Cycling from England to Poland
By now it was pitch black and ‘officially’ our ferry was 10 minutes away from leaving. As I pressed down hard on the pedals, gritting my teeth on the busy roads, I knew those first few miles were not going to be the hardest. However, if I wanted to find out what it was like to cycle through Europe I needed to make it to that ferry…which was leaving soon. It was departing from Newhaven and was bound for Dieppe.
The journey to Newhaven
Leaving late in the day was not a good way to start the trip, having done a few similar journeys before I should have remembered that the 64 miles from home to the ferry wasn’t going to be a quick affair. We also needed to find time to retrieve the other half of my tent it seemed reasonably important as we would be camping for the next two and a half weeks.
At the start of previous rides and walks, doubt is always at the forefront of my mind as several things can go wrong: mechanical failure for example can put a premature end to a trip as easily as any injury. This time I didn’t have the pre-cycle tour stress, where usually I had to pack and make sure everything was ready in advance, but unforeseen events meant I had no such preparation. The last few weeks at work had been long, I didn’t have any time to pack and check over the bikes until the night before.
After successfully locating the tent or rather the other half, we were 9 miles out of Newhaven and running low on time. We should have been at the ferry 45 minutes before it departed; we managed 10 minutes before the gates closed. There was a Frenchman at the ferry desk, albeit nearly packed away. He took our passports and checked them with a hint of annoyance on his face. At this point, we were feeling a little nervous. We looked at him trying to judge his character. Was he a man who was happy to help or angry we had turned up so late?
He called up the ferry to get the okay for these (us) late arrivals to board. He smiled at us, gave back our passports, and told us our journey was Okay. We raced down toward the ferry with an immense feeling of relief, I thought we had no chance at all, only the strength in our legs and the hope in our hearts. We were lucky on both accounts, our bikes rolled onto the ferry. We made it! The trip was on and we were in the right place to start it.
After we finished lashing our bikes to the ferry, we headed upstairs for some food. The ride was a plan I had for a while and when I spoke to my brother Paul, he too had the same yearning for adventure. Back on the boat, sitting on opposite sides of a table in the canteen, I was happy, but Paul wasn’t, we had pushed too hard too early and made life very hard for ourselves. He had none of the willpower a seasoned rider has, not to his detriment but he lacked the experience having never peddled up endless hills or cycling endless straits, but that was soon to change.
For me, this was the first high of many that we would come to experience. There was also a smattering of relief, that when the ferry left so too did we, and in the same direction. After gazing at the sea for some time, my thoughts turned slowly to the next 17 days of cycling and our end goal: Poznan in Poland. Our route would take us through northern France, Belgium, the south of the Netherlands, and from one side of Germany to the other via Berlin. This would then be followed by a short (ha!)100 miles of cycling to our finish point in Poznan.
Arriving In France
Arriving in France in the dark, tired and without sleep, the thought of stopping and camping early was very attractive. But while we yawned the bikes yearned to be ridden, plus there would be no campsites open at 5 am, at least no reputable ones. We didn’t have a map for the first part out of Dieppe, so we did the most logical thing and followed the road signs in the direction of where our map stated Les Treport was. It would be our first destination. The riding on the first day was relatively easy on large quiet flat roads, the weather looked threatening but it seemed to be just that, with a few light showers. Those first few days and miles, the weight of the bike dominated my thoughts. The bike felt so heavy and cumbersome, less a tool and more a burden, as it took some getting used to.
Cycling along the north of France was fairly uneventful. I was looking forward to small French villages and quaint little bakeries, imprinted on my mind from picture postcard propaganda, but unfortunately, few were open. Of the few that were open, we raided and stocked up on baguettes and pastries. I assumed the smaller village bakeries had closed due to the tough economic climate, but now was not the time for fiscal discourse; we had an exploit to resume. We continued to push on, our first real navigational challenge was to pass north above Lille through a tangle of roads. It was intimidating given that we had only two peddles and a speed of 12 mph. It was successful and we left Fruges on day four hoping to cross the border into Belgium.
Belgium was significant because it marked the point where we would turn east and start to make real progress. With the small amount of research we managed to do before the trip, we knew the cycle paths and sign posting would be good in Belgium. We crossed the border into Belgium and while this was momentous for us, it was simply marked by a small blue sign next to a petrol station. I pulled out my camera and took a quick picture as we coasted into country number two on our journey.
Crossing into Belgium
Belgium is a beautiful country and perfect for cyclists. Cycling is embedded in their culture and the villages and cities are set up well to enjoy them on two wheels. We started our Belgium experience by arriving in the beautiful medieval town of Ypres (Leper). In Ypres we were greeted by a spectacular building called the cloth hall which dominates the centre the settlement. The cloth hall, was the largest commercial building in the world during the middle ages and was used as a market place and storage facility. We arrived late and had to find somewhere to stay. The centre was alive with the thrum of people relaxing, drinking coffee, beer and eating dinner. It was a superbly atmospheric town centre with so much life! I rolled my bike over to a bench and picked up a Wi-Fi signal. We found a lovely campsite just outside the centre and it was only 15 minutes way. As we left the town centre, making our way to the campsite, we were greeted by the Menin and the end of the “Last Post”. This ceremony has happened continuously since 1928, the gate house serving as reminder of all those soldiers from the British empire who went missing in action or died. Passing through the gate took some time because it was busy, but also you cannot help but stop and look at the vastness of the gate. The names which are so clearly inscribed from floor to ceiling bring home the scale and sheer waste of life lost through war. We cycled a few minutes more and arrived at the Campsite Jeugdstadion where we spent a comfortable night sleeping.
We continued on our north easterly heading, cycling towards Ghent. As with most cities, I wanted to avoid them. I’m not agoraphobic, it’s just getting in and out of cities is always time consuming on a bike. Although the cycle paths in Belgium were good, it’s necessary to buy a guide so you can pick the right signs to take you to your destination. We of course didn’t have one of these. That morning we woke up, we were told by several locals that Ghent must not be missed. So we spent a few hours cycling around in circles following signs toward Ghent but not actually making too much progress. The day was slipping away from us so I decided to ask a man who was cycling by for directions. The man, who was smartly dressed, was exceptionally friendly. I asked him if he could direct us to the centre of Ghent; on asking him for direction it turned out that he was going right into the centre as he worked for the university. We followed him eagerly as and took several turns winding our way through the outskirts of Ghent. It was great to move so fast and not worry about directions, arriving in the thick of it. Ghent is not a massive city like London or Paris but none the less it was hectic; tram lines criss-crossing the streets everywhere and cyclists coming from all directions. I was worried that I was going to end up getting squashed by a silent tram or at best get my wheel stuck in one of the tracks. This thankfully didn’t happen and we made it to the very historical centre. It had a laid back relaxed feel, tranquility of a bygone age plus it was away from the cars and traffic. There were people conversing in coffee shops taking time out to read, relaxing and taking pictures of the majestic buildings which line the banks of the river. A well overdue rest was needed so we stopped and had lunch. I found Ghent to be enchanting and would quite happily have stayed longer, but time was our enemy and we needed to exit the other side as soon as we could.
Picking up a map from the tourist information, the route was simple as usual, we found the exit from the city with ease. I was sad to
leave Ghent so soon. We made good progress and finished the day in a small place called Waasmunster, where we found somewhere to camp for the night. It was a relatively short day cycling but we made up for it the next day. The following day was a long cycle trek south below Antwerp for 84 miles and then to where we finished up in Lichtaart. The following day was reasonably important as we crossed the Dutch border. It was always a landmark moment crossing a boarder, it was a signifier of progress.
We felt good, having already traveled so far, but found it difficult to navigate our way out of Weert. After a very short day of cycling, only 54 miles, we camped early decided to give our clothes a long overdue clean. I also needed to spend some time checking the maps as on a couple of occasions in Belgium we had ended up taking a rather unnecessary but scenic route. We stayed at a very nice, quiet campsite just out of the city. It was perfect with a big barn and some large tables. I took the maps out and laid them next to each other. This was the first time we gained true perspective on the scale of our trip. It served to worry us but also motivate us. The previous two days we hadn’t really covered the distance we had hoped. Partly due to lack of fitness and a couple of navigational errors, it was disheartening. That morning we woke up early, feeling as fresh as you can after several days of cycling in your legs. We cycled through a very narrow part of Holland and that day we not only crossed the German border (hurrah!) but we also crossed a psychological barrier. Germany was important, Germany was big and we knew this would be the decider of making it all the way or running out of days.
Entering Germany by a back road
Germany was a new challenge but we crossed into it via a fairly small back road. We hadn’t noticing any signs as we traversed the border: this was to be a very big day on the bike as we clocked up 112 miles finally ending up in Grob Reken. We finished late and the distance was exhausting and when rain started to come down we took our separate jobs. I started to cook as Paul set up the tent. After the meal, I had some spare time to go and have a shower while Paul fell asleep. Having a shower after sitting on a small saddle for 10 hours straight, is an amazing feeling. Washing off the sweat and mud from the day is invigorating. I always find that I can run through the day’s events in my head, normally I have a feeling satisfaction as I stretch out my tired legs as the warm water drops down. That day I felt very proud of our achievement. Clocking up over 100 miles in one day is a massive effort especially with a loaded touring bike.
Day 10 was primed for a long day but as events transpired we ended up camping early near Warendorf, a well-preserved medieval town. Cycling a bit further on we found a lovely campsite manned by a Brit, no doubt with storerooms crammed full of tea and biscuits. We were shattered from yesterday and had no energy to push further on. We weren’t actually looking for this campsite but the thought of spending any more time searching for the place we were looking for didn’t inspire either of us.
The next day we were in fairly good spirits and our main focus of the day was getting through Hanover. It’s a large city. It was busy and it took quite a while for us to navigate through the urban sprawl. We didn’t have much time to stop and look around. On first impression it was plain old grey but as we ventured further into the city, it became brighter with new developments. We glanced at Hanover town hall with its impressive architecture; it was just a flying visit though…or rather cycling.
Our night in Zichtau was unusual for a couple of reasons, the first being we never intended to stay there, the second was some amazing kindness from a German man we met. With our plans to travel on gradually fading with the daylight, we became rather desperate to find somewhere to sleep. The unexpected happened, as we had been told we couldn’t follow a cycle path which ran parallel to a dual carriage way though this information later turned out to be incorrect. We started to cycle madly looking for a way to continue on, but actually we stopped being productive as tiredness set in. For some reason that evening we felt a bit hopeless. We doped?? down from our high vantage point above the main town. Once we arrived I decided to stop the first person who happened to be cycling by. He confirmed to us that there was no cycle path, so I asked him about local camping. Here we were lucky, he was cycling to his village not too far from here and while it was out of our way, this man offered to cycle with us to a campsite nearby his village. It was a lovely ride through the rolling hills as the light faded away.
Arriving at the camp where we were to stay, we were greeted by a school-like building and a very friendly women who helped us get settled into Ferien park.
The flooding in Germany
As usual we were lucky finding this man and in turn this campsite turned out to be our saviour and we didn’t even know it yet. The direction we thought we would go had been badly affected by flooding of the Elbe and thus we wouldn’t be able to continue in the direction we thought. The lady we met the night before had arranged a meeting the following day with a local man who knew the river crossings well. With a map and 3 of us checking crossing routes we narrowed down our options to two and really only one was manageable for us. We would need to cycle north to the Sandau ferry, this was one of the crossings still working. It was a detour, way off route but if we wanted to continue and make it to Poznan we would have to cycle hard and absorb those extra miles.
For me there was no real deadline to get back home or get to Poznan as I had finished my job and planned to stay in Poznan, however, my brother needed to get there for a flight booked on the 2nd of July. It was a shame as I would have liked to spend a few more days relaxing rather than racing through the countryside. In those few days when we found out about the flooding, I had thought for the first time we might need to get a train some of the way. I was against this for the simple reason I like to get from the start to the finish under my own power and not by using public transport. I would have felt I had cheated and the journey would have lacked some kind of purity. It may well be the wrong way to look at it but it’s one of my particular peculiarities I can’t change.
Waking up we didn’t know how far we would make it or where we would end up. The main aim was to reach the ferry then try and head in a south easterly direction towards Berlin. The ferry turned out to be not too difficult to get to. Arriving, we didn’t have to wait long for a ferry. Getting to the ferry gave us our first real view of the flooding; the river was quite clearly swollen, the water lapping over the farmland. There were sandbanks piled up around the road. It looked to me that the water level had in fact been much higher and now they were dealing more with the aftermath of the flooding rather than the actual flooding itself .
It wasn’t long before we reached the other side. We realised when we arrived on the far bank that this little set back was not going to be the end of our navigational issues. The route we roughly planned the night before was not an option. We spoke to a few locals and they told us basically there was no chance to get anywhere, the flooding was too bad. We had to try and continue on as we had no other choice. I kept on asking and we kept on finding routes and small detours we could take. As we continued with our piecemeal route, we were directed right through some of the most badly affected areas. I was shocked at the smell and devastation. There were washing machines and all manner of personal belonging stranded outside their owners flooded houses. It was like a war zone not a prosperous European country. As our eyes were taking in the visual devastation our noses were experiencing an overload of nasal stimuli. The mixture of stagnant water and sewage mixed with whatever else had been lying in it for weeks was not nice. We peddled fast following the diversion signs, passing collapsed road and paths. The foundations were clearly washed away by the force of the water. The diversion took us up high, away from the water and into a tightly packed forest with some kind of military signs dotted around. The road wound through the forest for some time. We both cycled separately for several miles, the forest had an eerie feel about it we knew a campsite would be coming up soon. Coming to the end of the forested road, we arrived at a campsite in Steckelsdorf next to a lake. We were both tired from that days cycling. We had moved fast through the flooded areas, it wasn’t the kind of place you wanted to spend more time that you had to. There was some relief at stopping for the day although, when the rain started to come down, we were a little disappointed. We showered, washed the grime from our bodies and then warmed up our usual evening meal of rehydrated pasta. I had spent a few hours planning our route through Poland, by using my phone to take pictures of a road atlas we had managed to borrow. I thought this would be enough as there were only a few roads in Poland which we would be cycling on. If I could save some money not buying another map, I would. It was about this point that Paul thought we had too many miles to do and not enough days. I hoped with a good night’s sleep in him, he would be more motivated in the morning.
The path to Berlin
We woke up early and were ready to go, we both knew that to have any chance of completing this trip we had to make today count. It needed to be a big day with a lot of miles, we had to make it to Berlin to have any chance of arriving in Poznan on time. 92 miles later, feeling tired but happy, we arrived late in Berlin. The approach to Berlin seemed to take an age. We thought once we were at the outskirts of the city it would be sign posted to the centre. The only problem was the signs we followed just disappeared, leaving us scratching our heads for a few hours as we tried every conceivable way to find our route. Eventually, after asking directions and stocking up on a couple of McDonald’s burgers, we knew where we were going, it was probably the only way we hadn’t tried earlier. It meant we were going to get to the centre of Berlin late. Arriving in any big city has its difficulties, but there is an allure to rolling into a big city as the sun sets and the lights of the city start to come on: the night life starts to take hold. I had contacted a few friends but for one reason or another we couldn’t arrange a place to stay. I phoned up a few cheap hostels and we located one not too far away from where we arrived. It was to be our first night in a bed for 15 days, I didn’t even care that we were sharing a room with 4 other guys all snoring or playing with their phones into the early hours of the morning. The bed felt so comfortable, like it was actually eating me, it moulded round me so perfectly that all the aches and pains of the day seemed to slide away. It was a little strange to be among so many people as I had become used to it just being the two of us. Before going to bed, we went for a late night walk and picked up a couple of pizzas which we would cook back at the hostel. It gave us some well needed energy and some relief from the pasta.
The next day came with a sense of renewed confidence; we were on schedule to make it on time. Berlin was a mark; an important place to reach and for me it signified the end of Germany and the start of a new country. These thoughts were a little premature as Berlin doesn’t just sit on the Polish border; realistically it would still be another one and a half days of cycling before we left Germany. Of course we couldn’t leave Berlin without taking in a few of the historic sites. The Berlin wall and a few important parts of the city including the Reichstag, Brandenburg gate, The Holocaust Memorial and the Berlin Cathedral were all places we had time to stop off and have a look at, not to mention following the pink pipes for street after street. These were flying visits and we were only enjoying the city as we passed through. Following the pink pipes, main roads and narrow streets Berlin comes across as a bustling city and I wish we had more time to explore it. Berlin is quite a good city to cycle in and we were on the outskirts in no time, following woodland cycle paths away from the big city in a south easterly direction.
We hadn’t planned for any particular places to camp or stay on our route, which has its benefits and drawbacks. From a personal point of view, I like this way because it gives you more flexibility and the route doesn’t need to be so well planned plus there is more of a sense of freedom. It can cause problems though, as the night closes in and there is little in the way of places to stay. That night we were in luck, we had spent a fair amount of time following cycle paths through woodland until it was late, we were in an area where we expected to see a campsite which was in the Kersdorfer area. We did find the campsite, however it wasn’t officially open and a football team had taken it over, renting it for the weekend. There was a German couple also cycling, with their new-born child. They said the football team had told them it would be okay to stay. We checked and they were exceptionally friendly, even going so far as to bring food over to us. German sausages were just what we needed. Berlin felt a long time ago and we hadn’t eaten much. It’s moments like that, which you really appreciate. They wanted us to party but all we wanted to do was to sleep. As the rain came down hard we put the tent up, fast. By now we were very efficient at this. As the time pressure was once again on, we had another early start and needed to cross into Poland the next day without fail.
I love cycling through forests after it has been raining and first thing in the morning, the smells seem stronger than at any other time of the day. It feels like the earth has just washed itself of all human pollution. The cycling was fairly easy and we reached the border by early afternoon. We were both feeling strong and motivated, I knew once we made it over the border we would be following some bigger straighter roads. The distance we would cover would be greater than any other time in our trip. The map we had for reference was the photo I had taken a few days earlier of a road atlas in Germany. I hoped this would be adequate for our navigation purposes. We crossed into Poland via Frankfurt an red Doer. I had been to Poland many times before but always by plane. This was a new feeling and some new emotion overcame me, passing into Poland felt different from any other border crossing we had done so far. Europe on the whole is seamless, you can cross between countries with so much ease that you wouldn’t know it unless there was a big blue sign telling you you’re in a new country. That isn’t to say the cultural differences are not distinct, they are. But the border to Poland really felt like we were stepping into a new country, it was exciting. We changed some Euro’s and pounds into zloty to fund the next two days of cycling.
Final destination Poland
We had travelled as much as we could by cycle paths in Europe. Europe has a great network, Poland wasn’t quite there yet and I felt like we had to battle with the traffic and the roads. The roads I chose were small but the weight of traffic was still substantial. I didn’t like that the drivers seemed to leave little room for error when they were overtaking us. This was combined with the divots and ruts on the side of the road which gave us little room to manoeuvre. We peddle hard and fast to get to a camp for the night. I had some crazy idea we could make it to Poznan but realistically we were empty. Our legs and our minds had little more to offer and we needed to stop 10 miles ago. We clocked up 103 miles before finding a small campsite near a river in Zbaszyn.
Camping in Poland
It was minimal, and perfect, exactly what we needed. We were greeted by a middle aged polish man with negligible English and we arranged a night’s accommodation for about 15zl which was £3. It wasn’t too expensive but when you consider what the shower was, a pipe standing next to the river; it seemed like a fair price. The man explained, or at least gestured at the facilities, and pointed towards a fire which was surrounded by a group of 4 men and some children. It turned out they were from the Czech Republic and had been enjoying a weeks of Kayaking. They were very friendly and invited us over to join them; they spoke good English and supplied us with some Czech beer and some good conversation. A moment you rarely experience, some great kindness and company with lovely surroundings. We were content sitting around the camp fire warm and drinking what felt like and truly was a celebratory beer. It didn’t feel like it could get any better.
The journey was almost finished. As we were relaxing and enjoying our new friends company, the Polish man who owned the site drove his car down to the fire and exchanged a few words with the Czech guys before walking over to us and handed us some sausages, bread and Polish mustard. It couldn’t be a better evening. This was awesome, I wasn’t looking forward to that part and any chance to avoid it I would jump at, something different was very welcome. I was surprised to learn he had driven into town to buy these goodies for us so we could fully enjoy the fire, it was a big gesture and it meant a lot to both of us. We didn’t try out the shower; we thought a hose pipe next to the river probably wasn’t hiding any luxurious secrets. The next day I woke, not too early, in a relaxed mood. I thought about how a few hours from now, we will have finished our cycle trip across Europe and last night was its symbolic end. We had a few more fast roads to contend with and another 50 miles until Poznan.
The last day rolling into Poznan
The cycling wasn’t important that day we were cruising to the finish. We finished the mileage by mid-afternoon and our biggest problem was finding our way into the city. It started to rain a little but nothing too bad. I had been to the city before but I just couldn’t place exactly where we were. We passed the airport but nothing seemed familiar even though I had been here 7 or 8 times in recent years. We arrived but it didn’t seem real, all those days of effort and now it was finished. There was the big green sign marketing Poznan city. I wasn’t just physically tired I was mentally tired. Some of those days really hurt I wondered how I could carry on. This was how I chose to spend my spare time though, because as tiring as this adventure was, it was also refreshing. The effort and focus have a way of cleansing your mind and body of any other worries. You start to prioritize the things that matter as important. Not to mention, as you travel through small towns and villages you see things and meet people that you could have missed if you were just travelling through by car. I was happy to finish and it put my adventurous spirit back in its box for a little while. After all I needed to recover from this adventure.