3 days since writing anything! We are now in Latvia and have spent a busy 3 days going through South Estonia.
We have been to Tartu which is the second largest city in Estonia and is the cultural and historical centre. Whilst Tallinn has always been open to tourism, indeed it was a Soviet showcase, Tartu was shut off from the outside world as a no go area. We visited the site of Rieda Palace which was bombed in WW2 and then the soviets had an airbase there. It became a sort of emblem for the Estonians to get it cleared and they are now planning a huge museum of Estonia on the site.
They are very proud of the University which has some beautiful buildings and while we were there graduation ceremonies going on with young people holding huge bunches of flowers. The town had a nice feel to it and they are busy investing in doing up the buildings.
But we are missing camping! We haven’t been since Helsinki which seems an age away. The fact is that in the Balkans they really don’t see why people should want to pay for camping when you can just go anywhere, so we really haven’t seen any commercial camps. We’ve stayed in a variety of iffy hotels and are now craving our own space. I suppose that’s the trouble with cycling. In a car it’s no problem to wiz to the next nice bit but you don’t neccesarily want to go further after 50 odd miles on a bike.
We were delighted therefore to get to the Oteapia region. It’s really the first area that we’ve been to that’s set up properly for tourists with a variety of accommodation including nice camp sites. We stayed at a really cute one with all the facilities plus a lake, a little farm, fire pit etc. we were the only ones there mind which for a nice weekend in June is an indication why more camping isn’t available.
The region is really famous for it’s winter activites. It has a ski jump, a ski bob track and lots of trails for cross country skiing and lakes for skating. It would be fascinating to come back in the winter. It’s the hilliest bit of Estonia and it reminded us of the foothills of the Alps. Really pretty.
At every community here you see a huge stage set up for performing folk music so you can imagine our excitement when we were told that there was a free concert that evening. There was a group that had a little touch of the Oyster band about them and they were very popular with the locals who knew all the lyrics and danced long. I even dragged Dave up. There was also a group of local ladies who performed folk dancing and even had a change of outfits. We were excited about this at the beginning but it did go on a bit. It reminded me of watching a barn dance – much better if you join in, but that wasn’t encouraged.
Today we made it over the Latvian border at Valga/Valka. It is a town that’s split in half by the border and Dave was excited about it, imagining a check point Charlie type set up. In fact it was very boring and the town was decidedly tatty and didn’t feel good at all. We therefore pressed on down what looked to be a boring tree lined road. In fact the route was pretty. The forest was open and did give me the hope that I might finally see a Moose. We went through farming communities that had that 'lost in time' look and there was less of the decayed Soviet collective farming buildings that we saw a lot of in Estonia. They were doing lots of grass cutting and the storks were following the tractors. We were on quite a main road but had about 10 cars pass us all afternoon, I suppose it is Sunday.
We arrived at the outskirts of Smiltene to see a sign for accommodation and camping down a track. Arrived at a farm and there was a commotion while grandma found her granddaughter to talk to us. It was raining so when the offer of a room in a converted barn for 10 slotties (no idea how much that is yet) came up we took it. It’s really nice so going off into the town now to look round.
The look around wasn't very entertaining. The main amusement in Latvian towns in the evenings are supermarkets, of which there are many, all open late and selling cheap booze and food. Interesting isn't it that observing young people in Scandinavia where alcohol is very expensive they sit in cafe's and drink coffee and health drinks. Here, and in the UK too, supermarkets sell cheap booze and kids hang around the streets. There may be a lesson there.
Yesterday we linked back onto the Tour de LatEst route which covers the South of Estonia and the North of Latvia. We went to the tourist info centre to find it closed on Mondays during the summer. Standing outside looking lost at our map a man approached us to ask if we needed help. He suggested heading out on the main road and gave some pointers on things we may see. He was anxoius to point out to us though that every 30 years Latvia had to be rebuilt through successive invasion by Russian and Germans, who, he said, had said burnt everything as they left and so they had little of historic interest to offer. Interestingly yesterday we met a Russian family enroute from StPetersberg to Belgium (yes I did ask him why). They were finding all the anti Soviet stuff a bit hard to take and thought that being part of the USSR had done some good for Estonia. I suppose you could get into a very big political debate about it.
Anyway back to the journey. The main road was actually farily quiet but a bit boring so we turned off and headed along a very pleasant road that turned into gravel. I said to Dave that I didn't mind some of that as long as it wasn't 15 k at the end of the day. Oh no he said it goes onto quite a major road here. Yes you guessed, mud and gravel the whole way but wider and with trucks and busses. We couldn't quite take it in how bad the road was, it reminded us of Africa! To all our cycling buddies if you ever come here bring your mtbs not nice speed bikes.
It was a shame because the countryside was lovely, but you had to concentrate really hard in case of being caught in a rut or on soft sand.
Apart from the roads though I would say that I prefer Latvia to Estonia. The people here are more friendly, and they seem to be putting in a lot of effort and trying to make a go of it. Our last couple of nights have been examples.
Last night we stayed in someones garden! they had a holiday house to rent but it was full so we camped instead. He spoke German but no English so went to get his freind to translate. They were a delightful family. She kept appearing with eggs, milk, bread and cheese and the 3 children thought we were very entertaining. They also had resident storks that were amazing to watch up close. The only draw back was an over protective dog who barked until midnight.
It has rained every day since being in the Baltics. Generally the rain is short and sharp but today is going on and on. Fortunately have found this really lovely cafe in quite a major town called Madonna where we have had a long lunch with internet connection. Much better than cycling in the rain and we are due a short day. It also seems much better to eat at midday as there is nothing open apart from the supermarkets in the evening.