Category Archives: Biking the Baltic

Descending the Tatras

I was prepared for a long, fast descent….I knew it was on the menu for the day. However, Google maps couldn’t provide a cycling option in Slovakia, the only option that gives an elevation profile of the route ahead, so I used the ‘terrain’ format to help identify ascents and descents.

Before the continuous fast stuff started, there was a switching of valleys, which meant another horrendously steep climb up and over, but once that was out of the way, after a 15km fast descent, there was continuous gradual descending for the rest of the day.

Beginning of 15km fast descent

After 110km, I got to Trencin an hour before dark, to find the only campsite had closed for the winter 4 days ago, and every hotel and hostel I contacted or visited was either full or closed. This created a predicament that required a bit of creative thinking and a strong coffee.

So I decided to wait for dark and do a stealth pitch of my tent, but then chanced by a service station, and went in to have a coffee and consider my options. The girl behind the counter spoke good English, so I enlisted her support…. Between serving customers and checking the internet, she kindly made a few calls for me and eventually found a vacancy in a penzión just three doors away.

What I ended up with (despite its unpromising name) was a suite of two bedrooms, a kitchenette and bathroom for a very reasonable €30…..and he let me sleep with my bicycle….🤩
Having dropped from the high Tatras, I am now in an entirely different climate zone. The layers came off gradually as I lost altitude, from a few degrees above freezing, I ended up in a relatively balmy 18C.

Slovakia: 7th border incursion

I am the luckiest guy in Slovakia (well, now that I’m here). As I began the long, arduous climb up to the border, there were several occasions when the weather threatened my progress. But, despite all the threats and icy cold showers, I persisted, climbed over the border (topping out at 700 metres, 2,300ft) and hurtled down the other side into the town of Cadca, when the heavens opened, and the temperature immediately dropped some 10 degrees….the day ended icily cold…..I mean icily cold. That’s why I am the luckiest guy…..I could easily have been caught by that at the highest point of the ride, totally exposed, no shelter…it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

So I grabbed myself a 15 euro room, and have just munched my way through the biggest pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life…

But I will let the pictures of the day tell their own story…

This chap was foraging for mushrooms in the forest

Smoke from chimneys tells you something about the temperatures in the mountains…the smell reminded me of my childhood

Fuel for the final push

The final of three stretches at 25% incline….and no, I didn’t ride them… I’ve finally accepted I’m no longer a testosterone-driven 30 year old

I proudly present to you the official border separating Poland from Slovakia

…and if that isn’t enough, here is proof from Googlemaps

2,300 feet above sea level

And so into the Tatras…

Ah, hello dear friends! How I’ve missed you….

No not you, the mountains…. After nearly 1,900km of mostly flat, sometimes dispiriting, riding against a predictable headwind across 6 countries, I can’t begin to explain the sheer relief I felt at finding myself in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains (also known as the Little Carpathians). I’m currently only 50km from the border with Slovakia, my 7th country on this trip…..but more of that later.

Adam rode with me through the city on his way to work

Special mention must be made of my Warmshowers host over the last two nights in Krakow. Adam is a veteran of road and off-road riding, with many years of touring experience, covering some 10 countries in the Balkans, and cycling from Poland to Nordcapp, over 5000km, to the most northerly point of Norway (and Europe). These are just two of his many exploits, all of which have been recorded on film, and we spent several hours reliving those experiences. I was mesmerised by the quality of his filming and the landscapes he has travelled through. Click here to sample some of his offerings. Sit back and enjoy them, whether or not you are a cyclist. You will be carried along by the gentle quest to discover new landscapes.

Benedictine Abbey at Tyniec

Back to my own journey. As I cruised out of Krakow on dedicated cycle paths, and had begun to climb up from the valley of the River Vistula, I chanced by the oldest Benedictine monastery in Poland, sitting high above the river,

and enveloped in that sense of withdrawal from life that begs you to stay awhile. A Dutch lady I met at the entrance was an habitual visitor, drawn back to Poland year after year.

After 102km, in the late afternoon, I checked into a wayside room, just into the final climb of this segment…

and at some 400 metres above sea level, I decided the night time temperature would be way below the tolerance of my sleeping bag. So once again, the indulgence of a real bed and a chef-prepared meal…..what has happened to the spirit of austerity, you might ask.

Time hath no power over me..

…or so I thought. I learned the full force of Polish steely determination when I cycled out to visit the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory, about 3km out of the centre of Krakow. It was a free entry day and it closed at 16.00. As I negotiated a very tricky route I found a road closure, which sent me on a longish detour. I arrived at precisely 14.35, only to be told the last entry was at 14.30 (because, apparently, you absolutely need 90 minutes to see the permanent exhibition).

“But….but…..but I’ve cycled here, and been delayed by a road closure, and the website said nothing of the last entry at 14.30…..can’t you make just this one exception?”

I won’t bore you with the detail, but I tried various ploys to blag my way in…..I even tried walking past the entrance staff to see if they would notice….even if I’d been Pope Francis himself, they would have barred my way through. So just being any old ‘Francis’ wasn’t going to cut it either….. I’ve now learned the hard way…. don’t mess with Polish museum staff.

But I do love browsing museums, learning about the history of places and their principal characters and, of course, every city will highlight its own positives:

Had there not been a Rome in Italy, Krakow itself would have been Rome.

Wawel Castle, on the top of the hill, is the most beautiful in the country..

But Krakow, like the rest of Poland, suffered disastrously at the hands of, first the Gestapo, then the Soviet KGB….go to the Terror of Krakow exhibition and you’ll need a strong coffee afterwards to calm your nerves.

But then spend an hour in the National Museum to discover Polish works of art of the 19th century, and you’ll come across jewels like this by Jacek Malczewski…

If Gothic and Baroque is your thing, there are more visitable churches than you can shake a stick at. If you need to help purge the demons of the holocaust, go to Auschwitz, or dally in the Jewish quarter of the city and visit the old Synagogue.

Krakow Market Square

Tomorrow I resume my battle with the headwind in search of the foothills of the Tatra mountains, the most westerly peaks of the Carpathian mountain chain. After some 1800km on this journey, the legs will get their first stretch in hill climbing, to give me my first elevated views of landscape.

Two Krakow encounters..

Tent dried from the overnight dew and packed up, I headed for breakfast in a nearby café, and just about managed to eat one of their small Polish-style hotdogs, but then in came this ‘Uber-Eats’ delivery guy, and he gave me a quick lesson on how to eat two giant-sized ones in quick succession…..and in less than two minutes!

Then later in the day, as I took shelter from the rain, Peter Lee (his English name of course) from Nanjing in China, struck up conversation in almost flawless English, and ended up showing me some of his superb photography shot on his most recent trip to Tibet. He then told me of his upcoming trip back to Tibet, and the 6 week 20,000km journey he will do with a friend in his car, and I ask him: ‘what has happened to the bicycle in China?’.

He looks at me and gives me one of those inscrutable Asian smiles, and proudly says: ‘Ah yes, the bicycle….China has changed a lot….we now have real traffic jams…’

Beaten into submission..

It had to happen. A day of reckoning was due. I thought I’d made a canny move changing my final destination to Bratislava from Prague, and for two days I had cause for celebration. I couldn’t boast having a tailwind, but a crosswind is always going to be a better option than a full-on headwind. However, today the pact with the weather gods has been rescinded and, according to the forecast, I will be paying my dues for the next couple of days. The wind is coming from the south, and staying from the south…..and I am going south. After a reasonable day’s quota of 83km against this 15mph headwind, I arrived at the unpronounceable town of Jedrzejow, discovered its most attractive feature was its railway station, checked on the internet and found there was a train to Krakow in 30 minutes…..it was a no-brainer….a one hour train journey into Krakow and I would be heading to a campsite by the River Vistula (the very same river that runs through Warsaw)…..it was two fingers to the weather gods.Krakow is a place Jenny and I have already visited in winter time, when the Christmas market was in full swing, and the air was filled with the aroma of mulled wine. I’ve already had a kind Warmshowers invitation to stay a further two nights here, so let’s see how the city compares in September. It is universally regarded as the jewel in the crown of Poland.

Apple orchards of Poland

Ride a bike and learn something new. I have just spent the best part of two days riding through apple orchards, in the Grojec region. Like the olive groves in Spain, they seem to go on forever. But little did I realise that Poland is the biggest apple producer in the EU, and that a full 80% of all its fruit production is in the form of apples. That’s a huge 4 million tonnes of apples every year. Check the origin of the next bag of apples you buy.

I spent last night in a tiny village of 900 inhabitants called Lipie, right in the heart of the apple region, being hosted by a delightful family. Renata, the mother, is a primary school teacher, and her children Olivia and Pawel attend the secondary school next door to their house.

Olivia is passionate about horses, and showed me her collection of 49 equine figurines.

Pawel, who wants to be a chef one day, cooked an excellent pasta bolognese, and then tried to teach me the rules of a card game using the Google translate app….we had a lot of fun with that, but very little success.

85km into my day’s ride, I arrived at Konskie, a delightful little town 160km north of Krakow which really caught my attention….enough in fact to persuade me to stay the night. And when I discovered the temperature was going to drop to just +4 degrees (the comfort limit of my sleeping bag), I decided to take a room, just metres from this signpost…..

….telling me I’m 1,651km from Londyn (about 1000 miles). I wonder if Konskie has joined the ranks of the growing number of towns that claim to be the geographic centre of Europe? I know the Guinness Book of records currently recognises Girija in Lithuania.

Direction Krakow…

One of the many benefits of being a member of the cyclists’ hospitality group Warmshowers has been the open door to meeting people across national and cultural divides, sometimes people with whom you share no language in common. This happened during my two nights in Warsaw.

I was very kindly invited to spend both nights in Warsaw with Olexandr (from Ukraine) and Ira (from Belarus), despite their busy mid-week timetable, and despite the fact that Ira speaks no English (though fluent in Russian and Polish). Olexandr, on the other hand, speaks four languages very well, and has a working knowledge of two others. Another important ingredient in their lives is the fact that Ira is expecting their first child in January. It was a delight for me to sleep on their couch, and learn so much about them as people, and as expatriate residents in Poland.

When I planned this journey, I left open a couple of options, and one was my final destination. My first choice was Prague, which geographically would be WSW from Warsaw.. The other was Bratislava in Slovakia, which is going more southerly from Warsaw, swinging to the SW in Slovakia. As you can see from the title of this post, I have decided to head south to Krakow. So, what has been the catalyst for me taking option 2?

Well, you have probably guessed the wind direction might have something to do with it. I reckon I have had more than my fair share of strong headwinds on this journey, and I know the weather gods have had it in for me. Every time I have changed direction, the wind has too….but, crucially, never in my favour. Looking ahead, if the BBC weather app has got it right, the wind should be roughly from the west in the next several days, which doesn’t mean a tailwind as I head south, but more of a crosswind. The only way to get a tailwind behind me would be to head due east to the Ukraine…..and that is not an option on the table.

And finally, had I been a few cms taller, and not seen this ‘no right turn’ sign coming, I would most certainly have incurred a painful head injury….I almost excused them the dangerous blunder when I saw the warning followed by an exclamation mark (!) assuming they were wsrning of the danger, but no such luck. When I looked it up on the translation app. this is what I got…..

…the warning was simply to alert me the cycle path was about to join the road. Hey ho…..

But I have to say I was very impressed with the network of cycle-paths in Warsaw. It took me 20km to clear the city traffic this morning, but I never once had to cycle amongst the traffic, always on segregated cycle routes. The irony is that, had the city not been destroyed and rebuilt with wider streets and avenues, there would never have been the space to develop the cycle network. Hmm, I think there is a message in this for UK cities…..I’ll leave you to figure it out.

82km to the ‘apple orchard’ village of Liepe

Warsaw: two histories

Warsaw is a hugely impressive place, but it is largely down to its two separate histories: before WW2 and after. Every museum I’ve visited (and there are not a few) and every street and square I’ve walked through have constantly referenced the ‘before and after’ periods of the war, and their impact on the very character of the city, indeed, the very character of the nation has been considerable.

Main Square in the Old Town

Bear in mind that Poland had been a monarchy until the end of the 18th century, then it had been occupied variously by other nations, until it lost its new-found independence when the Germans moved in, in 1939. By the end of the war, it had been 90% razed to the ground by the Germans as a reprisal for non-cooperation, and had lost most of its population, especially the Jews. So all historical references hinge around both before and after the war and, frankly, it’s resurgence from the ashes has been truly impressive.

And guess who I found in the basement of the Royal Castle?

As I write these few words sitting in the courtyard of the Royal Castle, a guide is talking to her group and emphasising, probably not for the first time, that Warsaw had been completely destroyed in the war. The locals are genuinely proud of their history of survival, and they are eager to tell you.
So tomorrow I head out for the next leg of my journey, and my direction just may be governed by the direction of the wind…..watch this space….

Definitely no comment!

Treblinka

One of the many information boards, around the enormous site, described the team of SS guards and Ukrainian soldiers as the most brutal human beings you could imagine, but before the war, they had all been just ordinary people like you and me….teachers, post workers, factory hands, farmers, bank managers….. The most shocking message behind all of this is that we all (yes, you and me) have the seeds of such brutality in us. It only takes a particular set of circumstances, a person or group of people, to draw those qualities out, and get us to do things that were formerly beyond our imagination. It is all too scary to even think about it, especially in the uncertain world we live in today.

Because Treblinka had been completely destroyed by the Nazis before the end of the war, there is very little infrastructure of the original camps, so the whole site is now symbolic. You won’t find gas chambers or cremation pits, nor any of the accommodation huts….what you will find is a beautiful pine forest

with information boards helping you recreate the scene for yourself. You will have to walk the kilometres to get to the various locations, but your walk will become a quiet act of contemplation. You are in the presence of a place where nearly one million people were murdered. For me the whole experience was one of being present…..being present in the place, and seeking a connection and understanding.

Recreation of a burial pit

I got there so early that I was the only person on the site for over an hour. I wanted to get in before the excursion buses from Warsaw. With the bike I was able to ride the old cobbled access roads and, had it not been for the historical associations, it would have been a beautiful rocky ride through a forest….but of course, it was so much more than that.

Poland: a monoculture?

There are certain constants that you will encounter over and over again as you cycle through Poland. I have already mentioned its predominantly Catholic culture, and you will be reminded of this at almost every turn, both in town and in the countryside. In every town there will be a huge monument to their most famous son, Pope John Paul II, depicted very astutely as a man of action, proclaiming to the world, his garments billowing in the wind…

and you can guarantee that at least one major street in every town and village throughout the land is named after Jana Pawel II.

then in the countryside, you will pass dozens of shrines like this, ribbons fluttering in the breeze…

In a tiny village, remote from anywhere, I came out of its one and only store to see this in the carpark…….

I couldn’t believe there might be another English visitor in these parts, so remote, so far off the beaten track. The driver turned out to be a local lad, who lived and worked in the UK (I never asked him if he was a plumber!) and he was home on holiday. But that yellow registration plate seemed so out of place….

In the 1960s, when I was but a teenage lad, I was given a book entitled Treblinka. It made a huge impact on me, and I remember resolving there and then that I would, one day, visit the place to pay my respects to the nearly 900,000 Polish Jews who perished there during the last war. So the time has finally come. I am just 8km away, in Markinia Gorna, and tomorrow I will visit both the extermination and labour camps….I say no more for now.

Never trust an algorithm

Although I carry a couple of Garmins, I find I rarely use them, preferring Googlemaps for my day-to-day planning. And like most cyclists, I like to use the cycling option, but in the three Baltic countries, it was not available. But it is in Poland..but that’s a potential problem. Let me explain….

I chose the cycling option for yesterday’s route, and found myself on a smooth narrow country road with no traffic. Cycling bliss. But I should have suspected something was not quite right….you know the old adage: if something appears too good to be true, it usually is. My perfect country road stopped abruptly, and continued (not even as a dirt track) but as a sandy track….so sandy, in fact, it would have needed 3″ fat bike tyres. What Google’s algorithm regards as rideable has to be interpreted in very broad terms ie. broad tyres.

When I eventually secured a data dignal on my phone, I switched over to car routing, which has the benefit of keeping me on asphalt, but sometimes the same asphalt as heavy commercial traffic. So I quickly scanned my paper map, then used the car option to keep me on the asphalt, but had to accept that sometimes I had to share space with heavy traffic, for want of any other road in the area. That happened on the final 25km of the route. With no shoulder at all for the cyclist, it was a bit nervy at times.

At one of the service stations I stopped at to find some food, Piotr heard me talking to Jenny on the phone, and came over to chat afterwards. His English was very good, but then he had spent 17 years in the UK, and only recently settled back in Poland with his new wife, and a baby on the way. He was fascinated by my journey….and offered me a free coffee so he could delay my departure and chat a little more.

I told him he was unusual in being able to speak English, because most Polish people (even amongst the under 30s) cannot (or simply won’t) speak it. After I watched a bit of their TV the other night, I discovered they voice-over all English-speaking programmes instead of subtitling them, thus losing valuable exposure to English as it is spoken. But then, of course, why should I, an Englishman, be expecting everyone else to speak to me in English….?

So here’s a start to Polish lesson number 1:

Attention! Bad dogs…

And lesson number 2:

End

Last night I stayed at an Agrituristika place deep in the forest, and just a day’s ride from the infamous extermination camp at Treblinka…

A Sunday in Poland

Life in Poland on a Sunday is extraordinary. In most countries, people would be about enjoying their free time, family time, hobby and sport time….in Poland, however, everyone is in their Sunday best, either coming from or going to Church, and invariably ending up in a restaurant for lunch.

People are constantly on the move, in groups, walking with a purpose…..there is a buzz. People are animated, chatting as they go along…..but it is obvious, everything hinges around church attendance, and masses seem to be on offer almost every hour of the day.

Poland is officially 95% Catholic, with a declared attendance rate of over 60%, probably the most observant country in Europe. This contrasts sharply with one of its neighbours, the Czech Republic, which appears to be the least observant country, not just in Europe, but the world.

In one small town, I saw a group of 4 clerics heading towards the church at 1.30pm….and there are probably more than that serving a relatively small community. In the UK, 6-7 villages will be lucky if they share one vicar amongst them.

The road I was following today changed its status at one point, and banned people like me on a bike. I was ushered onto this…

…which was rendered as this on the translation app…..

….and turned out to be a real mixture of gravel, cobbles and asphalt.

But you will, no doubt, be pleased you are now enlightened about the following crucial elements of digital life

…and I defy you to correctly pronounce the name of the village I spent last night in….

Poland: the 6th border incursion

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.

Slow down! Lynxes!

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.

Poland bound

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…..

Rebirth of Lithuania

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.

The ubiquitous electric scooter, which apparently has no speed limit in Lithuania………..yet.

Vilnius: a milestone passed

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.

Vilnius looms large

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.

Damned headwinds!

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.

Riga – Birzai(Lithuania)

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

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