Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Latvia Part 2

Art Deco in Riga
Latvia didn't greet me friendly: Immediately after the border I was routed back onto the main highway. The EV route then takes you onto a big 30 km detour on a secondary road inland to avoid the coastal highway. First I was relieved to be off the busy highway but to my great horror the secondary P- road turned gravel. The road was a nightmare in corrugation and I started yelling German swear words in frustration. I had to do big miles that day to get to Riga in time and this gravel road was slowing me down tremendously. After 15 km the gravel turned into pavement again and when I then even found a lake for a quick swim I felt better.

I even got up super early (for my standards) next morning and was cycling before 8 am to make the last 80 km into Riga. They dragged on and on but I was rushing now: a big thunderstorm was forecasted for the evening and I wanted to be in my guesthouse by then. Timing was prefect: I arrived one hour before hell broke loose and it started to bucket down. I watched the deluge from my room while comfortably skyping with friends in Germany. In fact I spent the whole afternoon and evening till midnight skyping and surfing the net. But this bike trip is slowly coming to an end and I had too arrange a lot of things.

Freedom Statue in Riga
I wanted to use the next morning to plan the route for the rest of my trip but got totally side tracked by another guest I met at the breakfast table: a Hungarian language student who was studying Latvian in Riga. As a former linguistics student I was intrigued by her explanations of Slavic language families and soon I quizzed her about politics as well. I really had to tear myself away in order to do a bit of sightseeing in Riga.

This was going to be my bike free day and I took the trolley bus into town for a mere 0,60 €. I visited only one museum - the Occupation Museum. Each Baltic State had one, so this was number three for me. I guess this tells you a lot how much the Baltic people "like" the Russians. After touring the museum I couldn't help but quizzing one of the staff members, a very enthusiastic young man whom I now owe a lot of insights into current politics.

I learned that in Latvia women are wearing the trousers and that most of the Russian Latvians refuse to obtain Latvian citizenship which gives them the status "stateless", but no right to vote. Again I could have quizzed him for hours but I tore myself away to tour the city. I disliked the fact that you have to pay entrance fee to almost all the churches in the city. I therefore skipped crouch sightseeing and invested my money in a cheap restaurant. It served nothing but "Pelmeni", the Russian version of Raviolo. You served yourself out of steaming pots with different fillings, topped the whole serving with sour cream, parsley and pickles and then paid by weight. I was delighted to find out that my generous portion of "Pelmeni all sorts" was less than 5 € - and delicious. I liked it so much that I came back the next day on my way out of town.

My last morning in Riga was kind of hectic. I wanted to book my ferry ticket back to Germany but despite good wifi I didn't succeed - there seemed to be a bug in their mobile website. It is amazing how much timei I waste on my trips with poor or intermittent wifi, faulty apps and a malfunctioning browser. I tried to call the ferry companies call centre but gave up after 10 minutes on hold. As much as I love the internet - it can be frustrating. I needed a real computer and hoped to find that in the tourist information in Jurmala.

Jurmala water park
Jurmala is Riga's beach resort but to me it just seemed like an endless busy highway and wondered how people can enjoy a holiday on these campgrounds that are squeezed in between the noisy highway and the sea. At least I quickly found the tourist information and it did have a computer - although an elderly Russian man was already working in it. After some patient waiting he finally offered me ten minutes time on it which was enough for me to eventually book the ferry ticket. No problem on a real computer... I could have needed much more time but I had to cease it to the Russian gentleman. At least there was wifi for my smartphone. Suddenly a very furious staff member appeared and started yelling at the Russian who immediately disappeared. She then told me that the man who had so "generously" given me ten minutes computer time hadn't been a tourist but a local and was hogging the computer all day long....

I now had to get out of Jurmala which seemed to drag in forever. And unfortunately the careless days of endless daylight are definitely over now. It gets dark, and I mean really dark, at a quarter past nine and I haven't quite gotten used to that again. I wanted to reach Kemeri National park for a quiet camping spot but I really had to hurry now. But although I got there at sunset I found a great spot in my beloved pine forest. And a needed a good night's sleep now: in Riga I had skyped until past midnight and been woken up early in the morning by screaming Russian kids in my guesthouse.

Next day there was a dramatic weather change but luckily I had just reached the tourist information in Tukums when it started to rain. While it was bucketing down outside I finally had the time and resources to plan the route for the rest of my trip. The long term forecast was basically rain (and sun) every day for the next two weeks. Considering the weather I gave up on the idea of following the coast line - I had also seen enough beaches already. Instead I would cut through inland and join the coast again at Liepaja.

An official campground
For the first  time in weeks I was cycling again in rain - and felt miserable. At least the rain stopped in the evening and again I had to cycle until sunset to get to where I wanted to camp. Maybe I should start getting up earlier.... I stumbled upon a picture perfect official campsite along the river Abava. Although marked on the map and signposted off the highway no one was there on the vast grounds when I arrived and I instantly used the chance for a sunset river swim. Thus refreshed I chose a hidden spot as far away as possible from the parking area as this was the perfect spot for an impromptu party or love lane.

I was just about to go to sleep when my worst fears came true: a car full of intoxicated kids came across the lawn and parked close to my tent. Car doors were banging,cigarettes were lit and all this was accompanied by lots of yelling and laughing. I was trapped! The kids hadn't noticed me but I knew that I would just endanger my health if I went over and  asked them to be quiet. But I also couldn't quietly move to some other spot without being noticed. I cursed the idea of camping at an official spot - stealth camping doesn't usually lead to this sort of problem. Luckily the kids soon got fed up and left after half an hour. I still slept fitfully because I feared another party. An early morning swim reconciled me with the place and as there was no one at the entrance when I left I didn't even have to pay the meagre 2,50 € camping fee.

Next highlight was Kuldiga, a lovely little town boasting several Latvian records: highest waterfall (a breathtaking four metres....) and broadest rapids with 249 metres. But I mostly liked the old houses with paint peeling off the walls and the general feeling that time has stood still here - a charming little town and not very touristy at all.

Esther Mack
On my way back to the coast I met another long distance cyclist - Esther who has been cycling for a year now. Other than the ordinary two weeks cyclist here she had well used equipment - and stopped when she passed me. It was a pity we didn't have more time to chat but we exchanged used maps and a lot of information. It is amazing how few long distance cyclists I have met in this trip - Esther was only the second one in almist four months. Finland and the Baltic States don't seem to be very popular in these circles.

I reached the coast again at Liepaja. This place was high on my bucket list because of Karosta, a "town in town". Karosta was built in the early 1900s by the Russian Czar as a naval town. Dozens of old crumbling buildings still proof its former glory, especially the golden domed Russian orthodox church. During Soviet times the Red Army used the installations and Karosta became a forbidden town that nobody could visit without a special permit. Modern apartment blocks were built that look even more dilapidated nowadays than the older buildings - but some are still inhabitated. Karosta was once home for 30,000 people but now the population is down to 7,000 - and they look pretty lost in the vast area....

Tour at Karosta prison
Karosta's main attraction though is the former military prison which has been turned into a modern event installation. You can book all sorts of tours and events that more or less seem to be like a beginners' course for SM. But the event concept is wildly successful! The hourly guided tours were fully booked and the prison "hotel" has been rated as one of the best event accommodations worldwide. You can book normal hostel accommodation in a cell or "Behind bars extreme" which requires signing a waiver beforehand because you'll be woken up in the middle of the night by prison guards, yelled at and physically punished. Even breakfast is authentic prison food. If you are fed up with this treatment you can book the group event "Flee from the USSR". I had just booked a normal tour but even here visitors had to walk single file and were locked up temporarily. Although I didn't find the tour particularly interesting, I found the concept - and its popularity - fascinating.

Latvia had greeted me with a busy and dangerous highway and its farewell was the same. I had to cycle 50 km on the coastal highway. In a brochure an alternative was shown on gravel roads and tracks but as usual this was almost impassable with a fully loaded road bike. I did the gravel part road because I had to get off the main highway anyway in order to find a quiet campsite. And I struck gold again. I ended up in fantastic old growth beach forest in thick moss listening to the waves of the Baltic Sea - until at 3 pm I had to listen to a thunderstorm and was made aware again that my tent is leaking.... Luckily the thunderstorm was over quickly and the rest of the night was peaceful and dry.

Next day was Sunday and this was a lucky streak again. Early Sunday morning there was hardly any traffic on the main coastal highway. In two hours only two trucks passed me. Still I was pedalling like crazy to get off the road as quickly as possible - and out of Latvia.

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