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Wandering Elbe-side

Richard Kelly | Published on 10/21/2023

The Labe – Elbe River (say “Larba – Elba”?) is Europe’s 3rd longest, after Danube and Rhine.  I recently followed most of it, solo, over 21 days, including one rest day.  The river starts as the Labe from a spring in the Krkoneše Mountains of NE Czechia, near Poland.  It changes name to “Elbe” in Germany, and I’ll use just that name hereafter.

I started at Jaromëř, easily accessible by train, some 70km from the source.  I thereby missed 3/4 of the river’s descent: 1,000m of the 1,250m!  I finished at Hamburg, some 110km from the river’s mouth at Cuxhaven, North Sea.  Total riding was 1,000+km, including town touring etc.

Overall impressions: green, forests, ferries, dykes, quiet, sleepy (until the opposite in Hamburg).  History.


I rented a touring bike (Germans say “trekker”) in Dresden.  Basic front suspension, luggage rack, 28” wheels, 38C Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres (awesome).  Worst seat ever (but my bum eventually adjusted).  NO tools or tubes supplied!  (I brought from Oz and bought).

This bike was NON-e!!  I only considered e-less because the route was mainly flat, with no significant climbs.  Obviously, e-less was lots cheaper: A$164 for a month.  But I also worried about solo lifting an e-bike up/down trains’ two or three vertical steps.  Further, I might need to lug the bike up stairs to my accom for security, versus overnight street parking.  This happened twice, with 54 steep, narrow, spiralling stairs involved in Hamburg.


My whole trip was light and late on planning.  My ride direction was selected by the guidebook I already owned.  The river route was mainly NW after my first two days.  The prevailing breeze during my ride was from SE, so I rode predominantly downwind.  Also, riding mainly in the morning (to beat heat), I rode “down-sun”.  Given that the September sun zenith angle at my latitude was more like a winter sun in Sydney, my NW direction was pleasant while the sun arced east to south, with my long-ish shadow out ahead!


The most common surface was smooth bitumen, but there were plenty of exceptions, including some really tough going.  For my first four days to Mĕlník, during which I saw very few long-haul cyclists, there were some goat tracks or worse!  Some of the ruts through grass were so deep and narrow that toes and pedals clipped the grass “banks”.  Adding the intermittent mud, and concentration needed to be intense, progress slow.  Mĕlník is where the Vltava River from Prague joins the Elbe (photo).  Rider sightings increased significantly, as did average path quality.  (I visited Prague five years earlier, so skipped that diversion).

A very unwelcome surface throughout the ride was the intermittent stretches of cobblestones, the infamous “pavé”, especially with my sore bum and laden bike.  I dreaded entering each town, scanning for pavé and workarounds such as tyre-wide dirt tracks aside the pavé, or footpaths comprising smaller stones.  Even when the town’s road was bitumen, every intersection or driveway seemed an excuse for more pavé.

Navigation and Info

My “bible” was Cicerone’s “Cycling the Elbe Cycle Route”.  I did NOT use it for its turn-by-turn navigation instructions: that would seem an absolute pain.  Mainly, I used it for info about what to see, and the rich history.  Each evening I would plot the next day’s route in (“RwGPS”), accom-to-accom, on my phone, and save it offline.  Generally, the guts of the route was obvious, with a broad pale-red line on the OSM-cycle map (in RwGPS).  Sometimes there were multiple such lines (e.g. both sides of the river), so I referred to my bible.  I never bothered customizing the auto-cues.  While riding, “Rhonda” of RwGPS usually kept me on track from those auto-cues.

The route was often away from the river, sometimes with climbs.  Route signposting was imperfect but generally good, and helped me a few times when Rhonda had me confused in complex situations.  There were several instances of major roadwork or path-work, necessitating detours which were not, or partially, signposted.


I’ve experienced warm German Septembers and cold ones.  So I was lugging more clothing than ideal.  I actually started in cold rain, sheltering in poncho within my first km and questioning why I came.  But the weather soon came very good for a very long while, with max usually around 30, mid-arvo.  The only rainy day was forecast well in advance, and I made that my rest day.  (Less attractive weather seemed to come from SW or west, so my downstream ride direction would be unpleasant).

Accommodation and Trains

I typically booked accom a night or two in advance, monitoring the weather forecast, my bod, and my “bible”.  I varied between airbnb and, more often,  Both auto-translate, helping communication.  Generally, there was good choice, although Saturday nights are often a worry and I try to book earlier.  For one Saturday night I had to pay way more than “budget”.

German fast train prices vary greatly according to demand, and there’s a variable over-65s discount.  On my rest day, with 6 days riding to Hamburg and just enough good weather forecast, I booked my last 6 nights accom AND my train trips back to Dresden, with bike, thence to my Munich “base” (and Oktoberfest!).


Acceptance of credit and debit cards had increased significantly since Covid.  I almost avoided having Czech koruna.  German waiters are still demanding cash, or at least cash tips.  I finally embraced the “Wise” international money system and its debit card, effectively paying a 0.6% fee per transaction above the neutral exchange rate.


Having happily used Telstra’s international roaming facility multiple times in NZ ($5/day) and Hawaii ($10/day), I thought to keep things simple and use it in Europe for the first time ($10/day).  I had three “blackouts” approaching 24 hours which I’ll “discuss” with Telstra!

Iron Curtain

Most of my journey was in former “Iron Curtain” country.  There seemed an overall drabness about towns and suburbia, and fewer people visible than the housing would indicate.  Compared to my experiences in southern Germany, I found little English fluency, eye contact rare, and smiles rarer.

At one stage I was riding through peaceful, bucolic former East Germany, with “West” Germany some 200M across the river.  No barbed wire remaining but some guard watchtowers (photo).  A young local waitress, about to live in Perth with Australian boyfriend, told me about the stressful life of her local grandparents.

Risks, Solitude

Although I’ve done similar European long-haul solo riding before, I am now more conscious of the risks if a major body or bike problem occurred, especially not speaking the local language.  So I’m not necessarily recommending my format.  I loved the freedom to stop often for photography, and to linger wherever I wanted.  With constant contact back to Oz and pleasant conversations with strangers, especially with hosts and other “long-haulers”, it wasn’t as lonely as might seem.

Richard Kelly – Oz Wanderer

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