Wednesday, 26 September 2012


Laurynas remembers the day that around 2 million people from Tallinn to Vilnius, stretching right across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, linked hands to form a human chain.  His parents were activists in the anti-Soviet independence movement.  They were out on a trip, visiting family, and drove to a place where they could join the human chain.  He remembers the roads almost choked with traffic as everyone tried to join in.

Outside the cathedral in Vilnius this tile marks the spot where the chain ended. Stebukla means simply 'miracle'.  The memories I have of the break up of the Soviet Union are hazy.  I remember Gorbachov's perestroika and glasnost, and we still see images of the Berlin Wall being dismantled that night.  But the story of the human chain passed me by.  Each time I see reference to it now I get goose bumps.  Laurynas says the same when he talks about it - 'chicken skin' in Lithuanian.  The communist party in Lithuania was the first to declare independence from the U.S.S.R.

We meet Laurynas outside his office in the centre of Vilnius after a hair-raising roller-coaster ride with the trolley-buses, taxis and cars.  There's always a frisson of excitement riding into a city after the quiet of country roads.  The office building Laurynas works in is dramatically only half-finished - the economic downturn put an end to the building work.  He takes us home where Giedre is preparing tea - a drive out of the city along a motorway and to a small community of new houses built on land used for small-holdings in Soviet times, where city-dwellers could grow vegetables and fruit.  They've built their own house - a lovely bright modern building.  After some long days cycling we are happy to rest here.  Somewhere along the way a boil has developed on my leg and it has grown to monstrous proportions.  Things seem to be coming to a head, so to speak.  It's got so that I can no longer buy custard tarts.  I also have a sick bike - a wonky front wheel after riding into the back of Gayle's bike.  Of course I think the crash was not my fault, but the judgement has already been made against me.  Being an absolute novice at bike maintenance I have to turn to You Tube to see how to true a wheel without a bike stand.  It turns out to be relatively straight forward and my wheel is straight again.

We love wandering the old city which has an unpolished lived-in feel about it, in contrast to Tallin.  The old town is much bigger and still used by locals.  One neighbourhood has declared itself a people's republic, with it's own constitution:
Giedre and Laurynas take us Trakai to see their famous castle on the lake there.  It is probably Lithuania's most visited destination, but it's nice and quiet in the evening.  They tell us how they always thought how special this castle is until they saw similar ones in Poland.  We try local pasties, a speciality made by local muslims, descendants of a group from the Caucasus brought here centuries past.  Our hosts are an energetic and enthusiastic  young couple with interests in cycling, hitch-hiking, film and music.  We talk endlessly about all kinds of things and when it comes time for us to leave we once again feel a little sad to be saying goodbye.  Funny thing this feeling.....

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

customer service

Gayle walks into a Vilnius Internet Cafe

- Hello, do you speak English?

- Sometimes

- How about today?

- It depends on the customer

Sunday, 23 September 2012

europe central

The village has three shops - more than usual.  The brand new supermarket is doing the best trade.  I wait outside and have a fag with my ice cream whilst trying to photograph the roller-skating dog from a shopping trolley without dropping my revolver. Meanwhile Gayle goes inside and gets lunch.  She takes a bag in with her for which she is not ejected. Bah!

Also waiting are two women peasants sat in a cart with a horse.  Well, the horse is stood up, not in the cart with the women.  An old farmer appears with his shopping then wanders over to another shop for something else, before they trundle off homewards.  We are 30 kms from the geographical centre of Europe, and it's fair to say we're not all going at the same speed.

On our first night in Lithuania a few days before this, we crossed a mown field of wheat, climbed down and out of a ditch to pitch our tent in the next field, behind a thicket of trees - a perfect spot completely out of sight.  The next morning we lay and dozed a little until the sound of a tractor approaching chivvied us along.  By the time we were dressed and out of the tent there was a tractor and a shiny 4x4 stood in the field next to us.  I greeted the farmer in the car - he was smiling and friendly.  We clocked the gold watch on his wrist.  He spoke a little English and told us not to worry about campig on his land.  Where had we come from? And where to? How many kilometres each day? He asked us questions.  I asked him about his farm.  He had a thousand hectares - owned 500, rented another 500.  No wonder he had a gold watch and a benevolent disposition.  He wasn't the type of farmer we expected to see, and was probably not a representative example.

After another day of fairly dull flat landscape we suddenly came across rolling winding roads, sometimes with views.  Great excitement.  But the villages and towns all seemed quiet and uninteresting.  They like their beer here, and I can see why.  At one garage where we stopped for lunch you could fill up with petrol, have a beer at the bar inside the shop, then get a good coffee before you headed off.  How convenient.....

Saturday, 15 September 2012


Crossing into Latvia on a sunny Sunday morning we take the main road south through an endless forest.  It's possible that all of Latvia is forest, but maybe it just happens to be the roads we pick.  The roads are flat and straight so after a while you stop noticing the way the light plays between the trees, the mix of deciduous and pine trees, the parked cars on the side of the road miles from anywhere.  Mushroom-pickers.  It's the season and they are out in force, driving out of the towns to roam the woods with their baskets and buckets.

the addiction of facebook knows no bounds....
We are making a bee-line for Riga (why a 'bee-line' when I mean the most direct route???) but the route takes us through a couple of pretty little towns and a national park or two.  We meet our first cycle tourists since the Norway/Sweden border - a young English couple, "artists", on second-hand bikes bought in Tallinn.  They've been following the bicycle routes which take you on the quiet back roads - sounds okay until you realise that many are not paved, so quite slow-going.  They say they're doing research.  Into what? we ask.  Uh, the Baltic countries.  How? Er, by talking to people.  We have met outside a small shop in a small town in a small country.  We are both heading to Riga, but we head off in different directions and we never meet again.

Ivetta hosts us in her tiny Riga appartment.  We wedge our bikes in behind the fold-down sofa and, as she lives on the fifth floor, decide to use public transport for our stay.  We wrote to Ivetta because she had written about a book that we happened to be carrying with us - a book about a Pakistani community in northern England: 'Maps For Lost Lovers'.  The prose is dense and poetical, the narrative rather depressing and the author, born in Pakistan, seems to be trying to offend Muslims at any opportunity.  It's not a dull book - and it's translated into Latvian apparently.  Ivetta seems slightly harrassed when we first meet but the impression soon passes.  One evening she appears with a drill and fixings to put a huge mirror up in her hallway.  I'd like to think that several years of d.i.y. at home has given me the knowledge and wherewithal to accomplish such a task with ease and skill.  But the truth is I probably botched it like always.

We meet her husband, Rachid, who is from Morocco, and is studying Latvian for part of his citizenship test.  His Latvian class is full of fifty year-olds born in Riga.  They are Russians.  In Soviet times the Russians were brought to Riga to work but they never needed to learn the language.  It's a sore point and the boot is on the other foot now.

Our visit coincides with rain and this is fine as we're not on the bikes.  But maybe we don't get the best from the city.  It feels large and spread out, and the old town in the centre is large and grand.  There's a great central market and a collection of art-deco buildings that are have all been tarted up quite nicely.  We lose some time in a travel bookshop full of maps and guidebooks - it's easily done.

We keep going over our proposed route through Lithuania, and decide to keep going on the most direct road to Vilnius.  It means we don't spend so long in Latvia - a matter of days - but we're keen to keep heading south.   There's definitely an autumnal air now.
another perfect pitch

Friday, 7 September 2012

chasing the summer

Broken glass, broken pavements, aggressive drivers - back in the old USSR.  Our first impressions are quickly wiped away when we wander around the old town of Tallinn - a very pleasant walled citadel full of restored merchants' houses, churches, cobbles and cafes.  But is it real?  At a glance you'd think all Estonians wear folk costume.  The old town is quite small and everyone who is walking around has a camera in their hand.

On our way to Katrin's we pass great old wooden houses looking sad and neglected, waiting to be restored - missing out on the UNESCO badge that brings restoration funds.  We take a route past Soviet-era appartment blocks and then modern blocks of flats with more glass and chrome.  Along the coast there's a brand new boardwalk and trail that's full of locals walking, running and cycling. Another day Katrin shows us around one of the last Soviet-era residential blocks - built in concentric circles, these were much coveted and sought after.  Car-ownership has led to a new phenomenon - the parking problem.  When these flats were built no-one had cars.

We are fed incredibly well by Katrin and we feel so at home with her that before we leave we're even sharing her sauna.  She is very thoughtful and we hit it off immediately.  Her husband, like many Estonians, is working abroad - building in Tromso, Norway.  He's away long spells and Katrin's daughter is about to start university in Tartu in the south.  She's a homebird, a self-confessed couch potato, so it seems that hosting Couch-Surfers is perfect for her.  Thinking we may be nostalgic for ye merry olde England we are even treated to an edition of Midsommer Murders.  English TV programmes like this often appear.  We try to explain that this isn't the England we know!

Katrin points us in the right direction for a bike repair and we grill her about life in Estonia, before and after independence.  She works in a Danish bank with clients with bad debt problems and the work has inevitably grown over the last three years.  Here in the capital there are fancy big supermarkets the like of which we never see again. 

Gayle refuses to slow down to be photographed
We consider heading straight to Riga in Latvia but decide to explore a little bit more. So we head out along the north coast into a forested national park.  Late afternoon we are looking for a camping spot when a cloudburst pushes us into the trees for shelter.  We've been cycling through the forest on a dirt track for a while, so we're startled to find a man suddenly appear next to us in the woods.  He's collecting mushrooms.  Didn't half give us a fright.

 Our journey down to Tartu is a good one - the farmers are harvesting the crops and the rolling countryside is lovely.  We are lucky to have good weather every day and start doing a few more kilometres each day.  

We camp in the garden of a hostel in Tartu in the 'Soup District', so-called because the streets are named after different soup ingredients.

celery street
potato lane
bean street

  We take a day off from the cycling to wander around Estonia's university town before heading southwards and on into Latvia.  We are concious of not hanging around - is this the problem with cycle-touring? That once we have arrived somewhere we immediately think about the next place we want to get to.  It's probably that in all honesty there's not so much here to engage us.  We like the place but there's nothing to keep us here.  So off we go......