Day 15 – Free camping at Sports Ground to Lade camping (Latvia)
Not all our days go to plan. This one went pear shaped early on. We woke up pretty late and ate breakfast in no particular hurry. We checked all of the screws/bolts on the panniers for the first time since South America and by 10am were packed and ready to leave.
Unfortunately Vanessa then discovered her first flat tyre of the trip, so we had to hold fire for a while whilst we attempted to find the source of the leak (which we never did)…eventually we simply pumped it up without repairing the tube and carried on.
We planned to follow Eurovelo 13, which we re-joined almost immediately. Two km later we arrived in the town of Salacgriva. There we saw a sign for the road to Limbazi, which we thought Eurovelo 13 headed to, rather than following the more direct main road to Riga…but there were no Eurovelo signs to be seen.
We decided to backtrack 200 metres and pop into Salacgriva tourist info for better maps of the area. There we spoke to a German couple cycling in the opposite direction, who had come from Limbazi but had been advised by a local farmer to take a minor dirt road for part of the route due to heavy traffic.
Based partly on information contained on a map of local bike routes which showed Eurovelo 13 heading in the direction of Riga and partly on what the German couple had told us, we opted to head towards Riga on 13, then cut across towards the road to Limbazi about 20km further south, where we thought it would be quieter.
We set off again, by which time it was almost midday. After only a couple of km more, the hard shoulder ran out and there was no sign of any bike paths or Eurovelo signs. With the traffic quite heavy, Vanessa’s preference for longer quieter routes rather than more direct busy ones meant that we took a side road to join the route to Limbazi earlier than planned.
This turned out not to be the smartest move, as the side road turned to gravel very soon and the surface was first rough, then corrugated, then sandy, then a combination of all 3. This continued for the best part of 20km (good job we checked the panniers) with the added irritation of hoards of biting March flies in the sandy areas and the discovery that dogs in Latvia are not fenced in or chained like they are in Estonia (this concerned Vanessa a little)…it brought back fond memories of Patagonia but without the mountains and gale force winds.
After 2 hours we eventually reached the sealed road to Limbazi. Almost immediately we wished we had taken it in the first place, as not only was it more direct but there was virtually no traffic! We covered 7km in a little over 20 minutes, then, as hunger set in, we pulled over into a field to eat lunch whilst sitting on some rolled bails of straw. It was 2.30pm. As we ate, we watch a tractor driver, with plough, turning over the soil in the field opposite. All the while the tractor was followed by a huge flock of gulls and storks, who would eat the worms the plough had churned up…Easy pickings!!!
Replenished by lunch we set off again, with a little under 20km to Limbazi. We noticed a number of stork nests on the top of telegraph poles and wandered quite how they can build such huge constructions and why we had not seen storks with such regularity previously in Europe. One stork appeared to have just made a delivery Vanessa had to take evasive action to avoid hitting another.
By 4pm we arrived in the old but not remarkable looking town of Limbazi. It was starting to rain just a little so we popped into tourist info to enquire about nearby campsites (hopefully on the route south towards Sigulda, which was our planned stop the next day) and a cafe where we could grab a drink whilst the rain blew over. They helped us on both fronts by phoning a campsite 12km south of Limbazi to confirm we could stay there and then pointing us in the direction of a nearby cafe, which turned out to be down a flight of stairs in the basement of a building, which we would never have found without them.
We have got to mention this cafe, called ‘Tris Kambari’, which was incredible. Walking in, you are immediately transported to another time. Ancient print presses, candelabra, clocks and pianos abound what appears more like a medieval cellar, than a restaurant created in the 21st century. It had an impressive tavern bar and even some very authentic looking stocks which Vanessa insisted Jon try on for size.
The English version of the menu looked good too, although we only stopped in for a drink.
Reluctantly we left an hour later to cycle the remaining 12km south to Lade camping. We cycled alongside 2 lakes on a quiet, sealed road, which rolled up and down. Vanessa wanted to refer to them as hills but they probably didn’t qualify. We missed the turnoff as there was no sign but fortunately realised only a few hundred metres later and arrived at Lade campsite shortly before 7pm. It was a little pricey at €15 for a tent but we both needed a warm shower and forgave the owner when he advised we could wash laundry in his machine for free and then supplied us with free tomatoes from the ample vegetable gardens on his land. We also grabbed a sneaky spring onion but replanted the bulb, which we figured was acceptable behaviour.
We ate dinner overlooking the lake in the near perfect silence (there was only one other couple at the campground) before heading to bed. We had only cycled around 60km today but after the rough start to the day that seemed like more than enough!…Incidentally, the mysteriously deflated bike tube lasted all day with no issues.
Day 16 Lade camping to Sigulda (Latvia)
We were awoken at 5am by thunder, lightning and heavy rain. We considered leaving the tent and sheltering with the bikes on the veranda of the vacant cabin we had pitched next to…but decided to sit it out in the tent. Fortunately the storm passed after about an hour and we fell back to sleep waiting for it to stop raining.
At around 9am we ate breakfast and packed up the tent whilst it was relatively dry, and eventually set off shortly before 10.30am.
We had a little under 50km to cycle to Sigulda today, where we planned to spend at least 1 full day as ‘the book’ recommended it as one of Latvia’s highlights. The weather was changeable. We stopped several times to put on jackets due to the rain, then take them off when the sun came out and we got too hot. After an hour or so of easy cycling with the odd rolling hill (Jon conceded that the slopes now qualified as hills), we passed through the village of Valodzes, which was unremarkable other than for the abundance of fruit trees and in particular apple trees lining the road. We stopped and picked a few before putting jackets back on and heading off.
Over the next hour or so the light rain became progressively heavier but we pressed on due to the combination of a lack of good spots to shelter and Vanessa feeling pretty strong. However, by 1.30pm we were both starting to get a little damp and were pleased to arrive in the town of Ragana, where we were able to shelter in a hotel cafe, with a very large pot of green tea (and some biscuits we smuggled in), to sit out the, now heavy rain for half an hour or so and dry off.
Looking at the map whilst drinking our tea, we figured we had only 8km left to Sigulda with the light breeze at our backs and a downhill last section, so we decided to cycle this before stopping for lunch.
Half an hour later we arrived in the Guaja river valley next to Sigulda, where we spotted the entrance to Gutmanala Cave (Latvia’s most visited!), with a natural spring inside. We pulled over to take a look and have lunch on a bench whilst photobombing a bunch of Italian tourists.
Once nourished we set off in search of a camp spot for one (possibly 2) nights. We cycled over the impressive bridge spanning the river, which was undergoing a bit of maintenance, and found a campsite opposite a kids adventure playground and the entrance to Latvia’s bobsleigh and luge track. It was €15 to camp but we saw 2 other nearby campsites marked on Mapsme, so Jon ditched his panniers and decided to cycle and check them out. He returned a short while later and reported that the first of these (Sigulda camping) was a free riverside camping site, complete with tables, benches, toilet and a covered area in the event of poor weather. It was really a no brainer…so we moved to the free site and pitched our tent there.
The other advantage of the free campground was that it was immediately adjacent to the third campground, where we were able to buy a drink and/or pay to use their shower if needed. So we popped next door for a drink before cooking dinner back at our site and settling down for the night.
Day 17 – Sigulda (Latvia)
We were both pretty excited about what lay ahead for the day, especially as Sigulda has so much to offer. The only thing we had to work out was, what to see first? Once this was sorted, we headed off to our first attraction of the day. The only obstacle in our way was the 1km hill with a 11% gradienct (first real hill since Patagonia).
Once we’d caught our breaths, we stopped to take a quick picture of the bike monument (which included a Penny farthing) and used the very handy bike tool stand, which had an abundance of implements. After fiddling around with our cleats, we headed to the ‘Walking cane park’ which as the name states, it’s a park with several canes. ‘Interesting’ we hear you say!
After snapping a photo or two we headed for our next stop ‘Sigulda Castle’. On first approaching the 13th (1207) century Castle gates, we were both impressed with the medieval aura, especially as the staff had dressed up for the occasion.
As we walked into the main court yard, there seemed to be a performance happening on a stage. Getting closer, we realised that this was in fact three guys having a laugh and re-enacting Shakespeare. We applauded their efforts and left them to it. Our first viewpoint overlooked the Gauja River and National Park, and in the distance, we caught our first glimpse of the enchanted ‘Castle of Turaida’, which appeared to be a picture perfect fairytale castle.
We continued our exploration and climbed up the winding, narrow, granite staircase to the top of the turret, snapped a few pictures then explored the rest of the grounds. The highlight for Jon was putting Vanessa in the stocks (payback) and for Vanessa it was Jon sitting on a giant wooden medieval throne.
Our next stop was the ‘cable cars. We weren’t interested in getting a ride but were curious to see what they looked like and what else they had to offer. On the way to the cable cars, we were distracted by a sign to the taboggan track. For only €3, you can ride the steep toboggan track, then catch a ride back on the ski lift. We had to give it a shot (even if it is aimed at kids). Vanessa went first, braving the corners but being slightly more cautious on the steeper sections, whilst Jon went whirling down, not using his brakes once!!
The cable cars were €7 each, but as you couldn’t put bikes on, we gave it a miss. We were interested in the large flying fox that commenced at one end and as you lost speed before reaching the other side of the Gauja river, the cable car would pull you back up, but we thought €55 pp or €95 for two to be a bit too steep for our budget.
The next destination was Sigulda’s bobsleigh and luge track. The track was built in 1986; 1200 +220 metres long and consists of 16 turns. Speeds of 125km can be reached! In the summer the bobsleigh is on wheels with a driver. Unfortunately for us they only open the track on weekends. Even more of a bummer was the price which was only €10!!! We did the second best thing and visited the track for a bargain price of 80c each! We first went to the start gates (or launch pad as Vanessa prefers to call the) and then walked down the track. A few words that come to mind are ‘extremely dangerous sport’ and ‘nutters!’
Our stomachs were starting to rumble, so we headed to the nearest supermarket, did our food shop (which included a very cheap beer for 56c), then cycled to the three keys park (which we think represents the three castles) and ate lunch at a lovely park bench, but soon moved to a more shady spot on the grass as the sun came out.
Once fed and watered, we cycled back down the 1km steep descent and dropped off all our food at the tent. Then cycled back up the other side of the valley to the ‘Castle of Turaida’. We paid the €5 each to enter and walked towards the castle. Entering the castle grounds was truly breathtaking. The only issue was that the medieval lady wanting to see our tickets pointed out that we had in fact only paid for one. Jon offered to go and explore the perimeter of the castle grounds, whilst Vanessa entered the castle. Climbed up Repunzils turret, went into several museums, took a selfie with a knight, checked out the prison dungeon and then went back to the entrance to meet Jon.
Our final two stops were Krumulda manor and castle ruins, which were ok but nothing special. Then we descended down the steep and exhilarating serpentine lane. The last stop for us was the caves. In hindsight we should have had a look at the distance before setting off but hey. We set off along some dirt, sometimes grassy or muddy tracks with the occasional boardwalk. 3km later we reached a very tiny cave called ‘little devils cave’ not very impressive really. We carried on hoping to find the other two caves a bit more entertaining, however the first could barely be called a cave. Vanessa got a bit tired of cycling along mountain biking tracks, with no good reason and decided to turn back, whilst Jon wanted to find the last cave.
On returning to our campsite, we ate a wholesome dinner (reflected on the days many adventures), showered at the nearby campsite and went to bed. All in all a great day had and definitely worth a stop 🙂
Day 18 – Sigulda to Riga (Latvia)
It rained overnight but the weather forecast was spot on as it stopped by 8am and we were ready to head off by 9am with the tent having dried sufficiently. First target of the day was to ride back up Latvia’s biggest hill but, unlike the day before, we had panniers this time.
We stopped at the top of the valley to catch our breath.
There is no defined bicycle route between Sigulda and Riga, so we elected to follow Latvia’s cycle route 7 for the first half of the journey and then main roads until we reached Riga’s suburbs, where we hoped that Mapsme would find us some bike paths to use.
The wind was stronger today (averaging 20 kmph) and blowing from the west, meaning we were into a headwind. When cycling through the forest this was no problem but unprotected from the breeze we needed to ride single file with Vanessa slipstreaming.
The morning ride was mainly through quieter roads but soon after midday we hit the main road into Riga, which was long and straight and, for a paved road, had a poor road surface, with no hard shoulder. On the plus side, it ran through the forest which gave some protection from the breeze and there were no hills to speak of.
At around 2pm we stopped for lunch and sat on a sun kissed hillock overlooking the road, glad of a break from the monotony of the bumpy road. After lunch we had more of the same for another 20km and we’re glad when we reached the outskirts of Riga and could get on some bike paths.
We had been lucky enough to have been accepted by Warmshower hosts (Oto and Madara) in Riga but, as they were working, we had an hour to kill, so we found a cafe/bar to sit in and grab a drink before heading off to meet them.
Our hosts were terrific. After a quick shower we joined them for dinner and they were keen take us on a late night cycling tour of their favourite parts of Riga, which we really enjoyed but, having already cycled a blustery 70km earlier in the day, we struggled to keep our eyes open. We got back to their place at around midnight and were asleep as soon as the heads hit the pillow.
Day 19 – Riga (Latvia)
Today was an official rest day for us, as we spent a good deal of the day on the computer, at the amazingly impressive Latvian national library (fortunately just across the road from Oto and Madara’s flat), primarily sorting out our travel arrangements back home for the end of our trip 🙁
However, there was one very big highlight after dinner when our hosts took the two of us into the city centre to watch/listen to a Russian (St Petersburg) Folk band called ‘Otava Yo’. We absolutely loved it…they were really entertaining and had all the crowd dancing. They even sang their own version of ‘the girl from Belfast city’ (transposing Moscow for Belfast), wearing typical Russian Cossack dancing hats and (as if to emphasise their love of the cold) only a white vest on their top halves. Again we got to bed late but it was well worth it.
Day 20 – Riga to Utava (Latvia)
Due mainly to having discussed our proposed route from Riga to Liepaja with our hosts and being told it was mainly pretty boring without defined cycle paths…and also due to the forecast westerly wind with 40kmph gusts, we decided to cheat and bus from Riga to Ventspils on the West coast..A distance of 125km as the crow flies.
We said goodbye to Oto and Madaraand caught the mid-morning bus with bikes, arriving in Ventspils by 2pm. We shopped for 2 days worth of food, ate lunch and set off cycling.
After an initial 15 minute detour, where we attempted to follow the Eurovelo 13 but ended up back at the same bus station, we headed in a Southerly direction along one of Ventspils well defined cycle routes. After 3km the cycle route finished and we continued on the paved road. After another 2km the paved road turned to dirt. As it turned out the dirt road was OK but our major issue was the increasing westerly wind. We made slow but steady progress for 2 hours and, by 5pm, had had enough for the day. We turned into a small village called Utsva, looking for a spot to pitch our tent away from the strong winds. We struck it lucky finding a park ground complete with stage, toilets and benches. We sheltered behind the stage out of the wind and pitched our tent there as the wind continued to blow well into the night.
Day 21 – Utava to Rungi (Latvia)
Woke up feeling grateful that we had not blown away overnight and packed up real quickly, as we didn’t want to be spotted in our slightly illegal camping spot. By 8.30am we had started cycling. Unfortunately for us the wind was still blowing WSW , but the good news was that the forests were there most of the time protecting us. After 40km of riding, we stopped briefly for lunch near a small town, one: to eat lunch, two: to refill our water supply. The asphalt was mostly smooth with the occasional bumpy sections.
Reaching our 60km mark for the day, we set about looking for a camping location. Mapsme had a campsite 16km away, heading towards Leipaja (which was our ultimate goal for the next day. This would then only leave us with a short 20km road into town. We cycles on for 13km, then reassessed when we passed a sign for an alternative campsite, but decided that it was a bit too much of a diversion and decided to carry on. 2km before the campspot, we noticed a road sign pointing towards a camping ground in 500 metres. We decided to take a look (especially as mapsme has been known to take us to campsites that unfortunately no longer exist, very rare but it can happen). Anyway, reaching the campsite, it took us several attempts to get the owners attention (as he had headphones in and was mowing the lawn), Jon had to stand in his path and wave his hands. Once noticed, he showed us to our spot, with showers (cold), toilet and sauna, all for the modest price if €5.
Day 22 – Rungi to Liepaja travel school (Latvia)
This was a relaxed day for us. It started well when the campsite owners left mint tea and home grown tomatoes & cucumbers for us at breakfast time.
The sun was out and there was little wind. We had only about 20km to Liepaja on sealed road…so all was fine. OK there was a bit of traffic but nothing too bad.
In little over half an hour we took the turning to Liepaja and in another half hour or so we were at tourist info in the city centre.
We Skyped home to wish Robyn a happy birthday and helped ourselves to a birthday brownie at a cafe to celebrate.
At around midday we headed in search of our accommodation for the night. This was at the ‘Travel School’, which we had heard about through Couchsurfing and where our Riga Warmshower hosts Oto and Madara had also stayed recently. It’s a not for profit, set up a few years ago, which operates in a different European city for a few weeks each summer and offers free accommodation (basically a space on the floor in a communal room) in exchange for the odd donation, a little house cleaning and attendance of at least 1 of their short workshops on subjects such as ‘Local Folktales’, and ‘Photography’. We had to take a look.
After introducing ourselves and leaving our panniers we set off to explore the city beachfront and take advantage of the good afternoon weather. It was almost warm enough to consider going in the water but as we only had our bike shorts on, we had to settle for just eating an ice-cream instead.
We headed back to the Travel School, made ourselves dinner and joined in a short workshop on ‘Healthy eating on a budget’. We chatted to our roommates for the night, who came from Serbia, Macedonia, Estonia and Lithuania, before settling down for the night. We were briefly awoken at around 11.30pm when a new traveller arrived late and set up his bed next to us but otherwise life was fine.
Day 23 Liepaja (Latvia) to Sventoji to (Lithuania)
Where do we start? ….. steam rollers, beaches, overgrown paths and so much more!!
The day started off pretty normal (apart from the fact that we were sleeping on the floor with 4 other people in Leipaja Travel School. We thanked the wonderful people who run the non-for-profit organisation and were on our way by 9am.
Our first decision before cycling off into the sunset, was which route to take. Bike trail along the ocean front for 20mins then dual carriageway, or a 10km detour to bypass the traffic.
We decided to go with the former. Vanessa was a little nervous about cycling on Latvia ‘s main highways but braved the elements. To be honest it wasn’t too bad, we had plenty of space to pull over on a dirt gravel hard shoulder, if we felt uncomfortable. This was only the case with a handful of truck drivers, most of the vehicle drivers were respectful enough to give us sufficient enough space. The only tough element was the headwind at 35km per hour. Vanessa tucked in behind Jon most of the way.
At around the 20km mark we stopped at a Town called Nica to eat our snacks, stretch and visit the small tourist office. The lady unfortunately didn’t speak any English but did try to help us with maps.
We rode for a further 20km and then stopped off in a little town called ‘Rucava’ for lunch. We found the perfect sheltered spot to eat and relaxed for an hour or so before heading off.
We knew from chatting to some bicycle tourers the day before, that there were road works that lay ahead. So we went about looking for alternative routes. We spotted a small dirt road that ran alongside the main road for a few kilometres and took it. It turned out to be the right choice, until we turned down an overgrown track to get back on the main road (as ours was now ending) which had fallen branches and meant a bit of bike logistical manoeuvres. At the end of the track we were faced with a ditch. This normally wouldn’t be a problem but with heavy panniers, it’s quite challenging. Jon took a run up, but unfortunately slid down and couldn’t quite get the momentum needed. This was a job for two! with Vanessa at the back and Jon at the front we eventually rolled Jon’s bike up the other side of the ditch onto the main road.
We realised very quickly that we had skipped some of the road works but not all of them and with only one lane with traffic lights at either end for two way traffic. We cycled as quickly as we could, waiting only to let oncoming traffic pass. Then we realised that the dirt on the part of the road being worked upon was indeed compacted enough to ride on, as it had just been steamrolled, in fact the steamroller was coming towards us! But this didn’t faze us. Once around the steamroller, the closed off lane was paved and it was easy sailing from then on.
10km further, we finally reached the border to Lithuania ??. We snapped a few photos, high fived and carried on.
It wasn’t long before we came across a shopping sign. We had to check this out, as it was in the middle of nowhere. It turned out to be a small convenience store. Jon bought a beer (which turned out to be no alcoholic again) and Vanessa a fruity drink ?. The store lady indicated that ‘Sventoji’ was only 3km away, so feeling refreshed, we headed for ‘Sventoji’.
We had no idea what to expect but knew that Mapsme’ had told us there were three camping spots. Turning off the main road, the surface was initially sealed but taking another turn, it turned into corrugated gravel. Not easy to ride on! 1km later, we crossed a bridge and rode into what felt a very suburban and well looked after area. The town was so much bigger than we had expected.
We found a camp ground, set up, ate dinner and then went exploring down a forrest lane, which we thought would come out near the beach front. We stepped out onto a sealed road and felt like we’d walked into ‘Mallorca’!! There were tons of tourists, theme park rides, buggies, candyfloss, music (over sensory experience). We quickly located another path, which took us to the beach. The beach was also busy (even though it was 8.30pm) and a little breezy. Walked along, dipped our toe (yup still freezing!) and headed home.