Toasted one side

Sorry, couldn’t help it. Another 100 miles today, driven by a glorious tailwind westward out of Poland into smooth-roaded and copiously-cycle-tracked Germany, to the Scharmützel Lake (see pic) just short of Berlin, where ended the day with a magnificent swim.

Riding constantly west for the past week in what’s now a very warm, sunny early central European summer (AT LAST!!!) means that I am getting sun-tanned in very peculiar ways.

Toasted on the left/south side, and only in the patches that face the sun – tops of thighs, backs of calves, arms and hands, back of the neck – up to where Lycra and helmet take over.

The result, when exposed in full, is a rather dramatically piebald. I thought of posting a photo, but decided it would either shock you into stopping reading the blog (all four of you who clapped your hand..) or not get past the porn filters.

So, you are spared, but imagination paints the more vibrant picture, as we know from radio.

What a contrast between Poland, charming, unspoiled but still way behind Western Europe economically, and Germany.

Twenty years after the end of Communism, Eastern Germany is indeed – for all its problems with unemployment – the “blooming landscape” for which then Chancellor Kohl was derided for predicting at the time of unification in 1990.

Clearly, a few thousand billion deutschmarks and euros have helped. But the East Germans have done this themselves, and this is THE most lovely part of the world to visit and to cycle in.

France, eat your heart out.

It is also home, as I discovered by complete chance today cycling up along the German side of the the old border with Poland, to the factory that produces those amazing plastinated bodies, as they’re called, that you might have seen or at least heard of, displayed in Gunther von Hagen’s travelling Bodyworlds exhibitions.

Von Hagen is from old East Germany, and indeed even served two years in a Stasi jail for trying to escape to the West. He’s now set up his production house and standing exhibition in an old factory in Guben, a town now shared but previously divided with Poland and straddling the Neisse river.

Above there’s a picture of a stripped-and-flayed Bodyworlds-style human chatting on his (very definitely his, see his crotch, exposed in very great detail) mobile phone.

And the other photo is of the very undramatic border between Germany and Poland, open for pedestrians just to amble across, with both countries fellow members of the European Union.

I haven’t had to show a passport once on this journey of now 2800 miles so far through Europe east and west. Nations different, but members of the same family. And getting on better, probably, than they’ve ever done in their long and bloody history.

British sceptics about the EU should be sent on a trip like this. Not necessarily by bicycle and taking three months. But come and seriously LOOK at and get to know this New Europe.

For all its many problems, idiosyncracies and idiocies, this is a continent transformed for the better in ways our grandparents who fought the last two wars couldn’t even have dreamed of.

So, my old home Berlin tomorrow and then heading west. Like a horse approaching his stable, I have the smell of home in my nostrils. Perhaps that explains the 2 x 100 miles.

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The Older and Nicer Line

YES YES YES…. 100 miles (and a bit more) in one day. Picture above of the bike computer to prove it (and honest, I didn't just let the counter run over from yesterday.)

My friend Clive had challenged me to the ton, so with a rip-roaring tail wind, flat flat flat western Polish countryside and an early start from my Wroclaw youth hostel this morning, it was a doddle.

The real challenge of course is being able to do a daily one hundred regularly, whatever the weather and terrain. But I'm afraid those days have gone for me, and I'll probably now settle back into my usual daily quota of 70/80 miles (not bad, really) as I trundle on to and beyond Berlin, expecting to get there now on Saturday.

I hadn't thought I'd make 100 today, in fact, as I found myself enforcedly idling for rather too long as I waited for a VERY leisurely ferry across the Odra (Oder in German) river west of Wroclaw.

The picture above is of the one I just missed, reaching the other side of the river. Where it stayed for nearly an hour as cars piled up on each bank and the boatmen fished (literally) and drank coffee.

But it was good to sit quietly, contemplate what this journey has meant for me (perhaps a later blog when it's all settled a bit further) and watch the house martins wheeling, chattering and playing low over the very fast-flowing river, the occasional stork circling overhead, a cuckoo calling in the woods… There's still a lot of unspoilt nature in Poland.

Just as there's a lot of history. Set in huge forests and copious wetland, the small towns I travelled through today were solidly German until 1945, and many were destroyed as the Red Army fought its way through here to Berlin.

Glogow, Glogau in German, is one of them, still partly in ruins but now being reconstructed. Those are the town hall spires in the background with what I think is an 1950s vintage Soviet-built MIG-15 of the Polish airforce on the right.

I suppose putting rusty old fighters on display in this way was once a politically useful alternative to melting them down, though it's strange the post-Commmunist Poles want to keep this eyesore.

Re history, tonight with my tent I'm being hosted by a Polish family who were among tens of thousands of Poles forcibly resettled here from Ukraine at the end of the War, to take the place of the banished Germans.

And the reference in the title today to Older and Nicer?

Not just what I'm going to be when I get home, but a charming misspelling/misunderstanding by one BBC listener writing in some years ago to comment on Germany's Cold War debate whether it should recognise as final the country's Eastern borders laid down at the end of the war.

They run, between Poland and then East Germany, along the Oder (Odra in Polish) and Neisse rivers. A border known in the jargon of the day as the Oder-Neisse line. Older and Nicer. We did laugh when that one came in.

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Germany and its complex past

Replete in Wroclaw/Breslau with an awesome meal of ribs and Silesian cheesecake, it's Germany's and Poland's complex and bloody history which loom large today.

Last night's conversations with my formerly German hosts (mother Helena and daughter Monika in the delayed photo above, outside the impressive tourist barn the family has rebuilt with its own hands) have left a deep impression.

A Polish citizen since 1945, when Silesia was split off from defeated Germany and handed to Poland, Granddad at the farm had served with the German army during the War, ending it in with the Brits – for whom had had nothing but praise – in North African POW captivity.

He sees himself also as German, and is a good deal more uncomfortable than I, to put it mildly, with the way Germany's nose is still being rubbed in its past by the way Auschwitz and so much else is remembered.

Among the great unremembered and un-tourist-visited war crimes I could have mentioned in yesterday's blog about Auschwitz was the rape of some two million German women by Red Army soldiers at the end of World War Two.

Or the ethnic cleansing, perhaps understandable at the time but in today's law a war crime, of millions of largely innocent German civilians from their ancestral homes in old Prussia, Bohemia, Moravia, and many other parts of central Europe.

The Nazis were guilty of the most appalling crimes. But history's double standards, the justice of victors, just scream at you at every turn in this part of the world.

OK, I love Germany and the Germans, so I'm biased. But thinking psycho(l)otherapy, the way Germany is still in many ways denied the right truly to grieve its 20th century trauma is wrong.

It was good, therefore, to visit a German war cemetery today just outside Wroclaw, at Gross-Nädlitz/Nadolice Wieklie, one of the very few memorials in Europe where German losses are commemorated.

By 1998, the remains of some 10,000 German war dead, from nearly half a million who perished in World War Two in what's now Poland, had been transferred here. Of the 400,000 German soldiers who died in these territories in World War One, only a few thousand have even been identified.

Compare that with the love and care that go, rightly, into Britain's Commonwealth war cemeteries.

Those Germans whose deaths are marked bythe crosses and granite tombstones in the picture above were also beloved sons, daughters, brothers, fathers, sisters….

For me, making this journey, and knowing also from the inside how Germany has suffered, underlines how important it is that one day, Germans can find and are given space truly, at last, to grieve.

Which is why it is good to know that in one way at least, the German past here is shortly to be acknowledged more explicitly.

Where for 60 years Poland tried to rub out Silesia's once German identity, initially forbidding even the speaking of German here, EU membership is requiring a more relaxed attitude, and towns and villages are due soon to be signposted in both languages.

Which brings me, at last, to today's final picture. Also marking death, this time of two young men who drove their car into a tree on one of Silesia's beautiful, narrow, tree-lined road avenues.

The Poles have not torn down their trees in the way it's been done in Western Europe, to save lives. The result is a landscape and a cycle journey of great beauty. But the roadside shrines, many many of them, are a reminder how many young men continue to die not in war, but on the roads.

So onwards from Wroclaw, but also Breslau, towards Germany tomorrow.

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Do you believe in blogs – from Polish Schlesien

All those who believe in this blog, clap your hands.
….

Hmm, can’t hear you.

ALL THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN THIS BLOG, CLAP YOUR HANDS!
…..

Ah. Did I hear the sound of at least one hand clapping? If so, the meditative part of this journey must be working. (Obscure Buddhist reference…)

It’s good to be seriously on the road and seriously, sort of, blogging again. And I hope there are at least of a couple of folk out there reading these musings…. I know Hugs is, which is great.

Today, I was going for the 100 miles-in-one-day from north of Katowice west towards Wroclaw, nice and flat, very lush and green though a bit boring, when at a pretty respectable 85 miles I chanced upon a brand new Agro-Tourist family who’ve together just rebuilt their family barn into B&B rooms and holiday flats.

Family Brzozka, email brzozka,m@wp.pl, in Chocianowice. Highly to be recommended. So I have happily stopped for Polish sausage and beer, a good wash, stimulating conversation in German (for this is former German territory and the Brzozkas are proudly Teutonic) and a perfect pitch for my tent. Picture tomorrow.

Today’s pic in contrast is of last night’s tent stop, generously hosted by Alina and Slawek in Wojkowice, with very full breakfast (yes, sausages) thrown in for free… As illustrated. As I said in an earlier blog, people are, on the whole and everywhere, just great, and thanks to them both.

The wonderful thing about cycling like this – with what the Poles delightfully call a Rover, their word for bike (so much easier than Kerekpar in Hungarian) – is just trusting that miracles will happen. And they do, every night, with the most warming encounters, and always somewhere safe and welcoming to stay. Probably helps that I’m travelling alone

Rode today through Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland’s main pilgrimage site and famously, repeatedly, visited by Pope Jan Pawel Drugy, aka John Paul 2.

And boy, are Popes and Poles Catholic. The chapel of the Black Madonna in the picture above was heaving with young First Commumicands and their familes, as indeed every church in Poland, many of them vast, seems to heave as I pass with worshippers all day, every day. Communism never had the slightest chance here.

And finally – rather too many long boring main roads, as in the background to the final picture. But the foreground illustrates what happens to Brooks saddles when they’re been seriously worn in, as Raven’s now has.

Soft, supple, much richer and deeper colour. And comfortable as anything, perfectly shaped for this one cyclist’s bum. Compare and contrast if you’re curious with pictures in the archives at the bottom of this blog (appropriate place…)

Nothing like 2500 miles/3500 kms of gentle, sweaty massage to break the leather in. A saddle for a lifetime.

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Auschwitz and Kraków

Seventy-four miles today from Krakow to unlovely and industrial Katowice in southern Poland via Auschwitz, which bothered me.

Tourists in their hordes, and history presented in blacks and whites. Very bad Nazis and very good everyone else. Including (for much of the museum text dates back still to Communist days in Poland) good Soviets, good Yugoslavs, good Poles who all tried to help the Jews.

But evil isn't an exclusively Nazi German preserve. Where are the massed tour groups being taken through memorials to the extermination of American Indians, to the victims of the wars in former Yugoslavia, to the victims of the Gulag in Stalin's Russia, to South American tribes wiped out by the Spanish, to Muslims murdered by Christian crusaders.

Yes, the Holocaust was terrible, in nature and in scale. But how history is presented at Auschwitz – see the famous Arbeit Macht Frei slogan over the gate – left me incorrectly uncomfortable.

One refreshing aspect, though, was a statement from the Austrian Consulate in the part of the exhibition dedicated to the Annexation of 1938 pointing out that Austria no longer sees itself simply as Hitler's First Victim, but recognises its own complicity, and is working on changing the exhibit.

Krakow, just 40 miles away, is of course a total contrast and an amazing architectural gem. Also teeming with tourists, so the view above looking up at Wawel Castle – seat of Polish Nationhood and royalty through the centuries – was taken with a view to excluding them…

And my special joy today? Not only does Raven have a tough, two-legged new stand from Hungary. We now have a Polish mirror, panoramic, so I can see when I'm about to be run down from behind by a 40-tonne road train.

Seems to be working – and rather more reliable than my previous protection system.

Intuition.

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These Languages…

Now well on the way towards Krakow, having crossed tiny but tall Slovakia in two days.

Where, in the shadow of the High Tatra mountains – rising as suddenly out of the land as Scotland's Cuilins seem to do from the sea in Skye – special thanks to Milan and Melania Oravec for their exceptional welcome.

They're the couple standing in front of their guest house in Nova Lesna – both in their mid-70s, multi-lingual, and needing to keep doing this work to supplement their very meagre pensions.

They take mainly Polish, Czech and Russian tourists, skiers and walkers, though I hope they're less generous to them than they were to me.

Despite a full evening meal and B&B, stimulating conversation in Russian as we watched ManU beat Chelsea in Moscow, and rather too much Slivovitz and beer, Milan refused to accept any payment at all, saying he'd learned a lot too and had enjoyed the company.

I have to say that Milan and Melania somewhat redeemed the Slovak experience for me. This is not a country that feels comfortable with itself, and on the whole I felt a good deal less naturally welcome here than in either Hungary or now Poland.

Where, as another of the pictures illustrates, the churches (this one in the stunnningly beautiful Beskid mountains at Kroscienko) are BIG.

Poland nearly 20 years after the end of Communism feels much wealthier and at ease with itself than Slovakia – roads, houses, conversations, pride in appearances – and I guess that also has to do with the two countries' very different and long histories.

Slovakia gained faltering nationhood really only in the late 19th century, where the Poles have been at nation-building for a millenium.

The Poles stood up to their various conquerors. The Slovaks, on the whole, were subservient, nursing resentment towards
Hungarians under the Habsburgs, then, after the First World War, Czechs, then after 1948 Czechs-and-Russians. And now perhaps the EU?

Stuff for a much longer treatise or radio programme…

Two other thoughts as I try to get my head round Polish again, 25 years after trying to learn it during the Solidarity days.

One is the power of nature and, yes, of climate change. The other picture above is of devastated former pine forests on the south slopes of the High Tatras, destroyed in 10 minutes in 2004 by a masively powerful storm.

It's a disaster most of us in the West, I think, missed. But it's changed the face of the Tatras for several decades, and the locals are still in mourning. Shape of things to come.

And the final thought – Heavens, it's hard switching languages.

This part of the world has more languages per square metre than anywhere else in Europe – Hungarian, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, German, Croatian, Roma, Russian, Serbian, and several shades between.

Trying to say even thankyou in the right one is like reaching in the dark into a box full of odd socks and trying to pull out a pair. You think you've got hold of a red one, and it comes out blue. Djakujem piekne instead of dziekuje bardzo , or even worse, koszonom.

Still, just a week or so more and I'll be back on linguistically much safer territory as I head for Berlin and German. But I'll miss the variety and the colour of the New Europe.

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Into Slovakia

My mobile evidently didn't like Northern Hungary. But it feels entirely happy and reconnected in Slovakia. So, the blog resumes.

I wanted to put up a photo of shop-owner and -keeper Zoltan at an awesome bikeshop near Salgotarjan near the Slovak border (yes, bicycle in Hungarian is Kerekpar, nothing you can get a handle on) who fitted Raven up yesterday with the same robust two-legged bike stand which Hungarian postmen- and -women use.

And it works, even with heavy loads. As you can also see in the photo of the derelict former pass-top restauarant and B&B in another of the photos above – an illustration of how parts of the Slovak economy have simply fallen apart since the end of Communism and accession to the EU.

Slovakia, a bit like the Czech Republic, is a sad country. Communism knocked the stuffing out of the place, and as I bike through what are stunningly pretty landscapes, with pristine forests, beautiful views and lovely people, it's as if the old order had actually set about destroying or at least maiming anything beautiful.

So far to go to heal the wounds of 50 years, spiritual and physical. I hope the Slovaks get there before global warming does. But, at least the Czechoslovak secret police aren't following me, as they did ostentatiously, and I have to admit to my intense anger, when I last travelled these parts by car as BBC Vienna correspondent in 1984.

Then, I ended up confronting the goons, three strapping young men in their invalid-signed Skoda, yelling at them in Russian that they were a disgrace to their country and should get the f*** off my tail.

They did – or at least, continued much more discreetly. For some reason, fear perhaps, it's a story I never wrote for the BBC.

Being mobile-less for 48 hours has been a blessing, allowing time to read the most sobering but also inspiring of new novels, The Road by Cormac McCarthy. About a post-apocalypse world of brutality, loneliness but also love and redemption. Thanks Nick in Budapest for the loan – you were right, it's a breathtaking book.

And it reminds me of the issues with which I need to reengage when I'm back. End of June or so, in case you were wondering.

So, the journey continues. Amazing views, including of clouds boiling today over the High Tatras behind a field of sharply-scented rape. And a winding mountain road in the pilgrimage centre of Levoca glistening in the sun.

Tomorrow, Poland. And some serious climbing in the process. Rule two of cycling, hills slow you down. 70 miles today, over what the locals call Slovak Paradise, and 2000 metres or so of height climbed. Average speed therefore of only 8.2mph, requiring eight-and-a-half hours in the saddle, longest yet.

But, what a day. And it only rained a bit. And that's rule one. Cycling rocks.

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