strokes and black vintage Beemers. Grease under your fingernail type of bikes, not poseur's stuff. Each one seems to have its own character, just like the people in the street. I am falling in love with the diversity of the people, and with the strange feeling that in a city that saw the worst military parades and killed its own population in gas chambers, anybody today can feel so much at home. A real melting pot. I order a last breakfast in "my" café and wave goodbye to Berlin. I'm happy to have discovered this place, and sad to leave it. Gotta reach Zschopau today.

I head south towards the funny sounding town, home to the MZ factory, while trying to imagine how the place that made the best Commie bikes will look. I imagine a gray and depressing town, with a factory half falling apart, but as I am nearing Saxony the landscape actually turns hilly and green. It comes as a bit of a shock to discover that the area looks like a miniature Tuscany rather than a heartless industry district. At the very heart of the little town of Zschopau there's a fairy-tale castle while factories on the hills just in look well-kept and modern. I head towards the factory and spend the rest of the day tearing up and down the beautiful hills on one of MZ’s 1000SF streetfighters. In the evening I pull into the only hotel in town and am surprised by the sheer quality of the dinner. Who said German food sucks (You did, Yossef. –Ed.)? And was this really communist Germany just 20 years ago? Something doesn't fit. Before falling asleep I reach a decision: Tomorrow I am going to find some proper communist remains!

I found what I was looking for close to Zschopau, in the city of Chemnitz. If the name doesn't ring any bells it's because only recently the town was better known as Karl Marx Stadt: Karl Marx City. The original German city of Chemnitz was so heavily bombed during WWII that when the communist regime rebuilt it, they decided to turn Chemnitz into a "communist model town." What better name than that?

In the town's center there's a huge Marx bust, while the wall behind is covered with Marx's quotes in all languages. Fittingly enough, new-age kids practice their skating on the stairs by the monument. But this is about the most interesting place in town, as the rest is composed of ugly and depressing gray concrete apartment buildings. The atmosphere here is really heavy. Indeed, young people abandon towns like Chemnitz and nearby Leipzig as if they were hit by a plague. While leaving town I find an old church that is simply surrounded by these huge apartment blocks. The communist regime simply created a ring of ugly houses around it, as if to suffocate it. Can it get more symbolic than that?

It's nice to see bikes often relegated to museums actually being ridden

The high point of my visit to Saxony is the Motorcycle Museum of Augustusburg. I've been to a few bike museums in the past, and all I can say is that this one is up there with the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham. It's a bit of a shock to me, but through the amazing exhibition I come to realize that Saxony's motorcycle production output until WWII was bigger than England's, the U.S. or Italy's at the time. The museum is located inside a beautiful Schloss on a hill top, and as I walk out I spot a beautiful falcon soaring high above the castle, a red streamer attached to his leg. There are still some falcon trainers here, and the sight throws me back to a time when such castles where populated with kings, barons, dukes and noblemen (We hired Kevin Duke after seeing some buzzards on the roadside. –Ed.). It's time to move on towards the Czech Republic.

I set my alarm for a late wake-up, pack the bike and head out of Zschopau. It's Sunday, and on the twisting country road there's an exaggerated amount of vintage bikes heading south. I join them for the ride, inhaling the sweet two-stroke smell, and end up in a small classic bike meeting. Nice to see many of the bikes I spotted the day before in the museum in action – a last tasty delight before leaving the enchanted and secret two-stroke kingdom of Saxony. 

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