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Stromy podjazd

2 September 2018

Szczecin, Poland to Schwedt, Germany

Leaving Szczecin we were led by Garmin (GPS) on a dodgy trail across a rail bridge, then over several train lines and along rubbish strewn tracks.

Once in the countryside things improved. We rode along the Oder, on bike paths, unsealed roads and sandy tracks. A sign warned us of stromy podjazd – steep road. It was certainly too steep to ride but didn’t last long.

We crossed the border into Germany and, soon after this, saw hundreds of storks, some flying around and calling out and many more congregating in a field. This was an impressive sight.

One of the small villages we passed through, Hohenreinkendorf, was celebrating its 775th anniversary. The town was decorated from one end to the other with bunting and displays of produce at the front of many houses. The action was taking place near the church where there were marquees and stalls selling wurst (yes, we indulged), beer and roast chicken, and entertainment was provided by a band playing brass multiple-bell instruments that we hadn’t seen before – East German schalmei horns. They have what could be called a robust tone and a vigorous dynamic!

After this we were on the Oder-Neisse Radweg (bike path) for much of the remaining distance to Schwedt, an industrial GDR town after being flattened in WW2, now an attractive modern place with colourful apartment buildings surrounding the remnants of the old town centre.

Polish trains

1 September 2018

Gdansk to Poznan then Szczecin by train

Travelling by train in Poland today was a mixed experience. We had bought tickets online for ourselves and two bikes. When the train arrived at Gdansk it was a real scramble to get everything on board as (i) we were not the only people with bikes (ii) there were already several bikes on board and (iii) there is no dedicated space to put bikes! The only option was to stash as many as would fit in the small spaces at the end of the carriages which then made access difficult for people boarding or walking through to the next carriage. Somehow we made it work and the conductor accepted the result – probably happens all the time.

The train was comfortable and quick but there was no information display showing the upcoming stops, nor was there wifi. On the second leg of this trip we had a 6-seat compartment to ourselves and in the next carriage along so did a cellist who was doing some practice. I interrupted him briefly and found out that his name is Robert, he studied cello in Warsaw and now plays professionally in an orchestra in Szczecin. They are about to go on tour to Krasnogorsk. He was practising his part in a Mendelssohn string quartet.

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The day was grey and overcast and the Polish countryside was flat and pretty featureless – a good stretch to do on the rails. We are in Szczecin, proudly the capital of West Pomerania, an interesting city on the River Oder, with trams, churches, a new white Filharmonie and many grand streets with impressive architecture. A sign near the entrance to St Jacob’s Cathedral explains about the Pomeranian Way, the Baltic section of the pilgrim route to Santiago that we travelled along two days ago.

In the supermarket near our accommodation you can buy a whole sunflower head! Can’t do that in Foodland.

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On the pilgrim trail

30 August 2018

Yesterday we saw scallop symbols for the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route fixed to trees along the road. We have seen many more today and this morning passed two walkers with scallop shells on their rucksacks. It’s a long way from here to there!

We had a couple of hills to climb and then descend with good views across the Vistula Lagoon from the top. Today has mostly been spent on quiet country roads through small villages as we crossed the flat farmland along the Baltic coast. Crucifixes and shrines were numerous, tractors were out reaping and ploughing, old blokes were fishing and riding their bikes.

We had a power supply problem to solve as the plug that worked throughout Scandinavia and Russia is not compatible with Polish power points. We found a small shop that had the solution we needed but it was the first place we have come across that didn’t accept credit cards – and of course we had no zlotys. This was also an issue on the ferry across the Vistula, near Gdansk, but fortunately we had just enough Euros in cash and these were acceptable.

Gdansk has an impressive old centre. We are staying directly opposite the Basilica of St Mary, second biggest brick building in the world after Albi Cathedral.

Out of Russia again

29 August 2018

Kaliningrad to Frombork, Poland

Kaliningrad is proud of its past as Konigsberg, based on the historical photos on display, but it seems that little of this remains after two World Wars. It is now a busy city with lots of traffic, trolley buses, trams, Sovietsky apartments and statues and a few grand houses and buildings from more prosperous times. We managed our navigation by retreating to the footpath as much as possible.

On the way to Kaliningrad South station we stopped at a mobile phone shop where Ian bought a phone for under $100 to replace his recently deceased one. Then we noticed and followed the red line that had been painted on the footpath to guide World Cup visitors from the station to the FanFest.

A large statue in the Soviet style, presumably of Kalinin but not identified, dominates the approach to the station. As at many Russian train stations, this one requires the scanning of all luggage at the entry, so we unloaded everything and went in, to discover that there are only two trains each day to Mamonovo near the Polish border. We had missed the first and the second one was not until mid-afternoon. Timetables for local trains are not available online. Therefore we decided to cycle all the way.

Riding out of Kaliningrad was not too bad. We stayed on the footpath where possible and once out of the city fringe the traffic gradually decreased, the countryside became more scenic and the weather improved.

We reached the border at about 1pm, cruised through fairly quickly and were greeted in Poland by three stork nests, of which we saw none in Kaliningrad.

Now we are in Frombork, a small town on the Vistula Lagoon with a massive cathedral and memorials to Copernicus who lived here.

The tiles on the cathedral roof are being replaced – wonder who pays for that? Delicious dinner of fish and fried potatoes.

Unscheduled day in Siauliai

26 August 2018

Mazeikiai to Siauliai to Klaipeda by train

Today’s plans fell apart! We left Mazeikiai early to take a train to Siauliai, thereby foregoing breakfast at the hotel. That part went OK (except for no breakfast). And seen from the train: a woman hand milking a cow in a field while nearby a man was scything the grass.

At Siauliai we intended to take the morning train to Klaipeda but, based on prior experience, we counted on the train not being booked out. It was! The next train at midday wasn’t booked out but the bicycle spaces were. Therefore we bought tickets for the 5.09pm train and came to terms with the necessity to spend the day in Siauliai.

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This is Lithuania’s 4th biggest city, probably best known for a nearby tourist attraction, the Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site since the 1830s. We could not bring ourselves to go there so concentrated on other local features of which there were plenty. Siauliai (pr. Shooly) has more museums than you’d expect including the Cat Museum, the Angel Museum, the Railway Museum (closed on weekends), the Photography Museum and the Bicycle Museum. We started with the latter which was good value for 2 Euros entry – and they also let us park our bikes inside. It displayed bikes from various eras and of a range of styles accompanied by photos and information highlighting the local factory where bikes continue to be manufactured.

Siauliai the city has more than its share of decrepitude but it is making progress with the renovation of the central pedestrianised area, where one half is newly paved. The other half is in a state of apparently long-term disrepair with much of the paving dug up and left in piles. It is well served with better cafes and bakeries than we have seen for awhile.

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The local park by a lake has an iron fox, a labyrinth and water sports. There are interesting sculptures, monuments, murals, a university and a cathedral. Preparations were taking place for an outdoor concert in the city centre. The overcast sky turned to drizzle and rain in the late afternoon.

Eventually it was time to catch the train – we had precisely one minute to locate the correct carriage, unload the bikes, lift them up three steep steps into the train and get our panniers inside. About 20 seconds of this time were taken up by a woman in front of us who struggled to climb in with her heavy bags. Luckily for us, a security guard came to our assistance and we made it!

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The train was slow and noisy and stopped at every station, making it a 3 hour trip to cover about 130km to Klaipeda on the Baltic Sea. On the way we counted over 20 stork nests and also saw cows, goats, vegetable gardens, abandoned industrial sites and many small villages. At one station, the train conductor alighted to collect windfall apples from a heavily laden tree near the platform.

Tomorrow morning we will explore Klaipeda.

Gravel road to Lithuania

25 August 2018

Riga to Jelgava by train – Jelgava to Mazeikiai by bike

We took an early morning train from Riga to Jelgava, 50km south, to give us a head start on a long day to Lithuania. Jelgava impressed us with its orthodox church, fine historic buildings and attractive public areas along the river and in the city centre.

Latvia is about to celebrate 100 years of nationhood and this is commemorated in Jelgava by an unusual public sculpture.

Our route commenced on a busy road but traffic lessened as we turned off on to secondary roads. Three storks were spotted early and, after that, many nests, but none occupied – either abandoned (indoor plants taking over) or maybe just vacated until next year. What did storks do before people were around to provide them with poles for their nests?

We had a good opportunity to observe Latvian farms. There was crop reaping occurring on several but otherwise pretty quiet. At a roadside shop we spoke to a Latvian tradie in his hi-viz gear who enthusiastically told us about his 2 month trip around Australia. At Auce, our halfway point, we had black bread, cheese and sausage bought at the Riga market, but only unchilled drinks could be found in the shop.

Soon after this the bitumen ran out and we were obliged to endure 30 km on loose gravel with clouds of dust covering us each time a vehicle passed.

At one stage I looked back to see if Ian was in sight and saw instead a man in black. He was an toothless Latvian man on a single speed clunker with a metal jerry can on his carrier. He had cruised past Ian and caught up to me. He stopped for a brief conversation in which we agreed, with no language in common, that the gravel road was bad, then he rode off.

The temperature was too warm (high 20s) for dusty riding but we slogged it out and reached the bitumen just before the border into Lithuania. Big road works were underway to improve a badly worn out road and these gave us the chance to test out new stretches of smooth hot mix that were inaccessible to cars.

On the approach into our destination, Mazeikiai, a Volvo had run off the road and got bogged in soft sand. We watched as some blokes in an Audi tried to tow it back on to the road with tyres spinning and smoking until the tow rope broke! Our hotel, located in an industrial area overlooking a trucking depot, was both cheap and good and provided delicious Lithuanian food. However they had the underfloor heating going which made the room uncomfortably warm, so we opened up the windows and got both fresh air and high volume live music from the bar.

Riga

23 August 2018

Purtsi to Valga, Estonia by bike – Valga to Riga, Latvia by train

It was cold and sunny at Purtsi this morning. We stopped for breakfast at Torva where the centre of town has been partly modernised with a big plaza and the rest has extensive road works in progress. It was a pleasant surprise (1) to find a cafe and (2) that it was open. Many Estonian towns have only a Coop or Konsum supermarket and little else.

We saw one stork today as it flew close by us with a stick in its beak, obviously doing some home maintenance before setting off for Africa.

Our destination was Valga another 30km down the road. As we approached Valga the road followed the Latvian border which was marked with black and white bollards.

The town is divided between Estonia and Latvia. It has an orthodox church of St Isidor with a cluster of onion domes and a huge bright white railway station. The big Maxima supermarket has a good fish selection, and in the entry a was woman selling delicious smelling smoked sausage and pork laid out on a long table.

We took the 2.37 to Riga, a three hour trip at speeds we are accustomed to in Australia. It had wifi though and space for bikes. There is no integration of train services between the Baltic countries with each terminating its lines at or short of the border.

Arriving in Riga, our accommodation plans fell through and we had to make last minute arrangements before finding a Latvian beer in a shady park and a slightly overwhelming but good value buffet restaurant – too many food choices is not such a bad problem!

Rainy ride to Rapla

21 August 2018

What we didn’t know until late this morning is that 20 August is Day of Restoration of Independence, celebrating the dramatic events of 1991. Tallinn was quiet but the shopping centres were open. We began to suspect something when we saw many houses with wet Estonian flags flying limply as it was drizzling with rain.

At Freedom Square in Tallinn there was an outdoor exhibition of photos from turbulent times in the 20th century when the Baltic states were under Soviet and then German occupation.

We had just seen a large number of Estonian soldiers chanting as they marched along the footpath near the city centre – not sure where they were going.

On the edge of Tallinn, heading south, we came across a sign commemorating the Baltic Way, when people from the three Baltic countries formed a human chain on 23 August 1989 to express solidarity against their loss of independence in 1939.

After this we slogged it out with continuous rain and drizzle through forests, farms and unremarkable towns.

The last 15km along the main road inspired us to investigate the train as there was a station was nearby, but a 50 minute wait wasn’t worth it so we rode on.

Rapla is a small town that has a large church with two steeples, a nice guesthouse where we are accommodated along with a number of other wet cyclists, and a cosy pub that serves good Estonian fish soup and schnitzels.

Coffee in Kuusalu

20 August 2018

We breakfasted on bad Russian muesli in our hostel before receiving a goodbye hug from our host. She may have just been grateful that we paid her in cash! It was cool and drizzly as we set out on quiet roads (bitumen all the way today – yay!) through the forest – no elk though.

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After 40km or so we were looking for coffee and, arriving at the town of Kuusalu, we felt moderately optimistic. There was a hamburger kiosk on the edge of town – not open until 12. In town there was a supermarket, a bus stop and a church but no cafe. We visited the old Lutheran church where the 11am service was about to begin with a small congregation – 2 people were coming in as we departed. As Estonia is one of the least religious countries in the world, churches are not numerous here.

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On the way out of Kuusalu we passed a large sports centre and, as the rain was increasing, we stopped there to find that, as well as team sports, they had coffee and nice food available – muffins, open sandwiches, salad rolls, fruit salad. Great! After a break waiting for the weather to clear, we set off again just in time to get rained on again and to meet a couple of cyclists approaching us, Rudi and Barbara from Switzerland, who had set off from Tallinn this morning. In a 5 minute chat we let them in on the news of our coffee discovery and gave them some tips on Russia where they are headed.

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Several dozen storks were grazing in the fields nearby, the most we have seen in one place on this trip. That was a lovely sight!

Closer to Tallinn we detoured a short way to see the Jägala Waterfall with a drop of 8 metres – for Estonia that’s pretty high.

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The approach to Tallinn is not at all medieval. As we travelled through the industrial fringe an intense rain storm drenched everything – but not us as we sheltered in a bus stop.

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Soon after this we reached the waterfront from which the cruise ships, ferries, old town church spires and modern skyscapers of Tallinn could be seen.

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Stork and elk

19 August 2018

Ian is the expert at spotting wildlife. This morning he saw another stork perched high on a tower and, later, a mother elk with a calf in the forest.

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Today we specialised in off-road tracks and became closely acquainted with Estonian forests. Before this we passed through the town of Kunda where there is a paper factory, a cement factory and a Cement Museum, presumably to educate people about the wonders of this material that so many of us take for granted. Like other towns, there were few people visible on the streets in Kunda and hardly any shops. We visited the supermarket and by chance noticed a cafe and stopped for coffee.

Our route followed the coast where at one place we could go right to the beach and rest on a couple of old armchairs to observe hundreds of white swans on the water.

The final part of today’s ride was all on tracks that varied from hardly visible (thanks Garmin! We rejected that one) to soft and sandy to single track with tree roots everywhere. It was hard going.

But we eventually emerged on to a sealed road (there should be a Bitumen Museum) and arrived at Vosu, a charming holiday town on a small bay. We are in a slightly dilapidated but comfortable hostel with a friendly proprietor.

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Modesty screen on the beach at Vosu

All quiet on the Estonian front

18 August 2018

Narva to Kortsialuse, Estonia

(Apologies to Erich Maria Remarque)

Narva, a fort city, is situated on the Narva River which forms the border between Estonia and Russia. It has been the location of many battles, most recently during WW2 when great damage was done to the old town. All appears peaceful now though. We saw a line of cars queued up to go across the border and the town cleaning team sweeping up as we ventured out for breakfast.

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We have had a long day on the road, much of it along the coast. Narva-Jõesuu, where the Narva River reaches the sea, is a holiday area with beach access and lots of accommodation. There are also some large abandoned apartment buildings.

We followed Eurovelo Route 13 for much of the way, making slow progress towards our destination. We had some stretches along rough unsealed tracks that were about as bad as Kangaroo Island! Interesting sights were a bride and groom having photos taken with the sea as backdrop and two young Belgian cyclists with way too much luggage including a Viking scarecrow.

There were a number of small towns, all of which had little or no commerce and few people around. We went into a shop in Sillimae that was invisible to us until we saw some people emerge from it. Like the shops in Russia, it had a wide selection of goods available, a significant proportion of which were alcoholic beverages of all kinds.

There are high cliffs above the sea giving a good view of the Gulf of Finland and a couple of islands far offshore to the north. By mid afternoon we decided to follow Garmin (GPS) rather than the bike route and this gave us a variety of sealed roads and forest and farm tracks, while avoiding the highway to Tallinn which is not ideal for our purposes. We saw reaping of crops, two storks in a field and one on a nest, farms and villages, apple trees (fruit tested by Ian and found to be inedible) and a large slag heap that had been vegetated and turned into a downhill gokart track. No shops, no cafes, no bakeries.

The last 12km on a dirt road through an uninhabited area made it hard to believe that we were headed towards our accommodation. We had no idea whether we would be able to get an evening meal and were mentally preparing for instant noodles. Emerging on to the main road though, our hostel appeared and everything we needed was available – cold beer, hot meal, shower and bed. Our companions here are a group who look as though they are on a work team-building jaunt – they are playing musical chairs and other developmental games.

The Impressionists

16 August 2018

Until today we had not been inside a St Peterburg Russian Orthodox church so we selected the Church of the Assumption of Mary, located on one of the embankments overlooking the Neva but some distance away from the tourist crowds. This impressively beautiful church, surprisingly, hardly rates a mention as a tourist attraction. I put on a head scarf and Ian wore long trousers. It was quiet with few visitors along with a Russian film crew that appeared to be filming for a documentary. The interior is overwhelmingly ornate. During the Soviet era it was put to other uses (warehouse and skating rink) so it was in bad shape until renovations were done during the 1990s.

Nearby are a couple of museums, one on an ice breaker ship, another in a submarine, both on the Neva. The St Petersburg Mining University, also nearby, features two dramatic sculptures at the entrance – The Abduction of Proserpina and Hercules and Antaeus.

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It is hard work riding around on a bike because of uneven surfaces, high kerbs, lack of opportunity to cross the road and heavy traffic. To be fair though, St Petersburg has many pedestrian crossings and motorists respect them if you step out assertively. Traffic light-controlled crossings are common but some allow only 30 seconds to cross 6 or 8 lanes with a high median strip in the middle (count down indicators are everywhere – these are a big help).

Day 2 at the Hermitage enabled us to view the Impressionist exhibitions in the General Staff Building – this is the yellow semicircular building on the other side of Palace Square that looks across to the Winter Palace. On Wednesdays opening hours are extended to 9pm we we went in the early evening when there were no queues and fewer visitors. This building has been extensively and expensively renovated – it’s pretty schmick. We enjoyed seeing many famous works by Degas, Monet, Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky and others.

 

We are cool

13 August 2018

Ozerki to Zelenogorsk by bike – then by train to St Petersburg

In all senses – it rained overnight and by morning the temperature had dropped. As it was Sunday there was little traffic so we rode off towards St Petersburg. We passed a red and white lighthouse almost completely obscured by trees, several abandoned shops, a few small villages and some unlittered beaches. The bus stops along the road broke the monotony of the landscape that is mainly forest, forest and more forest.

The traffic increased during the morning so it was a relief to find an off-road walking and bike path (in variable condition) for the last 5 or so kilometres into Zelenogorsk from where we took a train to St Petersburg. Ticket purchasing was aided by Google translate – I held up my phone so the woman could read what we wanted in Russian and I could avoid revealing my bad accent.

St Petersburg is a big place, but not too bad for cycling on a Sunday. There are trams and trolley buses and lots to take in. We made our way to Vasilievsky Island to find our Warmshowers hosts – not easy to do but we eventually succeeded. Sasha (designer and illustrator) and Vlad (cook or chef) live in a tiny apartment in an 8 storey building. The area around here has many medium and high rise apartment buildings, not all in a good state of repair.

After drinking a cup of Karelian tea, we went out to walk a km or so to the Gulf of Finland along an expensively engineered and landscaped canal that should be a public recreation asset but has an air of delapidation. Near the sea is a view of many massive high rise buildings, football stadium, huge freeway, cruise ship terminal and the Lahkta Centre, an 87 storey skyscraper.

Close shaves

12 August 2018

Vyborg – Primorsk – Ozerki, Russia

That is referring to the traffic not the barbershop!

Warm weather continues here. We have slept without blankets now for weeks as it does not cool down much during the night. There was some overnight rain last night; the morning sky was overcast and the breeze was cool.

The road to Primorsk was patchy (the bitument that is) and the traffic initially heavy-ish but it diminished a little as we progressed. This area is not especially scenic, featuring forest much of the way, a stretch of railway, occasional glimpses of the sea and few towns of interest.

Primorsk was the only major town on our route today. It could be described as dismal but there were a few bright spots that made a good impression. The first was a bread kiosk that Ian noticed, where we bought a piping hot bread ring with savoury filling and a bread pasty filled with melted stretchy cheese – yum! Why aren’t there more of these everywhere? They were too hot to eat immediately so we consumed them at the outdoor table of a cafe (one of few in the town) while we drank coffee. The cafe was divided into a family friendly decorated in brilliant colours and an adult area in more muted tones.

Nearby was a small market where about half a dozen vendors were selling their produce – dried fish displayed on a car bonnet, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, zucchinis, fennel seeds, spring onions, basil, dill and fresh flowers. There were also memorials marking the 70th anniversary of a WW2 victory in 1944.

Back on the road again we experienced a few close encounters with drivers who did not feel the need to leave us much space. However, overall the traffic was not too bad. At one point we passed close to the sea and followed a short side track to view the beach. The area had been comprehensively trashed by previous visitors which, to put it politely, detracted from our enjoyment.

We are staying overnight in a tiny village, Ozerki, in accommodation that is pretty basic but overpriced, comparable with our benchmark of 2010 – the Cape Jervis Motel ($80 for run down, not clean enough room with no potable water provided). Ozerki doesn’t have a lot to offer apart from a shop called Продукты (Products – accurate if not imaginitive) and the Russian Orthodox Church of St Nikolaya Chudotvortsa. We bought fresh cucumbers and tomatoes from a roadside stall near here and cheese from Продукты and made a salad to go with our instant noodles. We can still cook!

Tomorrow – St Petersburg!


									

Gulf of Finland

11 August 2018

Vladimir’s house is one of the newest in Torfyanovska and not quite finished. Hope he can get it done before winter sets in.

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Yesterday was pretty warm and it was the same today. We had a long ride down the highway to Vyborg but there was a shoulder of about 1m in width and the traffic was not too bad. Blueberry sellers set up stalls along the roadside hoping for passing trade but most vehicles are travelling too fast to stop for them.

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Soon after setting off we saw a cyclist ahead of us. We had time for a quick chat as we caught up. He was Sergei, travelling without panniers or proper cycling shoes, but covering big distances. He was aiming to reach St Petersburg today – that’s about 200km. Originally from Russia, he now works in a nuclear power plant in Bavaria.

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On the approach into Vyborg there is a high bridge giving good views of the marshy waters of the Gulf of Finland and the Vyborg castle. We watched some action on the docks where gypsum and coal are either coming or going. This city has been part of Finland in the past but Russia claimed it back after WW2.

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Our Russian language skills are rudimentary at best but we are improving our abilities in reading the Cyrillic script. We have acquired Russian sim cards, explored the sights of historic Vyborg and watched a street procession with stilt walkers, band and mime artists.

Accommodation for tomorrow has been a challenge – it is in short supply, maybe because Russians love to escape to the country each weekend. We have found something, maybe a bit dodgy … stay tuned for details!

Going east

9 August 2018

Helsinki to Kouvola by train – Kouvola to Kotka by bike

Our Warmshowers host Hannu is a photographer, among many other talents. Here are the results of a photo session is his garden this morning!

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We had time before taking our 1.19 train to visit the Sibelius Monument in a park near the city centre. Note to others intending to do this: go early in the morning and beat the rush! It was seriously overrun with tourists who had arrived in large buses and then climbed on and draped themselves over the bust of Sibelius. Many photographs and selfies were taken! Two young cellists put on a free performance and played well. The sculpture is by Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen – not really to my taste.

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Our train ride was excellent –  free wifi, train left exactly on time, bikes in a special storage area. Because we were unable to take an earlier train our day was back-to-front with the riding part at the end. We had to cover just under 60km after leaving Kouvola at 3pm to travel to Kotka on the coast. It was warm and sunny with a cool breeze, flat terrain, low traffic, plenty of bike paths and an unremarkable but pleasant route through the Finnish countryside.

Kotka is an interesting town with a huge modern maritime museum. We had a beer in a grungy bar and observed a well-attended community singing session led by a musical duo (guitar and squeeze box) in the main square. We are accommodated in a budget Airbnb run by Igor who speaks only Russian – getting us into the vibe for the week ahead!

 

Travel dilemmas

8 August 2018

Helsinki, Finland

#1 – Ian lost his jacket, left behind at the Chengdu restaurant last night, now retrieved.

#2 – if we leave Helsinki tomorrow and arrive in Vyborg, Russia, on Saturday we will have to sleep on a park bench, therefore train assistance is needed to get there on Friday and this was more complicated than we expected, but everything has now been arranged.

Our hosts gave us some Helsinki recommendations for today so we began by breakfasting at Karl Fazer Cafe in the city centre, established in 1891 and still providing a delicious buffet breakfast.

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A 5 piece busking band (2 trumpets, drums, tuba and saxophone) were playing nearby so we listened to their versions of an Abba classic, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and Sunny. They were pretty good!

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Then we took a short ferry ride to Suomenlinna, an island with a fortifications and military history as well as a good view of Helsinki. The Finnish Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral is a major landmark with its green roof and golden onion domes. We went inside to see the impressive painted decorations covering much of the walls and ceiling and pictures of saints.

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Last on the program was a place recommended by both Jarrah and Hannu – the Sompasauna, a free unofficial sauna built and operated by volunteers in the most grungy industrial location at the far end of an old harbour that is currently under major redevelopment. We chatted with a Finnish man who told us about the elephant sculpture as well as about the etiquette of the sauna. Ian felt that he had been roasted enough during the hot weather of late, but I stripped down (not off) and went in to join 3 others in the 75 degree heat. That was intense but good. Better in winter though I reckon!

Tail wind to Helsinki

7 August 2018

Lohja to Helsinki, Finland

We joined the VR railway workers for morning coffee at the old Lohja railway station, then a brisk tail wind blew us in to Helsinki.

We are staying in a huge house with large garden on the island of Kulosaari where Hannu and his household have welcomed us. We have planning and organising to do for the next stretch into Russia – no time to write more!

Finland – best country!

6 August 2018

Salo to Lohja, Finland

Finland is regarded as one of the best countries in which to live. As a non-expert on Finnish social policy I have heard that they provide excellent family support services (heard of the baby box?), place a high value on education and hold teachers in high esteem. They have good public transport services with bus stops along almost every sealed road to benefit rural dwellers and to feed train services. Finns are proud to pay taxes that we might consider rather high because they know that they will be well spent and benefit the population.

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This morning we left the retirees’ resort after eating a substantial breakfast and making friends with the button accordion player and with Sarah, the singing teacher and mother of 6, who wants to take her family on bike riding holidays.

We travelled on quiet country roads through fields of wheat, barley and beet, along gravel roads and forest tracks, then a secondary road with a low to moderate volume of traffic.

Our coffee stop was at Karjalohja, a small town with several cafes and a large church with the bells pealing.

Our accommodation tonight is at Lylyisten Kartano, a couple of km off the road near Lohja. It is a low-brow establishment near a lake with several cottages as well as rooms in a large building. The proprietor seemed rather fierce as we cycled up to meet her outside the office and she confirmed that there was no food or beer available. Fortunately, after a rest, a trip of about 3km brought us to a small supermarket where the staff member kindly helped us to identify the items we wanted – the milk and yoghurt sections can be confusing. We have now cooked our first meal since leaving home!

King’s Road from Turku

5 August 2018

Turku to Salo, Finland

Our digs last night were an Airbnb room in Oskari’s 5th floor apartment in Turku, small and stuffy due to the weather, but spacious compared to our place in Stockholm.

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Turku style!

The day began with grey skies and enough drizzle to make us wet. We took the 110 road, the old highway with a nice bike path, out of town. We spoke to a young woman who confirmed our proposed direction. She said that last summer they had 2 days when the temperature exceeded 25C, this summer over 40 days of 25C+.

Traffic avoidance took us to Paimio and then to Hakala where we were inspired, by a sign indicating coffee, to stop at Tromperin Kestikivari. This is a historic house that shows aspects of country life in Finland from the past. We were fortunate to find two young women inside providing hot drinks and cakes. Sofia (trainee hairdresser) and Ada-Lotta (about to commence studies in medicine) were running the cafe as a holiday job. They were short of customers so were pleased to see us. Sofia gave us a brochure about the King’s Road (Kuningkaantie), our intended route that will take us to Helsinki and then on to Vyborg.

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As we were about to ride away from the cafe, a heavily laden cyclist came speeding past. This was Christian from Frankfurt, who is doing a similar route to us but in the opposite direction and at a greater velocity. He told us that he had a lot of rain in Poland, broke a tooth on a hard Russian biscuit, found Russian traffic a bit challenging and made it from St Petersburg to Vyborg (130km) in one day. We hope to avoid all of the above!

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We are now at Lehmirannan Lomakeskus (Leaf Beach Hotel according to Google), a modest country resort in a beautiful location by a lake and surrounded by forest. It’s a kind of hostel with activities, swimming, exercise and wellness aimed at retirees. An old bloke is playing tunes on the button accordion in the cafe and the Finnish retirees are all singing along. But they don’t provide dinner here so we have to make do with cafe snacks and save up for breakfast as we are 13km south of the nearest town, Salo. We rowed across the lake in the hope of finding a kiosk but no luck – only a big sandy beach with lots of kids jumping into the water off diving platforms unsupervised by any lifeguards.