When you are living out of doors you notice the subtle changes that indicate the passing of one season and the beginning of the next. It may be a subtle thing, like no longer knowing where the sun block cream is or even which bag it is now at the bottom of. It may be the loss of about 3 hours of light from the day or it may be that it keeps on raining and blowing a gale. True, there are still warm days, but it just can not string a run together anymore.
Heavy rain and exciting close lighting overnight. A good call to be in a hotel, and now the wind has dropped and there is even the occasional patch of blue sky. It still could go either way today. We are heading out of Estonia and towards Latvia on increasingly hilly roads. I had set myself the challenge of crossing Estonia without changing down into the granny gear. Yesterday I was out of the saddle trying not to change down, but up ahead a sign indicates game over. 7% and it goes on and upwards around the bend for an unknown distance. Down into the granny. So close to the border but it had to be done.
We are stringing together bike routes and heading for the town of Sangaste with the sun and clouds looking for dominance and a wind that is picking up and now just the right side of annoying. We stop at Sangaste castle, the ancestral home of Count Berg. He studied agriculture in Scotland, at Haddington, which is near where we live. So excited, we send a postcard to friends who live there. He was part of a pan-European social circle of massive wealth and time on their hands.
Within the first kilometre of starting again, the heavens open. It is a short but very mean storm that has the road awash and the trucks sending up bow waves. Another 15k and it does it again on the E264 towards Valga. This is not an easy morning at all with these high speed sprints for bus shelters and rain gear on and offs. We are at the Latvian border in the town of Valga, still with a wallet full of €’s left and trying to find a cafe. The town is split in two by the border, which was only fully open in 2007. Valga is on the Estonian side, with Valka the Latvian part of what looks like just one rather small town on the map.
It has the ‘ unhappy ‘ border town feel that we have come to expect from similar towns the world over. What Valga does have however, is the cheapest Goulash in the known universe. I did not expect the size of the portion, so I ate chocolate and cake whist we were looking for a cafe and ate more chocolate and ordered a cake with the Goulash. For €3, the plate is huge and not for the first time we think back to what we paid in Switzerland.
If you are doing research on bureaucracy, this would be a good place to start your thesis. Every level of government has its twin department on both sides of this small town. We try out both Tourist Information Centers and then move on into Latvia trying to come to terms with what is a rather scruffy town and frankly appalling roads. Just as well then that there is so little traffic here that we can weave around the bigger holes in the tarmac and ride on the white centre lines almost as much as we wish. We hold a bit of a celebration as my trip computer turns to 8,000k done in Europe.
The edge of the road for almost 1 metre is a horrible patchwork of patches of tarmac of varying vintage, holes of varying depths and width, rubble and small stones. We are forced to ride away from the side and hope that the occasional Latvian driver is paying attention and not searching for the best track on his bootleg copy of ABBA gold, or the best of Celine Dion. It all works out. But there are those times, when, on an almost deserted road, the two cars from opposing directions will meet at exactly the point on the road where we are riding. This happens much more than it should and I want someone to go away and do the ‘ math ‘.
We cross the River Gauja and spot what could be a good wild camp spot for the night. Yes indeed it is, and we pitch the tent by the river and go for a short walk in the forest. Not since Finland have we seen this type of woodland, with a thick carpet of moss and lichen. I have a look at the lichen a little closer and realise I have seen it before. Back in the 60’s, this stuff was the bushes and trees of my Hornby ‘ OO ‘ model railway.
We are on our way again early the next morning. Pine forest of staggering beauty on both sides for hours and hardly a car passing. Every one of them must throw out at least one empty bottle of booze from the car. There is a depressingly large collection of them for such a remote area and such little traffic. The forest stops abruptly and the horizon opens to a landscape of small farms and fields with the occasional cow or two. The smell of wood smoke as kitchen stoves prepare the afternoon meal.
We get to the little town of Smiltene and try to find a cafe. The first is still closed, but a guy comes up to us keen to help. He tells us to follow him ‘ Dam good coffee ‘. We walk across the town pushing our bikes as he greets just about everyone. It is a nice cafe, that is true and Andris tells us about his life. He has the hardest working hands that I may ever have seen. He did four years in the Russian army and from the look of Andris, they were like ‘ dog years ‘. He is 58 and has had a series of hard jobs and a tough life. He is a truly nice man.
Near Rauna we are on a remote road, biking through fertile farmland. A tractor is ploughing, turning the soil over, with no less than eighty storks following the plough. I do not think we will ever see that again. We stop at a shop to get some snacks and I wait outside for Esther. This area of Rauna has rows of the Soviet era housing blocks. As I wait people come out of the shop, every one with plastic bags clinking with the sound of bottles. Each has the sort of quantity of alcohol that would give you sweaty palms in the airport ‘ nothing to declare ‘ queue.
Not quite ‘ granny gear ‘, but undulating country as we enter Gaujas National Park. There are old women in shawls working in vegetable patches. As always, there are big and very bright stands of flowers alongside the potatoes and beetroot. This is a remote road, so quite surprising when first a Bentley Sports coupe and then a Range Rover come past us. Sorry Latvia, but my first thought is drugs or prostitution not innovative web hosting and internet design company.
The strangeness continues as we pull into a campground near Cesis. There are a dozen cars all with UK plates and a few from the Republic of Ireland. Not one of them costs much less than €100,000 and it includes several top of the range Mercs and Range Rovers. There are spectacular caravans to match, as these are travelling folk. We find a quiet corner, but too late we realise that even if we were 5k away it would be too close. We get almost no sleep at all that night, as the travelling folk want to party. If you ever see more than 3 Irish plated top of the range cars and vans at a campground, pedal away no matter how tired you are.
Next morning we go into Cesis for a look around. It has had a bit of a clean up and money spent, but it needs a lot more. It was once very grand and still has beautiful bits, but on this Sunday morning my attention is more on the pale people walking the streets. People are trying to make a go of businesses here, and hats off to them. We head South West to pick up a bike route that will take us to the coast. These are difficult off-road tracks for our heavy bikes. This is where you will see the real Latvia of hay ricks and Oak tree alleys. Kilometers of this rough road pass by with just a few people walking. Most have bags of mushrooms that have been picked from the forest. We can hear voices of more people picking berries in the forest.
We stop in the village of Ligatne and get handed a tourist leaflet. It lists the things you can do locally and our eyes are drawn to the ‘ birch bark workshop ‘. It has a symbol of a tent next to it, which a phone call confirms is camping and it is available. We have the bare bones of a plan. A bit of food at a very nice cafe and then we are pedalling back up the road we have just come down. We follow the directions and the road becomes more agricultural and even more remote.
We learn more than we ever thought we needed to know about both birch and bark. Most interesting fact ‘ there is only a 2 week period – usually in June, when the bark can be stripped. Esther spends hours being instructed by Kasper and makes a small pot. It is a fantastic inside into just how much patience this craft requires. The workshop belongs to Kasper and his uncle Peter, who are the only craftspeople in Latvia doing this. They are wonderfully kind and gentle people with a huge amount of talent.
By morning, there is over 1cm of rainwater in the bottom of our cups. It is going to be a hard day on these sandy tracks. We are 2 gears harder as we retrace our route to Ligatne and in some places the road is deeply submerged. I am ploughing a deep but narrow grove with my tyres and the bike is fishtailing wildly when I hit deep sand. I would hate a whole day of this. We know it will not last too long, and just before Sigulda tarmac returns.
We have a chat with the locals in Seja. They sit happily drinking and talking and we are a great excuse for a bit of fun. They are kind people, trying desperately to make a life but finding each day hard. They pick one of them to be our tour guide, to show us a 1,000 year old Oak tree. I am so glad they did. I have no idea how it survived the axe for so long here in the centre of the village. It must have been deeply significant for the people.
We say our farewells and cycle on into what is starting to be a wet afternoon. The rain has a mean spirit this time and we know we are going to be soaked. On with waterproofs and a sprint to the Baltic coast for a cheap hotel night. Trees are brought down overnight but it is fine as we set out towards Riga. We have a dilemma as there is no obvious safe route. We have to make an educated guess based on the colours of the roads on the map. We get this badly wrong. There is no option but to take the busy A1 without turning off until Carnikava. This should bring us on to a quiet road, but it is far worse then the main road. It is the short way for the dock traffic and every truck is using this narrow road.
This is the worst 50k of our journey so far. The surface is bad and the traffic is mean and in a hurry. There is no place to bail out and we are forced to bike with our nerves in shreds. The gps show a parallel road and we carry the bikes down and then back up an under pass. We are in a very grim place and well aware that we are the centre of attention. I need to take some photos but do not want to bring out the camera. I also want to be on my bike just about anywhere else on the planet. There is a horrible 20k of rat run ride to our hotel. Once again, thank goodness we have the gps to keep down the stress to manageable levels.
We collapse on the bed in the hotel and try to calm down. I think we probably went the best way we could but I do not want too many days like this. We will have a good look at the map and try to plan our route away from Riga a bit better. For now, we are here and it is a magic place. We will have a walk around later after we have washed just about everything we own. It all stinks.