On our last morning in Helsinki we got to thinking about our campsite in Tallin, Estonia, where we were planning to stay. The Citycamp was about 6 km out of town and the weather forecast predicted quite heavy rain at times over the next few days. We decided it was a better idea to book into a hotel in the town. We chose the Radisson Blu and it turned out to be the best hotel we have stayed at in Europe as yet. Not that we are hotel experts, but we have stayed in a few and our experience and expectations have grown accordingly! It was only about 1 km walk from the Old Town and also had a Stockmann's department store, complete with AMAZING supermarket and deli 250 m away!
Our express ferry on the Lindaline arrived at 17:30 pm and we were checked in at 6:30 pm. Our bikes were safely stored in the biggest luggage room we have ever seen. Quite a change from the Best Western in Helsinki where they had to stay outside in the courtyard. We took a walk to Stockmann's for a feed and the selection of cooked meals and salads was staggering. My happiness was sealed by the vanilla and cloudberry icecream they sold! We had a great night's sleep and breakfast the next morning was superb. Waiters served coffee at the table. The hotel is large: 24 floors, and our room was on the 16 floor with wonderful views over the city. We set off to walk around the Old Town and spent the day there. It was fabulous, many museums and art/craft stores and wonderful views around each cobbled street corner! It soon became obvious that Estonia specialises in linen production and other textile with beautiful items available. I bought a linen gown, well actually a "sauna gown" so that is perfect for Perth weather most of the year! We went to look at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral upon the hill and were able to go inside. It was interesting as there was a wedding in progress but there didn't seem to be any guests. Just the very ornately clothed bride and her groom and two priests in golden robes, chanting and conducting the ceremony amongst ancient and intricate religious paintings and ornaments. In the foyer there was an old lady bent double, cleaning the tiled floor with a jacket that she dipping in water.
After this we had a rest and then went out in the evening to some larger shopping centres. We would really recommend Tallin; it has a wonderful atmosphere, is alive with history and the shopping is excellent! Tax is lower than Scandinavia. The homewares and crafts are particularly good. Although we had felt it important to make our journey back all the way through Finland and have just tacked on the two Baltic states as an extra, in a way we are disappointed that we won't have more time here!
Our plan now is to head east along the north coast of Estonia towards the Russian border and Peipsijärvi (the fourth largest lake in Europe) and then south-west to Latvia. The route is based mainly on campsite availability. Estonia offers many informal campsites in national parks and reserves that we wanted to make use of, a similar set up to Finland. Lakes aren't as plentiful though! With this in mind we slept-in in our dreamy soft Radisson Blu bed with it's feather pillows, no desire whatsoever to launch ourselves into what would be a rainy day. We eventually got down to brekky at 9:00 am and then went for a last look at the Old Town, all the way wondering if it really would be slack to book in for another day! In the end we decided to get going and try to make it to Riga a day early if we could.
Once we got ourselves ready to leave, we walked outside into... you guessed it... pouring rain. Boy, did the weather forecasters get it wrong. This was not the 1 or 2 mm predicted. The downpours caused streets to become rivers and pavements to flood. We had not been sure whether to wait or to go. In the end we went and picked our way through to the coast to our chosen route. Estonia is wonderful for cyclists; the cycle route was very clearly marked and there are many cycleways. It also appears to be completely flat, but that could change. The road was very quiet and ran through a rural setting. It absolutely poured with rain most of the day. We haven't seen rain like this since leaving Dublin all those months ago. Torrential! It made us a little moody and we tried to forget the comforts of the Radisson. If we had stayed there we would probably just be sitting indoors watching the rain through our picture window. Sounds good to me!!!
We crossed the boundary into Lahemaa National Park and arrived at Tstitre Campsite. In Estonia there are many campsites managed by RMK, the forestry commission. They are free to use and have very good facilities. This campsite was well laid out with campfire pits and covered table areas and also toilets. There was also a well! We hung up our WET gear to try and dry it out a bit. We did feel refreshed having had 4 days off the bikes. Boy, we hope this weather changes though!
We had no rain overnight but did expect rain today. We put on our wet clothing from yesterday, trying not to grimace too much. We still hopped on the bikes optimistically, perhaps our spirits were bouyed by the fact that Mike had whipped out his scissors and chopped 30 km off the day's ride! Our planned route, which was the cycle route, had hugged the north shore, following the coastline closely. The weather we had yesterday and were expecting today did not support this kind of crazy plan, and so we made some changes in support of staying as dry as possible! We had a late start as our sleeping bags were too snug to vacate.
As soon as we got on the road we were in love with Estonia all over again. The riding is so good! We deviated from the cycle route onto a G2 track. Usually these types of tracks could be anything from not rideable to paved. This one was excellent. We stopped to shop at Loksa and then again at Võsu. It is good to have shops on the route! After Võsu we left the road and used a hiking/cycling path to Oandu. This was 9.5 km and took us right through the forest on a tiny track covered by pine needles. It was quite slow going but also enjoyable as the trees closed in all around. The forest floor was covered in berries and moss. About half way along we both became aware of strange flying bugs that were plaguing us. They sort of burrowed into your hair and under your helmet strap. They didn't seem to bite, but still... Soon we arrived at the Oandu Outdoor Centre. This was a collection of all sorts of educational buildings, a heritage walk and a little further on, the RMK campsite. The lady in the office was very helpful and there was an impressive selection of maps and so on. I asked her about the bugs and even had a sample to show her. She said "Oh, they are moose bugs. They burrow into the hair of the moose". Poor moose! She was not able to confirm whether or not they bite. This is the start of a through-hike to Ilka, 370 km away on the south west coast of Estonia. There was also a well here that we used. We went on to the campsite and there were a few places to camp with campfire places and wood, axes, saws, etc. We soon had the fire going and had a great meal of barbequed pork chops. It is always an interesting experience in a new country because you have to learn the names of different meats, milk, and so on. We thought this might have been beef but weren't sure. When we got to the campsite we got the translate app going on the GPS and after a few false starts containing "collar" and "neck", found out it was pork. So we had a delicious pork dinner.
Later we found an enclosed hut with sleeping benches around the walls that seemed very new. It is still close to the campsite and toilets and had only one resident mouse. It will be a great place to sleep tonight. As I write we have counted what must be hundreds of geese flying overhead in groups of between 30 and 100. South for the winter.
When the rain bucketted down last night we were really pleased to be in our little hut! The mouse was even well-behaved and did not keep us awake! We had a great day's riding today, no rain and quite sunny! We followed quite a direct route along the north coast and had glimpses of the cliffs for the second half of the day. The route continued along small roads passing old manor's and farms. One stand out here is how neat and well cared for everything is. Lawns are mowed and pride is taken in all dwellings and properties that we passed. We stopped to shop at Kunda, which is quite a large town and rather austere. After this we joined the E10 for a bit. It is the direct road from Tallin to St Petersburg. We left it for a few kilometres and the cycle route had us going on a gravel road which was quite badly rutted and pot-holed due to the recent rain. At our first opportunity we rejoined the E10 for a while before taking the turn off to our campsite. The E10 had a good shoulder and although it carried quite a lot of truck traffic, it was not too busy. We might make more use of it tomorrow when the cycle way deviates from it regularly. Our campsite was situated in the grounds of a spa. Estonia offers spa holidays in many places. The Saka Manor House was used as a Soviet border guard station during Russian Occupation and it's condition deteriorated during and after this time. It was restored and is now a luxury hotel. The grounds are large and beautiful and overlook the ocean. We were the only campers and were charged 5 Euro 76 cents to camp here! The shower and toilet block were pristine. Amazing!
Autumn has certainly come to Estonia and we woke to a cold morning. It seems we will end as we started, struggling to brave the cold for a 7:00 am wake up. It doesn't seem like long ago that we were waking at 5:00 am with our eye masks on! We had another undemanding day's ride today through mainly farmland. The weather was perfect. The sun came out from behind the clouds but the light is definitely Autumnal. The roads in Estonia are a cycle tourist's paradise and we are pleased to be ending the trip in the Baltic states. We stopped to shop at Jõhvi and ended our day at a RMK campsite on the shores of Lake Peipsi. We had bought some pork chops to barbeque, certain that there would be firewood provided. We always carry a one-use grilli in case. Unfortunately when we arrived at Raanda Camp there was no firewood and we had quite a few pork chops to cook. The one-use grilli would not do the job! Consternation! So we ended up sort of frying the chops and then putting them on the grill to finish off. Then of course the pot took some scrubbing to clean. These are the things that fill your days when you cycle tour. The pork was tasty though. Apart from there being no wood, the campsite was faultless with a well for drinking water and many covered picnic tables dotted amongst the pine forest. There was also a brand new boardwalk to the beach. The lake is the 4th largest in Europe and looked like the sea! Russia is over the water. We stuck our Estonian flags on our mudguards, only Latvia to go now. Can't believe we have only 6 more riding days.
We decided to reduce the length of the day and stayed on Road 3 which is the Narve-Tartu road. It is a busier road especially with truck traffic, but we had only 13 km along it and it was fine. Unfortunately I have a cold which is a pain so the shorter day will aid recovery! The first town that we reached was Mustavee and it is an interesting place. It is very small but has 5 churches, from Lutheran to Orthodox. Like all Estonian villages that we have passed through, it is well-cared for, with pretty parks and immaculate gardens. Also, as with all other villages and towns we have passed through, you see mainly older people. We can only surmise that the younger generation leave when they can, perhaps to Russia or Tallin. I went into the supermarket and a young Estonian from Tallin chatted to Mike. He was quick to point out that "this isn't the real Estonia; it's rather Russian". Having only been in the country for a week we are not sure what he meant. It is true that there are many Russian people living in the areas we have been through and certainly the products in the shops are quite often labelled solely in Russian. We had a ride around the small town and stopped by the lake. We spent the day cycling along the lake shore and it struck me that if this lake was anywhere else in Europe it would be packed with holiday resorts and accomodation. There was the odd campsite and cabin for rent but not much else, apart from smoked fish for sale. Many people had large square smokers going and there were even small smoked fish stuck on poles to buy along the roadside. It was a really pretty route and the riding was excellent; flat, quiet roads. The views of the lake were wonderful.
We stopped again in Kallaste to shop, another small village. Not much further on we came to our campsite. It was small and quiet (we were the only the campers). We were invited to pick pears from an overloaded pear tree. The campsite was right on the lake shore and very pretty.
The weather was perfect today and the sun rose over Lake Peipsi to greet us. It is cold and difficult to get up early, so we will lie in a bit these last few days. We had our breakfast stop in Tartu, which is a large university town and seemed very different. People greeted us and looked interested in our bikes as we sat in a park eating breakfast. They did not seem as closed off as in the small villages we have been through. We even passed a group of road bikers out on their Saturday morning ride, which we have not seen... since Ireland perhaps; they all greeted us. We had another day of flat, peaceful riding. Only the Netherlands beats Estonia when it comes to flatness! I am still recovering from my cold and felt a bit grim, but we arrived at our campsite at 2:00 pm which was 4 hours riding time and that was long enough. We are still amazed by the effort that is made by Estonia to create outdoor recreation spots at every opportunity. As an example, shortly before our campsite we passed a lake with a fabulous boardwalk for swimming off, high floating diving boards, changing stalls, picnic tables and even climbing apparatus in trees. Once again we were the only campers at our campsite and once again it was super cheap. We will have only one more day in Estonia before entering Latvia.
DRUM ROLL PLEASE... Today our tour reached the 10,000 km milestone!
Another perfect day! Cold morning, but clear skies. We are still anticipating getting wet before we reach Riga, but for now, long may the good weather last! We had a late start, what with the chill factor and my cold which is still hanging around. We stopped for breakfast in Otepää and discovered that there are some hills in Estonia afterall! The area is called the uplands. There is a cycle route called "The Tour de LatEst" which takes in southern Estonia and Northern Latvia. It is about 1,300 km long and a clever way of creating cycle tourism. There are maps on the roadside which show facilities for cycle tourists. Good work! We stopped at Sangaste Castle and shortly after passed the 10,000th kilometer for the tour. We celebrated by making a bit of noise and taking some photos to mark the occassion. We only have three days riding to go and about 200 km so we only just made it!
We saw a sign on the road for a farmstay campsite, it was quite informal and run by a German man. Once again, super cheap. The campsites here do not offer much in the way of facilities, but they are good value if your needs are simple. We are happy with a flush toilet and warm shower! I'd rather not have to use another pit toilet this year, thanks; it was fun while it lasted! We spent the afternoon sitting in the sun and trying to keep the two farm cats out of our food. Tomorrow, Latvia.
A few clouds about, but still good weather! We reached the border towns of Valga/Valka after 20 km and had a brekky stop. We stuck our Latvian flags to our mudguards; our last new flags. After this we decided to get as many kilometres under our belts today as possible as we were hoping to reach Riga a day early to avoid the looming bad weather. Not a lot changed entering Latvia, except the road got hillier and the road condition worsened. Generally the place seemed less affluent. The people we saw on the road were as miserable as always. We had lunch in Smiltene and then also stopped at Raunu and checked out the castle ruins. The bad roads began to take their toll on us, we both felt achy all over. When we reached our campsite the manager informed us that it was their last night open for the season. It was in a National Park, on the Gauga River. We decided that we would ride the 110 km to Riga tomorrow, which would probably mean that we'll get caught in the rain, but if we get an early start, we should only catch the start of it. We booked an extra night in our hotel which would be the carrot to get us through the day! I was asleep by 8:00 pm with a crushing headache. The drinking water in Estonia and Latvia is bad, some places worse than others, with a lot of taste and colour, but for the past few nights the iron content has been very high. After our hot showers we could smell the iron on our skin and don't really want to drink it.
We woke just after 6:00 am, keen to get going. We were on the road at 7:30 am. Weird, it didn't feel like the end of a tour, but there is a sense of sadness that something is ending. Unfortunately Mike woke with a sore throat, so he seems to have caught my cold. The skies were clear as we got going but it wasn't long before a cold wind crept up and the cloud cover started. We had a long stretch on a gravel road of poorish quality (lots of c..c..c..corrugations) before going back on to the bad quality bitumen road again. There are traffic signs all along the roads here warning of bad road surface for the next 5 km and then after that, for 3 km, and then for 6 km, and so on. They should give up on the signs and just put ONE up at the border post! We stopped for breakfast in a park and spoke about how little we were enjoying the day's ride. On one section of good road surface, the road was so busy with trucks that you couldn't enjoy it. The motorists here don't give us an inch and with the crosswind it was a bit dangerous. We had thought that our 4 nights in the hotel would be enough to motivate us, but suddenly the train line we spotted 15 km further on in Sigulda was very tempting! This would save us 60 km riding into Riga. There was a HUGE (in Baltic standards) descent and then ascent into Sigulda. It is in the most touristy area we have seen since Tallin, thanks in the most part to the natural beauty, caves and so on. We arrived at the train station and the next train to Riga would depart in 3 hours and cost 6 euro in total for both of us plus bikes! We bought our tickets, threw our cycle gloves in the bin and ended the tour. As we sat waiting in the info centre the rain came in, exactly as predicated at 12:00 pm. We were happy to be dry!
The train trip took an hour and quite a few people got on with baskets of very large forest mushrooms that they were going to sell in town. Subsistence lifestyle. We are both looking foward to a week of CLEANLINESS starting with waking up tomorrow and not having to do anything! We have 4 nights in Riga and then take the overnight ferry to Stockholm where we have two more nights before flying home.
We ended up with 4 nights in Riga. We would probably have chosen to take the ferry to Stockholm a day earlier and have the extra night there as it is a much better city than Riga, but we had booked the ferry trip months ago and that was fixed. Our hotel was right at the train station and also right near Stockmann's with their fabulous deli. The Mercure Hotel was good and I enjoyed my last use of the sauna, steam room and spa bath, although nothing beats a lakeside sauna in Finland. Riga itself was a bit disappointing. It has an air of the down-at-heel about it. We visited quite a few shops and the linen products were excellent quality but there was not as much of a craft scene as there was in Tallin. We caught the public bus which was an experience. We didn't think anything of doing it, we use public transport everywhere, but you kind of needed to wash your hands afterwards. Most of the people you encountered working in shops etc. were quite unfriendly. Might be a language barrier. We ended up doing a lot of relaxing at the hotel which was probably good, saving our strength for Stockholm!
We had booked the ferry for the Saturday evening. We were told to check in with the cars between 2:30 pm and 4:30 pm and of course were made to wait standing by our bikes on the open docks for an hour. The whole thing seemed very disorganised; in fact it looked like everybody involved had never loaded a ferry before. We had an inside cabin, so no window but it had an en-suite and we had a good rest. We couldn't believe that the ferry would take 18 hours, but it did! It was very smooth though; you wouldn't even think you were moving. They tried to create a "cruise" atmosphere on board, with bingo games and some other sort of gameshow. We just lay low and tried to avoid the action! It was nice to go out on deck the next morning as the boat weaved it's way through the islands in the Stockholm archipelago. The weather was great and we had a 3 km ride to our hotel: the Crystal Plaza. This was quite a different hotel to the ones we have previously used as it was quite old fashioned, in a beautiful building. They were happy to store the bikes downstairs and put our luggage in their luggage room so we could go and look around the city as it was too early to check in. We had three days in Stockholm and it is a wonderful city. We were able to organise two empty bike boxes through a local bike store and so we could pack the bikes at the hotel, and then take a taxi to the airport on 23 September when we flew at 11:00 am. We left Stockholm in the rain.