Baltic Biking II

A Diabolical Vehicle

Day 2: Rapla-Pärnu (93.6 km)

Get an early start down #27 and stop by Raikkula Manor, seat of the Von Keyserling clan, one of the foremost Baltic German families of the 19th century. Bismarck paid several visits here to his old school chum Alexander, a renowned geologist; grandson Hermann, a proto-liberal philosopher, also popped in from time to time, presumably to ruminate in the extensive library. Efforts have been made in recent years to re-establish the manor as centre for political dialogue and learning.

Jarvakandi slumbers through the mid-morning fug. This comfortable town of 1400 is known throughout the Baltics for its glassworks, an affiliate of the American O-I group, which turns out half the world’s glass bottles and containers. The attached museum is housed in the old workers’ quarters and recreates the studio and tools of the craftsmen pre-industrialisation. There is also the chance to observe and even emulate the ludicrously tricky blowing techniques. Mind your lips.

The annual archery tournament sees a co-ed congregation of local and international sharpshooters competing in individual and team events. It’s pretty competitive stuff but ends affably enough with a barbecue and, if there’d sufficient interest, a sightseeing tour of the environs.

In summer, Babarock is a world away from these traditional pursuits. Though the emphasis is on hard rock – metallists Anthrax and industrial stalwarts FDRM have headlined since its inception in 2005 – a wanton eclecticism has prevailed in recent years, with Finnish electronica duo Pepe Deluxe and British post-punk perennials The Fall some of the more notable acts to have featured.

Over the border, just into Pärnu County, you’ll soon come to the Orthodox church at Kergu. Estonians are amongst the least religious folk in the world, with three-quarters of the population not bothered. Only a fraction of these are avowed atheists, though, and there’s no shortage of churches,half of them Lutheran, the remainder split between the dominant Eastern Orthodox Church and Russian Old Believers, a handful of Catholics and the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, attached to Constantinople.

There’s a primal loveliness to these scarce latter that, for all their sleek, symmetrical elegance, the protestant constructions miss. An Orthodox country church is organic – it simply fits, as if spewn forth lukewarm from the earth clump by clump, craggy edges and terracotta casing finally setting in a haphazard yet predetermined form that only nature bestows. The low, higgledy-piggledy rock wall fringing this one overlooks acres of verdant farmland. It’s a nice place for a banana and some water.

Left down #58 for 10km takes you back to Route 5 and the last long leg of the ride. It’s four lane big-road all the way now, with must-sees at a minimum. The stud farm at Tori warrants investigation of an increasingly rare breed of horse, for which the area has been famous since the 1860s. Over the course of the last century, the Tori had its share of problems, mostly from inbreeding, often leaving it on the verge of extinction.

 In 2001, a foundation took over, promising to restore the breed to its former stature. Tours, and riding excursions are available; the history and depictions of the stables’ more illustrious occupants down the years are a nice touch.  If you do pass by, it’s probably best to keep to #58 and go via Sindi.

The last 20km can be a slog but it’s well worth it for this finest of Hanseatic coastal cities, Estonia’s summer capital. Rääma, which runs parallel to the Pärnu River, is accompanied for much of its course into town, by a broad margin of verdure.  On weekends, pint-sized footballers maraud through the thick grass; from benches, greying amblers stay the inquisitive wanderings of shaven schnauzers with terse, admonitory whistles, before resuming their perusal of the local pages. It wasn’t always this way. Once a woeful worker’s ghetto, Rääma was the setting of proletariat novelist August Jakobson’s 1927 work Poor Sinner’s Town, a model for the literary movement that became known as slum prose. A suitably grave sculpture of Jakobson’s face can be found in the square opposite St Catherine’s Church.

Monument to the writer August Jakobson

A little sore, stuttering along the elbow-twitchingly narrow walkway on the bridge, one looks out on a quintessentially Estonian scene – a tepid coffee river, clouded by churning silt, teeming with activity. Smoking fisherman line the uneven banks at irregular heights, like the faders on a mixing-console; tugs crawl indolently about their business. Ahead, to the south, the clanking port, then west, Pärnu Bay and the Gulf of Riga, a jigsaw chunk torn from Livonia by the gnashing Baltic. A mediaeval town, with a long, often tumultuous history that has seen it tossed from the clutches of one foreign power to another, it was not until the 1830s that Pärnu’s potential began to be realized. Finns, Scandinavians, Russians and Germans have long championed its charms; further west, content in their Mediterranean timeshares, others haven’t an inkling.

To health-conscious sojourners, Pärnu’s name is, literally, glorious mud. The place to wallow is the neoclassical Mudaravila on the beachfront at Ranna puiestee. The mud, shipped in from Haapsalu, is said to cure or mollify all manner of rheumatological and nervous disorders. Baths start at 150EEK and booking is a must. An alternative is the gigantic Tervis Spa complex on Seedri. It’s slightly pricier and rather more clinical but offers a wider range of treatments, a fair few of which require a doctor’s blessing. The last baths are at 2pm and, again, you may have to book at least a day in advance.

For sustenance, eschew the village-turnoffs today and hang on for the city. Stodge-dodgers, should head for the bars and cafes on and around Ruutli. For everyone else, hearty Siberian dumplings, salted herrings and thick chicken broth with crusty pie at Postipoiss on Vee are just the ticket. The name – “Post boy” – is a nod to the building’s former function as a stagecoach posthouse, which stood on the site from the 17th century. Around the restaurant’s two high-ceilinged halls and bar, wagon wheels lean on narrow, dusty ledges; balalaika and samovars sit snug in alcoves. Distracted and dewy-eyed, the hapless last Tsar Nicholas II is prominent amongst the imperial visages adorning the walls. Capacious yet cosy, with a courtyard in the shadow of St Elisabeth’s church, this authentic Slavic taverna is a treat.

As late as late spring, Pärnu can be refreshingly free of the droves. Even in peak season, its meandering spread offers up countless leafy retreats, making it a delight to explore on foot. A good place to start is south of Ruutli, heading down Puhavaimu. Opposite the old ammunition magazine is Koidula Park, with its fountain square and memorial to Lydia Koidula, Estonia’s greatest writer. Ask for change of a “Koidula” to impress local vendors: a pensive likeness of the poet can be found on the 100EEK banknote.

Her nom de plume, “Koidula” – meaning “of the dawn” – was bestowed by her father, the renowned journalist and social agitator Johann Voldemar Jannsen. A key player in the National Awakening movement, Jannsen founded the first native-language newspaper and wrote the lyrics to the national anthem. Taking in the morning headlines, hat and cane in his other hand, he greets you at the mouth of Ruutli. Pärnu Museum has an Estonian-language section on the pair and there is also a Lydia Koidula Museum at the rundown Pärnu Ülejõe schoolhouse on Jansenni.

From Koidula Park, you can continue south toward the beach. The focal strip adjoins the Mudaravila. It gets busy in summer but is by no means uncomfortable. With temperatures rising, young Estonians strip off for volleyball. Wooed by the very foreign predilection for sunbathing, some have even been known to slap on the sun oil. The hub of activity is the Sunset Club and beach café, from whence the pulsating basslines of beach raves reverberate down the lilac-lined side avenues, irking local fuddy-duddies on balmy equinox nights. The water is perennially murky but perfectly swimmable. All manner of conveniences can be purchased or hired at the kiosks along the promenade.

Parallel to the front for a few blocks is Esplanadi, with its many small treatment centres, hotels and twee homestay-type hostels. In a grim, Soviet-style compound halfway down the road is Pärnu New Art Museum; just beyond, Raanapark and the wetlands around the Tervis centre and the spa district are particularly pleasant for an afternoon stroll. North along Mere puiestee, you’ll pass Kuursaal pavilion, another lively party venue. Further on, Ammende’s Villa is a top-end hotel and restaurant in an eye-catching Russian art-nouveau style.

This expanse of parkland is interrupted to the north for a couple of blocks, resuming in Vallikaarpark, which is spliced by a bandy, booted-leg of water jutting in from the coast. A kick above the toe, on the corner of Kuninga is the lonely Tallinn Gate, which dates from 1667. Along with the Red Tower on Hommiku, it’s about all that remains of the old fortress town.

The Louna Hostel is the standout choice for the budget traveller. Clean beds in eight-person dorms overlooking Vallikaarpark, start at 150EEK. The staff are friendly and helpful and there’s a communal lounge with TV, internet and kitchen.  Rolling into town over the bridge and down Akademia, you’ll arrive at the shrewdly positioned building on the corner with Louna, another example of early 20th Century Estonia’s take on Jugendstil.

Cocktails at Lime Lounge should boost any flagging reserves. City nights, monastically quiet for most of the year, come into their own with summer. In addition to the beach and park venues, live-music joints can be found all over town. Nightclubs like Sugar (unsurprisingly hip-hop and R’n’B) on Vee, and Bravo, which consists of three separate bars that ignite the Blauhaus Building on Hommiku after dark, keep things ticking over until the early hours.

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