Pedal for Your Life: By Bicycle from the Baltic to the Black Sea
To mark his 70th year, travel writer Christopher Portway, together with his son Paul, undertook a 2000-mile bicycle journey between the Baltic and the Black Sea. Christopher describes their journey delightfully, his expert eye and knowledge painting the scenery and filling in the history of the countries they pass through. Camping in their tiny bivouac but occasionally accepting the spontaneous hospitality of kind hosts, the pair were to see for themselves how the long-suffering peoples of eastern Europe are adjusting to their new-found but fragile freedom from communism. But this is more than the narrative of a remarkable and eventful journey. For Christopher it was also a pilgrimage down memory lane, since he is no stranger to eastern Europe. Interwoven with the narrative is the story of an incredible saga of adventure, romance, drama, and the stubborn determination of an earlier era. Taken prisoner by the Germans in World War Two he was put to work in a Polish coal mine. Escaping on foot, jumping goods trains and ensconced in a first class compartment of a passenger train, he attempted to reach the Russian Front but was caught by the Gestapo to be sent to the transit cage of Auschwitz. On his second escape following the hideous occurrences of the mass migration away from the advancing Russians (the 'Death March') he was offered succour by a Czechoslovakian family - and fell in love with the 19-year-old daughter. Later recaptured but escaping yet again, Christopher ended the war with the American Third Army. The flashbacks continue, following renewed contact with Anna after the War, with his almost superhuman attempts to gain entry to communist Czechoslovakia, by then virtually impregnable behind the Iron Curtain. Cutting his way through triple electrified fences and negotiating a minefield, he was ambushed and given a 104-year prison sentence, but released after four months and an international incident, and pronounced persona non grata by the Czechoslovakian authorities. During his subsequent five-year private war against the communist regime, Christopher's further attempts - some successful - to breach the Iron Curtain and meet Anna resulted in arrest and expulsion, whilst Anna herself was being increasingly harassed by the secret police. Finally, divested of her nationality and possessions, she was permitted to emigrate to Britain. The reunited couple married 12 years after they had first met. The Czechoslovakian regime's revenge then fell upon Anna's family; but her younger sister and brother-in-law managed to escape to Yugoslavia. Joined by Christopher, they mounted three assaults on the Yugoslav-Italian border, finally escaping to the West. Almost 50 years later, cycling through little-known regions of east Poland, east Slovakia, north-east Hungary and Transylvania, the author revisits the locations of his often hair-raising earlier exploits, a saga which involved not only the Czech secret police and the KGB but also the UN, the CIA and the British intelligence services. Brilliantly merged, his two tales highlight the fascinating contrast between life now and life in what seems a much earlier age, full of adventure, romance, and danger. Read the Foreword by Joanna Lumley here.
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