Updated: Sep 4, 2018
Tuesday, 24th April, 2018
Veveri to Riga, 39 miles
One of the strange things when I pitched up the evening before, apart from me being in a exhausted mood was that a car slowed down just as I knocked in the final tent peg. I was so desperate to go to sleep that I didn’t bother worrying, because nothing was stopping me from my sleeping bag.
A little while later just as I was about to drop off another vehicle slowed down to take a look at the English cyclist. I was hidden from the road enough and had assumed that there was a big village hue and cry about to erupt as they checked out this bringer of evil to their town.
I thought nothing of it until I woke in the morning and a lorry driver slowed down to take a look. Blow this I thought, packed up and left. When I joined the road there was a massive pothole, deep as wide. They had been slowing down to save their axles, funny how the mind plays tricks.
The road into Riga was long, straight and busy. There was a good hard shoulder so there was a reasonable distance between me and the traffic. It was a main road though and thundering lorries and the constant noise subtly wears.
As far as entering cities goes Riga was quite straight forward. The going is slow but there was a decent shared cycle path leading directly to the Centre. The path got a little lost and even disappeared at times, poor little lamb, but it got me to the old town in time to check into a classy joint for £40.
After a quick shower I shot over to the occupation museum, which was closed. The great news was that it was closed for refurbishment and that there was a temporary location (since 2012) about half a mile away.
Walking through Riga to the museum was just enough to give me a small taste of its atmosphere. There were tourist trap restaurants and live statues. Both were in single figures so the City held onto its unique charm.
The two hours in the Occupation Museum left me feeling emotionally exhausted. There were two large rooms on the first floor. The first one detailed the Soviet Occupations and the second Nazi Occupation.
As the horrors of war in relation to the countryside that I had slowly passed through began to hit home. Latvia has followed a similar occupation timeline as Estonia.
- Agreed Sphere of Influence Soviet ‘Mutual Assistance’ 1939
- Germany breaks Molotov - Ribbentrop Pact and invades 1941
- Germany retreats 1944 and USSR occupation begins and lasts until 1991
Latvia is slightly different to Estonia, the dilution of their population was severe during the 45 years of Occupation II . Cities like Riga were left with a less than 50% majority which leaves its scars today.
All signage, menus and information boards are in both Russian and Latvian. There is a great difficulty in accepting that the state won’t do it for you and the people have had difficulty engaging in the idea of capitalism.
Unlike Estonia, where the cultural divide will disappear quickly there is a fear in Latvia that political, educational and economic values may favour the old ways and open the doors to Russian governance.
It’s a cycling blog, so I won’t dwell too long on my museum visit. There were many horrible and also courageous stories to read. The saddest was that of an old Latvian man who on Soviet Occupation was sent to Siberia to return ten years later, after Stalin’s death, to a home where the Soviet immigrants had lived and taken his work, home, family and culture. As a dissident he was also treated as a second class citizen. A common tale.
In all, out of a population of 2 million (today) Stalin introduced over 700,000 immigrants as part of the machinery to bring about communist change.
After my visit, I was done in. Alert to the current day situation the education would be helpful over the coming days. Questions were raised about the West’s involvement. Was it enough? Was it morally right to interfere at all? Again what was interesting was any Russian wealth coming into Riga or the coast of Latvia had been thwarted by complex visa applications. In case you are feeling sorry for the Russians both countries committed atrocities. The Federal Republic of Germany has gone a long way to make amends for the Nazi Germany grievous crimes. The Russian Republic fails to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the USSR.
My visa to Kaliningrad was about to expire and the difficulty in getting a visa with a UK passport was a direct response to trade and visa embargoes.
I wrote to the body who deal with Kaliningrad visas - I was behind because I had underestimated the difficulty of moving through snow in Finland - who weren’t helpful and the hoop jumping options weren't viable. If you are going to the World Cup though, you'll be ok.
The great hypocrisy though, which I hadn’t mentioned was on the road near Haapsalu in Estonia. Coming towards me for most of the afternoon were transporters of new Mercedes being towed by lorries with Russian plates. I counted possibly twenty thundering trucks loads heading to St Petersburg.
I thought of those farmers and businesses that were suffering during ‘Cold War 2’ and realised that it was beyond John Bullivant’s ‘Sphere of Influence’ and went for a curry.
Wednesday, 25th April, 2018
Riga to Mērsrags, 56 miles
Leaving Riga was straight forward. After leaving the old town area a cycle path led me away from the town and into the suburbs.
The cycle path ran parallel to the railway line and I thought how exceptionally clean everything was. It looked like someone had made it a personal mission to pick up rubbish as there were litter filled shopping bags, neatly tied, at the side of the path.
A ‘Baltic Air’ liner came into approach over the path, railway and tenements and I looked up at it buffeted in the wind against a grey sky. I must have been wobbling all over the path and a bell rung out behind me.
The cyclist rode with me a while. He was a Latvian, going home for lunch and although our language was limited we were able to talk about the trip. We stopped at a bend in the road and he pointed to a queue of cars with the boot lids open. ‘The water is good here, fill up.’ We said goodbye and I went to fill up. The water was still.
The path took me to the coastal town of Jurmala where a man in his seventies in a yellow and blue lycra cycling outfit was out for a ride. He didn’t speak a word but looked at my map and took me through the town to the coastal path.
It was cold and windy. As I headed north through coastal towns it began to rain. It rained for pretty much all of the afternoon and I thought about renaming Mrs Fairweather. But she worked her charm and by the time I stopped by an abandoned shack in the forest that had lined the road for the afternoon it stopped raining just long enough for me to cook and eat my tea.
Thursday, 25th April, 2018
Mērsrags to Mazirbe, 60 miles
The morning porridge was eaten in glorious sunshine. It was cool and the sky was empty of clouds. I took some time to look at where I had slept. There was a ditch between me and the wooden house with no roof and it’s PARDODAMS sign hung at an angle on one nail. The ditch had flytip debris in it including a brass lacquered halogen desk lamp.
Quick to get on, I had one final check of the pitch for my own litter and headed into the next town to stock up on Menthos and breakfast. I sat in the sun outside a ‘Lats’ and drank a hot chocolate out of the wind in the sun. After yesterday’s rain it was welcome and gave me a chance to dry and warm my clothes up.
Back onto the coastal road, the P131, it was straight and straight into the wind, that didn’t matter it was wonderful passing through the linear villages, catching glimpses of the Gulf of Riga as I headed north.
A black Volvo estate pulled over in front of me and I pulled along side the driver’s door ready for the ‘Kirkeness, in Norway’ story. The window came down to reveal a blonde lady in her early thirties with a knowing smile. She nodded her head and said, “Hhh,mmm. Hhh,mmm.” As her partner got out of the car and without a word handed me a Red Ortlieb waterproof bag that looked very similar to the one I had strapped to the back of the bike.
Without a word he handed it to me. I was in disbelief, I had travelled over fifteen miles since I had last looked at the bag. All I did was wave at their rear view mirror and road dust as the ‘baby on board’ sticker disappeared to where the pines met the end of the road.
When I finally closed my mouth. I tried to think how. The bag was attached securely to the bike with two cargo straps, similar to the ones I had left at the old shack next to the desk lamp. The bag must have balanced for some miles before silently falling off the rack. It contained my sleeping bag and blow up mattress, expensive kit, and essential to the trip. How did they know? Did they ask at the shop? Passers by? I’ll never know and despite checking all oncoming vehicles for the rest of the day they will never know how greatful I am for their contribution to this particular bumble.
I secured the bag to the bike with strands of paracord. “That’ll hold it.” I thought.
The coastline is beautiful. I imagine it’s frozen in the winter and possibly plagued with mosquitoes in the summer but that afternoon saw me looking at the plots of beach front land for sale. As part of my second home abroad dream research, I later read about Latvia’s coastal erosion issues.
By mid afternoon I had reached Latvia’s most northern town, similar to our John O’Groats. It’s called Kolka and I was able to drag Mrs F through the sand to near where the Gulf of Riga and Baltic Sea meet for a photo.
Back on the road, I met my first touring cyclists. A German couple, coming in the opposite direction to me. Between us we managed to share our stories and laugh that I had the wind in my face and that they had had two weeks of the wind behind them. There were both in their fifties and were cycling around the Baltic Sea. And that was it. With no company for ages some drops of English and a wave of the hand reminded me of how quiet things had been lately.
Twenty miles from Kolka I turned off the tarmac onto a gravel road into the town of Mazirbe. My main reason was to look at a Soviet watchtower that was on the beach, what I found was the last home of the Livonian People.
Cheery men with gnome like faces greeted me as I passed them tidying their gardens and two lads gave a welcoming greeting as I passed. After looking at the tower I stopped at the shop to see another rosy cheeked small nosed man leave with a bottle of Cava.
I bought a Magnum (ice cream, not a Magnum of Cava), unsure of the price the lady behind the counter went off singing into the back of the shop. She had a lovely voice and came back with a bashful smile as she rang up the till.
Outside the shop as I ate my ice cream I read about the 250 remaining Livonians who are a subset of Latvia, but have Finish and Hungarian origins. Outside the town hall was their flag. The last Livonian speaking person died in 2013 and now their language is only carried in the songs they sing at their town’s festivals.
A little way up the road I camped for the night, within ear reach of the sea’s waves, but sheltered from the wind by the forest.
As the setting suns rays touched the tips of the pine trees I thought how nice those people seemed. To become extinct within a generation.
Friday 26th April, 2018
Mazibre to Užava, 62 miles
A little way south from the town of Mazibre, maybe twenty miles, Irbene was labelled in my guide as an ‘old Soviet listening post with tours given.’
I followed the sign at the side of the road to the museum along a concrete slabbed road.
A little way in there was a decaying hut and based on previous experience I thought. “That’s that then.” However, when I carried on a little further I was met with a whole abandoned complex. Empty tenements, were lined up next to each other like dishevelled soldiers. Hundreds of military staff and their families would have been housed here when the base was in operation. I took some time and climbing over broken glass and debris went through a doorless entrance and up a stairway to peek into the rooms at the small details that showed these were once homes.
I was alone and had the military village to myself and on the lookout for zombies I headed on to the ‘big dish’. It stood high above the tree line, brilliant white against the blue sky. The slabbed road leading there was over a mile long and the contents of my panniers rattled with each uneven join.
At this point two white vans overtook me, making the road more desolate and the ‘big dish’ more imposing.
This area displayed corporate looking signage for ‘Venstspils Radio Astronomy’ and it looked very official. Ignoring the warning sign of the man with a big hand and mouth, and other warning signs I went through the open gate to explore some more dilapidated buildings to the side of the main ‘big dish’ road.
These abandoned buildings was where the listening happened in Soviet times. Despite being in a state of decay they were very scientific looking and there was a ‘notso big dish’ resting on the ground having been moved off it’s mechanical mount. It looked like a piece of Lego from the space series left by a child, forgotten in the corner.
Signs saying tours and museum closed came as no surprise as I took selfies with the listening junk before heading on to the ‘big dish’.
At the ‘big dish’ I was looked at by some builders, but wasn’t challenged, as I cycled around this massive radio telescope uncertain if I should be there or not.
After a while of sneaky selfies and looking at the structure with its massive exhausts and cogs I thought that I had better leave. But the big meshed gate that I had come through was shut. I stopped and pretended to read something very interesting on my phone for a while as I waited to be challenged by Ventspils Security.
No one came.
Then a builder's van pulled up to the gate, a builder got out and slid the gate to the side and I tailgated my way to freedom and the main road.
The spell in the wilds didn’t prepare me for Ventspils. (The town not the Latvian University site I had just visited). I had battled a head wind for another couple of hours and was able to have some relief as I turned west into the renovated and EU funded town of Ventspils.
Away from the wind I travelled along miles of new cycle path from a beauty spot on the outskirts of town through brightly re-clad Soviet tenements with fully equipped playgrounds and parks
Mums pushed prams and old men walked dogs under the blue sky. It looked perfect, a perfect model of de-Russianification. (it is a word).
As I headed into town signs promised ‘Old Town’ ‘Water Adventure Land’ ‘Sea Museum’. But I got lost and found myself inside a LUK petrol station on the outskirts of the town, buying junk fuel to avoid bonking. I was amazed at how much, Menthos and coke five euros could buy. I even had a magnum and a snickers.
Buzzing with sugar, I turned back into the wind and had another go for the ‘Old Town’ but no luck. I found myself heading out of town again looking for a convenience store. There wasn’t one and I wasn’t going to head on back in a third time so when I camped another twenty or so miles away from town my dinner was the last of my rice, flavoured with a stock cube.
I did however have another gem of a spot and I’d like to thank the two Latvian owls who chatted away to each other for excluding me from their nightlong conversation. ‘Twits’.
Saturday, 27th April, 2018
Užava to Liepaja, 70 miles
As dawn broke and the owls turned in for the day, the rain began. I stayed in my tent as the forecast said it would stop at nine and listened to the drops hitting the canvas as I wrote up my diary.
After a leisurely breakfast of porridge I spent most of the day following the coastal road from small village to small village.
Feeling guilty about the lost water bottle just before Riga I had made the resolve to pick up five bits of plastic a day. I was dismayed by the amounts that lay in the ditches at the side of the road especially outside Ventspils. It was similar to the Russian and British verges. Cycling through European countries it becomes very clear as to which country operates a plastic bottle deposit scheme and which doesn’t.
Just at the point where I thought “Right, get off your bike and pick up some litter.” I met a man and wife doing just that. They were at the roadside filling up bags with rubbish. I asked if he was a volunteer and he said in a heavy accent. “For sure.”
“Mind if I help a while?” I asked. He gave me a hessian sack and we chatted as we worked. Thinking that he and his wife were eco warriors I asked if he did this every weekend or once a month.
“Once a year, it’s a Soviet thing. Throughout the country in the week around April 19th everyone comes out and cleans the countryside up. The council will come along and pick up these bags later today or tomorrow.”
This explained the bags at the side of the cycle path in Riga. I’m not too sure if there were plastic bottles in Soviet times or drink distribution companies but although very publicly spirited, and I saw some very clean sections of roadway, - we all know it’s not the solution.
The guide promised Liepaja to be a city of old Soviet buildings and a war harbour that saw the departure of Soviet vessels and some 20,000 of the town’s inhabitants.
The guide didn’t fail and unlike the renovated area of Ventspils it felt like that the suburb of Karosta had been left untouched since that day in 1994 when the Russian Navy weighed anchor. The blocks were like the ones at the listening post but with people and glazing. They hadn’t been bedazzled. Some kids, street urchins, came up to chat and were amazed at the iPhone attached to my bike, the bags and the journey. Drunks chatted to each other and themselves in the sunlight that dried clothes hung across lines in the hundreds of identical balconies. And in the middle of this estate and disused military buildings was a huge Orthodox Cathedral.
Leaving the suburb and it’s bars with ‘No Guns’ signs on the door, I crossed the river into the main town. It was like crossing into a different world where a modern theatre opened its doors to glamorous patrons of the arts in evening wear after dining in one of the surrounding restaurants.
I bought a big salad and rice from a supermarket deli and sat outside on the river bank to eat it. Too close to town to find a spot that night I resigned to stay at a campsite on the outskirts and arrived as the sun was setting.
I was the first customer of the year at this small, sparse and basic campsite and although I had no soap I enjoyed my first shower in over a week whilst the owner lit a fire for me by a wooden dining bench.
In broken and stuttered English this slight man in his sixties with a nervous disposition chatted with me. His main customer base were Lithuanians and it reminded me that I was now nearing the border and would be crossing it tomorrow. Lithuania doesn’t have much beach frontage which is why they would come to this area. His camp was a few hundred metres from the beach, as he kept telling me, reaffirming his USP.
He wanted to chat some more and to find out about the journey but a sharp barked order from his wife at the house door put a stop to that as he cowed and retreated inside.
Sunday 28th April, 2018
Liepaja to Curonian Spit, 65 Miles
Cooking my porridge in the campsite’s kitchen, eating it on a proper seat and washing the pan with running water were three luxuries that set me up for the day.
The old man came out and bid me farewell and I followed the road south to Lithuania. Some stories are just too weird to write down so if we ever meet remind me to tell you the story of the green Mercedes estate and the heavily perfumed woman.
Between the two countries, the border zone, the road was in a poor condition and the EU had stepped in with funding to ensure that there was a free flow of trade between them. I was trade and I can assure you it was very bumpy and I wasn’t traveling very freely in between the road works. Next time, hey?
Once in Lithuania I joined a beautiful coastal cycle path that ran for miles along the coast to Palanga, a seaside town. The weather had brought out the crowds and I stopped at the town’s Pier and had my picture taken.
I had completed 2,000 miles.
The cycle path continued and I had some very easy miles to the city of Klaipeda.
I did get a little lost, my main aim was to get onto the Curonian Spit.
The Curonian Spit is a 50 mile stretch of land no wider than a few hundred metres. Half way along the Spit is the border with Russia, or an exclave called Kaliningrad Oblast. It’s capital is a strategic Baltic Naval harbour, a bit like Gibraltar but with a big back garden.
I hadn’t arrived in time to use my visa to travel the full length of the Spit and was a little lost as to what to do. I had followed the guide for over six weeks now and this crossing had been a highlight that I had been looking forward to in the planning stages.
To compensate for this big Bumble I had decided that a little trip along the Spit would have to suffice before back tracking and circumventing the Kaliningrad Oblast 300 mile border.
It was getting late and I thought about checking into a hotel but looked at the rising full moon and thought what the hell.
I made my way to the ferry port and bought myself a 80 cent ticket for the 2200 crossing.
Once on the other side of the Lagoon that separates the Spit from the busy city of Klaipeda I could not believe the contrast. I was deep in a nature reserve and within half an hour had found a wonderful spot to camp for the night.