After a great adventure by kayak across the whole of Poland last summer, I am itching to get back on my bike for a new adventure. The bike allows for a much faster speed and easily accessible hot food along the route!
I have always wanted to go to Marathon, Greece and run the original 25 mile route from Marathon to Athens that was taken by an ancient greek messenger. From where I currently call home (Katowice, Poland), there is a very interesting route, passing (albeit briefly in some) through 11 different countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and finally Greece).
This new adventure is approximately 2200km, just like the London to Auschwitz bike ride. However, this new journey appears more hilly, especially the second half. London to Auschwitz took 25 days, but I did stop off at a lot of sites to explore and I didn’t push the cycling too much.
Now the question is “when?” As a freelance software developer, I live in project work, and I am hoping to forge a gap in the projects within the next few months of winter.
Why do it in Winter? Why not? Adventure!
The cold of winter can be overcome with more layers – and actually, extreme minus temperatures are too cold to snow or rain, saving you from becoming damp. The difficulty with winter comes when you only have 8 hours of sunlight as you do here in Poland now. Fortunately I will be heading southwards and so the days will be getting longer as I go – in Athens right now there are almost 2 hours more sunlight a day and the temperatures are in the teens – warm enough for tee shirt and shorts!
I am looking for people (who might know people) along the route who I could stay with or at least meet for company. If you know anyone directly, or friends of friends, please do put me in contact with them! Failing that, I was planning on finding hostels/hotels that will no doubt be relatively cheap in this part of Europe. I haven’t brought myself to the idea of camping wild in winter on a cycling trip yet!
Similarly, if you have visited this part of the world before and have some recommendations, I would appreciate advice! The UK Government website suggests that all of these countries need NO visas and are all perfectly safe, apart from a few countries that might still have active landmines.
In October 2013, I spent 25 days alone with my bike, cycling a WWII liberation path from London, across Europe, to Auschwitz. (See articles here)
It was a deeply meaningful trip, I did not want to dwell solely on the painful memories of this time in history, instead I wanted to look at the positive side of liberating Europe, the good that came with stopping the Nazi regime and celebrating the freedom we have today. Inevitably there were parts of the trip which were overwhelmingly emotional, wandering alone through the Flossenbürg concentration camp was certainly one of them, but the message of the trip was to enjoy the freedom that we now have.
On completing the trip, I spent the Shabbat in Krakow at the JCC. This centre was created thanks to Prince Charles’ ideas and WJR’s support. A place where everyone is welcomed to learn about the thriving Jewish life, in modern Poland.
Speaking to the director, Jonathan Ornstein, I realised that the bike ride should not end at the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau; instead, I should finish the journey on a high note with the welcoming, friendly and growing Jewish Community in Krakow.
On Friday 6th June 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I set out, with 14 other people from the UK, USA, Israel and Poland, to complete the journey from Auschwitz to the JCC. We began the day with some very memorable tours of the camps,then got ready to set off on the bike ride, ready to see the current strong Jewish community of Krakow.
A moving ceremony in front of the camp gates involved a member of the Krakow community, Pani Zosia, speaking about how she had lost family here; she is grateful that there is a place for her in Poland to experience her Jewish identity now.
We set off on the relatively flat 90km ride along the river Wisla. We meandered down small country roads with little traffic and surprisingly beautiful scenery as the sun shone down on us. We contemplated the freedom we have and reflected on the horrors of the camp we had just cycled away from.
A great sense of camaraderie was amongst the group as we made our way across the southern part of Poland.
Eventually we came into Krakow and began to see the Wawel Castle overlooking the river. We knew we were nearly there. A wave of relief came over us after several hours of cycling. We all rode into the JCC as one cohort, welcomed by local members of the Polish community.
After celebratory hugs and pictures we quickly showered and changed before we were kindly welcomed to join the community for Friday night Shabbat dinner. Not only did we hear some older members of the community singing Yiddish songs that used to fill the area before the War, but we met young members who were discovering their Jewish identity and what it means to them.
We spent part of Shabbat walking around the beautifully modern town of Krakow, everyone exclaiming that they didn’t expect Poland to be this beautiful; suggesting that we could be anywhere in Europe.
The evening saw thousands of people (mostly Polish) coming together to experience all of Krakow’s seven synagogues open to the public in an event called 7@nite. A great bonding had occurred between our group, and we ended the unforgettable weekend experiencing the synagogues of the town that once were overflowing with Jewish traditions and life. Unfortunately only the small community still remains today, but they are still here singing the songs and reciting the prayers.
Despite expectations that it might be difficult to ride such a long distance after seeing the horrors of Auschwitz, every rider came away with an extremely positive experience and will no doubt encourage their friends to participate next year.
A few weekends ago we (my girlfriend Basia and I), spent the Saturday on a fairly flat 80km cycle from our flat in Katowice to Krakow. The weather was perfect blue skies and not too hot at about 16 degrees. Having not done too much cycling since the big ride out here, almost 6 months ago now, where I averaged 100km a day for 22 days cycling, I was still in a good place to do a casual 80km. Basia however, had never gone more than 35km in one day!
We decided to set off early to give ourselves a good buffer should we need it. Not a great start though, just 100m down the road we had to stop though to put on a jumper (a sweater for my American friends, or ‘sweter’ for the Poles!). But on we pressed and hit 25km before we knew it.
I am helping to organise a charity ride in June which takes place in the same area of Poland: Silesia, where we will be riding from Auschwitz to the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) in Krakow. The ride is called “Ride for the Living”, the purpose is not just to remember the past horrors of Nazi controlled Poland, but also to look at the present and future Jewish Community in Krakow. See the website for more information of the 65km ride in June.
Pushing onwards, the sun was shining bright and we were cruising the Polish country roads. However, we were soon reminded of the history of the land when coming across a memorial for 42 people who had died in a work camp that was associated with Auschwitz. The plaque calls them Hitler’s victims. A solemn reminder of the history of a place that I have recently called home.
Finally we did make it; a great achievement. Taking the slow train back home over 2 hours for a ride that was not much longer!
Hiking in the Bielsko Biała Forests
This past weekend we also spent most of the day hiking in the nearest hills, about an hour drive south from Katowice.
My first time properly using walking sticks actually proved quite easy. It takes a lot of weight off your knees when walking downhill, and as a friend mentioned to me, it is as if it takes the stress of a rucksack away.
A great day walking, but my mind still wanders to the people of this area, in the hills and in the forests during the Nazi occupation. The potential stories are unimaginable, but whilst taking on a recreational walk in these forests you can’t help but feel grateful for life and freedom.
Seder night in Krakow
Leading on from the theme of “Freedom” comes the story of Passover and the festival of Pesach in the Jewish religion. On Monday night we joined the community in Krakow for the Seder dinner to remember the exodus from Egypt and slavery. My first year not with my family, but with over 160 other people there I felt a great love from a different kind of family.
The moral of the story, is that no matter the hardship, in this case slavery, we have to keep pressing on and keep going. Even more poignant in Poland; but today we celebrate with 160 people strong at the JCC and many more in Krakow and the rest of Poland; still here, still moving forward. Very inspiring.
Join our bike ride to experience similar aventures – here
Below are some cycling specific rules I have given myself whilst touring (usually solo) over the years. It is by no means a bible and I know many other people who do things completely differently.
Always have water. If you are running low then you MUST stop at the next available place as you don’t know when you might get lost!
Never get dehydrated – down what you have and fill it up as often as you can. Remember, if you aren’t peeing regularly then you aren’t hydrated enough!
Just keep drinking water!
There is nothing worse than dehydration – fatigue, grumpiness, dizziness and potentially DEATH. That’s right, KEEP DRINKING!
Ok ok…stop drinking water!
Too much stopping for fill-ups and toilet breaks can seriously ruin your flow when trying to knock off big chunks of distance – everything in moderation – just don’t dehydrate, ok?
Cycling for 6 hours or more a day will burn a lot of calories, no matter the terrain or speed. You need to eat. Lots. Fast food is cheap and a great way to pack in the calories, but remember to eat some vegetables as well to make sure your immune system doesn’t weaken too much making you prone to illness.
Do not be afraid of packing in the calories anyway you can though – fast food is your friend here, especially if you need to press on down the road. If you can eat more cleanly (i.e. lots of fresh fruit and vegetables), you should. However this can often be much more difficult, more expensive and time consuming when on the road than grabbing a cheeky kebab. Volume is a priority; make sure you eat enough as there is nothing worse than not having enough fuel in the tank!
It will be hard at times
Don’t fool yourself, there will be stupidly tough hills and some ridiculous headwinds; but like everything in life, these things have a way of balancing out. “This is a game for life, not just a day”: meaning if you spend 4 days going uphill into headwind then you will get some ridiculously amazing downhills soon enough that will massively outweigh any pain from the past. The wind might even turn your way to help you out – stay positive and stay patient.
I absolutely hate pieces of paper. I have been given so many free tourist maps which are utterly useless. Despite the smartphone revolution, people seem determined to give me something else to carry. Too many times has someone in a shop or hotel got a map out for me, only to draw directions that consist of “go outside, turn left, walk for about 50 yards”. Just tell me that and I don’t have to take your stupid map!
I have maps, emails, phone numbers, addresses, notes and photos all on my phone. Everything I do is on there, from work to pleasure. If I lost or broke my beloved iPhone (which I have done several times) then I would be ruined – or rather probably have some ‘fun’ trying to sort out an alternative for everything!
I still don’t see why people would ever buy a Garmin GPS device. Map applications are far better than any other device I have seen for navigation, and there are quite a few apps with good terrain information. Personally I like to use Google maps as it is always up to date and super easy to use – especially with Streetview! It also caches nicely offline. Don’t waste your money on anything else!
There are however some tricks to using any map when planning a route. Look out for rivers as they will help to indicate hills – the source of the river will be high and larger parts of the river will be lower down. Try to follow rivers if you can as they tend to be flatter than the hills or mountains that divide them.
Remember – if a river bends significantly (apart from in cities), it is probably because there is a hill in between. Be prepared!
It doesn’t have to cost a lot
I have met too many people (particularly around Richmond and Regents Park in London) that turn up on a Sunday morning with their pristine carbon bike that cost them upwards of several thousand pounds. My relatively cheap aluminium bike with panniers, mud, scratches and real wear and tear still zooms past them and I get a great satisfaction when doing so. Your legs are the most important part of the bike and improving them involves spending time on the bike – not money on it!
In terms of ‘running costs’ on a tour, you can generally find cheap hostels/hotels in small towns. Alternatively camping is a great way to save some money – but be prepared to carry more if you choose this option.
Remember to enjoy it
Touring is called touring because it’s not a race. Don’t be stupid and push your legs so hard that you can’t stand up the next day. Chances are you have a few more days of cycling ahead of you and you need to conserve your legs as much as possible. Remember to stop and appreciate your surroundings along the route – if something looks interesting then stop and take a closer look.
But always remember – you gotta beat all those riding around on the fancy carbon bikes!
Always ask for a discount
If you don’t ask, you won’t get! Almost every hotel/hostel/bed and breakfast has given me a discount. Even if it’s just a few Euros off the price, it still feels good and over a whole trip it can really make a significant difference. It’s also a really useful skill to have not just for a cycling tour but in life – you can end up saving a lot!
Learn to point
If you are in a country where you know zero words of their strange language, then learn a few phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ This will make a good first impression to most of the people you meet – then you can point to things and use hand gestures to try and explain yourself – it is sometimes fun, but sometimes embarrassing too!
I have had success getting things like a screw that fell off my panniers, water, and many cakes – without knowing a word of the relevant language!
I mean really write a diary (even if it is just for yourself) as you will value it forever. Memories fade, but photos, videos and diaries don’t. Just as important as taking the photos is remembering to back them up too!
Reminiscing about a life changing trip is part of the point of setting out in the first place. You are doing this because it is fun, interesting, cool and it’s important to remember these things in the future. It also serves as a separate purpose to motivate yourself for future trips too!
Learn to tinker with the bike
Like computers, most things can be reset. Unscrew a brake pad, see how it fits together. Play with the derailleur and see what happens. Everything can be fixed on a bike as parts can be replaced (even the frame as my American friends found out!). Oh, and if you can’t fix it yourself, then a bike shop will no doubt be able to!
Accidents are called accidents for a reason – they are unplanned! For years I never had a proper accident because I always cycle carefully anticipating the worst of other drivers. I was a cycle courier in London for a short period and never wore a helmet – but I never had a problem. Any small scrapes have been my own fault; e.g. misjudging a curb, another was where I got angry at an awful driver and punched their car – I ended up seriously hurting my hand!
Just over a year ago, I was on a charity ride across Sri Lanka where we were forced to wear helmets or we were banned from riding. Begrudgingly, I donned my lid and continued to pedal. One day I was sprinting down a hill on the rental mountain bike which seemed stable enough. I found an opportunity on this clear day, with an open road, to overtake my fellow riders. I moved across to the empty other side of the road. Getting my head down, I pushed hard to speed past my friends at about 35/40mph until suddenly a large ‘BANG!’ came from the front wheel.
A friend to my side screamed instructions at me: ‘FRONTWHEEL BLOWOUT! KEEP IT STEADY! SLOW DOWN! STEADY! EASY ON THE BRAKES! KEEP IT STEADY! SLOW! SLOW! SLOW!!!’ Fortunately my brain was on the same page and I managed to do exactly that.
Slowing to about 10mph the tyre finally gave up and came off the wheel. The metal rim skidded across the ground and immediately the bike slid from under me. I went over headfirst (somehow getting at least one foot out of the pedal). The ground came towards my face and I bowed to it. Fortunately with this helmet I managed to escape any pain. The only thing I had to show was a ruined front wheel and a small scrape on my knee (which later got infected but hey – I’m not brain dead!).
My point is, you can’t plan for something like that and without a helmet that day I am certain I would have been in hospital for a long time, if not worse.
I am therefore writing this article to educate a previous version of myself who wouldn’t wear a helmet out of stubbornness: I thought I was invincible.
Wearing a helmet now, I am definitely more invincible! (The same is true of car seat-belts)
Always smile. Even if everyone out on a Sunday morning looks like their life has just fallen apart, even if no one returns your smile and they look at you as if you are some strange alien passing through their town. I still urge you to continue to smile and nod your head to these strangers.
Even if your life has fallen apart, or worse yet: your bike has fallen apart, you gotta smile as it is part of the journey of life.
Every cafe or restaurant you go in, smile to the attendant as it will make their day better too – and might even get you a better deal or help to find a special recommendation!
From time to time people may seem unfriendly, but most of the time they are likely just be having a bad moment. The ones who are just simply miserable will always be like that, so move on to the next! Don’t let them get you down.
I recently spent 25 days completing a 2222 km (1350 mile) cycle trip from London, England to Auschwitz, Poland. Travelling alone, with just 2 large panniers full of warm clothes and my laptop, I spent 22 days on the bike and 3 rest days in Paris and Prague. I am a freelance software consultant by trade and my aim was to continue my work throughout the trip. With a laptop and WiFi connection I was able to work in any spare time I had. I am grateful to the McDonalds of the world for the free WiFi they provide!
I devised a route which was to follow the Path of Liberation taken by soldiers during World War II, stopping at places of interest along the way. My journey began at Westminster, where key decisions were made by Winston Churchill (the then Prime Minister) and other Allied leaders to invade France and reclaim the land that Germany had taken. I commenced the journey down to Poole, crossing the Channel by ferry to Cherbourg, France. I followed the Normandy beaches where the D-Day landings took place, visiting memorials and museums which commemorated the lives of the many fallen soldiers. I pushed through to Paris where I had my first day off the bike taking in even more museums; I also took the opportunity to visit the Palace of Versailles learning about the crucial role this played after WWI and also went through Verdun to visit the forest where significant fighting took place. Continuing my cycle to Luxembourg – a country invaded by the Germans despite being neutral – I then crossed into Germany where I met a friend who lives in Frankfurt. I visited the trial rooms at Nuremberg where Nazi war criminals were tried after the war; moving through Bavaria I visited the first concentration camp of my trip, Flossenberg. Reaching Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, I spent a day off the bike visiting Terezin, another Nazi camp for Jews and Polish prisoners. I had a rest day in this popular European holiday destination, where my Mum and friend had flown out to meet me. Back on the bike, I finally reached Poland just a few days later and saw the largest concentration camp the Nazi’s had built, Auschwitz. Approximately 1.5 million people were brutally murdered here and it was a truly emotional and poignant place to complete my journey.
Starting in October, I expected it to be cold and wet – and it was – but despite some bad weather, I had some absolutely incredible experiences. From extreme pride at being British travelling along the Normandy beaches to immense sadness at the concentration camps, I experienced a whole range of emotions throughout the trip, feelings I will never forget. I experienced difficult pain up some hills across Germany and the Czech Republic but when the sun came out and the hills levelled off, I experienced some amazing happiness. I valued my freedom more than I ever have and felt the most incredible joy.
I met some very friendly people throughout France; some American and Canadian travellers next to the memorials of Normandy who were very generous, buying me lunch and museum tickets; several fairly old (70+) cyclists, (Lioret, Mel and others), who were still out hitting the road – they provided great inspiration for me; some local Sunday morning remote controlled airplane enthusiasts, like Lionel, who let me play too; American cyclists, Loren and Eric, also touring Europe who were willing to share a room, some drinks and stories; a lovely American lady, Joy, who ran the Cemetery in Luxembourg and took my camera for a tour despite the US government shutdown prohibiting her from letting me in; a new friend, Mathias, in Frankfurt who let me stay with him and share a local traditional meal. Most people were incredibly friendly throughout.
I was pulled over by police and beeped at by many drivers – especially when I accidently joined a motorway in the dark in the pouring rain! I fixed two punctures and had to buy new tyres half way through. I sent around 60 postcards along the journey and managed to solve most language issues with hand gestures and pointing. I wanted to quit at several points, or at least cheat by taking a train for a short part, but I pushed on through the rain, cold and hills to cycle the whole distance. I talked to myself at many points and sang my favourite songs freewheeling down hills but still claim to have my sanity (apart from being crazy enough to attempt the trip).
Along the route I collected small tokens: sand from the beaches in Normandy; stones from outside the trial rooms in Nuremberg; small rocks from Flossenberg camp; gravel from Terezin camp; and a British flag I had carried for the whole journey. Finally, I added a token from one of the destroyed gas chambers at Auschwitz and lay them together at the main memorial at Birkenau. The grip tape from my bike handlebars fell off on the final day as a sign that it also wanted to give a part of itself to the memory of those lost in this tragedy.
It struck me that if there were a person standing at every metre on my 2 million metre journey, then I would have to return home to England and complete the journey from scratch again to pass 6 million people lining my travels. This was the number of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. This doesn’t include the soldiers or civilians who also perished which stands at a much higher number.
It is very apt to write my summary of the trip on Remembrance Sunday. I made this journey to commemorate the fallen; to try and understand something that is so close to home and so recent in history. I wanted to share my whole journey by writing a daily blog entry about my feelings and experiences. I hope that I help to inspire people to commence an adventure of their own (not necessarily cycling) and to educate others in the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust. We need to ensure we learn the many lessons from mankind’s mistakes. There is nothing like visiting these places that helps one learn these lessons.
Finally I would like to thank everyone who supported me throughout the trip. You know who you are and I am so happy to have such great friends and family in my life.
My final day on this journey was expectedly unforgettable. Again the weather gods were on my side as I was awoken by the sun shining on my face. I had just over 40km to reach the destination that was still so distant in my mind. I held a strange sense of excitement of reaching the end of the trip, yet knew the day would be filled with sombre emotion.
I visited Lvov in the Ukraine earlier this year (by plane) and learnt about more of the mass killings that were carried out throughout the country. Jews were rounded up and shot mercilessly, only to be buried over with no memorial. This happened in almost every town in the Ukraine, where the majority of the population was almost always Jewish before the war, and almost non-existent after. That trip was filled with sad thoughts but I found myself returning home angry. Angry that these things could ever happen in the world (past, present and future).
I found the same anger hit me whilst contemplating the last push on my journey. I screamed reaching the top of hills with sweat dripping down my face. I gave every last bit of my legs to this final day on the bike. I am a lot fitter since the beginning of the trip; I was speeding along at speeds I never thought I would be able to sustain to finish the 2,222 kilometre journey. Gritting my teeth, breathing heavily, heart pounding hard, I pushed through the familiar feeling of pain in my legs.
Finally arriving at Auschwitz I was out of anger, I had used it all up. My legs complained to me in agony, but they quickly quietened down when my mind switched to thinking about the victims of this place. 1,500,000 people were killed in this camp. Women and children innocently slaughtered because they could not work for the Nazis. Only the men fit enough to work could extend their torture by weeks or perhaps months, if they were lucky, before malnutrition, disease or an SS guard would end it for them.
Sadness now filled my mind – despite having visited here before, despite having imagined reaching this well known place, despite learning about so much death, torture and tragedy over the past 25 days on my liberation path cycle. My eyes still drowning with emotion uncontrollably.
People from the whole of Europe were brought here in a logistically challenging exercise. On arrival the women, children and elderly were set aside to go straight to the gas chambers to be killed. They were told they were going to have a shower. The men would be determined fit by one man making a split-second decision based solely on appearance.
The Nazis took all possessions from the victims of the camp, even if they were part of the 25% lucky enough to not be killed immediately. Suitcases were searched carefully for any money or valuable items before being sent back to Germany for re-use.
Shoes of the dead were stacked high, 40,000 pairs of them were shown in a display cabinet. They were left when the Nazis evacuated. The laces of shoes were taken out for re-use; nothing was left unused. Body hair was removed before the culling in the gas chamber and used for textiles. Gold teeth were pulled out too after death.
Another display showed empty canisters, once containing Cyclone-B pellets that would turn to gas and cause cyanide poisoning to those inside the dark and small room. Pictures all over the museum show disturbing images, including piles of dead, naked bodies that were moved about in the organised mass killings. These pictures taken by the Nazis as they were so keen on documenting everything properly.
The intact gas chamber at Auschwitz is the most emotional place I have visited. I said Kaddish as I stood alone in the room. The same place my father and I had stood several years ago, now I was reciting the same Jewish remembrance prayer. The same place where many innocent people were deceived into thinking they were taking a shower, but were really going to their death by suffocation. It took up to 40 minutes before the guards were sure everyone was killed.
There are many more lessons and stories I can tell. I strongly believe that there is a value about visiting a place like this, it helps you to grow as a person and to understand the world more. There are some things you can’t learn in books. If you can go with family or a loved one then it helps not only to be there together, but also strengthens your bond.
Finally we were shown around Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp built to increase the capacity for killing. If you take the Nazi story step by step, you can see how they moved from isolating Jews in ghettos, to moving them to other work camps, to mass killing in this fashion. It did not happen overnight and took years to get to the stage it did.
There were many attempts at uprisings but anyone associated was killed. The local people in the town smelt something wrong, they heard rumours about what was going on. They knew. But they were powerless as any of their attempts at resistance were immediately punished with death.
I lay my tokens next to the main monument: first a British flag which has travelled with me the whole way; sand from the Normandy beaches stormed by British, American and Canadians; dirt from the forests of Verdun where the devastating parts of WWI took place and another fight occurred in WWII; stones from outside the Nuremberg trial rooms where some of the Nazis were sentenced to death; pebbles from the Flossenberg concentration camp where many died due to torturous conditions; and conkers from the Terezin concentration camp where we were warned to walk around the tree – a health and safety rule that we take for granted today but never came into consideration during the war. Finally, I placed a piece of rubble from one of the ruins of the gas chambers here at Auschwitz where many innocent people passed. I will never forget this end to my journey as long as I live.
I have finally finished my journey. Being both British and Jewish I have related to the places the British soldiers trod to free the enslaved and tortured Jewish people. I definitely take great pride in being both, especially now.
So many miles from home yet I still have exactly the same possessions as I began with. Definitely moments have changed me yet so many things are still the same. I have re-learnt many life lessons from the experiences I’ve had and created opinions on the world and its people.
The weather today was perfect. Pure blue skies, very little headwind and not too many hills. Finally I was about to reach the final country of the trip: Poland. But first another reminder that the Red Army passed through here liberating it from the hold of oppressive Nazi reign.
Crossing the border I was excited for this final culture with just one more day before reaching Auschwitz, the final destination. The road on the border was immediately better paved. People were also suddenly friendlier and every smile I gave was returned, every wave saw another back. I felt great. However the road didn’t last long. It got worse and worse until it was the most lumpy broken excuse of a road I have ever ridden.
Stopping in the next town I sat in the sun reflecting how far I had come and how many places I had seen. I walked into the adjacent supermarket and something felt familiar. I felt as though I had not left the comfort of the M25. I was in a Tesco and everything was exactly the same. Except for the signage being in a strange accentuated language. I grabbed a familiar Coke bottle and paid through the self checkout in English. The world is such a big place yet sometimes things can be identical across the globe.
Just before reaching my stop in Katowice, a large monument stood for all to observe. Remembering those sacrificed for the liberation of this country. There is interesting symmetry to these memorials around the demarcation line I saw in the Czech Republic which signified where the British and Russian Armies met whilst liberating the land. The only difference of these memorials is the language.
I lay awake restless last night thinking about the numbers. I have travelled just over 2000km, thats 2,000,000 metres. Two million metres. 6 million Jews were killed in the holocaust. If there was a Jew standing at every metre that I have travelled hard over 24 days then I would have to turn back now, get home and come back again, with a Jew at every metre each way. This magnificent number is so difficult to comprehend. Having achieved such a great distance I can still but imagine this number.
I haven’t even begun to mention the soldiers from all sides as well as civilians.
My final day tomorrow will include a guided tour around Auschwitz. I have brought a British flag along the whole route and picked up meaningful tokens too: sand from the beaches of Normandy, dirt from the hills of Verdun, rocks from outside of the Nuremberg trial rooms, gravel from the Flossenberg concentration camp and conkers from the camp at Terezin. I will lay these down next to the main monument at Auschwitz-Birkenau in a moment that I have imagined for weeks.
Yesterday was a tough day and a long one. I remembered a 10 mile section that stank of manure and the whole area was covered with flies which kept latching onto my legs. You learn to keep your mouth closed in places like this and breathe only through your nose. The people were so miserable throughout the whole day and it really was quite painful with the strong headwind. It was all just rubbish.
But somehow when I reached the hostel for the night I was fine, everything felt good. The long and tiring day which made me want to throw the bike away and get on the next train was over. Somehow the memory of the pain had fallen away. I felt good and the suffering was forgotten. I was living life at that moment in the evening and everything was great.
However today also started badly. There was something wrong with the bike. I stopped to oil the chain and pump up the tyres by the side of the road, but back on the bike, my speed was still cripplingly slow. I had somehow destroyed all the muscles in my legs and I was just unable to pedal anymore. I spent a good 2 hours at this 12kmph speed (7.5mph – not that much faster than walking). I figured I just had to press on and knock off as many miles as I could.
I was in a lot of pain both physically and mentally. I had a long way to go and my legs were having none of it. I tried to stand up and push harder, but I couldn’t sustain it for more than a minute – maximum.
Suddenly it became clear what was wrong with the bike and my legs. I reached the crest of a hill. I had been climbing a gradient for several hours, but was unable to tell by the landscape as it was consistent and continuous. I was so relieved to suddenly be zooming at about 50kmph downhill without pedaling for almost 30 minutes before stopping to buy many more energy bars.
Alas the hills didn’t stop. Suddenly I found my speed was back to the snail pace of earlier in the day. I was climbing again but this time I knew it. I spent about 2 hours and 20 kilometers doing nothing but slowly climb through the trees on a lonesome road. Pulling into a parking area, I sat on the grass verge with my head hanging low. I wasn’t at the top, it was endless.
I was not enjoying myself. I was not happy. I contemplated why I was doing this. Surely I could have just driven here? Or taken my motorbike? Or even taken the train, or better yet flown? The whole motivation of the trip crumbled away in my mind. What was the point? Why should I be on my pushbike suffering like this? I was mentally defeated. I tried to motivate myself back up by thinking about the pain I had overcome just yesterday. Surely it will all be better once I get there? Thinking about my original keenness I had for the trip and remembering of the highlights so far, I managed to pick myself up and get back on the bike.
Eventually I reached the top to find myself not needing to pedal much for a good 30 kilometres. The sun came out and I was singing again.
When I first arrived in Germany a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of cycling. The roads were perfectly smooth and the drivers a lot more courteous. Now I have been in the Czech Republic for almost a week; the first couple of days I was incredibly frustrated at the quality of the roads, despite them not being that different from English roads I’m used to. I was just used to the smooth German roads and it was annoying to be back on the bumpy broken tarmac. Today, however, the roads were the worst they have ever been but I was expecting it, I didn’t even think about complaining.
My point is that we, as humans, get used to things. Whether they be the quality of the road, perhaps living with your parents at home and having a full fridge, or just always having loved ones around you to support you. Putting yourself in a situation where you don’t have these things is tough. Unfamiliarity is difficult. This is a lesson I personally learn again and again, and of course humanity learns it over and over.
There are so many analogies that you can create from familiarity: having a loved one pass away, moving to a new town perhaps for university, if you live in the South of The United States of America then it might be rare to encounter a homosexual. These things might be tough at first, yet somehow we can get used to them.
I have had uncontrollable emotional responses throughout this trip – both good and bad. When rationalised, I could overcome the challenging ones, but it wasn’t easy.
I have tried to relate these human feelings to the World Wars: I imagine that if you are used to fighting all day it becomes strangely normal. If you are an SS guard then perhaps seeing and inflicting suffering unfortunately becomes normality. From some accounts I have read, people in concentration camps manage to put aside the poor treatment and take pleasure in other small things.
We are all adaptable creatures but remember there are always limits. If you are a good person then there is only so much pain you can inflict on others; if you are being tortured there are limits to how much you can take before you give up. Regular evaluation is always valuable to work out whether these limits have been reached – but you need to push through the limits to know where they are. Mine was probably a few days ago but it’s valuable that I now know that.
I have just a couple of days left of this trip. I have had to overcome low points of pain but lived some incredible highs (probably endorphin related!). The lessons learnt from this trip don’t have to just be in regard to a physical challenge, but they can relate to any challenge. Whether it be a project at work, a personal project, completing a course or just reading a book. Something that you know is good for you but sometimes hard to get up and do. I hope that you reading this can relate it to something in your life and hopefully this can spur you on to do something you know you should do, but it’s just difficult right now.
My mother, friend and I have had some quite poor experiences with the locals in Prague, as well as an abysmal boat tour! To add insult to injury, the hotel staff were also very rude on several occasions, which made us feel rather unwelcome in their country. This did not bode well for the remainder of the trip through the Czech Republic. Especially as I’ve been warned that the further east you go, the worse it gets…
Leaving the familiar faces of my Mum and David, I was off to be alone on the bike again – but this time the sun was out! Unfortunately though, I went straight into a strong headwind. A headwind that would not let off, even with the shielding of trees, forests or hedges. I felt good with my well rested legs but wind is possibly the most demoralising thing when on the bike (or maybe a downpour, I’m not sure which is worse).
Coming out of Prague I came across the Jewish cemetery which I explored and I paid my respects at the small memorial to those victims from Terezin – the concentration camp which I visited just a couple of days ago.
I saw many roadside memorials for the First and Second World Wars. Too many to count, but I stopped to pay my respects at many of them for the members of the town that they noted and to take a photo of the statues.
Having left the suburbs of Prague I was feeling strong. Gazing across the horizon I saw a big tank-like vehicle. As I got closer I could make out 4 army men standing around it, with another camouflage jeep just in front of it. It turned out to be a recommissioned Russian Army Tank. Bought from someone in Poland, it was road legal and used for fun. It had two machine guns (that were non-functioning) at the top and a massive V8 engine for some immense power. The tyres could be deflated and inflated from a compression tank inside to allow for beach driving, as well as being almost fully submersible with a propeller underneath at the back. One of the men looking after it was very sweet and told me all about it, however the others seemed quite unfriendly which was disappointing.
Pushing on I saw a few other cyclists, dog walkers and farmers. I smiled at all of them and waved at most but I didn’t get one smile back, let alone a wave. After a pit-stop lunch I saw many other miserable looking people; it looked as though each and everyone had a close family member recently pass away, they looked so sad. Most of them stared at me as I passed on my bike with a big smile trying to get some sort of positive response. Being alone on the bike with everyone looking extremely unfriendly is no fun and so I pushed further on the bike than planned because I didn’t want to have more interactions with sad or rude people.
Unfortunately I pushed on to a part where I would not see a big town for another 50km. This became quite difficult as night was fast approaching. Suddenly it was dark and my small bike lights had no chance at illuminating the road in the depths of the trees. The head wind felt stronger and the gradual incline that I had been on for hours (I didn’t realise this is why my pace was so slow) suddenly caused a long steep descent which I couldn’t enjoy because I couldn’t see anything!
Descending into the darkness with both hands holding the brakes firm, I slowly made it to the next town to find a closed hotel. Fortunately they had an unsecure WiFi network which allowed me to look up their number and phone them. They were fully booked. Searching on my map I moved on until I eventually found a small hostel on a side street in the village.
After a quick shower I went for a Chinese meal where an odd man from the country was also eating alone. He mentioned how he believed in UFOs and could give people energy with his hands. He also said he practised yoga to give him 40% more energy – he knows because he measured it… He was a 60 year old builder and carpenter who was very nice but still didn’t smile!
Just a few days are left on the road until I reach Auschwitz but there is still a fair way to cycle. The anticipation and excitement of reaching the end will no doubt help me along…
Less than an hour drive from Prague was a concentration camp for the Jews and other prisoners of the Nazi regime. The Nazi’s expelled the 7,000 Czechs from the town in November 1941 and took over the fortress that was built in 1780 to use as a prison. They also created another larger ghetto in the main town for the Jews to be sent.
Gavrilo Princip, the one who assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1914 kicking off WWI was a prisoner of the smaller camp here.
Approximately 180,000 people passed through this transit camp before being sent to one of the extermination camps such as Auschwitz where I will be next Wednesday. It is estimated that 40,000 of the prisoners perished here due to malnourishment and awful living conditions. The rest were sent on to be killed at the extermination camps. They were also forced to work whilst there were inmates waiting for transit.
The sign at the entrance to all of the camps reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “Work will set you free”.
At the smaller camp in the fortress there were just 7,000 at one time but no where near the space to house them all. 90 would share a room of three rows of bunk beds packed in together. No pillows or duvets, just hard wood slats and barely enough space to lie still.
During the winter it gets very cold here: temperatures dropping to -20 degrees Celsius, yet new inmates again would be left out naked in the cold for potentially hours until being given their one thin uniform to wear. They would hand over all their possessions that would be sold or taken by the guards.
Roll call was another part of daily life here as it was in Flossenberg and other camps. One story mentions a punishment, an “Appel”, of the inmates having to stand in roll call for 19 hours straight where 600 died from the cold conditions.
Inside the room for 90 people was one toilet (normally a bucket) and a small bowl of water that would rarely get replaced. Hygiene was therefore a serious problem with many contracting disgusting diseases and dying from them. The prisoners only had one set of clothes that were never washed – just rarely disinfected. There were no medical treatments to any inmates who got sick.
There were also punishment rooms where people would be sent to stand until the next transport to an extermination camp. Sometimes this would be days or even weeks. There was almost no chance of survival as if you sat down the guards were to take you out and shoot you. These rooms had no light, no toilet, no food. Even if you survived here you would be sent to extermination.
Occasionally there was a chance for a shower whereby the prisoners would wait in line outside for hours in order to get 10 minutes inside a crowded shower with water that was likely not heated. They would disinfect their clothes whilst showering leaving them damp; after they would have to put these clothes on outside whilst still damp and no doubt cold.
The capacity for cremation was 180 a day, but they couldn’t keep up with the number of bodies they had so they had to start burying them out in the fields past the walls.
The Red Cross got a chance to visit later in the war and were shown a brand new wash room that was separately created as propaganda; it was never actually used by the inmates. Other propaganda films of the Jewish ghetto showed people playing football and having a good time with the idea that they were governing themselves.
Part of the camp had some conker trees which are dropping at this time of year. The guide informed us of this and made sure we didn’t walk under it should anyone get hit in the head. This is an exact piece of health and safety that we have today that we take for granted that just wasn’t even comprehensible in these camps. This is just one example that makes the idea of these harsh conditions so overwhelming to me personally.
Another piece of propaganda was a swimming pool and tennis court that the soldiers were allowed to use but of course the inmates were never allowed to even see it. Yet the world was told they were able to use it.
A survivor returned to the camp years ago and told of his story. He was a vet that helped to look after the Gestapo dogs; he managed to eat some of the meat dog food as they didn’t get meat in the camp. This allowed him to survive as the food was totally impossible to survive off. To save costs the Nazi gave bread that was flour mixed with sawdust.
Finally we walked through some of the escape tunnels that were closed off during the Nazi occupation. These tunnels were an incredible feat of infrastructure in the 1700s. Recently 2 Danish students jumped the barriers and tried to explore the tunnels but got lost. It took 120 people 20 hours to find them and get them out safely. There are over 55 kilometres of paths to take down there. Coming out of them we arrived at the shooting range where the Nazi’s would gun down political prisoners sent to execution and stocks where Jews would be sent.
I read in the news today that there are several Nazi supporting activists in the world still. The idea that anti-semitism is all in the past is definitely not true.
Tomorrow will see a proper rest day for me so don’t expect another post until Sunday! Shabbat Shalom.