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Cycling from Ireland to Russia: Tom’s adventures on EuroVelo 2 - Capitals Route

Having previously cycled some of the most popular EuroVelo routes, Tom Jones decided to challenge himself and cycle one of the routes that would lead him to countries not often visited by cycle tourists: EuroVelo 2 - Capitals Route. On his journey he cycled a total of 50 days, with a rest day in each capital city, covering a distance of approximately 4,750 km. Read on to find out more about Tom's adventure.

It was a restored Victorian cast iron ventilation shaft converted to signpost that gave me the motivation to cycle to Moscow. Tantalisingly the sign pointed to Galway in the West and Moscow in the East. I was compelled to find out more!

 

I did some research, learnt about the EuroVelo Network, and got myself a EuroVelo map. Cycling in Europe was not unknown to me and I must have covered sections of various EuroVelo routes on previous journeys to Santiago de Compostela, Rome and to a lesser extent Istanbul. EuroVelo 2 - Capitals Route would be a fascinating journey taking me to countries not often visited by cycle tourists. It would also prove to be the most demanding journey of my cycling career.

 

 

Stage 1 (8 days)

Travelling over to the west coast of Ireland and making my way back to Cardiff was the first stage of my journey to Moscow. Leaving lively Galway on the Atlantic coast, heading due east through tranquil countryside the going is generally flat. Crossing peat bogs in central Ireland and discovering the town of Tullamore where local waters are used to distil some of the finest Irish whiskeys!

The Emerald Isle is rich in green pasture land and you could rely on hearty breakfasts with oat based white and black pudding every morning. The Irish capital Dublin, headquarters of Guinness production, is the ferry departure point for mainland Britain and there is a major change in geography entering mountainous Wales.

Travelling through the National Park of Snowdonia in the north towards the National Park of the Brecon Beacons in the south involves heaving up or hurtling down very steep gradients. No gentle climbs following the contours but straight up and straight down. EuroVelo 2 heads directly towards the Severn Estuary and Bristol although in my case I opt to travel down the famous coal mining Taff Valley into my home town of Cardiff, the Capital of Wales.

 

Stage 2 (3 days)

A spectacular ride across the Severn Bridge into England then following several tow paths alongside canals on the NCN Route 4 from Bath to London.The flag flies over Windsor Castle to show the Queen is in residence and planes gather overhead as my route takes me alongside Heathrow Airport. St Paul's Cathedral and so much more are waiting for me in London but this stage is also important for me as I have an appointment at the Russian Embassy to provide biometrics in order to complete my visa application - visas for Belarus and Russia are critical for the final stage of my EuroVelo 2 journey. Despite meticulous preparation for authorisation process; however, an oversight in the completion of the Belarus visa is to catch me out well into my journey.  But more about that later.

 

Stage 3 (39 days)

Based on hard earned knowledge from previous long cycling tours in Europe my daily pre-planned routes, prepared for GPS navigation, safely guide me in and out of London. The overnight ferry crossing to the Hook of Holland sails from Harwich and as I disembark in The Netherlands the excellent provisions for cyclist are very evident from the start.

I make a detour to visit the iconic Peace Palace in The Hague and I'm fascinated by the extensive two tier bicycle parking structures in front of the main railway station. With a capacity for several thousand commuter bikes it is no accident that the Dutch travel by bicycle.I acknowledge the peaceful intent of the International Court of Justice at the start of my journey which covers ground which has been at the heart of major conflicts in the past.

Following dedicated cycle paths I make my way to Utrecht to stay with friends. Guests arrive for dinner by bicycle and return by bike later that night – well over 10kms each way and smilingly they tell me “that's what we do”. I am truly impressed!  My second day is more stressful as my rear wheel shows signs of collapsing on my way towards the German border. Generously my 'Warmshower' hosts in Gaanderen contact a bike repair shop and the following morning, with new wheel fitted, I'm back on track and heading towards cycle friendly Munster. The famous 'Rathaus' historic town hall is an impressive sight and I return to my appropriately named 'Sleep Station' hostel with Bratwurst German sausages - soon becoming my favourite cycling 'reserve', the Bratwurst are long lasting, tasty and full of energy!

Beyond the swampy conditions of the low lying River Ems the land abruptly rises sharply ahead of Bielefeld and I am informed later that this was once the edge of the continent - millions of years ago the low lying Netherlands and other surrounding areas were underwater!

More serious climbs leading to Goslar which stands in the Harz Mountains, the most northerly mountainous area in Germany.Goslar boasts a beautiful medieval centre and World UNESCO Imperial Palace. A large well presented signboard marks the border into the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and it is a memorable moment entering the region of Saxony Anhalt. Before the 20th December 1989 this region with its beautiful villages and Romanesque churches was once behind the 'Iron Curtain' and as I cross paths with the EuroVelo 13 - Iron Curtain Trail my route takes me into Magdeburg on the River Elbe. The countryside is heavily forested and lakes and waterways appear before Potsdam. Tracks continue through wooded parklands and I cycle effortlessly past the Victory Column and through the Brandenburg Gate into the centre of Berlin. This city with its history of World War and subsequent Cold War confrontation is extraordinary.

Poland is a day's ride from Berlin and designated cycle paths noticeably diminish as the River Oder, the border with Poland, approaches. Pre-planned daily routes act as a guide for me. Only now, are there secondary roads, off the main highways. However, these are often dirt tracks and the going is difficult particularly after rain.The landscape is generally flat and cultivated fields are broken up by expansive areas of forest.

The first major city at Poznan is memorable with an old Market Square rebuilt faithfully after the War in the Renaissance style. A style of architecture which truly surprises me to see in the heart of Poland. I share a section of the North/South EuroVelo 9 - Baltic-Adriatic on route to Wloklawek before turning towards the River Wisla and following its course into Warsaw.

Friendly youngsters in Trzemeszno, celebrating an 18th birthday, invite me to share their evening and I experience a warmth and friendliness which is much needed on long tours. I learn how to pronounce Warszawa, the Polish for Warsaw, and hear about Copernicus, Chopin, Madame Curie and others who originate from this great city. Rebuilt in authentic style following the devastation of wartime the capital city of Warsaw is a real jewel and the warmth and friendship of the people make it a wonderful experience.

 

The caption in the hostel entrance says it all “It's a Good Day for Adventure”. I spend a day here with my partner Sandra at about the half way point to Moscow. Beyond here is the exploration of countries outside the Schengen agreement.

Visiting the extermination camp in Treblinka was a personal objective, deeply troubling though it was, and I move closer towards the Belarussian border. Hajnowka is my last town in Poland and a feature signpost indicates it is twinned with Bulgarian, Romanian, Belarussian and Russian towns – the realisation of knowing I am a long way from home hits me!

I spend my last few Polish zloty on food reserves and water before setting off on a lonely 25 kms on a forest road which leads to a heavily protected major border control complex hidden within the Bialowieski Forest. Unnervingly, with no other visitors to be seen, I make my solitary way into the complex and after scrutinizing my visa papers, passport, itinerary and being questioned over my schedule of overnight bookings, the signal is given to let me through. The experience is surreal and so is cycling another 25 kilometres along a well maintained 'Tsar's Road' taking me through thick forests untouched since prehistoric times. The forest is the perfect natural environment for European Bison, the heaviest surviving wild animal in Europe, well established here now after nearly being hunted to extermination. I see no bison and see just one single border control car heading towards the border control complex I left behind. No vehicles pass me!

Eventually, I emerge from the forest to search for my pre booked accommodation in Ruzhany. Little knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet immediately presents me with problems finding my accommodation. Completely drenched and in desperation I enter a small shop and point to the name on my spreadsheet. My GPS navigational Garmin device was reliable after all and and I was led through the shop into the residential part of the building. My papers authorising my stay were handed over and food was available from the shop – perfect you might say, but there were no other options! Quickly I learn you buy food and drinks from shops and consume them in your room. I withdraw nearly a million Belarussian roubles which converts to around £40. It's a very economical existence in this country.

The journey through Belarus took me to many similar small towns with unconventional overnight arrangements all booked and paid for in advance through Belhotel.by. Pre-booking accommodation is essential to the granting of a visa and authorised booking papers handed over on each stay. Local shops are barely recognisable as such with no advertising and the majority are counter service style.Pointing worked for me but its a serious business!

Multi-storey concrete residential blocks line the perimeter of Minsk.The capital has retail shopping malls and very large landscaped parks, monumental in size and making a big impression.To offset the forbidding landscape of multi storey concrete buildings a traditional low rise village creates a limited but more friendly atmosphere close to the commercial centre. My hostel is unusual in that families and workers live there semi permanently as well as travellers passing through. It seems that few touring cyclists stay and an official photograph is taken to mark the occasion. I buy essential food and drink before I leave anywhere as refreshments are almost non existent on the open road. Constantly reviewing route options is now of paramount importance as my pre-planned routes on secondary roads are often found to be dust tracks and flooded at times. Progress is slow and tiring but the Warsaw/Minsk/Moscow main highway dangerously busy.

My last day in Belarus is one of the most challenging days I've faced in my cycling career, but not the most challenging as that was to come later in Russia. Orsa is on a major North/South and East/West crossroads and the level of activity in this town greater than anywhere I'd seen since Minsk.The town had an upbeat atmosphere and I looked forward to mixing with other visitors. My authorised overnight papers were handed over at the hotel and my bike carefully stored away in a strongroom, literally a strongroom with a combination lock!  Now, unexpectedly, comes the time when things go 'belly up' over the visa - close inspection of the authorised overnight paperwork is good but the visa expiry time is midnight. To cut a very long story short I was formally advised to leave Belarus by midnight.The receptionist said “You can do it” and I guess she was right because I did make it across the border into Russia that night. Completely exhausted, with the light fading, I limped into the first small town named Krasny. There, three visiting Belarussian young men came to my rescue and arranged for a local Hostel to open for the night. I was given the keys of the building and they stayed with me until I was safely inside with bike secure. Actions like this restore your faith in humanity!

The next day, refreshed, I have time to recall the swathes of purple coloured lupines in fields surrounding and the excitement of crossing into Russia. Around the corner I am flagged down by an officer of the Politsiya who directs me towards Moscow – I suspect he was informed of my unscheduled stop in Krasny.

Napolean had fled the chasing Russians at Krasny and from here to Moscow, there were regular roadside reminders of historic battles commemorating Russia's resistance of invasions from Napolean and Hitler. Being sited on higher ground Smolensk is famous for resisting all invasions and the fortified Kremlin is truly memorable. Leaving on steeply undulating busy roads the side roads are a relief but mostly dirt tracks. Flying insects are in abundance especially on the wet dirt tracks and conditions become very hot and humid across the great plains of Russia. Temperatures on the road rise to 40+ Centigrade and off the highways the dirt roads, sometimes soft sand, demand the utmost of patience.

Most challenging of all, leaving Drogubuzh on the River Dneipr, an almighty electric storm rips across the land reducing the tracks to rivers and bringing down trees across the roads ahead. The ongoing violent storms and necessary diversions cause me to arrive in Vjaz'ma not much before midnight. This most challenging cycling day of my life left me in no doubt about the difficulties of reaching Moscow. In Vjaz'ma, St John the Baptist monastery is a place of tranquility and a chance to recover before boarding a train to Gagarin, 50kms distant, where more surfaced secondary road options are available.

Visiting Yuri Gagarin's birthplace and thought of his 'first man in space' flight lift my spirits for the last few days ahead into Moscow. I pose for photos with a Ukranian family who are visiting the  Borodino War Memorial. Moscow is getting closer and each day is truly an adventure. I find by chance Victory Square at Poklonnaya Gora - set against the skyline of Moscow this monumental tribute to the Russian victory over Fascism is absolutely breathtaking.

Patiently following side streets my unforgettable EuroVelo 2 journey ends at the gates of the Kremlin. Nearby is Red Square,St Basil's Cathedral, Lenin's Masoleum, the Bolshoi Theatre and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the River Moskva.

 

You can find updates and more detailed information on Tom's journey on his blog.  He also prepared a video on his journey from the UK to Russia. 

 

 

 

 

Copy Right: Tom Jones