black sea 2008

Into the valley of death – Black Sea bike tour 2008

From small beginnings this trip turned out to be a 4,800 mile bike ride through 9 countries over 3 weeks. Dic Leng and I took a route through Europe (France, Germany, Austria (the Eagles Nest), Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria to Istanbul. From Istanbul we changed transport mode to a rather ancient Ukrainian ferry and for 32 hours we lumbered across a very calm blue Black Sea to Sevastopol in the Crimea. Here was our journey’s aim – to find where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place (Balaclava), and to vist the historic location (Yalta) where the WW2 treaty was signed. We then rode back through Ukraine, Poland (Auschwitz) and Germany (Colditz), Belgium and France.

Itinerary May
28 Wednesday – Aberystwyth to Calais
29 Thursday – Calais to Welheim
30 Friday – Welheim to Berchestgaden and Eagle’s Nest
31 Saturday – Berchestgaden to Budapest
June
1 Sunday – sightseeing in Budapest
2 Monday – Budapest to Nis
3 Tuesday – Nis to Haskovo
4 Wednesday – Haskovo to Istanbul
5 Thursday – sightseeing in Istanbul and boarding ferry
6 Friday – on the Istanbul to Sevastopol ferry
7 Saturday – arrived in Sevastopol and on to Balaclava
8 Sunday – sightseeing around Balaclava and Yalta
9 Monday – Balaclava to Kherson 10 Tuesday – Kherson to Vinnycja
11 Wednesday – Vinnycja to L’Viv
12 Thursday – sightseeing in L’Viv
13 Friday – L’Viv to Oswiecim
14 Saturday – visit to Auschwitz and on to Legnica
15 Sunday – Legnica to Colditz and Colditz Castle
16 Monday – Colditz to Duren
17 Tuesday – Duren to Calais
18 Wednesday – Calais to Aberystwyth

Wednesday 28 May 9.00 pm, Calais, France. 335 miles. Whether this trip turns out to be the memorable journey I anticipated when it was first devised, remains to be seen, but I have to concede that today at least was a day with a difference, and a difference I could easily have done without. It was unreservedly the wettest and windiest biking day of my (limited) biking experience. Dic and I left Aberystwyth a few minute before 8.00 am encountering a little drizzle through Capel Bangor and Goginan and then the precipitation gradually increased so that by Welshpool we were slicing through very heavy rain. The weather forecast had indicated fairer warmer weather in the midlands and eastern England so the rain was tolerated on the basis that it soon get better. How wrong can you be – the M6 toll (after a brief stop in the services) was even wetter with a bonus element – fog! But the worst conditions were saved for our final stretch along the M20 from London to the Eurotunnel at Folkestone.- exceedingly heavy rain and seriously gusty crosswinds winds made me feel quite insecure and cut our speed by 20 mph. We met Ivan and Pam at Tesco’s café at junction 10 for a cup of coffee and to take my Green Card insurance document which had been posted by Special delivery to Ivan, as I had found out at the last minute (last Saturday followed by a Monday bank holiday) that my original green card contained the incorrect bike registration number. The 4.50 pm Eurotunnel train saw us safely to Calais and ultimately into our pre-booked F1 hotel. A gammon steak and a pint of lager completed a day, which in retrospect now, hasn’t been as stressful and tiring as I thought it would have been, considering the appalling conditions. The plan for tomorrow is to drive two thirds of the distance to the Eagle’s Nest, Berchtesgaden, to somewhere near Stuttgart – hopefully 400 miles on French autoroute and German autobahn. We have promised ourselves a 6.00 am rise, shower, breakfast (F1 style!) and on the road by 7.00.

Thursday 29 May 7.00 pm, Welheim, Germany. 506 miles. The hammer has been down all day today resulting in me now being c.50 miles beyond Stuttgart in a smart small hotel in Welheim and an arse sensitive 506 miles in the saddle from Calais. For a change the weather has been kind to us, despite a drizzly start, ending with an overcast humid 31ºC. We started out on virtually empty autoroute until we reached Metz, and then the build up started, culminating in a 5 mile queue on the Autobahn west of Stuttgart. If you think we have traffic problems, you should have seen the 20 mile queue on the westbound autobahn carriageway around Stuttgart. We also experienced some pretty swift driving in Germany. I came over the brow of an incline, near Karlsruhe, to see in front of me a 3-400 metre stretch of 3 lane autobahn, as a ‘solid phalanx’ of vehicles (no trucks) all traveling at my speed – 94 mph!! Shortly afterwards I spotted a 120kpm de-limit sign, and then they all slotted into top gear, almost at some cost to Dic as he moved into the fast lane (‘fast’ being somewhat of a contradiction) in front of a guy who must have been doing a casual 120 mph. It is very difficult to make all the necessary allowances for routine lane changes at these speeds. Still, no harm done on this occasion, just all part of life’s experiences. Welheim is a lovely town, showing all the trappings of a prosperous nation. Pedestrianised cobble streets, smart independent small shops, a recently renovated Gasthaus, and last but not least, a superb beer garden which I utilised to calm down after a hectic days riding. I think I should feel more tired than I do, so tomorrow’s planned half day to the Eagle’s Nest will be welcome, as will a day off in Budapest on Sunday.

Friday 30 May 10.30 pm,Berchtesgaden, Germany. 250 miles Everything today has worked out as planned. We made an early start from Welheim at 7.00 am and had an uneventful mainly autobahn ride, arriving SatNav guided to our hotel a short distance from Berchtesgaden at midday. The scenery in this area is stunning and our hotel is overlooking a fabulous green rolling valley with the grass fields up to the edge of the roads – no fences as none of the livestock appear to be outside – in fact the fields look distinctly more cut than grazed. The Eagles Nest is clearly visible, albeit a few miles away and very small. After a freshen up we biked to the base bus station of the Eagles Nest ancept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Hod bus ride up the 6 km private road to Hitler’s retreat. The bus took us to a car park about 70 metres below the actual building, which to access we had to walk about 100 metres along a rock tunnel to a glitzy bling lift which took us to the top. Pretty impregnable and terrorist proof, even by today standards – mind you, he needed it! It proved to be a small and uninspiring building with an outstanding 360 degree view of the mountainous area. I had a snack and a beer in the outside cafe better known to me from an old picture in the same spot, of Hitler and Eva Braun. It was incredibly hot, but the heat seemed to have little effect on the large mounds of hard packed dirty snow. On our return journey to the hotel, after much searching, we found a petrol station, and finished off the day with an excellent meal in our hotel restaurant. Tomorrow is more of a step into the unknown – a 350 mile ride through Austria into Hungary and the possibility of having to pay big Euros for a Vignette just for the privilege of driving through Austria for a few hours – I am debating the risk of an alleged€100fine!

Saturday 31 May 7.00 pm, Budapest, Hungary. 368 miles And yet another autobahn day, but not too long. After a 7.00 am start (again!) we arrived in Budapest, with 4 short breaks for coffee,cokes and food, at 3.00 pm. The Austrian autobahns are not that well surfaced and are hideously enclosed for long stretches by high metal fences, from 10 – 15 feet high, cutting out all the view and giving you the impression you were driving along a tunnel. The Vignette was only €4, a pleasant surprise after a guy in the hotel told us it would be €40. Lo and behold, as we crossed the Hungarian border I saw a sign (not Monty Python) requiring us to buy an Hungarian Vignette – for the equivalent of €2! It was very hot today (30+), which was fine whilst biking, but as soon as you stopped it became most uncomfortable, particularly when searching for the pre-booked Ibis in the centre of Budapest. It took a bit of finding as the SatNav kept trying to take on the Elizabeth bridge over the Danube which was closed for major repairs, compounded by major re-construction and road works closing the normal access to the hotel. We were able to keep the bikes in the hotel’s secure underground car park, which was just as well, as the hotel was situated right in the city centre, in pedestrianised pavement bar/cafe street – absolutely ideal. We have just been out for a stroll and a couple of drinks to sample the bars and cafes for later. Quite inexpensive – €3for a large beer and a coke! Yes, they take Euros. Out now for a bit more of a look around the centre and find somewhere to eat.

Saturday 1 June 7.00 pm, Budapest, Hungary. A very restful and cultural bike free day in Budapest. In the morning we took the City tour on the open top deck of a bus for a 2 hour trip around Buda and Pest. It was not the most inspirational tour I have been on as in reality there is not that much to see of architectural or historical note to see, compared to cities like London. Maybe it was the poor quality of the commentary that failed to lift me. The Parliament building was probably the most impressive structure, with rather surprisingly, a 2 chamber system modeled and named after our Commons and Lords. The old, and quite small centre of Buda and Pest , is bisected by the Danube – it contains a few wide streets with loads of pedestrianised cafe strewn side streets. There are many fine buildings, in a generally shabby state, reflecting neglect during the communist period. There are signs they are making a start at modernisising and cleaning/smartening up, but I get the impression the country the country just does not have sufficient resources – the population was quoted as 10 million. A chance observation whilst we were having a spot of lunch prompted us to visit and take a conducted the Great Synagogue, in Dohany street opposite the our cafe.The Great Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and second only in the world to one in New York. It was an unexpected enlightening experience thanks to the quality of our two guides, one around the museum and one around the synagogue. Both guides were very keen to tell us how the Nazi holocaust had affected the country and the Hungarian Jews in particular. They placed great shame on the fact that the sending of ‘rural’ jews to concentration camps and the creating of the Budapest ghetto, was the work of Hungarian Nazis. During WW2 the Hungarian government co-operated with Germany and Hungary was only ‘occupied’ by 150 German soldiers. It was quite poignant to hear that the Jews remaining in Budapest (in the ghetto) at the end of the war felt ‘saved’ by the Russian, and did not welcome the return of democracy, thinking that it would signal the return of anti-semitism. One group that left at that time were the Hasidic Jews who go on holiday to Aberystwyth most summers.It appears that it was the ‘pro communist’ Jews that were responsible for the Kibbutz in Israel. If I understood the guide correctly, Hungarian (or Budapest) Jews are quite moderate, by Orthodox Jews standards, and they certainly had a sense of humour (more than an argumentative American Jew in our group!) and joked about their beliefs and activities. We were told there was one word that can never be said in a synagogue – Jehovah. A fascinating afternoon. We have just discussed the next three days itinerary which should, in three 250 mile stints, take us to Istanbul. Dic is repeat ably worried about some aspect or other despite agreeing a solution, and is still talking about not completing the journey – at the same time saying he couldn’t possibly be left or go on his own! Out for a modest meal now in the street of our hotel and a planned 6.30 am breakfast and on the road by 7.00.

Monday 2 June 6.15 pm, Nis, Serbia. 392 miles Another day, another journey, this time a mixture of (extremely) flat countryside and straight empty roads (mainly dual carriageway/motorway) in southern Hungary and northern Serbia to hilly,winding, but even emptier roads in southern Serbia. We obviously traveled quite quickly and easily from our 7.00 am start, arriving at our stopover just past Nis at 3.30 pm. Contrary to some expectations the border formalities were quite minimal. In fact I may be able to dine for weeks on the Serbian border guy, who, to Dic’s great amusement, queried the validity of my passport, indicating the ‘1936’ should have been ‘1956’. We have checked into what can only be described as a ‘Soviet’ style hotel, the Odmaraliste, situated at side of the main road to Bulgaria,in the middle of nowhere, in a fantastic wooded valley. A downside is there is a single track railway line below the terrace regularly carrying slow, long, clanking freight trains. The hotel is a bare concrete structure with an extensive wood extension purporting to be a extension function room. This room plus the adjoining main function room must be capable of seating at least 400 people. Goodness knows where from! As there is nowhere else to go due to our bikes being safely locked in a room for the night, the two of us (no more guests it appears) will be dining in tonight having accepted the offer of a ‘local concoction’ to be prepared by a very bearded Serb. Security has descended to a different level with my room balcony door ‘locked’ by removing the handle. Effective but Dic is not impressed.
11.00 pm You live and learn (obviously slowly in my case) something every day. the ‘very bearded Serb’ turns out to be the owner of this run down place. He has recently sold his gas welding business in Nis for €310,000 and plans on investing £1,000,000 to refurbishing and marketing. The bones of a Neanderthal man (40,000 – 300,000 years ago) were discovered near here about 6 months ago and he is hoping that may generate some business. Supreme optimism seems to be this guys strongest characteristic. I appears that this establishment was built in the 1960’s by a firm in Nis for celebration parties for there staff. From observation riding through the countryside, southern Serbia is particularly impoverished. The hotel owner says that people in this region earn as little as €100 a month living mainly on food from there own gardens. Even in the flat and apparently fertile region north of Belgrade there was significant hand field work and the little mechanisation seemed to be based only on small tractors. I saw a number of maize fields being steerage hoed indicating mechanical rather than chemical (Simazine) control of weeds. This lack of use of insecticides manifested itself in the highest volume of insects splattering my visor I have ever experienced!

Tuesday 3 June 5.00 pm, Haskovo, Bulgaria. 260 miles Enjoying a 2 something beer in Haskovo, Bulgaria, arriving here at 3.00 pm after an easy day’s ride from just south of Nis. The roads are deteriorating a bit into mainly 2 way roads with decent surfaces and only light traffic by our standards. The truck drivers queuing up to enter Serbia from Bulgaria may not agree – we passed a very stationary 2 km queue at the border with a ‘back up’ queue a few kilometres further on. I reckon it will take a truck more than a day to get through. The weather here is hot and sunny. There appears to be a significant shift up the economic league as we came into Bulgaria if shiny commercial developments (a glitzy Porsche showroom) are any indication. We drove (accidentally) through the centre of Sofia where there were many wonderful old buildings most of which which were obviously well maintained (in comparison to Budapest where the majority of decent buildings looked distinctly sad). Agriculturally Bulgaria seems to function with larger fields (but not farmed very well) than southern Serbia, which was clearly ‘peasant’ country – very small plots of land (even on large flat fertile plains) and much hand labour, mainly female. Our accommodation in Haskovo is a 4 roomed apartment (each!!) for €42, but a bit miffed because breakfast is not included. Riding the bike these distances is not presenting me with any problems – my bum aches a bit when I arrive at my destination, but it soon starts to recovers after a beer and is fine by the next morning. I think the day off in Budapest was essential to my well being. Despite major foreboding on Dic’s part we have not had any problems in terms of traffic density, road conditions, border controls, finding accommodation and petrol, petty thieving and personal hostility. In other words, plan A is up and running! Well, that is apart from getting lost (repeatably) just past Plovdiv – the satnav was useless as we had gone ‘off piste’ and were traveling across blank areas. Asking people the way to Istanbul proved fruitless so we had eventually to retrack about 4 miles to where we thought we had gone wrong and the satnav chimed in again. Strolling through Haskovo on my way for a second beer starkly revealed the paucity of any non-soviet architecturally designed buildings. The centre has some great traffic free streets, with loads of bar/cafes and a few smartish shops – but round every corner I was into concrete care worn apartment blocks. A ‘centre piece’ in the town is a sunken garden with fountains, marble tables, umbrellas and a war memorial depicting the dates of 4 wars meaningless to me – but not I suspect not to the soviet designers – the whole place was deserted!

Wednesday 4 June 5.00 pm, Istanbul, Turkey. 233 miles Made it – now having a coke in a cafe overlooking the Blue Mosque in Istanbul whilst Dic is relaxing in our hotel. We arrived in our pre-booked hotel, Hotel Saffire in Ibni Kebal Cd, Eminonu, at 3.00 pm after a 7.00 am start (again) with an easy ride on fairly empty roads, especially the virtually deserted motorway from the border to the outskirts of Istanbul. But as soon as we entered Istanbul we hit serious traffic. We are talking about over an hour in scorching mid day airless heat, incessant stop/start, huge trucks, aggressive driving (them not us), diesel fumes and not a clue where we were going. Obviously not where we thought we should have been going as we came up to the toll bridge over the Bosphorous signposted ‘Asia’ – not our current destination. After a few enquiries, and feeling a little stressed, Dic got some sensible directions to the old quarter where our second direction enquiry was less than 100 metres from our hotel. Was I relieved. The border formalities to get into Turkey were very straightforward but a bit tedious – it took us the best part of an hour, including buying a £10 entry visa. Touch wood, all our paperwork seems in order! I am now being deafened (not difficult) by the Sultanahmet’s Muezzin announcing a prayer meeting plus his mate in a nearby mosque responding (or arguing, who knows!).

Thursday 5 June 8.15 pm, MV Sevastopol, Black Sea. Yesterday evening we both took a stroll around the old quarter of Eminonu and the Blue mosque and had an average meal in a cafe like place on Hudavingdigar street. Very smart trams ran along this street – they are newish trams, quite long (4 coaches), well used and creep up on you rather fast and disturbingly quiet. I am now on board MV Sevastopol 1 on Karakoy quay, our Ukrainian ferry to Sevastopol. It is a somewhat ageing cargo/passenger boat about 100 metres long with 3 levels of cabins, some hold space, and deck storage fore and aft. There are 5 cars and 5 bikes (the other 3 are German) on the fore deck which were rather precariously craned on board. Our accommodation is a cramped twin berth cabin at the lowest level in both elevation and luxury, luxury not being the first word that springs to mind in this rust bucket! Getting on to the boat has taken up nearly all our day. We walked from our hotel over Galata bridge to Karakoy quay area, and thanks to a very helpful guy at the ferry terminal building (he made a few mobile calls on our behalf) who directed us to a shipping agents office. We were trying to find the office of the guy I had been in regular e-mail contact who had ostensibly booked our ferry crossing for us and our bikes. Some tension arose as Dic said bugger him, just book with whoever we can, but I wanted to find my contact. As we entered the agents office a voice from across the room shouted “are you Mr John” – it was Turgat Bora, my man. Turgat Bora very kindly walked us to the terminal entrance and showed us where to enter the quay and have all our paperwork completed. It turned out to be a bit more complicated than he had said. We then walked back to our hotel (20 minutes), collected our bikes, returned to the ferry terminal and 4 hours later we and our bikes were on board. We ventured out back into town (more passport checks out and into the terminal) for a snack and returned to rest and sunbathe on the boats top deck – the first sunbathe of the holiday. Our cabin has 2 bunks, 2 portholes, a small bench, a wash basin and no room to swing a mouse round, never mind a cat! The communal loos and showers are very communal and very basic and quite a long way down a dimly lit corridor. There is a dive of a bar (literally as it is below the water line) where I a can get a beer and has the appearance of doubling up as a seedy disco. The cost of the ferry is 185 USD per person, including all meals plus 150 USD for the bike. The Istanbul ‘boarding’ procedure provides an insight to the middle eastern Barbara; 1 – passport checked at dock entrance 2 – vehicle documents checked and given officially stamped letter 3 – stamped letter checked and passport stamped 4 – passport checked for last stamp 5 – deposit passport with Purser 6 – collect passport from Purser 7 – deposit passport and vehicle documents with Cargo Captain 8 – collect passport and vehicle documents with Cargo Captain 9 – deposit passport with Purser 10 – appear before Police to check face with passport photo 11 – collect passport from Purser 12 – complete 2 immigration forms

Friday 6 June 3.00 pm, MV Sevastopol, Black Sea. On the top deck enjoying glorious sunshine as we plod through the absolutely flat calm Black sea, although it actually a fabulous turquoise colour. I say plod because according to my satnav we are traveling at 17 km/hour. My first impressions of the boat confirm it is well past it’s sell by date but everything does seem to work including the engine which is surprisingly quiet and doesn’t make that loud drumming noise you often hear on boats. All the crew are Ukrainian without any english – the Purser is a shorter but equally wide version of Dawn French, displays powerful thighs, addresses you commandant style and ends the “conversation” with a terrifying smile. The Cargo Captain is even more terse and certainly not one to have the smallest of disputes with, and would look totally at ease in a gangland brawl. The passengers seem to all Ukrainian, the majority of which are women some of whom are impressively formidable – mind you there are a few topless sunbathers. The exception to the Ukrainian passengers are 3 very friendly German bikers who are going around the Crimea, Ukraine, Moldova and Hungary. Martin has a good command of English and has led his little team on a number of bike tours, last year going to St Petersburg. The food is turning out to be quite good and certainly well organised. There are 3 sittings for each meal in the dining room, and if I have worked it out correctly, we are booked in for the third sitting because we are third class passengers in third class cabins. The food is just placed in front of you with no choice, 3 courses at lunch and dinner (soup, a meat course and a pudding) with fruit and fruit juice. The 3 Germans share the meal table with us, always a convivial experience.

Saturday 7 June 10.00, pm Balaclava, Crimea, Ukraine. 19 miles Our boat arrived in Sevastopol almost on time at 8.30 am As we sailed into the harbour we passed about half the Ukrainian navy – a dozen grey, some seriously rusty, battleships – much bigger than ours and giving the distinct impression that they will never move from their moorings. Laconically summed by one of the German bikers saying they looked “tired”. We personally disembarked at 9.30 and reasonably quickly and painlessly (30 minutes) went through immigration. Not a bad introduction to Ukraine. We didn’t expect it to be so easy, and we weren’t disappointed. We had to wait in considerable heat with no facilities until 1.0’clock before our bikes were craned off. I the ‘blame’ was due to a squad of immigration personnel who were on the boat all morning checking the manifest, or even enhancing the slush fund! The bikes were physically checked against their registration documents (chassis numbers etc) and we had to complete a duplicate ‘immigration form’ – obviously the photocopier wasn’t working. W e were on the road by 2.00 pm and after drawing cash from an ATM (1000 each) we rode the short distance, c. 15 miles, to Balaclava. As were leaving Sevastopol I saw what I took to be a number of allotments to the right of our road, complete with their own garden sheds. At about the third, and harder look, I realised the shed were in fact very small houses with their own gardens. Most of the houses could only have one or two rooms. Early in the evening we took a walk through Balaclava past the harbour/marina and along a path out to the headland looking south over the Black sea. In a bay to our left (east), but out of sight was the location of the Russian secret nuclear submarine base. Balaclava, which only has public access recently, has the potential to be a very smart place and there are signs in the marina area that may well become a holiday hot spot in a few years time. My understanding is that southern Crimea is a ‘little Russia’ in the Ukraine, and this was reinforced by the presence, of what at least they would like us to think, of some rich young Russian yacht and their ‘girls’ on the next table to us at our evening meal. They were very boastful, very noisy and very drunk. The girls were much better, very friendly and had a fraction more english, which was precious little. This is really the first time the lack of the local language has been a major liability. It proved virtually impossible to interpret the menu. We have booked 2 nights in a smart hotel for 80 USD per night for a twin room, as a base for exploring southern Crimea tomorrow. We plan to find the battlefield of ‘The charge of the Light Brigade’, the Inkerman museum and visit the Palace in Yalta where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin signed the WW2 treaty leading to the ‘Cold War’.

Monday 9 June 4.00 pm, Kherson, Ukraine. 230 miles Ridden today from Balaclava (at 8.15 am) out of Crimea on to mainland Ukraine to a motel on the Kherson bi-pass and reached 2716 bike miles. Yesterday activities were as planned but not entirely completed. We, or more accurately Dic, found a monument commemorating the 1854 Battle of Balaclava immortalised in Lord Tennyson’s epic poem, but sadly I could not find the al ledged white post, in the vineyard it was supposed to be in, which marked the ‘thin red line’ depicting the line from which the Brigade charged. It was a Russian monument, presumably recording their victory, albeit on a ‘different’ date as it was before the Russians adopted the Gregorian calendar. We did however find the Livadia palace just outside Yalta which is where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin carved up post WW2 Europe in February 1945. The journey to Yalta, mainly overlooking the sea, was very scenic, and a well surfaced road with light traffic. The standard of driving here is well below European levels, caused mainly by the minority of newer,larger and more expensive cars thinking they are above the rules.The worst drivers pass you very closely at speed and ignore all road markings/warnings and speed limits. The majority of cars are smaller and older – a Lada is probably the most common car category with a surprising number towing equally old and decrepit trailers. Today’s journey was relatively straightforward apart from the hazardous riding through Simferopol. Heavy, stinking traffic, long queues, an inner ring road full of massive potholes, poor signposting and a significantly bigger city than I had imagined, by a large margin. Despite all the predicted trouble from the police (seeking to enhance their pay by ‘on the spot’ fines) we have not been stopped once since arriving in Crimea. There was however a considerable presence as we rode today with one or two police at the roadside on the way in/way out of most villages and towns and larger road junctions.They appeared to be stopping vehicles at random, but fortunately not us. Our German motor bike friends, who entirely by chance we met twice whilst we stopped at the roadside, were stopped, but only asked for documentation not money. Ukraine has a large number os Soviet style concrete monuments by it’s main roads, but what they are depicting is a mystery as they use the Cyrillic alphabet Similarly, road signs are rather difficult to interpret at speed, and sometimes, at all, as they may Cyrillic, Roman or both. To complete the picture our maps may show yet another name, and although the roads are numbered there is no consistency in their display. Nevertheless we are finding our way around with only a few mis directions. Riding a bike even at today’s modest speed (60 mph) is not conducive to a detailed study of Ukrainian agriculture. My impression is that the flatter cropped land is not very productive, and large area appeared to be cultivated but uncropped. Those crops grown are almost solely cereals and with few exceptions look very low yielding. The field are very large with little sign of large scale mechanised activity other 2 crop spraying aircraft, but I was unable to see what crops they were treating.

Tuesday 10 June 9.30 pm, Vinnycja, Ukraine. 319 miles Probably one of our hardest days riding despite a 40 km stretch on the Odessa-Kiev motorway. One quirk on their motorway was the regular opportunity to make U turns (with large encouraging signs!) through gaps in the armco, directly into the fast lane on the other carriageway. The major part of the day was on 2 way main trunk roads with ridged and undulating/rippled surfaces made slippery by melted tar and diesel spillage. We had a little rain as well and it really did feel treacherous. The volume of traffic was quite high, made up of a mixture of heavy trucks,the ubiquitous old Ladas and the dreaded fast, newer larger cars. The problems brought about by ageing vehicles combined with badly maintained roads and low incomes created something that took me while to work out. At intervals in the country areas are roadside vehicle ramps, long enough to take a car or small truck, elevating them about 1 metre, allowing emergency repairs to be carried out a little more easily. police at the roadside and junctions were again in evidence in numbers, nearly always pre-occupied interviewing other drivers and not bothering us. In answer to the question you not have thought to ask – “what do the police do with their old patrol cars?” – answer: park them at the roadside, at strategic intervals, near garage entrances and road junctions and let them rot If that doesn’t act as a deterrent to recalcitrant motorists, maybe the plywood cutout policeman will! We are staying in the Savoy hotel in Vinnycja, a rather run down place on the main route to L’Viv, tomorrow’s destination. The city is noteworthy for being singularly unimpressive with absolutely nothing to recommend it unless you are a transport buff – here you can witness a tram and tracless/trolley bus system looking exactly the same as the 1936 picture in the hotel.

Thursday 12 June 4.00 pm, L’Viv, Ukraine. 263 miles (on Wednesday) Now a rest day in L’Viv and residing in the George hotel in the city centre. The George is very similar in most respects to the Savoy in Vinnycja- a lovely old building with run down, antiquated facilities. The magnificent splendour of the large airy and very well decorated entrance hall reception area and wide turn staircase swiftly change as you walk along the upper corridors and open your room double door. Only a hand basin so it’s down the motorway like corridor to WC and shower room fitted out the most ancient equipment imaginable. But all very clean. Yesterdays ride was very hard – I thought Dic was going to collapse off his bike when we arrived here! Most of the road was 2 way, the traffic,particularly the large trucks, was heavy in places, and we had a short period of rain and the uneven road surface was ridged and slippery with previously melteddtar.To add to our stress, for the first time we were stopped by a roadside police check. I was accused of driving at 72 kph (as shown on his radar gun) in a 50 kph speed limit. In reality I was on an open 2 way main road in a wooded area with no houses for miles and no speed restriction signs whatsoever. We had been flashed by oncoming vehicles and, in the lead, I had slowed down to 70 kph as a precaution thinking I was in (as I am sure I was) a 90 kph limit – the norm for this type of road – and I was flagged down as I came round a bend. There were 4 policeman and there spokesman demanded our International Driving Licences indicating we couldn’t have them back without some “protocol” – the only english word he knew. The appearance of our wallets clarified what protocol was 100 USD. As politely and as firmly as possible we refused his generous offer, and with pencil and paper I opened the bidding a 10 USD. This and subsequent bids, in 10 USD increments up to 50 USD were turned down unceremoniously, but he then conceded that it was OK, with the addition of a 100 Hyena(c.£10). L’Viv is a magnificent city with a centre full of superb old buildings (2-300 years at least), which despite their somewhat shabby appearance are very attractive to wander amongst, as I did this morning whilst Dic stayed in the hotel. I particularly enjoyed the ambience in Rynok Square and had a coffee in the Italian Yard, no.6 Rynok Square. Each of the 44 houses round the square are numbered and most have some story attached to their past going back to 17/18 century.

Friday 13 June 6.00 pm, Oswiecim, Poland. 251 miles If I had realised earlier it was Friday the 13th I might have ridden a bit slower Regardless of that we arrived at our destination, near Oswiecim (Auschwitz) satisfactorily, if not little later than planned. Leaving L’Viv at 7.00 am was fine apart from the very badly cobbled streets and the protruding tram lines. There was little traffic on the road and the conditions ‘under wheel’ – ridged and slippery. As if that wasn’t bumpy enough we had to endure some over weight sleeping policemen in a few villages. The border crossing into Poland could have been extremely traumatic but we managed to squeeze our bikes passed huge queues of trucks and cars. The Ukrainians were very officious insisting we stayed with our bikes, in the ‘no mans land’ between the border controls, when we strolled up the queue looking for a way through. Eventually a Polish car driver told me to just ride passed everyone to the front, which we did resulting in the whole process being completed, in about one and a half hours – the actual document checking took about 5 minutes max. Car drivers could expect to take 10 hours. Allegedly loads of Ukrainian car drivers repeatedly try to smuggle cigarettes into Poland, and despite being caught and have their contraband confiscated, are in the queue again few days later. The majority of queuers took the waiting process much more philosophically than us Brits. The one hour time gain at the border helped us reach our hotel a couple of miles from Oswiecim. The traffic to here was very heavy, mainly trucks interspersed with a few rather fast aggressive car drivers. Most of the road was either single carriageway (with sections of 3 lanes designated 1/2 or 2/1) or short stretches of 4 lane road with only a continuous white lane separating the traffic – a bit more exciting driving on these bits! The contrast between Ukraine and Poland is so obvious wherever you look – road condition, traffic density and speed, house size and condition, commercial development, advertising. Nevertheless, I did see a few horse and carts in Poland.

Saturday 14 June 10.30 pm, Legnica, Poland. 200 miles The morning was spent with a guided tour of the museum in Oswiecim, at the site Auschwitz 1, the WW2 Nazi German concentration camp. This was one of the first concentration camps to be built, with the twin purposes of providing labour for the war effort and extermination Jews. It’s location was influenced by nearby factories requiring labour, a railway line and being in a wooded thinly populated area. As one would expect it was a very moving and thought provoking experience. I learnt little more than I already knew of this horrendous barbarism, but to see some of the reality added a chilling dimension to this brutal act. I find difficulty in conceiving how so many educated ‘modern’ European people could plan develop and implement this mass extermination process on innocent men, women and children. The horror of either being selected on entry to the camp to be sent to the gas chambers, or to be overworked undernourished and the sent to the gas chambers because you were not fit for work, is so unbearably inhumane – but it did happen. There is a large sign as you enter the museum, as a justification for it’s existence, which runs along the lines that those people who forget these atrocities will allow them to happen again. My emotions were touched by the everyday items that had been preserved; a roomful of human hair which was cut of people after they had been gassed, piles and piles of shoes many from small children; suitcases with white painted names and addresses indicating hope of return; a huge heap of spectacles. We went inside the one remaining small gas chamber which in itself looked just like a large windowless room, but when we saw the whole extermination process via a large model, it was almost beyond belief. This afternoon was a mainly motorway driving the 200 miles to our overnight stop in Legnica, in Silesia.

Sunday 15 June 7.00 pm, Colditz, Germany. 179 miles Just a short drive again today to the village of Colditz renowned for it’s WW2 castle prisoner of war camp glamorised on celluloid. We have found a very homely hotel flying a St Georges flag – it is owned by a couple of gay Brits with apparent close connection to the gay looking town Burgomaster! I have a view of the castle from my room. This afternoon we had a guided tour of the castle which was devoted almost entirely to its POW activities. It is now a Youth Hostel. The contrast with Auschwitz could not be more stark and in some ways a bit un-nerving. Here and Auschwitz were both run by Germans, but if we were to believe our German guide, the prisoners here were treated with respect, fed reasonably and housed properly (if not a little cold in the winter). But the determination and ingenuity in trying to escape restored some of my faith in human nature. The Brits alone were reported to have made 150 escape attempts but with only 11 making a successful home run.

Monday 16 June 6.00 pm, Duren, Germany. 360 miles Feeling very much on the homeward run after a full days autobahning. Not a particularly hard day in the saddle, but a lot of traffic in places and it was sometimes difficult to find the right route. Overall the SatNav is very helpful but I find that when I am taking in information from the SatNav I fail to read the road signs and when you come to a complicated autobahn junction you really need both bits of information. Hence we did go wrong once and managed to go into a busy town, rather than bi-passing it. Clocked up 4288 total miles today.

Tuesday 17 June 9.30 pm, Calais, France. 264 miles Back to the F1 in Calais for our very last night. We had a very easy day yesterday and deviated off the motorways to have look at rural Belgium, and quite impressive it was. All very tidy and prosperous looking. It made me realise that we really hadn’t seen any detail of western European life at all on our way back and the contrast between Belgium and the Ukraine rural areas was quite staggering. We completed our last continental day in the same restaurant as the one we ate in on our way out. And the lager just as good.

Wednesday 18 June, Aberystwyth, 326 miles Journeys end repeating the same route home as the one taken out, through the Euro tunnel, up the M1 and M6 which was a bit wet in places, just to make it feel like home, and 4878 miles on the clock as I drove down my drive.