Blog Archives

From Estonia into Latvia

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

Do you speak ‘Estonglish’?

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:

The magnetism of the campfire..

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…

Heading south

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.

Tallinn, Estonia

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…..

A multi-cultural encounter

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….

A rude awakening….

Weather forecasting: an art or a science? Like most long-distance cyclists, I rely heavily on weather apps to help with decision-making. So when I confirmed with two websites that the next 24 hours would give us nothing more obnoxious than light rain with sunny intervals, I had no hesitation about camping last night. Big mistake…huge, massive mistake… I was woken at 5am by the patter of rain….no problem, I thought to myself. The patter developed into a persistent drumming which grew heavier and heavier….then there was a blinding flash of lightening, followed immediately by a thunderous crash of thunder…..much too close for comfort, especially in a tent. I grabbed all I could and dashed the 30 metres to the kitchen hut….and within 5 minutes, some 15 other campers (mainly Dutch) had joined me in the patient wait for the storm to subside…..but it didn’t. It went on for the best part of four hours, dumping some 60mm of rain (nearly 2.5 inches), what Finland averages in a month. At 9am, I gingerly returned to my tent expecting it to be awash. I opened the flaps nervously, not sure what would find. Though completely soaked on the outside, it had remained relatively dry on the inside, which meant my down sleeping bag (amongst other things) had been saved. So before the heavens opened again, I gathered up the tent and hung it out to dry in a covered area…..and in the meantime, I accepted cups of coffee from the more fortunate who had slept in cabins and caravans, and made conversation with a variety of people from across the globe. Crises bring people together…. I headed into Helsinki along a network of forested tracks, spent a couple of hours in the City Museum, before finding my way out to Jaakko and Irina, my Warmshowers hosts for the evening.

In for a battery top up?

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….

The Friendship Inn

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.

Journey through the archipelago…

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’!

Good morning…!

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….

Eastward bound

Big hugs for Jenny and Rachael as they headed to the airport, bound for their respective destinations, and I wrapped up loose ends in the AirB&B we had occupied before heading the 90km to the ferry port for Aland, a Finnish island beyond the archipelago.

I had a Stockholm SL travel card, which still had 3/4 days to run on it, so I stopped by the local station to find a lucky recipient…. A middle-easterner, probably a Syrian refugee, tentatively hung about the entrance with his aging bicycle. He had no English, but he quickly understood the good fortune of being given a travel card. I left him hoping it would solve some of his problems for a few days.

I am now waiting for a 19.00 ferry from Kapellscar to the island of Aland, where I hope to find a pitch for my tent (after dark), and switch currency from the Krona to the Euro….and hope that survival basics will be a little cheaper than in Sweden….

Biking the Baltic

…..and so begins another adventure, this time meandering my way through 8 countries hugging the Baltic Sea and beyond, visiting their capitals, sampling life along their rural byways, meeting the people, hearing their stories and sampling their food. Each country will have its own language, its own culture and history. They will each have been occupied by an alien power at some time in their history, suffered and recovered, always struggling to hang on to their own identity and self-worth as a sovereign nation….

For 45 years, many of them lay hidden behind the iron curtain, subjected to the travails of Soviet communism, largely invisible to the rest of the world. With the fall of the Soviet system, we began to discover the beauty of these small republics, their rich histories and fine architecture, and their hunger to reconnect with the rest of the world.

Some of this I hope to find out for myself as I pedal the miles and share the hospitality of locals along the way. Come along and share this journey with me…..(you can subscribe for email alerts on my web page)….

Footnote: since posting on FB, a former pupil of mine, now living in Finland, has already invited me to dinner….how serendipitous is that?

The story…..

I have just finished preparing an illustrated account of my adventure riding from Vancouver to Mexico.  It’s a fascinating story (well, I think so!), and I will be taking it to a couple of local groups in the near future.

If you are a member of one such group, or know of similar groups, that like to invite speakers to their meetings, I am happy to entertain locations around West Cambridgeshire, East Northamptonshire and North Bedfordshire.

The story will be of interest to both cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It is principally the story of a journey, with only passing references to riding a bike.

Contact me via a ‘Comment’ on this blog…… (look for the ‘Leave a comment’ icon at the bottom of each post.)

First slide pp

 

Heading to the Big Sur..

My addiction to coffee on this trip has become a reality. I only realised it when I had to cross a ‘coffee desert’ this morning and do 25 miles before my first dose of caffeine. Maybe I should carry a syringe and begin the day with an intravenous…. When I got to my first stop, all my devices went on recharge because the last campground had had no plug-ins. I now have a USB multiple device charger, which means they can all be charged simultaneously on the one plug-in. Oh yes, I’ve thought long and hard about dynamo hubs and mini-solar rechargers…..but just think of those extra grams of dead weight…. life’s too short…

I was passed by several pelotons of cyclists….or should I say, I let them pass me… One was in a race with motorcycle escorts, the second was a big group of charity riders all sporting the same shirts, and they too had a couple of support vehicles.

The third was a local club, including a tandem, and when I caught up with them as they regrouped by the roadside, we had 10 minutes of the usual cycling banter, when one of them asked: “So, tell us about your journey. You’re travelling light but I can see you have a tent”.

The scenario for replaying an old joke on a new audience was being laid and was too tempting. “Oh, from Vancouver to Mexico” I replied. “Whoa, that’s a long way” he said.”Is it?” I said “I wish someone had told me before I started.” Thinking I had had the last word on that one, he added spontaneously: “Well, I could have, but you never asked”. Boom, boom..I said to myself, as he raised his hand in a high five.

The campground tonight is the Veteran’s Memorial Park, at the top of a 400ft climb in Monterey, and at 10pm precisely, the last post was played, to be heard across the whole town and, as ever, it was a plaintiff and moving piece of music.

Santa Cruz here I come…

I picked up a much needed coffee at a Mexican Taquería, and I’m now finding myself surrounded more by Hispanics than whites, who come to these parts to work the strawberry harvest….amongst many other back-breaking jobs…

I asked to taste the strawberries, and because I asked them using what they regard as quaint old world Spanish (ie. as spoken in Spain), they smiled and proffered me one of their boxes.

I was waylaid mid-ride by Pigeon Point, a famous lighthouse in these parts, built to reduce the number of shipwrecks (after one of which the lighthouse is named), and the landing area is associated with contraband and shoot-outs. It is now an International Hostel, whose commitment to those age-old values is now, sadly, being overwhelmed by the brutality of global politics

…talking of which, I met some cyclists a couple of days north who live in Santa Cruz, and he said: “Watch your bike, it’s the bike-thieving capital of the world”. I made light of his advice by saying: “No problem, my bike is English, and it’ll only go on the left”. And he replied: “We could all do with going on the left in this nation of ours”……..hmm, interesting response.

Oh well, let’s get back to some of the uncontentious things in life, like Halloween

I mean who would argue with the glorification of scary images, suggestions of ghoulish violence, and even death in all its macabre glory?

Pass me the candy please…..

Talking of things ghoulish, is this the shadow of my former self….?

If you go to San Francisco…

It was Saturday, and there was a constant stream of cyclists coming over the Golden Gate Bridge,

seeking open countryside, and a release from city life. I appeared to be one of the few going in the opposite direction, and because of the constant traffic, pedestrians were restricted to the east crossing, and cyclists to the west.

The Golden Gate Bridge is the iconic symbol of San Francisco …called Golden Gate, not because of its colour (which is red, like my kit), but because of the name given to the bay, which pre-dates the goldrush of 1849. When the settlement was established by the Spanish, it was originally called Yerba Buena, but changed to San Francisco when it passed to the Americans.

It’s fame doesn’t rest on it being the biggest and best suspension bridge in the world, but it certainly was the first of its size, and built during the period of austerity after the Wall Street crash in 1929. For its period, it was a hugely ambitious example of engineering.

It was a special experience being able to cycle across it, gazing out to Alcatraz on one side, and out over the open sea on the other. If you’ve never done it, put it on your bucket list, and don your cycling kit.

Rather than go into the heart of the city, I steered a course around the western fringes, passing landmarks like the Legion of Honour, Lands End Lookout, and Cliff House, and as I gazed across the beach, a large crowd of people had gathered

….now this can only happen in San Francisco….for a contest of Corgi dogs…..you’ve got to be kidding, I hear you say.

I stood on the very spot where the first uninterrupted east-west highway finished, the Lincoln highway, well over 3000 miles long

…..and then I headed out along a traffic congested Highway 1 along the coast, past several surfing beaches …..(get those Beach Boy vinyls on the turntable)…

to finish for the night at Half Moon Bay, where my tent is pitched just 50 metres from the crashing waves…..a sound I find wonderfully soothing, especially in the small hours.

Sudden changes afoot…or even awheel.

I woke up this morning to a cold clammy fog, and the tent was soaked with dew, so the first thing to do was hang everything to dry

while I headed over the street for breakfast at the local bakery….

a chocolate ‘devil’ she told me….that’ll get ya goin’….

The rest of the day was characterized by two things: a major change in the temperature in a two hour period, and a noticeable change in flora and fauna. For nearly 1000 miles until now, I have been wearing cold weather gear, now suddenly I am seeing bougainvillea…

dead skunks on the road….

and thunderously loud birdsong that I could hear 500 metres away…..

And secondly, the 1.5 hour slow climb over Mt Tamalpais, reaching 2500 feet, and the hair-raising descent without the benefit of any safety barriers…..it was a bit scary, especially when impatient drivers were intent on overtaking on a very twisty road.

But going through my head like a beating mantra were the following thoughts: ‘Ascend with hope, descend with caution, and live to climb another day’.

As I descended rapidly towards the Golden Gate Bridge, I decided to leave crossing it till tomorrow, so I could do it full justice. The light was fading fast, and I had nowhere to stay….and campgrounds were noticeable by their absence. So I checked into the first roadside motel I passed, and discovered that $166 for a room is a good deal in these parts…..or the equivalent of 33 nights in $5 hiker/biker sites…..hey ho……

San Francisco beckons…

The last two days have been a WiFi desert. Even though the coast of North California is remote and untamed, I am constantly surprised how difficult it is to find a WiFi connection….after all, this is the wild west of the silicon valley.

I find my connection in a happy hour bar in Tomales, just 50 miles north of San Fransisco, where I have discreetly pitched my tent in their little park, right next to its bathrooms. I did this at the suggestion of a local lady called Fran….so if (in the unlikely event) I am challenged, I just mention her name. The town is small, about 200 inhabitants, and has all the hallmarks of a town you might see in a cowboy movie. I’ll be waiting for the shoot-out when all the rednecks have had a gutfull of beer. In the meantime, I will enjoy my happy hour platter and a Bud.

The day’s ride included huge climbs over cattle moorland, up to 600 feet, and several cattle grids. I got to Bodega Bay and my cable lock fell from its mooring on my saddlebag….and the damn thing caused me a backtrack of nearly 8 miles to retrieve it. That’s the second time it has happened…..grrr.

So, with a fair wind and a bit more downhill than uphill, I will continue following the coast tomorrow….

until I cross the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco…..of course, wearing flowers in my hair….

Fort Bragg to Manchester 70km

I kid you not….with a population of only 195, they could hardly drum up a substitute team for either United or City…but I actually finished my day in Manchester California, stayed at a KOA site, and for the all-inclusive price of $10, I had use of a heated pool and the most perfect hot tub of my life…..it got to those parts that I demur from describing in detail. When you are biking through these parts, you qualify for specially discounted rates, which are often as low as $5….and they are called hiker/biker sites. It’s an acknowledgement of the importance placed on environmental modes of transport, and a huge financial incentive for people to simply get on their bikes….and go. I think they are great places….

Animation of route:https://www.relive.cc/view/u3192464494

Today was filled with climbing and descending to cross river estuaries, and each one presented astonishing scenes of this rugged coastline. The sun makes the waters of the Pacific sparkle. The surface is a bright sheen that twinkles like the stars, and look at it long enough and your eyes will struggle with the brightness….I’ve never seen this before with any other sea or ocean.

Our mobile community of bikers is now down to two, me and Kurt, whom I met again on the route some 7 days ago. So we have the whole of the hiker/biker site to ourselves….for now anyway.