Apple Island Campground, Appleisland, Baltic countries, Baltic States, Birzai, cycle touring Latvia, cycle touring Lithuania. cycle touring Baltic, Ethnocosmology centre, Kegums, Kupiskis, Moletai, Ogre, Riga, River Daugava, Utena, Vilnius
As we have biked through the Baltic States, the weight of history is never far from what we have seen at the sides of the roads. ‘ Too much geography and not enough history ‘, which is an observation made about Canada by a former prime minister may have found an antithesis in these three small countries.
Even in the last hundred years there has been more than enough history, and much of it unpleasant. If you meet someone here in their mid eighties, they will have lived through bewildering times. If they are Jewish, then they have had lottery win levels of good fortune on their side to get to that age here.
The weather may be perfect for our ride out of Riga, but it is challenging enough to give you a spinning feeling in the stomach. We dial a point into the gps and head for it in the hope that we will have enough spare senses and street cunning to cope with pot holes, rail tracks, trolly buses, one way streets and still go in the right direction.
Esther finds it very hard to trust the gps and we have a ” It is taking us too far south, north, east or west! “. I try to trust the gps and we have the argument ‘ either we use the gps or a map, but not try to use both ‘. ” It feels like the wrong way! “. It is hard to counter this without raising your voice. ” Trust your compass and the American military “. (There may be an oxymoron in there somewhere.)
Well, after about 13km, things start to calm down and we pick up the P4 and then the P5 towards Ogre. Both of which are fast, narrow roads, with a crumbling shoulder and just enough traffic to keep you well in to the side and dodging the holes. We come to a junction – Tallinn 308k, and we have managed to find well over 1,000km.
Beyond Ogre, the roads become something of a jumble which forces us first left and then right. We end up on the P80, which is undergoing something of a ‘ makeover ‘. It is the best road in Latvia and we have it almost all to ourselves for the very good reason; that it is till being built. We wave at the construction crew and enjoy it whilst we can. It pitches us back onto rough farm tracks and now we are the wrong side of the river.
The fact that I am writing this does rather spoil the plot. You know that we find a way around, but at the time it did not feel like that. Only after 20km of detour did we see a map showing a footbridge that would have saved us the effort. Every time we find a good road it seems that the local Latvian drivers are also excited to have the opportunity to put their foot down.
We camp next to the River Daugava, just beyond the town of Kegums. I have jumped off the road half a dozen times today to avoid wheels and passenger side mirrors and am totally worn out by it all. Why are Latvian drivers so aggressive? They love flowers, that is obvious from their gardens. They probably love big coloured party balloons and never forget their mother’s birthday. So, why does it feel like they want to drive over me.
Grey and overcast, with a hint of drizzle as we set off in the morning. We do not need them, but have rear lights flashing. I have noticed before that this appears to give you 50cm more room from passing traffic. We take the P88 right to Birzgale through a countryside that is changing seasons. There is a little too much of the feeling of ‘ mellow fruitfulness ‘ about the air this morning.
Even more so, as it starts to rain and turn a uniform grey without contrast or shadow. We pass an apple orchard with cows that run across to study us. The next orchard has sheep grazing under trees that are heavy with red and green fruit. It is all wonderfully free range.
After 17km of rough track, we get to Barbele, and turn left to the Lithuanian border. We cross the river Memele and the P89 becomes the 190, and we are in another country. Hello, Lithuania.
The road becomes straight through a landscape that has lost the undulations that we have had for the last day or so. There is little traffic today and we can use the smoother middle section of both sides of the road.
We pass trough a town and pick up water at a hotel. It looks like a wedding, but turns out to be a ‘ end of summer ‘ celebration. Teachers are back at school on Monday and are having one more glass of wine and toasting the new school term.
We find a pitch for the tent in a stubble field beyond the village of Birzai. One moment it is the edge of a recently harvested field, and then with some ultra light poles and space age fabric, it is home for the night. A transformation that I continue to find wonderful.
Tucked out of sight behind a crop of oil seed, we are warm and happy. Even enjoying the sound of rain hitting the tight outer skin of the tent. It must stop by morning though, that is the deal. It does, but the clouds are dark and heavy as we set off again.
We are on the road to Kupiskis, riding along a the 124. There are big and very open fields on both sides with little to protect us from the head wind. There are no field boundaries to keep in stock. Each cow is staked out, with a orbit of grass for the day. Most houses look as if they have a cow and a very important vegetable patch.
There is a very subtle difference between here and Latvia. Give each a bit of land and they will first plant potatoes. The Latvians will then plant two or more rows of flowers, and the taller or more vibrant the better. The Lithuanians, will plant apple trees, even if it means they no longer have any view out from the house. In both it appears to be an horticultural urge so strong that it is genetic in a way that birds fly south for winter.
We are having a roadside lunch of bread and cheese as an elderly man wanders over for a chat. Luckily, Esther is East German and has a distant school memory of Russian. This has helped us so much over the last few weeks, and here we can get a little of the life of this amazing man.
He worked in the Russian space agency, transporting the rockets to the launch site at Baikonur. Esther gets about a tenth of the conversation and we show him the map and point out our route across the Baltic states. The map fascinates him and we wish that we could leave it with him. We end the day on a municipal campground in Kupiskis, by the side of a reservoir. Very nice it is too.
Monday, the first day at school. The pupils are marching down the main street, with bouquets of flowers in hand. They are all tall and athletic, and you see why Lithuania constantly has one of the worlds best basketball teams. Even women here tower over me.
We are on the 118 to Utena, a wide and well surfaced road with little traffic. People are waving, even bus drivers have given us a cheerful wave. ” Were the guys in that school march good looking, the girls were stunning “. apparently they were, and the internet is correct, Lithuanians are hot – ‘ 10 things you need to know about Lithuania ‘.
We are riding into a head wind when we come across a car with a display of mushrooms for sale. This shows a strong faith in free enterprise as we have had only a dozen vehicles pass us in an hour.
A little further on and we take a minor left turn to take a look at a chapel. On the way is a sign marking the site of a mass grave. We come across several more and I have looked up a few chilling facts. Lithuania was the country that came off worst in the Nazi extermination program, with 91% of its Jewish population murdered. That is the staggering figure of 190,000, with most being shot and buried in mass graves that they had been forced to dig.
We go into the little town looking for food. We have got wise to the fact that restaurants can be on the second floor of anonymous buildings and are almost un signed. So, up the stairs we go and Esther uses schoolgirl Russian for our order.
The screen of the gps is getting busy with unseen roads to our left and right as we head towards Utena. But there, on the other side of the road, is a bike path. Hurrah, for euro money. A hotel is a must. I have no idea why Napoleon would send a message ahead, instructing his women to ” stop washing, will be with you soon “. Strange man indeed, we need a shower.
I sit and watch the ‘ Tour of Spain ‘, with commentary in Russian. Bertie and his rivals are going up a 20% climb faster than we can bike on a flat road. I miss my road bike most days.
We head back out on to the A14, the next morning. A little fresher of leg and much more fragrant. The road is made of concrete and in places long and wide. A bit strange, but we met someone who helped build it back in Soviet times. ” It was designed so that they could land fighter aircraft on it “. I am not sure any section had trees that fold out of the way like on Tracy Island when Thunderbird 2 wants to take off, but it was nice to ride a heavy touring bike along.
We take a left turn off the road to take a look at ‘ The Ethnocosmology ‘ center. Half way between the idea of an esoteric madman and an applied physicist. It does research into the cosmos and stone circles and most things in between. Somehow we walk in and avoid the security system, but then can not get out. Again, schoolgirl Russian comes in handy, and Esther finds the admin department on the third floor to let us out.
In a field next to the centre, people are harvesting potatoes. It is a familiar sight at the moment as part of an almost subsistence farming. What you can grow has a direct impact on how hungry the winter ahead will be for many people here and yet in a few kilometers we will be in Vilnius with its designer shops.
All of the Baltic states, live in a time a short while ago. It is not that far back, if you think of a time when you did not need to pay for parking in a NHS car park, you are about there. It is what makes them a great place to tour through on a bike and spend a while in a gentler place.
We camp at Appleisland, near Moletai, and suggest that you do the same – it is the best campground in Lithuania, possibly. There are, and you probably guessed this already, hundreds of apple trees. They are all heavy with fruit. There is an overwhelming smell of apple and as we lie in our down bags, the sound of heavy fruit falling. It is a strange stereo experience and rather wonderful sensory experience.
The next morning is not wonderful in any way. Tarmac gives out to horrible wash board track. Vibration forces us to ride 10km at just above walking speed. We pick up the 127 and a head wind, but are overjoyed to be on tarmac again.
The road to Vilnius is very busy, but we are told that the A14 has a bike path. Which it does, until about 4km to go and then you are on your own. Up and down kerbs and across gas station car parks, we take an hour to do that last 4km. Around us, Vilnius gets busier and more glitzy.
Prior to the economics of the world going into meltdown this was at the heart of the boom time of the Baltic Tiger. It had years of 12% growth, and Vilnius was at the centre of it. Of course it then had a year of -20%, but it looks rather swanky all the same.
We ride into the city along a nice new bike system. We stop to check directions right in front of the Holocaust memorial. The population of the city was predominantly Jewish and a seat of learning. Again, I think about the life of someone from here who is now 88. They have seen things that no one should ever see in this beautiful city.