13.08.2013 - 16.08.2013 20 °C
This morning we left Estonia and headed south to Latvia. We rode the E61/A1 all along the coast until we reached Riga. We were in need of a shower and some luxuries like electricity after our wild camping in the forests of Estonia. Along the way we stopped at a shop for some breakfast and to change our money into the local currency - the Lat. Luckily the shop had some WIFI, so while we ate some fresh meat/potato & veg dish we surfed for an apartment with mod cons within Riga. We found something that was good value for money and booked it for two nights. We then spent a few hours riding to Riga in some heavy rain. But it didn't worry us as we knew we had some proper accommodation. We arrived early afternoon so had time to kill. After playing in the traffic and catching every traffic light possible we decided to pick up some supplies before checking into our apartment.
We eventually found the apartment after getting lost in some one way roads and circling around a few times. There were tram tracks everywhere and one is never quite sure if you are on the road or the railway line? We parked the bike and found a doorbell. we rang it just as a well dressed couple also walked up to the door. The guy from the apartment opened the door looked us up and down and the turned to the other couple and said Jennifer? No sorry mate that's us, the dirty bikers with a 2 liter beer bottle in each hand! After an initial shock he recovered quickly and invited us in and showed us around.
That night we just scrubbed up and had a drink and a meal and watched some VH1 Classicson the TV. We wanted to research what to see in Riga and where to go next but as usual after an hour or so the internet just stopped working. No surprises there then as this has been a reoccurring theme throughout our travels.
Next morning we got the tram into Riga. We were staying opposite the old town, over the bridge in a suburb that was clearly up and coming as some of it was really old and soviet like. Our apartment was clearly a recent development. Some of the locals looked like prostitutes or maybe that is just how they dressed here? Anyways most people turned out to be friendly and helpful. We rode the tram for free as we thought it would be possible to buy tickets once on board. I was keen to get a free ride home as well but Jennifer insisted we buy tickets, lucky we did as our tram got stopped and everyone was checked for tickets on the way back, haha! As with most places there is the old town and new town. We like the old towns, and this one was pretty much the same as all the others, except some of the buildings had been reconstructed. Maybe it was the windy/rainy weather but we were just not feeling the magic here in Riga. We both felt that Tallinn had set the benchmark and Riga did just not cut it...But to be fair after visiting some museums about the Soviet times and checking out the art nouveau buildings on the other side of town. It started to grow on us. The history about the soviet occupation is especially interesting, how it wasn't even that long ago that they were rounding people up and sending them to Siberia and worse. Caught listening to a western radio station, you get sent to the arse end of Russia. Well there is only so much people can take and they eventually got their freedom back. The museum of occupation is actually very good, I highly recommend going in order to get an understanding of this place. There are also plenty of drinking places and restaurants etc in the old town and a huge market by the train station. Another highlight was trying the local booze called Black Balsam.
"Riga Black Balsam (Latvian: Rīgas Melnais balzams) is a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur made with many different natural ingredients mixed in pure vodka, giving a 45% abv (90 proof) drink. It can be had as it is, on the rocks or mixed with schnapps, akvavit, or vodka, or warm, in tea, coffee or black currant juice, or mixed with soda water or a soft drink, or in any variety of cocktails. It is also occasionally enjoyed as a topping on ice-cream. The drink itself is black and very bitter, but with a distinct sweetness.
Riga Black Balsam is made by JSC Latvijas Balzams. The traditional recipe was created by Abraham Kunze, a pharmacist living in Riga, and is based on a composition of 24 different plants, flowers, buds, juices, roots, oils and berries prepared in oak barrels. It is sold in ceramic handmade flagons. Over time, Riga Black Balsam has been acknowledged also internationally, as it has received more than 30 awards at international fairs.
Black Balsam is also used in traditional medicine. It is considered to be a good cold remedy and is used to treat digestive problems. It has been made in Riga since the middle of the 18th century. According to legend, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, became ill during a visit to Latvia, but was cured after drinking Riga Black Balsam. Name changed to Ole balsam after the pope Olegius for a brief moment."
This stuff is fantastic, better than Jagermeister!!
We also admired the freedom statue, where in Soviet times if anyone put flowers at its base, got a one way ticket to Siberia.
We eventually warmed to Riga and had a decent time. (It does sometimes get difficult to get excited about a place when you have just seen twenty towns before it that are similar)
That evening we enjoyed using the internet for 20 minutes before it died again, but not before we had a plotted a route to Kolka, which is a northerly peninsula that juts out into the sea where the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga meet. Sometimes turbulently! It was a pleasant enough ride a mere 150km away. We rode through Jurmala which is supposed to be like the French Riviera, rammed packed with the Rich/Famous/wannabees and plenty of expensive hotels and spas and hot trophy wives of Russian tycoons with bad haircuts, in speedos!! No thanks didn't even slow down, Where we are heading used to be strictly off limits, the entire area was all top secret soviet military base, so even today it is just huge forest all the way to the coast, there are one or two small fishing villages but thats it. Sounds perfect to us. We rode through some violent thunder storms but dried up quickly as the sun would pop out. Where we did stop for coffee the lady in the small shop was selling home made food and drinks. No English spoken here, I order some coffee with milk, this is better, starting to feel like an adventure again. I don't mind getting the wrong order in these situations, in fact I thrive on seeing what we will get and will give it a try always. This time we got coffee and milk, perfect. We headed on further, the traffic has really thinned out now and it is more rural. We eventually hit the village of Kolka and setup tent in this guys back garden, well he does run a guest house and has some basic facilities in the garden, long drops, shower, and two basins. It is just great, we pitch out tent and then decide to walk to where the seas meet.
Wow they were not kidding when they said this is Europe's longest beach. Picture it, Lush green pine trees, a couple of meters of white sand and then the glass like sea and it goes on for miles. Even better we were lucky if we saw maybe ten people in an hour. There had been a storm of biblical proportions a year or two ago and you could still see all the ripped up trees scattered around the beach. Once we got to the point where the seas met, things changed, this area was exposed and the wind was tearing along the beach, the sea was frothy and muddy and not inviting. There was a monument here for some people that recently drowned here and various ship wrecks. You could see this was not a good place to swim. although further down near our campsite was OK. So lots of natural beauty, sunshine and no crowds all for free. This place is a winner.
That evening we made a fire with wood so dry I just had to hold a lighter under the log for a few seconds to get it going. We had some sausages bought from the local shop that had a handwritten label saying 'Premium' so after much pointing and gesticulating the girl behind the counter managed to get the right ones for us. They were huge and not too bad. I think some of the people were still a bit shy of foreigners and the language barrier so maybe that is why the act with no emotion sometimes?
A German dude was also camping in the garden and we got chatting, he recommended a place to us further South in Lithuania on the Curonian split, but that is another story.
So next morning after a pleasing plop in the long drop we headed South along the other side of the peninsula along the P124 until we hit Irbene. Now this was what I had been waiting for there was just a sign pointing down a derelict overgrown road. We headed down it. This was proper Soviet top secret stuff back in the day, totally off limits. There were some maybe 4 or 5 story buildings totally dilapidated where they would have housed the army workers. Further along the path there were remains of some bunkers and barbed wire fences. We headed down a sand road on the Guzzi and past some guard houses until we spotted what we were after. Rising, Majestically above the forest the parabolic radio telescope, 32 meters in diameter. That was used to spy on the rest of the world. There used to be 3 but today there is only one left. It is huge, the eighth biggest in the world. Cool we walk around and take some photos. No entrance fee, no gift shop to exit through, no audio guide, sweet this is how it should be.
We then headed South to a national park that housed a secret missile silo from the cold war days in Lithuania. We took plenty of back roads, some dirt and painstakingly edged our to the border, at least there were no trucks on these roads. Almost no traffic at all. At the old border crossing we spent our last Lats on some beer and snacks for the day and then bid farewell to Latvia, which actually turned out to be a pretty cool place if you know where to go. (We did spend an hour riding around Riga looking for a place to fire some automatic weapons in an old bomb shelter but I think the place had closed or moved. I was really bleak that we couldn't find it as I am sure we would have enjoyed this)