We were not looking forward to the ride into Poland. We had met other cyclists who told us about busy roads with big lorries, we had read reports of bad driving and bad roads on cycling blogs about Poland. There is a narrow border between Lithuania and Poland only about 100km with Russia and Belarus either side. There are only 2 roads that cross the border, we were heading down the East road. We were amazed , it was quiet. The road had a 7.5 ton limit so no big lorries.
We headed on into Poland to find in general good roads and courteous drivers. The main highways were full of big lorries but the smaller roads were fine. We were travelling through the North East of Poland known as the Green Lungs of Poland as it is mainly primeval forest and lakes. Home to wildlife including lynx and wolves. The main sightings through the forest were of mushroom pickers, emerging with bucketfuls of mushrooms.
We reached the City of Bialystok close to the border with Belarus. This was a very smart city, the centre had been renovated and there was an immense square and renovated palace. From here we decided to catch a train down to Krakow as the weather was turning and we needed to get through the mountains before the snow started.
Main Square Krakow
We had been cycling for 3 months and we felt we needed a break so we rented a flat in Krakow for a week and locked the bikes away. Krakow is a beautiful city with loads of sights, including the Wieliczka Salt Mines, Wavel Castle, the Old Town, the Russian built town and steel mill of Nowa Huta and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It has a great tram service and so was easy to get around, and it is fantastic value. We had some brilliant meals for £10 to £15 for two with drinks! Not to mention the best hot chocolate ever at Wedels.
Wavel Castle and Cathedral
Plac Central Nova Huta
The chapel approx 135 metres underground sculpted by the miners in the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
work makes you free
We took a tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau which is a depressing experience. It is difficult to believe man’s inhumanity to his own species. The sheer size of Berkenau camp which could hold 90,000 people in squalor, and brutal conditions, with it’s huge gas chambers, and the torture that went on in the camps is incomprehensible. Pity we never learn.
The Gates of Death at Birkenau through which hundreds of thousands passed to their death.
We cycled south to Lithuania from Daugavpils on an excellent road that turned into a gravel track 5km from the border. We were heading for Vilnius and planning to stay in the Aukstaitijos national park on the way. The roads were excellent and very quiet. We camped in the park and spent a day hiking through the woods. It is a beautiful area with a variety of wildlife including Golden Eagles and White tailed sea eagles.
The Cathedral and Tower
The castle from old town
Our ride to Vilnius was the longest so far 125km which was easy until about 10km from Vilnius when we had to get off the main roads as they were too busy and went in on a very bumpy cycle track. Vilnius is noted for its old town and multitude of Baroque churches so I was pleased to discover that we had arrived just in time for their Music Festival. This took place over 4 stages in the New Town area along Gediminas Avenue. The whole street had been shut off and was filled with stalls selling everything from local produce to ceramics, art work, clothing, books, hot food and bars. It must have stretched for about a kilometer.
The KGB building
Names of those who perished engraved on the KGB building.
We had never heard of any of the bands, most of them sang in English and were from all of the Baltic states. We spent a couple of days enjoying the music and the food. The weather was great and the bars and restaurants very cheap. Highlights for us were Pilnatys https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxjrV6wUaVo and Astro’n’out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dn3E_lMGuXM We ventured into old town which was full of churches often sitting opposite each other. Vilnius has the feel of a European city and we really enjoyed our stay.
Wood sculptures adorn many of the roads in Lithuania, They pop up at seemingly random places and are often very intricate. It is a centuries old tradition and sculpture as an art form seems very popular.
We continued south to the city of Druskininkai which is a spa town. 5 km north of Druskininkai is Gruto Parkas http://www.grutoparkas.lt/ a sculpture park of many of the Soviet statues that were pulled down after independence in 1991. Appropriately it started raining as soon as we got there. It was a fascinating exposition, as well as the sculptures there was a museum which documented some of the atrocities the Soviets carried out. They finally killed off armed resistance from the partisans in 1953, we had seen many monuments to the partisans along the roadside.
Druskininkai is a very smart spa town with some lovely old wooden buildings. It is right next to a national park and as well as the spa there is a snowdome, aquapark and treetop climbing park. The spa offers every treatment you can imagine from honey massages to enemas! It is one of the few places in Lithuania where you can safely drink the tap water. It was our last stop in Lithuania before heading on to Poland. We have enjoyed our stay, the drivers are better than in Latvia and the roads are excellent and apart from around Vilnius very quiet.
Riga is an amazing city. It is a lot bigger than Tallinn. You need to walk around looking up to appreciate it’s charms,as it is full of art-deco buildings, some better preserved than others.
The black Cat Building
We visited the Museum of Occupation to find out more about it’s history. Being invaded 3 times during the second world war, initially by the Russians then the Germans and finally the Russians again. It had to contend with mass deportations and pogroms, the forests were used as killing grounds. Very few Jews survived the German occupation. Stalin’s rule of terror lead to mass deportations, families being split up and sent to Gulags, to be replaced by an influx of Russians.
This beautiful building was used by the Russian Checas for torturing and killing.
Over the last 20 yrs since independence Latvia has done an amazing job rebuilding itself. It is an affluent city with most of the shops in a few fairly tasteful shopping malls and plenty of good cafes and restaurants. It is not for cycling , but a wandering around cafe society city.
The Freedom Monument
We decided to take the train to Duagavpils in the south-eastern part of Latvia so that we could cycle through the national parks in Lithuania. It was a case of carrying the bikes onto the train and putting them between the seats. Five and a half hours and 225km later we arrived in Duagavpils.
We were surprised to find that Latvia was quite different to Estonia. The towns and villages were better cared for with well kept community spaces such as parks and playgrounds. The language was very different. It was also a lot cheaper, a bottle of beer costing 0.5 Lat about 60 pence. There were excellent bakeries selling all manner of delicious cakes.
We expected that it would not be as good for cycling as Estonia had set such a high standard with well signed routes good roads and considerate drivers. Signing for cycle routes proved to be virtually non existent. The roads are very poor to awful. We did get a map of cycle routes which took us onto smaller gravel roads. These often degenerated into sand or corrugations where there had been a lot of traffic, in both cases making the roads unrideable. On top of this cars would still pass you at high speeds leaving you coughing in plumes of dust. You constantly had to be looking behind you watching out for the next car to come hurtling by. If you ventured on the larger roads you were jostling for space with huge lorries buses and Latvian drivers who thought nothing of overtaking the cars coming towards you.
Latvia itself is full of forests, we stopped off at one of the national parks and hired a canoe for the day floating down the river away from the cars and the lorries. Seeing kingfishers, and mergansers, banks lined with trees and sandstone cliffs.
Latvia is a beautiful country but not somewhere that is good for cycle touring. You need a mountain bike and no luggage to cope with the roads and the tracks.