18th JULY 2018
It’s mid-morning by the time I leave the Ikla hostel and Estonia, by which time the Belgian cycling family have already departed. I cycle the short distance back towards the coast so I can use a border crossing on a quieter road, only to find that there isn’t much of a border crossing at all. There are two large flags high up on poles – one Estonian and one Latvian – only a few metres apart, and they are all that mark the crossover between the nations. I get my picture taken by a Swiss couple beside a wall that has the word ‘Latvija’ emblazoned upon it. They are touring the Baltic States and, for once, I meet cyclists who are heading in the same direction as I am. The bloke is particularly happy that for now we have a ‘Behind-Wind.’
I only have to cover about 50km today but, of those, some 45km are on the dreaded Via Baltica. I keep thinking about the Belgian family who are cycling this same busy road with their three kids. Even for me alone it can be quite a heart-in-mouth experience at times. Instead of waiting, one tour bus comes perilously close as it overtakes me while also avoiding a truck travelling in the opposite direction. If my nerves are shredded, I hate to think about the stress levels of the Belgian parents.
However, I make it safely to the small coastal village of Tūja, to find my accommodation looks like a family home where the owners live in one half while renting out the other. I notice something odd while I’m unpacking – my duo of gel seat-covers that cushion my arse while riding has been reduced to only one. As they are tied on fairly tightly it can only mean that someone has stolen one. I figure it must have been taken from the campsite in Helsinki or the backpackers in Tallinn. But, honestly, who on earth would steal a seat-cover that has been living under my sweaty butt for six weeks ?
I get to Tūja around 3.00pm which gives me plenty of time to have a look around and take a wander along the beach. I hadn’t previously associated Latvia with beach resorts, but this place is a little gem. The sea is a flat, lazy blue and dark, golden sand stretches back to high dunes connected to the beach by sets of wooden steps. There are people in the sea, but it’s such a gentle, shallow slope that they have to walk for ages before it gets deep enough for them to swim. I walk in the sea for the length of the beach and am pleasantly surprised at how warm it feels. On the way back to the accommodation I buy some road food for tomorrow while treating myself to an ice cream for now. At day’s end I’m back down the beach again because you just can’t beat watching a sunset over the sea. There’s a scattering of wispy clouds overhead which reflect the tranquil orangey-gold sea. The sun disappears so slowly at this latitude, so I sit there marvelling at the colours until the mosquitos start to make an appearance. At least the winged pests play by the normal rules here and wait till sundown. In the twenty-four hour daylight of Finland they were a twenty-four hour annoyance.
The following morning I have a date with the Via Baltica once again to get me into Latvia’s capital, Riga. I also received a message last night from German cyclist Nicklas who rode the same road in May but in the opposite direction to me. In an effort to avoid the stress and hassle of getting out of Riga, he put his bike on a train for 50km until Saulkrasti and advised me to do the same. My initial reaction is ‘Fuck that !’ I’m not getting any trains ! As the day progresses I’ll be able to see just how foolish that notion turns out to be.
In my favour today is that it’s gorgeously cloudy after days of sun and temperatures of thirty degrees. It feels so good to be cycling in cooler conditions and without the need for sunscreen. I ride back along the same little road out of town to rejoin the Via Baltica, then continue on my way south. There’s no white lines on the road at this point due to recent roadworks, but I can zip along on a smooth, wide, black tar surface for about 20km before I take a quieter road through Saulkrasti. I’m back on the coast again now, but the sea looks very different and less welcoming under grey clouds after the brilliant sunshine of yesterday. The final push into Riga has me on the big main road again, but amazingly there is now a buffer zone of two metres to help separate cyclists from traffic. A road that is both safe and fast means it’s probably the easiest day I’ve had yet on the Via Baltica. German Nicklas could have ridden this easily ! I turn off and am then able to follow one road, using cycle paths or pavements all the way to my hostel.
I was messaged directions by the hostel on how to find them and gain entry which proves really helpful. What isn’t so great is that the hostel occupies the sixth floor of a city street block. Eliza, the hostel owner, happens to be on the ground floor when I arrive and says I can take my bike up and chain it to the bannister on the sixth floor. She thinks I won’t be able to get myself and the fully-loaded bike into the lift, so will have to make multiple trips to transport all my gear up. What she doesn’t account for is my inherent laziness and the fact that I’ve pulled this trick before. I simply pull back the handlebars so the bike is doing a wheelie and push it straight into the lift, upended and on its back tyre. I squeeze in, she pushes number six and off we go.
For a hostel, this place is very decent indeed. It’s much bigger and brighter than the one in Tallinn and even has a private bathroom for our six-bed dorm. I do a MUCH needed clothes wash and just chill in the hostel at night. There’s all the usual characters – the loud American, the Aussie who talks about shark attacks and a bunch of assorted Europeans. There’s also an old, posh English couple who I think are enjoying spending time in a backpackers and conversing with the kids. It turns very humid and sticky at night so the bedroom windows are all left open. Thankfully this doesn’t lead to an invasion of mosquitos, due either to being on the sixth floor or being in the middle of a built up city.
My second day in Riga is a Rest Day, which are days you definitely need to take in the course of a long cycle trip. I know I would wreck myself by riding every day and, besides, it would be daft to come all this way and not see the city. My first priority though is a haircut because I’m getting so woolly that it’s not funny anymore in this hot weather. I just step into the first barbers shop I see, but then notice a price list on the wall saying that it costs twenty-five Euros just for a haircut. Bloody Hell, that’s expensive ! It would be the most I’ve ever paid in my life to be shorn. Can I be bothered trying to find somewhere else ? ‘No,’ is the slightly inevitable answer. Still, I do get a shampoo and a nice cup of tea along with my trim. I also get the same standard haircut I could get anywhere else, but pay three times the price.
I walk into Riga’s Old Town, which has a similar feel to Tallinn but slightly rougher round the edges. There’s seems to be more encroachment by modern buildings in Riga, but there is still a fine selection of historical structures to keep me busy with photo opportunities. As a contrast there is also the United Buddy Bears display in an open space between churches. Originally the Berlin Buddy Bears they are a collection of over 140 life-size fibreglass bears used to promote friendship and tolerance. Each bear represents a different United Nations country and has been painted by an artist from their respective nation. I play a game of trying to guess the country from the bear’s design before looking at the plaque between its feet to confirm, with varying degrees of success.
I go to a buffet type place for lunch and have a weird mixed feast of salads, unidentified burgers and something that looks like lasagne but inside contains chicken and potatoes. Back at the hostel afterwards I ask Eliza if she can recall anything from the Soviet times. She would only have been five when Latvia broke away from Russia, but she remembers queuing for food with her mother – she would stand in one line for bread, while her mother would queue in another for eggs so they didn’t have to wait twice. Interestingly, Aimar in Estonia is three years older and has no real recollection of these events or the changeover. Perhaps it was tougher for Latvians under Soviet rule.
I walk back into the Old Town after dinner and see a good few things I missed on my afternoon wander then return for an evening at the hostel. In our dorm, an Irish and a German guy have a ‘Tactical Nap’ between 10.30pm and midnight so they can be fresh for another night in the Old Town pubs. I spend time sending a dozen or so Warm Showers and Couchsurfing requests to see if I can find someone to host me in Lithuania, for that is the next country on my route and I’ll be heading in that direction very shortly.