BIKE ADVENTURES

Asparagus and Martin Luther: a 90-km bike ride to Wittenberg

It was the farthest I’ve ridden from Berlin

Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
5 a.m. Magazine
Published in
11 min readJul 22, 2023

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It was just a normal summer Thursday — warm, sunny, and dull. So, I decided to visit Wittenberg, an ancient town located outside the familiar Berlin-Brandenburg region. I had never ridden beyond Brandenburg on a bicycle before. Mmm, you can imagine my thrill!

© All photos by Slava Shestopalov

I quickly got out of Berlin on an S-Bahn because riding through a busy megapolis takes much time and gives no fun. I chose a picturesque route through forests, lakes, and fields and was lucky enough to be on the shady side of the road during the first hours.

Tranquil lakes on the way from Potsdam to Beelitz.

After several kilometers, I met a herd of grazing horses. I stopped to take pictures, and the brown horse tried to chew my bike’s saddle and even left a small dent at the bottom.

Friendly horses not far from Beelitz.

Suddenly, I saw weird white poles by the roadside. That’s how I understood I was approaching Beelitz. I mentioned this town in my previous article near the photo of a grocery stand with proud advertising “Asparagus from Beelitz.” The town is so famous for asparagus that it even has a nickname in German — “Spargelstadt Beelitz.”

Asparagus sculptures near Beelitz.

It was getting hotter, and I spent several minutes refreshing in the fountain behind the church. There was no cafe or store nearby, but I recalled I saw a Turkish snack shop earlier down the street. They had retro-styled “Fanta” in the fridge. Just look at this adorable vintage label!

Asparagus sculptures in the city center and a retro-style “Fanta.”

I didn’t expect to see anything else in Beelitz, but one building grabbed my attention. It was an old post office with a black imperial eagle on the facade and thematic frescoes in the entranceway.

Old post office in Beelitz.

They even exhibited a vintage mail carriage! This is why I love biking around the countryside: you never know what you gonna see next.

Vintage post carriage.

I left Beelitz and rode along a large asparagus field. Honestly, I saw this species in its “natural habitat” for the first time. The midday sun was burning, and there was no shade to hide in. I tried to maintain the same pace and listen to music from a portable speaker attached to my bike’s frame.

A field of asparagus outside Beelitz.

The next stop — Treuenbrietzen, a town founded in the 13th century in the place of an earlier Slavic rampart, at the intersection of old trade routes between Berlin, Leipzig, Juterbog, and Wittenberg.

By the way, I had visited Treuenbrietzen in April. I was on my way back from Jüterbog and got soaked to the skin under a night rain. Then I took only one picture of the town and decided to visit it again in less extreme conditions.

Half-timbered houses across the street from St. Mary’s Church.

In Treuenbrietzen, I had a hearty lunch with freezing-cold beer at a Mexican cafe and only after that began exploring the sites. I started from the town’s oldest building, St. Mary’s Church. It was constructed before 1217 from field stone and later extended with brick.

St Mary’s Church and Luther’s lime tree behind the tower.

In the 16th century, Martin Luther came here to proclaim the ideas of the Protestant Reformation and wasn’t allowed into the church. So, he decided to pray under a lime tree in front of the building. The tree is still alive despite several large cracks in its trunk.

Then I discovered the most unusually colored half-timbered house I had ever seen. This maroon building turned out to be part of the so-called Hakenbuden, a block of merchant and artisan houses, with the oldest one dating back to 1540!

The Hakenbuden, a group of ancient houses in the heart of Treuenbrietzen.

Another remarkable example of medieval architecture in Treuenbrietzen was St. Nicholas Church (built between 1220 and 1260). It combines the Romanesque and Gothic styles, while the tower top is an 18th-century Baroque additive. Oh, how I hate it when unsuitable Baroque extras spoil gorgeous medieval buildings!

St. Nicholas Church at noon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take a picture from a longer distance because parked cars would’ve ruined the view.

Unlike the churches I showed above, the Holy Spirit Chapel is a weird mix of a defense and religious monument. Originally, it was part of the town’s fortifications, but in 1352 first mentioned as a place of worship for poor crafters and wanderers. Later the chapel fell into disrepair and remained ruined for decades. In 1936 it was expanded to house a local lore museum and plays this role until now.

The former Holy Spirit Chapel in Treuenbrietzen.

And before we leave Treuenbrietzen, here are two more towers that were built centuries apart:

  • The Gunpowder Tower was not that easy to find. It’s tiny and hidden in a narrow dead-end passage. The tower was part of the town’s medieval fortifications and served as an ammo magazine until 1877. Nowadays, you can see a stork nest on its roof.
  • The 42-meter water tower was built in 1910 in the scope of the town’s first central drinking water network. The water tank at the top of the tower holds up to 100 thousand liters of water.
The medieval Powder Tower vs. not-so-old water tower.

At that point, I was in the middle of my journey and headed further to the south. In one of the villages, I noticed an adorable mural with all the sites I had visited in Treuenbrietzen — as if the town said goodbye.

A mural artwork with all the major Treuenbrietzen sites.

I had to pedal 20+ more kilometers to Wittenberg. The sun shone much more softly, and I even felt a slight breath of wind on my back.

When I was about to cross the border between the Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt regions, I saw a scenery in the colors of a Ukrainian flag: a clear blue sky over a golden wheat field.

A stunning blue-and-yellow landscape made me a bit nostalgic.

In an hour and a half, I finally arrived in Wittenberg!

Since I was approaching from the north, I stumbled upon Luther Melanchthon High School (1997–1999), designed by famous Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

The back facade of Luther Melanchthon High School in Wittenberg.

It’s not the only Hundertwasser’s creation in Germany, but the sole school of his design. At first, I feared that the area was closed to visitors, but the gate turned out to be open, and I could freely enter.

The front facade of the Hundertwasser school in Wittenberg.

The building was erected in 1975 according to a typical GDR/Soviet plan with two parallel wings connected with a third one in the middle. In the 1990s, the school underwent a significant remodeling and obtained its unique appearance. Friedensreich Hundertwasser saw the revamped school before he died in 2000.

A dragonfly-shaped metal bench behind Hundertwasser’s school. It was quite dirty there.

But before we go further, here are several facts about the city:

  • Wittenberg is a 46,000-people city on the River Elbe.
  • It was founded by Flemish settlers (modern-day Belgians) in the 12th century. Soon it became one of the most influential cities in the Holy Roman Empire (the name of the German state in the Middle Ages).
  • The city is officially called “Lutherstadt Wittenberg” in honor of Martin Luther and the Reformation — a religious movement of the 1500s that criticized corruption in the Catholic Church and led to the creation of a new branch of Christianity, Protestantism.
  • During the Second World War, a large aircraft factory stood outside Wittenberg. The Nazis forced prisoners of war to work there, so when the Allies bombed it, over a thousand POWs died.
  • In 1966, places associated with Martin Luther and his collaborator Philip Melanchthon were added to the UNESCO World Heritage.

So, I started my exploration from the Luther House (1504), built as part of the University of Wittenberg and where Martin Luther lived most of his adult life. The building has lost its medieval character over time, but it contains many original objects from Luther’s life.

The view of the Luther House through the Augusteum archway.

The Augusteum (1564–1586) is an annex in front of the Luther House. It was constructed after Luther’s death to accommodate a Protestant seminary and library.

The archway of Augusteum is exquisitely decorated with Luther’s quotes.

While I was preparing this article, of course, I googled information about Protestantism in my native country. I learned that it was known in modern-day Ukraine’s western and northern regions since the 16th century owing to strong trade connections with German duchies. Besides, our ancestors often absorbed Luther’s ideas while studying in Western European universities. Nowadays, only up to 3% of Ukrainians identify as Protestants (versus 34% of Germans).

  • There are approximately 0.8–1.0 billion Protestants worldwide, among approximately 2.5 billion Christians.
  • 40% percent of all Christians worldwide are Protestants, which is around one-tenth of the total human population.

And it all started here, in the small city of Wittenberg.

A Renaissance portal next to the old premises of the University of Wittenberg (initially called “Leucorea”).

Meanwhile, I walked to the Melanchthon House (1537), a Renaissance building where influential Protestant leader Philipp Melanchthon lived with his family. In the 19th century, the dilapidated house was sold from private ownership to the state and underwent a renovation, which, in particular, revealed old wall paintings.

The front facade of the Melanchthon House.

I was lucky to visit Wittenberg in the evening, during the “golden hour,” when all the buildings were softly gilded by the rays of the setting sun. The city was almost deserted — such a tremendous contrast with noisy and crowded Berlin!

One of two narrow water canals flowing through the center of Wittenberg.

But then I noticed something strange: parked trucks, sections of temporary fencing, and large wooden cabins everywhere — as if Wittenberg turned into a construction site. And then I guessed they were just preparing for an annual medieval festival! Hmm, interesting.

The Market Square of Wittenberg with an old city hall on the left and Luther’s statue on the right.

Of course, I also came closer to St. Mary’s Church, the mother church of the Protestant Reformation. It was first mentioned in 1187 as a wooden temple, while the oldest parts of the current structure date back to 1280. In the 15th century, the two towers crowned with stone pyramids were added, but a century later, a war broke out, and the pyramids were removed to make platforms for cannons.

The sunlit western facade of St. Mary’s Church.

Martin Luther held the first Protestant service in St. Mary’s Church on the Christmas of 1521. Although the original interior hasn’t survived, the church contains an altarpiece of that era. It was painted by Lucas Cranach the Younger, a famous Renaissance painter from a dynasty of artists and honorable Wittenberg citizens.

St. Mary’s Church during the “golden hour.”

Such a miniature city but so densely packed with ancient history and culture! However, there was one more place left on my list that I wanted to visit; I spotted it from afar as I circled around the lake an hour earlier. It was the Castle Church, a.k.a. All Saints’ Church, where Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon were buried.

The view of the Castle Church tower across a lake.

The first chapel dedicated to All Saints was erected at the fortified ducal residence in 1340 and rebuilt in the Late Gothic style a century later. In the 16th century, the church was handed over to the newly created University of Wittenberg. Students were awarded their doctorates here, and Philipp Melanchthon, whom I mentioned earlier, made his famous inaugural speech in this church.

The door and tower of the Castle Church with festival preparations in the foreground.

The university staff used the main entrance to pin up important messages. It’s believed that on the eve of All Saints’ Day, 31 October 1517, Martin Luther posted his famous “95 Theses” on the church door. He criticized the Catholic practice of selling indulgences — papers that spared people from being punished for their sins in purgatory.

A pair of donkeys chilling at the castle wall.

Unfortunately, the building was completely remodeled in 1883–1892 on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth; the builders wanted to highlight the temple’s significance instead of preserving its authenticity. In particular, they added a massive 88-meter tower with Luther’s quote, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”).

The modern view of Wittenberg from a bridge across the Elbe vs. a 16th-century drawing.

Uff, it was time to finally have some rest before the return journey.

I took a seat at a random bar on Market Square. The waitress told me they had Thursday deals: pay for one cocktail and get two. I ordered gin tonics, which tasted so good after the whole day on a bike. While sipping the drinks, I was reading about the medieval festival that would take place on the weekend. (It seemed a great reason to show Wittenberg to my wife, which we did, by the way.)

Drinking gin tonics on Market Square.

After the bar, I planned to ride halfway back to Bad Belzig and take a train home from there, but… punctured a rear tire. Thank god, it happened in Wittenberg — not in the middle of nowhere.

A flat tire made me return to Berlin sooner, saving me from unnecessary stress.

It was pretty late, and I didn’t have time and tools for repair, so this trouble was actually fortunate. Instead of questionable nighttime riding, I took a direct train to Berlin, returned home after 1 a.m., jumped into bed, and fell asleep instantly.

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Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
5 a.m. Magazine

Design leader and somewhat of a travel blogger. Author of “Design Bridges” and “5 a.m. Magazine” · savelife.in.ua/en/donate-en