Baltic/Brilliant Cycling in Estonia *

*delete as appropriate

At the risk of repeating myself from previous posts, even in Schengen Europe where borders are just ‘Welcome to’ signs at the side of the road, there are usually instantly noticeable differences when you cross into a new country. In Estonia, people waved to us and smiled. This was a marked difference to the previous week (sorry Latvia) where one of our best interactions was with the old lady who was worried about our cold forearms outside a shop that didn’t look like a shop. In the first large town in Estonia, one group of people waved and cheered so vigorously that they nearly fell off their seats. They were outside a bar though, and there was a lot of empty glasses on the table. There was a helpful map of bike routes with distances., and even better a sudden increase in availability and quality of public toilets. Not exciting or glamorous, but extremely useful. On the downside, cheese had somehow doubled in cost. The cheese fiend half of our team was very disappointed.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Welcome! 2. Remains of midsummer partying. 3. A whole cake to make up for the lack of cheese. 4. Actual bike routes, not beaches. 5. Quiet roads.

Keen to continue its new reputation for stimulating encounters, on day two Estonia gave us all of the weather. All of it. Except snow. The wind blew strongly all day with unpredictable gusts. After 2 hours and 13km we sat in a bus stop for partial shelter and questioned our life choices. Later, we spent an hour huddled in an old woodshed that we found open, while torrential rain and hail smashed the road. The saving grace was the pack of hot sausages I had bought at the supermarket, which just about made up for the nasty smell in the shed.

It was definitely not this bright. And the hail was as big as melons. Well, grapes at least.

By evening things had calmed down. We were heading for the islands off Estonia’s west coast, as recommended by a Swiss couple in a camper van who made me a lovely cup of coffee in a campsite in Latvia. The ferry trip was smooth and sunny, it was like a different world. Jo continued to get some come-uppance for telling everyone about how few punctures she has had, with another as we rode off the ferry. It was getting pretty late by this point but as we were now further North it didn’t really get dark  so she managed a quick roadside change and we enjoyed another good campsite on Muhu Island.

The sun came out, the roadworks went on forever, Jo got a puncture.

The plan for the next day was a 45km ish ride, a ferry to another island, then another 45km ish towards the next ferry for the following day. There were only three ferries per day, so if we missed the 1pm it would be a seven hour wait for the next one. I’m sure you can see what’s coming here. Obviously we left the campsite a little bit later than intended. Then we got a bit distracted reading the history of a cool causeway bridge thing. And by some kangaroo signs. Then there was a cute town (with lovely toilets). Leaving town, Jo’s puncture bad luck continued. We executed an extremely slick tube change but by this time it was after 11am and the ferry was still 30km away. Cyclists will read this and think that’s not sure a tall order. On road bikes or even unloaded hybrids it wouldn’t be. However on hefty 45kg touring bikes when you don’t really know where you’re going it’s a bit of a challenge. Add a killer headwind (we had turned westwards) and we were not feeling super confident. We made a quick start after the repair, until a few minutes down the road I realised the sun was in the wrong place/we were going the wrong way. Minor setback – we had left town on the wrong road. U turn required. Still 30km away, the race was on.

Lies.

We pedalled hard, with just one emergency banana stop and made it with almost ten minutes to spare. It was a beautiful ride, and should you be in the area I would definitely recommend taking a trip to the islands. Quiet roads, loads of great campsites, lovely coastline.

Riding really fast. For us.

Back on the mainland, ruins were turning out to be another fun feature of Estonia. Most were signed from the road and had information boards with stories about the previous inhabitants. These seemed to have been written by members of the Soap Opera Writers of Historic Buildings Association, they were usually about controversial marriages, grand gestures of love, and murderous family members. Our favourite though was one that gave details of the St George’s Night Uprising of 1343. This described the killing of 28 monks and the burning down of a monastery as ‘only a minor setback.’ Seems like we should all reassess the barriers in our lives. Other than the odd buttress for safety the buildings had been left as they had been found, and were great to explore. The weather had cheered up and we were almost always on quiet roads. We were also meeting a lot of people doing cool trips – a German family with two toddler age children doing a three week camping tour, an Estonian family who moved to Austria for snow sports back visiting family, and in towns lots of retired Brits sailing around the Baltic (#newlifegoal – though I may need to improve on my RYA level 2). It was pretty dreamy cycle touring, and that was before we got to Tallinn.

Brill ruins
Chilling in the castle, Haapsalu

People ask us a lot ‘what’s been your favourite place?’ It’s an almost impossible question, as everywhere is so different, and fun/interesting/awe-inspiring in different ways. I can however quite easily pick out the cities that are worth going out of your way for (Rome, Granada, Tokyo); those that are good if you’re in the area (Riga, Bergamo, Seville, Malacca); and those that you could avoid and not feel like you’ve missed out (Napoli, many US cities, Vang Vieng, Siem Reap). Tallinn is definitely in the first group of awesome ones – there’s just so much to look at. Incredible old buildings, brilliant city walls, interesting food, and it’s a manageable size for walking. We had two days wandering around, helped on the second day by the lovely Toomas and Veronica, who we met in Laos some months earlier, and had recently returned to their home town. Go if you get the chance. If you don’t get the chance, go anyway.

Terrific Tallinn

We said goodbye to Estonia on a rainy Saturday morning, though it’s probably more of a ‘see you another time’, there’s a lot there still to see. Horizontal rain smashed into us as we cycled along the exposed ferry access road to board the ship to Helsinki. Once there we would be back on the route proper, finally turning back south west and towards the UK.
Thanks to: Toomas and Veronica, Anna, Federico.

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Back in the saddle in Latvia

After our unplanned return from China and two months at home we were itching to get back on the road, so we had planned a final European loop to get us to Helsinki, from where we would ride home, completing the round the world cycle trip. It is now a few weeks since we pedalled away from Measham for the second time. As with our initial departure in September 2015 we were aiming for the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry, and as the first time, we rode in glorious sunshine through beautiful English countryside. There really is no better place to ride when the sun shines. We mainly followed national cycle routes on small country lanes, though with a few more hills than our out of practice legs and lungs would have liked.

An overnight ferry (full of other cyclists, none of whom spoke to us – strange lot us Brits are) landed us in the Netherlands at 8am on Debs’ birthday. What better way to celebrate than to stock up on pastries at Lidl and head to the beach for a birthday breakfast. The sun was still shining, the wind was behind us and we were back on the best cycle paths in the world (not confirmed) surrounded by elderly Dutch cyclists on their upright bikes. The paths are almost totally flat, but can have a short steep(ish) incline and then drop at times. On one of these, one of our Dutch cycling friends warned us that “there is about another ten of these steep hills on this path ahead”… a Dutch steep hill that is. Two or three hard pedal strokes and you are up and over the peak. Rocky Mountains they are not. We were pleased to be back in Europe.

We had a lot of time on the ferry

A short ride to Dan Haag (we will be back…) and four trains later we were in the port of Travemunde on the north east coast of Germany, via Hamburg where we stayed with a friend for a couple of nights. The ferry from would take us to Leipaja in Latvia and we were mostly in the company of truck drivers. We settled in with a Lidl picnic and enjoyed the sunset from the boat. It was the smoothest sailing I have ever experienced. A mere 28 hours later we were in Latvia. 


As we arrived at 10pm I had booked a cheap hotel room to save us having to “ride around a strange town in the dark” looking for a place to stay. Rolling off the ferry at 10.15 pm, the sun was still above the horizon. We were five days from midsummer and the days were long. Ah well. The Sport Hotel was the bargain of the century at only €14 for the biggest room ever, with the answer to every British cyclists dreams, an electric kettle. There was even a sofa. Welcome to Latvia.

Shops were sometimes hard to spot. Few windows. The signs helped at this one.

Finally we were back in the saddle, and set off the next morning with no idea what to expect from Latvia and no real plan, other than “ride to Estonia”. Riding up the coast seemed a good place to start, without realising we were apparently following a Eurovelo route (though we are a little sceptical of some of their “routes” that are often just someone’s nice idea) and before we’d even left town we saw five other touring cyclists. That’s more than we saw in the whole five months in Europe at the start of our trip. Cycling in the summer is more popular than the winter then. 

Leipaja had a few sights including a very shiny Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a soviet-era prison but soon we were on the open road and navigating by keeping the sea on our left. The sun was shining but our legs were weary from riding the loaded bikes for the first time in a couple of months. Ride all you like at home but nothing prepares you for carrying the weight of the bags. The first night in the tent since February was strange, it didn’t get properly dark at all so we had to use our buffs as a blindfold to give the illusion of night time. After a night camping by the sea we turned inland and with the help of an amazing tailwind that we savoured every minute of – as most of this leg will be riding west into the wind – we were in Riga two days later. Latvia was flat, green, and mostly well kept. Towns had attractive parks, old wooden buildings, castles and were very pleasant indeed. There was the odd soviet style concrete tower block but not as many as we had expected. 

Making friends with the locals.

It was a rainy morning’s ride to Riga, and included a comedy moment of hiding in a bus shelter when the rain was particularly fierce only to be completely soaked by a truck riding through a huge puddle/lake that had formed next to the kerb. By the time we arrived in the picturesque capital the sun was shining again. Riga is mostly known these days as a stag party destination thanks to Ryanair and cheap beer, but the old style buildings are ornate and the different pastel colours makes the whole place very easy on the eye. I say old style because most of the city was destroyed during WW2 and has since been rebuilt to look old. It’s actually pretty compact, we had a day to walk around but found that we had covered most of the old town in a few hours. Including sampling a couple of bakery treats.

Great fancy buildings in Riga
Great fancy cakes in Riga

Luckily we had arrived on party weekend. Midsummer, or ligo (pronounced leegwa, strangely) in Latvia, is celebrated on 23rd June and is said to be bigger than Christmas. Though most people celebrate by heading out into the countryside, lighting fires and drinking all night, there was a music festival in the city which had a nice atmosphere, even if it was like being in the middle of the Eurovision Song Contest. Latvian pop music is not to our taste. People were drinking and dancing, we saw at least three people fall over they were so drunk, and at one point there was a circle of women close to us who were all at least six feet tall. Apparently Latvian women are the tallest in the world, and on that evidence, I wouldn’t argue against it. 

An annoying-to-navigate ride out of Riga (as most cities are) had us riding up the coast towards Estonia. Our mistrust of the Eurovelo bike route deepened as the bike signs seemed to direct us into the sea – it actually went along the beach for 6kms. The sand was mostly hard packed but the bikes are so heavy it was tough going. Once off the beach the rain returned and we hung out at our usual bus shelter, watching as youngsters stumbled past drinking and singing, the beach party clearly rained off but not their enthusiasm. It was still the holiday weekend and we pulled in to a campsite that evening to find groups of Latvians keeping the fires burning and the alcohol flowing. One guy could speak fairly good English so spoke to us at length about immigration policies (“your mayor, she doesn’t want Eastern Europeans in the country but she lets all the Muslims in”; “do you see any brown people in Latvia? No, we kill them”) before rejoining the party. We fell asleep to the soothing sound of more Latvian tunes, hoping that when we crossed the border into Estonia the next morning the music as well as the weather would improve. I’m not sure I can ever watch Eurovision again.


Latvia had been a nice return to the cycling lifestyle. Flat, easy camping, cheap food, tailwinds. It was good to be back on the bikes again, although I found the first few days quite tough mentally. I had optimistically assumed that normal life would fall back into place as soon as we were cycling again, but in reality everything had changed and it was hard to focus on what we were doing rather than what we would have been doing if we hadn’t had to return home from China. Cycling also gives you a lot of time to think – I had spent most of my time at home busy and suddenly my mind was empty and I thought a lot about my dad and what had happened over the past two months. Even though I often felt sad, I knew it was the right thing to be back cycling and finishing the trip off in the best way we could.
Thanks to: Svenja, David and Zane.

An update and a plan

Happy Sunday morning. I’m enjoying mine with a brew and smug-feeling inducing carrot, apple and cinnamon porridge in my parents’ kitchen in Leicestershire. If I’d had to predict 2 months ago where I would be on June 11th my answer would have been west of Stockholm, but east of Copenhagen. Not much has really gone to plan in the last 7 weeks and for that reason the blog is now the most behind it has ever been. Jo will be writing to explain more about all of that, and i’ll be trying to catch up on the so far ignored bits of Thailand and Laos.

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Sharing the road in Laos

It has been good to have the chance to see lots of family and friends during our return to the UK. Being car-less that has meant we have spent quite a bit of time doing the same as being on tour. Riding bikes with panniers, staying only one night at various friends/family then going somewhere else, navigating new routes to get there. There’s been some brilliant cycling in Leicestershire, as enjoyable as anywhere in the world, so if you’re local, get out and explore some of the lovely roads. The area between Measham and Hinckley is especially good, pick the smallest roads and you will pretty much only see other cyclists, and loads of them.

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Lovely Leicestershire roads, nr. Shenton

Despite the fun at home, we very much feel that we need to finish (Finnish) the trip off properly, or as close to ‘properly’ as we can. There was never a fixed route for the ride, but 18000 miles was always in mind as a minimum distance – it’s what Guinness count as an around the world ride. Although we have not succeeded in our aim to cross Asia overland (we were always going to have some train help), we were pretty clear on still reaching this total. To make life easier with visas (and Jo’s almost full passport) we decided to restrict this final leg of the journey to Europe. Unlike the UK government, this week we made a plan for how we would tackle it.

If the original route had worked out, we would have arrived in Helsinki by ferry and ridden home. So we could fly to Helsinki, but that seems a little dull/easy/annoying with bike boxes. Instead, here’s a rough outline. When I say rough outline, I mean, here’s all of our planning to date:

Ferry Harwich-Hook of Holland : Ride to The Hague : Eat Dutch apple cake : Train from the Hague-Hamburg : Ride to Travemunde : Ferry to Latvia (I know, definitely NOT in the original trip schedule) : Ride to Tallinn, Estonia via Riga : Ferry Tallinn-Helsinki : Ride home from Helsinki.

Seems reasonable to me, though the menus need more work. We don’t have to fly and get two Brucie Bonus capital cities to visit. There’s at least 3 overnight ferries for pretending to be in an Agatha Christie novel. It should take about 7-8 weeks, back in time for the incredibly early school term start in Leicestershire, and takes us comfortably over the magic 18,000. Route advice always welcome if you have knowledge of the area.

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But which way is Finland?

Once again we have only a few days to go, and virtually nothing ready. Seriously. We currently don’t have a tent –  somehow the poles got left in China. Yes, I agree, it is a wonder we got so far unsupervised. Friends should feel relieved at this point that for this trip we are not moving out of a house. You will not be required to install carbon monoxide detectors, search through piles of our disorganised paperwork, or felt the shed roof. This time we thank you instead for driving out of your way to see us, giving us places to stay, taking us to train stations, squeezing bikes in your cars and generally being kind and wonderful during the return we didn’t plan for.

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One of the many Leicestershire – N Yorks train trips. Some train bike racks are brill. This is one is rubbish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sliding doors: Cycling home from Bangkok

The other day we saw the sea for the last time in a long time. This will be the third major land crossing of the trip, and the biggest by far, after Netherlands to Italy (1 month) and Boston to Anacortes (3 months). Right now I’m not even sure where we will next find the sea. Best guess, visas allowing, it will be in St. Petersburg.

The bikes have had enough salt water, so our feet got a ceremonial dunking

Before the trip, it was never our intention to ride all the way across Asia. A long distance train was always part of the plan, and it is only every so often one of us says “Well, we could ride all the way…?” We could. For sure. Bangkok to London is less than half of the distance we have ridden so far. Google tells me I could walk it in 98 days. The thing, is I don’t really want to cycle it and neither does Jo. There are a few reasons for this, mainly time. China is extremely big. We would spend a long time riding there. This is not a life ambition, and doing something to say you’ve done it isn’t often a good motivation. We have reached a point in the trip where we have started to think about doing other things, like cycling LEJOG, going to an English pub, seeing live music, riding our fast road bikes, eating a roast dinner, going back to work (just me) and – most importantly – seeing our family and friends.

China: chuffing huge, 1 month visa. Those sums don’t work.

I’m still excited about the next bit of pedalling. I’ve even spent some time today looking at a route in Southern China with some big mountain passes. It’ll be great to eat Chinese food. Though remember there they just it call it food, Friends fans. In the shorter term, we’ll visit Angkor Wat next week. Lucky people indeed. There are also still lots of places I’d like to cycle in the future. This probably isn’t the only long tour, though I suspect it will be the longest.

Choosing to start going home has been easy. Choosing a route home is a bit more problematic. Visas are tricksy, especially as Jo has only a few clear pages in her passport. We really don’t want to fly so are page-saving where possible. Some visas have expiry dates (China by May 2nd, the race is on) and for some we need to have booked train tickets etc., but as yet have no idea of dates. Roughly, we’ll get trains from China to Russia via either Kazakhstan or Mongolia. From St Petersburg there’s a ferry to Helsinki. Helsinki to Hook van Holland is about 2500km with some ferries. We’ll be in Harwich eating fish and chips in no time. Or more likely, in July.

Pedalling along, looking out for crazy stuff.

With all this in mind there a lot of decisions flying around at the moment. It is hard not to see them all as super important trip changers. I think this happens at home too. Luckily, every so often the universe has a way of helping to put these things into context so you can concentrate on the ones that really are important. Like, when to cross the road in Bangkok traffic. THAT is important. A slightly longer route to Vientiane? Probably not such a big deal. Stopping early one day because you see a nice beach? Definitely ok. It’s like sliding doors, you just get something else instead. Because we stopped early (3pm, not really that early, but we could have got one town further) the next morning was different, and it turned out to be brilliant different because we went to a Thai wedding with some Malaysian holidaying cyclists. If we’d ridden on, we would have missed it. Who knows though, if we had ridden on, there might have been a cake festival in the next town… So whatever route we go, it will be great trip home.

Enjoying the wedding breakfast.

I still love riding my bike every day and seeing new and awesome stuff. I’m just starting to get a feeling of needing to contribute more than instagram pictures to the people who are important. For us, the cycle touring lifestyle has an expiry date. It’s not even about the home comforts, though I can’t deny it will be delightful to make tea with real milk from a fridge and I absolutely cannot wait to turn the tap on and drink the water that comes out of it. See you in July UK!

Saving the world, one plastic bottle at a time. Race you to the tap in Helsinki.

Ups and downs in Portugal

Six days in a flat in Lagos doing very little except sleeping, wandering around and eating pastel de natas allowed us to recharge the batteries, knowing that once we left the south west corner of Portugal we would be riding north towards home for the first time since leaving over four months ago. We met up with our English friend Bob (who we met before the ferry to Barcelona, he made us a cup of tea…) one day for his birthday lunch; watched Leicester City beat both Liverpool and Manchester City and turn into real Premier League title contenders; and after spotting an ocean rowing boat with a GB flag dwarfed by the yachts in the harbour, discovered that a bunch of strapping Englishmen were leaving Lagos the same day as us but heading across the Atlantic to Venezuela, hoping to beat the world record for that crossing. (They did). We also ate many pastel de natas. What we didn’t use our time to do was catch up on the blog, plan our route ahead, etc etc.

 

Cape St Vincent (the lighthouse is there in the background)
 
Before pointing our wheels North towards home we rode out to the most South-Westerly point on the European mainland, Cape St Vincent. The ride there was memorable as being the first time a motorhome with GB plates had tooted and waved at us as we passed – we had made a habit of waving madly whenever we saw one but usually this was ignored. The cape itself had a touristy lighthouse and a busy car park but plenty of quiet spots to sit on the rocks and watch the waves crash against the cliffs. We had saved a can of Sagres (one of the two Portuguese beers that you find everywhere) for a celebratory lunch before riding north up the west coast for a few hours to find somewhere to camp. This stretch of coastline was probably our favourite of the whole trip – rugged cliffs, huge waves, small coves, tiny towns with little more than motorhome car parks and miles of empty beaches. Pretty much the opposite of the Algarve coastline. The road is inland but there are plenty of opportunities to turn off down to the sea – these are generally unappealing on a bike as they involve out-and-back detours often down a huge hill but when the coast is this nice… One day we even stopped at 3pm, unheard of for us who normally ride until it’s too dark to see, to walk a bit of the coastal path, take in cliff-top views and watch the sun set over the Atlantic ocean.

 

Prevailing wind direction…?
  
 
The closer we got to Lisbon, the worse the weather got, and after a day of solid rain we arrived at our hosts in the Portuguese capital dripping wet and took two days for everything to dry out. Lisbon is surrounded by upmarket holiday resorts and the one place everyone had told us to visit if we were in the area – Sintra. Perched high up in the hills about 30km from Lisbon, Sintra has palaces, an old ruined castle and gardens to visit, and if you google it (other search engines available) you will see why it attracts the crowds. However the weather was even worse, and after riding uphill to get there, including a really steep cobbled road (aka death trap in the wet) could see nothing but cloud. 

 

Wondering why we didn’t stay inside eating pastel de nata…
  
Beautiful Sintra (behind the cloud somewhere)
 We weren’t the only fools there – a few coach loads of people were wandering round with their umbrellas up craning their necks trying to imagine what was the other side of the crowd. Customer service in Portugal hit a new low when we weren’t allowed into either of the palace or castle cafes as they were inside the gates. So we drank nearly-warm tea from our flasks and took shelter under a stone walkway. Until we were moved on from there too. No sympathy for wet cyclists in Sintra. So we went to a cafe and ate tourist priced (double the usual) pastel de natas.

 

Bus shelter lunch
 
The weather improved a bit (it didn’t rain all the time) as we rode up the coast to Aria Branca youth hostel to have a day by the sea. It is right on the beach and very cheap, but being winter was almost empty. One night there was only us and a middle-aged Swedish guy, on a bike, who was staying there for 4 months and doing what looked like very little. Bit weird. The sun was out but in place of the driving rain was now gale force winds, and it was difficult to stay upright walking. The day we packed up to leave we got 5 miles down the road, realised we could hardly keep the bikes upright never mind ride, and so turned round and went back to the hostel. The receptionist was not surprised to see us return.

 

Cycling around Portugal’s highest mountain range
 
On the recommendation of local cyclists we then left the coast headed inland towards Serra de Estrela, Portugal’s highest mountain range. On the way we stayed with a couch surfing host who was doing a volunteer exchange, and had a fun evening with her and the other young volunteers in the town. They had taken to wine tasting (wine is so cheap, what else would you spend your spare time doing) and we were up until 1am helping taste wine and feeling old. It took us about a week to recover. The small road in the foothills of the mountains that we followed went through small pretty villages but unsurprisingly took us up and down some seriously steep hills. One night we stayed at a campground (we were as usual the only tent) and gained attention from all directions – an English couple invited us into their camper to drink wine and eat cheese and biscuits (yes please), the Dutch owner gave us blankets to keep warm (definitely yes please) and the resident cats swarmed around our pitch and climbed all over our stuff as we tried to pack away (less helpful). 

 

That little bit of grey up to the left was our road…
  
Debs making it look like hard work
 
Our final night in Portugal was spent in a small town high up on the edge of the mountains in a small hotel that hadn’t been redecorated since the 1950s but we didn’t care because they let us keep the bikes in the dining room (shh health and safety), had a restaurant next door where we ate a 3 course meal with wine for €7 each, served a massive buffet breakfast and filled our flasks with tea. But all of this didn’t quite compensate for the terrible, impatient driving that had started to knock the pleasure out of cycling in Portugal and so we sped (actually, rode very slowly as it was mostly uphill) towards the Spanish border and didn’t look back. Portugal, until your drivers learn a bit of patience you will stay fairly low down the list of recommended European cycling destinations. But you were pretty to look at, had some great coastline and of course our favourite bakery treat…

  
Thanks to Jim and Tricia (again, you made it onto two posts!), Jose for the tips, João and family, Miguel, Daniel at The Bike Shop (Terrugem), Henrique and Paula, Muge and the other international volunteers, and Rich and Angie.