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.