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Three weeks through the Baltic Region

Impressions of a cycling holiday through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia

By Hans Jürgen Stang, Speyer (Germany), Sat, 24 Feb 2001 21:20:16 +0100 (CET)
Cyclists are brave people. Even those who have hardly heard of their destination dare to explore new ground. Georg and Hans Jürgen from Speyer did it like this too:" We wanted to experience this by ourselves." The following is an excerpt of their travelling report.


Broad plains & rolling hills

The last day of May 2000 my friend Georg and I started our tour. We caught the train from Speyer to the isle of Rügen with our bikes in the bike compartment. Then we took the ferry to Klaipeda in Lithuania. Broad plains, rolling hills, dense forests with marshland, many rivers and lakes: these are the main features of Lithuania, waiting for us to explore. Our journey lead us to the border to Latvia via Kretinga through the Zemaitijos-National-Park. In Salantai we received from the vicar the keys of an empty house situated next to the church. As we were hungry, we entered a little pub which was hardly recognizable from the outside. For the first time we got to know the very nice local cuisine. As the menu was written in Lithuanian and the landlord didn't speak any other languages, this was our first culinary adventure - the potato-dumplings with meat stuffing tasted nice. Afterwards the landlord arrived with another dish which was "on the house". With the meal we had a delicious Lithuanian beer. Contented we looked forward to the next days to come. The next day we crossed the border to Latvia at Ezere. Crossing the border did not present any problems as there is no need anymore for a visa. We intended to go to Saldus as we were invited by a Latvian organisation called "EVA". The aim of this organisation is to maintain the Latvian heritage and to promote various talents in the countryside.

Rural meetings

Of the 65,000 km² surface of Latvia about 39 % is covered by forest. Besides there are over 3,000 lakes and 12,000 waterways. Our journey to Saldus gave us a first impression of the beauty of Latvia's landscape: many forests, numerous waterways and occasional little lakes. Furthermore, the country is sparsely populated (38 inhabitants per km² / Germany: 228 inhabitants per km²) and there is very little traffic in the countryside. After a ride of 120 km we reached Saldus where Ms Aija Maurina, the manager of the organisation "EVA", greeted us heartily. She spoke German very well and we were allowed to stay at her small but nicely furnished flat for the next two days. During this time we learned a lot about the history and the culture of this country.
Traditional Latvian Dances
Traditional Latvian Dances
As she also had a farm, we were spoilt with freshly prepared Latvian dishes: homemade dairy produce, jam, honey, stewed fruit etc. The Latvian whole-meal bread with caraway-seeds tasted delicious and compared favourably with any German bread. Even tapped birch juice was unusual for us but tasted very refreshing. It also has healing effect. Ms Maurina showed us the workshop of a wood-craftsman who made wonderful turnery from different kinds of wood. Anyway, the traditional handcrafts such as woodcarving, weaving, ceramics, basket making etc. are maintained and still practiced. At a school we were received by the headmaster (on a Sunday !). The school building in Remte is a former castle of a German earl. We were shown the interesting school-museum, lead through the huge park with big oak trees and a pupil also played on her guitar and sang Latvian folksongs especially for us. After this impressive stay it was hard for us to say good-bye and take leave. On endless roads we continued our way to the capital, Riga, which is the biggest city in Latvia with 850,000 inhabitants.

Crossways through Latvia towards the North

While strolling through the streets of Riga, one understands straight away why this city used to be called "Paris of the north" in the Thirties. The grand architecture with examples of all styles from the Middle Ages to the Modern times is the reason why Riga is listed as a world heritage city by UNESCO. Splendid buildings from the Middle Ages to the time of the Art Nouveau style, old town walls and churches characterize the old town (Vecriga). The next day we continued on the motorway (!) to Riga and through the centre towards the Gauja-National-Park.

The river Gauja flows with numerous bends through virgin forests and during many centuries it has carved itself deep into the stone. It is surrounded by up to 30 m high reddish-brown and golden-yellow sandstone cliffs with caves, grottoes and gorges. Before reaching the medieval town of Sigulda we had to pass the remaking of a kilometre of road. As it was blocked for car traffic, we could continue our way peacefully. Sigulda is situated in the region of Vidzeme. Many castles, old wooden houses and nature are the main attractions of this area. The next day we explored the castle Turaida, a former stronghold of the Livonians, and the surroundings of Sigulda by bike and on foot. We spent the night in a new guesthouse. The landlord passed in his car to check how we were. Then he left but an hour later - it was nearly 10 pm - he came back and gave me a music tape about which I questioned him before.

In the evening we had a beer and a long chat with the receptionist. The Latvian beer was excellent too. The next morning before leaving, we invited her to have breakfast with us. This has never happened to her before. She could hardly believe it and found it:" Very, very interesting."

It is worth visiting Césis, a town with wooden houses that have hardly changed since they were built and a very impressive castle. There is also a big market. In every town you can find a flower market which shows how close the Latvians are to Nature. It takes your breath away to see the diversity of the wild flowers which are there for sale.

Behind Valmiera our journey continued in the direction of the border to Estonia. There were quite a few mosquitoes at our camping site at the river Gauja near Strenci but there were also two beavers building a dam in the river. The only sound breaking the serenity of the night came from the sawmill opposite.

Estonia - broad and open-minded

Near Valka we crossed the border to Estonia. There were hardly any road signs. Estonia has about 1,5 million inhabitants. 450,000 live in the capital Tallinn. Estonia also has dense forests and many open fields. There are not many hills but in return many moraines and far reaching moors as well as extended sandy beaches in many parts of the country. This vastness which we have felt and experienced for a few days had a calming effect on us and besides made us feel a new form of open-mindedness towards the people there and viceversa. We stopped at a house in the countryside to ask if we could put up our tent there. The man spoke English and also some German. So we were even allowed to chose by ourselves the camping place on this huge property. Two hours later we were invited for dinner.
The next morning we were not allowed to leave until we had tried the delicious pancakes with jam, which were freshly made before us. With new energy we continued our way through a landscape with many lakes. That day our morning shower was replaced by a swim in the lake. Otepää and Tartu were the next places we went to. Tartu, an old but lively university town, was founded in 1632. The square in front of the Town Hall invites you to rest and view the neoclassical buildings there.

We continued our ride along meadows and very long birch forests via Jegova towards Tallinn. Our camp for the night was a farm near the forest. This time we didn't have to put up our tent because we were offered the room of one of the sons. Despite language difficulties we got on very well. Everything there was simple and modest but the hospitality was warm and genuine. Before going to bed we had a little stroll in the nearby forest. To our surprise we got the chance to observe from close a fine specimen of a beaver in a little waterway. An unforgettable event !

Wood art
Wood art
Again we were not allowed to leave the house until we had eaten breakfast. Full of fine impressions we continued our way to Tallinn. The little track which we chose was rarely used and our feelings rose with every day. We were allowed to put up our tent underneath some fruit trees on a remote property. Later we were invited to a spontaneous barbecue evening. While Georg showed his talent in cooking, the man who was a college professor from Tallinn told us a lot about Estonia, the people and the problems of the country. That way we gained more understanding for things which we would have never or only partly heard from the media.

As we reached the outskirts of Tallinn we felt a strong wind blowing in our face. We spent the night in a hostel near the old town. We were the only guests. To our delight we could put our bikes in the hallway. Tallinn consists of an undamaged, medieval town centre, surrounded by buildings from the Russian times. The Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square) with the medieval Town Hall (built 1371-1404) form the heart of the city. This medieval city still is surrounded by the town walls and it contains many historic treasures.

One of the countless lakes in the Baltic Region
One of the countless lakes in the Baltic Region

Once more towards the East

Georg had to take the ferry from Tallinn to Rostock and from there back home whereas I still had another week left. At first I caught the train from Tallinn to Valga via Tartu to the Estonian-Latvian border. It was not very easy to find the correct way to Latvia without proper road signs. After a rest in Smiltene ("Town of three hills") and a ride through unimportant villages and towns, I asked in a little hamlet if I could put up my tent behind the house. I got permission but as I had just finished putting it up I was called into the house. Here the daughter told me in very good English that the family had only come here for visit and that before the grandmother used to live in this house. As the family had to go back home now, they allowed me to spend the night in the house. They gave me the door keys which I should put behind the toilet after leaving the house the next morning.
After so much kindness - especially towards a stranger - I was still overwhelmed the next morning on my way to Madona parallel to the Russian border. In Cesvaine I discovered a hunting castle which a certain family Wulf from Germany had built in the 18th century. During a guided tour I was shown the rooms and when I casually asked for some accommodation for the night in the village I was immediately offered a big room in the castle. As the room was not too expensive, I decided to stay. Later I discovered that the shower did not work. Without asking, part of the price was refunded.

On my way through Latvia I saw storks everywhere. They looked for food only a few metres away from the road without being disturbed. Jékabpils was the last bigger village before I got to the border to Lithuania. After having done some shopping in a little shop, a family spontaneously invited me to their house for high-tea. This time it was a Russian family. The language spoken in the area I was crossing was only Russian. The daughter still attended school and spoke English quite well. This enabled us to communicate. After this unexpected tea I continued my way in the evening to a little farm - dusk only begins at 11 pm. Near a stork nest (with young) I put up my tent. Although the people did not understand any English or German and I could only say a few words in Latvian, they brought me a plate with food. Simple cuisine, but it came from their heart.

Via the centre of Europe to Vilnius

I was challenged by a 23 km long chalk and gravelled road before I crossed the border at Subate to Lithuania. Once again there were hardly any road signs. To my surprise the topography started to get quite hilly and the wind started to blow too. I made a break at a lake with wonderful yellow blooming water lilies. I offered some nuts to two passing locals. Shortly afterwards they invited me to stay the night. But as it was very early I politely refused and continued. Just a few kilometres further along I noticed some deer in the meadows. After another night near a property I cycled via Utena and Molétai to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Just before getting there I crossed the geographical centre of Europe which is - to many peoples surprise - in Lithuania.
Water castle of Trakai
Water castle of Trakai
I was positively surprised by Vilnius with its nicely renovated roads, numerous churches, a cathedral and houses in barock style. You can find open-minded, western orientated people not only near the university. More than a third of the surface of Vilnius consists of parks and avenues. From the Gediminas tower of the castle, which was built from the 14th to the 16th century, you have a very nice view over the city. After its destruction at the beginning of our century, it was partly rebuilt. It is not in vain that the Lithuanians say:" Who has not been on the Gediminas tower, has not seen Vilnius." In the evening I appreciated the nice local beer in the numerous pubs.

The next day I made a little excursion to the water castle of Trakai which lays in a picturesque area at the Galve lake. It can only be reached over a little footbridge. It was built in the 14th century as a residence of the grand dukes of Lithuania and as a bastion against the Crusaders. Today it is a Museum of History. In Trakai there lived and still live so called Crimean Tartares who once were deported to here from the Crimea. On a cycling tour through Ukrania to the peninsula of Crimea I met this population before.

Klaipeda and the Baltic Lagoon

The journey by train from Vilnius to Klaipeda was a very special adventure. As the conductress was very hesitant, it was very difficult to get the bike into the train. At last, after much debate, it was put vertically into the service compartment which was then locked. Now the 5 hour trip could begin.

Late in the evening I reached the harbour town Klaipeda, which was point of departure as well as destination of my tour. I spent the night in a youth hostel which I could only find after a long search in a narrow side street. The next day, before returning to Germany by ferry, I took a bike ride along the Baltic Lagoon. Besides the biggest dunes of Europe ("Lithuanian Sahara"), cranes and colonies of cormorants there are also little villages like Nida with the Thomas-Mann-Museum. These villages were once founded by German settlers. The road coiled lightly up-hill through a landscape of heather and various deciduous and coniferous forests. Sometimes it also allowed a beautiful view on the Baltic Lagoon and the Baltic Sea. A nice bath in the sea at an endless beach made a grand finish to a marvellous day.

The famous Thomas-Mann-Museum in Nida in the Baltic Lagoon
The famous Thomas-Mann-Museum in Nida in the Baltic Lagoon
Finally the three weeks through three countries by bike have come to an end. We got to know an intact landscape, an indescribable hospitality, warm and openhearted people and we also had made new friends. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have become closer to us.