Friday, 29 August 2014

Cycling the Baltic States: Conclusion and tips

All three Baltic States try very hard to promote themselves as bike friendly destinations, but to be honest: they have still a long way to go to reach that goal. That does not mean that I don't recommend cycling there - I  just want to say that this destination is not for ideal for every cyclist. I personally enjoyed my trip there a lot and same parts of it were real hightlights that I would recommend to almost everyone. Still, overall on this trip I preferred Finland to the Baltic States. So what were the problems?

The biggest problem is the state of roads and lack of suitable bike paths. A lot of even major roads are still in very bad shape. You'll encounter (badly mended) pot holes, crumbling asphalt and deep lane grooves - and all this can be very dangerous for cyclists on busy roads because unfortunately what you will encounter very rarely is a decent shoulder or bike path. Even on major highway you can't avoid traffic by cycling on the very right: deep lane grooves make that too dangerous. You'll be right on the traffic lane where Russian trucks will pass you with millimeters to spare. Even if there is a bike path you will usually prefer the road: most of the Baltic bike paths must have been built during Soviet times and have never been mended ever since. They are bumby, potholed - and have no lowered curbs. To make things worse a lot of even bigger roads are still dirt roads - and mostly of the worst kind. Usually you will find coarse gravel instead of dirt and because of reckless drivers they are mostly badly corrugated. You will either bump along the corrugation or get stuck in deep gravel - neither is very nice with a fully loaded bike.

There is hope so: With the financial help of the EU more and more roads are getting overhauled now and that means that usually a picture perfect bike path is built alongside. There is only one thing that Baltic road engineers have not learnt yet: to lower curbs. I have seen so many brand new bike path with almost unsurmountable curbs. Also, some new bike paths just end as abruptly as they start: More than once I ended up in front of a road barrier, dirt track or curb.

Pavement turns to gravel
Cycling on designated long-distance bike routes is a mixed experience. The EV 10 and EV 11 that traverse the Baltic States try hard to route you on decent roads but that does not always work: The EV 10 still has long stretches directly on the busy and dangerous coastal highway and the EV 11 goes through some dirt road hell. The biggest disappointment though was the Tour LatEst: This is a joint project of the Latvian and Estonian tourist authorities to create a bike route through Northern Latvia and Southern Estonia. They have published a brilliant guidebook that you can get free in visitor centres along the route or download from their website. The route looks great on paper - but is hell on the ground. Half of it is on dirt roads and it is  impossible to cycle it comfortably with a fully loaded road bike. After cycling one months through the Baltic States I had a broken spoke and my almost new back tire was totally worn.

But in all fairness I also want to mention that half of the time I have been cycling on quiet country roads
through scenic landscapes that are every cyclist's dream. My personal highlights were
  • the route along Lake Peipus
  • the stretch from Tallinn to Hiiuma and Saarema (circling the islands) and on until Pärnu (EV 10)
With EU funding several brochures and booklets for cyclists have been published. The most useful one is the  guidebook for Western Estonia covering the islands of Hiiuma and Saarema - and this fabulous guidebook is even available for free!

Drivers in the Baltic States are usually peaceful and try to give you a wide berth. I was honked at very rarely. But as there are not many cyclists in these counters, drivers are not used to them. Cars and trucks sometimes pass you way too closely and cars racing down dirt roads at 100 km/h cover you in dust or throw gravel at you.

There was one more thing that I found a bit annoying: the lack of public water sources. In every Western country it is more or less easy to find water, for example from public water taps in cemeteries, gas stations, super markets and the like. In the Baltic States this was a huge problem: Most rural areas are not connected to the public water system or the water from the taps are not drinkable. The population gets their drinking water from wells on their property and either don't have a tap or use tap water only for washing. For a cyclist this means that you either have to buy bottled water (cheap for around 0,80 EUR per 5 litre bottle) or try to get access to one of these wells which can be difficult due to dogs and/or fences. I ended up either getting water from wells in cemeteries or buying water. 

But that is enough of negative points. As I have stated earlier I have really enjoyed the Baltic States - so what makes them so interesting?

Forest managed by RMK
Let's start with some practical points: First of all free camping is legal and usually very easy. All three Baltic States are densely forested and it is usually very easy to disappear in the woods. Although there are "swamp" forests like in Finland they are not that widespread and more often you'll find a perfect flat camp spot in pine forest. Beware that mushroom hunting and berry picking are very popular and you'll see people in the forest from early morning to late evening - although most likely they will not bother you. Estonia is the most camper friendly state: RMK is the national forest agency and they have created many free campsite and camp fire sites. At campfire sites free firewood is provided and the campsites usually come with a dry toilet and trash cans. There are even free huts! You can find the location of these sites on the RMK website where you can search for sites in the area. Even the GPS coordinates for each site are given there and there is an App in English as well. I have used these RMK sites a lot but keep in mind that some of them (especially those with car access) can get very busy in summer holiday season.

Another fact that might sound trivial but came in very handy is the abundance of bus shelters. It was raining on and off  a lot and usually you'll pass a convenient bus shelter in time to seek cover. And although I have used it myself only once bike transport is very easy with public transportation. I have heard from several other cyclist that they have put their bikes on trains and long-distance buses without a problem. The same is true for ferries where you only pay a small surcharge for bicycles.

Village store
Resupply is also very easy. Even small towns usually have a little shop - although they can be difficult to spot. Grocery stores are conveniently open every day including Sunday and often they only close at 10 pm! Prices though are a different story. I was shocked how expensive food is in the Baltic States. Many (imported) items are even more expensive than in Germany, especially chocolate and other sweets and canned food (except from Russian origin). But there are cheap foods as well: Look for dairy products, pastries and local fruit and vegetables.

Yogurth and kohupiim
Which now brings me to my favourite food in the Baltic States: Because chocolate was relatively expensive I started to drink 1 litre of yoghurt every day. Yoghurt here is sold in bags and can be as cheap as 0,85 EUR per kg. My favourite was "wild strawberry" flavour. But my nicest discovery was kohupiim which means curd cheese or cottage cheese. In all three Baltic States this curd is sold as a snack: The curd is sweetened and flavored and gets covered with chocolate. The little snack costs between 0,20 and 0,40 EUR and is sold in almost every supermarket in all sorts of flavors. I preferred popeyeseed. Most supermarkets and the very rare bakeries were also selling a wide variety of pastries - sweet and salty. These never cost more than 1 EUR per piece and usually made a very good lunch.

Another positive practicality is the wide availability of free internet. Estonia is best here. Almost every little village had one spot with free wifi - usually the library or community hall. This was even signposted from the roads! Latvia had Lattelecom, which comes in a paid and a free version. To get free internet you have to watch an ad for 15 seconds and then you can surf for free. Very convenient. And even in Lithuania there was usually free wifi somewhere in town. Of course there was free internet and computer use in libraries - and on all ferries! Every single hotel, hostel and B&B had free wifi which is a standard in all Baltic countries. Actually it was easier to find free wifi than potable tap water.....

But of course you don't visit a country to eat cheap food and find free wifi. Beside all these practicalities the main draw is the countries' history and culture. Here you'll find German and Russian influences, Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox churches, three proud little countries with a huge Russian minority, weird languagues that no one else speaks but kids that are fluent in English, brand new high tech telecommunication and a totally desolate road system - but most important of all: people that are incredibly proud of their country. Very often I was approached by locals who wanted to explain things to me and show me their country. I was intrigued by each countries history, culture - and their people's strong will of survival despite centuries of occupation by different nations.

Bottom line: All three Baltic States are fascinating countries, full of contrasts and definitely worth visiting for their unspoilt nature and interesting historical sights. Just don't expect picture perfect cycling conditions - you'll have to bring some sort of sense of adventure.

In the end some more practical tips:

Maps: None of the maps of the Baltic States that I could get in Germany showed which roads are paved and which are not. For obvious reasons this is important to know for cyclists - and therefore these maps are not very useful. Don't spend too much money on them - buy country maps in the Baltic States were you can get them very cheaply. Often visitor information centres give away free district maps that have this information as well.

Baltic supermarket chain
Costs: Food in supermarkets costs roughly the same in all threecountries. Don't expect prices to be lower than in Western Europe. On the contrary: Overall I found grocery shopping in the Baltic States to be at least as expensive or even more expensive than Germany. Costs for restaurants and accomodation vary tremendously in the three countries. Estonia is the most expensive were accommodation and food costs almost as much as in Germany. Luckily you can there use the free RMK campsites and huts. Latvia is already a lot cheaper and Lithuania is very cheap when it comes to accommodation. I paid as little as 15 EUR for a single room and stayed in really posh hotels for 25 EUR. Prices for restaurants are accordingly.

Bike parts: As I have already described you will be on dirt roads a lot which will be bad for your bike. If you cycle here for a longer period of time, bring spare spokes and tires. 


Derk said...

Hi Christine,

Thanks for the tips, very helpful - one quick question: are there many bike shops in the smaller towns to stock up on bike parts?


German Tourist said...

Sorry but I hardly saw any bike shops in the Baltic States and there are definitely none in the smaller towns. You can find bike shops in the capitol cities though.