Thursday, June 5, 2014

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.

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