Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Kiuruvesi, Finland - Blue

Blue is the colour of Finland. The blue lake that stretched to the horizon, its surface like glass so that l imagined we cycled across the blue glass. The blue sky that makes the days hot but the mornings icy cold. Green complements the blue in the vast forests that fringe the lakes, cover the land and form a tunnel of green as we pedal north. And the red of the painted houses and barns that are dotted throughout the countryside are a flashy contrast to both.

Taking a boat from Tallinn we crossed another stretch of blue, the Gulf of Finland, to arrive in the smart, bustling city of Helsinki whose fashionable inhabitants were out enjoying the spring sunshine. Quick to engage with the local culture, I did something uniquely Finnish and ate a gluten free Mcdonalds quarter pounder meal. If that's not local enough, then we also ate reindeer meat a couple of days later. Not our favourite! And as I write, Bart and I are just out of the sauna, although we won't be following it up with a dip in an icy cold, blue Finnish lake. The free sauna is the only benefit of the first campground we have found since leaving Helsinki. It's otherwise a miserable place more industrial site than campsite and a contrast to the beautiful lakeside spot and dreamy sunset we found in the woods last night.

We cycled north from Helsinki a few days ago through the spectacular landscape of Lake Paijanne, the vast blue glass lake. Our bicycles were transported across its waters by a series of wooded islands connected by causeways and bridges. The islands harboured hidden reed-fringed coves where there was always a photogenic upturned fishing boat. You can't beat a good boat shot! The sun shone and there was not a breath of wind. It was heaven. Quiet back roads have taken us further north through a rolling landscape of trees, small farms and towns.

In many countries the towns seem to encroach ever more on the trees but in Finland the trees encroach on everything. Every now and then the trees open a little to allow us a view of another sapphire lake and we explore any tracks to the water's edge to find a place to pitch the tent. Its not easy as so many access tracks lead to the private cabins that dot the shorelines and cut us off from the water. That makes us grumpy! There are no mountains or hills in this southerly part of Finland but once our road came to the top of a rise and as far as the eye could see, l could see trees.

As we continue pedalling north, the temperature is forecast to drop and we had a few flurries of snow this afternoon. So let's hope the colour of Finland doesn't change from blue to white.

Fact file
Daylight -18 hours
Distance - 1868 miles
Days - 31
Route- We took a ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki.The crossing takes 2 hours and there are several sailings each day. Helsinki has an excellent network of bike paths and we then tried to follow national cycle route 4 north to Jyvaskyla but it was poorly mapped and signed.This part of the route includes the spectacular Lake Paijanne national park. From there we have picked our way north on quiet roads. As we're here early in the season, not a lot of campsites are open. Finland is expensive so it's probably just as well.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Tallinn, Estonia - Wired

Estonia. Before we set out on our journey, that name conjured up in our imaginations a country back in time, a place that was rural and Russian. But as we cycled through Estonia we discovered a vibrant and wealthy country that is so modern, especially in its internet technology, that it claims to be the most wired country in Europe. Thankfully, alongside that modern outlook, we still found plenty of rustic, old world charm.

Our cycle journey in Estonia on quiet back roads and dirt tracks took us through an idyllic mix of wild woods where moose still wander freely, passed small farms and pastures, and through quaint hamlets of wooden houses that still retained thier rustic charm. There are only 1.3 million people in Estonia so there's lots of wild space. We used it for pitching our tent at night and enjoyed some beautiful sunsets

Bart and I are not very good at researching visitor information and tend to be quite content with whatever pops up on our chosen road. So it was by pure chance that we found ourselves cycling into the historic Estonian town of Viljandi, first settled in 500 BC. We loved its colourful wooden buildings and the shade of its peaceful square. We've been seeking shade out on the road as daytime temperatures this last week have been hot enough to turn our Nutella to drinking chocolate and our cheese to fondue.

"The weather is exceptional for April as Estonia normally only gets three months of summer", we were told by an elderly couple enjoying the sun at their holiday home. We had stopped to ask for water when our supplies were low and they kindly filled one of our bottles. A second bottle was filled by a man working in his garden who shuffled slowly back and forward to his house. I was worried we had disturbed him but he gave us a big smile as he passed over the water jug. A third bottle was filled by a old woman working on her farm whose dog followed her every move. "He's a good dog" she told me. And finally we received a huge bottle of water from a mature gay couple who were working in the hot sun in just their swimming trunks! Probably we got so lucky here because Bart told one of them that he had a great body for his age.

But of course the highlight of our journey through Estonia has been its capital city, Tallinn. As we cycled through the ancient city walls we were charmed by its beauty. The central airy square is bounded by brightly painted buildings and bordered by pavement caf├ęs.  A maze of cobbled streets radiate out from the square and we happily wandered these for hours, every now and then popping out into a pretty courtyard. From one corner of the square a series of steep steps leads up to the hill in Toomplea and from here you can gaze across the city panorama as spires and minarets rise from a jumble of terracotta rooftops backed by the blue waters of the Gulf of Finland.

Our arrival in Tallinn marks the end of the first part of our bicycle journey through the northern reaches of Europe. Ahead of us now is a boat to Finland to begin the hard cycle north to the Arctic Circle and the North Cape in Norway, mainland Europe's most northerly point. Up there it's currently only 1 degree above freezing, snowing and blowing a gale.

So it's lucky that we are taking a couple of days off in Tallinn. After 1500 miles of cycling to get here, we are feeling more tired than wired.

More photos on flickr click on the link.

Fact File
Daylight - 16 hours, 11 minutes
Distance - 1520 miles
Days - 25
Route - Crossed the border of Latvia and Estonia at Lilli and headed straight north through Viljandi, Turi and on to Tallin. Excellent dirt roads in Estonia and good wild camping in the many forests.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Valmiera, Latvia - It's Baltic

Early morning sun filters through the ghost-like outlines of the white silver birch trees and chases away the nightime chill.   The songbirds' dawn chorus is added to by the primeval call of the cranes in the nearby ploughed field, by the drumming in the trees above of a woodpecker and by the gentle gargle of black grouse at their lek somewhere close by. Soon another sound is added as Bart sparks up our noisy stove to make hot coffee which we sip in the cosiness of the test. Our overnight camp is packed up and we cycle back along a rough forest trail to yesterday's dirt road. So begins a day of cycling in Latvia.

We had no idea what to expect from this obscure little country but it's given us rolling countryside covered with wild forests and dotted with charming villages. It's thrown up a few surprises. The main roads we've chosen have often turned out to be dirt roads, slow and sandy in places. We've encountered our first little hills of the trip and the charming old Latvian town of Cesis. And, compared to Lithuania which had a slighlty depressed air, Latvia feels vibrant and upbeat.

In the daytime the sun has shone and at times its been quite hot. But it's fair to say that at night and in the mornings, it's Baltic.

More photos on flickr - click the link.

Fact file
Daylight - 15 hours, 33 mins
Distance - 1345 miles
Days - 20
Route - crossed into Latvia north of Birzai and cycled through its hilly region to the old city of Cesis and onto to Valmiera. Slower progress due to icy cold starts and dirt roads.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Kedainiai, Lithuania - Lost in translation

You might be surprised to know that Bart and I don't speak fluent Lithuanian  - only 4 million people in the world do! So when we spent an evening with a Lithuanian farmer and his family the internet was our means of translation!

We crossed into Lithuania a couple of days ago and noticed an immediate change. The landscape was rolling farmland as far as the eye could see, dotted with cute clusters of farmhouses and outbuildings whose once brightly coloured paint was now peeling away. There's no wild space in Lithuania so when we couldn't find a place to camp we asked a friendly farmer if we might camp in his field. He was delighted to have us stay and showed us to the prime spot beside the duck pond, close to the outdoor drop toilet. We were invited into the simple wooden farmhouse for coffee. The interior was small and dark, dominated by a huge oven that radiated a cosy heat and surprisingly, given the simple surroundings, there was an internet computer. Through the magic of Google Translate this is what we learned about him.

He is 58 years old. His farm is 14 hectares but much of it is leased as his health is not so good now. He has asthma and gets disability benefit but it's quite low. He enjoys growing vegetables in the greenhouse. It's been a cold spring so not much is planted yet. He has two dogs, one tractor and one cow which gives good milk that his wife turns into cheese. His wife's brother works in construction in London and speaks fluent English.The winters here are cold except the last one which was mild with not much snow. He is on Facebook.

Since leaving the farmer we have continued cycling north through Lithuania through endless farmland and some old cities. The spring continues to be cold so does anybody know the translation into Lithuanian for "Where can I buy a hot water bottle?"

More photos on flickr - click on the link.

Fact file
Daylight- 15 hours
Distance - 1118 miles
Days - 17
Route - Left Poland at Sejny and turned north through Lithuania passing through the old city of Kaunas. There are some super quiet roads and dirt trails in Lithuania but few options for camping.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Olecko, Poland - The nights are fair drawing in

Bart and I may be cycling to the midnight sun but at the moment our nights are drawing in, a curious effect of travelling east. It's lucky then that the sun rises earlier each day to give us ample hours for cycling across northern Poland.

We entered Poland, homeland of my paternal grandfather, at the busy city of Szczecin. It's traffic, dense humanity and chaotic bustle were a shock after the quiet roads and sleepy villages of Germany. Our first jobs in the city were to buy a new SIM card for Bart's tablet - the main network in Eastern Europe is Vodkaphone - and a map of Poland.

 The imaginery line that we followed across Poland took us initially through depressing countryside littered with abandonned state farms and empty, out-of-place tower blocks. But we quickly moved into a more pleasant land of rolling hills and farms, scattered with small villages. Each village is set around a charming church and there is always a huge woodpile, a duck pond and a stork high up on its lofty, scraggy nest watching over the scene.

Poland is a funny country. In one moment you are shopping in a modern Tesco or using wifi at a Macdonalds and in the next moment you are cycling through a shabby village with chickens running around the dirt roads, people beating carpets with a stick and a man restuffing his sofa with straw.

The wilder parts of the countryside are dotted with beaver lakes fringed with old woods and reed beds and veiled with morning mist that always gives us a wet tent to pack away. It's in the wilder places that we choose to camp, finding quiet spots in the woods or the occasional campsite, though few are open so early in the season. It's still freezing cold here in Poland when the sun doesn't shine. Bart's GPS found us our first campsite on the outskirts of a housing estate on the fringes of the city. The owner charged us less than three euros. He covered up our bikes with a tarpaulin when rain came on and set out coffee for us in the morning. We were invited to stay for free at another campsite that wasn't yet open and found by chance another run by a Scotsman from Glasgow.

Our roads have been mostly quiet and nearly always lined with tall trees, a relic from the war when they were planted to obscure military manoeuvres from the air. There are other relics from the war such as the old roadside bunkers. Both are reminders that northeastern Poland was Hitler's headquarters during the war. The road surfaces are so appalling that they look like they have been more recently bombed.

There have been two highlights to our passage across Poland. One has been the wildlife - we are always spotting storks, cranes and fiery orange red squirrels - and one afternoon saw a pure white deer bouncing through the forest. And the other has been cycling through a village called Barty!

Tomorrow we will cycle into our fourth country, Lithuania, and as we round the corner of the Russian region of Kaliningrad, we should finally start cycling north when our nights will hopefully start to draw out.

Fact file
Daylight - 13 hours, 15 mins
Distance cycled - 966 miles
Days - 14
Route - Entered Poland at Szczecin and cycled directly east through Czersk, Kwidzyn, Morag, Dobre Miasto and Gizycko to Olecko.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Locknitz, Germany - No such thing as bad weather

There's no such thing as bad weather just the wrong clothes, said the man from the local paper in Luchow who'd stopped to chat with us in a cafe while we warned ourselves out of the rain. In that case, layered as we were in several hundred pounds worth of goretex, we certainly had the right clothes for this cold, wet weather. The first few days of our trip had been so different.

l cycled off my ferry at Ijmuiden in Holland into warm sunshine that felt like summer. Bart was waiting in shorts and t-shirt with a well stocked bicycle and trailer. We had an idyllic cycle across Holland in warm sunshine following its fabulous network of bike paths and cycling alongside canals and pavement cafes as we crossed Amsterdam. As we cycled on into the countryside, lingering winter geese honked in the fields and grebes performed their spring mating dance on the waterways. There is water everywhere in Holland.

A couple of days later we passed into Germany and continued in hot sunshine along its maze of bike paths that every now and then popped out at some gorgeous German town or village, like Verden with its cobbled streets, grand churches and pretty stone houses crosshatched with wooden beams. At least most of the time we followed the bike paths and only once did Bart's GPS take us into a field!

Although the first few days were hot, the early mornings were freezing cold and we were wrapped up in fleeces, hats and gloves until the day warmed and the mists cleared from the fields.

The rain came as we pushed as east and arrived at the River Elbe. When we crossed, the only two passengers on the small ferry on a wet afternoon, we crossed into the old East Germany. If you have a preconception of East Germany being grey and dull, then you are possibly right. It felt very different to West Germany. The towns and villages were shabby and poorly kept with lots of abandoned houses. The village parks were overgrown and unkept. But most of all there seemed to be a grey, deserted atmosphere at odds with the vibrant towns of West Germany.

We pushed further east, cycling roads that crossed freshly ploughed fields of rich, brown earth where groups of cranes huddled in the middle as if whispering a secret between themselves, before taking to the air, their huge wings like a pair of flying barn doors. One evening we camped in woods by a reed-fringed lake as rain drops pattered on the tent and the boom of a bittern echoed across the water.

I am writing from our last stop in Germany before we cross the border into Poland. But I must dash now as I need to decide what clothes to wear for the next few days of weather.

More pics on Flickr.

Fact file
Daylight hours - 13 hrs, 16 mins
Distance cycled - 556 miles
Days - 8
Route - Ijmuiden, Holland to Meppen, Germany and across Germany via Verden, Munster, crossing the Elbe at Lenzen and onto Locknitz near the Polish border.