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Biking the Baltic: summary

Every adventure has its highs and lows, joys and frustrations….but through personal endeavour, we get to savour the sweet taste of achievement. I no longer measure achievement primarily by distance. I’m beginning to grow up a little (well, just a little) and appreciate the value of much more than just ploughing a furrow.

This adventure was never intended to explore heady landscapes, scale mountain passes, carve my way through verdant valleys…..no, this was all about visiting a host of countries that I have never been to before, and using the bike to connect capital cities. Over the last 40 days, I have simply binged on a succession of city breaks, 9 in total to be precise, including Krakow in southern Poland.

And in each city I have paused for a couple of nights, locked up the bike, and walked the historic city centres, visiting some 30 museums and historic buildings, enjoying the buskers and street entertainers, sitting by fountains with a picnic, catching the odd city demonstration (usually about climate change)….and in most of the cities, being hosted by friendly, caring human beings who form part of the Warmshowers network.

So I can’t share photos of many wonderful land and seascapes, of mountain top panoramas, nor of glacial ravines with cascading waterfalls, but I have come away with a sense of deep satisfaction of having discovered something about 8 individual nations, about people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, about major historical events that have fashioned their history, and where they are now in their march towards the future.

For those who like statistics, here are a few to keep you interested:

Days travelling: 40

Days on the bike: 28

Distance covered: 2,308km

Average daily distance: 83km

Longest day: 115km

8 countries and their capitals:

Sweden: Stockholm

Finland: Helsinki

Estonia: Tallinn

Latvia: Riga

Lithuania: Vilnius

Poland: Warsaw and Krakow

Slovakia: Bratislava

Austria: Vienna

Camping: 14 nights

Warmshowers: 15 nights

Backpacker’s hostels: 10 nights

With a former student: 1 night

Rain while riding: 2-3 hours

Days of headwind: 18

Days of tailwind: 3

Best national food: Viennese

Best National Library: Helsinki

Best museum: Vasa Museum, Stockholm

Most beautiful historic city centre: Tallinn

Most scenic part of the journey: Tatra Mountains.

Most annoying moment: discovering I’d left my tent footprint drying in the previous campsite.

Second most annoying moment: discovering I’d had my power bank stolen in a backpacker’s hostel.

Greatest surprise: being seen from a distance by a former student in Stockholm, and then staying with him and his family in Turku, Finland. That’s a 10/10 on the serendipity scale.

Most uplifting moment: an eleventh hour offer of a bed (for three nights) in Vienna.

The most unusual camping spot: departure lounge at Heathrow airport, after a late arrival from Vienna.

If you followed me on at least some of my journey, thank you for your company. I hope it inspires you to embark on adventures of your own…..

Homeward bound…

The bubble of the illusion has burst. I fondly imagined that in Vienna I would breeze into the booking office at Central Station and book trains, there and then, right through to the Hook of Holland, from where I would catch the ferry to Harwich, and be back in England ‘in a trice’. Well, that was the plan…… but the bike thwarted the plan, given that these were inter-city trains. The most they could do was guarantee my arrival in either Munich or Düsseldorf, but beyond that, there was no provision for the bike. So I had to capitulate and book a flight with Austrian Airlines.

It would seem the only way to guarantee transit on multiple trains across Europe is to have a folding bike, which could be carried on as hand luggage. But how remarkable it is that when you are confronted with a need, a solution is sometimes put before you.

Stefan

Stefan, my host during my time in Vienna and a multiple bike owner himself, offered to let me test ride his folding Dahon, a small-wheeled versatile bike which can be adapted for touring and carrying luggage. I’m already familiar with the Alex Moultons and Bike Fridays of the small-wheeled world, but Dahon are a bit of a mystery.

Andreas with his Dahon

Then in the city centre I bumped into Andreas who was not only a proud owner of a Dahon, but had cleverly equipped it for the long distance stuff, and was a firm advocate for the nimble small-wheeled bicycle. With a quick flip of two levers, he folded it in seconds, and then demonstrated how he could detach the pedals with his fingers. As we parted company he shouted after me “Make sure you try out the Vitesse”. In fact, he was quite prepared there and then to let me test ride his own machine.

Staying with Stefan for a few days has brought me into contact with his other lodgers. He regularly hosts foreign exchange academics, and in this instance Kyoko is with him, a Japanese visiting fellow at Vienna university (whose mother Kaoro has come out to join her).

And Gudrun from Cologne, a university professor, who has recently co-authored a book about the rise of right wing populism in Europe,

came to Vienna to give a paper at a conference. I told her I hope one day to read her book in translation. “Well” she said “do you know anyone who might translate it for me?”. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that one, I said….now, if it were written in Spanish, we’d have a partnership…..

Stefan himself works in the offices of the Green Party in Vienna so, with so much political talent and involvement, there was a heavy bias in the conversation around the table…..and the table itself has been abundant with Japanese fare one evening, and Viennese another, amongst which was this delicious dessert called Kaisershmarm, anecdotally named after Kaiser Franz Joseph I, who was very fond of fluffy shredded pancake..

So tell me, what dish would you like named in your honour?

Bratislava to Vienna 80km

I’ve slept in a lot of strange places in the past, but never in a greenhouse. Erich, who runs a nursery garden business, decided to diversify, and converted one of his greenhouses into several AirB&B units….so his guests get to sleep in a glasshouse. But he kindly invited me, as a Warmshowers member, to stay as his guest, and my bedroom looked out onto the tomatoes, and I could lie in bed gazing up at the stars. My route to the bathroom was across a lawn on some stepping stones, and when I got up in the night, I jumped when the resident one-eyed cat scooted across my path, doing his security patrol.

Erich

The route to Vienna along the Danube fulfilled very few promises unfortunately. But I’ll let the pictures tell their own story….

The border with Austria, now without the former Iron Curtain checkpoints.

The Danube outside Bratislava

Monotonously straight, and I was still fighting a headwind

A huge variety of meadow flowers grow freely in the wetlands. Given that the river formed the border between east and west, the wetlands flourished undisturbed by human activity.

An autumnal greeting in Vienna

Towers and street food

The guy making me a coffee at his street bar said:”You don’t look like a normal tourist. You riding a bike?”. When I told him my story in one sentence, he said “You probably need a good strong coffee then. Going to Vienna after here? You’ll find us in Vienna too…look us up”.

Then I walked into an outlet advertising street food, and ordered myself a Morrocan tagine, to fuel the legs to climb the enormous hill to Hrad Castle where, amongst the many exhibits in the museum, was this….

Portable potty 19th C., made of walnut wood and porcelain

…and I thought, what an interesting use of the term ‘portable’. But a couple of cabinets away was a display of the first Bratislava Cycling Club founded in 1888, all lined up for the start of a race, and if you look carefully you’ll probably recognise one of them as being Peter Sagan’s great great grandfather….

There are towers to climb in Bratislava too. To get to the top of the Castle tower, you need a special kind of steely determination, and the Town Hall tower will reward you with lofty views over squares….

….and interesting roofs whose pitches make them look like church steeples…

And when you see some poor fellow trying to crawl out of a street drain, it is very tempting to just stroke him on the head to comfort him (as everyone does). What was he doing down there anyway?

And when you are bored with museums and towers and men crawling out of drains, you can join the crowds to catch bubbles, and contribute to this young man’s beer fund

…..believe me, people openly ask for money for their beer fund….they know you know they will spend the euro you give them on the next can of beer. So why not be honest about it….

Tomorrow, it’s goodbye Bratislava, hello Vienna…..with 60km of the Danube trail in between.

Bratislava: the false summit?

As my final destination, Bratislava was always going to be my second choice (behind Prague), but a persistent headwind across Poland dictated terms and conditions, so here I am, at the notional end of my journey.

But wait a minute, Vienna is only 60km away along the Danube, on Eurovelo 6. Flat, scenic and designed for cyclists, the only drawback being that I would be going upstream….. OK, not because it goes imperceptibly uphill (probably by only 10-20 metres), but because the vast majority of the annual 38,000 cyclists that follow the route go downstream, which is bound to complicate my progress if I have to go against the flow. But still….

Quite apart from the attraction of bagging yet another country and capital city, Vienna is a bigger transport hub than Bratislava, thus making it an obvious finishing point, with a greater chance of getting home by train and boat. Going overland will be more expensive than flying, and certainly more time consuming, but then I could simply change my thinking about that and regard it as part of the journey….in other words an integral segment of the whole adventure.

Last night, in the town of Pezinok, I was welcomed by an enthusiastic Slovak couple, called Michal and Eva, who are expecting their first baby in December. Michal came out to meet me on a borrowed electric mountain bike, one that he had been testing in the local hills, to see if he might be interested in one for himself.

The conversation over supper ranged from riding bikes to politics, and amongst the many fascinating (and disturbing) things I learned about Slovakia was the surprising popularity of its up-and-coming far right party, the Kotleba People’s Party, which has a double cross insignia that was used by an old Slovak fascist party during the war.

Slovakia spent more than 50 years subjected to the brutality of, first, the German Nazis, then the Soviet system, but people are clearly forgetting all that. The People’s Party ideology is underpinned by extreme nationalism, fundamental Christianity, hate for the Roma people, and a total rejection of western liberal democracy. What does that remind you of?

Tomorrow will be a day for exploring Bratislava.

Little Carpathian wine region

Now tell me, what do you know about Slovak wines…..never heard of them? If not, join the club. When did you last see a bottle of Slovak wine in your local supermarket? The reason why not is because the Slovaks keep it all for themselves. How selfish is that? But I’ve just discovered their dark little secret….in a wine museum in Pezinok, where I am spending the night.

For the ‘exorbitant’ fee of €3 (senior fee, of course), I was given a very informative audio guide to the excellent displays about the history and production of wine in Slovakia, and at the end I had a glass of the local Riesling thrust into my hand. Pity about the lack of pretzels….

The whole region, in fact, reminded me of the Alsace, and the vineyards growing along the slopes of the Vosges mountains. These vineyards grow on the slopes of the Little Carpathians, and the wines all have a similar character to the Alsatian wines…

I also learned about, and sampled, the first stage of production after the pressing, which produced what they translated into English as ‘the scrumpy’, a low alcohol beverage given to the vineyard workers as replacement for water….a bit like the small beer given to English farm workers in former times.

Last night, in Smolenice, I was hosted by an English family, resident in Slovakia for the last 6 years, and very happily settled. Mark and Suzanne’s 7 year old daughter, Zoe, was 1 when they arrived, so now has a native fluency in Slovak, and was proud to include their new kitten, Lily, in the photo.

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.

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.

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!

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.