Riga to Tallinn (almost) – five days and 466km

After three weeks on the road with Daisy our tandem, from Warsaw through Kaliningrad (didn’t see any Iskanders, but BIG Russian manoeuvres about to happen) and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (saw three British NATO trucks, seriously intimidating if you’re a Russian), we’re almost there.

Mileage to be confirmed, and a selection of Riga-Tallinn photos below, plus links to our route, but we’ve clocked well over 1000 miles (or 1600km in new money), with three main conclusions – about all of which so much more could be said.

First observation. I do seriously love the crazy Russians, but Soviet rule throughout this region was an unmitigated disaster.

We both knew that, of course, from our time in Moscow and elsewhere in the old Soviet bloc through the Cold War.

But quite honestly, reflecting on our decades of following Soviet and post-Soviet affairs and now cycling through countries doing their best to expunge that past and find their place in a new Europe (viewed from the Baltics, Brexit is of course even more utterly bonkers than it looks from Paris or Berlin), Moscow’s 20th century time running these Baltic regions has nothing positive to show for it – and on the contrary, a constantly-surprising quota of negatives.

Architecture and building standards. (How the Soviets could get even the fastidious and proud Estonians to put up such rubbish beats me – see pix below). Collusion with the Nazis in dividing the region up in 1939-41. Memories of brutal 1940s and early 50s deportations. Isolation from the rest of the world.

Equally brutal neglect of heritage and utter disregard for the environment, and post-Communist Russia’s refusal under Putin to take responsibility for what was done…

It’s a dreadful legacy that is being slowly, determinedly undone, at varying speed across this region and with varying visible success. But the list of Soviet-imposed misery is a very, very long one, and it’s taking time.

Second, less politically, Daisy our tandem continues a star. Serious bout of punctures at the back early on in the trip, till I clocked that the tyre itself had a hole. And a burst of further punctures up front as we clattered joltingly over corrugated unpaved roadways in Lithuania and Latvia (Estonia is so much more advanced and sophisticated, with a well-signposted and smoothly-surfaced network of bike paths.)

But once sorted, thankfully with 26″ wheels easily serviced even in the depths of Kaliningrad Region, our Thorn Raven Discovery, from St John St Cycles in Bridgwater, confirmed her reputation as a solid, reliable long-distance tourer of distinction.

(Thanks again by the way to Owen Hughes who so perfectly rebuilt the back wheel in Wellington, NZ, 18 months ago on our Tour Aotearoa – one spoke broken last year and replaced, but otherwise, indestructible…)

Jutta didn’t do too bad either as stoker on the back, to put it mildly, as we averaged around 100 km a day, bringing this post to the third observation, which is the confirmation that long-distance cycling, and especially on a tandem, is seriously good for you.

After three weeks, we both feel healthwise like a million dollars, with early-tour Norovirus misery and all the muscular aches and pains of being ever closer to 70 warmingly soothed. Highly recommended, and for all the soreness of posterior that never quite goes away, there’s little to beat this for having fun in later life.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, it’s Tallinn and Transferwise (a fascinating and clever financial startup who’ve invited me round to talk to their young team about what this part of the world and the Soviet empire were like during the Cold War) and, then, all too soon….

But first, links to the routing of recent days, and then a small selection of photos.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1150023346/embed/638b24cdc485fd247ae338ceaeb471a6bdb70ebd“>Riga to Sigulda, Latvia (77km in 5 hours)

https://www.strava.com/activities/1151789625/embed/871ddd355ef5d8fcfa97d1113ceb279c1a0d9b2d“>Sigulda to Smiltene, Latvia (100km in 7.25 hrs moving)

Smiltene to border town of Varga (49km in 3 hours moving)

Tartu to the Baltic coast just short of Tallinn (238 km in 16 hours+ moving)

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The Open Baltic Road and a typically VERY Busy Baltic Sky

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Riga cathedral, with tandem couple

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There’s a lot of landscape in the Baltics. This in Latvia between Riga and the Estonian border.

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Open gravel Latvian Road

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Beware the Grader. Kat and Mela take note. But better than trying to ride on a corrugated surface.

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Aftermath of grader’s passage.

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Daisy and Cesis Castle

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Cranes, a whole flock of them.

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We saw a LOT of this kind of landscape in Latvia. Endless, rich, dense forest.

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The heavily-fortified Latvian-Estonian border. What a contrast to Kaliningrad.

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National Geographic have been in town – hoovering up the photo opps around Estonia’s second city Tartu.

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Nat Geo in Tartu, with Jutta.

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Brilliant cycling signs in Estonia.

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The sweetest campsite, in Estonian Nadalama

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The most obvious and consistent legacy of Soviet rule. The worst possible bricklaying.

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A typically-derelict memory of Soviet rule in Estonia. Brickwork tells it all.

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Beautiful Baltic coastline East of Tallinn

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Bunkers recall the vicious fighting that took place here in WWII. First Soviet-Estonian. Then Soviet-German. Then Soviet-Estonian, with sadly too much of Estonian-Estonian included.

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Father and son, bronze in Tartu.

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Tartu’s famous kissing couple fountain. Our hotel Draakon in the background. Not the best.

Inside Soviet Spy Centre in Latvia.

DSC02800105 km yesterday from Koldava to Riga airport, whence we cheated and hired a car today to visit the fascinating former Soviet Cold War eavesdropping station at Irbene – once so secret that from its inception in the mid-60s right through to 1989, the Americans had no idea it was there.

And yet, it was from here – Moscow’s equivalent perhaps to Britain’s GCHQ – that for a quarter of a century, the Soviets were able to listen in to the most secret of American communications, from telephone calls to messages to and from missile submarines.

Zdvezdochka – or Little Star – is a 32-metre radio telescope, the eighth biggest in the world and similar in function to Britain’s Jodrell Bank.

Very recently refurbished, it’s now being run with support from the European Union as a civilian operation in tandem (that word again) with similar telescopes around the world in exploring deep space.

Until the Russians handed the place over in 1994, there were up to 2000 people living here in secrecy lockdown, with their own small town now abandoned.

The departing ex-superpower took everything movable away with it from kitchens and toilets to the smallest of the three parabolic antennae that started eavesdropping on the West around the time Jutta and I were working and studying in Moscow nearly a half century ago.

What they had to leave behind they sought to render unusable, though not to drastically that it couldn’t be patched together again with new West European equipment.

With a link here first to our route into Riga (we leave tomorrow heading for Tartu, Estonia’s second city), here are some hopefully enlightening pictures.

 

 

Klaipeda, Lithuania, to Kandava, Latvia, 310km

This from deepest Latvia, with 320km further on the clock in last three days, from Klaipeda (Lithuania) to Kandava just short of Riga. (Route here. )

Photos below (with captions) speak of Europe’s longest (definitely not highest) waterfall, in Kuldiga; of truly beautiful Baltic coastline; of old stately homes; local pride at being member of EU (easy border, and huge upward impact on aspirations and standards – don’t get me going on Brexit, or on the miserable Soviet legacy here); use of English (no longer Russian) as the new Baltic lingua franca; and crappy stretches of corrugated gravel leading to, yes, four punctures in one day.

Just 700 more km, and we’re in Tallinn. Autumn has arrived, so now getting wet, on occasion.

 

Kaliningrad to Klaipeda – 220km or so in 2 days.

Blimey – having an interesting time on FB in Klaipeda putting photos into an album and creating and ordinary post. Looks a right mess at this end, and probably even worse at yours.

Pouring with rain outside with 800km ahead of us to Tartu in Estonia, where we’re now thinking of taking a train for the last bit in 10 days to Tallinn, our end stop.

Good to be out of Kaliningrad in some ways though already being missed – Russians are lovely, friendly, open, curious, but politically things feel so stuck in a Soviet-nostalgic past.

Lithuania, poor but EU, feels like the modern world.

I’m re-posting this in the hope that it’s more accessible. Let me know if not. (ah, having done this, I see that a visitor needs to click on the album at the top, rather than seeing pix automatically…

Our route these past two days, along the world’s longest sand spit.

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At last I know what the Russian for Fast Food is. Fast Fud.

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With its veneration still of victory in WWII, Russia under Putin chooses to stay focused on the past – while all around, Europe (for all its contradictions) gets stuck into the future. Yes, Russia suffered terribly in the war, but the relentless focus on Victory throughout Kaliningrad became very wearing. And sad when there’s so much to do to catch up.

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Majestic, aAncient tree-lined avenues of once-German East Prussia. — at Kaliningrad Oblast.

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Zelenogorsk/Cranz. Just before the Curonian Spit starts.

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The former bird-ringing centre in Rossitten, now Rybachiyi on Russia’s half of the Curonian Spit where Johannis Thienemann invented the ringing of birds in 1903. Sadly now derelict. — in Rybachiy, Kaliningradskaya Oblast’, Russia.

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Joannes Thienemann, inventor of bird ringing and one of history’s greatest ornithologists.

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Curonian Spit – the longest of its kind in the world, at over 100km

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Kaliningrad was fun, but the roads in EU-member Lithuania are of a different order. #reliefonthebum — in Klaipeda, Lithuania.

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In which Mark and Jutta pedalled like hell, making up for a two-hour delay at the (heavily-policed) Russian border into Lithuania to travel the length of the world’s longest sand spit in one day. 112km from Zelenogorsk/Cranz to Klaipeda/Memel (until 1919 the Easternmost extremity of the German Empire.) — at Klaipėda Art Hotel Bohema.

Leaving Kaliningrad – with mixed feelings.

As old Soviet hands (Jutta and I did after all first meet in Moscow 43 years ago in 1974 when we were both working there), we head out of Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg towards EU-member Lithuania today with mixed feelings.

The Russians we’ve met here since crossing on Daisy from Poland five days ago, have been unfailingly kind and generous – all of them of course either themselves immigrants or descended from those who repopulated East Prussia after it was ethnically, brutally, understandably-at-the-time perhaps, cruelly, ethnically cleansed of Germans immediately after the war.

Much is of course different from Soviet days (not that we would ever have been able to visit Kaliningrad as the closed military district it once was) – the openness of conversation, the quality of the (actually, now universally-excellent) food, the shops, the enterprise, the bright colours and fashion of ordinary street life..

Of course, Kaliningrad as a Russian territorial exclave remains as yet only sparsely visited by tourists, and is clearly struggling to find a new balanced identity between the political, cultural and geostrategic pulls of Russia, history, and of surrounding Europe.

And let’s not get too misty-eyed about outsiders imposing their ways on a part of the world that has more history than most could digest – think Sweden, Teutonic Knights, and Napoleon, Hitler’s Nazis as well as Stalin’s Soviet Union and now the new Russia.

But we have been in honesty been disappointed by how Kaliningrad and its region again illustrate a Russian truth we know so well from our time in Moscow of disconnect between the warmth and soul of ordinary Russians and a collective and continued disregard for beauty, quality and the individual.

(I think Tolstoy and Dostoevsky used to write about this, actually – it’s an old story.)

There’s a great deal more that could and perhaps should be written (maybe one day, we both will!), but to take just one example, Kaliningrad’s shiny new Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, making its unsubtle, unmistakable political point in Putin’s Russia, is so brightly, garishly illustrated within with icons and gold that visitors are advised to bring sunglasses.

But without, it’s an astonishingly sloppily-finished construction, with corners cut and gaps in the marble cladding chipboarded over in a manner reminiscent at the same time of Brezhnev’s Moscow (think the blocks on Prospekt Kalinina) and of some kind of quick-build new hotel for the new Russian rich.

All in saddening contrast with what little is left of the carefully-built quality of Koenigsberg’s German heritage, with some lovely examples of restored Prussian forts and gates but so much throughout this region that’s been either left to rot or which has been brutally torn away and replaced with vistas of Soviet concrete even more ugly than the worst we got used to in Russia nearly half a century ago.

And yet, we – at least I, Mark, perhaps because I speak the language and know Russia’s history and complex identities from my university and reporting days – love the place and its people.

So much so that we (well, Jutta reminds me more me than we at this point) are now planning (or at least discussing) a future tandem trip from Moscow to St Petersburg, perhaps next spring.

With fewer submarines (pix below repeated from yesterday’s Facebook post), and certainly less derelict German heritage.

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Brand-new, very unimpressive Church of Christ the Saviour in Kaliningrad, making a rather shoddily-built point about who’s in charge here now..

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Shiny new iconostatis.

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Russia’s new Orthodox churches certainly don’t skimp on the illustrations.

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New generations of artists with lots of work to do in Putin’s new Russia, with the Church set square in the centre of national identity.

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Typically brutal Soviet-era housing block in Kaliningrad. Though talking tower blocks, and Grenfell Tower in London, I recognise one needs to be careful before overly condemning housing that may just look good on the outside.

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A refreshing change of emphasis – at Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg’s very cool, Western-inspired Zarya Restaurant with its homage to Woody Allen – born Allan Stewart Konigsberg.

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Innoative amber artistry at Kaliningrad’s Amber Museum. Homage to Salvador Dali.

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Aboard Sub B413,, the world’s only still-floating and visitable sub.

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Heath Robinson would have been proud. 80 crew on board, each with his own wheel to manage.

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The kitchen

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B413 at anchor.

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Daisy in the lee of Soviet-era submarine-hunter

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Two heads for 80 crew.

However basic the technology, one would rather not be on the wrong end of one of these.

Grom Gusev to Kaliningrad through Friedland – with added Napoleon surprise

Here’s our route over the past two days from Gusev/Gumbinnen to Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg – and a mighty interesting one it was too.

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1918353884

178 km, average moving speed of 14.7 kph, and a completely delightful overnight stay (after late-evening thunder run to nearly 10pm) at new private Amelia Hotel in Pravdinsk (terrible name), formerly Friedland. Hugely recommended, with fabulous home-made and tasty food, and tastefully restored old German house.

Friedland to our surprise – we should of course had been  more up on our history – was the scene of Napoleon I’s decisive military victory over Tsar Alexander 1st’s army in 1807, leading directly to the peace of Tilsit which duly failed, leading in turn to Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in 1820, and ultimately to the end of France’s early 19th century domination of most of Europe.

I’ll just post a load of photos for the record here, which will also cross-post to my public profile on Facebook. Not too many tandems pass through Kaliningrad, especially those as heavily-laden as Daisy, so worth recording the experience in some detail.

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Church of St George in Friedland, now Orthodox – see next pic for interior – but thankfully actually preserved and rescued from dereliction, unlike the vast bulk of German-era buildings in the region, religious and secular. Note grim, ugly, badly-built Soviet-era concrete shop in front.

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Interior of St Georges church, Pravdinsk/Friedland.

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Panorama from the top of Friedland church tower over the battlefield in which Napoleon conclusively – for the time being – beat the Russians in 1807.

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The completely delightful, delicious and comfortable Amelia Hotel in Pravdinsk, opened in the last three months only.

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Roadside produce. Just like in the Soviet days, and deliciously natural..

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Lenin still on show, with Kalinin, but only just in Pravdinsk regional history museu,=m.

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We still can’t quite work out why so many houses in Kaliningrad Region were begun and abandoned. Working on it, but either the 2008 crash and soaring Russian interest rates, or the aftermath of Ukraine and Crimea, with Western sanctions.

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The Lake outside Pravdinsk which covers much of the old 1807 Friedland battlefield. Feeding an electro power station built in the 20s.