Category Archives: Biking the Baltic 2,400km
The dew had been so heavy during the night that I had the tent hanging over the children’s play equipment outside the restaurant for an hour this morning….and no statues this time.
When I got to the Polish border, it was another non-event, only this little sign to give away the secret.
But crucially, there was nowhere to get some zloty, the Polish currency, and as I write this, I still have no currency. These days, of course, it’s not so vital with the predominance of card-only transactions. But fear not, this man will not starve.
After 112km, I finally ended up in a town called Augustow, some 50km into Poland, pitched up in a distant campsite by a lake, and met Wolfgang from Cologne,
who is currently riding Poland’s Eastern Border Trail, some 2000km long of mainly off-road. He says the track surface is frequently rough, but he likes the traffic-free environment, despite the shorter distances covered each day.
Getting out of any city is usually a trial, but even more so if you coincide with the morning dash to work. After 12km and riding mainly along cycle paths, I was clear of the city, but then I had to contend with the narrowest of shoulders along a busy road. In Lithuania, you either stick with the asphalt, or go gravel riding along what we would call country lanes.
I would have said it was just another routine day at the office, except that I took a detour to stand and gaze in wonder at this sumptuous pile….
Trakai Island Castle, some 25km outside Vilnius. When I saw a few dozen tour buses parked up, it told me the kind of tourist hotspot it was, and knew I wouldn’t be joining the crowds inside. Besides, this medieval pile from the Grand Duchy days has obviously had a recent major face-lift, giving it a bit of a Disney film set appearance. But worth the detour nevertheless….
In the past, I was in the habit of following recognised historic routes, like routes of pilgrimage and the crusades. Ever since, I have gone ‘freelance’, largely making up my own routes across countries and continents, just like this route through the Baltics. However, when leaving Vilnius, I stumbled across this sign…..
…a clear reminder of how far people were prepared to walk centuries ago to reach their holy destination, in this case Santiago de Compostela. Lithuania is the most Christian (indeed Catholic) of the Baltic states, reflected by the impressive density of churches in the capital.
An important footnote about my route: my intention was to go via Minsk in Belarus, but I have now been assured they won’t let me across the border without a visa. I’m sad about this because I’ve heard good sccounts about the beauty of the Belarusian countryside and its people.
After 115km I arrived in Alytus, and spied a wayside restaurant behind a service station, and ‘admired’ the grassed area behind an extension marquee…..they obviously use it for weddings and such like. When I asked a young waitress if I could pitch my tent there, it was obvious she had never been asked that kind of question before…..but all credit to her, she went off to consult someone, and came back with a ‘yes’!So here I am, behind a restaurant (that doesn’t close till 22.00) with use of the facilities, including charging ponts and WiFi (well, the WiFi doesn’t actually work, so the waitress linked me to the mobile data on her own phone).I’m now just 70km from the border with Poland, so tomorrow I move out of the Eurozone and into the Zloty-zone…..
We, in the west, know so little about these tiny Baltic republics and the struggles they have been through. The most heart-rending visits of my stay in Vilnius have been to the Soviet KGB museum, housed in the very building where tens of thousands were tortured and shot, and the Jewish Holocaust museum. Lithuania had, before the last war, the largest population of Jews in Europe (over 200,000), and 95% of them were exterminated. Known as the Paneriai massacre, in the absence of extermination camps, they were simply taken to the forest and shot, and buried in a mass grave.
Since 1991 and the fall of Soviet communism, Lithuania has been reborn, it has regained its strong identity as a nation, switched its alphabet from the imposed cyrillic back to the roman, and made the Lithuanian language (related to Sanskrit) the only official language of state. Many victories in so short a time. And it has also joined NATO, the EU and Eurozone……a veritable ‘earthquake’ of change.
A very informative and entertaining guided tour of the city centre introduced us to a tiny ‘republic’ within a Republic…. grandiosely called the Republic of Uzipio,
which has its own written constitution stating things like “Everyone has the right to die….but it’s not obligatory”. And even has its own foreign ambassadors, like the ‘ambassador of the debatable land between Scotland and England’. They celebrate independence day on April 1st (April Fool’s Day, of course),
when this fountain runs with free beer for an hour on the day. I could tell you much much more, but you’ll have to come and see it for yourself. So there, get on yer bike….
Should you ever come to Lithuania (and I would heartily recommend it), you’ll find their two national dishes are Burokeliu Sriuba (cold beetroot soup), and not to be confused with Borscht (which is Russian)….
….and Cepelinai (Zeppelins), potato dumplings filled with pork, and dressed with a sour cream sauce. Both very filling and delicious. Yet another reason to come to Lithuania…..
Oh, and by the way, the occasional parliament that is held by the Republic of Uzipio takes place in a bar, now known as the ‘Barliament‘ …..and when the constitution is officially translated into yet another language (some 28 in total, including Gaelic) there is an official public celebration…..which, apparently, happened today.
If you measure distances in kilometres (as I do), does a ‘milestone’ become a ‘pierre de kilo’ or a ‘kilostone’? Whatever…. I just passed one anyway. Nothing momentous……piffling to be honest….hardly worth mentioning….but I’ll mention it anyway. Before the simple analogue computer on my handlebars reverts back to zero on my total distance so far on this ride, I captured the moment of being just 10 metres short of 1000km on this little jaunt across northern Europe. I hope you are suitably impressed…..
….but it is only the start. There’s a few more kilometres still to do. Not yet having a fixed destination, which could be Prague, Bratislava, Vienna, or some other, yet to be discovered, finishing point, plans can change. Unlike all my other jaunts around the world, when I’ve had a pre-booked return flight ticket in my pocket, I have no idea yet of how I will get back home….or from where. This is a bid to encourage my brain to develop new thinking patterns, and work with more open-ended possible outcomes.
Now, a question for you to consider: if you saw this road sign on your travels, what would you make of it?
Being a native English speaker, I immediately thought of ‘black spot’….but what do Lithuanians mean by it? Then I saw this explanation further along the road:
…I checked it on a translation app, and it came up with ‘accidental roses‘…close enough? Well, not quite, it turns out the app can’t handle the accent on the z so it changes the meaning completely….and yes, it does mean in Lithuanian ‘accident black spot’. So I was expecting to see little roadside memorials to people who have lost their lives in accidents….but not one.
I stopped for a rest by a bus shelter, and Gunteras came over to make conversation but we had little language in common.
His generation had been made to learn Russian under the Soviet occupation, but anyone born post-independence in 1991 would have learned English. So the moral of this little tale is, if you have a question, ask an under thirty year old….they all have an excellent level of English. So to make up for the lack of a common language, I showed him photos on my phone, and he produced a small bottle of vodka….I tried to tell him it was against my ‘religion’ but he wouldn’t have understood me.
So into Vilnius where I will be hosted for two nights by a Lithuanian family….again members of Warmshowers, the hospitality group run by cyclists for cyclists.
I was awoken by water fowl on the nearby pond at 6am and thought I could just hear the first spots of rain on the tent……this got me into action immediately, forlornly rushing to strike camp before it was too late. However, I did a pretty good job without getting too wet, then watched the rain teem from a nearby bus shelter. Watching heavy rain from a bus shelter at 6.30am is not everybody’s definition of fun…..but we adventure cyclists are built of strong stuff….er, aren’t we?
It then continued to rain gently for the rest of the morning….quite pleasant really, especially now the wind had dropped and my average speed had risen by at least 5km per hour. But it was one of those days when I looked for meaning in unusual signage by the road. Like this, for example……what do you think it represents? (No cheating with Google images now…)
…and this. The question I need answering is this: if traffic speed is being reduced to 110kph (70mph), then what is the normal maximum speed on a dual carriageway? It could of course, be unrestricted…
At 4pm, with a 101km on the clock, it was time to do a recce for another stealth pitch around the tiny village of Musninkai, about 40km to the north of Vilnius…..and I found this corner of their church yard….
…..but I checked on the church door beforehand for mass times and, with the help of my translation app, I worked out it’s 9am in the morning. I hope to be some 20km down the road when the opening prayer is recited.
But a word of warning if you like to stealth camp…..beware of choosing a spot with a life-size statue nearby….you see, when you get up for a pee in the night, you’ve forgotten it’s there…..in my comatose state, I saw this human outline in the dark and it scared me witless…so now, this morning, he’s very kindly helping to dry my tent.
On any long distance cycle journey, there are going to be several ‘routine days at the office’, and some days the draught from the window blows all the papers off your desk. The last two days have been just like that. Routine rides but a persistent headwind that has made the going very hard. And when you think it can’t get any worse, it just does….like the repairs on a bridge. I passed this sign….
entered it on Google Translate, and it told me ‘bypass thread’….so I guessed there was a road closure ahead….but like all cocky cyclists, I knew I could blag my way through. The detour would add about 40km to my journey (very bad news).When I got there, this is what I discovered….
and the only way through was down these very steep steps (with a loaded bike) and up an identical flight the other side.
Of course, better than the detour was to strip the bike and carry my stuff in stages to the other side. I was knackered when I’d finished…..
Then I stopped to examine this little wriggley and as I took the photo, I noticed he was watching me cunningly….his game was to play dead to entice his prey….but I doubt he could have swallowed me whole….well, at least not with the bike anyway.
After 80km (50m) of fighting the damned headwind, I was done. So in Viesintos I found a stealth camping pitch in a pretty little park, 50 metres from the village food store, and settled in for a bit of a rainy night.
The only downside of the Schengen Agreement is that it robs cyclists like me of the Kodak moment when I cross a border. I looked for a sign saying LITHUANIA, but there wasn’t one. The only certainty that I’d crossed something was the changing quality of the road surface….on the Latvian side, it had recently been resurfaced with a beautiful smooth finish, on the Lithuanian side it was definitely the beginning of the off-road section of my ride…better known as the ‘rocky road to Vilnius’.
It’s taken me only three days to ride across Latvia north to south and no, that is not through some superhuman effort on my part, it just happens to have been quite narrow at that point. Had I been going east to west, it would have been a different story. In case you are baffled about the geography of this area, here is a reminder….
…and if you are dying to be reminded of the Lithuanian flag, here it is…
…and yes, they do speak their own language (one of the oldest in the world), and the country has far fewer Russian emigrés than its neighbour, Latvia. And did you know that on St Patrick’s Day they dye the river Vilnia green, and that there is a ‘dark secret’ swing society that goes around placing swings in unexpected places….and yes, you can have a swing on one to your heart’s content?
I was impressed with this sign, but soon learned it had absolutely no effect on driver behaviour because it wont be the driver that breaks his leg (or any other part of his body) but the unfortunate cyclist. Like the chilling pictures on cigarette packets, these images only serve to scare off the cyclist, the very person they want to protect and encourage.
And for the selfie record, here is a gratuitous reflection I was confronted by when I parked my bike outside a wayside shop….don’t be misled by the smile….I was actually gasping for a coffee….🙃
Today’s distance: 105km
The Russification of Latvia….now I’m beginning to understand it. Some 40% of Riga is made up of ethnic Russians, mostly from the Soviet days, and I have been brought face to face with it.
Last night’s backpacker’s was a nice place, but I had a deep, undefined feeling of unease about it. Some of the residents were obviously semi-permanent, and the young men had a Soviet gulag look about them: severe, sinister facial features, shaven heads and tattoos….and when one of them began talking to himself persistently through the night, I knew I’d be moving on in the morning.
So I checked into another hostel that was clearly used by genuine backpackers, who were chatty and had stories to tell. And they served free waffles and coffee for breakfast….decision made!
In fact, facial features are particularly prominent here in Latvia, principally for their severe, unsmiling qualities. Take a wrong turn in a museum, and a pint-sized lady steward, with just one look, can condem you to 10 years deportation to Siberia. I’m sure these people are ‘a bundle of fun’ underneath, but their faces betray something quite different.
I once listened in to the commentary of a Riga street guide talking about the local economy, saying that Latvia has lost its premier status amongst Baltic countries, because its average income has fallen. The average Latvian has an mrdian take-home salary (net of tax) of only €600…..then I look around me at the number of people relaxing on restaurant verandas and café terraces, and I try to square the two.
When I come to a capital city, it is my policy to look up the main, or national library, because library conceptual architecture can be amongst the most fascinating and articulate. Like Helsinki Central Library, Riga National Library is conceptually a centre for all the arts over 12 floors, a repository of the banned literature of the Soviet occupation, a viewing gallery of the city on the top floor served by a high-speed lift, and a bookshelf that is 5 storeys high of books donated, and inscribed, by the people of Riga.
Of the 5 museums and historic buildings I visited in Riga, the Library is easily the most extraordinary, and free to enter! Unlike most places of touristic interest, the Library is a vibrant hub of local life, filled with Latvians (not tourists) and their families who are simply enjoying the environment. I loved it.
I stopped by a wayside eatery and they had something called bukstiņputra on the menu, described as Latvian porridge with bacon. I was curious. I challenged the waitress’ English by asking her the ingredients.
Of course, I didn’t expect to be told it was just like my breakfast porridge, served with dried fruit and nuts, and some yoghurt. No, this porridge is a mixture of potato and pearl barley, and mixed with the bacon, which makes a delicious and filling meal. It definitely pumped a few miles back into the legs.
When I arrived at the outskirts of Riga, I expected to be embroiled with chaotic city traffic, but only until I got to the historic centre, where most of the ancient cobbled streets have been pedestrianised. I quickly got the feel of the place and liked it. Quieter than Tallinn, and much more spacious. Vibrant, but without being in your face. So I found myself a backpacker’s hostel right in the heart of the historic centre, to give me a convenient base for ‘pigging out’ on a few museums tomorrow.
As with all member countries of the Schengen Agreement, border crossings are now non-events, barely marked by a sign telling you of your transition….but in the case of Estonia and Latvia, that hasn’t always been the case.
In 1917, they started the process of creating a definitive border, and brought in the services of a neutral referee, in the name of Steven Tallents, a former colonel in the British army. The major problem was satisfying all the different ethnic groups, and Tallents himself was accused by both sides of corruption and taking bribes….even of having a Latvian wife and property in Riga. Anyway, the border was finally signed off in 1927, the border (or non-border) we have today.
Ethnic mix is a big problem here in Latvia, especially with the number of Russians still here from Soviet days. There’s an uneasy tolerance between communities, but things could easily flair up given the right conditions.
I found myself catching up with two
Eurovelo routes which happened to coincide. The EV10, the Baltic Sea route, and the EV13, the Iron Curtain trail. Both are just shy of 8000km in length, and both gain most of their distance from weaving in and out of either coastlines or country borders. I have to confess I would find both of them very frustrating to follow, sometimes weaving 100km to get to a point only 50km away. Unlike a river, my basic nature is not to meander…
And I have to tell you I found yet another extraordinary pitch for my tent, just 40km out of Riga. For €5, a young guy has let me use a corner of his constructed paintball battleground, and I’ve found a covered niche amongst the BBQs and picnic tables….because presumably, in these paintball battles, they stop for lunch or refreshments now and again…. Btw, in Latvian it’s called ‘peintbola’….
Distance covered: 90km
Many countries have a word to describe the impact of English on their language, such as Spanglish, Franglais, Finglish and Denglish (German)…. I asked the campsite warden in Tallinn if Estonians had a similar word, and she thought not. So let me stake a claim to creating a brand new word on behalf of 1.3 million Estonians: ‘Estonglish’. What do you reckon its chances of making it into the Oxford English dictionary?
This has been my last full day in Estonia. I’m just 10km north of the border with Latvia, in another RMK rustic site, right beside the sea, nestling amongst pine trees. As romantic as it sounds, you have to accept that pine cones will periodically fall on your tent during the night…..but not as bad as the coconuts that fell on my cabin roof on a remote Belize island once. They frightened the living daylights out of me….
And when I thought I was far removed from native English-speaking civilisation, I bumped into a bunch of Aussie cyclists, all from Perth, and all on a fully supported ride through the three Baltic countries. They teased me, I teased them….but the banter got very serious when I mentioned the recent nail-biting victory of England in the Ashes.
“Ah, they’re still a bunch of Sheilas”, said one of the men. “Just wait till we get them on the rugger field….”.
It’s good to know that traditional enmity between the two nations is alive and well….
And before I go here’s yet another boring photo of a sunset from just outside my tent:
Last night, I finished cooking my meal, stoked up the fire, and invited a recently-arrived Romanian couple to join me. They were on a one year campervan trip around Europe, having taken leave from their jobs as clinical psychologists, and they are currently en route to Nordcapp before the winter sets in.
An hour later, two Finnish sisters came and joined us, and the stories and anecdotes flowed until I had to excuse myself to climb into my sleeping bag…..but they were set for a few more hours, such is the magnetism of the campfire, especially after sunset. And, of course, the lingua franca across all nationalities is always English. One Estonian lad said to me it was a joy to hear an English person speak genuine native English, because all he is exposed to is the ‘foreign English’ of the tourists.
Today, the cruise control was set to cover the 90km to Parnu. It was the infamous E67 all the way, with its narrow shoulder for cyclists, and it’s thundering commercial traffic heading towards the border with Latvia….and the sun was beating down with determination, driving me to seek respite in the shade every 20km..
But in Parnu, I found a pitch for my tent in a beautiful garden apple orchard, with an outbuilding containing shower, toilet and kitchen…..a perfect spot just a few hundred metres from the sea. And I can eat as many apples as I want….
So this morning, with a bag full of apples, I will set off for the Latvian border….but delay my crossing till tomorrow with the promise of a last free pitch in another Forestry Commission rustic site, this time amongst pine trees by the beach…
A number of comments made on cycling forums about the dangers of cycling in the Baltic countries would be enough to dissuade the faint-hearted from venturing out…..however, I did well today to find a diversion that was blessed with the best cycle paths I’ve ever seen, anywhere.
Even if you feel very nervous about taking to an E road, and find the cycling shoulder a bit too narrow, there is usually a gravel track to the side, which would give you a bit more space, but has the minor disadvantages of any gravel track. You take your pick…..
To break my journey to Parnu on the coast, after 70km I decided to check out a rustic camping area maintained by the Forestry Commission (RMK has a useful app) and discovered a perfect spot. Very basic, with only well-water and long-drop loos, but there are fire pits for lighting a fire, and a ready supply of wood….so barbecued pork is on the menu tonight….who said I didn’t cook when I’m camping?
The area around the campsite is called the Varbola Stronghold, and once the site of an ancient Viking fortress.
The thing about Tallinn, as with most cities of its kind, is that it’s undeniably stunning medieval historic centre is such a must-see, that the world and his dog, as well as hundreds of cruise tourists, will be there in their droves, following their guides like sheep. As you meander down cobbled streets, they come towards you in thick waves…. That, of course, is not to denigrate the value of visiting Tallinn….. I know it’s on everyone’s bucket list, and deservedly so. And if you are cycling through these parts, it merits at least a two night stopover.
So I checked into a central backpacker’s hostel, not only to find a handy base, but also somewhere secure for the bike. And I would heartily recommend the Old Town Alur Hostel….it’s well furnished, spacious and airey, and a bed in a shared dormitory only cost me €9. That is cheaper than most camping pitches, but then tonight I may have the company of the odd stag or hen party….and I won’t find that out until the small hours of the morning…
If you like history and architecture, Tallinn is awash, and it’s all confined within a historic centre, with everything just a short walk away. I got absorbed into the fast-changing circumstances of the last 100 years, and its final emergence from the grips of the Soviet Union and it’s flight into the arms of the EU, which it regards as it’s saviour from any future encroachment by Russia.
Estonia itself is only a bit-player in world affairs, with its tiny population of only 1.3 million, but it is way ahead of its European neighbours in the field of technology.
Tomorrow I head south towards Parnu, the ‘summer capital’ by the coast…..
After the tribulation comes the blessing…. ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. My blessing was to be hosted by Jaakko and Irina last night.
As hosts, they were everything a guest could hope for….and much more. A salmon supper, a 90 degree C sauna, a few beers, and conversation that ranged from Finnish and Russian history (Irina is from St Petersburg), to travel, to fascinating comparisons between languages…..and it all continued into breakfast the next morning. The memories of my stay will be with me for life.
Before boarding a ferry for Tallinn, I spent a few absorbing hours in the National Museum, and then went prepared for the surprise of Central Library….
the top floor is designed like the deck of a ship, rising steeply towards bow and stern, and is popularly known as Book Heaven, where people can relax, stroll, buy coffee, admire the views and, of course, choose and read books. And it’s one of the first libraries to use robots to handle and sort books.
And so to Tallinn….
So I tried another tack….this time to give the bike a tune-up, but I needed professional help. In another service station, I bought a can of ‘battery top-up’, and asked the counter assistant (this time a young man) to help me with it….
“With what?” he said. Well, with the battery, I said, I’ve never done it before. So he followed me outside, stood for a few seconds looking at the bike, and said: “But it’s not an electric bike, so how can I top up the battery”.
We looked at each other, and I knew he had sussed my ruse immediately, and we just fell about laughing. So I went inside and topped up my own battery instead. Good to know there’s a sense of fun among some Finns, at least. (By the way, this battery drink has zero calories, in case you are interested).
When I left the Friendship Inn this morning, people were swimming in the lake, attending informal meetings both inside the house, and out on the jetty-veranda that jutted out over the lake…..it was beautiful.
I fell in love with the place….I was sad to leave….I hung on till midday, then had to drag myself away….there were 90km to do to Espoo….
20km out of Turku, I noticed the old engine was not firing on all cylinders. Solution? Well, of course, I pulled into a service station for a tune-up (as you would) and a change of oil….so I ordered a can of motor oil,
but was dismayed to note the ‘natural caffeine’ was intended only for mental lubrication…..so I took it back to the counter and asked for something for the legs……the young girl didn’t immediately appreciate my warped English humour……there was a long moment of hesitation until she got it. I was happy to know that my poor attempt to be funny wasn’t entirely wasted….
Later in the day, close to being ready to find a pitch for my tent, I asked a couple at a neighbouring table if they could recommend anywhere, and they pointed me in the direction of the Friendship Inn just 8km further on. Not only did they let me pitch my tent by the lake, but they would provide supper and breakfast, as well as a sauna….and all for the princely sum of €20……which for Finland is ridiculously cheap.
Not only do they cater for passing cyclists like me, but it is a form of retreat centre for any kind of group (the staff of a small company are using it this week to sort out their future strategies), to find personal downtime, and for rehabilitation. It is unique in its kind in Finland (so they tell me) and has a refreshingly open-door welcome to everyone.
No, not on the bike, of course, but on the Finnish equivalent of a ‘booze cruise’…..on a ship called the Baltic Princess, which was built as a cruise ship, but designed for the only duty-free shopping and drinking experience on the high seas…..and it has everything to do with the political independence of the Aland Islands. To qualify for such privileges, all ships have to dock somewhere in the Aland archipelago, then they can serve duty-free….
I spent most of my time getting lost on board, never able to find a loo when I needed one, then I looked for help to find my bike on the vehicle deck at the end….too much for a cyclist of very little brain….
When I cycled off this cavernous monster, I was met by a former pupil of mine and his family and, until 36 hours ago, I didn’t even know he lived in Turku….all a testament to the positive power of social media, and the strength of old friendships.
It was a delight to share a meal with them, have a sauna (a standard addition to every Finnish home), and be offered a couch for the night. Round every corner lies a suprise….all we have to do is ‘go find it’!
The Aland archipelago has a curious status. You would be right to wonder whether it’s Swedish or Finnish. For me, the giveaway was the change of currency to the Euro. For centuries a bone of contention, neighbouring countries have squabble over ownership, till they finally reached a compromise…..
Culturally and linguistically, they are Swedish, but politically they are Finnish……well, kind of….you see, Finland had to accept a League of Nations decree granting the islands political autonomy …so I suppose, they have a similar status to our own Channel Isles…..independent but attached.
It was nearly midnight (Finnish time UTC+2) when I pitched my tent by the beach….watching a blood red moon rise above the horizon, then 7 hours later its buddy, the sun, rising above the very same horizon. I always thought these perfect moments only ever happened to other people….