Sunday, 28 October 2012

in the hills

It's still raining in the morning.  It continues unbroken for 24 hours.  We find a pension above the old town of Banska Stiavnica and set up the Chinese Laundry - everything dirty gets washed, and everything wet gets hung up to dry.  Within an hour of arriving our room looks like a disaster zone.  We then wander down to the old town for a look around.  It's Saturday, it's just after midday.  The bike shop is already closed.  We walk the streets but it's a foul day and we soon surrender.  Hmmm - so the glorious sunny Autumn is really over, in case we ever doubted it.  
Sunday afternoon

Sunday is dry so we try again.  There are a few more people around but it still feels a bit empty.  We resolve to take a train to Bratislava - we suddenly don't have the stomach for the ride across the plain to the capital. 

Monday morning
Monday dawns brightly.  Too brightly.  The reason for that white light creeping into our room is the snow.  It's snowing.  In October.  Good grief (or words to that effect).  The ride downhill for 25 kms is kind of interesting.  I have repaired my bike chain, but it's hardly put under any strain.  When we get to the train station we both look like snowmen, and have to brush the snow off everything, even out of my eyebrows.   With a few words we manage to purchase tickets for both ourselves and bicycles.  Then we join a crowd of men who have turned up for the station cafe's set lunch.  After a lousy start the day is looking up.

Ah, but such false optimism.  The train gets delayed nearly an hour.  When it comes we struggle to unload the bicycles in order to lift them into the baggage wagon.  We then have to shift our bags and get aboard before the train pulls out.  Once in our seats the train conductor turns up to check our tickets.  And then informs us in English (thankfully) that at the next station we will have to alight and take a bus to the subsequent station where we can then board another train to Bratislava.  Okay? Okay.  But what about the bikes? The bikes? Yes, the bikes.....The train stops short of the platform and everyone has to climb across the tracks to get to the buses.  We are of course last and there's almost a fight when the bus drivers all shake their heads at our bikes. Eventually one allows us to squeeze them into the hold.   Transfer to another station.  Repeat of loading bikes, getting to train, unloading bikes, lifting bikes into waggon, manhandling our panniers into a carriage. Good grief (or words to that effect).

Saturday, 27 October 2012

through the mountains

It's trying to rain when we wave farewell to my mum and dad and cycle southwestwards out of Krakow.  Soon we are pedalling up hills, the like of which we haven't seen for some time.  Lunch in a town with a UNESCO badge for the collection of chapels dotted around the hills, but we have no time to look around.  We climb up steep roads and follow ridges in the mist.  Then drop down into the next valley and repeat the process.  Finally we arrive in a small village as its getting dark where we spot a place to camp over the river.  Normally we would camp away from houses, but it's foggy and we're too tired to care.  In the clear morning light, the river has become a stream and we're a stone's throw from someone's back yard.

The day is looking better as we approach the road that takes us through the mountains to Slovakia.  We do battle for the last time with the crazed Polish drivers. (It was only when we reached Warsaw that I understand this nation's predilection for aggressive and fast driving - a learner car passed us from the 'Imola School of Motoring'. )  There follows a heated debate outside a shop as I try and fix the gears on my bike.  It is pointed out to me that I had a week in Krakow to do this and now, after an early start, I am delaying our journey over the border.  After some fruity verbal banter we continue our ride which now takes us up and up, through pine forest, to a pass with an old border post.  There are a couple of money changers, a closed hotel and not much else.  On the other side there are a couple of villages marked on our map but these turn out to be one long road of houses and shops.  As we coast along we can hear announcements being made from loudspeakers attached to the street lamps.  It's all a bit Soviet.  At the end of the day we are climbing again and looking for a camping spot.  There's a flat piece of ground tucked behind pine trees beside the road, but it's fenced in.  However, someone has been here before us and kindly cut a big hole in the fence around the back.  We unload and set up camp happily for our first night in Slovakia.

We're just getting used to this up/down/up/down landscape when we come down to a river in the morning and end up following it for the most of the day.  We see our first hrad - a castle stuck high on the face of a cliff over a river gorge, impregnable. After lunch we find ourselves on one of the main roads heading to Bratislava.  It's full of trucks and cars and is a tad too busy.  Thankfully someone is digging up the road further up and we end up cruising past our very first traffic jam - which goes on for miles in both directions.  This is our third day without sunshine or sight of blue sky and there's definitely a wintry look around.  It's not very inspiring. We stop cycling early, a headwind has tired us out, and we camp at the back of a large field in open view of the main road.

The next day is a tough one - we have a fair distance to go to reach Banska Stiavnica, starting and ending the day with climbs.  In between is a lovely descent and a stop off in Kremenica, a numismatist's delight.  While I'm humming "Are Friends Electric?" Gayle peeks in at the coin museum - the town prospered with gold mining and minting coins for the Hungarian rulers.  I've got "Cars" on my mind late afternoon when, with only a kilometre to go, and as we climb a steep stretch of road, my chain snaps.  We had been debating whether to take a hostel in Banska Stiavnica or camp - this seals it.  We camp below the road on a tiny ledge, mostly out of view.  As we nod off it starts to rain.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


the stained glass is in the art nouveau style
The only problem with spending a week with my mum and dad in Krakow is that Gayle gets to say, for the following week at least, "You sound just like your dad/mum*" (*delete where applicable).  Of course, at this stage in my life I already know who I take after but I think Gayle forgets.  We have a wonderful time with them, looking in churches (there's a lot of 'em), wandering the streets (there's a lot of 'em), feasting on Polish foods (there's a lot of it).  We have to re-socialize now that we are dining in polite company - on the first night out Gayle has to tug my elbow to stop me from licking my plate clean.

ice cream is still a Good Thing

Krakow old town has a large medieval square at it's heart, with a grand old market hall in the centre.  There's the requisite castle, the ancient university buildings and some large merchants' houses.  Maybe it's the time of year but it seems very tranquil, although there are plenty of people around.  Probably the fact that most of the centre is closed to traffic - less noise, less stress.  

Aside from wandering the streets of the old town there are other places to visit including the UNESCO-listed salt mine at Wieliczka and Auschwitz.  While the salt mine is a rather jolly outing Auschwitz is an inevitably depressing experience.  The labour camp is now a museum with information and exhibitions about life and death there.  After walking around we had neither the emotional or physical energy to visit Birkenau, which was the extermination camp built close by.  Walking around we were dismayed to keep crossing paths with some young Poles who made jokes and tittered their way around the exhibits - an immature response to the displays and information : the photographs of every inmate up to 1943, with dates showing that rarely did anyone survive there for longer than six months, or the room with a display case of only the hair shorn from the inmates, kept to be sold on.  The museum emphasises the way that Poland was treated by the occupying army - a programme of exploitation, starvation and mistreatment began immediately and educated Poles, community leaders, army officers, were all executed.  It is clear that Poland firmly lays the blame for what happened to the Jews and Roma and other victims on the Germans.  And here was another statistic: an estimated 3 million Poles died during the war.

A counterbalance to all of this misery is the incredible klezmer concert we attended in one of the old synagogues in Kasimierz, which was the Jewish neighbourhood.  Four young Polish musicians, led by an accordionist, perform a collection of traditional and new  music.  It's loud, sad, raucous jazz.  Wonderful stuff.

Friday, 19 October 2012

tourist information

Gayle goes into the tourist information office in Krakow to get a cycle map and the low-down on the highlights. 

A visitor asks one of the staff "Could you tell me - is there a cafe at Auschwitz?"

Thursday, 18 October 2012

is the bear a catholic?

quite unsloth-like
In an attempt to judge cultural norms (as you do) we'd asked Daniel in Warsaw if it was okay to crack pope jokes in Poland.  "Depends which pope", Daniel shot back quickly with a wry smile.  On a sunny Sunday morning as we ride the country road into Krakow we pass through a few villages where Sunday Mass is taking place.  The large churches look full, although it's hard to tell if the fellas standing around the door can't get in because it's packed or whether they're just having a crafty fag. We stop for a break in the woods where there are a few cars parked by mushroom-pickers.  A woman looking rather worse for drink starts chatting to us.  We tell her we don't speak Polish and she gets even more garrulous.  She's still gabbling as we set off again and wave our goodbyes.  A few hours later as we ride one of the cycle paths into the city of Krakow we pass the same woman sat on a bench.  She looks as surprised as we do.

Our first two nights in Krakow we are generously hosted by Magda and Maciek, two other cyclists.  I say generous because Magda is due to give birth at the end of the year, they are about to move out of their studio flat and, er, it's a studio flat, which means we're sleeping in their lounge/bedroom.  It takes us a while to realise how much we are imposing on them - Maciek had suggested we leave any baggage on the bikes that we didn't need in the store room - and Gayle mistakenly thinks the wardrobe in the corner leads, CS Lewis-like, to another room.  However, they are so relaxed that we instantly feel like old friends.  They have toured the length and breadth of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia and for their honeymoon, Morocco and it's great to hear about their experiences.  Magda reflects that when they prepare more for a trip they lose some of the excitement that unpredictablity brings.

Our stop in Krakow is scheduled to include some bike maintenance and Magda helps us by translating for us at their local bike shop.    It occurred to me while cycling with Magali and Jean-Baptiste that Gayle was overdue a replacement chain, and rear cassette and chainrings.  She has cycled about 12,000 kilometres with the same set.  Needless to say it's much cheaper to replace here than back in Blighty.  It occurs to Maciek that they could be getting a discount at their local bike shop as they're always taking cycle tourists there for something or other.  
despite Magda and Maciek's best efforts I still screw up the photo

On the Monday evening they take us into the old town for our first glimpse of the sights, some Polish fast food and a natter over a beer in a sailor's pub (yes, a sailor's pub.)  We talk and talk and talk and talk and at one point I have to remind myself we're in Poland.  For the first few days we cycled in this country I smiled at everyone we passed in the villages and along the road.  The Poles are not naturally smiley people.  I only stopped smiling when I read in the guidebook that here people do not smile at strangers - it is considered stupid.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


"Are you writing this blog or what?"
"Yes, of course I am"
"But it's two months behind. When will it be up to date?"
"When I get a chance to use the netbook.  You're always using it."
"That's rubbish - you only have to ask.  You never want to use it."
"I have to be in the right mood.  I can't just type away like that."
"Well, get in the mood, because at this rate, no-one will read it if it's not updated."
"Okay, okay, I will, I will, I promise."

Monday, 15 October 2012


days - 103
kilometres - 5041

couches surfed - 20 nights
warm showers - 12 nights
spontaneous hospitality - 1 night
hostels/motels/cabins and campsites - 8 nights
wild camps - 62

new wheels - 4

flat tyres - 2
spot of bother - 1
rabid dogs - too many to count  
drunks - 2 on bikes
wrong turns - 3
ferries - 19

bus-stop meals - 32
jaffa cakes - 255
The Pasta Count: penne 48 fusilli 22 spaghetti 4 tortellini 2

Saturday, 13 October 2012

nie polski

I can't speak Polish but I tell an old lady who asks me in the supermarket that 'medium' means 'sredni'.  She looks delighted and puts the toothbrush in her basket.

Our journey to Krakow, where we're meeting my mum and dad, is via two or three places that appear in our guidebook.  The first is along the Vistula, a small touristy village called Kasimierz Dolny where we stay in the youth hostel.  We're there at the weekend and with good weather there's quite a few daytrippers and weekenders from Warsaw and Lublin.  The town had a large Jewish population before the war and down the road a memorial wall has been built from the headstones destroyed in the cemetery.  We head southeastwards through rolling farmland to Zamosc.  The old town here has been renovated and is rather pretty, if a little museum-like.  It's the low-season for tourists and the town is in a quiet corner of Poland.  

one mushroom you don't want to pick
Our direction now is westwards to Krakow through what turns out to be a rather dull landscape.  We're in farmland north of the Tatras and the villages seem to run into one another so that we find ourselves cycling along roads of houses and not much to see.  A lot of the houses look new and quite grand in places.  Often the old original wooden house has been left where it is, and the new house built beside it.  The camping gets tricky sometimes as there's always someone around, usually a farmer in his tractor, and we only find a spot when the sun has already set.  We have shied away from asking farmers if we can camp on their land - although I'm sure we could if we had to.

We arrive in Sandomierz after a foggy morning ride but the sun finally appears for the photos.  And then we head to Zalipie, famed for its painted houses.  We arrive mid-afternoon and ride around for quite a while, looking for these famous painted houses.  But it all looks rather like any other village.  We finally find a house painted with flowers and Gayle photographs it.  Then a minibus of Italians turn up and photograph it too.  They've been driving aroundlooking for these famed painted houses. Later we see the same house appear in any tourist blurb about the village.  Quality not quantity, I guess.

Saturday, 6 October 2012


We have camped in woods about 50 kilometres from Warsaw (or Va-Va as it appears on one map).  I can't imagine doing this outside London.  We are brewing up and packing our panniers and performing our morning ablutions.  It seems only Magali and I heard the deer barking at us last night.  Gayle and Jean-Baptiste slept through it.  We are certain a stag came upon us and stalked around our encampment, barking aggressively.  It's the rutting season.  They all want to fight.

Jean-Baptiste returns sheepishly from the bushes.  It seems he may have disturbed two men sharing a can of beer in the woods.  He was squatting down and looking towards our encampment to ensure no-one disturbed him, when he suddenly heard the crack of wood underfoot behind him.  Two men were standing up and walking away, probably in disgust at the sight that had greeted them over their liquid breakfast.

The ride into Warsaw is quite straightforward, especially once we find a bike path crossing the motorway and the Vistula river.  We seemed to have arrived into a different Poland from the small-town rural Poland we've cycled through.  Or is it just that everyone is wearing brighter clothes?  We are greeted by Daniel and Marta at Daniel's house and given a very warm welcome.  It's a shock to suddenly be in a 'civilised' situation but also very nice to be sitting around a dining table, eating great Polish food and having a beer out of a glass.  Like all Warm Showers hosts, Daniel knows exactly what we need.  Ironically, his only difficulty is his broken-down boiler, which he has warned us about.  

Marta and Daniel show us around the reconstructed city centre on Sunday.  This is a remarkable achievement.  At the end of the war only about 15% of the city was left.  With the Russians about to arrive, the Polish Resistance launched an uprising against the German occupiers.  This was after 4 years of occupation and deprivation.  The uprising failed.  After three months of fighting the Poles surrendered.  In those three months about 200,000 Poles were killed.  Stalin had stalled his armies deliberately to allow the defeat, realising it would save him the trouble of dealing with nationalist Poles.  Hitler demanded the city be razed to the ground in revenge.  And now we are wandering the attractive streets of the old town - a remarkable reconstruction based on photographs and paintings of the city before the destruction.  Daniel cannot resist taking us into a bar - a nostalgic re-creation of the communist-era - where we have vodka shots and pickled herring.  A sozzled man sat at the bar explains to us that in communist times this was one of the few pleasures a man could have.  He looks about 31 years old.

After getting our bikes, our clothes and ourselves cleaned and spruced up it's time to say goodbye to Magali and Jean-Baptiste who are taking a bus to Prague to speed their homeward journey.   We're not sure if they can take their bikes on the bus, but Daniel has suggested offering the driver a 'thank you' in advance of him waiving the rules.  Sure enough, the bribe works and in a last-minute hustle the bikes and trailer are loaded and we say au revoir.  Daniel is pleased it all worked out but we all get that sad 'goodbye' feeling.

We have time for one more meal with Daniel and Marta and their friends, who describe where we have cycled as Poland B.  Poland A is west of the Vistula River.  The next day we set off southwards and soon find ourselves back in this 'Poland B'.

Poland B doesn't look so bad

Thursday, 4 October 2012


I'll never forget the conversation on the train in Iran.  We were sharing a compartment with three friendly young students from Tehran, educated youngsters who spoke good English.  One of them asked us:
"So, do you believe the Holocaust happened, did they really kill one million Jews?"
"One million?  It was six million.  Yes, we know it happened.  It was one million children that were killed."

You read about it, you learn from history books, or these days from television documentaries, or films even.  Treblinka is marked on our map and is more or less on our route.  The guidebook describes the memorial there and we agree to go.  About 10 kilometres from the site we have to stop at a railway crossing.  We then hit the worst road we ever ride in the whole of Poland - an old concrete slab road full of cracks, crumbling with neglect.  The farm houses here look poor and and shabby.  A grubby sign points us into the forest.

The Nazi Germans built Treblinka as an extermination camp mainly for the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.  A railway spur was put in to bring the victims right into the camp.  Close by another labour camp was built where Polish prisoners were brought to quarry as slave labourers.  The extermination camp ran from July 1942 to October 1943 - a mere 16 months.  It's estimated that at least 800,000 Jews and 80,000 others from persecuted groups like the Roma were killed in this short time.  The numbers are phenomenal.  It's hard to believe.  "Did they really kill one million Jews?"

The camp was closed and destroyed after an uprising by the camp inmates who were assigned the duties of burning the bodies.  No trace was left of the camp.  A memorial has been constructed with concrete sleepers recalling the railway line and then a wide clearing in the forest features a collection of stone markers, many with the names of villages and towns from where the Jews were brought.   There are a lot of stone markers.   In the centre is a sovietesque sculpture, large and imposing.  As we approach we see there's a school party of small children chattering and scrambling around.  My first response is disgust - they've turned a memorial into a play ground.  A teacher snaps three girls posing next to the large stone with Warsaw engraved on it.  Madness - these children cannot comprehend what happened here.  The whole gang pile into a decrepit school bus and drive off.

But when I think about it I am not sure I can comprehend what happened here either.  It seems unbelievable.  "Did they really kill one million Jews?"

As we are leaving another three coachloads of young people appear.  They are talking and loud but not boisterous like the little children.  They nearly all wear a white sweatshirt.  Many of them are carrying flags.  The flag is Israel's.  We are not the only ones who have come here to bear witness.

In order to write this and check the dates I looked Treblinka up on Wikipedia.  I never know whether to trust the facts I read here but two footnotes struck me. The first might answer the question, did the Allies know what was happening? "In 2001, a copy of a decrypted telegram sent by the deputy commander of Operation Reinhard was discovered among recently declassified information in Britain. The Höfle Telegram listed 713,555 Jews killed in Treblinka up to the end of December 1942."
The second might answer the question, were those who did this punished? "The Austrian Franz Stangl was the commandant at Treblinka from the summer of 1942. In 1951, Stangl escaped to Brazil, where he found work at a Volkswagen factory in São Paulo. His role in the mass murder of men, women, and children was known to the Austrian authorities, but Austria did not issue a warrant for Stangl's arrest until 1961. In spite of his registration under his real name at the Austrian consulate in Brazil, it took another six years before he was tracked down by Simon Wiesenthal and arrested in Brazil. After extradition to West Germany he was tried for the deaths of around 900,000 people. He admitted to these killings but argued: "My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty." Found guilty on 22 October 1970, Stangl was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of heart failure in prison in Düsseldorf on 28 June 1971."

Monday, 1 October 2012

liberté, égalité, fraternité

It's a slow start to the day.  When we woke first thing there was frost in the field and the sun is slow to rise above the trees.  We cycle into a small town, the last town in Lithuania before we enter Poland.  It's a Saturday and tourist information is closed. We want to find the library and use the internet, but there's a cafe open and we decide to go in and plan our journey through Poland.  We should have done this in Vilnius but we were having too much of a good time.  Even now we do no planning.

We are both sat facing the street, with an eye on our loaded bikes, when another cycling couple draw up.  They stop and look in - we smile and wave and they park up and join us inside.  Magali and Jean-Baptiste.  Heading southwards after a long ride north from near Paris up though Sweden and Norway and back through Finland.  After a long chat we decide we need to get on.  First thing is the lunch we promised ourselves at the Chinese restaurant.  Then to the library for the internet.  When we get there it is closed.  Whilst we hum and haw about what to do, Jean-Baptiste and Magali turn up.  They ask if we would be happy to ride together to Poland and the question seems so obvious we wonder why we didn't think of it ourselves.  But then we know how personal cycling can be and camping too.  We say yes straight away and this is a Good Thing.
ice cream is also a Good Thing
Within a couple of days cycling together we have agreed to head to Warsaw where Daniel has offered to host us.  After one lousy wet day we are blessed with dry and sometimes sunny days.  It seems to be getting warmer not colder.  We have to learn to cycle in a group - difficult for us as we can barely ride together as a couple - but it works out best in Poland as the roads are noticeably busier.   We soon realise that les francaises are more relaxed about their cycling day and don't try and go too far.  Noticeably they enjoy a longer lunch than we're used to.  As far as we're concerned it's good for us to have a change of pace - something we had talked about but never achieved.

It takes about five days to reach Warsaw (pronounced Varshava in Polish) and in this time we have great fun with our new cycling comrades.  We learn some new tricks from them - it's a good opportunity for us to share experience with them and discover how they do things - especially on the camping and cooking side.  Being French, Jean-Baptiste and Magali are epicurists.  Gayle is inspired by Jean-Baptiste's Normandy upbringing that requires a little cream in all the cooking.  Up to this point we've been losing weight on our journey.  Now we start to put it on.

Critically we had been feeling a little bit low since we left Vilnius and said goodbye to Laurynas and Giedre.  It seems we make new friends and then leave - wholly unsatisfactory. With Magali and Jean Baptiste we cheer up quickly and start enjoying this transient life again.