Seventy-two-year-old Christine Paucker is showing us her underwear: a pair of billowy knee-length pants that don't exactly scream come-hither. The rest of her traditional Sorbian farmer's wife outfit is similarly practical – a plain blue headscarf, a simple blouse and a heavy, pleated skirt. She shows us a picture of the region's most elaborate garment – an intricate white lace dress that takes two hours to put on and is held in place with 30 pins. "It's not easy to seduce a Sorbian girl," she says, smiling.
We're in the Spreewald, a 484-square-kilometre UNESCO biosphere reserve 100 kilometres south-east of Berlin. It's a tranquil pocket of forest and farmland that's criss-crossed by 1300 kilometres of picturesque canals. Home to about 50,000 people, it was first settled during the sixth century by a little-known Slavic tribe called the Sorbs.
A former English and Russian teacher, Paucker remembers when the region was still part of Soviet-ruled East Germany. "Life is better now," she concedes. "But people struggled with the transition from socialism. It's amazing how quickly they became disillusioned when they could get everything they wanted."
The setting for this impromptu history lesson is the dappled shade of a bucolic farmhouse garden. We've cycled here from Burg, a meandering 34-kilometre journey along quiet riverside dykes and through whisper-quiet forests. The reward for our efforts is not only this fascinating talk, but also a lavish lunch of pumpkin soup, salmon salad and herring mixed with cream cheese and cucumber. All of which goes very well with a crisp, ice-cold local riesling.
It's only day two of this six-day Butterfield & Robinson (B&R) cycle tour from Berlin to Prague but I've already abandoned any hopes of finishing more svelte than when I began.
Today started with an extravagant prosecco-accompanied buffet breakfast of pastries, cheese, cold meats and fruit, and will finish with an equally sumptuous four-course dinner of pickled salmon, steak, risotto and chocolate cake.
In the extremely unlikely event we feel peckish in between, we rendezvous at regular intervals with a support van where we're tempted with an extensive selection of nuts, fruit and chocolate. As the trip progresses, the effort required to coax my cycling shorts back on each morning increases exponentially.
Gourmet food is one of B&R's trademarks. The company has built a formidable reputation on staying in the finest accommodation, showcasing the best local food and including a range of memorable excursions. None of this comes cheap but it's a formula that has earned it a cult-like loyalty. Almost everyone on this trip has travelled with B&R before, some more than a dozen times. Most are well-heeled, middle-aged couples from North America, plus a sprinkling of Brits, Aussies and Brazilians.
Our base for the first two nights is Bleiche, a lavish five-star spa resort that's a welcoming haven of antique furniture, comfy sofas and open fireplaces. The spa is a labyrinth of saunas, jacuzzis and pools where robe-clad guests pad around in stuporous bliss. No healthy-eating guilt trips here – the relaxation lounge has chilled bottles of wine and a table laden with freshly baked cakes.
Over the next five nights we'll also stay in the five-star Kempinski Taschenbergpalais in Dresden and the Augustine, a former 13th-century monastery in the heart of Prague. It's a tribute to both properties' professionalism that no one bats an eyelid when we all traipse in clad in sweaty cycling gear.
This trip is particularly appealing because for the first four days we are almost entirely on flat, dedicated cycle paths. Most people have chosen to use B&R's high-end Bianchi hybrid bikes but a few have opted for sleeker racing machines. All the bikes have a handlebar-mounted tablet with a pre-programmed GPS.
"The system is very easy to use," explains guide Tim on the first day. "It will simply yell at you if you go off course."
It also chirps up to warn us about upcoming ascents ("change down"), tricky navigational quirks ("take notice") and bumpy sections of trail ("rough stretch ahead"). The beauty of the set-up is that it allows everyone to ride at their own pace knowing we'll all be guided to the same destination.
Tim grew up in east Germany so is a fount of local knowledge and is ably assisted by fellow German guide Mario. While they ride with us each day, the affable Marc shadows us in the support van with our luggage and enough snacks to fuel a Tour de France team. All three make convivial and entertaining hosts at mealtimes.
After two days of exploring the Spreewald, we take a two-hour transfer to the Elbe Valley, where Mario is waiting with our bikes and a tray of heart-starting espressos. Our first stop is an illuminating private tour of Europe's oldest porcelain factory in Meissen before we continue along the vineyard-lined banks of the Elbe River towards the dramatic outline of Dresden.
It's hard to believe almost all of Dresden's city centre was obliterated by Allied bombs during World War II. Thankfully, it's been meticulously restored to its 17th-century architectural heyday, when it was the residence of the kings of Saxony, most notably legendary strapping monarch Augustus the Strong.
He was responsible for many of the city's most impressive baroque treasures, including Dresden Cathedral, Zwinger Palace and the Frauenkirche Lutheran church. In a poignant symbol of reconciliation, the Frauenkirche's crowning golden cross was made by the son of an English World War II bomber pilot.
That evening we enjoy an intimate classical recital in the palace's elegant pavilion (with a glass of champagne, of course) and the following day have a guided tour of the New Green Vault, a museum containing Augustus' astonishing personal collection of more than 1000 pieces of jewellery, artwork and precious gems. Highlights include a rare 41-carat green diamond and an intricate, ruby-studded model depicting an Indian mogul's birthday ceremony made by the court goldsmith and costing the king more than one of his palaces.
"The further you go, the prettier it gets," advises Mario during the briefing for our ride that afternoon into the Elbe Valley. And he's right. The banks of the valley get progressively steeper until we're cycling under soaring sandstone cliffs, past elegant riverside mansions and through ribbons of autumnal forest.
It's so beguiling that two of the Brazilian women set out for the Czech border, an ambitious 107-kilometre thigh-tester. Most of us are content with a 66-kilometre loop that sees us criss-crossing the river using a network of quaint, open-sided ferries.
On our last day, there's a noticeable contrast when we cross from Germany into the Czech Republic. The bike paths aren't as well maintained, the architecture is more brutal and – most alarmingly – we encounter our first hill. It's only a 200-metre incline but it's almost enough to burn off one of the four Lindt chocolates I scoffed during our mid-morning rendezvous with Marc.
For the final push, we follow the snaking Vltava river to the outskirts of Prague where we enjoy a lavish celebratory lunch in the Bib Gourmand-awarded Eska restaurant.
Later we will be bussed into the city centre for a tour and an extravagant farewell meal but for now we congratulate each other on our cycling endeavours with a delicious gruner veltliner from Austria's Wachau Valley. As we work our way through a three-course feast of creamy mushroom soup, succulent grilled trout and a decadent chocolate torte, I find myself daydreaming about the spacious wonders of Sorbian underwear.
FIVE MORE EPIC EUROPEAN BIKE RIDES
VIENNA TO BUDAPEST
Perfect for the occasional cyclist, this trip follows the Danube as it meanders from elegant Vienna to bohemian Budapest. See butterfield.com
AMSTERDAM TO BRUGES
Highlights on this seven-day barge and bike tour include the hip city of Antwerp, the medieval gem of Ghent and some of Europe's best beer and chocolate. See utracks.com
BORDEAUX TO DORDOGNE
Savour fine wines, fine food and chateaux-peppered countryside on this trip between two of France's most celebrated gastronomic regions. See butterfield.com
PRAGUE TO VIENNA
One for the history lovers, this capital-hopping cycle delivers a compelling mix of baroque architecture, Cold War remnants and Habsburg grandeur. See utracks.com
CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
Why hike when you can bike this iconic pilgrimage from Leon to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain? See butterfield.com
Rob McFarland was a guest of Butterfield & Robinson.
Butterfield & Robinson's six-day cycle trip from Berlin to Prague starts at $7855 and includes bike hire, accommodation, entrance fees and most meals and drinks. See butterfield.com