Into the Baltics: Estonia

July 25-28, 2022

A quick update to finish up Finland before launching into Estonia:

We spent several days house-sitting in Espoo (pronounced Es-Bo), a suburb of Helsinki, while I did some maintenance on the bike and we caught up on paperwork at home. We had a great little Ragdoll kitten named Luna who was a lot of fun, and a nice apartment next to a new shopping mall, with an easy bus/train connection to downtown Helsinki for a day of sight-seeing.


Taking a break now and then to hang out with some great pets and relax in a nice home helps us recharge for more travel.


Our first stop in Helsinki was the Temppeliaukion Church. The church is built directly into solid rock, so it ends up being mostly below ground. This crowd (mostly cruise ship tourists) was waiting to enter the church when we arrived. Which immediately made it a place I didn’t want to go. If you’ve been following this blog for long, you’ll recall that I had a rule in my former round-the-world trip that if a town had a sushi bar, it was too big for me to visit. I’ve totally blown that rule multiple times already this year.


Next up was the Helsinki Cathedral, built in the mid-1800s as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.


The Cathedral overlooks Senate Square, which holds the statue of the Grand Duke of Finland, Alexander II.


And finally, the Uspenski Cathedral (I’m seeing a trend here…), the center of the Finnish Orthodox faith.

After saying goodbye to Luna, we caught the Viking ferry out of Helsinki for Tallinn, Estonia.


Sitting in line to board the ferry. You can see it in the background: it’s that cruise ship-sized thing.


Here’s the sister ship: yes, that’s a ferry, and yes, that’s a cruise ship. Cabins, disco, bars, restaurants, and a few decks of cars, trucks, buses and bikes.

On the ferry we met a couple from Lappeenranta, Finland on a BMW GS, who were headed into Latvia on a week-long trip. They gave us a couple of good suggestions on places to stay as we headed south. But first we had a couple of days planned in Tallinn.

In Tallinn we had booked an inexpensive apartment within a few minutes’ walk of Old Town. The apartment was the former art studio of Ado Lill, a well-known Estonian artist, and the studio — now AirBnB studio apartment — is now owned by his grandson. The walls had several of Lill’s later erotic works displayed, and more about him and his art in a couple of books sitting on a large pedestal which was still covered in paint droplets. The place has a very cool vibe to it.


This was kind of interesting: we stayed in Apartment 4…


Next door was Apartment 9. Or Apartment 3/1. Not sure.

We walked the short distance to Old Town, and took in the sights, sounds, and some food. It didn’t take long for me to really like Tallinn.


Tallinn has a nice, lively vibe to it, with lots of outdoor cafes and restaurants and a lot of history. And it’s a very clean place as well.


We aren’t vegans, or vegetarians, but the menu at this place just sounded too good not to try. And it was.


Beetroot ravioli with cashew cream cheese and basil pesto. I could’ve eaten a dozen of these.


After dinner we wandered around the corner to DM Baar. Opened in 1998, this place is a monument to the band Depeche Mode. They play only Depeche Mode music and videos full time. Pretty amazing: 24 years strong and still going, based on one band’s music. Not many (if any) places can say that.


We continued our walking tour the next morning, with (what else?) a visit to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn’s largest Orthodox cupola church.


We passed this little guy on his rounds. This is a robot delivery vehicle. It delivers food, goods, etc right to your door. Seen these in the US lately? We may be walking through thousand-year-old neighborhoods, but there’s nothing old about the tech here.


We passed the Russian Embassy, which was barricaded and had Ukraine flags and lots of anti-Russia and anti-Putin signage. The support for Ukraine and the disgust with Putin is more visible here than anywhere we have been so far, which is understandable, as a former Soviet Socialist Republic that shares a border with Russia. (Note: we’ve seen more of this sentiment since, and will share more in coming posts.)


This was one of the more direct comments, on a signboard in front of a restaurant in Old Town.


Not far from the Russian Embassy is the House of the Blackheads. This organization was founded the 14th century, and consisted of single merchants and ship owners.


And then we rounded the corner, and suddenly we were in Texas. It was more than a little weird to say the least. The Texas Cantina has been operating since 1998, and Herbert, the owner, loves all things Texas. He was just there in April, and goes about once a year. The story we were told was that he came to Texas to visit, and while at a dive bar/restaurant one day he decided that if it could work in Texas, Texas could work in Tallinn. And it has.


The menu is mostly TexMex, with some Dr Pepper and Tito’s Vodka thrown in. This was my burrito, with sauces in the colors of the Mexican flag.


It was really odd to see this “Devil’s Backbone” sign on the wall, as the Devil’s Backbone is literally right down the road from our house.


With Herbert, entrepreneur, independent film producer, musician, all-around cool guy, in his burnt orange Longhorns shirt.

Leaving Tallinn, we headed to the island of Saaremaa for a night of camping. Saaremaa is a large (1,000 square mile) island off the coast of Estonia. It’s also home to the Teesu Nature Reserve.


At the Teesu Nature Reserve, they’ve built three or four of these campsites on Tagalaht Bay. The sites are free and first-come, which wasn’t a problem, as there was only one site taken when we arrived. Each site has a covered table and a wood-burning grill. And a beautiful view from the shore looking out across the bay to the Baltic Sea.


The sites are spaced a good distance apart, allowing for peace and quiet.


There is one pit toilet, and it has features I’ve never seen before: for one, it has astro-turf. And second, it has a styrofoam toilet seat and lid. Doesn’t seem like it would be very durable, but it’s gotta be cheap. This one looked brand new. Then again, the entire place looked brand new. Amazingly nice for the price of free.

And before heading off to Latvia, I’ll leave you with this:


Do the owners of these VW mini-vans just tell people they drive Caddys? You can go from Soccer Mom to Socialite with the same vehicle…as long as nobody sees it.

Into the Baltics II: Latvia

July 28-30, 2022

As we prepared to leave Saaremaa, we knew we had to backtrack more than 60 miles to get off the island and head south again. Looking at the map, it was just a stone’s throw to Ventspils, Latvia from Kuressaare, Saaremaa, if only there was a ferry. I did some research, and it turns out that there used to be a ferry, but hadn’t been for some time. Looking at the map, there was a ferry between Ventspils and Sweden; Ventspils and Germany; and Ventspils and St Petersburg, Russia. But not Saaremaa. Diana even joked that we could end up getting on the wrong ferry and end up in St Petersburg.

So we rode the long way back and south to Riga, Latvia, and arrived at Two Wheels Hotel, one of the places the Finnish couple on the ferry from Helsinki had suggested.

Unfortunately the hotel was sold out, but as I continued to enquire, the woman at the front desk, who was happy to see people on a motorcycle arrive instead of the more recent car crowd (after all, the place is called Two Wheels Hotel), came up with an idea.

“Well”, she said, “there is a room. but it has no bed. It’s a common room for the guests upstairs, but you could sleep there. Of course you’ll have to use the toilets and shower in the downstairs hall. Follow me, I’ll show it to you.”

And she led us upstairs to the room.

“How much?”, I asked.

“Thirty euros?”

“We’ll take it”, I said. We would end up paying close to that to camp, and it was supposed to rain over the next day or two. Not having to pack up a wet tent was becoming worth a price to me. We had done it way too many times already this trip.

“Are you sure?” She seemed surprised that anyone would want a room with two small love seats, a table with three chairs, and no bed.

“Yes. We have our camping gear. We can sleep on the floor.”

She was so surprised and almost apologetic at our offer to sleep on the floor that she brought us pillows, sheets, blankets, towels, bottles of water, and more.

As she was delivering the towels, who should step out of the room across the hall but Matti and Heli, the couple from the ferry.


Planning our next moves with Matti and Heli from Finland. They were a great source of info for this part of the world.


We ended up in St Petersburg after all! The rooms are all named after places the owner has been. The owner of the hotel, Martins Sils, is a motorcycle traveler himself, and is also responsible for having designed the Latvian portions of the Trans Euro Trail or TET.


Pretty sure this was supposed to say “Staff Only”. Oh well, it was full of stuff. Close enough.


Two Wheels Hotel in Riga. Great place to meet like-minded people and just relax. Good food too.


As usual, we left our mark on the hotel (upper right corner of the door).

In the morning, Matti and Heli left on their BMW headed north toward Pärnu, and we caught the tram into Riga and walked the town.


St. Peter’s Church in Riga


Riga is a great town to just walk around and admire the architecture.


The House of the Blackheads in Riga. Impressive building.


This small tree marks the location of the first decorated Christmas tree in the world, decorated by the Blackheads and then set on fire. However, the claim is that it is the first “written record” of a decorated Christmas tree, in 1510. Tallinn, Estonia says that the Blackheads there erected a Christmas tree on Town Hall Square in 1441 (but it doesn’t say it was decorated with anything). Germany also claims that they started the tradition of a decorated Christmas tree inside homes in the 16th century. So, it seems a bit contested. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Blackheads were not only instrumental in pushing the idea of Christmas trees, but they were quite the party people as well. Some of their Christmas parties lasted for up to three weeks.


The Freedom Monument. This was built to honor the soldiers who died during the Latvian War of Independence in 1918-1920. Amazingly, it survived threats of Soviet demolition throughout the Soviet occupation and annexation, and continued to be a social inspiration for Latvians, who eventually again gained independence in 1990.


Beautiful park next to the Freedom Monument.


Albert Street. Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture of anywhere in the world.


In front of the library.


The Cat House. Note the tops of the two turrets.


The legend is that the owner of the building had the two angry cats with their tails raised placed atop the building with their back sides facing across the street at the Great Guild, in retribution for the tradesman group denying him entrance into the Guild. After a lawsuit was initiated, the cats were later turned facing the building.


The Town Musicians of Bremen, a statue based on the Grimm Brothers fairytale, and depicting a rooster standing atop a cat standing atop a dog standing atop a donkey.


I had no idea they had armadillos in Latvia, much less giant ones.

When we returned to the Two Wheels hotel, it had been “invaded” by about ten guys on sport bikes, all bearing Finland license plates, so they were obviously doing some long distance touring on these bikes, which is always impressive to me. Then I noticed a sticker on one of the bikes, with a picture of a Honda Gold Wing with a slash through it, and the slogan “No F*^!ing Touring”. I had to laugh. These guys were hardcore.

A bit later, I walked down to my bike and they were checking out the Texas license plate. We got to talking, and I told them they were my heroes for riding supersport bikes long distance. They thought we were their heroes for riding as far as we had. We had a great time swapping some stories, I handed out some of our 2RideTheGlobe stickers, and they put one of their NFT stickers on the Tenere’s panniers.


NSFW…NFT…whatever! These guys were a riot. They’ve been getting together every year for thirteen years for a weeklong ride. That’s pretty cool.

Later that night, I decided that we would stay one more day in Riga. We had originally planned to ride just about fifty miles south the next morning and camp, but the weather forecast wasn’t looking good, and we had a roof here, so I paid another thirty bucks and we slept in.

While sifting through my emails the next day, a new email popped up. A former colleague and friend from Yamaha and her husband had both retired in 2010, and they were traveling around Europe. We had emailed back and forth a couple of times in the past three months, but we were always in different parts of Europe, and it didn’t look like we would cross paths. Today she reached out to ask about a place we stayed at in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and to see where we were; she said they were in Riga, Latvia.

Wow. Random. What are the chances? Within a few hours, we were having dinner in Old Town. I hadn’t seen Madeleine or Scott in eight years, and they had never met Diana. It was great to catch up.


Totally random meet-up thousands of miles from home. Hard to believe, but great to see them again.

It will be hard to beat the story of bumping into an old friend in Riga, but we still have time to try to best that one.

Into the Baltics III: Lithuania

July 31 – August 2, 2022

Did you know that at one time, the world’s second smallest country existed inside Lithuania? Me neither.

Did you know that since 1997 there is an independent Republic in Lithuania that measures only 148 acres and has seven thousand inhabitants? Again, me neither. Part of the fun of traveling the way we do is learning about these places.

We left Riga, Latvia on the 31st of July, on a winding route towards Vilnius, Lithuania. Our first stop was just across the Lithuanian border, in the small village of Zagaré, to take a photo of the most photographed house in Zagaré.


The “Pan House” started out in spite: the owner of one half of this duplex wanted to remodel its’ interior, but his neighbor had to agree, and refused. However, the neighbor had no say over the outside of this half of the house, so the owner started attaching found objects to the walls, roof, anywhere he could. No word on the neighbors’ reaction.

Next stop was a bit further south outside the town of Šiauliai.


Without thinking, we arrived at the Hill of Crosses on a Sunday morning. I expected to ride up and find two or three cars there and a few families. Nope. Hundreds of cars, a live TV broadcast crew, a live band, and a full church service was going on at an outdoor chapel in the field at the bottom of the hill.


This major Catholic pilgrimage site has well over 100,000 crosses of all sizes. Many have individual or family names on them, while some have military connections from many different countries (most refer to Baltic Air Policing NATO forces).


While Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, the Soviets bulldozed the site at least three times, and even considered placing a dam in the nearby river in order to flood the hill to prevent people from putting crosses on it.

We eventually headed to Vilnius, but about twenty miles before we arrived, lo and behold, it started raining, AGAIN. And it rained steadily the entire trip in, on a polished asphalt highway with large “slippery when wet” signs. And they weren’t kidding.

Once we were in Vilnius, our Garmin GPS decided to entertain us (in the rain) by leading us down dead-end streets one after another. Eventually I gave in and rode between some concrete stanchions that were intended to prevent cars from crossing a pedestrian zone. Garmin then told us we were going the Wrong Way! on a One Way Street! Which was actually a two-way street, as the sign directly in front of us announced. Despite the GPS’s best attempts, we arrived at the AirBnB apartment and dragged our wet luggage inside.

The next day still looked dark and rainy, but the rain stopped long enough for us to wander around town.


Can’t pass up a photo of a church. Except there seem to be dozens of these churches in Vilnius, if not more. Anyway, here’s St Anne’s.


A sign in the Republic of Uzupis. This neighborhood on the river declared its independence as a Republic in 1997, and they celebrate Uzupis Day on April 1st of each year (coincidence? Probably not). Of the 7,000 residents, about 1,000 are artists.


Uzupis has its’ own Constitution, and it is posted on a wall in 23 different languages. And as you would expect from a bohemian artist republic, it is a bit odd.


Here’s the English version. It’s kind of hard to read due to the reflection, so if you want to read all 41 items, it’s on Wikipedia.


Some of the street art in Uzupis.

Not far from Uzupis but in Vilnius, we stumbled on this bust of Frank Zappa on a pedestal in a parking lot.


Frank Zappa is not Lithuanian. As far as anyone knows, he never went to Lithuania. But apparently he has a very rabid fan base here, though it may be a fan base of one for all I know.


We had to try some of the local food, so we started with Saltibarsciai, or Lithuanian Pink Soup, made from beetroots, cold kefir (a thin yogurt drink), fresh dill, cucumber, and a hardboiled egg. It’s actually way better than you would think!


Next up was cheese ice cream. Yup. Kinda tastes like cheesecake, but really cold.

At the end of our time in Vilnius, we headed south again, with a couple more stops before crossing the border into Poland.


On our way out of Vilnius we saw this enormous banner on top of a large building. No explanation necessary.


First up was a quick trip to Trakai Castle, just outside of Vilnius. The castle was built in the mid 1300s, and completed in the 1400s. It fell into disrepair over the centuries, but was restored in the 1950s and 60s, against resistance from Soviet authorities. Today it’s a major tourist attraction.


Next up was a detour to the middle of nowhere. In an area of nothing but farmland lies the remains of the Republic of Paulava, or Pavlov Republic.


In 1767, a Polish priest bought the Merkine estate (approximately 7500 acres) and in 1769 he turned it into a micro-republic with its’ own military, currency, flag, coat of arms, and himself as president. He abolished serfdom — the common practice in the countries surrounding his republic — and replaced it with land rent. He also created a mandatory education system for all. A total of about 800 people lived in Paulava, and it lasted for about 25 years, until the Kosciusko Uprising caused its’ fall. At the time, it was considered the second smallest country in the world.


Our last stop in Lithuania was in Grutas, just a few miles from the border with Belarus. Here is a park full of Soviet-era statues. Referred to by some as “Stalin World”, it contains over 80 of these large statues, which would have been demolished but for the efforts of one man to bring them to this location.


Oh yeah, and a few llamas too. We didn’t actually go into Stalin World (not the official name), as it would have cost about $25, which seemed a bit steep to see a bunch of statues of people who, aside from Lenin or Stalin, we had no idea who they were (not to mention any political opinions). So we ate lunch on a picnic table just outside the park, watched a few llamas, and rode away into Poland.

Traversing Poland

August 2, 2022

I had hoped to ride some of the Trans Euro Trail in Poland, but unfortunately our route and the Trail were headed in opposite directions. We’ll definitely have to come back to Poland (for a lot of reasons), as our time this trip was limited.

This was my second time to Poland, and Diana’s first. Last time I entered from Germany and spent most of my time in the southwest area of Poland, in Lower Silesia, visiting friends I had met in the US. This time we also were headed to visit them, but we had to traverse the breadth of Poland to get there, so we took a roundabout way in order to see some other sights.

We didn’t have a plan for our first night in Poland as we were simply trying to cover ground to get to the area around Krakow to begin our sight-seeing. Poland is a large country, and it was going to take us a couple of days to head that way. I searched Google for “campground” and came up with a place in Augustów that advertised itself as a campground and RV park with cabins. Perfect. Diana emailed them, asking if they had a cabin available, as it looked like we might get more rain, and we were finding that Poland fit our budget better than Norway and Finland when it came to indoor lodging. The response came back quickly: “Yes, we have rooms available for the week.” So we headed in that direction.

When we arrived in Augustów, the GPS directed us into a subdivision on the lake. The area looked to be more of a summer resort town, and the subdivision was fairly small lots with nice homes. It didn’t quite seem like the place for an RV park. I was even more confused when we pulled up in front of a large house. We got off the bike and I walked around the house. In the back, which faced the lake, it became clear why they had rooms available “for the week”. This place was a children’s summer camp. We appeared to be the oldest guests, by about four decades. Why this place is listed as an RV park and cabins is beyond me, but it definitely wasn’t what we were looking for.

I decided that since the prices seemed reasonable for hotels in the area, that we would try again a bit further down the road. This time I found a nice looking hotel, about an hour away and a bit off the main road in the small town of Kolno. We jumped back on the main highway and continued on. About twenty miles later, the freeway ended. As in it hadn’t been built yet, and there was no road going that direction. Of course our GPS told us to ignore those facts and continue straight ahead at 90kph into nothingness, the map on the screen showing a nice freeway with a cloverleaf exit many miles ahead that would take us to Kolno.

Nope. Nothing but cornfields and cows. I took the last exit and came to a crossroads. It looked to me that we could head back about six miles and take an earlier exit that would take us the back way into Kolno. So we turned around and got back on the freeway heading north back from where we came. For the next six miles the GPS continued to scream at me to make a U-turn and continue into the non-existent section of the freeway.

When I arrived at the earlier exit on the map, there was, of course, no exit. There was definitely a bridge over our heads with the road to Kolno, but no way to get there. We continued back-tracking on the freeway until we reached an actual exit, which was another four miles. At that point I turned west and navigated by the seat of my pants until we were able to connect to a small rural road that took us to Kolno.

Have I mentioned that Garmin’s European Maps suck? Besides this little episode of displaying future hopeful roads that don’t really exist, throughout Europe Garmin’s maps have shown us incorrect speed limits about eighty to ninety percent of the time (in the direction that would have gotten us speeding tickets) and usually it’s off by between twenty and thirty kilometers per hour. Although occasionally it will attempt to make up for it by telling me that the speed limit on a freeway is 40kph (24mph) when in reality it is 130kph (81mph).

When we finally arrived at the Dwor Rozinski hotel, it was just one more thing that left me scratching my head today: on the outskirts of this small rural community was this beautiful hotel.


Built by a private individual as a fairly lavish wedding venue. We arrived in between weddings, and there were maybe six other guests, mostly traveling businessmen.


The room, with a full breakfast buffet included, was 240 Zlotys, or about $53.


That evening we had a great dinner in the hotel restaurant. This is my Old Polish Pig Knuckle. Huge. Very tender, melt-in-your-mouth pork. Diana had chicken breast with Chanterelle mushrooms and potatoes, and for dessert we had ice cream with berries. We also had a couple of alcoholic drinks. The total bill was $24, which is about the price of one hamburger in Norway.

Zalipie

August 4, 2022

Zalipie has been on my “must-see” list for several years. Everyone talks about the “painted houses”, and the place is a very famous tourist attraction in Poland. It is sometimes referred to as “The Most Beautiful Village in Poland”. So we had set aside most of a day to wander the town and admire the homes.

It turns out, Zalipie is much smaller than I expected. It is in a very rural location (think about driving to the middle of Nebraska to a small farm community). There are no restaurants, stores, or much of anything else in Zalipie, save for the painted houses and the museum celebrating the painted houses. And the one trailer selling ice cream and coffee to tourists.


There are about twenty painted houses in Zalipie, and as expected in a rural farming community, they are spread out, so riding a small loop around the area will cover most of them in about fifteen minutes. But if you really want to take time to study the beautiful artwork, and perhaps even get a tour inside a painted home from a resident, you might need to set aside a couple of hours in Zalipie.


The houses are painted inside and out with floral motifs.


The Polish Folk Art tradition of painting houses is said to have started before homes had chimneys. In order to cover the soot-stained walls inside, the women of the homes used a lime white-wash to paint the interior walls before important religious celebrations. It seems to have spread from there, and some homes have not only the interior and exterior walls painted, but the barn, doghouse, well, and any other surface that might attract artwork.

From Zalipie, we continued south towards Zakopane, another famous tourist town.

Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains

August 5, 2022

In addition to Zalipie, I had heard a great deal about Zakopane as a town that attracted tourists, so of course I put it on my list. The day before we headed there, I got the laptop out to make a list of things to see in Zakopane, and I encouraged Diana to do the same.

It didn’t take long to realize that we were both having trouble making a list. Zakopane is kind of at the “entrance” to the Tatra Mountains, so it is in a beautiful setting, as the forests are building as you get closer to the mountains, and the smaller foothills make for some great hiking trails and ski areas and other winter recreation. It is easily accessed from Krakow, so Zakopane is a winter destination for snow recreation as well as a summer destination for mountain hiking. The mountains create a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. The tallest peak on the Polish side is Rysy, at 2499 meters (8200 feet), which is just south of Zakopane.

Zakopane has a lot of “chalet architecture” making it look even more like the winter resort that it is, and even on a weekday it was crawling with tourists. We continued past town and deeper into the Tatras, into Slovakia and along the southern side of the Tatra mountains, passing through several more resort villages that were jam-packed with tourists, mostly enjoying the hiking and bicycle trails in the area, before looping back up into Poland and on to our hotel for the evening.

Sadly we didn’t take many photos. I think we were both still suffering from Norway overload, and our minds were unfairly comparing the scenery to Norway. It seems like the natural beauty of Norway has left a huge impression on us — more than anywhere else either of us have traveled — and hopefully the longer we are away from Norway, the more fairly we will be able to appreciate other places. We both felt guilty at the end of this day when we realized how much natural beauty we had ridden through, yet how little we had documented it.

So here’s a photo and a short unedited video from our day in the Tatra Mountains.


Looking across the cornfields to the mountains.

Counting Our Blessings…In Many Ways

August 6, 2022

Today should really be broken down into two parts. Here’s a basic summary, followed by the details:

In the morning, we got up from lying in bed, and took a three and a half hour tour of Auschwitz.

In the afternoon, we got up from lying in the middle of the A4 freeway in Katowice, and continued on another 160 miles to visit our friends north of Wroclaw.

It was a very sobering day.

Auschwitz


Nothing really prepares you for the weight of what you see and experience at Auschwitz. This World War II prison camp is vast, and the guided tour is broken into two parts: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II/Birkenau. Our guide explained to us that Auschwitz was not just a concentration camp but it was also an extermination camp. Auschwitz was the main hub where Jews from all over Europe were collected and sent to be murdered. Birkenau is where the trains arrived, and the passengers were immediately sorted into those that could work and those that would be immediately sent to their death. The main camp was originally a Polish military base before the Germans took it over and converted it to a prison camp for the intelligentsia. Knowing that the educated and intelligent of the Polish citizens would understand quickly what was actually happening, the Germans locked them away before they could enlighten others. Then the camp became a destination for the extermination of Jews. Many who were sent here died within a few weeks of malnutrition. Some were worked hard but still lasted for two years before they withered away or were put to death.

The sheer volume of people who died at these camps is hard enough to comprehend, but standing in the same location as they died really drives it home. It’s hard not to walk through the buildings, past the firing squad wall, and through the gas chamber and past the ovens without being moved.


It’s hard to see in this photo due to the trees in the background, but this is the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free) sign over the entrance to Auschwitz. It’s actually a replica of the original sign. The original is now displayed in the Auschwitz museum. It was stolen in 2009 by a gang of Polish thieves, acting at the behest of a Swiss neo-nazi idiot (my term). They cut the original sign into three pieces in order to fit it in their vehicle. It was found two days later in northern Poland.


Entrance to Auschwitz II/Birkenau, where the trains arrived from all over Europe.


Barracks at Birkenau.


Some of the original fence and guard tower from Birkenau.


This gallows was built to hang Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, after being found guilty of war crimes. He was hanged here on April 16, 1947. I couldn’t help thinking as I stood at this spot that any leader should face these same consequences today if he blindly follows the orders of a madman and willingly causes the death of others. We need to remember what happened more than 75 years ago in order to prevent it from happening again.

We took very few photos here, both out of respect for those who died here and because photos of the place can’t begin to describe the pain and suffering that surround this place.

Near the end of our tour, our English-speaking Polish guide said something that struck me enough that I had to write it down, so I will paraphrase it here:

“Nazis came to power in 1933. They didn’t immediately start killing Jews. They didn’t immediately start invading other countries. It took time. But it was the beginning of an ideology that turned one group of people against another. We can’t stay quiet just because it is happening far away from us. We have to remember the past.”

So true.

Katowice


It began raining as we were touring Auschwitz. We left there in light rain and started towards Wroclaw, a four hour ride. About an hour into our ride and still raining, I told Diana over the intercom that I was ready for a quick break. I checked the GPS as we came into Katowice on the 86 freeway, and found that there was a McDonalds not far ahead. These always make for a good place for a coffee, etc, and there’s free wifi (which usually but not always works), so it allows us to plan our route, make campground/hotel reservations, etc.

Coming into Katowice on the 86 freeway, we entered the transition ramp to the A4. The ramp is a left-hand sweeper that descends from the northbound elevated 86 and runs under it to head west on the A4. It normally would probably be taken at about 80kph, or 50mph. However, since it was raining, I slowed a bit more, down to somewhere around 35 or 40mph. As we came into the curve, I saw the rainbow sheen of oil spread all the way across both lanes and as far ahead as I could see at about the same time that the back tire lost traction and began to slide to the right. Within a second or so, the front tire also lost traction and we were down and sliding. Fortunately — and somehow miraculously — there were no cars beside us or just ahead or behind us. Diana somehow managed to separate from the bike while I stayed with it (my foot caught under the side) and we slid for probably a hundred feet or so down the freeway.

Once we came to a stop and were able to communicate on our headsets that we were both okay, we stood up, but were quickly aware that we were standing on diesel fuel and it was slick as ice. Two men from cars behind us that managed to stop and block traffic came running to help, but ended up ice-skating towards us for the last forty feet or so. Another guy came from ahead of us. That’s when I realized that there were at least two cars ahead of where we came to a stop that had lost control and hit the guardrail before we arrived.

We managed to get the bike up and off to the inside of the left freeway lane. I did a quick damage assessment, and was surprised to find only some scrapes and a bit of damage to the left pannier. We remounted, and slowly dog-paddled our way across the freeway to the exit ramp that was about 200 yards ahead, almost crashing a second time at about three miles per hour on the extremely slick road. We slid into a gas station and took some time to make sure that the bike, our gear, and our bodies were okay. It turned out that the McDonalds was right next door, so we headed there to rest and calm the nerves. As we walked inside, we could hear a steady stream of sirens heading towards the freeway interchange. We obviously weren’t the last to be surprised by the hazard there.

Diana’s left hand was swelling. She apparently had hit it hard on the pavement on the way down. My left hip was bruised and sore, but overall we were extremely lucky. Had there been cars or trucks around us when we fell, the outcome could have been much different. Had we slid towards the guardrail instead of straight down the freeway, the outcome could have been much different. It was about as benign of a crash as you could have at 40 mph on a freeway. The diesel fuel, while causing an icy-slick surface that caused us to crash, also made the surface so slick that neither the bike nor our riding gear suffered much damage. In fact, aside from the diesel stains on our gear, there isn’t a thread out of place.


Diana’s hand swelled up quickly, but she said it never really hurt and she had full range. Nothing broken, thankfully. Even her glove suffered no damage.


The lower box where I keep some tools is damaged, and the front edge of the pannier is scraped. This is the heaviest of the damage the bike suffered, and very little else.


You can see the diesel fuel on the edge of the tread still in this photo, before I wiped it down with a rag.

I wiped the tires with a dry rag, getting as much of the diesel fuel as I could off of them. It was still raining after a half hour or so, and although we still felt a bit apprehensive about the rain and the tires, we decided to slowly start heading west again. The rain finally stopped about an hour later, and we gained some confidence in the tires again.

We arrived at Michal’s house in Jary around 7pm, and joined the party that they had arranged to welcome us.


The guys invited a number of their friends over to welcome us to Poland. We even had a doctor (okay, one medical doctor along with a number of other PhD types — these guys have some well-educated friends) that examined Diana’s hand, offered his advice, then got back to the drinking at hand.


Diana and Lukasz got us started with some special Pigwa (a liqueur made from Quince fruit) that contained Irish Whiskey.


Michal and Marcin.


Soon everyone was doing shots. We gave up and went to bed about 1am. Apparently that’s when things just started. It wound down about 4am.

As I said it was a very sobering day, but it definitely didn’t end with us sober. I don’t drink much, but tonight was a well-earned exception.

End note



These photos were taken several days later, after our gear had dried out. You can still see (and smell) the diesel fuel.

I’ve been riding continuously for the past fifty years, and on the street for the past forty seven. It’s been around forty years since I’ve fallen on a public road, and I’ll be happy if it’s another forty until it happens again. That’s not to say I haven’t crashed before: I spent a lot of years racing both on pavement and offroad, which also helped prepare us for this crash. We wear the protective gear, including boots, pants, jacket, gloves and helmet because you never know when something like this can happen, and if we hadn’t been wearing all of it, our trip probably would have been over in the few seconds it took to slide to a stop. The common term these days is “All The Gear All of The Time, or ATGATT, but I’ve always lived it simply as “Dress for the crash, not for the ride”. Regardless of how skilled you think you are, there will always be that idiot in the car that didn’t see you and pulled out, or fifty gallons of diesel fuel spread across a highway in the rain as the great equalizer. Plan accordingly.