Touring through Poland

Our final day of cycling in Lithuania ended with being interrogated by the Lithuania/Kaliningrad Border Police, so it was only natural that we hopped over the border when the road did pass near it for a few miles. The nearest guard tower was 5 miles away and the Russian side was wild woodland so it was a pretty safe bit of law-breaking. This fancy post marks the Russian side.

border with russia

A few days into Poland we had another bike disaster. We were cycling inbetween two towns when my pedal crank jammed, a few minutes of fiddling managed to fix it. Then 20 minutes later it happened again, and this time fiddling didn’t work. A quick explanation of the problem is that if the pedals can’t turn then I don’t move! We were 9 miles from a town and so my first thought was to ring local taxis. I can only say that they don’t speak English and after four conversations of “co? co?” I lost patience. So using a mix of bike waddling and being towed by my brother we made it to Bartoszyce, the next town.

Bike towing is a useful skill to know, the broken down cyclist simply grabs hold of the mobile cyclist and is pulled along. I found holding onto his shoulder worked well but he found it strenuous work. Alternatively, grab hands and then you can get a bit of a push off when you pull ahead. Of course, this is dependant on having a strong puller.

We ate at ‘Restauracja U Świętego Mikołaja‘ and had a really good two course meal costing £12 for both us! It included two soups, a maincourse of chicken and pierogi (dumplings) plus drinks. We had Kvass, a fermented black drink made from Rye Bread. It was… unusual.

The meal was definitely tastier than any attempts we could have made to cook the octopus we frequently saw in shops. The thought of tentacles drooping over the sides of our camping saucepan was enough to put me off buying one. Though 40.48zl (£8.53) is a pretty good price for an entire octopus.

The next morning we caught a bus from Bartoszyce to Gdansk (32zl each + 60zl for both bikes), where we found a bike shop willing to take a look at my bike. The mechanic undid the casing and then accidentally snapped it in half, and said ‘broken!’with an air of finality. At that moment I was feeling apprehension at the bike repair cost to come but he simply did it all back up and said ‘fine!’ I made 100% clear with him that it was good for another 1000km and we left. He didn’t charge us, which makes sense considering that if anything he broke it more.

Photo of broken bike

The white jagged edge is where it snapped off, all the way around.

The next few days were uneventful cycling along the Polish coast towards Germany. We stopped along the road to enjoy the beach and found it crowded with people! A very different scene to the beaches in Estonia and Latvia. Try to spot the difference between this photo of a beach in Poland.

And this photo from when we cycled through Latvia. If you want a beach all to yourself as far as you can see then the Baltic States are where to go.

We both purchased new cycling shoes for the tour, my brother bought Shimano RT500 Shoes (left) for £68, I got Shimano M065 Cycling Shoes (right) for £55. By Poland his were totally knackered. The sole was coming off and the black coating peeling away. On the plus side, he went to Decathlon to buy new shoes and got on so well with the bike mechanic that he gave him the old multitool.

That evening we stayed at a campsite near Wladyslawowo, on the Hel Peninsula. I wouldn’t recommend it there, the campsites were all filthy, crowded and crammed in one after another on the first half of the peninsula. In retrospect, camping on a 100m wide peninsula was never going to be nice.

Thomas had a bit of a row with a campsite woman/cleaner so he left his old shoes sticking out from the curtain in one of the toilet cubicles. Some say that no-one has dared look inside to this day.

—End of the 51-day dry spell!—

The 51 days of cycling in the sunshine ended in Poland much to our dismay. The next few days we cycled with rolling thunder all around us, though it frequently broke up and gave us a chance to dry off.

Towards the end of Poland, I found the largest puffball I’ve ever seen. It’s aptly named Calvatia Gigantea in Latin and is edible when young. I doubt you would have the heart to eat this one though.

At this stage of the cycle tour the odometer is at roughly 4500 miles and we have cycled through 12 countries. Just three countries remaining: Germany (again), Belgium and France.



Border troubles in Lithuania

I am now home! We cycled for four months, over 5000 miles, and through 13 countries.

Lithuania was my least favourite of the Baltic States, that isn’t to say that we had plenty of fun though. We lost equipment and found it again, got waylaid by a super-social German and interrogated by the border guard.

Our second day in Lithuania was an unusually long one. Leaving the campsite at 9am and cycling until 7pm in the evening. We decided not to go along the Curonian spit as we needed to cut around the Russian province of Kaliningrad and the spit didn’t go in the right direction. I did see the sailing boat moored in Klaipėda though, where the spit begins.

We couldn’t find a campsite at 5pm so I went into a supermarket and filled up all our water carrying equipment (bottles and platypus) whilst Thomas chatted to some Lithuanian children who were delighted to test their English on him. As we cycled off we heard them yelling behind us: “Tom! Tom!” He turned around and found that he had left his hat on the ground and they were running after us to give it back.

We were cycling in the twilight when a minibus driver stopped in the middle of the road and started jabbering to us. The gist of the conversation seemed to be that we should put our lights on, though neither of us understood a word he was saying. We looked at him blankly and after a few more communications attempts he shrugged, muttered something and drove off. We likewise shrugged, thought he was crazy and cycled on. Then further down the road, we noticed a police car, then another, then another, all parked on a forest track. They were standing in a circle talking so we cycled faster and fortunately they didn’t stop us. I think there are certain laws in the Baltic about lights and wearing visible clothing, which we were probably breaking.

The Cateye Saga

Firstly, cateye is the manufacturer of the speedometer I use. It clips on to the handlebars and measures distance by how fast the wheel turns. The cateye debacle started when Thomas broke a spoke. We had been going over horrendous roads all day, the Lithuanians’ repair roads by ripping them up in long stretches and then letting people drive over them. It’s not comfortable, and certainly not good for the bikes.

I bet you’re thinking ‘huh, that doesn’t look too bad?’ It’s not if the roads are empty. But as soon as a car comes along we either go into the gravel on the left or the dust on the right. We get coated in fine grit either way, and it doesn’t taste nice.

Fortunately, we only ended up with that one broken spoke and so made it to the nearest town which had a bicycle shop. Only it was closed due to Assumption of Mary – a national holiday in many Catholic Countries. We decided to carefully cycle on. Then it struck us, the primary way of travel are buses – so why not catch one! We successfully caught a bus for only €4 each but in the process my cateye was knocked off.

In the campsite that evening we met an overly social German who invited us to have beer beside his caravan. We ended up there all evening, slapping mosquitoes and standing in the dark. There was a good sunset over the lake though.

The following morning we fixed the bike ourselves at a bike shop as the mechanic was out. As we were puzzling out how to true the wheel when the mechanic returned and wordlessly took over for us. We decided to go back 20 miles for the cateye, it should have been easy peasy, but of course we somehow missed the bus stop and cycled an extra 9 miles further (and then back again!) than we needed to. The fact that we didn’t notice familiar surroundings is testament to how exhausted we get towards the end of the day, and how different things look from the opposite direction.

To make us feel a bit better we bought one of those super fancy looking cakes you always see but never buy. We found it in the discounted section of course.

interrogation by the border guard

In the evening we camped above a lake on the Lithuanian/Kaliningrad border. On our side the lakeside was scattered with lights, on the Russian side it was pitch black. But bizarrely, around 8pm we heard very loud thumping music from across the lake. We had seen frequent ‘NO CAMPING’ signs and uniformed guards in jeeps so decided to avoid any trouble and camp in a field above the lake.

We got going early in the morning and so everything was slightly damp from the dew and condensation in the tent. Further on we found a dry bus stop and so stopped to set everything out, sleeping bags draped over the bench, towels on the curb, washing on nearby trees, and so on. Then up comes a jeep, out hop two soldiers with guns and I worriedly look around at our drying gear.

“Lithuanian border control. Can we see your papers?”
We immediately jumped to it whilst they looked at our washing, at us, then back at the washing. I pretended not to notice.
“Thank you. Where are you going?” One asked, as the other agonisingly slowly flicked through each page of the passports.
“Where are you from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Cycling around the Baltic Sea for four months.”
They ignore the obvious conversation hook, snap the passports shut and have a final look at our washing.
“Ok, carry on.”
With that final sentence, they marched back to the jeep, climbed in and slowly drove off leaving us feeling embarassed about our drying gear and feeling glad we hadn’t been interrogated whilst wild camping within a mile of Russia.

Disaster Strikes in Latvia 

I’m once again on the move. We’re camping near Maastricht in the Netherlands tonight, we’ve extended the tour to include the Flanders Cycle Route through Belgium to Dunkirk.

The first part of the Latvian disaster is that my brother started to feel ill one morning when we were wild camping without water. He was then sick multiple times, I told him to man up and we cycled 45 miles until we found another suitable wild camping spot. He spent the rest of the day languishing in bed.

On route that day we spotted… A giant chair. Funnily enough, it was advertising a campsite but we decided to push on to the one we had planned.

The legs were double my height and so impossible to climb without some kind of aid. You can spot the log restoring against the back but it didn’t help much. Especially as I didn’t want to break anything in the middle of a Baltic country 1500 miles from home.

Latvia has the one of the longest beaches in Europe, that stretches the entirety of the hook near Riga. It is an amazing experience to be able to walk along a beach for a few miles on a blistering hot day and not see anyone. Try it in the UK and you would struggle to see the sand.

Having cycled most of an entire sea we are well aware that cycling on sand is not worth the sheer amount of difficulty it entails. I remember speaking to one couple touring who followed signs for another eurovelo route that took them along muddy tracks and then through sand dunes. It took them over 2 hours to do 5km!

The disaster struck me three days after Thomas. We ate and topped up with water in a town and then cycled for an hour into the forest bordering the sea.

Like the start of many disasters, it was a perfect evening at the beginning. We found a spot over looking the sea and drank hot chocolate as the sun set. There wasn’t a soul in sight and the view was stunning.

But then I felt the pangs of illness in my stomach and the evening rapidly deteriorated from there. I spent the night half out of the tent decorating the cliff with Latvian dumplings, a popular national dish. We both concluded it was a bug as we caught it days apart and so couldn’t be the food or water.

By the morning it was over and it was only fair that we cycle 45 miles to a campsite bringing our wild camping streak to an end. From arriving in Sweden to Latvia we wild camped a total of 22 consecutive days!

We quickly cycled through Riga, the capital of Latvia. It was a beautiful city and one I would like to explore without bicycles.

Despite the trials and tribulations of Latvia it remains my favourite Baltic State and the cake eaten and beaches camped will always be remembered.

The next country is Lithuania and the final Baltic State.

The first Baltic State

I‘m currently in Dusseldorf, Germany. We spent a while in Poland to make the most of the cheap food then made our way through east and central Germany. 

Estonia is our first Baltic state and marks the beginning of the westward journey home. It is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe and so we found an abundance of woods to camp in and rarely saw anyone in the evening.

I found my first, and thus far the only waterfall of the holiday in Estonia. I’ve found that the problem with cycling around a sea is that it’s flat and so water tends to stagnate not cascade. Making it less interesting and harder to wild camp.

A good tip for bicycle tourers is to ignore road work signs (within reason!). We were cycling along and saw some signs but decided to carry on anyway, not wanting to subject ourselves to the same detour as cars. A tourer can quickly nip past the workmen before they can blink and avoid going the long way around.

We found that the bridge had been ripped up and that they were in the process of building a new one. Fortunately there was a small pedestrian bridge which we could use. Ignoring the signs saved us a 30 minute detour.

A common sight as we cycled along were stalks beside the road. We enjoyed racing alongside them as they gradually flapped higher. The most I saw at once was seven pecking around in a plowed field.

As mentioned at the beginning, a recurring problem in Estonia is water when wild camping. In an earlier post I introduced the tourers rule that:

“European churches and graveyards tend to always have water.” 

In Estonia this rule held true, but not quite to the same quality as before. Many had boreholes with hand water pumps, some had wells and used a log weight system to fetch the water. Many others had similar medieval well contraptions.

With regard to our recent experiences, I am amending the rule to:

“European churches and graveyards tend to always have water, but always carry a method of purifying it.” 

Carrying purification tablets or simply always boiling water could be a rule in itself but it is so obvious that I think most people would already be aware of it.

When wild camping was impossible we discovered that Estonia has legal wild camping spots in the woods, consisting of a water tap and dry toilets. Motor vehicles are charged €3 entry but bicycles are free. This website has some interesting information about camping in the Baltic States which is useful if you ever plan to visit: Riga Bike Tours.

At the free campsite we met caravaners doing the exact same route as us, only in a lot less time! Later on we swam in the sea and then had a beautiful sunset, the clouds are the remnant of a freak rain shower that lasted 5 minutes and drenched us during supper.

At Ikla, the border town to Latvia I spotted a cabin hidden amongst the trees. It’s not any kind of tourist attraction but simply someone’s house that has long since been abandoned to nature.

From Ikla we cycled on into Latvia, where the expedition took a turn for the worse…

The King’s Road through Finland 

I’m currently in Poland, working my way down the border of Kaliningrad (Russia!). Updates have been intermittent due to weak WiFi. 

The Finnish section of the holiday was short, only spending four nights in the country. We cycled from Turku to Helsinki along the King’s Road, a section of the old major postal route that linked up Norway to Russia in the 14th century. 

It was 150 miles of mostly forest and wilderness. We were close to the sea but rarely saw it as the forest surrounded us and blocked the view. 

The Finnish supermarkets sell beetroot and gherkins in giant tubs. The beetroot was really good, but the gherkins were soft and not so enjoyable. 

After three days cycling we arrived in Helsinki, and not wanting to be stuck overnight in the city went straight to the ferry office. We bought a ticket for the catamaran to Tallinn, costing €70. It was departing in 30 minutes so we rushed to see the two fancy buildings we had spotted on the cycle in. The first one was Helsinki’s magnificent white cathedral. 

The second building was another magnificent cathedral. I can’t think of anywhere else that has two impressive cathedrals so close together. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to get a good look at either and rushed back to the ferry terminal with minutes to spare. 

We arrived in Estonia at 5pm and had a quick look around before heading out of the city to look for somewhere to camp.

The Archipelago Sea

I’m currently in Estonia, in what feels like the middle of nowhere. We’ve started going west, towards home! 

This update encompasses the Aland Islands, sailing through the Archipelago Sea, and arriving in Finland.

A constant thought during the first half of the tour was whether we should go further north in Sweden and up around the Bothnian Sea or cut across to Finland. In Stockholm we decided that we had had enough of endless woods and that sailing through the Archipelago Sea would be more interesting. It consists of 20,000 islands, almost all uninhabited.
Our morning cycle to the ferry was the third damp day we’ve had since arriving in Europe, 27 days in. We camped in the woods beside the port and so had no problems arriving in time to catch the 9am ferry.

We felt that Aland was less interesting than Gotland. It didn’t have the same quantity of historic towns, natural wonders and interesting countryside.
We did a three day tour up to the north end of the island, hoping to catch a view of some of the small archipelago islands. We didn’t, but we did swim in the sea for four days running.

I think the problem with islands is that the allure of being surrounded by sea is very strong but the reality is that you don’t really see it unless there is a coastal road or you go out of your way.

We found a fascinating wood, the ground was covered in spongey, nearly white moss.

It was on the island that we met a Finnish farner who didn’t know English and so we resorted to communicating through gestures. He warned us of snakes by wiggling his arms, kids playing football by mimicking a goal and told us where the toilet was by… Well, you can guess.

The Archipelago Sea

Sailing through the islands was the most fun ferry trip I’ve been on. It cost €50 from the checkin terminal at Kapellskär, a port 70 miles north of Stockholm. It’s designed to be done as a cruise as well as a simple ferrying of people back and forth. So on deck there was a bar, music blaring out and lots of seating.

We sat on deck for the whole crossing so prepare yourself for a multitude of islands, sea and natural beauty. Vikingline was the company we sailed with from Stockholm to the Aran Islands and then to Turku, near Helsinki.

It is possible to sail between many of the larger islands, ferry services tend to run once a day or on demand in some cases. We decided to cycle around Mariehamn as going to smaller islands is impractical with bicycles and would also consume more time than we have.

Whilst the ferry trip was thoroughly enjoyable, it did have the negative impact of reaffirming my opinion that long cruises are not for me. I want to be out on dry land, exploring it, rather than stuck on a ship 20 hours a day and occasionally docking for a quick look around.

We arrived in Finland at 5pm, so cycled through Turku and camped just outside the city. It’s roughly 150 miles to Helsinki, following the Kings Road, the old main road that goes through key villages along the coast.

Destination: Gotland 

I’m currently on a ferry to Turku sailing through the Archipelago Sea. 

Since leaving jolly old England we’ve been cycling 24 days and 1300 miles. So it isn’t that surprising that we decided a holiday was in order. Originally I was keen on going to the island of Oland but we noticed on the map that we could take a ferry to Gotland and then another one back further up the coast. After much deliberation over the cost (£90 there, £60 back) we decided to get on with it and go.

The ferry left at 18.30 so we arrived around 21.00 and were treated to our first beautiful sunset on the island.

We camped at 22.00 in the garden area of a church, as no way were we going to pay for a campsite we couldn’t relax in all afternoon.

The next day we cycled back to Visby, the only city on the island. It has a massive fortified wall partly to protect town traders from farmers angry at the monopoly over trade.

Inside the city was just as impressive, with a mix of ruins and buildings.

After the great sunset when we arrived, we spent the following day getting into position for the next one. We cycled up the west coast and found a small fishing harbour to swim in. We pitched the tent in the woodland above the beach and then sat down to enjoy the sunset.

The sunset eclipsed the previous one in terms of beauty, maybe because we had time to find the best spot to see it.

Gotland is famous for its Rauk Stacks, the best ones are on the northernmost island but there are also many scattered around on the main island.

We saw our final special sunset from the east coast, I have a feeling that if we had seen it over the sea it may have been the best one yet.

The next stage of the tour is up to Stockholm and then across to the Aland islands and the Archipelago sea.

Cycling Southern Sweden

I’m currently on a ferry to the Aland Islands, Finland, on my Baltic Sea cycle tour. 

I’ve been looking forward to cycling through the Scandinavian countries since we planned the tour. Sweden and Finland have a ‘everyman’s right’ to camp where you like (within reason). So whilst food is more expensive, we have yet to stay at a campsite.

My third bicycle touring top tip that has come in incredibly useful in Sweden is:

“European churches and graveyards tend to always have water”

Whilst ‘everyman’s right’ is great, it’s not much use mid-summer when most water sources are mosquito HQ. And so it is definitely worth finding a church with a grassy corner hidden away. We have yet to be kicked out.

So far, Swedish churches have been beautiful and the taps plentiful.

Near Ljungbyholm we camped beside a large river in a beech wood. We walked along it hoping to find somewhere in the sun away from mosquitoes, when what do we find… A football pitch! It was overgrown so we decided to camp along one edge to catch the morning sun.

After pitching we went for a swim in the river. It was incredibly deep with a strong undercurrent, holding onto a branch and staying still resulted in your legs being swept horizontal.

For breakfast we had yoghurt and three berry muesli, all picked by us.

Cherries we commonly find alongside the road, raspberries near the deep river and bilberries up the rocky valleyside we were camped in.

We  occasionally cycle past fields of flowers, clover is planted to put nutrients back into the soil for the following year. By far the best was this one, with a multitude of flowers mixed in and a traditional Swedish red barn in the background.

On our way to the ferry port to Gotland we cycled through miles upon miles of woods. At times they seemed a neverending mass of brown and green. Having spent a month cycling in Ireland, I am of the firm opinion that moving on to different countries is important on long tours, this is as too much of one thing can become tiresome. Especially if all you can see is trees.

On that thread, we decided to abandon the mainland for a time and cycle around the island of Gotland.

Exploring Copenhagen

Copenhagen is beautiful. Its one of the best cities I’ve visited and certainly the most impressive thus far on the cycle tour. 

The main attraction is that it’s got many historic buildings, multiple palaces, Tivolis (amusement park), a harbour, and a famous restaurant street running beside the river.

The King’s Garden

Nyhavn Street

Known for its expensive restaurants and shops, the street runs along a waterway with boats moored along either side. A local told us how in the 1795 a fire ripped through the city and afterwards they were rebuilt based on  selection of generic plans. Now many of the houses are similar but have slight variations depending on the plan used. 

Amalienborg Palace and the Marble Church

Figuring out how to get to Sweden initially posed a problem. When we planned the route we knew there was a Copenhagen-Malmo bike ferry but upon arriving nobody seemed to know about it. We hunted down free WiFi and I spent ages clicking through Google trying to find it. After numerous websites I found a link to another site that explained that the ferry was supposedly active all summer but in small print at the top it said ‘services not running from 5th July to 26th’ and so that plan was scuppered. 

As the bridge is a motorway and trains cost a fortune, he only option left was to cycle 30km up the coast and take the ferry to Helsingborg. 

Reaching the Baltic Sea

Denmark is the first country we’ve cycled that properly borders the Baltic and so after nearly a week we have reached the beginning of the planned Baltic route.  The route is to cycle up through Denmark along the coasts of Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Germany. In Germany we stop off in Dusseldorf which signifies the end to the Baltic Sea tour and we start the process of getting home again. 

Our first Danish town was Nykøbing Falster, and the first town to truly feel European. The streets were full of colourful umbrellas hanging down and there was a traditional market selling all kinds of interesting foods. 

We took the the old bridge to Denmark’s main island, as the new one is immensely busy. It turned out to be a good decision as we had a wonderful view of a sparkling pathway over the water. 

A small problem travelling through so many countries is that we don’t know the languages. So our knowledge of Danish is limited and shopping is sometimes guess work. We spotted this carton in the milk section of a supermarket. It turned out to be fermentated yoghurt, originating from Mongolia! Needless to say, our tea tasted odd. 

In the late afternoon we swam from a pier by the campsite and enjoyed the blazing sunshine. Swimming consisted of constantly dodging hundreds of clear jellyfish. In the evening there was a beautiful sunset and in the distance by the bridge we had cycled a building reflected the sun, seeming as if it was on fire. 

The next day we spoke to a local further up the coast and he explained that the white jellyfish are the bad stingers, the clear ones we swam with are ‘just a bit nasty’.

The next day we arrived at Copenhagen and spent Sunday resting and exploring the city.