One of the great things about travelling by bike for a long period of time is that things are always slowly changing all around you. The most obvious things are the features of the landscape, from flatlands to hills to coasts to forests. But the changing of the seasons is a bit more subtle and gradual. For the last couple of weeks the colours of the trees have been getting more and more varied with yellows, oranges and reds making an appearance in contrast to the walls of green that we were seeing in Sweden and Finland. It was just the odd one or two trees to begin with but now the roadside has become filled up with colour. It’s also been getting a lot cooler in the evenings so it seems autumn has well and truly arrived in the Baltics.
2nd to 13th October 2014
We leave Ruta and Gint’s house in Riga with a belly full of toast coated with Latvian honey, a real luxury as we can’t normally make toast in the morning. Gints has given us a good route to take us out on a railway path to leave the city then he has suggested a few nice towns to visit that will eventually lead us over to the east coast of Latvia. We pass through Jurmala which is where the rich Latvians live and it looks like they have more money than sense as there are some enormous houses with what might be called ‘bold architecture’ but I think even Kevin McCloud would be challenged to call them attractive.
We ride through the Kemeru National Park into Tukums and encounter our first bit of genuine road rage since the UK when a truck drives past slowly on a hill with its horn blaring.
With the evenings being colder it’s nice to be able to get a fire going, so we’re pleased to find a nice spot next to a lake that has a large pile of logs and a picnic table. The marshmallows come out and are toasted to perfection.
Our Thermarest double quilt has been fantastic so far. It’s half the weight of carrying two sleeping bags, just as warm and most importantly takes up half as much space. But now it’s getting colder on its own it’s not quite enough, so we’ve moved to stage two of the sleeping system which is to use the impressive sounding Sea to Summit Thermalite Reactor‘ sleeping bag liners underneath the quilt. The combination is toasty at the moment so we hope it should keep us comfortable for a few more weeks even if the mercury continues to drop.
We’ve also moved from muesli to porridge as the breakfast of choice to start each day warm and full. I know a few porridge lovers and there is always some debate as to what the best topping should be. They sell a kind of sweet curd here in a range of flavours and I’d like to claim that this makes for the best porridge ever created. If you can find some of this stuff then I urge you to stir it with the oats as it’s really very good. Porridge on a camping stove usually ends up burnt but we have been using a pot cosy that Kirsty constructed which makes the job a lot more successful. You get the porridge heated till it’s just boiling then shove it in the insulated cosy and a couple of minutes later it’s done to perfection. It works well for pasta too and has the added benefit of saving fuel. We’d like to thank LVIS members Warren and Esther for this tip after reading about it on their excellent blog: http://estherwarren.wordpress.com/. They’ve just returned home after 3.5 years of riding through some of the best cycling destinations in the world.
The area we’re in now is much more rural and appears to be a bit poorer as the villages are basic and most of the buildings could do with some repair work. Next day we stop at a supermarket for second breakfast and the bill for two coffees and two pastries is less than half a Finnish coffee. In the queue I spot a lady with purple hair, another lady with an full blown moustache and a huge man buying 3 bottles of whisky. Much the same as you’d see on any given day in Asda Bedminster (an interesting part of Bristol) really.
We stop for lunch in Renda and learn that the church was partially demolished during the filming of Robin Hood’s Arrows. There’s no explanation as to how it happened, or why the Russians were making a film about Robin Hood but it sounds intriguing. By the afternoon we’ve reached Kuldiga with plenty of traditional buildings and cobbled streets but like a lot of Lativia it’s not in the best shape. They know it’s of historical importance and clearly want to encourage tourists, but can’t seem to quite get enough funds to present it in all its potential glory. However the most famous bits do look good which are the longest brick built bridge in Europe and the widest waterfall in Europe (110m). On the former we watch a wedding party assemble and release balloons into the air.
As well as being recommended to us by Gints, Kuldiga was on our route as we had arranged to stay at the home of Ugis. In fact we’re not staying in his home but are offered a little wooden cabin not far from the river Venta. Accompanied by Hugo the dog, he brings us apples, coffee, a kettle and a barrowful of logs for the stove and leaves us to it. It’s a lovely cosy little place, made even more cosy when I get the stove fired up and pile on some logs. Before long it’s actually quite hot in there. Now Kirsty and I operate at different temperatures which we had learnt a while ago when she was shivering at night, fully clothed and I was still sleeping in my underwear. So in the cabin she is happily sat in her fleece while I’m peeling off layers and I end up stripped to the waist and sweating while cooking supper. Being a wood panelled room it’s almost exactly like being in a sauna! The river was just a bit too far away to go for a dip afterwards though.
After Kuldiga we make it back to the seaside and to the town of Pavilosta. Just off the beach lies the largest boulder in the whole of the Baltic. It’s only stands 3.5m high so this claim seems surprising. Just behind the beach is a large wooden pyramid structure you can climb up for views of… well not a lot really. You can’t see much of the beach as there are trees in the way, you can’t see the boulder and there’s not much behind it either. A small sign says that it was part funded by the EU so I hope the people back in Brussels realise how their money seems to have been wasted.
The boulder serves as good a place as any for us to say goodbye to the Baltic for one last time. It’s been on our right hand side through six different countries now and we’ve learnt that it’s not very salty (good for swimming), has a very shallow tidal range so always looks like it’s at high tide and is littered with amber (we trawled lots of beaches but found none). So we continue inland down to Grobina then turn west and face the combined effect of a stiff headwind and a road in desperate need of some EU funding. If only they hadn’t spent their money on that pointless pyramid (OK it did have a point on the top). It’s a long day but we make it across the border into Lithuania and are greeted as we ride into the town of Skuodas by several barking dogs in various gardens. After stocking up with food, withdrawing some Litas from the bank and getting hounded out of town by several more barking dogs we’re back into the wind and stop at the first available clump of trees with enough shelter to conceal the tent.
It’s a restless night as we’d pitched at the wrong angle against the wind so the tent flapped quite a bit. It’s also turned very cold, too cold even for the Thermalite Reactor sleeping bag liners to keep us warm so we had to resort to stage 3 of the sleep system, wearing more clothes and in Kirsty’s case a down jacket. In the morning the Garmin claims it’s 3 degrees in the tent so it could have dipped below zero overnight. Sometimes things change more rapidly it seems. The wind is much stronger and blowing from exactly the direction we are heading.
It’s tough going and the morning is spent crouched over the bars with grimaces frozen on our faces trying to make progress into the 30kph wind. At the town of Zidikai we are ready for second breakfast and especially a hot drink, but this is the kind of town that doesn’t normally get visitors. There appear to be two shops but neither of them feel the need to put up a sign, the only clue is that people are going in with empty bags and coming out with full ones. We enter the first one and instantly dismiss it on account of the poor cake selection. The second one is much better so we pick a large, fruit filled circle of dough and ask if there is anywhere that could sell us a coffee. The shop keeper shakes his head but then holds up his hand as if to say ‘hold on one moment’ before disappearing out the back. He returns with a carrier bag and beckons for us to follow him. He doesn’t speak a word of English and our Lithuanian is limited to “Ačiū” which is also our favourite word so far for thank you. It’s pronounced like a sneeze and the reply of “Prašom” probably means ‘you’re welcome’ but it could well be ‘bless you’.
We follow the man while pushing the bike and the few people we see stop and stare at his strange entourage. We think he’s leading us to his home but then he turns into a school and takes us into the canteen where he asks the dinner ladies to make us two coffees. They’re more than happy to oblige and ask if we’d like lunch too? It’s still quite early but from what we can see being eaten by some of the school children it looks delicious so we say yes please. One of the children helps translate for the dinner lady and asks if we’d like steak? We say yes and get served two delicious plates of chicken with vegetables and follow it up with jam sponge all washed down with fresh coffee. It’s school dinner prices too so we leave 16 Litr lighter (about 4 pounds) and a couple of kg heavier.
The rest of the day is spent back in the wind tunnel passing through rundown towns and villages. In each one there are dogs behind fences barking at us. In the fields there are lots of goats and cows but the farmers seem to favour tying the animals to a post rather than putting a fence around them. It means they get their own patch of grass to nibble but not much chance to socialise.
At the end of the day we’re more than ready to set up camp. We find a nice little clearing in a small copse that offers everything we need: shelter from the wind, level ground and even the sound of barking dogs is drowned out by the passing traffic and the occasional train.
It’s a similar story the next day but noticeably warmer and perhaps a slightly stronger head wind. Progress is so slow that drafting behind a tractor is marginally faster. When we stop for some kind of meat filled pastry it’s amusing watching every single person who passes the bike stop and take a closer look. The curiosity in us and the tandem has definitely stepped up in Lithuania but that could also be because we are the only cyclists without a high viz waistcoat which appears to be mandatory. We‘ve not been stopped by the police so Kirsty‘s red jacket must be a suitable alternative.
There aren’t many roads to choose from unless we wanted to brave the rough gravel roads so after lunch we take on the A11 which has road works. We get channelled into a contraflow with not a huge amount of space between us and the traffic, but the drivers are amazingly considerate so it’s bearable apart from the fact that the wind is still holding our average speed down to about 15kph. The one small mercy is that by being on a tandem it’s easier than if we were on two solo bikes as it’s more aerodynamic but it’s still a big object to push into the gale.
Our destination that day is The Hill of Crosses and to get there we end up turning north for a few km and past a sign pointing out that Riga was only 136km away. We’d taken a bit more of a scenic route.
The Hill of Crosses was originally a place where people came to leave crosses of remembrance in the early 1800s. It has grown in popularity and significance and despite the best efforts of the Russians to dismantle it, there are now around 400,000 crosses of all sizes, colours and designs on the site. As well as being a religious site it also holds significance as a symbol of Lithuania’s independence so people come to visit from all around the country and indeed the world to place their own cross. We arrive at the same time as as coach load of Japanese tourists and another of school children so there isn’t much chance to sit quietly and take in the unique spectacle but it’s very interesting wondering around and reading some of the messages and the places where each cross has come from.
It’s getting late so we opt to eat out at a pizza restaurant in Šiauliai. After two 30cm pizzas we’re asked if we want anything else so the answer is yes, another 30cm pizza please. Then ice cream. We find a park on the outskirts of town to pitch the tent and the neighbours are nice and quiet as it’s the city cemetery.
While eating breakfast with a dog stood next to the tent barking at us, we decide to see what Siauliai has to offer for the morning as the wind is supposed to die down in the afternoon. It has a bicycle museum and a chocolate factory which both sound like they should be worth a visit. The bicycle museum isn’t as impressive as the one we saw in Saulkrasti and the chocolate factory would have left Augustus Gloop disappointed but both have some interesting exhibits and give some insight into life during the Soviet occupation for bicycle manufacturers and chocolate makers. When we eventually start riding in the afternoon it’s still breezy but by now we’re hardened to it so just crack on.
After a night in some woods with the odd rain shower and the sound of dogs barking in the distance, the day starts much brighter and warmer. We stop at a market in Academija which is also the home of the national agricultural college. I have a chat with an old man in overalls who has been inspecting the bike and he explains that he enjoys cycling too, and it’s becoming a lot more popular since the Russians moved out. Another, younger man overhears our conversation and asks about our trip. He represents a different generation so has a bluetooth headset in his ear, an IT degree in his back pocket, his own business and is looking forward to a holiday in Portsmouth next week. After passing through Kedainiai that evening we camp in a park in the village of Labunava and some inquisitive children come over to see what we’re up to. After working out we speak English as we only respond when they say hello they gather round while I explain what we are doing. I ask if they like living in Lithuania and they say no but I expect most teenagers in small towns around the world would say they same about their own countries. These are the next generation who were born after the Soviet occupation so their lives will be very different to the two men we had met earlier that day. We’ve seen a huge number of signs for EU funded projects from new toilets to big redevelopment schemes and next year Lithuania joins the Euro so it’s certainly a country trying to make big changes.
We ride into Kaunas the next day along one of the best roads we’ve found so far in Lithuania, alongside the river with very little traffic and lots of Autumn colours. Although smaller than the capital city, Vilnius, Kaunas still has plenty to see including the now familiar Lithuanian combination of old wooden buildings in need of a lick of paint alongside modern shops alongside derelict towers. Kaunas lays claim to have the only museum dedicated to devil sculptures in the world and we have good reason to believe this is true as it‘s quite a specialist subject.
Our hosts that evening are Paulius and Vaida and they are letting us stay in their flat that sits high in a Soviet apartment block. After a bite to eat Paulius suggests we walk into town. It‘s already past our normal bed time but we‘re happy to see what a night in a Lithuanian city is like. After meeting up with Vaida and a few of their friends for a drink there is talk of going to some kind of party so we pile into a car and drive out to the outskirts of the city. The only clue that anything is going on is the number of parked cars on the verge, but we spot a small path lit by candles and follow it into the dark woods. After a short while we drop down into a natural bowl and in front of us is the entrance to a bunker with the sounds of a huge bassline pouring out and large group of people gathered round a fire. Kaunas has several bunker networks built by the Russian Tsars while it was a fortified town and most of them are blocked up or have been turned into museums. Somehow someone has found this one and dragged a ton of sound system into it, set up a laser show and invited an exclusive guest list to come along for the party. It‘s a very effective venue too as being buried in the ground the sound is completely deadened until you are right on top of the entrance so although it‘s incredibly loud inside no-one in the vicinity would know it was happening.
We have a good dance and reach for the lasers enjoying a very unique Friday night out though Paulius is keen to point out this is not how he would normally spend his weekend either.
Getting to bed about 3 hours before we would normally get up means we don‘t get going until lunchtime the next day so after thanking Paulius and Vaida we leave with a bag of apples from Paulius’ parents’ garden, most of which we have to give away to a grateful lady at a bus stop as they don‘t fit in the panniers. It‘s warmed right up to 22 degrees for the last few days and no-one can believe how sunny it is given the time of year. Our friends at the Met Office have been working their magic yet again.
Paulius has suggested we head down to Druskininkai en route to the Polish border as on the way is a place called Grutas Parkas. If you ever wondered where all the huge old Soviet statues of Lenin and Stalin and all their henchmen went after the collapse of the Soviet Union, well in Lithuania‘s case they went to Grutas Parkas. These huge icons would have been put up on streets throughout the Baltics as a reminder of who was in charge, so understandably they were hastily removed again when they gained independence. But a mushroom millionaire asked if he could collect them all up and put them on display in his park so the Lithuanian government gave them to him. It‘s a bizarre place, made to feel like a prison camp and with the ultimate rogues gallery nestled amongst the trees watching us walk past.
When we make our great escape we don‘t get far, not because we can‘t jump the wire on the bike but because our rear tyre appears to have exploded. This is strange as the bike had been fine when we parked it behind the security guard’s office but there is a large split near to the rim and the tyre casing has torn from the bead. It‘s beyond reasonable repair for riding even with a tyre boot but I manage to get a new tube in with a bit of air so we can at least push it. We later read of the exact same thing happening to someone else in the same place 7 years ago, but to this day we’ll never know what actually happened.
It‘s too late to walk to the next town so we find some food and somewhere to camp and make the 10km trek the next day. In Druskininkai we find that not much opens on a Monday, least of all the only bike shop in town. A DIY store tells us they have packed up their bike spares as the summer season is over so we appear to be stuck. As a last resort I send a message to a Couch Surfing host, Saulius and ask if he is able to help. Shortly after I get a call from him to say he‘s on the case but we need to sit tight for a couple of hours. Druskininkai is a popular spa town with dozens of hotels offering treatments using the local mineral water, mud and with saunas, steam rooms and the option to be beaten with a larch branch. We were stood next to the Aqua Park so decide to head in there while we wait to see what Saulius comes up with. The water slides are great fun and we come away with a only a few minor bruises and scrapes. Kirsty doesn‘t seem to be too concussed either. To calm things down a bit we also head to the bath complex and get to enjoy not one but five different saunas of increasing temperature and decreasing bearability. We come away cleaner than we‘ve felt in 8 weeks.
Saulius has come up trumps as well and meets us at a bike hire shop where we are offered three different tyres. I pick the best of the lot and the shopkeeper even fits it for us but in the process we find we have a broken spoke. In fact a lot of the spokes on the rear wheel are loose but the drum brake is on too tight to be able to replace the broken one so we have to tighten it all up and hope that it‘ll be OK until we find a better-equipped shop. With 48 spokes on each wheel we can afford to lose one and the wheel isn’t even out of true.
But Saulius doesn’t leave us there as he has offered to let us to stay with him. On the way back to his house we stop for a couple of local beers and meet his wife Vita then get treated to a wonderful feast of squid, meat, cheese and traditional black bread. To finish off, and to finish us off, Saulius produces a bottle of moonshine. He can‘t tell us who made it or where it was made but making this stuff is something of a tradition in these parts. It‘s not that bad and certainly better than the Riga Black Balsam but we know that the next day is going to be another slow start. We return the favour by teaching him the Roxanne drinking game as he is a big fan of The Police.
Saulius and Vita were fantastic hosts and we‘d had a great time in Druskininkai, all thanks to a torn tyre without which we would have ridden straight past and been on our way to Poland.
From Druskininkai we‘re sent on our way with a belly full of porridge (with butter – try this too) and are heading for the border. Not the border of Belarus as the visa procedure is expensive and complicated, or of Kaliningrad as the Russians don‘t make it easy either, but the short stretch in between that will take us into Poland and on to Warsaw. Poland is warm at this time of year I hear.