EUROPEAN ADVENTURE 1999
Dobrzyca, PL to Tallin, EST
July 1 to August 11, 1999
26,873 miles (43,344 km) cumulative
A traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, or experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting to happen to him. He goes 'sightseeing.
North of Wroclaw the terrain of the countryside becomes flat, flatter, flattest. This is the huge and very fertile northern European plain as attested to by the large fields bordering the country roads. They seem to grow corn, wheat, oats, cherries, strawberries, and other crops I did not recognize. Farm implements range from the very modern looking John Deere type tractors to one very ancient, horse drawn contraption. It was an odd machine that seemed to rotate 4 old-fashioned wooden pitch forks for the sole purpose of turning over the hay for drying. A fairly young farmer was driving the horses and given the fact that this was the only horse drawn farm implement we'd seen I had to wonder if he may be of a certain religion that forbids the use of machine driven tools, such as the Amish. Poland may be behind the western world still, but from what we've seen, not that far behind.
Farm houses are large and usually of 2 story stucco style with sloping tile roofs. We passed many obviously brand new houses or homes just under construction which is a good indication that the Polish economy is doing fairly well these days. Here and there we passed by these enormous old brick buildings that look like gigantic barns. Most are made of brick and many have been abandoned. Old Soviet style communal farms? We understand that, unlike the other Soviet states, most Pole farmers kept their farms in tact and only a few were communized. So why the huge, vacant buildings? We don't know. As we pass through the corn fields and wheat fields, swaying plants extend on to the horizon with only border tree lines to mark the edges of the fields and a large farm house scattered here and there we are distinctly reminded of Indiana. If you were to drop someone blindfolded in this part of Poland and remove the blind they would never be able to tell if they were in Indiana or Poland, except of course for that passing gnat sized car.
We wound our way along these quiet roads northward into the oldest region of Poland, called Weilskopolska. It was in the city of Posnan in the year 966 that Duke Mieszko accepted Christianity and then the Holy Roman Empire granted statehood to the region. It's interesting that at that time the Holy Roman Empire was so powerful that a country could not be considered to be a country until the local rulers accepted the religion and petitioned for statehood. Once again we set up a base camp outside of the city and went in via train. Poznan is much smaller city that Wroclaw and has far fewer sights to see. As is typical for towns of this region the central point of the old town is the old market square. It is surrounded by gothic, baroque, and renaissance houses and in the dle is the wonderful old town hall. Unfortunately sometime in the past, probably during the Soviet era, they plunked a couple of horrendous concrete blocks right in the middle of the square making for one ugly eyesore and successfully blocking most views of the town hall. If I were town mayor I would seriously think about having those things torn out and replaced with some colorful open-air markets.
There were several churches to visit, of course. One major difference we noted between these and the ones in Wroclaw was the level of interior decoration. The churches of Wroclaw were primarily constructed of a red brick and the exteriors are in a fairly simple, blocky baroque style. The interiors have white washed walls and ceilings with red brick trim. The only ornamentation comes from the various alters, paintings, and the pews. In Poznan the two main churches in the old town have incredibly elaborate interiors. Huge wood pillars made to look like marble, paintings on the walls and ceilings, gold filigree everywhere. Their interiors look almost dark, dreary, and dusty in comparison to the ones in Wroclaw. Their exteriors were stucco with a fair amount of religious carved statues on the front. Oddly, neither had a steeple or any sort of large tower.
Poznan is a city that few tourists visit. We did not spot one single tour bus in and around it and the crowds downtown actually were quite manageable. This is in part because it's another of those rebuilt towns but also because it's a bit out of the way and there really isn't all that much to see. It is a very prosperous town and plays host to many international trade fairs every year. July and August are the trade fair free months, consequently fewer visitors. We actually found it to be a lot easier to walk around Poznan than we did Wroclaw. In Wroclaw it seemed as if we were continually dodging people. Walking a straight line was impossible. In Poznan there was room to breath. We stayed for one day, explored as much as we wanted, and then went on.
In the course of just one week the weather turned from rainy and chilly to stifling hot and humid. From the moment the sun came up at 5:30 AM until it finally started toward the western horizon at 8 PM we sweltered, soaking in our own sweat. Clothes could be kept reasonably clean for perhaps 2 days before needing a rinsing and there's no such thing as a laundromat in Poland. Handwashing is it. We downed liquids at every opportunity and still this wasn't enough. It was hot, hot, hot. Why is it that so often there is no happy medium. It's either too hot or too cold. Never just right for very long.
We stopped in one campground where the jovial silver hair gentleman with the large beer belly greeted us in a pretty good English. We promptly got the history of his particular campground. During Soviet times it had been a campground only for the employees of one large company. At that time if a foreigner or non-company employee wanted to camp he slipped a little cash under the table to the manager. This man bought the campground 5 years ago and has since been trying to turn it into a profitable business. As we so often see in the US there are few campgrounds that are truly profitable. It seems only those in real tourist destinations, such as Disneyworld, those at key locations along the interstate highways, and those where people plop down their trailer permanently to use for a weekend getaway all summer are profitable. In this particular case this man was trying to achieve the latter, the weekend getaway. But it'll take a while before he gets there as it seems not enough Poles are that well off to be able to afford such a luxury. Let's just say we did not see any of those super cheap gnat sized cars in the campground. They were all more expensive western cars. We did get the distinction of being his first campers from the United States, for which he took our photo.
On to Torun, birthplace of perhaps the most famous astronomer, Nicholas Copernicus the man who, "Stopped the sun and moved the earth." Although he did not have it quite entirely right. He concluded that the sun was the center of the universe, not just the solar system. The only roads into town from the south are the busy "red" roads. Red is their color on the map. What a strange paving. The asphalt seems to be laid down on a horribly compacted surface. Due to the weight of traffic the center of the asphalt where the tires roll had sunk and a mound of asphalt has collected along the edge of the road. Naturally this mound happens to be right where the bike tires should be. We had to keep dodging back and fourth across this 6 inch high mound, sometimes on the traffic side, sometimes on the curb side, but most often trying to balance on the top. Not an easy task when you're trying to concentrate on not getting flattened by the passing semi trucks. There really is a good reason we've been avoiding those red roads.
Just across the river from the town is the pleasant campground, Camp Tramp. It's filled with grand old ash trees, has a ring of 15 small cabins, and a large grassy area under the trees. For several days we'd been looking for a pleasant campground located sufficiently close to a town so we could walk in for supplies. We were determined to take a day of complete rest, no riding, no sight seeing, a do nothing day. This place looked perfect with one major flaw. It's located extremely close to the train station and the security of our equipment was highly questionable. To pitch the tent or not became a real issue. The student whose summer job was to be the campground receptionist kept indicating that our stuff may or may not be safe. Even when we wanted to lock up the bikes by the office and go into town for groceries she insisted we place our helmets inside the office to keep them safe. This was the final straw. The difference in price between a cabin and pitching a tent was only about $8 USD per night. Losing anything, even just one small item, would cost far more than that. We chose the cabin and after seeing a few displaced characters rummaging around the trash a couple days later we were quite glad we did.
Of all the cities we'd visited within Poland to date, Torun was our favorite despite the colorful characters roaming around. It's located in the northern portion of Poland on the banks of the wide Vistula river. It's one of the few fortunate cities in Poland that was barely touched by W.W.II bombs. Consequently the old parts of the city are a charm. It's center consists of 2 sections, the old and new towns, which were originally separated by 2 walls and a moat. When the population outgrew the size of the old town the extra souls took up residence just outside the wall to the east. They built their own town square, had their own town hall that was replaced with a church after it burned down, and even were surrounded by their own defensive wall. They were not exactly given equal status. The council of the old town arranged the new town charter such that they had almost no river access which meant all goods shipped to or from the city had to go through old town. Even when a third town sprung up across the river at a convenient crossing point the old town council arranged to have it moved away. Talk about monopoly. Today the old and new towns are both surrounded by a modern city of multistory, and ugly, apartment buildings. But the core of the city retains its old world charm.
Crossing the bridge you can see much of the old wall and the many riverside gates still in existence, which is a great medieval introduction to the city. The rest of the wall, away from the river, has long since succumbed to the bulldozer. Downtown is the usual maze of narrow streets lined with many storied townhouses, a few large churches and cathedrals, and the large brick town hall smack in the middle of the market square. The wall and moat between old and new town has long since disappeared and now the streets of the shopping district run continuously between the two. It's a college town, home to the Copernicus University whose specialty happens to be, you guessed it, astronomy. Its streets are filled with young, highly educated people which gives the town a relaxed, aristocratic atmosphere. It's a delight to take a seat at one of the many outdoor umbrella covered cafe tables, sip on a cold brew, and watch the world pass by. Old Nicholas himself, or at least a statue of him holding the solar system in his right hand, watches over the crowd.
There is a museum dedicated to the astronomer, located in the house he was born in 1473. It includes several old astronomy books some of which were written by Copernicus, a few replicas of astronomical measuring devices, and a lot of paintings of Copernicus and some of his peers, such as Keplar. He traveled a lot during his life. He was educated in Wroclaw, and then in Spain, and then he went to Italy. Later he went on to Fromburk, Poland where he did most of his work, and finally he spend a little time in Sweden and Switzerland. Some of his journeys looked as though he was trying to get triangulation measurements as they are far flung and for only a short period of time. He finally passed away at the ripe old age of 70 leaving his name to be remembered forever in the pages of history. There are not too many people who have altered the perception man has of his universe so profoundly as Copernicus.
One other item of particular interest were the old pencil sketch drawings of the telescope devices used by the astronomers. They had a pretty good grasp of optics by this time. However, the ability to produce large lenses and mirrors with good refracting and reflecting properties was pretty limited. So rather than build telescopes with huge diameter, they just built them long; very, very long. In fact several of the old sketches show the astronomers had erected a tower some 30 ft high or more. From this tower they draped ropes that were used to support these enormously long telescopes. They used a wide variety of other larger than life instruments for measuring angles of inclination, relative angles, and other properties of the stars and planets. Astronomy in those days could certainly have entailed a lot of cumbersome lugging of equipment.
We found the internet cafes to be a good place to meet people who speak English. Torun, being a college town, has at least 4 cyber cafes and prices seem to be amazingly cheap, 4 zl or $1 USD per 1/2 hr. So we took the opportunity to work on our web site. It was while we were working that we met Philip, a young Polish student who is employed by the cafe. He was assisting us in reading the polish words on the instructions that appeared while we installed the Imagemate software. Which one of these words is 'Edit'? Philip had a lot of stories from before and just after the collapse of the USSR. "There's a town," he said, "that was not on any map. I know, because I saw it. Just after the Soviets left I went through there, in 1994." "Military installation?", I asked. "It had barracks. It was full of barracks. After the Soviets left it looked like a field of war. There were maybe 2000 people living there and they had only 1 or 2 stores. All the windows were broken and there was a lot of garbage everywhere.", Philip said. I recall hearing that there were quite a few towns in the USSR that were never on any maps until now. Maybe some still aren't.
Philip also recalled a year when he participated in a student exchange program with Austria. He told of how one Austrian was so concerned he would not be able to find Coke in Poland that he brought some 400 cans with him. He quickly discovered that not only did Poland have Coke, but they also had some amazingly cheap prices on music tapes. He loaded up. But Philip did say that before the fall imported goods, such as bananas and citrus fruits, were difficult to find. They were readily found in Russia but at extremely high prices. He did say that my description of the military border guard toting the machine gun was actually quite accurate, for Russia before the fall that is. So my imagination isn't that far off after all.
It was tough to leave Torun. We'd grown to like the city. But after 4 days rest we really did need to push onwards. We struck out once again headed to the northeast along one of those awful red roads into a day filled with rain and drizzle. With trucks whizzing by constantly it was not a pleasant ride. But with all the rivers in the lowlands there just weren't too many other options going in the direction we wished to go. Roads on our map that appeared to be headed our way suddenly disappeared or turned into what our map called "footpaths". At a scale of 1:300,000 we did not trust our maps enough to be willing to follow along a footpath. So we spent one miserable day along that red road.
Pushing past one of the many bus stops there was a nice, large car parked by the side of the road. It's trunk was open and one man and two women were standing beside it. They all wore the dress of gypsies. As I passed the man held something in his hand and started yelling at me. Out of curiosity I stopped. He placed what was maybe a gold ring on my handle bar bag, stood back, clasp his hands in a begging mode, and started asking for money in Polish. He then tried German and when I finally said something he switched to English. "Please, money, Kosovo, Albanians, money, Kosovo, Albanians." He went on and on and on. Try as I might I couldn't get him to take back the ring. I finally put it on the ground and rode on. In the first place they looked like gypsies, not Kosovars, and they certainly looked like some pretty well dressed and fed refugees. I wasn't about to give them any money. However, I found it rather interesting that they are now using the Kosovo mess to their advantage in this way.
So if you were a Pole and wanted to take a summer vacation where would you go? The ocean, maybe. The mountains, if the weather is good. Or how about the great Mazurian lake region, now you're talking. So when in Poland you do as the Poles do and head for the lakes. Way up in the northeast corner of the country is a land of gently rolling hills sculpted by the last glacier some 12,000 years ago. It's filled with forests, farms, and thousands of lakes and ponds that fill every small dip left behind by the retreating ice. The largest is Jez Sniardwy and it is interconnected to hundreds of the smaller lakes through a system of canals and rivers. Sailing is the biggest attraction with kayaking running a close second. We pulled into the most southern of the tourist support towns, Ruciane-Nida, and made plans for a few days pretending we were Polish at play. In other words, we did almost nothing. We sat on our tree shaded campsite and watched boats float by all day. Our soul activity was to take the boat ride up the lake to the next town, Mikolajki, and then ride the easy 25 km back. The lakes were filled with small sail boats, an amazing number of which were wooden not fiberglass. They skidded back and forth across the choppy water seeming to just barely miss each other. It reminded me of a regatta out on Cazenovia lake in my hometown in mid summer. Except these were mostly rented boats so I had to wonder how often they actually do collide.
The boat ride itself was rather unique. As it passed through one lock an alarm sounded. Suddenly the roof started moving. It was mounted on pedestals that pivoted backward to lower it just enough to go under the short bridge ahead. The roof of the captain's bridge also lowered. I've never seen anything quite like it. A little further on we headed in for an intermediate stop. But as we approached the sister ship of ours slipped into the dock before us. The captain just kept heading forward. "We're gonna hit" I was positive. Out came the deck hand with a rope bumper. They briefly tied the boats side by side and passengers were compelled to leave our boat, pass through the other, and then finally reach the dock. There's no way, absolutely no way any commercially run tour, transport, or ferry boat in the US would ever do such a passenger load/unload. Risk for law suits would be too great.
"Can we watch your bikes?" the young boy asked. He was urged on by his father, a short somewhat pot bellied, blond man dressed in one of those scanty swimsuits so popular in Europe. He was a police officer from near Torun here on holiday with his wife and three sons. Having been a bike racer when younger he was quite interested in our trailers. He was one of the few Polish people we'd met who were genuinely interested and did more than just simply stare. Before too long he had out his video camera to take pictures. He wanted to try building a trailer of his own someday. After that we were invited to tea and cookies, an offer too good to refuse.
A truly nice family, we learned quite aa bit from the Palomkas. Thei middle son, Marnic, is a farmer and happened to have spent a full year in the US as part of a Future Farmers of America exchange program. He was learning different techniques for milking cows, so he said. Once his US visa ran out he went off to Sweden to do the same. But, he's still hoping to return to the US someday. We actually concluded that he's more likely using the FFA connection to feed his desire to travel. We wanted to know what was the biggest difference they've noted since the fall of the USSR. The answer, technology. Phones, cars, computers, everything we associate with the 20th century. I suspect these are just the more noticeable things. The changes go way beyond, such as being able to speak out against the government and the variety and quality in the grocery stores.
It was just a couple more days ride past more of the same type of Polish farms and small Polish towns to the Lithuania border. The border from hell as our Lonely Planet guide book seemed to say. It seems the border guards are still stuck in the stamp happy, stone faced, not give em any slack mode they've had for decades. Waits in a car can be a couple hours long. Heaven forbid if you're a truck driver. On some days the wait can get up to a couple of days. On bikes, we simply cruised past the 2 km long line of trucks, snuck up to the front of the line and waited our turn.. We took only about 1/2 hour. But we could see why it's such a long wait. There were no less than five gates to pass extending over a distance of at least 1 to 2 km. The first seemed to be simply a traffic cop. He radioed ahead to determine which group of cars could go. A long line of new and empty city buses got high priority. About 1/2 km down the road was a gate to check out of Poland. Passports stamped we went on to the next gate, the first for Lithuania. Passports were stamped and we were given a stamped and signed receipt. Another 1/2 km our receipt and passports were stamped again. Finally another 1/2 km on we turned in our receipts and were on our way. It's an amazingly inefficient bureaucratic bunch of nonsense. And we understand going the other way is even worse. In fact just a bit further down the road we sat at a not-yet-open gas station for several hours waiting for a downpour to pass. During this time we watched the same truck with the same driver sit in the exact same place for as many hours. It wasn't bad on a bike, but I'd hate to be a trucker.
Differences from Poland were immediately apparent. First, the people were more friendly. In the very first town small children waved as we passed and people were much more helpful. We even found much more English even in some of the most surprising places. The houses were smaller and made of wood. They were small boxes with steep metal roofs reminding us much of what we see in the mid west. People seemed poorer, roads not as good especially the secondary ones, farms not as advanced, baby Fiats are replaced with a hodge podge of Soviet and western cars, and those ever present horribly ugly Soviet style block apartment buildings are even uglier and more run down. Subtle differences that clearly indicated we were in a different country.
Soda in hand, Brian returned from a trip to one of those tiny mini-markets we find in each and every town. "She had an abacus." he declared. "There was a cash register but next to it she had an actual abacus." As we continued on and shopped in more markets we found not only did an abacus accompany each cash register, but they actually used them. The lady in the store weighs the apples, shoves a few beads over, and then looks up expectantly. We just stare, befuddled. We have absolutely no idea how an abacus works. It's not exactly something one studies in school these days. We fork over a few of our lati notes, she moves beads back and forth, hands us change, and makes it clear we're supposed to agree with the number she's counted out on that ancient calculator. Yet, the cash registers are new and obviously can do these exact same calculations. Do the locals not trust modern electronics?
Come to Lithuania and you just might find yourself the winner of the Roo Sheshi Shesh contest. That's Rt. 66 for those of you not fluent in Lithuanian. Evidently Rt. 66 has quite a cult following throughout Europe. But the association seems to be more related to motorcycles and the annual Sturgis event than the true reality of the road. There's a cigarette named Rt. 66 that sports an incorrectly colored red and blue Rt. 66 interstate sign. Catch the right 15 minutes on the TV and you'll see a leather clad couple ride on stage on a big chopper, oversized Rt. 66 cigarette box in hand carefully held to face the camera. As the lady gives a description of that famous US road leading from Chicago to Los Angeles, video clips of motorcyclists who are obviously at the Sturgis meet show in the background. Eventually a beer bellied man in a yellow shirt shuffles in from stage left. He draws a name from the cigarette box and voila, you've won. What you've won we have no idea. As we watched this exhibition, mouths dropped open in surprise, we had to wonder if people here know that the majority of Rt. 66 no longer exists and that the association with motorcycles is basic fiction. Probably not. Why spoil the cult.
Located in the north central region of Lithuania, just 40 km from the Latvian border, lies the town of Siauliai, pronounced like chalet except the a has the ow sound of cow. The town itself is uninteresting. Most buildings are from the Soviet concrete era and all are downright ugly. It truly is amazing just how many horrendously ugly buildings the Soviets left behind. Imagine being a Soviet architect. You study all the fabulous creations by some of the greatest and the only thing you get to design and build are these awful concrete blocks. Not exactly inspirational work. Yet, just north of the town is one of the most pervasive shows of resistance against all occupying institutions of Lithuania. It's called the "hill of crosses" which is a perfect description. We happened to pass by it on a Sunday, which meant a much larger visitation than normal as a televised mass was being held. So without getting engulfed in the congregation we stood to one side to get a glimpse. It's not large hill. Just a lump, more of an oversized ant hill. But it literally bristles with crosses. Thousands upon thousands of crosses. The collection actually began sometime in the 15th century when the locals started placing crosses on the hillside to memorialize people killed by the occupying Russians. Over the years the collection grew and grew surpassing the space on the hill and spreading into the surrounding fields. Even being bulldozed on three separation occasions during the Soviet occupation did not stop the collection from resprouting. Today it's a site of pilgrimage. Come and plant your own cross, if you can find a spot that is.
It's Sunday, must be Latvia. The Baltic states, consisting of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the triangular sliver of Russian land known as the Kalingrad region, are tiny countries strung out along the Baltic Sea going almost as far north as St. Petersburg in Russia. They all lie within the extremely flat north European plain. The highest point in all three is only some 1000 ft or so. The fertile soil, flat terrain, and temperate climate make for ideal farm lands. Consequently, this area has been the subject of hot contests since it was first populated. The history of the region reads like a complicated, almost impossible to understand book of who's who. It began sometime around 2000 BC or so when tribes migrated into the area. Prior to the arrival of the Christians, who completely changed the make-up of the political landscape, the population was controlled by some 13 different tribes whose names still dot the map such as the Zemgales. Once the Christians showed up the states were more or less combined to create much larger political regions. But, battles for dominance continued. There was struggle between the church, Knights of the Sword (forerunners of the Teutonic knights), and the city government. In the town of Sigulda, for example, there are two old castles built within sight of each other. One built by the knights and the other by the church. They were keeping an eye on each other. Domination also swayed back and forth between the Swedes, Germans, Russians, Prussians, Austrians, Polish, and even the French got in the act. In the midst of all this the descendents of those original tribes were brutally enslaved, exiled, tortured, assimilated, or murdered. It's a wonder the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian culture and languages managed to survive at all. Yet, with the freedom gained in 1991, they seem to be exerting a strong nationalism that may last, for a while at least. I'd be willing to bet there'll be more shifts in the borders and more struggles for domination in the future.
After their "15 minutes of fame" back in the late 80s and early 90s the three newly independent Baltic states set about the difficult, oft painful, and not exactly news noteworthy process of throwing off the old Soviet trappings and adopting the new market based economy reforms. Despite being so similarly linked in their histories, each country has an individual personality and each took a different approach. Estonia has a more organized, straight forward attitude. They adopted the most liberal economic policies and were the fastest of the three to see the benefits of their reforms. They converted their currency from the Russian rouble to their own Krona, called the EEK, overnight with no muss, no fuss; illegally selling their leftover roubles to the Chechnya region in the process. Lithuania, being the more disorganized yet more outgoing group, has had a much slower start. It took several tries to get their currency out due to several banking scandals. Latvia is somewhere in the middle just as the country is geographically in the middle. They issued their Latvian rouble as an interim currency and then replaced it with the Lati later. Unfortunately banking scandals also wiped out much of their economic gains as well. Banks played a little to fast and loose with investors money.
As we rode through the three countries we could see the differences. Lithuania clearly is behind the other two in it's economic development as well as in it's establishment of tourist facilities. Hotels exist only in the main cities and in the coastal resort towns. Campgrounds are almost nonexistent. There's far less construction and renovation. We were told that even the main highway construction from the Polish border to Kaunas had gone on for over 2 years now and was still a long way from being completed. I suppose its more protectionist approach to its market is slowing its progress. In Latvia, at least in the main city of Riga and the tourist resort town of Jurmala, construction was everywhere. From facade renovation to even new sewer lines in Riga's old town constructions crews were hard at work. We look forward to Estonia, known as the miracle of the Baltics.
If you look at a globe and compare the latitude of Riga with the same latitude in North America it is surprising to see that it is about as far north as Whitehorse in the Yukon of Canada or Juno, Alaska. Yet the feel is so different. When we rode through the Yukon we were out in a vast wilderness. Bears and moose roam wild and the largest cities boast only some 20,000 people. Forests range for thousands of miles, rivers run untamed, and there are glaciers caressing all the high mountains. It's often 40 to 50 miles between cities, towns exist only on the few roads, and only the major roads are paved. You really truly feel that you are alone. The Baltics, on the other hand, are far more civilized. Towns of a reasonable size, roads both dirt and paved, stores, hotels, are all fairly common. Farmers plow the fields and forests are much smaller in size. Yes the population is much less dense than the more southern countries. But, there's simply not that "get away from it all" feeling you have in the Yukon. The weather also seems more summery, warmer, milder. But that is probably more due to the lack of high mountains than its northerly location. I'm sure come late August the cold winds of the north will make themselves known. There are no glaciers, no icy cold rivers in July, and even the bay of Riga gets up to a whopping 60 degrees F in summer. In short, we just did not feel that we were nearly as far north as we really were. I suppose you'd have to go well beyond St. Petersburg to finally "get away".
Laundry. Oh how wonderful a sight is so simple a thing as a laundromat. For some strange reason the idea of creating a public laundromat has evaded the mindset of the Polish entrepreneur. In Prague, Riga, Tallin, and other major cities of the central and east European countries launderettes started springing up as soon and the wall came down. Not in Poland. There are a few places where you can take your dirty clothes to be cleaned by some industrious woman, you may get them back in a few days if you're lucky. But, western style self service laundries are nowhere to be found. By the time we got to Riga it had been a full 4 weeks since we'd last seen a laundry. Rinsing and washing sweaty clothes in a bathroom sink do a somewhat OK job for a while. But there's nothing quite like a good washing machine wash. One of our first tasks, once we reached Riga, was to track down that laundromat and clean everything, absolutely everything. Oh how spoiled we Americans are.
What to do in Riga, besides getting clothes washed. First there's the old town. It's not particularly large, but has some very nice buildings that can be compared in style to some in Prague. The city tries to say it's just like Prague, only on a much smaller scale. We did note that it's much cleaner than Prague, has much less graffiti problems, and just didn't seem quite so menacing. The buildings are not coated with that black, gummy looking tar that is so common in Prague and the poor suburbs don't extend outward quite so far. But a Prague, I don't think so.
We really enjoyed the central market. No less than five huge Quonset shaped buildings originally intended to house zeppelins have been converted into the city's main market. The outside of each appears to have been extremely well maintained, all look recently painted or restuccoed. The large windows are all intact, there are no gaping holes or that crumbling appearance we've so often seen in central markets. The inside of the buildings houses fruit, bakery, meat, fish, and dairy stands, one building for each specialty. It's surprisingly neat, clean, and well ordered. Eggs are carefully stacked into pyramids based on size and color, veges all carefully arranged in neat piles and bundles, meat and fish ordered into rows in clean refrigerated cabinets. People calmly wander between the aisles, browsing, pinching, and picking goodies to take home. The basic concept is the same as those markets we saw in Guatemala and Mexico, but the difference in order and cleanliness and a feeling that is not quite so chaotic is unfathomable. Supermarkets of the US may have variety and cleanliness and be fast and efficient. But, they've turned shopping from an experience into a dreaded chore. The fun of shopping has long since disappeared.
In downtown Riga is one of the more interesting museums we've found in the Baltics, the occupation museum. It chronicles the 50 or so years from before W.W.II to 1989 during which Latvia and the rest of the Baltics were held under the rule of either the Germans or the Russians. With painful details it describes all the atrocities committed by both parties. Mass murders, deportations to Siberia, concentration camps, horrific living conditions, you name it. The story in the museum begins around the time of the infamous August 23, 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviets. In this agreement the Germans and Soviets divided central and east Europe between themselves, never mind what the people of the various until then independent countries happened to think. The Soviets got all of the Baltics and by 1940 had moved in to take control. During this time somewhere between 11 and 60 K Estonians, 45 K Lithuanians, and 35 K Latvians were deported, fled, sent to Siberia, or killed. The museum shows details of the horrid fate of those who were sent to Siberia. Beginning June 14, 1941 they were unceremoniously waken from sleep, given 1/2 hour to prepare, and then herded to previously prepared cattle cars to begin the long journey. Packed in like sardines, given barely enough food, and having only a stinking metal barrel (1/2 an oil barrel) to use as a toilet; they spent over two months in transit to their destination. The situation was no better in the camps. The same stinking barrel followed them into their barracks where they were forced to sleep practically one atop the other on wooden planks two layers high. Space was so cramped they all had to turn over in unison. If you dared to get up to go to the toilet you lost your place. So most just went in place. So many people sent to the camps never came back. If you ride the train from Jurmala into Riga at one of the stops along the way you can see one of those old wooden cattle car box cars carefully preserved in memory of those many lost souls.
As we now know Hitler was quite good at signing agreements he never intended to keep. So it was with his Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In 1941 he invaded and reoccupied the Baltics. Even as German soldiers were setting foot on Baltic soil the Soviets continued gathering and deporting Baltic natives. Ironically most of the Baltic peoples viewed the Germans as liberators and actually welcomed them with open arms. They enlisted in the German army and some even participated in the Jewish extermination that was to follow. It took a while for the true nature of the German occupation to be understood. An enormous number of Jews were wiped out between 1941 and Germany's surrender in 1945. For example, of the estimated 90K Jews living in Latvia before the war, only 200 remained at the end. Some had fled most were killed. The countries also lost people due to the war itself. They were volunteered, read that as conscripted, into both the German or Red armies. Add to that the civilian casualties and you have huge numbers of dead. Estonia lost some 200K, Latvia 450K and Lithuania 475K.
Following the war the Soviets once again muscled their way into ruling the Baltics by infiltrating the political system and rigging elections towards the communist party. Once entrenched in power they resumed their regime of murder and deportation. All the while they sent in Russians to fill the population void. Amazingly this policy continued right up until 1983 when the last of the deportations took place. So now particularly in the countries of Latvia and Estonia the ethnic natives of each are just barely a majority and the Russians represent a huge minority. The largest cities, Tallinn and Riga, are primarily occupied by Russians. With these facts it's not so difficult to see why the Baltic natives do not like Russians and tend to be rather prejudiced toward them. But one does have to ask the question, does "two wrongs make a right?" However, the Russians don't help their case y not even trying to learn the national language.
The museum includes photos, documents, and memorabilia from these dark days. Yet we are quick to be reminded that they are not so long ago and how easily they can return. Independence is just 10 years old for these countries and doesn't recent events in Kosovo seem terribly familiar?
Just to the north of Riga is a very well developed Ethnographic museum. Begun in 1928 it was originally intended to include one farmstead from each of Latvia's 4 ethnographic regions; Latgale, Zemgale, Kurzeme, and Vidzeme. It has since mushroomed into a museum of more than 114 buildings and 85,000 artifacts including 4 windmills, an inn, several churches, as well as houses, barns, bath houses, and chicken coops. It was well worth the 2 lati, $3.40 USD.
Particularly interesting and unique was the layout of a typical house. Baltic houses of the 1800s were completely unlike anything we see in the US pioneering museums. Typical US houses reflected the tastes and styles of the peoples who settled a particular region and there were not a whole heck of a lot of Latvians, Lithuanians, or Estonians pioneering in the American west. To build a Latvian house you start with a large adobe, brick, or tiled oven. In most cases it is positioned right in the middle of the very large house and often is part of an adobe room that becomes the kitchen. To one side of the oven are 2 or 3 bedrooms having a lowered ceiling, occasionally a wood floor, and one wall which is part of the oven. The oven wall keeps the rooms warm in winter. The rest of the area within the house surrounding the oven seems to be work space. It has a dirt floor, no ceiling just roof and rafters, and is filled with all sorts of tools and implements used for daily living. Basically the houses tell the tale of a society that spends long winter months indoors so they created a large, indoor working area for this lifestyle. Yet these house have the same concept as the large wood houses used by the North American Indians along the northwest coast. Design details differ but the concept of a large enclosed space with a heat source in the center is the same.
One thing we've found throughout our journies is that learning to use the different styles of toilet can be an adventure in and of itself. Quality, quantity, and cleanliness all vary to enormous degrees. In Japan we usually found absolutely spotless toilets in the gas stations, so clean you could eat off the floor. In Yugoslavia the ceramic squat toilets are so energetic they flush not only the bowl but the floor and, if you're not quick enough, your feet as well. We called these the "flush and run" toilets. In the Yucatan they have US style toilet bowls but no toilet seat. You weren't expected to sit down. Throughout the world one can always find some form of latrine, vault toilet as well. They can be a homemade wooden outhouse style or one of those prefabricated fiberglass porta johns. They can be really clean or filthy, but no matter what they almost always stink. I've seen some that are so bad I've chosen to pee in the bushes rather than endure the latrine. Yet I think the country of Latvia has taken the latrine to a new low. Their version consists of no more than a cement floor covering the pit. The floor has a 6 inch round hole with two cement blocks on either side. You're supposed to stand on the two blocks, squat, and aim at the hole. Needless to say the hole is often missed and the output winds up on the floor surrounding the hole. I tried a couple of these and then decided to head for the woods instead.
We were all set to leave Riga. We'd seen everything we wished, cleaned our clothes, and even spent time just goofing off. The trailers were packed, we'd had a quick breakfast, and were rolling out of the campground eager to get an early start on what would be a long ride to get around the city. Brian, in front, was gliding slowly down the flat Jurmala road while I took my usual position a couple bike lengths behind. Suddenly, just as Brian was passing, a man in a new red Ford car shoved open the door. Brian swerved, the bike just barely missed the door, but the trailer caught it right on the edge. There was a bang as it hit and Brian was soon tumbling on the ground. I was off my bike in a shot to see if he was OK and to get him and the bike out of the road as quickly as possible. The man in the Ford jumped out and checked his door. He never did ask to see if Brian was hurt, he was just concerned about his door. And what a mess it was. The trailer had caught the door right on the edge where there is just two layers of thin sheet metal. It had no trouble bending that back. In addition, the door hinges were bent and the door wouldn't closed. The Ford man was not happy, which I can understand. However, he proceeded to insist that the entire incident was Brian's fault, which made no sense at all. He had opened the door into oncoming traffic and hadn't bothered to make sure nothing was coming. It didn't matter whether or not that traffic happened to be a bicycle.
We just wanted to pick ourselves up and go on our way as we did not know how good, bad, quick, or slow the Latvian justice system was and we were not anxious to find out. But the other guy was insistent upon calling the police and to run would have been foolish. So we agreed to wait. Next came a most amazing turn of events. This guy, of course, was convinced we would end up having to pay for repairing his car and perhaps he even thought we'd end up ticketed and fined for some strange traffic violation. This explained why he was so anxious to bring in the police and why he proceeded to spout his side of the story to each and every passerby. After I had calmed Brian down, who was rather upset following his fall, we just leaned against the nearby wall, watched the man's antics, and wondered what would happen next.
Within about 15 minutes up pulled a brown van with 4 what we believe were plain clothes police. At least one of them flashed a badge and they all seemed to act as if they had some sort of authority. They looked at the Ford's ruined door, then at Brian's bike, which besides a broken mirror hadn't a single scratch, and listened to the man's story. We just tried to mime our side which may or may not have been understood. All four laughed, shook their heads, explained something to the Ford man, and told us to wait for the "police bus." "Oh great." we thought, "They're going to cart us off to the police station where we'll have to appear before a judge, put up a big bond, or something even worse." Another 10 minutes or so passed and up pulled this tiny, very old fashioned little station wagon-cum-police car. It even had the old gumball style blue police light on top. Out climbed a thick set police man with red hair and a thick bushy moustache. He carried himself like a man who's seen it all. It would take a lot to ruffle this man's feathers. He walked over to look at the ruined door, all while the Ford owner babbles on about what happened. One look, he guffaws once and shakes his head. He comes over to inspect the bike and Brian once again mimes what happened. With that he got on the radio to call something into headquarters and then headed over to his car to get papers for a report. The Ford owner was required to make out his own report. We think the policeman made out ours. After all, if we'd written it it would have been in English and would have been totally useless to them. Besides, he seemed to have a pretty good idea of what happened.
One more trip to his car to radio in to headquarters and then he walked over to have a nice chat with the car owner. It was then that all our worries began to fade. We could tell by his hand gestures that he was explaining to the man that you simply cannot open a door into oncoming traffic without checking first. If you get hit, even if it's by a bike, it's your own fault. The cop hands the car owner a piece of paper, it looks like a ticket. Another cop car soon arrives bearing the supervisor who happens to speak a little English. As he is talking to the first cop the Ford owner nearly backs his car right into the newly arrived police car. Driver of the year award for this one. The Ford driver finally gets his act together and leaves. Meanwhile ehe supervisor explains to us, the car owner has been given a ticket and has to pay a fine, a fairly good sized fine. We own nothing and are free to go. Yeah. We did not have to be persuaded. So in the end the man who thought he'd get us to pay for his car repairs wound up not only getting stuck with that bill but also got a ticket and fine in the process. So much for insisting on calling the cops. Brian went away with a bruised and swollen arm and one broken mirror. For the rest of the day we couldn't help but chuckle. How often does it happen in a bike/car collision that the car winds up with far more damage than the bike or the bike rider? Imagine trying to explain that to your insurance company. You see a totally ruined door hanging askew on its hinges and you're told it was hit by a bike. Now imagine you're told there wasn't a scratch on the bike.
The Via Baltica, a main road linking Tallinn in Estonia to Poland, now spends about 115 km along the coast of the shallow waters of the Bay of Riga. It's a low lying land filled with sandy soil and lots of pine trees. There are few farms, widely spaced small towns, and not a lot of population. Still, it is more crowded than the equivalent Whitehorse region in the Yukon whose latitude it nearly shares. We had expected to see ocean views for mile upon mile and were quite disappointed when we only received a few short glimpses of water. It was sort of like riding along the west coast of the Olympic peninsula in Washington where you spend mile after mile riding between even height pine trees. Not a lot of scenery and not even interesting small towns. It was flat, which I guess some bike tourists would love, but we do prefer something more interesting.
At the top of Riga Bay lies the small beach city of Parnu. It's just the right size to have great grocery and other facilities yet small enough to not be overwhelming. A great place to relax and let Brian's arm heal for a bit. We spent one day doing the town tour, which took all of about 2 hours, then sat around in cafes or on park benches to people watch. There's a distinct influence of the Scandinavian seen in the people of Parnu. I couldn't begin to count the number of tow head, super light blond, little boys and girls we saw not to mention adults who were not bottle bleach blondes either. People tend to be fairly tall, quite thin when young before the effects of a fat and beer rich diet catch up, and quite handsome in features. Just what you expect from Scandinavian peoples. We are reminded that the Estonians are closely related to the Finnish and the Swedes did once occupy the region leaving their mark behind. Much to Brian's delight the women often wore skirts, so short that if the winds picks up the hem just right you can get a good view of well rounded cheeks. I concluded that the women look better than the men. Perhaps it's just the influence of good cosmetics.
Once we left Parnu we headed across the mainland of Estonia toward the two large islands on its west side. Estonia has a total area of only around 45,200 sq. km and a full 10% of that is made up of over 1500 islands along its coast. Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, and Muhu, the three largest, are easily accessible by ferry and have become tourist destinations for many Finnish looking for a place for a cheap vacation. Yet it's hard to believe that until the Soviets left, the islands were off limits to all foreign visitors. In fact, even native Estonians needed a special permit to visit. This was due to the large Soviet military bases and outposts on the islands. Remnants of the old bases remain; guard towers here, old barracks there, and concrete pill-boxes everywhere. Soldiers spent many an hour standing watch, waiting for the NATO attack that never came, or was it more to keep people from escaping to Finland. Now that the Soviets are gone the islands are only sparsely populated by people who have a culture and history that is different from the rest of Estonia. Even their dialect used to be different. There are small farms, very small towns, and lots of woods. Tourists have now replaced the soldiers, which are far more welcomed.
Remains of hundreds of old wooden windmills are found throughout the islands. On the mainland the landlord usually had the one windmill for the community and the peasants from all his feudally owned lands brought their grain to him. He extracted a good fee for his grinding service. But on the islands the mills were owned by individual farmers or two or three farmers joined in a cooperative arrangement. Thus the proliferation of so many. At its Saaremaa had a grand total of 844 working mills. Windmills came in two basic styles; pole and Dutch. In the pole style a large wooden post is balanced upright by a wooden frame and rocks. The windmill building is built on top of the pole in such a manner that the entire building can be rotated into the wind. In the Dutch variety just the top of the building, where the wind vanes are held, rotates. Having less weight to rotate, the Dutch kind could have much larger sails and could be far more powerful. Often these would power 2 stone wheels rather than one. Eventually the windmills gave way to modern mechanization and the last commercially run mill closed in 1970. There is, however, one windmill, rebuilt in 1980, that today grinds wheat into flour all summer long from Wednesday to Sunday.
The feudal concept of ownershp is rather like the slavery of the old south U.S. As in the south the landlord owns not only the land but the peasants as well. There doesn't seem to be talk about buying, selling, or auctions of the peasant people. But, their movements were restricted and they worked for the landlord for free. At one point there was even a law stating that when a peasant married the bride was required to spend her first night with the landlord. Some landlords were abusive and others were relatively kind, just as the US slave holders. The Estonian peasants did not receive freedom until the year 1861, the same time during which the US was fighting its own civil war. So the US wasn't so unique after all.
On the south shore of Saaremaa stands the Bishop's Castle, the only extant castle of its kind remaining in the Baltics. If fulfills everyone's imagination of what a castle should look like. Not the fairytale, Disney version but the more realistic fortified stone building. It comes complete with a moat, stone walls, two big square towers up front, and one of those grated gates that slides down in front. The inside of the large stone central castle is filled with a maze of corridors, stairways, and rooms. You can spend hours getting lost, found, and then lost again. It'd be a dream come true for any child.
The current stone castle was built between 1338 and 1380 to be used as a base of operations for the bishop who ruled the region. At that time the densest population existed on what are now the Estonian islands and the west coast. Easier accessibility by boat I suppose. Over the years the castle changed hands many times and underwent several modernizations as the weapons of war progressed from bows and arrows through cannon. It finally wound up in the hands of the Russians in the 1860s who decided it was technically obsolete. Interestingly the same conclusion about fortified posts was reached in the US at same time. It was removed from the roles of Russian fortifications and given to a Saaremaa social organization called the Knighthood of Saaaremaa who still own it today The fact that it has always remained in the hands of some organization dedicated to its upkeep explains why it's in such good condition today.
A small, very small, ferry transported us across the short gap between the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa and we found ourselves in an even quieter more laid-back world. The total population of Hiiumaa is only about 15,000 so it's real easy to find yourself quiet secluded spots to camp, picnic, or ride the bikes. There's not much to see, not much to do. Island residents have done their best to highlight every possible item of even the smallest interest. There's Kopu lighthouse, reputed to be the third oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the world. They don't tell you which are numbers one and two. They give the history of each and every church and church ruins, point out the old wool mill that is still in operation, the mound of hand made stick crosses, and even piles of rocks one natural and the other manmade. That's about it. These are the highlights. But Hiiumaa is not an island you go to for attractions. You go to relax, enjoy flora and fauna, and just get away. Perhaps you'll learn an old folk legend or two.
"Long ago, there was an especially fierce storm and some of the locals were sitting in a small inn on the coast of Hiiumaa, drinking homemade beer and waiting for the weather to clear. One of them happened to look out the window and noticed that Kassari appeared to be floating away from Hiiumaa. At first he thought he had drunk a little too much beer but his friends also saw that the island was moving slowly away from Hiiumaa. The men hurried to the town of Käina and spread the word that Kassari was about to float away. The villagers quickly gathered several teams of oxen and drove them into the shallow bay that separated the two islands. Working quickly, they hitched the oxen to the island using big ropes tied to the biggest trees they could find. Then, with all the oxen and men pulling together they finally managed to pull the island back to its original position. They then firmly anchored the island in place with large stones. To confirm that Kassari was never to be separated from Hiiumaa they gave it the name "Kaas Saar" which means co-island. Even though the island hasn't moved for centuries, sometimes on stormy nights people in Käina who have been drinking too much homemade beer still raise the alarm that Kassari is once again floating off into the Baltic Sea."
We stood on a sandy spit on the island eyeing the possible campsites trying to decide whether to camp here or move on. The site had a great view of the water, short juniper trees, and even some grassy areas. It looked pretty ideal. As we debated up strolled a middle aged woman who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the scenery. She started talking to us in English, having guessed we'd speak it. She had thought we were from somewhere in Scandinavia and was surprised to learn we were from the US. We were even more surprised to learn that her husband was the Belgium ambassador to Finland. And as we stood up strode the ambassador himself, clad in a pair of swim trunks. He seemed to carry himself like a man used to a position of authority and use to carrying on casual conversations with Prime Ministers, Presidents, and possibly even kings and queens. And yet he seemed genuinely interested in our unique bike baggage arrangement. Turns out he occasionally rides as well. One of his first questions, a question that showed he knew something about the ins and outs of bike touring, "What do you do for laundry?"
We'd spent about much time on the quiet islands as we desired. Definitly relaxing, but it was time for a bit more excitement. On to Tallinn, our most northern destination for the summer.
Appendix A - Route
July 1, (80.50 km) Witaszyce to Ksiazeca, Tarce, Luszczanow, Lisew, Zerkow, Raszewy, Przybyslaw, Paruchow, Komorze, Ruda Komorska, Borowiec, Pyzdry, Borzykowo, Kolaczkowo, Nw. Weis Krolewska, Kaczanowo, Wrzesnia. Terrain, flat through woods and past farm lands.
July 16, (50.27 km) Kazlu Ruda, Pazerai, Garliava, Kaunas. Flat terrain
July 18, (99.96 km) from Siauliai up Rt A8 to Jelgava, Flat as a pancake
July 28, Rt E67 to Kabli : July 29, (54.1 km) Rt E67 to Parnu
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
July 1&2, Wrzesnia camping cabin : July 3, Wilczyn
July 15, Gas station/truck stop Sasnava
July 18, Motel Akvus in Jelgava
July 28, Leeme Camping, Kabli
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.