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Cycling from London to Auschwitz

Cycling from London to Auschwitz

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.

Lest we forget
Lest we forget
London to Auschwitz: Day 25, Katowice to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) 42km today, 2222km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 25, Katowice to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) 42km today, 2222km total

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.

The train tracks which brought so many through the gates to this extermination camp
The train tracks which brought so many through the gates to this extermination camp

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.

Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau
Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau

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.

Approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes are on show in the museum here
Approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes are on show in the museum here

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.

The outside of the gas chamber still in tact at Auschwitz
The outside of the gas chamber still in tact at Auschwitz

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.

The split second selection process to determine whether you will be sent directly to death by gas chamber
The split second selection process to determine whether you will be sent directly to death by gas chamber

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.

Laying the flag and tokens at the main memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Laying the flag and tokens at the main memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau

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.

Final quote

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.

JEWISH LIFE IN KRAKÓW POLAND

London to Auschwitz: Day 19, Pilsen to Prague, 95km today, 1780km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 19, Pilsen to Prague, 95km today, 1780km total

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.

A demarcation line where the Americans met the Russians.
A demarcation line where the Americans met the Russians.

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.

A memorial to thank the liberators of a town just outside Pilsen in May 1945
A memorial to thank the liberators of a town just outside Pilsen in May 1945

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.

Josefa Moláka was part of a resistance movement and was shot here in 1943
Josef Molák was part of a resistance movement and was shot here 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.

The bridge into Prague
The bridge into Prague

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.

DAY 20: REST DAY IN PRAGUE TO VISIT TEREZIN CONCENTRATION CAMP >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 15, Aschaffenburg to Würzburg 75km today 1370km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 15, Aschaffenburg to Würzburg 75km today 1370km total

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.

Schnitzel Lunch
Schnitzel Lunch

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?!

Interesting restaurant full of lots of antiques for sale
Interesting restaurant full of lots of antiques for sale

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.

Church of Würzburg
Church of Würzburg

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…!

DAY 16, WÜRZBURG TO NÜRNBERG 100KM TODAY, 1470KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 13, Engleheim to Frankfurt 50km today 1250km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 13, Engleheim to Frankfurt 50km today 1250km total

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!

An eagle statue overlooks the oncoming clouds on top of a vineyard
An eagle statue overlooks the oncoming clouds on top of a vineyard

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.

Applwoi and Mathias in Frankfurt
Applwoi and Mathias in Frankfurt

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!

DAY 14, FRANKFURT TO ASCHAFFENBURG 45KM TODAY 1295KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 11, Esch-sur-Alzette to Luxembourg City to Trier, Germany, 65km today, 1065km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 11, Esch-sur-Alzette to Luxembourg City to Trier, Germany, 65km today, 1065km total

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.

Luxemboug City
Luxemboug City

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.

American Cemetery in Luxembourg
American Cemetery in Luxembourg

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.

Over 5000 headstones
Over 5000 headstones

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.

Entering Germany
Entering Germany

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!

Why did the ducks cross the cycle path?
Why did the ducks cross the cycle path?

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.

One of the many designer elephants about the town - this fluffy pink one was my favourite!
One of the many designer elephants about the town – this fluffy pink one was my favourite!

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.

DAY 12, TRIER TO ENGLEHEIM 135KM TODAY 1200KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 10, Sainte-Menehould to Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, 115km today, 1000km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 10, Sainte-Menehould to Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, 115km today, 1000km total

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.

Voie de la Liberte
Voie de la Liberte

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.

Bike at the end of the Rue de Liberation
Bike at the end of the Rue de Liberation in Verdun

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.

Another Memorial Cemetery
Another Memorial Cemetery

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.

Gilbert et Vichelle
Gilbert et Vichelle

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.

Douaumont Ossuary
Douaumont Ossuary

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.

Welcome to Luxembourg
Welcome to Luxembourg

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.

DAY 11, ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE TO LUXEMBOURG CITY TO TRIER, GERMANY, 65KM TODAY, 1065KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 9, Châteaux Thierry to Sainte-Menehould, 135km today, 885km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 9, Châteaux Thierry to Sainte-Menehould, 135km today, 885km total

I slept quite well despite some snoring from one of the Americans! Having eaten all of my sweets before bed-time, this made for some interesting dreams… One of the less weird but more enjoyable ones was of cycling through some great sunshine and I woke up excited to hit the warm road. However, when I looked outside I realised it was only a dream…

A misty morning to wake up to
A misty morning to wake up to

After taking our time to wake up, we wandered down to breakfast. Eric and Loren, who I met the previous evening, had spent nearly 3 weeks on their bikes between Zurich, Munich and Luxembourg and were just a couple of days from their final destination of Paris. However, I was now in a group; and multiple people is always slower than being alone. Eventually we went off our separate ways and I was glad to have spent the evening with them for the company and fun stories (also we all shared a room to reduce our costs).

Eric, Me and Loren
Eric, Me and Loren

The mist rolling in off the hills hampered visibility to just tens of metres; the first couple of hours involved undulating hills – rising slightly as I was heading upstream. Not being able to see much was demoralising and the hills just kept rolling on. Eventually the sun burnt through the mist and an upbeat U2 song came on my iPod at just the right time to attack an oncoming gradient. I felt great. About 30 seconds into the climb I looked to the left over the fantastic hills of vineyards which make the world’s best champagne. Then, glancing to the right, I could see a much more barren field. This was a World War 1 French cemetery which I had stumbled upon. I paused the music; climbed off the bike; and wandered into the openly accessible field.

French World War 1 Cemetery
French World War 1 Cemetery

This was much bigger than the one in Desir that I passed between Caen and Paris. I calculated roughly that there must have been about one thousand headstones. Reading the names I realised that each cross (or differently shaped) headstone was back to back with another. This meant there were twice as many as I’d first thought: two thousand people were remembered here.

Double backed headstones
Double backed headstones

The afternoon saw the clouds fold over and the return of a sharp headwind. It was a Monday, so of course all the shops were closed (bienvenue en France). I couldn’t eat enough to keep my energy levels up. I stopped for another double espresso to boost my morale, but quickly slipped back into a tired mental state. Riding solo I’m sure didn’t help, company would’ve been a comfort, but no-one was around in these tiny hamlets. The mood was summarised by the surrounding dull brown fields, with some extremely depressed looking sunflowers.

Really sad sunflowers
Really sad sunflowers

With a lack of food and a significant amount of cycling today I was seriously undernourished. I needed far more calories than I had taken in and I knew it. When reaching the town that I was going to spend the night in, I headed straight for a fast food place to replenish my depleted energy supplies. A cheap kebab shop offered a 6 Euro meal deal. I got two. Pretty satisfied I managed to get to the the supermarket before it closed and stock up on supplies so this won’t happen again tomorrow.

One of the two kebabs I had for dinner
One of the two kebabs I had for dinner

Because of the flexibility of the trip and having had a particularly hard day today, I am changing my schedule to have a much easier day tomorrow and spend some time around Verdun, a significant battleground of World War 1. I will forgo a rest day in Luxembourg City to keep up with the 4 week plan.

The bed I am currently in feels like the most comfortable thing I have ever experienced. But then again maybe it’s just the fatigue.

DAY 10, SAINTE-MENEHOULD TO ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE, LUXEMBOURG, 115KM TODAY, 1000KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 8, Paris to Châteaux Thierry 100km today, 750km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 8, Paris to Châteaux Thierry 100km today, 750km total

What a cool day! Waking up in Paris with the prospect of another 3 weeks of cycling was demoralising; despite knowing that I will have an interesting adventure. The thought of 1400km more, the distance I have travelled already, but twice over, AGAIN, together with the lactic acid is just daunting. I demolished my breakfast before saying goodbye to my Mum (for the third time on this trip as she keeps following me) and cycled off past the Gare du Nord station where she would take the Eurostar back to London. A somewhat tempting alternative to 3 weeks further on the road.

After getting a little lost, despite my plan of being on just the one road for most of the day (it turned into a motorway unsuitable for bikes) I found an incredible path next to a beautiful river just outside Paris. This is where I caught up with Lioret, a lovely 77 year old man. He mentioned that he was only out for a 30km training ride! Mel (the 71 year old man I met on the ferry) – you have competition!

Lioret, 77
Lioret, 77

Continuing on over a railroad bridge (where I happened to see my Mum’s Eurostar go past) I spotted some planes in the distance doing loop-the-loops and other cool tricks. The point of this trip is to stop and investigate interesting things such as this, so I turned around, rolled down off the bridge and found the path to where I would meet my new friends who were controlling the planes. I spent a good 2 hours with them discussing the different petrol turbine and electric propeller engines, along with the different body kits you can get. Unfortunately I couldn’t convince them to put my GoPro on one of the planes which would have been AWESOME.

Model Planes!
Model Planes With Lionel!

Stopping for lunch in Meaux I met an American from Georgia and a Parisien who was very supportive of my trip. They spoke highly of Germany and put my fears of the country to rest. Perhaps I have been reading too much about the wars!

Cathedral at Meaux
Cathedral at Meaux

After reaching the Champagne region of France (which I haven’t managed to get a glass of yet) I hit the 100km target for the day. I stopped at McDonald’s in Châteaux Thierry (which happened to be one of the few places open on a Sunday) for a quick salad and a WiFi top up. Feeling good, I looked ahead at my route and found a bed and breakfast just 15km away along a nice river path. Just after setting off I saw two cyclists coming the other way with big bags on their bikes like mine. I slowed down and approached them with my best French. As it happens, Eric and Loren are American and I’m now sharing a room and a few beers with them tonight!

My apprehension about the long trip ahead evaporated by today’s fun encounters. The cycling distances are easy, and when the sun comes out it is stunningly beautiful and very enjoyable. Another chilled couple of days lie in store before reaching the next capital of the trip: Luxembourg City.

A Great Feeling
A Great Feeling

DAY 9, CHÂTEAUX THIERRY TO SAINTE-MENEHOULD, 135KM TODAY, 885KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 6, Évreux to Paris, 105km today, 650km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 6, Évreux to Paris, 105km today, 650km total

Today I had to make Paris by 1400PM to meet my Mum who had taken the Eurostar to met me there. This meant, if I wanted to visit the Palace of Versailles on the way into Paris, I needed to start early. At 0630 I was out the door, cycling the dark country roads of northern France with nothing more than a dim front light to illuminate the numerous potholes that I inevitably hit. A magnificent sky was my view or several hours; reminding me how great it is to be up early and out the door.

Morning Sky
Morning Sky

After about 85km of pretty much non-stop riding with an occasional headwind and steep hill, I finally made it to Versailles. The queue went all the way out to the gates, and folded back on itself three times. Fortunately because I’m under 26 and from the EU I got in for free – but I still had to wait a good hour to get in!

Queue to enter the Palace of Versailles
Queue to enter the Palace of Versailles

Waiting in the queue, a Chinese family ahead of me wouldn’t stop taking photos; pictures of the queue, of each other, of the palace, of the floor. You name it, they had a photo of it from several angles. They all spoke Mandarin, but after about 50 minutes of waiting in the queue silently, one of them turned to me and said “where did you get the map from?”. Turns out the whole family live down the road from me in Islington, London. They used to live opposite my flat in Camden. What a small world!

Finally we entered the magnificent building where we were given free audio tours. They were free for a reason and said nothing interesting. Eventually, after several strange rooms of busts of people that I had never heard of, I found the War Room: the Hall of Mirrors. This magnificent room was where the treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 after World War 1. Many large chandeliers hung from the distant ceiling; accompanied with large floor length mirrors. Like every room in the Palace, the ceilings were decorated with incredible art-work. You could feel the importance of the room by standing in it. I stood there for a while, reflecting. Perhaps the treaty signed in that room caused the second world war. I felt shivers thinking about this.

Hall of Mirrors where the Treaty of the First World War was signed
Hall of Mirrors where the Treaty of the First World War was signed

I bumped into my Chinese friends again (both of the men were named “Gary”); I mentioned that I had cycled 650km from London over 6 days and I was continuing to Poland to complete a liberation path tour of Europe from the Second World War. all in all cycling 2000 km (1300 miles) within a month. Normally the response is “Wow!” or at least “I wish you good luck!”, “Bon courage!” as the French have told me. This time I only received an “OK” back. Nothing more; just an acknowledgement that they understood. Perhaps the challenge isn’t that unusual to the Chinese? Or they aren’t impressed easily!

The road at the end of the Palace led directly to the centre of Paris without any turns. After about 40 minutes of cycling I was at bottom of the Eiffel Tower. A policeman yelled at me not to roll through the red light whilst I gazed up at the landmark. Both of us couldn’t be bothered to do anything about this though, so I slowly moved past as he sat in his car.

Lifting the Bike in front of the Eiffel Tower
Lifting the Bike in front of the Eiffel Tower

Finally I reached the Trocadero for a showoff photo lifting the bike with one hand (without pannier bags); I was relieved to have a rest day tomorrow but proud to have made it this far in good shape. I have travelled a fair distance so far; but I also have a long way to go. Keeping in mind that the liberation of France was no where near the end of the war. The allies still needed to make it into the far reaches of Poland; approximately 1000 miles away.

This evening I walked around town with my Mum for a while; I spotted a small plaque on a wall which commemorated 700 children of the 18th District of Paris that were killed during the Nazi occupation.

Tomorrow I am going to visit the Musée de l’Armée to discover more about La Resistance in Paris. But first I plan to lie in and rest my lactic acid filled legs.

DAY 7: REST DAY IN PARIS >>