From the 1980s up to 2012, Moi and I travelled to many countries around Europe on our various motorcycles. We used 11 different British ports, some on several occasions, and coincidentally toured through 11 different countries of Europe – many of those several times. In 2008, we rode to Żagań in western Poland, a place with family connections, and once again experienced the pleasures and challenges of a continental road trip.
If our planned tours were to start in northern Europe, we usually sailed from Hull to either Rotterdam or Zeebrugge. Rotterdam is the largest port outside Asia, and didn’t we know it. There is port activity and equipment for miles and miles.
Zeebrugge is part of the Belgian city of Bruges, hence the name, which means ‘Bruges at sea’. On one trip, we stayed in Bruges for a few days and encountered a creature that was a blood-sucking, flying, biting thing that lives in the canals, and that is where they should stay. Two of these little blighters took a chunk out of me that took two years to fully heal. Fortunately, most of our encounters with Europe’s inhabitants were much more pleasant than that.
A memorable meal en route
On our trip to Poland, we broke the journey by staying in Helmstedt, northern Germany.
Just next to the hotel was a steak house. My expectations were raised, knowing that the Germans are very much into meat. I like my steaks rare, but knowing that some of our continental neighbours assume that us Brits like our steak crozzled to within an inch of its life, I was a little concerned that I was going to have trouble with getting my steak the way I wanted it.
The waitress, although very helpful and friendly, could speak just as much English as I could German. When I asked for my ‘blue’ steak, she frowned and shrugged and then said, “Ah, the English way”. I assumed at this point that it was all going belly up, however, when it came, it was among the best I have ever had. We did the same on our return a week later, and it was just the same – perfect.
Excitement on the autobahns
The German autobahn is an interesting and exciting experience, particularly for riders of a powerful motorcycle. There are no speed restrictions, and everybody seems to be happy travelling at 80 to 100 miles an hour. On occasions we may feel like opening up and find ourselves travelling at 120mph when someone/something comes flying past at another 50mph faster.
Somehow this never felt dangerous. Everybody seemed to be aware of what speeds others were doing, and there was no bullying or weaving in and out. Everybody just patiently waited till it was clear then lit the afterburners.
In fact, I have found European drivers much safer and more helpful in general than those in Britain. I suspect that this is at least partly because of the space available on the continent. Wagon drivers will notice that you are waiting to pass and give a wave through when they can see that the coast is clear. This takes a little getting used to, particularly on a motorcycle, but we soon discovered that they were trustworthy and helpful.
There may be an argument here to suggest that faster speeds make us more aware. I have always maintained that riding a motorcycle makes us into better drivers (if, unfortunately, not necessarily into good drivers). As motorcycle riders, we are vulnerable and so we learn to be very aware of our surroundings, a skill we take into our car driving.
One disconcerting habit they seem to have on the continent, which I haven’t witnessed here, is when delivering a new tractor/cab front section of an articulated wagon they tow it backwards, so when I was happily driving on the inside (right) lane I would see in the distance a wagon apparently driving straight for me. That was something that I never got used to!
The E30: Hitler’s road through Poland
Routes 2, 10 and 12 across Germany took us into Poland, where the road becomes the E30. This is the road that Hitler constructed to take his army east into Poland and then into northern Russia, and in 2008 it still consisted of the original concrete slabs. The contrast between this road and the autobahn was huge. Each slab of about 20 metres was a different height from the last and the next, which meant our best speeds were around 40mph and even that was uncomfortable. Luckily, they had constructed and recently extended the road to create a dual carriageway.
This is a photo of our hotel in Żagań, a newly restored ex hospital. The image much improved by our Gold Wing parked out front.
Poland: a very special country with family connections
On our trips to Poland, we have found it to be a very special place.
We noticed, for example, how disciplined everyone was. One small example of this is how people cross the road. Everyone would use a regulation crossing point, the equivalent to our zebra or pelican crossings, and then quite happily wait for the green go sign before stepping out into the road, even when there was no traffic to be seen, and possibly hadn’t been seen for hours.
People are also extremely kind and helpful. In episode six, I described how in 2008, Marian, one of the local Żagań historians, kindly helped us for three days to try to find traces of our great-grandmother. One of the most impressive images of that area was the tidiness of the graveyards, which I can only assume is typical.
In this particular graveyard, there were over two and a half thousand graves, all very neat, clean and tidy, many with little boxes in which to keep gardening tools. Another example, I think, of the Polish discipline.
A further incident of Polish helpfulness above and beyond occurred during the same stay in Żagań. Moi bought something (as she does) that turned out to be too big for our luggage space. I took it to the local post office with a hope of getting it posted back to Blighty.
Even though I had attempted to learn a little Polish, I found nothing in the language that I could get any clues from. French, German and Spanish all have many similarities whereas Polish has nothing, therefore I entered that post office with nothing but pointing and grunting as clues to what I wanted. Even though nobody in the post office could speak English, two of the staff must have felt it a worthy challenge to walk me through it.
The item was a length of cloth bought from the same mill that great granddad had worked at in the late 1800s. The two very helpful ladies found a box and wrapped it up. I wrote the label and paid.
Another trip to Poland
In 2019, my daughter Rachel and I made a different sort of trip to Poland, this time to Krakow, for the purpose of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. That’s the subject of my next article.