Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Midsummer rain

Aland car ferry
I left the little island of Kumlinge on midsummer Friday. For weeks everybody had been warning me of midsummer when life in Finland basically stops. Shops are closed, museums are closed and public transport runs on a limited schedule. I had therefore checked the ferry schedules very carefully and was now taking the last daily ferry to the mainland. Unbelievably there wasn't a single car on the huge car ferry on the last stretch before mainland. Only several cyclists - and all of them foreigners. Finnish people were already in their summer houses preparing midsummer.

Wooden houses in Rauma
I wanted to take advantage of the empty roads and decided to cycle late - and had to cycle even later as there was a big outdoor party going on in my camping "target area" and I had to cycle on to escape the loud music. I finally set up camp at 11 pm but thankfully it doesn't get really dark in Finland this time of the year. Saturday the cities resembled ghost towns and really absolutely everything was closed - even the churches. It was a real pity cycling through World Heritage Rauma and not being able to see anything from inside. And it wasn't much fun to stroll through the old wooden houses in a bitterly cold wind and a balmy day time max temperature of 9° C. But the forecast was the very worst: a lot of rain was predicted for the next day.

Welcome rain shelter
The rain day started better than expected: dry! I quickly packed up and hoped to make it into Pori, the next bigger town with a Lidl, before the deluge started. I didn't quite make it. 10 km before Pori heaven opened its gates and it just poured down. With a temperature around 10 °C, strong winds and summer outfit there was no way I would make it to Pori without getting hypothermia. After seeking a bit of insufficient shelter under trees I struck gold: off the forest road I was cycling on there was a huge kart race complex and right at its entrance was a big open wooden pavilion. This pavilion was home for the next two hours

I changed into dry clothes but was still shivering with cold. Although I was almost completely out of food after the midsummer shopping closures I decided to cook up an emergency meal: spaghetti with powder sauce mix for Spaghetti Bolognese - but of course without any meat. It still tasted delicious. I was out of water as well but this problem was easily solved: I just put my put under the pavilion roof and soon I had enough rain water from the roof for lunch and even a litre of hot tea. After an hour a car with a trailer came by to do some training on the race course (in the rain!), but the the two guys didn't bother me until the rain finally stopped and I could cycle away.

In Pori Lidl was open in midsummer Sunday afternoon and I indulged in a big shopping orgy. Again everything else was closed for midsummer - so no sightseeing. Lidl was the most exciting sight for an out of food cyclist anyway. Next "basic" need was wifi. I wanted to check the forecast - and was in for a shock. The forecast that hadn't looked too bad yesterday had changed into a veritable nightmare: constant rain for three days with daytime temps around 10° C. I nearly started to cry - and in that moment it fittingly started to rain again.

This was a difficult situation and I hated the meteorologists for their incorrect forecasts. It was too late now for couchsurfing and there wasn't any cheap accommodation in town. I checked the forecast for the cities further along my way and found out that the further North, the less rain. Without any real alternative I finally cycled off as soon as the rain stopped determined to make it as far as possible that evening. I was lucky as it didn't rain much and I got another 40 km in before setting up camp.

It started to rain at 2 am and didn't stop. I tried to sleep in but at 11 am I couldn't stand lying in my tent any more. At least midsummer craze was over now. I put on all my rain gear and cycled into the next town looking for wifi in order to check the forecast again. In the local library I found internet and checked the weather. Like yesterday the verdict was: go  North! Only 50 km from here sunshine was promised - hard to believe when it is raining outside but I believed the meteorologists and cycled North. And they were right! Three hours later I was cycling under almost blue sky. Only the bitterly cold strong northerly wind remained - but you can't have it all, can you?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Trail magic on Aland Islands

Cable ferry
Aland Islands are called a cyclists' paradise in every tourist brochure and guidebook - and therefore I had high expectations. The first thing I realised is that going to Aland with a bike is a real cheap deal. Passengers are riding for free on the ferries - you only pay for your vehicle. The three hour ferry ride from mainland Finland to the main Aland island costs only 6 € - free wifi included. And you can break the trip on one of the smaller islands on the way for free. I stopped at Föglö where I found an idyllic stealth campsite, cooked a long dinner outside because there were hardly any mosquitoes - too much wind. It was still sunny in the morning when I cycled the length of Föglö (which takes just a couple of hours) and it was just as I had imagined: Hardly any traffic, nice views onto the sea and pretty farmland interspersed with some forest. This was great.

Aland road
But things changed when I stepped off the ferry on the main island: traffic here was rather heavy and despite bike lanes and paths it was not particularly great cycling. You didn't see much of the coast either and to make things worse it started to drizzle. Still I urgently had to get to Mariehamn, the capitol of Aland: I had developed a bike problem and needed a spare part! So what was the problem? Before I left Germany I had had my bike checked thoroughly - and left a fortune in the bike shop for spare parts and repairs. Two new rims, spokes, sprockets, chain and a brake check up. The tires had been considered good - but the Baltic dirt roads had been too much for them. My back tire was in a miserable state with hardly any profile left. I couldn't see this tire surviving another 4000 km. But unfortunately I had not brought a spare tire. I had been in Turku on a Sunday when all the bike shops were closed, so now my best bet was Mariehamn. As Aland is a popular cycling destination I was hoping for well equipped bike shops. And then the big negative surprise: almost all tires were 28' and not the 26' MTB size I use. In the second bike shop I could at least find the right size, although not the durable quality I wanted. But I was so scared of the worn tire blowing out in the middle of nowhere that I bought a cheap tire just in case. Unfortunately this was only a temporary fix - good for my peace of mind but not a long term solution. I needed a new high quality tire - and had no clue where to get one. Also I was going up North were there would be less and less shops. I definitely was not happy about the situation and could have kicked my ass for not bringing a decent foldable spare.

Village church on Aland
The weather forecast wasn't great either and the future looked rather gloomy. Cycling the former mail road wasn't as great as described in all the tourist brochures either: there was way too much traffic. Little did I know that the solution to most of my problems was already on the way - in fact it had already passed me in the form of fellow German cyclist Jürgen. But soon I caught up to him and by the look of his panniers he was a long distance cyclist like me. I asked the usual questions and after a brief chat we decided to call it a day and stay at the nearby Puttes campground. Even for me the decision was easy as this was a very cheap campground for Finnish standards: only 5,50 €, but you had to pay extra for showers and even warm water. But who needs warm water anyway....

My hero Juergen
Jürgen and I were chatting over dinner and amongst exchanging trip details and comparing gear I also mentioned my bike problems. Together we examined my bike and I did not believe my ears when Jürgen said that he carried the exact same tire I was looking for as a spare - and wanted to give it to me. Not only did it have the exact dimensions 2' x 26'', but it was a Schwalbe Mondial, the very long distance tire. Jürgen explained that his trip was coming to an end and his  tires were still fine. He also wanted to lighten his load. Maybe I had dispensed to many UL equipment tips... But the most unbelievable thing was that he refused to take any payment from me - and this high quality tire isn't cheap. To sum it up: this was an incredible example of trail magic on a bike trip. I tried to give back as much as possible in the form of travel tips and we ended up chatting until midnight. Thank you so much, Jürgen - I'll never forget your help.

Inside the cooking tent
The weather forecast was gloomy and I had been deliberating back and forth what to do. I didn't like cycling on the main island: too much traffic and too many tourists. Therefore I decided to stop at another small island with a campsite. Wild camping is easy on Aland but no fun in pouring rain. Hasslebo guesthouse and campground on Kumlinge offered a campsite for 8 € per person and a cooking tent with a sofa. This sounded like luxury to me. Of course it started to rain as soon as I started cycling. It was only 14 km to the ferry but I was soaking wet when I arrived - like all the other cyclists. I also want to mention that daytime maximum temperature was a balmy 11 C - nice summer temperature...

From the ferry landing it was another 5 km to the campground and its cooking tent. I immediately put on all my dry warm clothes and was still cold. I needed a treat which came in the form of a sauna for 6 €  and was heaven sent. And while I was slowly thawing out in the 80 C sauna even the sun came out. Life is much better now but not quite perfect: the whole next week temperatures aren't forecasted to rise above 15 C max. Hopefully it'll at least stay dry while I am now heading up the Baltic Sea coast to Oulu.

Southern Finland

Haltia nature centre
I spent the whole day in Haltia nature centre and when I finally left one of the staff members even commented on it. But they were just surprised and not annoyed with my long term stay. When the centre closed at 7 pm I set out to get to one of the two lean to shelters in the park. Unfortunately this required pushing my bike for over a km but I was told to check out the closer cooking shelters as well. I didn't have much clue what to expect but cycled into the consistent rain. There was a handicapped and bike trail to the first cooking shelter and I was overwhelmed with joy when a huge shelter came into sight. It was half full with fire wood but still had plenty of space for my tent. I was just wondering how you were supposed to cook in here. Stupid me - this is luxury national park Finland. This was just the dedicated fire wood shelter, the even more luxurious cooking shelter was a bit further away - and already occupied by two young guys. Just out of curiosity I cycled to the next cooking shelter where I found the same situation. I happily settled into the firewood shelter and even took a quick swim before going to bed. I was already wet anyways...

Firewood shelter
The whole night I could hear rain pounding onto the metal roof but in the morning it had finally almost ceased. Reluctantly I left my cosy shelter and cycled back into civilisation passing the nature centre one last time. It was a miserable morning and when I stopped at a supermarket at noon I was shivering with cold. It was a dilemma: if I put on more clothes I'll be sweating on the steep uphills. But with less clothes I would get cold as soon as I stopped. Eventually in the early afternoon the rain let up and finally stopped. When the sun came out briefly I even started singing with joy. But I can't really complain: this has been the first real bad weather spell in 5 weeks.

With the weather slowly improving I was now in my way to Turku and the Aland Islands. Swedish-speaking Ekenäs was the next stop. I learnt from the friendly tourist information lady that the biggest group of foreign visitors is Russians - an interesting fact that I had not expected at all.

On Sunday I reached Turku - and the last Lidl supermarket for quite a while. This was going to be a big shopping trip. On the bike parking lot outside Lidl I met the first other real long distance cyclists on this trip: a German couple on their way to Spain. They were going exactly the way I had come and therefore I could give them a lot of tips. With all that chatting and shopping it was much later than expected when I finally cycled into Turku centre.

Turku castle
Museums are expensive in Finland and therefore I had to make a decision what to see. I cycled to Turku castle where an unfriendly security guard helped me decide to skip the place. There was no bike parking outside the castle and I was pushing (not even riding) my bike into the huge castle yard when he immediately stopped me. No bikes allowed in here, no bike parking outside and no luggage storage for my panniers. I was not going to pay 8 € for that inconvenience and left to visit the Abo museum. (Abo is Turku's name in Swedish). Staff was much friendlier here and my panniers fully loaded with several kg of Lidl chocolate were stored at the reception desk. These 8€ were well invested and I enjoyed the very modern exhibition on the history of Turku.

Turku promenade
Heading out into the archipelago on the Sunday evening was a not a nice cycling experience. Hundreds of cars were coming towards me on their way back into town after a weekend out. This was not the tranquil experience I had been looking for. Only after cycling a long way away from the main artery road I found a quiet campsite. Next morning I was fighting against a strong cold headwind while cycling the last km out to Galtby from where the inter-islands ferry to Aland departs.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Into Finland

First glimpse at the Baltic Sea
It was now time to do some planning ahead. From Tallinn I wanted to take the ferry to Finland and this posed a bit of logistical challenge. But Estonia is wifi paradise and I soon found a public library with not only wifi but also computers and a printer - all free of charge and ideal for doing research. There are several ferry companies but I soon found out that Eckerö Line is the cheapest but also has the least departures. Also avoid weekends when ferry prices go up. Eventually I scored a rock bottom cheap ticket for 24 € including my bicycle. Departure was at noon and if I still wanted to see a bit of Tallinn I had to stay overnight. Tallinn hotel prices are the highest I had seen so far on my whole trip through the Baltic States. There are plenty of cheap hostels but no cheap guesthouses or Bed and Breakfast. I finally reserved a single room in a suburban hostel hoping to thus avoid the party crowd. With everything accomplished I was now ready to enjoy my last days in Estonia.


RMK site
I was now in Laheema National Park. The park includes several huge Baltic Sea Bays and a mostly old growth forest. During Soviet times this area had mostly been off limits and was now consequently an almost untouched paradise. Strangely there wasn't much beach access and the few beaches weren't exactly overwhelming but the forest was great. Plenty of hiking trails and even some designated RMK campsites. RMK is the Estonian forest agency maintaining all sorts of installations like nature centres, hiking trails, campsites and even shelters. There is a great English website but so far I have never had the chance to use one of their installations.


Decoration in Kadriorg
I was now trying to get as close to Tallinn as possible with still finding a quiet stealth campsite. Still next morning I had to do 35 km to get into Tallinn. The EV 10 takes you along a nice way into town and I could already do some sightseeing on the way. Coming in from the East you first see the tall TV tower and then follow the coastline into the centre. I would come back to Tallinn after Finland and therefore had no ambition to see it all now. Instead I focused on the sights on the Eastern side of Tallinn. Kadriorg and KUMU. Kadriorg - named after Catherine the Great is a Baroque castle now converted into a foreign art museum. I was most impressed with their temporary exhibition about Eveline von Maydell, a Baltic German artist who had specialised in silhouettes, a rather rare form of art in museums. Equally interesting was her life that took her from being born in Teheran to Estonia and Germany and eventually to the US.


Kumu sculpture hall
Although a very nice building Kadriorg definitely couldn't compete with KUMU, the Estonian Museum of Modern Art. The name is a bit misleading: it houses all Estonian Art in a brandnew stylish building. Admittedly this is the first real world class museum on the whole trip. Not that I did not like the other museums, but they had all been small and rather provincial. The KUMU is different. I was most impressed with their hall of busts. In one room hundreds of busts from different artists and epochs were exhibited - and they were even talking. Tiny loudspeakers created a weird murmur. Lenin was standing next to Barrabas and a German Emporer! With still a bit of time left I visited the Occupation Museum - mainly because its Wilnius equivilant, the Museum of Genocide had so much impressed me. The Tallinn Museum though was still quite interesting but by far not as impressive as the former KGB headquarters and prison in Wilnius. Or maybe I was just too tired after cycling and sightseeing....


Kumu
So off I cycled to the Academic Hostel which turned out to be much further out of town than expected. The hostel is on the grounds of Tallinn university and also offers accommodation for real students, mainly foreign ones - although the tourists are kept separate from the students. After cycling one hour out of town I realised that I was not energetic enough for my original plan to cycle back into town for more sightseeing after showering and doing laundry. But where could I get something to eat? The very friendly receptionist recommended a student cafe which turned out to be the right decision. Good food at decent prices - and I could finally calm down after a busy day.


I liked the hostel so much that I left a bit too late to get to the ferry. Fighting with traffic and inadequate bike lanes I ran out of time and had to skip every sightseeing in the morning. Instead I headed straight to the port. To my big surprise I was the only cyclist on the huge ferry - and I was the very first one to be led on board. So I led an endless procession of trucks, campervans and cars into the big ferry belly. Bike parking was among some old Euro-palettes. The ferry crossing only takes 2,5 h but plenty of entertainment is provided. A Finnish band was playing loud and very tacky Finnish pop songs and some brave souls were even dancing to it in the huge dance hall. Lacking a suitable dancing partner I took advantage of the free wifi.

Tallinn-Helsinki ferry
When returning to my bicycle I was confronted was an endless row of trucks parked on this lower car deck. Their mostly Russian drivers were sitting on the Euro-palettes around my bike and had guarded it well. My panniers were still there.... I left the ferry between several Russian trucks and was more than happy to be out of their way soon. My very first stop in Finland was at a Lidl. There are no Aldis or Lidls in the Baltic States and I was suffering from decent chocolate withdrawal. In Lidl I was about to get down on my knees and thank God for decent food. Shopping in the Baltic States had been very expensive and food quality not always good. Here I knew exactly what I was getting.

Espoo art museum
I had plenty of time to kill because my next stop was the big City Museum of Espoo. I had decided to skip Helsinki as I had been here before and would have to come back again. I cycled straight to Espoo, where the main museum costs 12 shocking EUR, but was free Wednesdays after 6 pm. Of course this had to be taken advantage off. I dutifully waited till it was exactly 6 pm and got my free ticket to the modern art museum and the city museum. Although I have seen a lot of crappy modern art, this museum was quite convincing - but I was glad I did not have to pay 12 EUR for it. (Better spend it on Lidl chocolate....)

But Espoo is still quite a metropolitan area and this led to the question of where to camp. The tourist brochures said that Nuuksia National Park is at Espoo's doorstep, but unfortunately this doorstep was almost three hours by bike away. The last bit was killing me with relentless short but steep ups and downs. I was heading to one of the designated campsites but when I arrived at 10.30 pm there were still plenty of cars parked in the parking lot and several young kids with bottles full of unidentified liquids were wandering around. No way I was camping there. Luckily it hardly gets dark in June in Finland and therefore I still had some time to find a decent stealth campsite.

Nuuksia park in the rain
The weather forecast had predicted rain and it arrived on time in the morning. It was forecasted to rain the whole day so procrastinating would not do me any good. I packed up and headed to the brand new National Park visitor centre. It was only a 30 minute ride but I was soaking wet. My determination to cycle on that day dwindled. Once I realised that there is free wifi and a good AYCE buffet I decided to wait out the rain in the centre. Cycling a whole day in constant rain at 12 C is doable, but not enjoyable. And an AYCE buffet for 16 EUR is expensive but in this case it was delicious. I was feasting on smoking salmon and roastbeef while watching the relentless rain outside. I am hoping to get to a lean-to shelter in the park tonight and hopefully the weather will improve tommorrow.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Through Estonia

Of course it took forever until I eventually left Tartu. And when I had done all internet surfing I discovered that right on Tartu's main square a traditional song and dance festival was taking place. Pretty young girls and handsome blond boys in traditional costumes were happily dancing on a huge stage and even the kids were dressed up. Eventually I managed to tear myself away at 3 pm.

Again I was about to make a big detour to see Lake Peipus, one of the biggest lakes in Europe that forms the border between Estonia and Russia. It is the traditional home of Russian old believers who had left Russia in the 18th century when the Russian Orthodox church was reformed but they stuck to the "old beliefs", therefore the name Old Believers.

Lake Peipus
I arrived pretty late at the lake but was lucky: a big Swedish tourist bus was visiting and therefore one of the churches was open. When I entered 50 Swedish tourists stared at me and neglected their tour guide's explanations. I continued cycling along the lake of which I did not see much. The shoreline was totally overgrown. Locals had to build little canals to be able to access the lake. The stretch along the lake was fabulous. I felt like a hundred years ago. Small wooden houses were lining the small but paved road alternating with little fields and gardens. The Old Believers were traditionally growing onions and were therefore often referred to as "onion Russians". I even found a cemetery well with good water and settled down for the night in yet another mosquito swamp forest.

Alekvisti before the storm
Next stop was Alekvisti with a manor resembling Balmoral castle. And whom did I meet there? Martin, the German cyclist with whom I've had dinner two nights ago. We just chatted briefly because a thunderstorm was threatening and I was looking for some shelter. I found it under the huge archway leading to the castle where two other cyclists were already waiting - Germans as well. The rain lasted over an hour and I learnt that the German couple were here on a supported group trip. They had been afraid to come here alone. When leaving I saw their support vehicles: two buses towing bike trailers - not exactly my cup of tea. But while I was camping with millions of mosquito friends that night they were probably nice and comfortable in a hotel. To each their own.

Lake Peipus
With a couple of rain stops in bus shelters I continued along the lake, now with nice views. The amount of rain and the high temperatures made the ground "steam" - and brought even more mosquitos out. Cooking dinner was definitely no fun these days.

But now I was aproaching the Estonian "highlands". This did not result in much elevation gain as they are just 166 m high, but it lead to a relatively dry and almost mosquito free campsite. Finding it though nearly lead to disaster: cycling down a forest road I saw picture perfect pine forest. I hid my bike in case someone drove by and headed into the dense forest to find a nice spot. I found several nice spots - but had lost directions and could not find my bike any more. I fought against panic rising up and marked a central point from which I ventured out in several directions until I saw the forest road again - and two minutes later I was happy reunited with my bike. Next time I go campsite hunting with a GPS!

I was now cycling towards the Baltic Sea coast and I noticed more and more former German influence. The old graveyards had German tombstones and the manors and castles old German names. One came in very handy when it started to rain and I could comfortably sit it out in the castle museum. This being limestone country Porkuni was a limestone museum although I admittedly found the free wifi more exciting. Finally on June 8th I reached the Baltic Sea for the first time on this trip.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Tartu

Birgit in Valga....
I put in a long cycling day to camp 20 km from Valga in a nice quiet forest. It took me forever to find a bicycle accessible flat and well hidden campsite (although 5 million mosquitoes tried to help me) but once I had set up my tent I was in paradise. I slept in so late that I started cycling at an embarrassing 10.30 am... I was just heading out from the forest road onto the main highway when I saw my "Doppelgaenger": another female cyclist with a bike helmet, Ortlieb panniers and a bright yellow high visibility vest. She was as surprised as I and waited for me to catch up. Birgit was from Austria and cycling the R1 to St. Petersburg. Still happily cycling at the age of 63 with an artificial hip and several back surgeries she really impressed me a lot and time flew by while we were chatting and cycling. So pretty soon we reached Valga were I finally had someone else to take my border picture.

.... and myself
Birgit wanted to take the bus from Valga but as she had some time to spare and I felt like celebrating our acquaintance we decided to have lunch together. The visitor information staff recommended a nice restaurant and soon I was eating out for the second time in a month. We were sitting in the garden, the food was great (although a bit expensive) and I felt fantastic. What a lovely day with great conversation, good food and sunny weather. While Birgit took the bus I cycled on - into mosquito hell. It had been hot as hell again and the short but heavy thunderstorm had turned the forest into a mosquito infested jungle. Everything was so lush that I had a hard time finding a flat spot and my tent felt like a field sauna. Still I got up early in the morning. I was heading into Tartu and in order to see the town properly I wanted to stay in accommodation.

Father and son
Of course this is always a special treat for me and I flew into town to have as much time possible in my room. Tartu is quite touristy and the first place was already fully booked when I arrived after 50 km at noon. I loved the second place immediately: When I asked for a room in Eha Suija guesthouse the elderly landlady told me in good but a bit confused English that she did not know if she had a room for me but something would work out and I should now take a shower first. I immediately followed that invitation and was even more delighted when she offered to do my laundry. Happiness was complete when a free room for 20 EUR emerged and breakfast was even included. Wifi as well by the way and my bike was stored in the living room. The other guests turned out to be quite interesting, too. A cyclist from Russia, a German dental technician who was coaching an Estonian dental lab and an Estonian student. Breakfast took several hours in the morning because I had to talk to them all (which was a bit complicated in the case of Russians).

War memorial
Tartu on the other hand was quite nice but that was about it. It lacks any outstanding monuments and the only interesting museum is the Estonian National museum which can also be seen in an hour. To sum it up: quite a pleasant town, but nothing to go out of your way for. Still I had a very enjoyable evening. I met Birgit again, her on and off cycling partner Ute and another German cyclist. Together we had dinner in the old town and chatted about our adventures over Estonian pancakes.

One last word on Estonia: This is wifi heaven! You will have a hard time finding potable tap water, but even the little villages have free wifi! These free wifi hotspots are advertised on maps and with signposts even in the villages. I am at the Tartu visitor centre right now using one of their free computers. It is so nice to type on a real keyboard instead of swyping on my tiny smart phone. But soon I'll head out into the heat and cycle on.

Latvia on Tour LatEst

At Madona I changed from following more or less the EV 11 to following more or less the Tour LatEst. This Tour LatEst is a joint effort of Latvian and Estonian Tourist boards to promote bicycle touring in these countries. Although they have put in a lot of effort with publishing a fantastic free guidebook and signposting the route in the field I cannot really recommend this route for a long-distance road cyclist. As I was soon to find out half of the route is on gravel roads which are usually a nightmare with a fully loaded road bike. Strangely enough lesser traveled dirt or forest roads were quite ok, but the well traveled gravel roads were so badly corrugated that I quickly gave up on following the Tour LatEst. Whenever possible I stayed on paved roads and had a lot more enjoyable trip.

Eisenstein museum
I had decided to do a big detour: Instead of heading straight North into Estonia I was now cycling West to visit Sigulda and Cesis, both quite some tourist "hot spots" for Baltic standards. This took me out of the border province Latgale to the Latvian province of Vidzeme. Latgale borders Russia, has a large Russian population - and apparently a smuggling problem. Everywhere I could see signs saying "border area" and I was told that the police here can stop you any time to see your passport and check your luggage. With the prices being so high in Latvia and so low in Russia people were smuggling petrol and other stuff although illegal immigration did not seem to be a problem. Latgale was economically not that well developed either.

But the Tour LatEst brought me at least to a rather bizarre sightseeing location. Right in the middle of nowhere was a Sergey Eisenstein museum. For those who are not into cinematography: Eisenstein was a famous Soviet movie director who became famous with "Battleship Potemkim". This little museum was of course closed but had some weird sculptures in the garden referring to that movie.

Sigulda boasts several castles and I headed straight to the visitor information to form a plan of attack. The friendly staff there offered to keep my panniers while sightseeing - an enormous help as I always feel uneasy when I leave my luggage out of sight. Relieved I left the information centre and planned on seeing every single sight in Sigulda. With no panniers I was flying down the bike lanes. First stop was the Emperor's Seat, a viewpoint of the River Gauja. Some other Latvian cyclists were already there and I asked a lady to take my picture. In the ensuing conversation it turned out she spoke English quite well. I innocently asked her where she had learned English so well - and she was an English teacher....

One of Sigulda's castles was a tuberculosis sanatorium with a huge and rather dilapidated sun porch. I thought it had been a sanatorium but actually it still is one.... I don't think I could recover in such a run down place. The most famous castle in Sigulda is Turaida, where the most famous Latvian love story (of course ending very bloody) took place. Now it is very popular for weddings and this being a Saturday one took place. I must say that I did not find the place too exiting despite the nicely dressed up museum staff.

Last big attraction are some big caves that the famous Sigulda love story couple used as a meeting place. It has been popular for centuries and for me the old graffitis were actually more interesting than the cave itself. The graffitis you see on the photo date back to the 1800s!!! Happily reunited with my panniers I then set off into Gauja National Park along the famous river Gauja in search of a campsite - of course on an incredibly corrugated gravel road. I was rewarded with a picture perfect soft and flat camp site in pine forest with hardly any mosquitoes but had to suffer from more gravel roads in the morning.

Cesis castle
I was now cycling to Cesis where I wanted to stay at an official campground. I urgently needed to wash my hair, myself and my clothes. The roads were so bad that 20 km took me 3 hours! I had chosen the campsite Apalkans which was unfortunately 10 km outside Cesis. I arrived totally exhausted and fed up - a sure sign that I urgently needed a rest day. The campground was brilliant: Huge, quiet, wifi everywhere, clean hot showers, fire pits and even a roofed place for drying your clothes. Very few people were staying there but I immediately got to know a German couple from Berlin. And after telling my usual story I was invited to some German Bratwurst self-barbecued over the fire pit.

Cesis lantern
This meant the end of all my plans to cycle into Cesis in the afternoon. Instead I stayed the whole day in the campground, used the wifi to skype with friends, watch my favourite soap opera on my smart phone and talk with my new found friends. In short: a brilliant rest day even made better by the fact that it was slightly drizzling and I did not have to cycle. It was hard to tear myself away from the lovely place in the morning but finally I made it into Cesis. Again the main attraction was a ruined castle and the USP are lanterns. Because some towers and dungeons are so dark every visitor is given a candle lantern which was a nice idea but always in the way when I wanted to take a picture....But now I was off to Valga/Valka, the divided border town between Latvia and Estonia.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Latvia I

After a difficult hour an a very bumpy dirt road I arrived in the first town in Latvia: Daugavpils. My guidebook said that here more than 90% of  the population is Russian and this statement was quickly confirmed when I visited the huge cemetery on the way into town. All the inscriptions on the tombstones were Russian plus the usual pictures of the deceased. My quest for water was   unsuccessful: there were several Wells, but the water was mucky.

First my blood sugar had to be restored to normal levels with a visit in the supermarket and a lunch on a bench in the pedestrian zone. Only eating and people watching I felt fit for sightseeing. First sight was the old fortress. Most impressive weren't the thick walls but the former soldier housing that are now more or less dilapited but still used as housing complexes. One complex is brand new renovated and houses the Rothko art museum because the painter was born in Daugavpils.

Military barracks in the old fortress
The other main attraction of town are churches of various denominations with the Russian Orthodox being the most interesting and colourful. There also is a church of the Old Believers and my guidebook wrote about strict dress codes there. Sure enough as soon as I had rolled into the courtyard an Orthodox nun appeared and started talking to me in Russian. I thought I was prepared for the occasion and put on my buff and long pants but the nun was still not happy: it had to be a skirt and no trousers. After more Russian talking from her and gesticulations from my side I was given a black wrap around skirt and allowed into the church - and no photography allowed of course.

The EV 11 now took me along the beautiful river Daugava on a not beautiful at all bumpy dirt road. I should have camped in this idyllic spot but pushed on - and end up camping in a mosquito infested swamp that had formerly served as a garbage dump.

Aglonas
Next day's highlight was the pilgrimage church of Aglonas - an unusual Catholic church in otherwise mostly Protestant Latvia. The newly renovated church is glowing white and situated in a huge complex that reminded me more of a Soviet parade square than a church yard but apparently it is necessary to accommodate the masses of pilgrims that come here on Aug 15. Now in May the only other visitors was another obnoxious school class.

A nice feature of Aglonas is the holy spring where I refilled my water bottles before shopping in the tiny local supermarket where I unfortunately met the school class again. Every kid had to buy some candy and check out took forever. But while enjoying lunch I discovered another Latvian nicety: free internet. The Latvian telecommunication company Lattelecom offers free wifi - you just have to watch 15 seconds of advertising and then you can log on for free.

Rezekne in the cold
The entire week had been incredibly and unusually hot - and now all of a sudden the weather turned into the other extreme. The next day I was cycling in long trousers, socks and a jacket and was still cold. While having lunch in front of a supermarket in Rezekne I was shivering when a man came up to me. I had just bought a 5 litres bottle of water and he explained to me that here in Latvia you don't have to buy water - just ask at a farm for water from the well. I already knew this procedure from Lithuania but sometimes I just could not be bothered, especially considering the risk of getting bitten by a dog in the farm. But a nice conversation ensued: he had worked as a bus driver in Bimingham before returning with his family to Latvia - where he now earned 500 € per month as a bus driver. Considering that supermarket prices are as high in Latvia as they are in Germany I started to wonder how people survive here.

Lake Luban
I posed this question the next day when I had met a Latvian lady in a visitor centre at Lake Luban. She spoke brilliant English - and had worked in Britain as well. I learnt a lot from her. Apparently many young Latvians go to Ireland and Britain to work. Salaries and pensions in Latvia are still ridiculously low considering the high prices. You can only survive as a group and therefore three generations still live together. Living in the countryside helps as well because you can buy directly from the farmers. Still the Baltic States have an unexpected high suicide rate - and a huge alcohol and drug problem. Unfortunately I would encounter this alcohol problem several times later on my trip when totally drunk young men tried to talk to me. But on the more cheerful side Lake Luban was a nice sidetrip. The extensive wetlands were impressive and I even had a little swim despite the cold temperatures.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Out of Lithuania

I cycled just about 450 km through Lithuania - because I will come back here at the end of my trip. The idea is to cycle through the Baltic States roughly along the EV 11 (Iron Curtain Trail), do a big loop through Finland and then cycle again through the Baltic States following the Baltic Sea coast. Therefore no conclusion and recommendations yet!

Aukštaitija National Park
The route after Vilnius was nice but rather uneventful. Aukštaitija National Park was definitely a gem. One lake after the other all set in beautiful forest. No wonder this is a popular holiday destination. Unfortunately I arrived on a Saturday evening and every beach was full of people, but after a while I found one with not a soul in sight. The last days had been incredibly hot and I could not wait to go skinnydipping. This was my first real swim of the year and it felt great. I had just put my last piece of clothes back on when I suddenly realised a big commotion on the road. Several cars stopped right were I was and people came streaming down to the beach. I wondered where all these masses of people suddenly came from when I suddenly saw a bride. And then it dawned on me: this was a wedding party on their way to an idyllic photo setting. I could not help smiling: just 10 minutes earlier and they would have had a naked German cyclist in the background....

The park did not only attract wedding parties but also a lot of teenagers. It was a mystery to me how you could party here with all the mosquitoes but they were at every beach and parking lot. The park provided several free designated campsites but with asek these parties going on these car accessible spots were not likely to provide quiet sleep. I tried to find a quiet campsite away from it all but was still woken up at 2 am by loud Lithuanian pop music somewhere in the vicinity.

The next night I camped right at the Lithuanian-Latvian-Belorussian border and was only disturbed by mosquitoes. The weather was almost too hot for cycling and I had to take a long siesta every day to recover from the heat. I love a "bottle" shower at the end of the day but the mosquitoes made this a very quick affair. Every night I set up camp quickly, I undressed in seconds and quickly squirted some water out of my bike bottle over me to clean up a bit. Still wet I immediately retreated into my tent where I lay down from exhaustion to dry off water and sweat. On Monday 26th of May I cycled into Latvia on some dirt road crossing in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, despite my hopes,  the dirt road stayed dirt - and Latvia has as many dirt roads as Lithuania.