After a great adventure by kayak across the whole of Poland last summer, I am itching to get back on my bike for a new adventure. The bike allows for a much faster speed and easily accessible hot food along the route!
I have always wanted to go to Marathon, Greece and run the original 25 mile route from Marathon to Athens that was taken by an ancient greek messenger. From where I currently call home (Katowice, Poland), there is a very interesting route, passing (albeit briefly in some) through 11 different countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and finally Greece).
This new adventure is approximately 2200km, just like the London to Auschwitz bike ride. However, this new journey appears more hilly, especially the second half. London to Auschwitz took 25 days, but I did stop off at a lot of sites to explore and I didn’t push the cycling too much.
Now the question is “when?” As a freelance software developer, I live in project work, and I am hoping to forge a gap in the projects within the next few months of winter.
Why do it in Winter? Why not? Adventure!
The cold of winter can be overcome with more layers – and actually, extreme minus temperatures are too cold to snow or rain, saving you from becoming damp. The difficulty with winter comes when you only have 8 hours of sunlight as you do here in Poland now. Fortunately I will be heading southwards and so the days will be getting longer as I go – in Athens right now there are almost 2 hours more sunlight a day and the temperatures are in the teens – warm enough for tee shirt and shorts!
I am looking for people (who might know people) along the route who I could stay with or at least meet for company. If you know anyone directly, or friends of friends, please do put me in contact with them! Failing that, I was planning on finding hostels/hotels that will no doubt be relatively cheap in this part of Europe. I haven’t brought myself to the idea of camping wild in winter on a cycling trip yet!
Similarly, if you have visited this part of the world before and have some recommendations, I would appreciate advice! The UK Government website suggests that all of these countries need NO visas and are all perfectly safe, apart from a few countries that might still have active landmines.
In October 2013, I spent 25 days alone with my bike, cycling a WWII liberation path from London, across Europe, to Auschwitz. (See articles here)
It was a deeply meaningful trip, I did not want to dwell solely on the painful memories of this time in history, instead I wanted to look at the positive side of liberating Europe, the good that came with stopping the Nazi regime and celebrating the freedom we have today. Inevitably there were parts of the trip which were overwhelmingly emotional, wandering alone through the Flossenbürg concentration camp was certainly one of them, but the message of the trip was to enjoy the freedom that we now have.
On completing the trip, I spent the Shabbat in Krakow at the JCC. This centre was created thanks to Prince Charles’ ideas and WJR’s support. A place where everyone is welcomed to learn about the thriving Jewish life, in modern Poland.
Speaking to the director, Jonathan Ornstein, I realised that the bike ride should not end at the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau; instead, I should finish the journey on a high note with the welcoming, friendly and growing Jewish Community in Krakow.
On Friday 6th June 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I set out, with 14 other people from the UK, USA, Israel and Poland, to complete the journey from Auschwitz to the JCC. We began the day with some very memorable tours of the camps,then got ready to set off on the bike ride, ready to see the current strong Jewish community of Krakow.
A moving ceremony in front of the camp gates involved a member of the Krakow community, Pani Zosia, speaking about how she had lost family here; she is grateful that there is a place for her in Poland to experience her Jewish identity now.
We set off on the relatively flat 90km ride along the river Wisla. We meandered down small country roads with little traffic and surprisingly beautiful scenery as the sun shone down on us. We contemplated the freedom we have and reflected on the horrors of the camp we had just cycled away from.
A great sense of camaraderie was amongst the group as we made our way across the southern part of Poland.
Eventually we came into Krakow and began to see the Wawel Castle overlooking the river. We knew we were nearly there. A wave of relief came over us after several hours of cycling. We all rode into the JCC as one cohort, welcomed by local members of the Polish community.
After celebratory hugs and pictures we quickly showered and changed before we were kindly welcomed to join the community for Friday night Shabbat dinner. Not only did we hear some older members of the community singing Yiddish songs that used to fill the area before the War, but we met young members who were discovering their Jewish identity and what it means to them.
We spent part of Shabbat walking around the beautifully modern town of Krakow, everyone exclaiming that they didn’t expect Poland to be this beautiful; suggesting that we could be anywhere in Europe.
The evening saw thousands of people (mostly Polish) coming together to experience all of Krakow’s seven synagogues open to the public in an event called 7@nite. A great bonding had occurred between our group, and we ended the unforgettable weekend experiencing the synagogues of the town that once were overflowing with Jewish traditions and life. Unfortunately only the small community still remains today, but they are still here singing the songs and reciting the prayers.
Despite expectations that it might be difficult to ride such a long distance after seeing the horrors of Auschwitz, every rider came away with an extremely positive experience and will no doubt encourage their friends to participate next year.
A few weekends ago we (my girlfriend Basia and I), spent the Saturday on a fairly flat 80km cycle from our flat in Katowice to Krakow. The weather was perfect blue skies and not too hot at about 16 degrees. Having not done too much cycling since the big ride out here, almost 6 months ago now, where I averaged 100km a day for 22 days cycling, I was still in a good place to do a casual 80km. Basia however, had never gone more than 35km in one day!
We decided to set off early to give ourselves a good buffer should we need it. Not a great start though, just 100m down the road we had to stop though to put on a jumper (a sweater for my American friends, or ‘sweter’ for the Poles!). But on we pressed and hit 25km before we knew it.
I am helping to organise a charity ride in June which takes place in the same area of Poland: Silesia, where we will be riding from Auschwitz to the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) in Krakow. The ride is called “Ride for the Living”, the purpose is not just to remember the past horrors of Nazi controlled Poland, but also to look at the present and future Jewish Community in Krakow. See the website for more information of the 65km ride in June.
Pushing onwards, the sun was shining bright and we were cruising the Polish country roads. However, we were soon reminded of the history of the land when coming across a memorial for 42 people who had died in a work camp that was associated with Auschwitz. The plaque calls them Hitler’s victims. A solemn reminder of the history of a place that I have recently called home.
Finally we did make it; a great achievement. Taking the slow train back home over 2 hours for a ride that was not much longer!
Hiking in the Bielsko Biała Forests
This past weekend we also spent most of the day hiking in the nearest hills, about an hour drive south from Katowice.
My first time properly using walking sticks actually proved quite easy. It takes a lot of weight off your knees when walking downhill, and as a friend mentioned to me, it is as if it takes the stress of a rucksack away.
A great day walking, but my mind still wanders to the people of this area, in the hills and in the forests during the Nazi occupation. The potential stories are unimaginable, but whilst taking on a recreational walk in these forests you can’t help but feel grateful for life and freedom.
Seder night in Krakow
Leading on from the theme of “Freedom” comes the story of Passover and the festival of Pesach in the Jewish religion. On Monday night we joined the community in Krakow for the Seder dinner to remember the exodus from Egypt and slavery. My first year not with my family, but with over 160 other people there I felt a great love from a different kind of family.
The moral of the story, is that no matter the hardship, in this case slavery, we have to keep pressing on and keep going. Even more poignant in Poland; but today we celebrate with 160 people strong at the JCC and many more in Krakow and the rest of Poland; still here, still moving forward. Very inspiring.
Join our bike ride to experience similar aventures – here
Below are some cycling specific rules I have given myself whilst touring (usually solo) over the years. It is by no means a bible and I know many other people who do things completely differently.
Always have water. If you are running low then you MUST stop at the next available place as you don’t know when you might get lost!
Never get dehydrated – down what you have and fill it up as often as you can. Remember, if you aren’t peeing regularly then you aren’t hydrated enough!
Just keep drinking water!
There is nothing worse than dehydration – fatigue, grumpiness, dizziness and potentially DEATH. That’s right, KEEP DRINKING!
Ok ok…stop drinking water!
Too much stopping for fill-ups and toilet breaks can seriously ruin your flow when trying to knock off big chunks of distance – everything in moderation – just don’t dehydrate, ok?
Cycling for 6 hours or more a day will burn a lot of calories, no matter the terrain or speed. You need to eat. Lots. Fast food is cheap and a great way to pack in the calories, but remember to eat some vegetables as well to make sure your immune system doesn’t weaken too much making you prone to illness.
Do not be afraid of packing in the calories anyway you can though – fast food is your friend here, especially if you need to press on down the road. If you can eat more cleanly (i.e. lots of fresh fruit and vegetables), you should. However this can often be much more difficult, more expensive and time consuming when on the road than grabbing a cheeky kebab. Volume is a priority; make sure you eat enough as there is nothing worse than not having enough fuel in the tank!
It will be hard at times
Don’t fool yourself, there will be stupidly tough hills and some ridiculous headwinds; but like everything in life, these things have a way of balancing out. “This is a game for life, not just a day”: meaning if you spend 4 days going uphill into headwind then you will get some ridiculously amazing downhills soon enough that will massively outweigh any pain from the past. The wind might even turn your way to help you out – stay positive and stay patient.
I absolutely hate pieces of paper. I have been given so many free tourist maps which are utterly useless. Despite the smartphone revolution, people seem determined to give me something else to carry. Too many times has someone in a shop or hotel got a map out for me, only to draw directions that consist of “go outside, turn left, walk for about 50 yards”. Just tell me that and I don’t have to take your stupid map!
I have maps, emails, phone numbers, addresses, notes and photos all on my phone. Everything I do is on there, from work to pleasure. If I lost or broke my beloved iPhone (which I have done several times) then I would be ruined – or rather probably have some ‘fun’ trying to sort out an alternative for everything!
I still don’t see why people would ever buy a Garmin GPS device. Map applications are far better than any other device I have seen for navigation, and there are quite a few apps with good terrain information. Personally I like to use Google maps as it is always up to date and super easy to use – especially with Streetview! It also caches nicely offline. Don’t waste your money on anything else!
There are however some tricks to using any map when planning a route. Look out for rivers as they will help to indicate hills – the source of the river will be high and larger parts of the river will be lower down. Try to follow rivers if you can as they tend to be flatter than the hills or mountains that divide them.
Remember – if a river bends significantly (apart from in cities), it is probably because there is a hill in between. Be prepared!
It doesn’t have to cost a lot
I have met too many people (particularly around Richmond and Regents Park in London) that turn up on a Sunday morning with their pristine carbon bike that cost them upwards of several thousand pounds. My relatively cheap aluminium bike with panniers, mud, scratches and real wear and tear still zooms past them and I get a great satisfaction when doing so. Your legs are the most important part of the bike and improving them involves spending time on the bike – not money on it!
In terms of ‘running costs’ on a tour, you can generally find cheap hostels/hotels in small towns. Alternatively camping is a great way to save some money – but be prepared to carry more if you choose this option.
Remember to enjoy it
Touring is called touring because it’s not a race. Don’t be stupid and push your legs so hard that you can’t stand up the next day. Chances are you have a few more days of cycling ahead of you and you need to conserve your legs as much as possible. Remember to stop and appreciate your surroundings along the route – if something looks interesting then stop and take a closer look.
But always remember – you gotta beat all those riding around on the fancy carbon bikes!
Always ask for a discount
If you don’t ask, you won’t get! Almost every hotel/hostel/bed and breakfast has given me a discount. Even if it’s just a few Euros off the price, it still feels good and over a whole trip it can really make a significant difference. It’s also a really useful skill to have not just for a cycling tour but in life – you can end up saving a lot!
Learn to point
If you are in a country where you know zero words of their strange language, then learn a few phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ This will make a good first impression to most of the people you meet – then you can point to things and use hand gestures to try and explain yourself – it is sometimes fun, but sometimes embarrassing too!
I have had success getting things like a screw that fell off my panniers, water, and many cakes – without knowing a word of the relevant language!
I mean really write a diary (even if it is just for yourself) as you will value it forever. Memories fade, but photos, videos and diaries don’t. Just as important as taking the photos is remembering to back them up too!
Reminiscing about a life changing trip is part of the point of setting out in the first place. You are doing this because it is fun, interesting, cool and it’s important to remember these things in the future. It also serves as a separate purpose to motivate yourself for future trips too!
Learn to tinker with the bike
Like computers, most things can be reset. Unscrew a brake pad, see how it fits together. Play with the derailleur and see what happens. Everything can be fixed on a bike as parts can be replaced (even the frame as my American friends found out!). Oh, and if you can’t fix it yourself, then a bike shop will no doubt be able to!
Accidents are called accidents for a reason – they are unplanned! For years I never had a proper accident because I always cycle carefully anticipating the worst of other drivers. I was a cycle courier in London for a short period and never wore a helmet – but I never had a problem. Any small scrapes have been my own fault; e.g. misjudging a curb, another was where I got angry at an awful driver and punched their car – I ended up seriously hurting my hand!
Just over a year ago, I was on a charity ride across Sri Lanka where we were forced to wear helmets or we were banned from riding. Begrudgingly, I donned my lid and continued to pedal. One day I was sprinting down a hill on the rental mountain bike which seemed stable enough. I found an opportunity on this clear day, with an open road, to overtake my fellow riders. I moved across to the empty other side of the road. Getting my head down, I pushed hard to speed past my friends at about 35/40mph until suddenly a large ‘BANG!’ came from the front wheel.
A friend to my side screamed instructions at me: ‘FRONTWHEEL BLOWOUT! KEEP IT STEADY! SLOW DOWN! STEADY! EASY ON THE BRAKES! KEEP IT STEADY! SLOW! SLOW! SLOW!!!’ Fortunately my brain was on the same page and I managed to do exactly that.
Slowing to about 10mph the tyre finally gave up and came off the wheel. The metal rim skidded across the ground and immediately the bike slid from under me. I went over headfirst (somehow getting at least one foot out of the pedal). The ground came towards my face and I bowed to it. Fortunately with this helmet I managed to escape any pain. The only thing I had to show was a ruined front wheel and a small scrape on my knee (which later got infected but hey – I’m not brain dead!).
My point is, you can’t plan for something like that and without a helmet that day I am certain I would have been in hospital for a long time, if not worse.
I am therefore writing this article to educate a previous version of myself who wouldn’t wear a helmet out of stubbornness: I thought I was invincible.
Wearing a helmet now, I am definitely more invincible! (The same is true of car seat-belts)
Always smile. Even if everyone out on a Sunday morning looks like their life has just fallen apart, even if no one returns your smile and they look at you as if you are some strange alien passing through their town. I still urge you to continue to smile and nod your head to these strangers.
Even if your life has fallen apart, or worse yet: your bike has fallen apart, you gotta smile as it is part of the journey of life.
Every cafe or restaurant you go in, smile to the attendant as it will make their day better too – and might even get you a better deal or help to find a special recommendation!
From time to time people may seem unfriendly, but most of the time they are likely just be having a bad moment. The ones who are just simply miserable will always be like that, so move on to the next! Don’t let them get you down.
Yesterday was a tough day and a long one. I remembered a 10 mile section that stank of manure and the whole area was covered with flies which kept latching onto my legs. You learn to keep your mouth closed in places like this and breathe only through your nose. The people were so miserable throughout the whole day and it really was quite painful with the strong headwind. It was all just rubbish.
But somehow when I reached the hostel for the night I was fine, everything felt good. The long and tiring day which made me want to throw the bike away and get on the next train was over. Somehow the memory of the pain had fallen away. I felt good and the suffering was forgotten. I was living life at that moment in the evening and everything was great.
However today also started badly. There was something wrong with the bike. I stopped to oil the chain and pump up the tyres by the side of the road, but back on the bike, my speed was still cripplingly slow. I had somehow destroyed all the muscles in my legs and I was just unable to pedal anymore. I spent a good 2 hours at this 12kmph speed (7.5mph – not that much faster than walking). I figured I just had to press on and knock off as many miles as I could.
I was in a lot of pain both physically and mentally. I had a long way to go and my legs were having none of it. I tried to stand up and push harder, but I couldn’t sustain it for more than a minute – maximum.
Suddenly it became clear what was wrong with the bike and my legs. I reached the crest of a hill. I had been climbing a gradient for several hours, but was unable to tell by the landscape as it was consistent and continuous. I was so relieved to suddenly be zooming at about 50kmph downhill without pedaling for almost 30 minutes before stopping to buy many more energy bars.
Alas the hills didn’t stop. Suddenly I found my speed was back to the snail pace of earlier in the day. I was climbing again but this time I knew it. I spent about 2 hours and 20 kilometers doing nothing but slowly climb through the trees on a lonesome road. Pulling into a parking area, I sat on the grass verge with my head hanging low. I wasn’t at the top, it was endless.
I was not enjoying myself. I was not happy. I contemplated why I was doing this. Surely I could have just driven here? Or taken my motorbike? Or even taken the train, or better yet flown? The whole motivation of the trip crumbled away in my mind. What was the point? Why should I be on my pushbike suffering like this? I was mentally defeated. I tried to motivate myself back up by thinking about the pain I had overcome just yesterday. Surely it will all be better once I get there? Thinking about my original keenness I had for the trip and remembering of the highlights so far, I managed to pick myself up and get back on the bike.
Eventually I reached the top to find myself not needing to pedal much for a good 30 kilometres. The sun came out and I was singing again.
When I first arrived in Germany a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of cycling. The roads were perfectly smooth and the drivers a lot more courteous. Now I have been in the Czech Republic for almost a week; the first couple of days I was incredibly frustrated at the quality of the roads, despite them not being that different from English roads I’m used to. I was just used to the smooth German roads and it was annoying to be back on the bumpy broken tarmac. Today, however, the roads were the worst they have ever been but I was expecting it, I didn’t even think about complaining.
My point is that we, as humans, get used to things. Whether they be the quality of the road, perhaps living with your parents at home and having a full fridge, or just always having loved ones around you to support you. Putting yourself in a situation where you don’t have these things is tough. Unfamiliarity is difficult. This is a lesson I personally learn again and again, and of course humanity learns it over and over.
There are so many analogies that you can create from familiarity: having a loved one pass away, moving to a new town perhaps for university, if you live in the South of The United States of America then it might be rare to encounter a homosexual. These things might be tough at first, yet somehow we can get used to them.
I have had uncontrollable emotional responses throughout this trip – both good and bad. When rationalised, I could overcome the challenging ones, but it wasn’t easy.
I have tried to relate these human feelings to the World Wars: I imagine that if you are used to fighting all day it becomes strangely normal. If you are an SS guard then perhaps seeing and inflicting suffering unfortunately becomes normality. From some accounts I have read, people in concentration camps manage to put aside the poor treatment and take pleasure in other small things.
We are all adaptable creatures but remember there are always limits. If you are a good person then there is only so much pain you can inflict on others; if you are being tortured there are limits to how much you can take before you give up. Regular evaluation is always valuable to work out whether these limits have been reached – but you need to push through the limits to know where they are. Mine was probably a few days ago but it’s valuable that I now know that.
I have just a couple of days left of this trip. I have had to overcome low points of pain but lived some incredible highs (probably endorphin related!). The lessons learnt from this trip don’t have to just be in regard to a physical challenge, but they can relate to any challenge. Whether it be a project at work, a personal project, completing a course or just reading a book. Something that you know is good for you but sometimes hard to get up and do. I hope that you reading this can relate it to something in your life and hopefully this can spur you on to do something you know you should do, but it’s just difficult right now.
My mother, friend and I have had some quite poor experiences with the locals in Prague, as well as an abysmal boat tour! To add insult to injury, the hotel staff were also very rude on several occasions, which made us feel rather unwelcome in their country. This did not bode well for the remainder of the trip through the Czech Republic. Especially as I’ve been warned that the further east you go, the worse it gets…
Leaving the familiar faces of my Mum and David, I was off to be alone on the bike again – but this time the sun was out! Unfortunately though, I went straight into a strong headwind. A headwind that would not let off, even with the shielding of trees, forests or hedges. I felt good with my well rested legs but wind is possibly the most demoralising thing when on the bike (or maybe a downpour, I’m not sure which is worse).
Coming out of Prague I came across the Jewish cemetery which I explored and I paid my respects at the small memorial to those victims from Terezin – the concentration camp which I visited just a couple of days ago.
I saw many roadside memorials for the First and Second World Wars. Too many to count, but I stopped to pay my respects at many of them for the members of the town that they noted and to take a photo of the statues.
Having left the suburbs of Prague I was feeling strong. Gazing across the horizon I saw a big tank-like vehicle. As I got closer I could make out 4 army men standing around it, with another camouflage jeep just in front of it. It turned out to be a recommissioned Russian Army Tank. Bought from someone in Poland, it was road legal and used for fun. It had two machine guns (that were non-functioning) at the top and a massive V8 engine for some immense power. The tyres could be deflated and inflated from a compression tank inside to allow for beach driving, as well as being almost fully submersible with a propeller underneath at the back. One of the men looking after it was very sweet and told me all about it, however the others seemed quite unfriendly which was disappointing.
Pushing on I saw a few other cyclists, dog walkers and farmers. I smiled at all of them and waved at most but I didn’t get one smile back, let alone a wave. After a pit-stop lunch I saw many other miserable looking people; it looked as though each and everyone had a close family member recently pass away, they looked so sad. Most of them stared at me as I passed on my bike with a big smile trying to get some sort of positive response. Being alone on the bike with everyone looking extremely unfriendly is no fun and so I pushed further on the bike than planned because I didn’t want to have more interactions with sad or rude people.
Unfortunately I pushed on to a part where I would not see a big town for another 50km. This became quite difficult as night was fast approaching. Suddenly it was dark and my small bike lights had no chance at illuminating the road in the depths of the trees. The head wind felt stronger and the gradual incline that I had been on for hours (I didn’t realise this is why my pace was so slow) suddenly caused a long steep descent which I couldn’t enjoy because I couldn’t see anything!
Descending into the darkness with both hands holding the brakes firm, I slowly made it to the next town to find a closed hotel. Fortunately they had an unsecure WiFi network which allowed me to look up their number and phone them. They were fully booked. Searching on my map I moved on until I eventually found a small hostel on a side street in the village.
After a quick shower I went for a Chinese meal where an odd man from the country was also eating alone. He mentioned how he believed in UFOs and could give people energy with his hands. He also said he practised yoga to give him 40% more energy – he knows because he measured it… He was a 60 year old builder and carpenter who was very nice but still didn’t smile!
Just a few days are left on the road until I reach Auschwitz but there is still a fair way to cycle. The anticipation and excitement of reaching the end will no doubt help me along…
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…
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 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.
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!
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.
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!
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.