Another emotional day as I reached a very significant milestone in the journey following the liberation path.
I have gone past the place where the allied forces met in the middle – the “anti-fascist coalition” as the monument recalls. The US Army and the Red Army met between the town of Borek and Rokycany. It was a very moving spot to reflect at because this signifies the end of the fighting journey for the troops. Now there was just a big mess to sort out.
I have come a long way. The furthest cycle trip I have ever done and it has taken weeks to get here. But I have travelled a similar physical journey to what a lot of the allies would have travelled from the D-Day landings in June 1944 to the declaration of peace in September 1945.
I was reminded by many more memorials that a lot of liberation occurred on this route; these markers hadn’t been seen in Germany but were abundant in France almost 2 weeks ago. They have a strangely uplifting feeling when I cycle past them or stop to reflect next to them. Each time I pass one I feel better about my trip and it gives me a boost of positive energy.
Another memorial was in Czech, but I have looked up the meaning which refers to Josef Molák. He was a significant member of a resistance group that was shot by the Nazi Gestapo in 1943.
A common thing to think about is what would I have done at the time. If I was free and not persecuted then would I be a member of or even lead a resistance group? What if, as was the case, anyone who had any known affiliation with anything that didn’t “fit” the Nazi regime is thrown into a camp or killed just like Josef was? Would I still have the chutzpah to put my life on the line for others? I certainly believe I would. This memorial helps me to remember and thank all the resistance members for their efforts that were critical to the liberation.
As I cycled alone over the remaining hills towards Prague I began to think: what would have happened if I was sent to a forced labour camp because of being Jewish? I am fit and healthy so would be made to work, but would I be fit and healthy enough to stay alive? I know from this trip I need a good amount of food and decent sleep and I can get very emotionally weak especially at times of fatigue. I’m always impressed with any survivors I meet, they always have incredible and inspiring determination.
Finally reaching Prague I was glad to see the familiar faces of my Mum and my friend David; having been alone for a few weeks this is a nice comfort. Especially since the language has changed again to something I can’t even relate to! I am very interested for tomorrow’s visit to another camp, especially with my Mum and David who haven’t been to any of the camps before.
Another unforgettable day on this incredible journey involving another puncture, a visit to a concentration camp, being stopped by German police and questioned, crossing to the fifth and penultimate country of the trip – Czech Republic, nearly getting knocked off the bike by some of the awful Czech drivers and finishing with some of the toughest hill climbs to really test my stamina.
After waking up early this morning I headed to the local McDonald’s to sponge their WiFi for a few hours of productive work. Finally leaving the restaurant it started to rain again. Onwards and upwards into the forests and I got a front wheel puncture this time. It was time to change the tyres! A half hour walk back to town to find a bike shop proved fruitful and within the hour both tyres were brand new. Back on the bike to take on the hill for a second time. However the anticipation of visiting the camp caused my legs to give up in protest to the journey.
The mist filled the forests until I eventually arrived at the camp that was just one thousand miles from home. The town of Flossenberg has a huge source of natural granite and this camp was set up to harvest that from the hills. Initially about 400 prisoners were there, but it grew rapidly with an influx of mostly Polish, the rest Jewish and others, such as homosexuals or political activists, that did not fit the Nazi regime.
It was meant to house several thousand at one point, massively over subscribed. When new inmates arrived at the camp they would be stripped and washed with either boiling or freezing water from a hose cannon. They would be left to stand outside in front of everyone in the roll call area. Those that survived would be given thin prison uniforms.
It was in this roll call area where punishments, hangings and other executions would take place daily in front of the others to try to ensure order. The workers would mine the granite from the hills and were even hired out to locals as cheap gardeners and such. The local population benefitted from the increased number of soldiers in the area by renting out accommodation and charging for local facilities. The exhibition here also showed how local electric and plumbing companies approached the camp to try and secure their business – so they definitely knew what was going on.
For the inmates, like in all the other camps, there was insufficient food. This caused serious malnourishment leading to great sickness which was never treated causing a lot of fatalities.
Over the years approximately 100,000 prisoners passed through the camp, with approximately 30,000 of them perishing at the site for various different reasons, all brought on by the ridiculous Nazi regime and by the soldiers who ran the place.
In the final stages of the war they conducted another death march from here to Dachau in Munich (which I visited several years ago). It would be a great effort for me to cycle there with sufficient clothing, breaks, hotels and food. I cannot even imagine being forced to walk there without any of my comforts on this trip.
A female officer was reported to have screamed at those too weak to complete the walk and ordered them to be shot. She was however not sentenced after the war. There are many stories similar to this which is hugely upsetting.
I wandered around the grounds to the various memorials and passed several groups of German teenagers on school trips. I managed to compose myself and came to a building lower in the valley where the crematorium room itself was still in tact. It’s moments like these that visiting alone is difficult. I remember having the support of my father, cousin and friend at Auschwitz a few years ago and a good friend at Dachau years before that. People can help bring you back to modern reality; but I had several Germans around me and 80 kilometres of lonesome cycling before the day was out.
Pushing on through the hills I was pedalling slowly contemplating this experience. I know this whole series of events called the Holocaust happened. I have seen so much evidence over the years and now I am following a route that was taken by many soldiers to free the surviving captives. But I still just can’t imagine it ever happening in my world. We are surrounded by health and safety that puts one person’s potential injury as being more important than anything; even if it means wasting a lot of time for something very unlikely. Here they just threw people into impossible work with no care for them as human beings whatsoever. If they die, then just replace them. I just can’t imagine this happening today in the world I live in.
Cycling slowly I couldn’t get my head straight. The next thing: I was being pulled over by police. They wondered what I was doing on my bike alone in the hills next to the border, but I quickly befriended them. One guy told me to have one of his favourite beers at lunch before the big ride to Pilsen. This fortunately brought me back to reality as he showed me his 9mm loaded pistol.
Crossing over the border to the Czech Republic (spelt with a ‘T’ by the way) – I noticed several things. Immediately the road turned rubbish; a certain similarity to the standard of English country roads. Potholes, broken tarmac and large lumps. How can the German’s have such nice roads throughout the whole country and the British have such crap?
Within 500 yards of the country I was presented with several posters for “titty bars”. Having a long way to cycle I pedalled past with the notion I could always come back.
I also noticed a difference in the quality of driving after having to swerve several times to avoid selfish drivers; I had not experienced this in the whole of Germany but within yards of this country it was abundant. Back to the familiarity of London drivers!
The final difference that I noticed was the steepness of the hills. None of the roads were this steep in Germany; instead they would find another path to build a road so no vehicle would suffer – but here they seemed to grow steeper after every corner.
Finally I made it to Pilsen. A tough and long day, but one that I won’t forget. Sitting in the warm bath having arrived in this new place I couldn’t help but imagine the horrors of being publicly showered with a freezing hose pipe in front of many others. Am I so lucky or were they so unlucky? Perhaps both?
Tomorrow I press on to Prague where my mother is visiting (along with a friend) to again chase me across Europe.
Today involved a lot of rain, un-sympathetic people, a rear wheel puncture and not being able to find a place to stay with wifi!
I found a lot of my clothes were still damp despite my efforts to dry them with the room’s air-con system. Without any sign in the sky of rain I set off slightly moist.
I first visited the rally arena where Hitler address many of his supporters in Nürnberg. The vast size of the place was incredible although now it appeared abandoned with graffiti all over (my favourite displaying: “Fuck Nazis”).
Where the soldiers and supporters would have gathered, there are now fields with football posts. The whole thing looked out of place in the modern town but served as a reminder of where Hitler gave his speeches. Next door was a “Documentation Centre” which holds a lot of documents from the Nazi regime. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to explore, although with the crap day that I’ve had I wish I did now!
Heading off out of town the clouds started to close in on me. It wasn’t long before they caught me and drenched me through again. This time with a side wind to make sure my right cheek would feel the full force as I slowly crossed more fields and forest tracks.
After about two hours in the soaked saddle I needed a break and so pulled in to the side of the road. I rested my bike on the wall and hid from the rain underneath the balconies from the floors above. An older lady from the garden adjacent came running up to me yelling “Nitzch! Nitzch!” (or words and gestures to that effect). I was confused standing there holding an apple sheltering from the rain from the rain. She ran up to my bike and pointed at my pannier bags. I said in a proud English voice “I am English and have cycled here from London!” expecting her to be impressed. She looked me in the eye with anger and yelled “NITZCH!”. She then tried to rip my bike off from the wall (apparently it was the bike leaning against her wall that was offending her) but the weight of the bags held the bike down so she couldn’t actually move it. To be fair the bike was soaking and the frame and I were quite muddy too, but this was an outside wall where it was raining! Was she scared of a bit of mud from my bike? I pulled the bike off the wall and discovered not even a wet patch. I showed her this with a smile but she was not impressed.
Still smiling I tried to ask if she spoke any English. “NITZCH!” she said in disgust and walked away. I couldn’t believe that I had been this offensive and was saddened that I have been met with unfriendly encounters like this here in the Bavaria part of Germany. Thoughts went through my mind whilst riding on through the hills and rain. What should I have done or said to make the whole event less painful? I still don’t know.
I finally pulled up to the next town where I planned to stop for some warmth and nutrition. I saw a bright yellow sign and pulled in to the “Teppan King” asian restaurant. The restaurant had a huge hallway and I rested my bike in between the door frame as I took a moment to shelter from the rain and try to dry off.
An older asian man came running up to me yelling. What have I done now? I know I’m wet but I’ve not even come inside! I hadn’t realised my front wheel was just over the front door and a small amount of water had formed a puddle just inside his hallway. He screamed at me to take my bike out. Having reflected from the incident before I calmly tried to neutralise this situation by again introducing myself in English. However he snapped back at me: “I don’t care if you are English, look at my floor!”
I remarked that it was just a bit of water and would easily be mopped up – in fact I could do it once I dry off! He stormed off angry. Just moments later he came back with a mop and aggressively passed over the puddle I had caused. One sweep and it had disappeared. I smiled with excitement that my unintentional mess was indeed temporary. But the man kept mopping, the whole hallway in fact, even places I hadn’t been, and then behind the sofa! As if I might have snuck some dirt around there and ruined the atmosphere for his empty restaurant. He angrily looked at me when I finished and he walked back inside.
Reflecting from thoughts of why and how the Holocaust happened I have been trying to work out if better education and experience could have prevented the events. After these two rude encounters today it was reinforced to me that you can’t change the world in a day.
I realised that I could reach the concentration camp of Flossenburg but would be uncomfortably wet to walk around; therefore I decided to delay until tomorrow morning bright and early (after a conference call from the McDonalds’s wifi!).
Coming into the final town I got my first puncture of the trip. Composing myself still in the pouring rain I took the wheel off and replaced the inner tube without too much hassle. The wheel was fine for the 5km further to the bunk house.
Today was another incredible day on this amazing cycling trip across Europe.
My target was Nuremberg, which lay 100km away and with just one road to take me there (or so the map said). I wanted to visit the Nuremberg Trial room, which is closed on Tuesdays, so I had to get there early today.
Waking up at 0600, I was eager to hit the road but it was already bucketing it down. I somehow managed to motivate myself and was packed and out of the door in minutes, but it wasn’t long before I was soaked to the bone. Better yet, the road that was marked as suitable for cyclists on the map had somehow turned into a motorway! Evidently I had missed the ‘no-cycling signs’ – were they even there? I therefore found myself pedalling as fast as possible to the next exit on the hard shoulder. Not fun. The alternative was to walk the wrong way down a motorway which would have been more dangerous, especially in the dark. Eventually I found a path that would take me in the rough direction I wanted so I followed it, wasting valuable time and making me rather demoralised about the whole thing.
After hours of cycling in the rain, soaked, cold, tired, I finally reached my destination at about 1300. The place I had thought about cheating to reach by taking a train. The journey today was mentally tough, but all my troubles paled into insignificance when I reached the court rooms.
Through a series of posters, videos and audio clips, I was fed the summation of the abominable atrocities, abhorrent war crimes against humanity and of the peace at the end of World War II.
The first thing I did when entering the museum was walk into the court-room. Immediately I felt the emotion from the place. I have never had this happen to me before. Perhaps my subconscious over the past few days was suppressing emotions as I slowly cycled across Germany; but now I found myself standing there, the very same room so many evil people who were responsible for so many deaths stood awaiting the court’s sentences.
21 people were tried here. Göring, Donitz, Hess, Raeder, Von Ribbentrop, Keitel, Schirach, Kaltenbrunner, Sauckel, Rosenberg, Jodl, Frank, Von Rapen, Frick, Seyss-Inquart, Streicher, Speer, Funk, Von Neurath, Schaucht, Fritzsche.
Most received a sentence of death by hanging. A few got lengthy prison sentences and 3 managed to be acquitted. These sentences were given to the defendants over a year after the end of the war.
They were tried for:
Crimes Against Peace
Crimes Against Humanity
There was a call by many to “liquidate” those who clearly had involvement, but the idea of a fair trial prevailed. Indeed the consensus after the trial was that it was fair and just.
There were many pieces of evidence that were examined for the trials; some of which were mentioned at the museum. One that stuck in my mind is of a German commander saying that “the lowest German is 1000 times better than any of the people here [in the Ukraine].”
I was in Kiev to trace my family history a few years ago and visited the site of Babi Yar. All of the Jews of the town there were rounded up and shot on top of a hill; the bodies pushed down a ditch and buried over. In some of the follow up trials people were called to take responsibility for such events. Paul Blobel was prosecuted for Babi Yar and the suspected 33,000 deaths there, although other reports suggest up to 3 times as many people were slaughtered in this way here. Blobel was hanged after being found guilty.
There were also trials for the camps of Auschwitz where the highest number of murders had taken place, and for another camp in Majdanek where conditions were reportedly even more horrendous and unspeakable. These happened over 20 years after the war ended and so evidence was a lot harder to gather.
IG Farben, the chemical company that supplied things like Cyclone-B gas and organised the Auschwitz camp were mostly given short sentences – if at all. Some even obtained successful positions in the pharmaceutical industry after the war.
The doctors who tortured patients and killed many through their tests (e.g. giving them hypothermia to study the affects) were also prosecuted, with some being sentenced to hanging but some eluding even a prison sentence.
At the end of the visit to the museum, there was a display with a summary of reports of war crimes – those crimes being against more than 1000 people. The map shows the true extent of the horrors.
I wanted to point out that this journey is to learn about Europe’s recent war history and honour those killed in them. I could (and probably will) write about many other events that have happened since, and even some that are happening now. However my current journey’s purpose is to learn about and understand better WWII.
Tomorrow I am continuing to Flossenburg concentration camp.
p.s. I have just finished the day by going to an independent cinema on a “Gay-Filmnacht” to watch a movie entitled “The Butler” which is a hollywood story about the history of civil rights for black people over the last several decades in America. I think this part of the world has definitely come on a bit…
A much needed rest yesterday afternoon and a lie in this morning allowed me to start afresh on even more hills in Bavaria today. Heading up through the forests I caught up to another couple out cycling on this fine Sunday morning. They were foraging for mushrooms on the forest floor but seemed interested in my long trip.
I have told many Germans here about my journey, and almost everytime I mention I am finishing in Auschwitz they seem to go quiet and not really want to talk. I have yet to confront them with this, but perhaps it is them not knowing what to say. This couple were no exception as they headed off to a trekking path to find their mushrooms after I’d spoken with them.
After cycling a little further, I stumbled across an antique shop/restaurant overlooking the river which was filled with locals – always a good sign. I ordered “the most popular thing”, a schnitzel, which was delicious – though this could be because I’d waited for an hour for it and by this time was starving! Taking another coffee after the meal I pressed on with the remaining 30km for the day.
Riding through more quiet forests I saw a big hard-back book by the side of the road. Intrigued by it, I stopped and inspected it. It was a collection of German adult magazines. Very strange but oddly funny as I stood on the side of a steep road in a German forest looking at some odd German material! I decided I had to leave the book as it was too heavy to carry – also someone might want to come back for it perhaps?!
Whilst riding over the gentle undulations into Würzburg, I saw several cyclists heading the other way. None of whom smiled. If I hadn’t gone through France where there were a similar number of grumpy people, then I would think all Germans were grumpy – but I guess it’s just a people thing! Another cyclist (who looked a bit like Albert Einstein with crazy hair) was behind me at one point. I slowed down to let him catch up, said hello when he did, but he ignored me. I pushed on after he passed me to get beside him and start talking but he ignored me again and turned off. Just rude.
Finally I reached Würzburg which was heavily bombed during the way, more than Dresden; so much so that the women had to rebuild it because many of the men had perished. I wandered through the gorgeous town centre to try and find the famous oldest Pizzeria in Germany, but alas it was closed… Sunday again! From the few interactions I had, the people there didn’t seem that friendly and I settled for a cheap chinese meal to pack the calories in. (Word to the wise: a small beer in Germany is still pretty big!)
So now an early night ahead of an early start to avoid the expected heavy rain. With the Nuremburg museum closed on Tuesdays, yet another reason to complete the 100km as quickly as possible tomorrow…!
I have now completed two weeks on the road with my bike. With me I have two (unnecessarily heavy) bags containing some warm and dry clothes, toiletries, laptop and bunch of cables to charge my iPod and camera. I have met lots of people along the way, but, like a cab driver or delivery man, I have actually been with only myself the whole time.
The journey is from London along a WWII liberation path starting at Westminster, to Poole in England, over to Normandy in France, down to Paris, along to Luxembourg, across Germany and finally ending at the most famous concentration camp from World War II: Auschwitz in Poland. I am just over half way through in terms of physical distance and nowhere near completing my emotional journey as there are still three camps to visit, including ending at Auschwitz.
In total I have spent every day but one cycling; that rest day involved a lot of walking around Paris and seeing museums and art exhibitions.
I am exhausted. Physically exhausted. I have had some great ups and some tough emotional reflection. But now I am just tired.
Throughout the trip I have tried to imagine climbing the cliff faces of Normandy to destroy the large Nazi stronghold at Pointe du Hoc. I looked down the Champs-Elysées as Hitler did when he invaded Paris, and as Charles de Gaulle did when he finally made it back for the liberation. I have been through the forests of Verdun which was a region of death and destruction during World War I. I pushed on through to Luxembourg, which has always been technically neutral, but was an early invasion point for Germany. I am now half-way through crossing Germany feeling a strange sense of accomplishment having come so far; but 14 days living out of a small bike bag is wearing on me. And I have another 14 days on the road. Really I am only half way.
I know that I am very sheltered; part of this trip is to take me out of that comfort zone. In order to continue working on my software projects I have not been camping but instead staying at small hotels/bed and breakfasts/friend’s flats; all with hot showers and freshly cooked food. This gives me a structured base before heading off on a daily cycling adventure, never to return to the same location.
My mind is now turning to the concentration camps; I think about the detailed torture the Nazi regime enforced on many groups, especially on my Jewish people. The atrocities are unthinkable, and even the little things stick with me.
Little things that are of such irrelevance to the big picture I shouldn’t even mention them. In my sheltered existence these little things would be life shattering for me, especially on this exhausting journey. I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl who was a survivor of Auschwitz. One thing that I keep thinking about is not having coffee. I don’t drink a lot of coffee but on this trip it has been essential. To keep my energy levels up and ensure my mind is sharp on the roads for two weeks solid I have had to have at least one cup each day. I cannot currently imagine getting by without it. It is such a small issue but yet so significant to my everyday life.
Viktor paints a picture that you would be amazed at what stresses humans can go through and still be ok. Humans are adaptable and strong creatures. Yet I still feel dependent on coffee, I still desire a warm shower after cycling all day, the internet is essential to my life, and it is frustrating without a comfortable bed. It’s not even winter here yet I am so thankful for the shelter from the cold. Even GPS to make the travel part easier, not to mention video calls and emails to make me feel just around the corner from my loved ones.
Trying to understand what the soldiers went through is extremely difficult. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very serious issue and I cannot try and comprehend it. Exposed to so much crap through stories is hard enough for me; but living it I can’t begin to imagine. Especially whilst I sit in my warm hotel room, eating fresh Vietnamese beef and noodles, on my laptop talking to friends from home.
Moving from soldiers to concentration camp prisoners is a completely new chapter. Coffee is just one small thing that I can’t think of living without. There are so many other small things that would upset me tomorrow if I didn’t have them. Clean clothes being one of them and I am sure everyone reading this is the same.
It’s important to value the small things in life and remember that things could always be worse…
Today was a very relaxed day. Only needing to complete 50km before my friend Mathias got off work at 1900 led to a chilled pace on the bike. Waking up at 6am I saw the weather forecast updated from being an absolute downpour expected when I went to sleep, to no rain at all for the entire day! I decided a lie in would be acceptable and went back to sleep relieved.
Yesterday was very reflective and yet filled with extreme happiness. Perhaps I have an endorphin addiction (in fact a few of my friends say I do) and that kicked it all off; or perhaps it was a real experience. Either way, today involved a slight come down from it all. I had expected heavy rain and was ready for it last night; this morning’s forecast caused a complete change of mental state expecting it to be completely clear. Feeling great I set off wearing more than sufficient clothing to stay warm. Then the heavens opened and it started raining cats and dogs; within an hour of setting off I was drenched to the bone, leaving me feeling a bit crap.
Rain isn’t really an issue by itself. When you exercise in the rain you stay warm (think football or rugby); also things dry out and no worry about my possessions locked away in waterproof bags; as long as you don’t sit in wet clothes for an extended period it is absolutely fine for your body. However there are still a few issues whilst cycling:
1) Brakes don’t work so well which can be an issue if you ever need to stop.
2) Manhole covers, painted road markings and of course the many tram lines in Frankfurt all become very very slippery. In fact Loren (my American friend) managed to fall off his bike on one of these very tram lines and scrape his whole leg.
3) When travelling fast you get a big line of water (or in my case mud) up your back. It also comes off the front wheel to hit you in your face: so it’s difficult to see.
These things lead to quite an unpleasant experience even when prepared for it. Nonetheless I shall not be broken!
After reaching Mainz I stopped for a cappuccino at a busy breakfast bar. I managed to sit next to a lady who told me she met an Englishman who had cycled through her town a month ago. He was from London and on his way to Istanbul (she said he was called Jake M…). I wonder how many conversations like this are missed because we sit one seat over or go to a different breakfast place.
Continuing on in the rain I shortly arrived at the skyscraper filled Frankfurt and immediately met heavy traffic. Snaking my way through the cars I narrowly avoided several close calls on the slippery tram lines by regaining control of the rear of the bike. Eventually I reached a cafe where I would immediately disrobe and put on all new dry clothes stored away in my panniers.
I then met Mathias at his apartment; after a quick shower we headed out for a traditional Frankfurt meal. Applwoy is a cider like drink that is a little sour. Normally mixed with Fanta, or in our case fizzy water, we took a 5x300ml jug (1.5L for those who can’t math). This accompanied our Frankfurt schnitzel with special herb and cheese sauce which I inhaled.
Mathias is a friend of a friend who I only met today; however it is extremely nice to meet someone so friendly and hospitable. Travelling alone is difficult when in a different place each night, but this was a great change of routine. We got on really well and because he has a rugby match in the morning we can both get a much needed early night. Interactions like this make travelling worthwhile!
Today was an extremely poignant day. I think I re-discovered the point of the trip. I endured the steepest and longest hills I have ever cycled. The cold meant I lost all feeling in my feet descending the climbs. My legs gave way under me as the hills just wouldn’t stop coming. The rain was upsetting on the slow ascents, and hit me hard in the face on the quick descents. Yet it was probably one of the best days in my life.
Motivated by early starts I was out of the door by 8am having had a great big breakfast of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, cinnamon grahams, orange juice and, most crucially, a big pot of coffee! But today it was cold. It was the first day of the trip where I had to wear more than my lycra shorts and short sleeve cycling top. Straight away, I hit the climbs I knew I had coming for me. It got me warm, but my toes were still tingling from the cold. I stopped and put on an extra pair of socks. I reached the top of one hill where I’d only seen 2 cars in the 45 minutes of climbing. I was a lone ranger on the vast expanse of the German countryside.
Standing up on the bike, in my lowest gear all the way, I was exhausted. Surrounded by the pine trees of the forest, it was dark and damp. Eventually, I saw no more trees on the tarmac ahead, just grey sky and as the saying goes: “What goes up…must come down”. I immediately descended into the oncoming frost, causing my fingers to become numb. At the bottom of the valley I stopped and put on my longer gloves and took the opportunity to stock up on some sugary sweets.
Back on the bike and into the next climb. I was getting hot, yet still felt cold – a weird sensation. I began to think of the forests. This German land was where a lot of the fighting took place during the war. The soldiers would be out there day and night in the cold, sleeping in the wet shelled out holes in the forests unless they could avoid it. It is only the beginning of October but it was awful for me despite the fact that it wasn’t even raining and I was well prepared.
Three hours into this climbing and I reached another peak. A small shack offered what seemed to be food and maybe a hot cup of coffee. I considered continuing but gave in to the temptation. “Café?” There were no English speakers there but everyone understands “Café” – coffee. I saw a sausage on the grill – “Würst?”. The man smiled at me and filled a bun with mustard waiting for the sausage to be cooked. His wife looked at me and smiled whilst holding a lit cigarette; it seems the indoor smoking laws haven’t reached here yet, or at least are not enforced! We tried to talk to one another; of course the weather is the perfect topic. She made some sounds at me and I inferred that she was asking whether I was cold. They showed me the newspaper forecast for today which showed no rain but an absolute downpour tomorrow. I’d better get a move on! I stepped outside and the cold hit me. Time for another jumper.
The next hill offered a spot of rain, not much, just enough to let me know it could be worse. Another 50 minutes of lugging my bags containing laptop, clothes and tools up a hill in drizzle led to a ridge. The heavens opened – I was going to get wet. I donned my waterproof and began the descent. I didn’t have to pedal for 10 kilometres; but I did to try to keep my legs warm. Each raindrop felt like a small sting on my face.
I checked my map again. Relief. Knowing that the small blue lines – indications of water – mean the source of a spring, which means on top of a hill, and the bigger bits of water (where the little ones join up) is going to be downstream. I found a path all the way to my destination adjacent to this comforting blue line. I began the descent, excited that I didn’t have to climb again soon. Hopefully not again today.
I was right. Lots of freewheeling. I turned my music up. The clouds parted as if the weather gods were granting me a prize for sticking at it through the hard climbs. The vineyards of Germany surrounded me as I descended at upwards of 50kmph (hoping not to get a blow-out again). I admire the scenery. I let the sunlight warm my face.
Then The Rolling Stones played in my ear: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need”. A British band with a great hit. Hurtling along the German countryside I sang loudly to the wind screaming at the top of my voice. I was extremely happy. Possibly the happiest I have ever been.
I started to think about this whole trip. The liberation path is just one part. The overriding thought is to remember the victims of The Shoah, The Holocaust. More than six million Jews killed. 6,000,000+. I realise how lucky I am to be doing such an amazing trip. I feel so liberated and free to do what I want when I want. Jewish and British. British and Jewish. It made me realise that I am doing this trip because I can. As a “Fuck You” to those who tried to oppress others in the past. A “Fuck You” to Hitler.
I try and think what someone who was killed at Auschwitz might feel about my journey. I hope they would be happy that the world (or at least the western modern world) that I live in allows people to do this. Without prejudice. Without fear. I hope they would be happy for my happiness. The feeling of being alive that I have experienced today. Waking up early, attacking the hills as hard as I can, documenting it to tell others. Living life as I want to and in my eyes, living it to the full.
I don’t think the world should ever have gone through any genocide to learn a lesson. But this has happened. We cannot change those events of the past, but we must learn from them. We must learn not to make the same mistakes again and to prevent others from making them now and in the future.
Tomorrow it is meant to rain hard all day, and there is a train station next door that will no doubt take me straight to Frankfurt… But I am more than determined to cycle in whatever conditions try to stop me, and I plan to enjoy every moment of it.
Another day, another country. Welcome to Germany – don’t mention the war!
A nice early start was tough at first, but after downing some coffee I was eager to hit the road. The extra hours allowed me to keep going beyond my target with no problems. It reminded me how valuable seizing the day is. I still had some height to descend from just inside the border into the City of Luxembourg – great to relax for a few kilometres!
The whole country of Luxembourg was very clean and well kept. The people were very friendly and all spoke English. The city contained some tremendous architecture and history, however I wanted to push on: I was feeling good and the sun was out so why not? There were great drivers too which was a nice change from the final parts of France; a delight to be riding the roads.
The American Cemetery just outside the city was again closed due to the American budget cuts. I managed to catch a lady as she entered the main gates. She turned came to meet me beyond the gates, we spoke in French until she responded that it was indeed “fermé” (closed as it was in Normandy). I hung around to take a video outside and noticed this lady still standing there. Over the past few days a few people had tried to break in; this lady lives in the grounds and thought I was going to trespass (she was probably right!). I think she was intimidated by me! We worked out we could speak to each other in English and she was sad to say that the place was closed.
She did very kindly offer to take my GoPro in video mode and walk around the site (that she wouldn’t let me into for legal reasons) and she filmed the whole grounds along with a commentary. General Patton was also buried here; he led his troops to liberate Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge (or the “Ardens”). George Patton unfortunately passed after the war after being involved in a car accident where he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt; he suffered serious injuries which he didn’t recover from. He was brought back here to be buried with his men.
I continued on downstream of the Moselle with a tailwind; I was flying. Casually hitting 32 kmph (20 mph) without any pedalling for about half an hour. I was next to the river for miles until eventually crossing and entering Germany. Managing to not be selected by the police just past the border I continued on a small cycle path overlooking the flowing water. Another beautiful site to the trip.
I have been reminded to “not mention the war” but it is a bit hard with the motivation for this trip. An older German gentleman cyclist struggled to catch me on the way into the next town; he had an amazing looking carbon bike with impressive racing wheels. He said I was very strong to be going so fast, especially with the bags. I guess a short day, several espresso’s and 10 days of riding non-stop have helped my speed!
Trier is the oldest towns in Germany and it contains some beautiful historic buildings that I have witnessed wandering around the town. It was also a big battleground in World War II. Many British POWs from Dunkirk were marched here before taken to other POW camps in Germany; a similar journey to the one I have undertaken.
Coming into the town I checked my bike for any issues: the rear tyre was pretty well worn but the front not so bad (because of the weight of the pannier bags). Using a trick I learnt from “The Man Who Cycled The Americas” I swapped them over and also cleaned the chain and oiled it – however there is a fair bit of sand and grit in their which I can’t get out – hopefully it won’t become a problem! Otherwise the bike is running extremely at this approximate half way mark.
I had “noodlesoup” for dinner, which is German for “noodle soup”. Next stop – fluency!
Tomorrow I will head towards Frankfurt with a plan to get there Friday and stay on a friend’s sofa.
This morning started off well enough. I had a short lie and found a bike shop on the way out of town and was able to get my bike chain oiled. These small things allowed me to push on hard through the morning climbs.
Generally feeling great, my spirits were lifted seeing the kilometre markers for the Voie de Liberte. They served to remind me of the purpose of the trip and I had seen them before, but only in Carentan during my first day in France.
Every kilometre that passed I saw another marker, thrusting a fist in the air each time, I felt great. I spotted some poppies near the side of the road; I stopped and attached them to my bag next to the badges from the Caen Memorial Museum. Knowing I only had about 50km to Verdun, and didn’t plan on cycling much further meant there was no pressure to push too hard.
I managed to reach the town of Verdun in good time and began the climb into the forest where a significant amount of the fighting in World War 1 took place. The relentless and infamous trench warfare came alive as I cycled further.
Just out of town I noticed another open field on my right, and again there was a cemetery. This one was much bigger than that one I saw yesterday, which was also bigger than the one on the way to Paris in Normandy. I didn’t even try to begin to estimate the number of headstones. It was simply overwhelming.
I lost track of time walking around the site in complete reflection. After finally composing my thoughts, I pushed on up the hill.
My loneliness on the road was relieved as I came across an older couple climbing the same hill. Gilbert was 75 and his wife Vichelle was 68. They used to do big bike tours but now were doing smaller cycling loops by taking the bikes in the car to see different parts of France. We stopped at just one of the many large memorial statues in the forests and talked for a while. They mentioned they had a grandson who was my age, but he was more into the gym than cycling. They took a photo of me to show to him; I took a photo of them to show to you.
The forest contains many memorials for the fallen. I am determined to re-visit this place later in life and see them all – others would be welcome, and we don’t have to cycle!
A larger memorial caught my eye. It described one of the nine towns that was completely levelled during the relentless shelling of the war. Small markers pointed out where each house had been; now gone forever.
After seeing the Museum being ripped apart by a bulldozer, I was frustrated. The web said it was a great monument to visit. In the distance I saw another large building. This was Duadeaumont, another cemetery, again with white cross gravestones. This one was even bigger. Much bigger.
I wandered the field to try to comprehend the scale. The enormity was partly the point, it wasn’t there to be measurable.
I visited the building’s museum and learnt that in the basement there were the remaining bones of the unknown dead who were dragged out of the woods after the war. French, English, German. All together in one spot. 130,000 men’s worth of them.
In a solemn daze I climbed to the top of the building to look out over the cemetery and forest. At the top I met an Englishman, on a gorgeous BMW motorbike who was just touring the area alone, and a couple from Australia who had spent the month touring France and Germany. Speaking English and learning their stories was a nice relief from the heavy emotional surrounding.
After a quick sandwich I pushed on, planning to stop at the next hotel in time for a conference call. There was nothing for miles, and I mean 40 miles. I spent 65km on the bike trying to find a hotel. No-one had a clue. No-one even knew what Wi-Fi was. I really was in a strange part of the country. My phone signal wouldn’t work and I found myself stuck not knowing what to do. I pushed on until eventually I got service.
Still unable to find anywhere to stop for the night but not wanting to ride too far, I asked everyone if they knew of a hotel. No-one did. Eventually I made it to Luxembourg and finally found an internet connection.
Coming into town I coasted for about 10 kilometres and descended steep roads with switch-backs. This proved to me that all the hard work I had put in over the past couple of days was to climb that height. I didn’t realise before, but now feel better that I have been given back the height I climbed.
Also I just hit the trip’s 1000km mark coming into town! It’s still not half way though, with about 1200km to go.
Tomorrow will be a relaxed short trip into Luxembourg City, where I’ll be taking that “rest day” I’d planned.