15th JULY 2018
For the second day in a row I gorge myself senseless with the hostel’s gargantuan breakfast feast. This monster food intake should easily keep me sustained for 65km till I reach today’s target of Märjamaa. Quite by chance I’m leaving Tallinn on a Sunday, which should mean a little less traffic to contend with as I’m leaving the city. However, this good luck is offset by the fact that a top temperature of 30 degrees has been forecast.
I take a bit of a zig-zag route out of the city to avoid the major roads, but soon my only option is to join the Number 4 Road – The Via Baltica. This is the main highway that connects Estonia to the rest of Europe and I’m destined to get to know it very well indeed over the next few days. For the first 20km out of Tallinn I can use cycle paths alongside the road, but then it transforms into a motorway, and I’m off on a magical mystery tour once again.
I join a minor road and follow the map to where it shows I have to cross another motorway. I assume there will be a flyover to reach the other side, but when I get there my road simply joins the motorway. I can see the road I want to get to on the opposite side but there’s no way to get across because of crash barriers that separate the two carriageways. If I doubled back it would take me about 10km of cycling just to get to a spot which is a stone’s throw away. It takes a few seconds of hesitation, but there’s really only one thing for it – I walk my bike across the motorway and begin to attempt lifting it over the central reservation barrier. My God it’s heavy ! It feels like a dead weight with all my gear strapped to the back. I realise that swearing at the bike and urging it over the barrier will not affect it’s movement in any way, but that still doesn’t stop me from trying. I then have to repeat the whole process amidst breathless grunts and a stream of profanities to get it over the second barrier. By the time I push the heavy lump to the other side I’m gasping for breath.
After composing myself I continue on with my circuitous route towards Märjamaa. These minor roads are quiet, and I’m freewheeling along silently so that the animal that emerges from the forest is unaware of my approach. At first I think it’s a fox, based purely on the colour of it’s coat. This creature is stocky though, and about twice the size of a fox with a short stumpy tail. I actually say “What is that?” out loud when I see it. It’s definitely a large feline of some sort and my best guess would be a lynx. I must have been approaching downwind from the big cat to have gone unnoticed. As soon as it sees me it turns and bounds back into the forest. The whole encounter is over in seconds, but it’s the highlight of my day.
The heat has been building all afternoon and the sort of tall, fluffy white clouds that preceed thunderstorms are beginning to accumulate on the horizon. I’m glad for any cloud cover as this is unquestionably the warmest day I’ve cycled in so far. I’ve even upped my stock of water bottles to three. It hasn’t helped that my routine 65km day has turned into a motorway-dodging meander of 95km. The one saving grace is that the entire journey has been flat. With this heat even a handful of steep hills may have done for me today.
I reach Märjamaa about 5.30pm, which gives me just enough time for a shower before going to watch the World Cup Final. My accommodation tonight really isn’t sure what demographic it’s trying to aim for – it’s a peculiar mix of hostel and motel. There’s also a slightly weird shared-bathroom system for me and the room next door, with the shower and bathroom sandwiched between our two bedrooms. When I open the door from my side it locks their door and vice versa. I never set eyes on the people next door but, quite disturbingly, I can hear them pooing.
My accommodation for the next day is undecided as yet. I’ve got a Warm Showers offer pending, but failing that I’ll just cycle the 60km to Parnu where there’s a campsite by the river. Luckily I check my Warm Showers account the following morning to find a message saying I’m able to stay. My host will be a bloke called Aimar who lives in a tiny place called Lindi Village. Unfortunately, for the purposes of my trip he lives about 25km into the countryside on the wrong side of Parnu. It will mean a 50km detour to visit him, but it should be worth it to spend an evening hearing things from a genuine Estonian viewpoint.
When I leave Märjamaa, the first 15km are on a quiet road before I have to join the busy Via Baltica again for the next 25km. This particular section is bearable as there’s a metre margin at the edge of the road which gives cyclists some space in which to ride safely. Then I’m able to rejoin the minor roads as I make my way towards Lindi Village. In fact this road is so minor that it suddenly converts to a gravel track with a covering of loose stones. I had no indication that this was about to happen and I have no idea how long it will last for. I have to crawl along painfully slowly as I’m liable to wreck my spokes on this surface with all the weight I’m carrying on the back. I spend about 15km on this track before it reverts back to asphalt.
By this point the heat has intensified horribly, and there’s no relief from cloud cover like yesterday. This now supercedes yesterday as the hottest day of the trip. I stop at a little village called Jõõpre and down two bottles of orange and carrot ice-drink in an instant. I reapply sunscreen too, but I’m perspiring so much that the cream just seems to drip off along with salty beads of sweat.
With today’s draining heat it’s a real effort, but I slog through the next 30km of twists and turns and eventually reach Lindi Village. It takes me a while to find Aimar’s place, but one of his neighbours points me in the direction of an old ramshackle farmhouse near the shore. He’s not home yet so I just sit exhausted in the shade and wait.
Twenty minutes later Aimar arrives, having been grocery shopping in Parnu. I’m invited in, have my warm shower and we chat at his kitchen table. He’s a gentle giant in his mid-thirties who talks with a boyish enthusiasm about everything from music to food to politics. Amazingly, he has an answer to all my inane questions about his country and has an encylopaedic knowledge of Estonian history. I’ve also picked the right person to ask as he’s now on his summer break from being a history teacher. I ask him the origins of the Estonian flag (Three horizontal stripes – blue on top, black in the middle and white on the bottom) and I’m told it was an old student flag from the early 1900’s. In the romanticised version the blue represents the sky, the black represents either the fertile soil or the dark forest and the white represents the clear conscience of every Estonian.
For dinner Aimar cooks chicken breast with pasta and salad, loading everything with garlic, tomatoes and red peppers. Along with about seven pints of water it absolutely hits the spot after today’s debilitating struggle in the heat. While we’re eating I ask him if there are lynx living wild in Estonia. He says there are, although he’s never once seen one, which makes me feel even more privileged for yesterday’s sighting. We chat till about midnight, but I’m starting to fade by this point and need sleep. I’ve been given the guest room, which doubles as storage space with stacks of furniture and bric-a-brac against every wall. There’s just enough space for a mattress on the floor in the middle, but that’s all I need.
The next morning I’m served porridge for breakfast to set me up nicely for another hot day. Aimar was a good guy and an extremely interesting host. I’ve probably learnt more about Estonia from one evening chatting with him than I would from ten nights staying at campsites. With a full belly I have to retrace yesterday’s cycle for about 10km, then head round the top of the Gulf of Riga before veering off towards Parnu. I simply try to follow the Euro Velo 10 signs – The Baltic Sea Route – to get me through the city, which goes surprisingly smoothly. After Parnu I’m reacquainted with my old friend The Via Baltica for about 25km, before it’s quiet coastal road all the way to Ikla at the Latvian border.
I see two snakes on the road today. The first is barely two feet long, skinny and slithers off into the undergrowth as I pass. The second one is larger and has clearly been run over by a car, with a gaping chunk having been ripped from its side. It’s writhing around in agony. Part of me wants to stomp on its head to put the animal out of its misery, but my more sensible side is worried the snake will attack if it thinks I’m the one responsible for its injury. I keep going, but feel slightly guilty.
I get to the Ikla Hostel to find no-one on reception and the doors locked. I just sit down to wait and am soon joined by an entire family of cycling Belgians. Dad, Mum, 18 year old son, 16 year old daughter and 14 year old son have all just taken two days to cycle here from Riga. They say they’ve had to use The Via Baltica practically the whole way which can be dangerous enough for one person, never mind a whole family. I can’t imagine it would be a pleasant experience watching trucks and buses speed past within feet of your children. However, the family are seasoned cycle tourers and go away for three weeks every July to coincide with the Belgian Construction Trade’s holidays. Last year’s tour took them to the three European capitals of Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. This year it’s Riga, Tallinn and Helsinki. We all get into the hostel after thirty minutes when the receptionist finally shows up. On a bicycle, ironically.
For dinner I go to a truck-stop cafe right on the border and have probably the most average chicken schnitzel I’ve ever eaten. When I get back to the hostel the Belgians are sitting outside and ask if I want to join them. We have a beer and a chat before they all troop off to bed early in preparation for another day on The Via Baltica. I faff around for a while longer and reflect that, apart from the heat, it’s only taken me three fairly routine days to cycle across Estonia. And I don’t think I’ve cycled up one single hill in all that time !