Originally Posted by Cameleer
Hi Schwer, if you are planning to continue your trip into CZ let us know and we'll sort you out with a place to stay and lots of free beer.
:-( already been through there... my blog is most far behind where I am... right now I'm in Nice with a bit over a week to go till I ship the bike back from London.
Does anyone know whether you can go on the Nurburgring with kevlar jeans... or if not whether you can hire leather pants somewhere? Just got that last box to tick :-).
Across the Iron Curtain, Part 1
What follows is my west then east then west then east route as I tried to scoop up all the cities I wanted to see in Eastern Europe. Writing this now I can’t for the life of me remember why seeing all of these was so important to me – I imagine I thought that getting an idea of Eastern Europe was really important (which it is) but I was to find that a lot of the cities are very similar from the point of view of a tourist. Generally there’ll be a castle, a few grand cathedrals, an art gallery or two and maybe a museum about Soviet and/or German oppression. In this post I’m going to skip through a bit because a lot of are pretty boring to talk about.
First stop was Warsaw, which I’d heard bagged by everyone. To be honest I thought it was quite nice, apart from being a city-wide construction site – finding my way to the hostel was an endless process of go down a street, find it blocked, go a different way, find that blocked, etc etc. Most of the city was destroyed during the Warsaw uprising towards the end of World War 2, but you’d never know it from how meticulously the old buildings have been reconstructed.
Some of the Zebra crossings look like piano keys too, which is fun
Keeping the pace up, after Warsaw it was a long and boring freeway ride to Berlin, which I didn’t want to miss. It’s a great city, but probably not worth diverting a whole trip for. About this time my enthusiasm for partying all night and zombie-walking around all day took a bit of a dive… I was just over it. I had one big night and then that was all I cared for. Most of the people who rave about Berlin, however, seem to be mainly talking about the night-life, which I didn’t experience a lot of. Walking around on a Saturday night was interesting though – the legal right to drink on the street combined with the massive number of kebab shops that sell cheap beer means that the streets are crowded with people drinking. Also got woken up at 3am by some random backpacker who proceeded to moon me then run away as he pulled his pants up. Good times.
The Czech Republic - beautiful from border to border
With my bank account freshly depleted from my brief excursion over to the other side of the Iron Curtain, I dived south into the Czech Republic. For someone who likes tanks and WW2 documentaries the Czechs are pretty fascinating – in their short years of complete independence between World War 1 and World War 2 they managed to build guns so good that they were used by the British for decades and tanks so good they were captured and re-used by the Germans, as well as a formidable defensive barrier… which the British persuaded them to give away to the Germans. Who then easily invaded and took all their tanks… allowing the British to copy as many of their guns as they liked. The Czechs have more to be proud of than just their skills at making killing machines though – they also have great beer, and it’s one of the few countries formerly of the Warsaw Pact that actually looks beautiful everywhere, rather than having a polished tourist zone surrounded by Soviet wasteland. Riding through the Czech Republic is a treat – in addition to having quite nice roads, the Bohemian countryside consists of beautiful green fields punctuated by picturesque villages… and even the ones you’ve never heard of look just a beautiful as the centre of Prague. You’d never even know about the decades of socialism were it not for the soviet tenement blocks that stick out of the landscape while looking totally divorced from it, like they accidentally fell from the back of some gigantic passing truck.
Unfortunately it never occured to me to take a photo of ugly apartment blocks
When I first became aware of Prague as a tourist destination (which was around the time the original XxX movie came out, remember that?) it seemed like some forgotten cultural paradise. The world has certainly remembered now – it was choked with tourists. The central square has so many people floating around on Segways selling tours that it resembles the opening scenes of Terminator. They come for a reason though, it’s a beautiful city, and the pub crawl gives away a free T-shirt that allowed me to clean my chain for the whole rest of the trip. It does fall into the classic eastern-european city problem described at the start though. More fun is Czesky Raj (which translates to Bohemian Paradise) – basically a beautiful green area covered with castles and weird skyscraper-shaped rock formations that form “rock towns”. Visiting a castle is much more fun when you have to hike up hill through a dense forest to find battlements rising up in the distance between the trees.
This is a rock town - not like Liverpool, the other kind of rock
Completing my silly loop, I went from the Czech Republic back to Poland to check out Krakow. Everyone I talk to raves about Krakow – I’ve got no idea why. It’s got a castle, and medieval walls, and a museum about German oppression, etc. etc. Not that that any of these are bad (the museum in particular is awesome) but I was a bit tired of it at this point. Krakow also marked where I stopped trying to be an exciting young backpacker who actually goes out and started just enjoying having a cup of tea and going to bed every night – through some miracle this whole time (nearly four months) I’d never really had a hangover while travelling, but a night of drinking mysterious vodka shots and terrible polish beer left me in bed until 4pm the next day, and at one point I’m pretty sure I was throwing up blood. Never. Again.
On the upside, there was a Daschund festival on in Krakow when I was there. Look at this one, he's wearing a hat but he's a dog. Dawww, what a silly little guy.
The inside of Krakow isn’t all that special, but the day trips outside are far more interesting – particularly, of course, Auschwitz-Birkenau. If you were ever 13 years old and in an all boys school you might have experienced someone lightly hitting you over and over in the same spot, eventually causing a massive bruise. That’s basically what visiting Auschwitz is like – it’s not like you get there right away and immediately have the wind knocked out of you. The Auschwitz (not Birkenau, which is separate) camp was originally for the Polish army, so it doesn’t actually have the feel of an evil place, it appears to just be a bunch of barracks. But then your guide starts leading you through the camp…
… here’s a street where they’d make the weak prisoners stand for 10 hours…
… here’s a bunch of small, layered platforms, upon each of which 10 women would have to sleep – the ones on the bottom would have to sleep on the frosted earth floor…
… here’s a gigantic chamber filled with heads of hair – all shaven from prisoners before they were executed so it could be used to make fabric…
… it’s all of these and much more presented without fanfare, but relentlessly – Auschwitz just keeps hitting you over and over with examples of the depth of human cruelty until by the time you walk out of Birkenau you’ve got a thousand yard stare and you never want to speak to another human being again.
Just a pile of cans... except that they contained Zyklon B, and each individual one has killed god knows how many people
Conversely Birkenau, down the road from Auschwitz, hits you immediately – it’s a desolate place, stretching out to the horizon in every direction – hundreds of barely habitable wooden huts sitting in a freezing Polish swamp. Birkenau, as opposed to Auschwitz, was constructed specifically to enslave those that could work and kill everyone else, and somehow it just shows through in the way its laid out. One of the most powerful things about it is that the railway platform in the middle is so recognisable – every time you’ve seen any kind of Holocaust memorial you’ve seen a picture of this place – a line of defeated prisoners being coldly assessed by a doctor as smiling SS guards casually look on… and you realise that you’re standing right in that picture. It looks exactly the same.
The end of the line for many
Everyone who goes to Europe seems to go to Auschwitz these days, and I feared that I might be visiting some kind of Holocaust Disneyland full of smiling tourists and take nothing from the visit. This was far from the case – I’ve always noticed a popular perception of the Holocaust (which I unfortunately bought into as well) as being somehow clean and efficient – the same sort of spirit that underpins the design of a Volkswagen factory, applied to mass-murder. I never fully appreciated how cruel it was – so much suffering was inflicted just for the sake of inflicting suffering… there was very little clean or efficient about it.
Back on the bike and south into Slovakia, where I’d heard there was a nice little hostel in a tiny town in the mountains where I could go hiking. I was expecting a nice, quiet little place where I could lie in a hammock and read, but somehow I found an Australian-filled party hostel… seeing as I could still taste the blood in my mouth from Krakow, this wasn’t really where I wanted to be. I expected Slovakia to be similar to the Czech Republic, but it’s completely different – it was much closer to my most negative stereotype of Eastern Europe. Riding to the forest to go hiking I passed through little villages filled with peasants who’d stare at me as I rode past. I also found to my disappointment that the whole country seemed to be covered in a thick, China-esque layer of smog (maybe fog… not sure how to tell the difference) which meant that I could never see more than a few hundred metres.
Hiking is much quicker if you just ride half the route
In Slovakia I also came to the bike one morning to find that the steering bearings had somehow loosened and that my days of enjoying sharp, motard-like handling despite being weighed down with 18 tonnes of crap were over. Angrily, I came to the natural solution that this was the Republic of Slovakia’s fault and rode out of there quick as I could… back over the Iron Curtain again to Austria.
Which will have to wait for the next post because this one is quite long enough as it is.