Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania
I really wanted to like Riga, Latvia. From what I’d read, it seemed like the type of city I might enjoy: coastal, busy, huge market. The city itself had a lot going for it, but on first impression, it felt industrial, unwelcoming, and kind of dirty. You know, like a big city. Once we got our bearings and decided which direction we were going, we ran into a pretty big problem. Mentioning this may start to sound like a theme, but these were the worst roads we’d seen. The conditions were fine, if you’re a car. As a pedestrian, however, to cross the busy streets, you must go down two sets of stairs under the street and back up on the other side of the intersection. Totally fine if you are walking, not so fine if you have luggage, and practically impossible if you have a loaded bicycle. It reminded me of when Joro and I struggled through the Paris metro with three huge suitcases, two computer bags, a large backpack and our purses. Both of these instances were nightmares.
After getting settled into our campground, we went back downtown for a look at Riga. There are many parks in the city and we enjoyed the various churches and monuments peppering the downtown. That night at our campground we were in good company with close to 10 other groups of cycle tourists. We talked to a few of them, most noteworthy was not a cyclist, but a young Japanese motorcyclist riding around the whole world.
The next morning we went back to the city center to walk around the market. There were rows upon rows of fresh produce at half the price of Helsinki’s market. We bought a few breakfast items and then found Kvass, a drink like beer but without the yeast. I didn’t like it (it reminded me of the bread we bought in Finland and ate for a few too many lunches) but Burke loved it. Kvass can be found in the Baltic countries, Russia, and other eastern European countries, although we’ve never seen it in Slovakia. Unfortunately, the rest of the market was kind of a bust. It was mostly china stuff and cheap clothing.
We stopped for one last snack in the park before heading out of the city, and then we rode out, hoping to make it to Lithuania before the end of the day. We didn’t. We got turned around in a suburb that could have passed for American and found ourselves on a little gravel road heading towards a couple houses in the woods. A large assertive man pulled his car over and through a series of grunts and gestures pointed us back to the road we wanted.
After readjusting our goals and realizing we weren’t going to make it to Lithuania, we decided on cycling to a little city and stopping there for the night. When we got there, we realized it was smaller than we expected and there was no camping or even a bed and breakfast to be found. The church seemed empty and the town was fairly void of hospitable gardeners to implore for suggestions, so without a plan, we did our grocery shopping. Just because we didn’t have a place to sleep didn’t mean we didn’t need to eat.
The town was small, so our bikes didn’t need complete supervision, but I decided to stay out of the store and guard them when I noticed two rough, elderly men give them the once over. As we packed food pannier, one of the men came out and tried to communicate his mutual love leather bike seats like Burke’s Brooks saddle. Burke showed him that it is very strong and very comfortable in hand and body motions before asking if he knew a place where we could sleep in our tent. He asked the other man he was with (who we recognized as a man sitting on a park bench reading a book as we rode into the city) and then motioned for us to follow him as he rode away on his rickety old bike. Teach me to think someone’s going to steal our stuff. Good thing Burke is so trusting.
We rode down a long street and into the driveway of a farm house with cows and storks and a couple of happy dogs. There was a boy a little younger than us working in the yard and the man who lead us there spoke to him, explaining what little he knew about our situation. The boy asked us, “You have tent? Okay you stay here.” We expressed our appreciation to the man and then the boy took us to the edge of his property, a lightly wooded area next to a pond.
We set up the tent, had dinner, and then locked our bikes so we could go for a swim. Except the key wouldn’t come out of the bike lock (Masterlock<-don’t buy it). It had been giving us trouble all along the trip, and we said we wouldn’t use it anymore after we got the key out. Burke tried really hard and was so strong that the key broke in the lock. We had a spare key with us, but we couldn’t get it in because half of the first one jammed it. Eventually we asked the boy for help and in doing so he spent much of the evening with us as we tried to tweeze the broken key out of the jaws of my lock. The boy’s name is Klaus, and he is a Latvian embodiment of Mose from the office. He told us he is 17, and his sister “is be in Australia.” During the course of the lock catastrophe I would also like to say that I was stung by a wasp three times. It was miserable. We also realized that the tree above our tent was home to a family of spiders, but I didn’t dare suggest we move it with the lock incident on our hands.
Finally, Burke fixed the lock! (Isn’t he wonderful?) We asked our new friend Klaus to go swimming with us and along the way, we asked him how he knew the man who brought us to his house. He said, “Hmm, I don’t know how you say it in English. He… he is be without a house.” So, I guess I was write that the man was homeless. We joked about how we were fortunate he didn’t take us to a nice place to sleep behind some dumpster or something, but truthfully there is a lesson in our experience.
The next morning we packed up and for the first time along the trip, Burke said, make sure you check your shoes for any bugs that might have crawled in. So I did before I put on my second shoe and out came a huge spider. Ick! It made me wonder what kind of bugs I had previously squished all along the trip. Fed up with the bugs, I was really ready to go. We said hello to Klaus’s grandmother (who spoke to us in Latvian for several minutes) and goodbye to Klaus and rode along towards Lithuania.
The next two days are a crazy, yet uneventful blur. We cycled so hard so many times to avoid some big storms, sometimes we made it, sometimes we didn’t. We had lunch in a bus stop on the Latvian side of the border while waiting for the storm to pass, only to leave and then decided to wait out the second part of the storm again on the Lithuanian side of the border. Without having accomplished much that day, we stayed the night in Birzai at a guesthouse.
Aside from roads getting worse, the other theme of our trip was that the further south we went, the fewer the people who knew English. A few friendly people did help us out though and oddly, they spoke Russian to us (the only foreign language they knew) and we even understood a bit of it because of the similarities to Slovak. The owner of the guesthouse didn’t speak English, but fortunately, his son did, who happened to be there because he ran of dentistry out of his parents basement. (<- You know you’re not in America when…)
The following morning we woke up and cycled to a city called Panevėžys. The route was so beautiful and although cars were impatient, there wasn’t much traffic along the way. The region we were cycling through was known for sink holes so we kept an eye out for them, but just saw beautiful pine trees instead. The other thing we saw was a ton of little frogs crossing the street. Although very apocalyptic, it was cute. We just peddled carefully not to scrunch them.
While cycling, I enjoyed serenading Burke from time to time and we both discovered independently that the name Lithuania fits perfectly into the song Lisztomania by Phoenix I made up suitable lyrics for much of the song pertaining to our bike trip.
The next morning we woke up and were on our way to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
All those misadventures will be funny someday soon. Are there Bike Tours of Europe Guides? Maybe you should write some.
You will certainly have a memorable collection of characters you’ve met. Mom will envy that.
It seems, from your chronicles, that most of the people you’ve met have been friendly and helpful. Not that they aren’t in the U.S., but I wonder if they seem more personable, less anonymous than here?
Lizzie and Burke,
It’s been great to hear about your amazing bicycle adventures! Belated congrats on your first wedding anniversary! I’m glad the two of you enjoyed it.
(And Lizzie, I liked the reference to second breakfast….