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.
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.
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
So you want to travel lighter?
An attractive bench by the roadside miles from anywhere invites only one thing: to sit on it. So I did….and that got me thinking (and not for the first time) about luggage and travelling light. As you can see, I have honed my luggage to fit in one 23 litre Carradice saddlebag, with a stuff sack for my camping gear. Including the barbag, the total weight is about 10 kilos.
I have been asked hundreds of times on my travels how I manage to travel so light, and my standard answer is usually: it’s quite easy really, you just leave stuff at home. Now I know this is a bit facetious, and neatly avoids all kinds of scrutiny regarding the details, but so many people tell me they’d like to travel lighter, but in the end they can’t overcome the ‘just-in-case’ pressure to take stuff as a precautionary measure. I understand them, because that’s where I was until I started analysing my actual needs. I started to become more and more ruthless about not giving in to the just-in-case syndrome, and anything that remained unused on one trip was eliminated from the next trip. I also started using the kitchen scales (I know this sounds very sad and a bit extreme) to measure the grams. So a head-torch weighing 250grs was replaced with one weighing 28grs….and every item of clothing had to be versatile, and have uses other than those they were designed for. And lots of other little strategies…
What all this has done, however, is to eliminate me from the august community of adventure cyclists because my set-up doesn’t look the classic part…..ie. four panniers, stuff sack and barbag, with a few other sundries bungeed somewhere on the bike. I discovered this when I submitted a photo of my bike in an ‘exotic’ place to the Fully Loaded Touring bike website: https://secure2.pbase.com/canyonlands/fullyloaded
If you look carefully at all the loaded bikes, you will see they conform to a pattern, to a template that the organizers have decided are the minimum requirements for what constitutes a fully loaded bike. Anything less than that can’t be included because real adventure cyclists just need to carry a ton of stuff….and anyway, it all looks good on our website. Of course, my bike set-up was never accepted, because it just didn’t look the part. They probably decided it was set up for a weekend’s camping close to home….
I know fellow adventure cyclists will have a ton of things to contribute to the topic of luggage, and what constitutes a minimum for them, but I would love to see much more from the lightweight adventurists, the ‘weight-weanies’ as we’re called in the cycling world.
And, oh yes, I’m now in Lithuania, having crossed a border that didn’t even have a sign telling me of my transition, and my 108km journey brought me to Birzai, where I have pitched my tent in a friendly little campsite, only metres from a Serbian cyclist who is doing my route in reverse.