Baltic Biking I

 

 
 
 
 

cathedral tallinn

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Ten kilometres down the road from Salacgriva the warm, littoral wind shudders.

From a prickly nest, perched at the intersection of two quivering telegraph wires, springs a white stork, her maternal caution piqued by the arrhythmic clickety-clack of spokes. She casts a haughty eye at the interloper, then – satisfied there’s no danger – folds up her carrot-orange spindles and drops back down to assuage her squawking young.

To the right lie acres of whispering meadow, punctuated by enchanting farmhouses and ramshackle barns, their ponderous roofs overhanging slatted walls like ill-fitting barristers’ wigs. Then, in the middle of an approaching rye-field, something odd hoves into view. It’s a chair, only fifty times bigger than usual. On it, a sign: “Rakari: 200m.”

This is the Via Baltica, a section of European route 67 that runs from Tallinn to Pärnu on the Gulf of Riga, all the way down the coast to the Latvian capital, then on through Lithuania and Poland, finishing up in Prague. Along the way signs reiterate at regular intervals, and without a tinge of condescension, that these 670 kilometres of road were “completed with EU assistance.”

The secret should now be out. With cheeseboard topography, superb-value accommodation and unsullied countryside, the Baltics are custom-built for the casual cycler. And the mainly dry conditions and comfortable temperatures make summer the ideal time to hit the road. Most impressive are the region’s human resources. Forget the outmoded stereotypes of Baltic reserve, you’ll find warm smiles and helping hands – not to mention free wi-fi – at every turn.

Day 1: Tallinn-Rapla (54.4 km)

It begins at the end of Uus, several minutes walk from the Raekojoplats, Tallinn’s Old Town Square. Take a morning stroll down this cobbled lane and you’ll pass Svejk’s restaurant on the left. A fine spot to drown some fried pigs ears with a glass of Saku Tume bock, it’s also an encouraging portent for the traveller:  Hasek’s Good Soldier roams far and wide (no evidence he made it to Estonia, mind) and always seems to land on his feet.

Citybike, Estonia’s premier bicycle tour operator is located in a tiny, cluttered office at the end of the street. While it’s best to reserve your bicycle a couple of weeks in advance, they will probably be able to accommodate the more spontaneous souls, particularly in the off-season. The great thing about this little outfit is their flexibility. While comprehensive guided tours are offered, they are quite happy to leave you to your own devices. You can be pedalling your way out of town minutes after handing over the rental fee and a 100 euro deposit.

Prices start from as little as 7.5 euros a day, depending on the type of bike and the length of your trip (the longer, the cheaper) and there are all kinds of optional extras, including water-proof panniers, children’s seats and mini-computers.  There are maps detailing the main cycle routes for a couple more euros but they’re not really necessary. With crystal-clear signposting and tourist information centres in even the tiniest outposts, you’ll have a tough time getting lost.

Perhaps the most popular and certainly the most scenic cycle route in Estonia is via Haapsalu and the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. The Via Baltica is a more direct and far less-traversed alternative that combines ease with some unexpected stops along the way. Here’s how to make it from Tallinn to Riga in four days. How much you do depends on how early you fancy getting up.

Take the Pärnu Maantee south out of town. This is the northernmost end of the E67 – Estonia’s National Route 4 (though, technically, it resumes the other side of the Gulf of Finland and runs to Helsinki). Not much more than an hour later, you’ll arrive at an intersection, where you leave the E67 for now and take the Viljandi Maantee (National Road #15) to the left. 

The first stretch of Route 15 slices through miles of porous forest, where sallow pines keep their distance from one another like awkward party guests. Elizabeth Rigby, an English visitor to Estonia in the early 19th century, wrote of “the rapture with which the dawning blessings of summer are hailed.” But an autumnal weariness pervades the country here – a desiccant sun having picked up where the late spring chill left off. Forest covers almost half of Estonia’s 45,000 square kilometres and in the dry summer months, wildfires are not uncommon in Raplamaa.

“When it gets hot early in the year, the farmers sometimes don’t realise how dry it is,” says a local, alluding to the practice of dun stubble-burning. “Then the fires get out of control.”

On the cusp of this solemn landscape, a suppurating bog gulley runs for miles alongside the road. Frogs bounce from slimy stones onto chunks of turgid bark, scouring the copper water for mosquito larvae. Gorged on decomposing vegetation, the bog’s vitality is masked by a façade of stagnation and decay. But wetlands are crucial to Estonia’s biodiversity and lush, sprawling examples of this feature can be found as you get further south.

With a 9am start, it’s quite feasible to push on to Rapla for lunch but if you can’t hold out, there’s always the pleasant Meskibaar, on a small crick in the Keila River near Kohila. Typically carnivore-friendly fare is on offer, with mains of meatloaf, schnitzel, stews and steaks, and thick, filling soups like frikadelli (meatballs) and salankra (lamb, sausage and root veg) for as little as 18 EEK.

A few minutes down the road in is the unambiguously-named Maantee 15. The menu is more extensive here and there’s free wi-fi. Grab a glass of Kali and visit the nearby ruins of Loone fortress, an Est stronghold against Crusaders in the 13th century. The good Christians didn’t care to leave much in their wake but it’s still a nice place to relax and stretch your legs.

From here you can continue down #15 through Hagudi, the birthplace of Adam Johann Von Krusenstern , a Baltic German of Swedish stock, who served as an admiral and explorer under a Russian Tsar, neatly encapsulating the conundrum of ethnicity in the Baltics. Or take a slight detour via Alu, with its pristine neogothic manor.

Prime-Minister-for-a-day Otto Tief was from this little township. On 22nd September 1944, with the Germans retreating and a victorious, but far from welcome, Red Army closing in, Tief formed an ad hoc cabinet and boldly declared independence. His presumption earned him 10 years in a Siberian gulag and a further decade’s exile in the Ukraine. The last years of his life were spent on the Latvian side of the border, within wistful sight of his homeland. In 1993, he was posthumously repatriated; in 2007, September 22nd was declared “The Day of Resistance.”

rapla, rapla cathedral, estonia, baltics

Rapla Cathedral

 

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Sylva works part time at Rapla tourist office. She doesn’t speak a jot of English but will happily ply you with coffee, strawberry jaffa cakes, and a revelatory cup of birch sap, while poring over memorabilia from her various incarnations as a local celebrity. There are TV and magazine ads and the odd mention in the local rag but, as she strokes the CD fondly, it’s clear the county choral ensemble is the zenith. She’s in the back row, a half smile softening the sternness of her pale face, enveloped by the black of hair and chorister’s gown.

If you’re lucky, Sylva’s polyglot pal Marge Piller might be around to translate. “Welcome to our great little country,” she beams, paraphrasing a tourist board slogan. “Super,” – her habitual suffix.

Rapla, like most of Estonia, has a strong attachment to song. In July and August, the Church Music Festival hosts an array of international vocalists. For the youngsters, there’s VesiroosiVISION, a local take on the Eurovision song contest, which is open to budding pop stars from across the country. And if you like your sounds amplified, the City Head Rock fundraiser takes place at the cultural centre in March. Spido, a moderately successful bunch of 90s hair-rockers, now with not so much hair, started life in Rapla.

In 1785 an imperial edict broke the stranglehold of the German craftsman’s guilds. A hundred years earlier, the rules hadn’t bothered Christian Ackermann too much. The itinerant master woodcarver had made a career of freelancing across the region and his work on the Baroque pulpit at St Mary Magdalene’s church was deemed sufficiently grand to be retained when local bigwigs splashed out on a neo-Roman facelift in 1903. Some of Ackermann’s finest carvings can be seen at the Rapla church’s namesake in nearby Vigala municipality.

St Mary’s, with its shaded promenade, and the adjoining stone bridge over the Vigala River, usher you into Rapla town. The tranquil church grounds and cemetery are dotted with plaques commemorating the fallen from both world wars, as well as the tumultuous upheavals of 1905.  Look out for the distinctive iron crosses. Their suspiciously Celtic forms have fuelled speculation that Scots flax traders with whom the mediaeval Ests had contact, may have doubled-up as trailblazing proselytisers, long before the arrival of the Teutonic Knights.

There are two main drags in town: the road you come in on, which becomes Tallinn Mnt (then #27) and, forking to the left, Viljandi, which resumes as Route 15. Along the latter is the lively Meie Pubi, which melds traditional pub grub with an Estonian stab at Tex Mex. The walls are lined with black and white photos of a bygone era: flat-capped workers guzzling from hefty tankards; a jovial accordion player being clapped on by revellers, cigarette drooping from his mouth. A large screen for sports events dominates the far end of the room. Beneath it, a well-stacked oak bookcase braces the corner. Out on the porch, you can watch dusk settle, greeting passersby with a hearty “Tere õhtust!”

Behind the pub, a few minutes down a country road called Jõe, is the eponymous guesthouse, which Marge recommends as the place for some decent shuteye. “Super,” naturally.  It’s in a quiet spot in the bend of the river and the rooms are clean and bright, if slightly overpriced at 436EEK. There are some outstanding alternatives a bit further afield, with the bucolic Varjula Guesthouse in Kehtna the pick at 200EEK a double.  Estonia’s own Robin Hood Juri Rumm purportedly spent his days at Kehtna Manor as a stablehand. By night he rustled horses.

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