Snowflakes are falling gently outside covering the roof of the barn opposite. Inside, we are warm and cosy in the Wohnzimmer of a Bavarian farmhouse that we are helping to renovate. This is one step up from our tent, but far from luxurious. We are living in a building site with heating in only one room. We walk on duckboards in the corridor, cook outside under the barn, and wash up in big buckets in the old farmyard.
We are here working for Nadine and Dick on their dream home renovation project in exchange for food and accommodation. It’s a long way from our autumnal cycle touring days through the Baltic States and across Poland.
My back had eased off enough to enable us to cycle down to catch the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn. In fact, cycling has turned out to be remarkably good for my back as it stretches out the muscles. Sleeping in beds rather than on my camping mattress has been bad and each time has caused a relapse and excrutiating pain that makes moving very slow. Unfortunately, it took me a month to learn this!
Arriving in Tallinn prompted tears to well up in my eyes. For the first 25 years of my life, visiting Estonia and the other Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania was an impossible dream due to their occupation by the Soviet Union. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the sailing competitions were held in the bay just off Tallinn harbour. Now we were wheeling our bikes off the ferry and up the pier passing no soldiers, border controls or customs. Nothing to mark our entrance to this previously off limits state.
Estonia has had a varied and, at times, troubled history. It has been ruled by Russia, The Holy Roman Empire, Sweden (the power of the Swedish kingdom in the seventeenth century was a new discovery for us on our journey), Germany and the Soviet Union. Even Napoleon briefly held sway here at the start of the nineteenth century. Estonia eventually got it’s independence in 1920 and held on to it until the second world war when it was occupied by first the Soviet Union, then Germany, and finally the Soviet Union. This final occupation lasted until 1991, when Boris Yeltsin signed the treaty confirming its independence.
The Soviet Union, and its agricultural plans have had a long lasting effect on the countryside. It is derelict and empty with an aging population. Tallinn, on the other hand is a vibrant, youthful, go-getum city. It was here that Skype was created and Estonia is the first e-country with electonic identity cards that enable citizens to vote online.
The old quarter of the city is a fairytale medieval town surrounded by a solid, high, stone built city wall. It attracts thousands of foreign tourists each year, many arriving on luxury cruise ships and if you didn’t wander further afield in Estonia you would get a very biased view of the State.
Walking uphill from the ferry terminal we passed a large supermarket selling discounted alcohol. Many Finns take day trips to Estonia to buy cheap alcohol, much like people in southern England cross the Channel to France. We resisted temptation and made our way across town to the first hostel of our trip. It was called “Euphoria”. This name, along with its psychedelic logo, gave us some apprehension but the place turned out to be very welcoming, friendly and largely drug free.
We spent a day and a half exploring the old town. It survived the two world wars largely unscathed and during Soviet times, the citizens managed to get money from the Kremlin to renovate one of the city churches by turning it in to a museum of atheism! The city is easy to wander around on foot with narrow, cobbled lanes winding up and down between the old medieval market square and the small hill above where large, rich 18/19th century houses stand looking out over the wider city and the surrounding countryside. These houses are now used by the government and foreign embassies.
The medieval market square is surrounded by restaurants with students employed to go out, dressed as peasants, among the the tourists and encourage them to come and eat in their particular establishment. Being on a tight budget, we resisted their charms and instead headed to a new shopping centre complex and a massive supermarket. We were so overwhelmed by the choice of food available after two months of buying in small stores around Scandinavia that it took us almost an hour to decide what to buy for supper. We rejected the idea of trying bear meat, which we found canned in one of the refrigerated sections.
We left Tallinn on a dreich morning, finding our way through the maze of tramlines, past a section of the Berlin wall (the first of a few we saw across eastern Europe), and out through the very Soviet style suburbs. Here, the roads are wide and lined with square, utilitarian blocks of apartments. The grey of the buildings, the smog and the continuing drizzle contrasted sharply with the bright colours of the old town we had left behind.
Since joining the European Union, Estonia has embraced the Eurovelo routes and the Number 10, Baltic Sea route is very well signposted and follows quiet roads heading west out to two large Estonian islands, Hiiumaa and Saaremaa. The landscape is flat and a mixture of farmland and forest with the occasional village. The dilapidated and abandoned buildings give the place a rather creepy feeling and neither of us felt quite at ease. Not far from the ferry to Hiiumaa we came across a ruin of a Gothic mansion with a sad story.
An Estonian gentleman was courting a German lass back in the 19th century. She lived with her parents in a beautiful mansion and was reluctant to move hundreds of kilometres to live with her beloved. Finally, she relented and agreed to marry provided that her fiancé built an exact replica of her parents house for their home. He was clearly besotted, as he spent a lot of time and money building the new mansion and was close to completion when news reached him that his fiancée had become ill and died. Distraught, he went off to Moscow to get over his misfortune. Sadly, he too, got ill and died, but not before writing a will. In it, he asked that his body be transported back to the mansion and lie there for one night before his funeral. It was the only night he spent in the house. The house fell into disrepair, the roof fell in and stones were taken for other buildings. The Soviets built a military airbase next door that also now lies abandoned.
On our way through Estonia, we camped a lot on free campsites provided by the State Forest Department. These were all in stunning locations close to the coast with long stretches of white sandy beaches. There are fire pits, with logs provided during the summer season, and long drop toilets.
Being now mid September, we had most of the campsites to ourselves. Jerry delighted in going off scavenging for any logs still around and in creating a fire for us each evening. We’d wander off for walks along the beaches and paddle in the Baltic Sea before cooking our standard supper of pasta and sauce. One memorable evening, we listened to large cracks of thunder rolling their way northwards towards us up the Bay of Riga and watched a black sky creep steadily closer until we were engulfed in torrential rain.
We both spontaneously cowered when a particularly loud thunder clap erupted right above our heads.
My back continued to be sore, particularly off the bike. I hadn’t appreciated quite how much of loading and loading the bikes and pitching the tent involved bending down. Remembering the advice from our good friend Iona, a physiotherapist, when Jerry’s back had previously been sore, I kept moving as normally as possible. The ibuprofen tablets we had bought in Tallinn were helping and at least it wasn’t actually sore whilst I was cycling.
The day we crossed the border into Latvia was memorable for a number of reasons. It was the day after the thunderstorm and it was still raining lightly the next morning when we struck camp and cycled the last couple of kilometres to the border. Immediately the cycling conditions changed. The Latvians have created cycle paths, but seem to see no reason to make them cycleable. The one alongside the main road had been created by scraping the vegetation off the sandy soil beneath. The sand was 4 or 5 inches deep and impossible for us to even push our bikes through. We psyched ourselves up and rode down the main road with heavy trucks and cars roaring past. More than slightly alarming especially when vehicles coming in the opposite direction decided to overtake each other as they reached us. There is nothing quite like the feeling of impending doom when you look up and see an Audi coming towards you at 100kmph (60mph) with no space on the side of the road to escape.
The tourist information officer in Salacgriva was very friendly and helpful as we dripped onto the tiled floor and smelt of slowly, drying, damp cyclists who haven’t had a shower for a few days. She encouraged us to take a beautiful cycle path along coastal tracks through woods, past old fishermen’s huts and Latvia’s highest cliff to a pretty campsite on the coast.
It sounded wonderful and after a quick food and fuel restock we set off. After a short section on another main road we turned off down a track towards the coast. The rain had dried up and the going was pleasant as we wound our way through small communities of wooden houses that stretch along the coast. I stopped to pick up some windfall apples for supper and take in the vista through the trees across the flat open sea of the Bay of Riga towards the Russian state of Kaliningrad just over the horizon. A little further on we came across some rickety wooden steps leading down to the beach and we left our bikes to descend the 4-5 metres. Yes, these were the cliffs, not so very high. Orange sandstone, smoothly sculptured by wind and wave into elegant pockets and ridges.
Returning to our bikes we continued along the cycle trail. It went through a closed campsite and became a sand vehicle track. By cycling along the side, I could just about ride most of it. Jerry opted to walk and guarantee to stay upright. After passing through a farm, the track hardened up again and we made good progress for a kilometre or so. Then we were back to sand and both walking. The trail got narrower and covered with leaves, bright red fly agaric mushrooms grew along its edge and the boughs of the trees closed in overhead.
“This is not too bad”, I thought, “even if we have to push our bikes for a couple of kilometres or so”. My back was not enjoying the pushing but I could manage. A couple of hundred metres further on, with Jerry becoming increasingly grumpy with pushing his heavy bike (he was carrying more of the food to give my back a bit of an easier time), we came across a wooden fence built right across the path. A sign enthusiastically announced “And now a trail along the beach!” Some previous traveller had written in black marker pen across the map, more realistically, “F***!”. I could see why.
We had to unload our bikes, carry them and our kit down steep wooden steps to the soft sandy beach, reload everything, push/carry our bikes along 300m of sand and large boulders to another set of steps, unload everything, carry it all up the steps and reload. I think this picture of me pushing my bike is one of the only ones on this trip where I am not smiling.
My back hurt like hell, Jerry was in a foul mood and our progress had slowed to tortoise pace. The reason for this ‘delightful’ detour along the coast? The original path had eroded into the sea and the owners of the beach view property were not willing to have the path relocated across their land. The next section of path did not improve matters, as it was booby trapped with pockets of sand and Jerry found himself going from upright to flat on his side in a fraction of a second as his front wheel caught in the deep sand and went a completely different direction to his rear wheel. With light starting to fade and the rain falling again we eventually came across the campsite. I made each move of pitching the tent and unpacking slowly and deliberately, attempting to limit the pain. Jerry nobly cooked our supper whilst I updated facebook, contacted a Warmshower host in Riga and felt sorry for myself.
After two weeks of rural cycling, Riga was a big shock to the system. Lots of traffic, lots of tramlines, cycle paths that stopped abruptly and remarkably few signs directing us to the city centre. We passed a lot of empty factory buildings on the way into the city and at one point wondered if we were heading out to the docks, our route looked so little like the entrance to a Capital city. Riga is a city on the up, but with a little way to go. It was a wealthy place at the close of the 19th century with many spectacular Jugendstihl (Art Nouveau) houses dating from this time.
A century of strife, soviet policies, and a more recent economic exodus of citizens to other European countries have taken their toll and there is continuing conflict between the ethnic Latvians and the Russian population moved here during the soviet occupation. The city presents an interesting eclectic mix of the beautifully restored, the very dilapidated and the reconstructed.
The town hall looks medieval but was actually constructed in 2004 and it was here that we met our Warmshower host Ruta.
Having had a gear cable break on our way south through Estonia, we decided to use our time in Riga to give our bikes a thorough clean and service as well as touring the city. Both our bikes were caked in sand and there was a lot of grinding sounds from the chains. Jerry set to on our first morning in Riga with water and sponge and quickly discovered that his rear wheel needed more than a quick trim. With the grime removed, he could clearly see three cracks across the rim. We needed a new wheel before we cycled any further. We consulted with Gints, Ruta’s husband, who does all his own bike maintenance. He made a phone call and soon Jerry’s wheel was being whisked off to the ex-Latvian road cycle team mechanic for a complete rebuild. A day later it was back, the secondhand hub acquired in Tromso had been serviced, the rim replaced and the wheel was as solid as a rock. Talk about serendipity. That evening, whilst Jerry cooked supper for us all, Gints and I started tweeking the gears to get them to run smoothly. It soon became apparent that something wasn’t right, they just weren’t shifting cleanly. We tried adjusting various parts of the mechanism but nothing worked. Gints became increasingly convinced that there was some of the old cable still caught in the gear shifter. This is not so easy to fix. In the western world, when the gear shifter stops working, you buy a new one. It would be hard to find one in Riga and we would have to order one in from an online shop which Gints reckoned could take a week to arrive. Most of his bike spares he buys in from the UK. He decided to see whether his retired bike mechanic friend could help out. In Soviet days, getting spare parts for bikes was so difficult that mechanics learnt how to fix everything and sure enough he spent the next day dismantling the gear shifter and finding the offending piece of wire. To Gints and his friend we are exceptionally grateful for all their assistance in getting us back on the road again, and to Ruta for letting us stay two extra nights.
The next morning, Gints rode with us out of Riga to show us the cycle path that led out of the city. After all our bike troubles, I didn’t have the heart to mention that my front tyre was bumping once every revolution. I had got two punctures on the way south from Parnu in Estonia from large staples. Unfortunately, my outer tube had been damaged and was now bursting outwards under the pressure from the inner tube. We were three days ride from Leipaja, the next town where there was a bike shop, so that evening we got out the gaffer tape and used it to reinforce the outer tyre.
It reduced the bumping and,we hoped, would prevent the tyre from completely splitting. In the end, our temporary repair had to last five days as the bike shop in Leipaja didn’t have any tyres the right size and we had to ride on another 90km to Klaipeda, in Lithuania.
It’s a little known fact that Europe’s widest waterfall is in Latvia. We didn’t know this until one evening I was ‘googling’ the towns along our route and discovered the claim to fame of the very wide but not so high water fall of Kuldiga. Ventas Rumba is 249m wide and can reach up to 270m wide during spring floods. It is, however, no more than 2.2m high.
It is a salmon and trout river and in April and October the fish swim upstream to their spawning grounds. In the 17th century, the Kuldiga people attached baskets to the waterfall to catch the fish as they attempted to jump the waterfall. Every morning, the people would come and empty the baskets of their night time catch. After viewing the waterfall, we wandered into town and bumped into some Nazi soldiers. They were actors using the old wooden buildings as a setting for some scenes from the second world war for a film or television production.
Whilst camping on our trip, we have heard a variety of interesting noises in the night. In Finland, we were awoken at 02:00 by a booming sound occurring regularly not far from the tent. Jerry went out for a pee and discovered a lorry in the forest loading up with logs from a pile about 100m from our tent! Things always sound bigger and closer in the night than during the day. Around midnight on a small campspot in a clearing in Estonia, Jerry heard sniffing and heavy breathing from something that seemed right by the tent. His imagination ran wild and he had soon convinced himself that a bear was wondering around the outside of the tent. He lay motionless and hardly dared to breathe for fear that we were about to get eaten. The next morning we could find no signs of any large animal having been closer than 3 metres from the tent. As there are reportedly no bears in that part of Estonia, the most likely explanation was a deer or an Elk.
In a German forest, close to a military airbase, I could swear I saw lights moving around in the dark and heard voices calling to each other. For a moment, I was sure the German army were out hunting for us! In Latvia, and across Poland, it was stags roaring in the rut that disturbed our sleep. But at least we recognised these sounds from home.
Liepaja is Latvia’s seaside holiday town. We wandered down to the long sandy beach to discover that the holiday season was well and truly over and all the board walks used to protect the dunes were being removed for the winter.
We had found accommodation in the town through couchsurfing and were staying with Normans and Monta and their family. Normans is a keen mountaineer and the whole family enjoy adventurous cheap holidays. During the Soviet era, families were limited to holidays in their own State or in Russia. Since 1991, many have taken full advantage of being able to travel west in Europe and to other continents. It was surreal sitting in their kitchen looking at their pictures of Scotland from a camping trip in April a few years previously. They were amazed that we could recognise so many of the places on the west coast and in Skye. Monta and her eldest son had both worked for the tourist information and were able to speak seven or eight different languages. We were very impressed. Liepaja is known as a musical town and many famous Latvian musicians had spawned their career here. Monta had developed a musical trail around the town to tell their story and help visitors learn more about the town. It was easy to follow the steel musical notes inset into the pavement that marked the way.
The next day we headed south to Lithuania.
Usually when reaching a border, we camp just before it and wait until morning to cross into a new country. This time we chose to cross into Lithuania and then find somewhere to camp. We both felt much more relaxed once we had crossed into Lithuania. Somehow Latvia felt rather threatening. We were never threatened directly by anyone and the people we had met and stayed with were all friendly and helpful, but still we found ourselves ‘en guard’ much of the time. We have since met other people who have travelled in Latvia and have felt similar feelings whilst there.
Our first camp site in Lithuania was just beautiful, nestled in amongst the dunes on the coast, we were well protected from the strong westerly breeze and could sunbathe in the afternoon warmth. This is amber coast, where lumps of amber are washed up on the beach from the base of the Ostsee. Jerry wandered off along the shore to see what he could find but sadly came back with no treasure. The sun set was a gorgeous red colour that evening and we felt lucky to be where we were and experiencing all of these new countries.
Compared to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania has only a short coastline and so it is jam packed with holiday chalets and villages. We cycled through them on our way to Klaipeda on a well signposted and surfaced cycle path. The biggest holiday settlement is Palanga, which is Lithuania’s answer to Blackpool. Many roads from across the country converge on this town and in the summer, it is heaving. Now, on the first day of October, it was a ghost town with only the umbrella illuminations brightening our ride along the deserted promenades.
Klaipeda lies protected from the westerly winds behind the Curonian Spit and is Lithuania’s only port. It was a hive of activity down at the docks as we wandered down from the town’s hostel to find out the ferry times across to the spit. A couple of years ago, with easier relations with Russia, we would have been able to continue our ride along the Curonian spit to Kaliningrad and from there onto Gdansk. This is the official route of the Baltic Sea Cycle Route. Unfortunately for us, Brits now have to apply for a Russian visa to cross this small Russian outpost in the UK and so this route into Poland was not possible. Instead we would need to cycle all the way around the small state travelling three times the distance. After a day touring the old town with its timber framed buildings and taking a trip over to the Spit to see the internationally important sand dune, we headed out of town.
It was a smoggy morning and a chemical smell hung in the air. The cycle path we were following ended in a sand road and, not wanting to repeat our Latvian experience, we opted for the dual carriageway option for 10 kilometres. At least there was a wide strip at the side of the road on which we could ride slightly separated from the traffic. The town gave way to countryside and eventually the smog cleared and we were cycling along in shorts and t-shirts in warm autumnal sunshine. The leaves on the trees were starting to turn and it felt like autumn was starting to catch up on us again after having escaped its clutches in northern Finland over a month ago. The countryside here was well tended and we saw young people out and about as well as older folk. The terrain was gently rolling and it was nice to stretch our legs and lungs on a few short uphill sections. Before we knew it we had cycled 130km (80 miles) and could have carried on for more but for the need to buy food for the next day and find somewhere to camp before nightfall. The town of Taurage provided the supermarket and just on the other side was a large state forest where we found a spot amongst blaeberries under the pines to pitch our tent. The blaeberries also provided dessert as they have done on many evenings from Finland south.
We were lucky enough in Lithuania to be hosted for a night by Juste and Nerijus. Juste is a keen cycle tourist who has cycled in Spain and South America. She is also an excellent cook and loves creating dishes from home grown produce from her own and her grandma’s garden. Nerijus and Juste are busy saving for their own place and in the meantime are looking after a house that is owned by a Lithuanian family living and working in Ireland. When we arrived they were busy chopping logs for the winter and storing them in a large garage under the back of the house. We unpacked, showered and were treated to a lovely surprise evening picnic out on some hill forts overlooking the River Niemen watching the sunset over the hills and woodlands of Kalilingrad.
The road out to this popular spot ran along side the border and we weren’t far along it when we were spotted by some border guards and signaled to stop. They were there looking for smugglers of contraband, cigarettes in particular. They asked to see our passports. Luckily, we had picked ours up before leaving the house. Juste, however, had forgotten hers. I think the guards were in a good mood as they said they would let her off this once. I guess her speaking Lithuanian with a native accent probably helped too. This has been the only time since leaving the UK that our passports have been looked at by anyone.
The map we had borrowed from Kaisa and Christopher in Porvoo did not show a direct route across the border, but Nerijus was sure that there was a way in down the border of Kaliningrad now that both Poland and Lithuania were both members of the EU and border controls were no longer necessary. Maps.me also showed a path crossing the border near the south eastern corner of Kaliningrad, so with his suggested route marked down and generous supplies of dried fruit and fresh food from Juste we set off in dense fog.
I had always imagined that the border with Russia would have a high fence all the way along it, guards and dogs patrolling and watchtowers constantly staffed. Obviously I have been watching too many movies and am still caught up in the memory of the Iron Curtain days. We were surprised to find the border is just marked by a series of 2 metre tall white posts at 20 metre intervals. At one point, the road is so close we were only 20 metres from Russian Kaliningrad soil. Signs indicate that one should not go any closer and enter the no man’s land between the two States .
Apart from in the border town of Kybartai, we saw only one watch tower and that was unmanned – though maybe we were being watched electronically? Kybartai lies at one of the few official entry points into Russian Kalingrad. It is town with one street that goes up to a border fence and no further. Traffic wishing to enter Kaliningrad is led around the town on a rather circuitous route to a holding area for checks and border controls. Confused by the signs and not being entirely sure of our location we stopped to check our map. An elderly man, hearing our discussion came over to offer his assistance. With a mixture of broken german and the international language of mime and pointing he managed to direct us away from the border guards and off into the centre of town. Outside the supermarket, a gypsy lady approached me with tarot cards, I think offering me a reading, but as we neither spoke each other’s language we didn’t get further than hello and goodbye. May be that is a fair prediction of our life for the next wee while?!
Our last night in Lithuania was spent camped in a beautiful lakeside location looking across to Russian Kalingrad. Jerry received a text on his phone saying “Welcome to Russia” and decided now was not the time to be calling his mum as the charges were astronomical. The afternoon sun warmed our backs as we sat eating peanuts outside our tent watching a family of swans parade up and down the gravelly shoreline. Overhead the needles of the tall pines rustled gently in the light breeze. Nearby, some Lithuanians came down to the shore for an evening picnic and fire. This was life on the road at its best.
24 hours later we were camping in a Polish forest with ice on our tent and saddles, wearing hats, gloves, thermals and duvet jackets and wondering whether we would be warm enough in our summer sleeping bags.
Autumn had arrived with a vengeance bringing cold easterly winds blowing straight out of Siberia. The up side, I always try to see the upside, were the star filled nights and the reds and golds of the leaves on the trees which started turning almost immediately. The downside was very cold mornings on the bikes with numb fingers and toes. It took us at least an hour to warm up each day and to start shedding some of the layers of clothes. By lunch time, out of the wind and in the sun, the day became quite pleasant.
For our itinerary in Poland we had the best of guides. We’d met Greg, a native Pole, briefly on a towpath near Granchester, England back in May. He’d stopped to chat while we were taking a short comfort break. Three months later he was sending us, by facebook message, suggestions for places to visit and routes to take through Poland to Gdansk. He took us through the Polish Lake District, a region of lakes, forest and farmland. The land is undulating, much like Southern England, and we delighted in the variety of gradients. Flat may make for fast cycling, but it is rarely a stimulating ride. Many of the roads were lined by avenues of trees with ploughed fields on either side.
A faint acrid smell of coal smoke hung in the air through each village. No one here spoke English and we got by with a mixture of basic Polish phrases, Pigeon German (many of the older generation have some German) and miming with noises. It was beautiful countryside, plenty of apple trees heavy with fruit, opening vistas of lakes and wooded hills. The road surfaces left something to be desired, with long stretches of bouncy and unpleasant cobbles, gravel roads and very bumpy, frequently patched tarmac.
After the Lake District and Czerwony Dwor, a national forest with European Bison, that sadly we didn’t see, we headed a bit further south to Wilczy Szaniec. Known as Wolf’s Lair in English, this was where Adolf Hitler planned and supervised the invasion of the Soviet Union. It was also where in 1944 Von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Hitler with a bomb left under a conference table. Hitler was only slightly injured in the attempt and Von Stauffenberg and his accomplices were all shot. The site is full of ruined bunkers with thick reinforced concrete walls. The Soviet army destroyed much of the place on their way through to Berlin in 1945 and in the years following it was left to nature. Now, with Poland developing its tourism network it has been opened to the public. The previous SS escort detachment barracks have been converted into an hotel, and café, and local tour guides take visitors on a 2km trail around the moss clung relicts.
There was something fitting that a place where so much death and destruction was planned should now be taken over by nature. Over six species of bat roost in the dark interiors of the bunkers. Raccoons and foxes live in the woodland and owls have taken up residence in the trees.
Hands up if you knew that northern Poland was full of red, brick built castles! We certainly hadn’t before we got here and this was an enjoyable surprise. This part of Poland was ruled by the Teutonic Knights back in medieval times and they had a great keenness for building castles for defence and daily life. We came across quite a few on our way across to Gdansk, but the most spectacular of these, and a world heritage site, is at Malbork. It is the largest brick built castle, I think in the world, though definitely in Europe. During the second world war it was badly damaged by allied bombing
and it has been a task of dedicated conservation and rebuilding to return it to something of its former glory. After another freezing night in our tent, we bought our entrance ticket and audio guide in English and entered the world of the 14th century teutonic knight. Narrow staircases connect Grand halls, bedchambers, living quarters and dark kitchens that all surround a large central courtyard. The whole building was heated by a hot air heating system well advanced for its time. We were glad to be visiting in the off season, as it was very busy. It must be mobbed in the summer.
Having been unable to rearrange our hostel stay in Gdansk, we had to leave Malbork just after lunch and cycle the 60km(40 miles) to Gdansk before nightfall. Jerry had worked out a route the previous evening, making sure to find a route that crossed the River Wisla and took us on some quieter roads. Our map showed a road bridge at the small town of Tczew and we headed for this with Jerry breaking trail due to a strong northerly breeze. Usually I ride in front, as that way we stick together better, but when we have somewhere to get to by a certain time and the wind’s against us, Jerry takes the lead and I tuck in behind and shout if he starts going away from me. All went well until we reached the bridge and discovered that it was closed. We weren’t sure why as our polish wasn’t up to that, but an eight foot high gate prevented us crossing. Looking at the map, we faced a 20km detour to get to the next bridge. Our spirits were low. Next to the road bridge was a railway bridge and Jerry spotted a narrow worn path leading towards it. We decided to go and take a look and discovered that this bridge had a metal gangway along one side. As Jerry generally avoids doing anything that may be slightly against the rules, I was stunned when he suggested we cycle across it. Before he could change his mind, I leapt on to my bike and was off hoping that we got across before a train came along. At the far side we were greeted by a four foot high wall and no obvious way to get off the railway and back onto the road. By going over this wall, we got off the trackside, but that left us in a small enclosure by the river with no exit. Climbing another wall would take us into a rail yard surrounded by six foot high spiked metal railings. Things weren’t looking good until we noticed that at the far end of the yard a few cars were coming and going. Maybe, just maybe, there was an open gate there. We decided to risk it, took all our bags off our bikes, howffed them over the two walls with our bags, reloaded and cycled as nonchantly as we were able across the yard. Luckily for us, as we came round the side of a building we spotted an open gate and were able to make our escape.
Gdansk is the home of Solidarnosc (Solidarity), the first trade union in communist Poland and a movement that made a massive contribution to the end of communism in Eastern Europe. Last year they opened a new exhibition and conference centre that tells the story of those momentous times in the 1980s.
Both of us recall these times and the hopes and fears of the people, including its leader, Lech Walesa. It seemed an impossible dream back then, that the Iron Curtain might be breached and the people of these countries to be able to choose other options besides communism. It was fascinating to relive these times and to be able to place the events in a wider context. One story that particular struck me was of the opening up of the border between Hungary and Austria. Hundreds of East German families had taken their usual summer vacation in Hungary near the border, but when the holiday season was over many stayed on in the hope of being able to get across the border. Hungary had a problem, the campsites were filled with people facing a winter in tents. The authorities decided to hold a picnic on the border and to invite all the families. They instructed the border guards not to stop anyone who attempted to cross. That day, many people made it to the west and a new life.
Our travelling lives changed the next day when I woke up with ‘flu and didn’t want to get out of bed. Luckily we were in a private room in a cosy hostel though Jerry did get bored with wondering around Gdansk on his own.
A week later I was on my feet again, but still coughing and wheezing. We knew we weren’t going anywhere fast on the bikes and instead chose to take the train to Szczecin on the west of Poland and within a couple of days ride of Berlin. We were hopeful that I might recuperate a bit more and be able to cycle into Berlin. Disappointingly, this meant missing visiting the birthplace of my great-grandmother. My family also has some association with Szczecin (or Stettin) so I enjoyed having a look around and visiting the enormous cemetery to search for Neumann gravestones.
Two days later, and with me still not up for cycling, we pulled out the credit card and bought two tickets for the train to Berlin.
Now two months later we are in a village in Bavaria on the border with Czech Republic. We have been staying with a german/dutch family helping them renovate their 18th century farmhouse. We are staying here until the New Year when we will start our journey across Germany to France. It’s been good to stop still for a while, recover from illness, recoup some of our overspend, and help someone else with their dream. Our journey through Germany, visiting places some of my relatives lived, and relearning a language will be in our next blog.
For now, we wish you all a Merry Christmas and all the very best for the New Year when it comes.