Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Photo gallery: The Oblast

Victory Square
Old dockyard bridge
Kalinigrad is an oblast: '...a type of administrative division of Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgizstan, Russia, Ukraine, and the fomer Soviet Union and Kingom of Jugoslavia'.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Kaliningrad is great...

... but, we're sorry to say that many of you won't be able to visit.*

The new(ish) and easy to apply for evisa is not available to Brits (or Americans). To Vlad and his chums you're part of the enemy.

Angelika and I (German and Irish in case any of you didn't know), well, we're just as welcome as can be.

Good for us, sad for you, because this really is my favourite city to date. Gritty, charismatic, interesting - and cheap as hell (at least by the standards of both London and this trip so far).

Easy for some...
And so, on this, our final evening here (and after a great guided car tour of the city with Eduard - dock area; oldest building in city [1588]; posh area, poor area; newly built World Cup football ground, etc.), we're off out to the most expensive fish restaurant to see if we can spend the rest of our roubles.

Gdansk tomorrow.

(*In the interests of clarity, if you go to the evisa application site [see here] you'll find contradictory information on this, but if you look closely enough you'll find a statement to this effect; 'The countries not expected to benefit from this Russia new electronic visa are United States, Canada and the UK due to the tense political relationships with Russia'.)

Monday, August 26, 2019

Reading Matters ♡

From the Pillion

Pillion, grumpometer = 0
One of the prevailing images my friends and family have of me is being ensconced somewhere with a cup of tea or coffee and a book or the papers. When I visit a friend, even just for a long weekend, I take three or four books with me, not quite sure which one might take my fancy.

Some of my friends do the same, you never know when you’ll run out of conversation or fall out. 😂

Often, on those visits, the books stay in a corner because we talk too much, but reading matters are my comfort blanket.

So it comes as no surprise that the thought of travelling for a year with not much space for stuff, let alone a stack of books, sent me into a mild panic.

My kids came to the rescue and bought me a Kindle, upgraded to 4G, so that I can download to my heart’s delight.

I still prefer the feel and smell of a book, but for this trip, or any trip, the Kindle is great.

I can also read in the dark (with increased font!) without disturbing the Pilot and we can read to each other without the need for a proper bedside reading lamp. (I used to grade places we stayed in accorance with the reading lamps provided and some didn’t have any!)

Where the Kindle falls short is leafing through travel guides. You can’t hop and skip about the Lonely Planet as in a book, there’s no colour for emphasis and the Googlemap interface needs sorting out.

Considering that the day never felt complete for me without the papers and several online checks about what’s going on in the world, I find it strangely liberating to spend my time immersed in local history, unaware of the pyjama tweets of those terrible blondes on either side of the pond.

What's your guess?
Completely changing the subject, it’s been interesting figuring out all the different washing machines along the way.

Why do they all have fifty programs when you only want two?

One machine in Finland presented a particular challenge. In the end we decided to fix the waste pipe to the toilet bowl, assuming the Airbnb host didn’t want his bathroom flooded. Then again, he had one of those Nordic bidets, so might be quite used to wet floors!

We are now in week nine, the grumpometer goes off-piste now and then, but we’re getting better at recognising the explosive mix of tiredness and hunger.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Missing items + 1

Ok, here are yesterday's missing items:

Fatigue and Morale
Just because you're on holiday (if that's the right word for this thing) doesn't mean the normal issues of life don't intrude. And while motorbike touring is exciting and interesting and, well, just cool, it's also bloody tiring. Especially when you do back to back days - or back to back to back days as we did on our way down here. Recovery time is neccessary. Tiredness will erode joie de vivre, as the Russians say. And that's an issue to be managed carefully while 'Travelling' (as the Pillion and I like to refer to it). So sometimes you just have to slob out, drink tea - or beer - do the washing and not go sightseeing in this interesting new place you've just arrived in.

Yoga is bad for you
And I don't care what Martha says, the Five so-called Tibetans have given me both a painful shoulder and a dicky thigh muscle. So I've had to ease off. Perhaps they should be called The Five Tibetans For Pre-65-Year-Olds-Who-Have-Flexible-Musculature! (Take a look.)

Parking in Kaliningrad
Our Airbnb host advised I should use secure parking while staying in his (splendid!) flat. He directed me to what I expected would be an underground car park, you know, barrier, ticket, etc. It was a scruffy compound with Heath Robinson patched wire fencing with a wooden hut, electricity-powered by a petrol generator (I think the geezer lives there), complete with aggressive alsatian in cage by the entrance. He speaks Russian, I speak English but we communicated perfectly well. Cost; 80 roubles (£1.00) a day, a handshake. All good and I'm confident it'll be there when I go to collect it.

Plus 1
For the backgammonners among you; in the mornings when Angelika is sleeping in (I do early, she does late), when I'm not blogging, I'm reading this - and actually understanding some of it;

Every day, in every way

And, for local colour;

Kaliningrad tram

And, from the menu section entitled 'Beer snacks';

Smoked pigs' ears

Three days on the spin (4752*)

Given that we had a specific arrival date in Kalinigrad, we had to get a move on, so three consecutive riding days and one-night stops. It's tiring and has its own particular rhythm.

Here's a summary of the last few days...

Walking in Riga
We are becoming city walking tour experts. Inge, our guide in Riga was knowledgable, charming, funny and enthusiastic about her home town. It's a fascinating place having been German, Russian and Latvian in its time and always a major trading port - and a Hanseatic League member.

When the country asked Russia to return its city key and were refused, all the citizens contributed their own keys which were melted down to make a new one in a giant, group 'fuck you' to their former occupiers.

Up yours, Russia!
Riding to Cape Kolka
Remember those promised sea views? Hmm. There are many trees here. Most of them we found, situated between the coast road and the coast.

Still, we met Markus.

Markus's Bar
After many trees, we stopped for coffee and were greeted in a spartan but welcoming roadside bar/cafe by a friendly flank-forward of a man with a broad Irish accent. In fact, he wasn't Irish at all. Markus left Latvia to visit Ireland and stayed for ten years until his grandma died and left him her bar. He works super hard for the summer, then three days a week for the winter. Actually, it looked as though his wife works the hardest, at least while Markus is chatting to customers (which he is good at, though - Markus brought the craic back with him from the place of my birth).

Cape Kolka is a promontary where the Gulf of Riga meets the Baltic. It wasn't as wild as Lonely Planet said. But we liked it. (Anywhere that you have to pay to park isn't wild.)

Tree on beach: Cape Kolka
We stayed in a Liv village overnight. There are only around 200 remaining native speakers of the language of the sea and river people who gave their name to this region; Livonia.

The Baltic vs the Med
Sort of by accident, we've almost circumnavigated the Baltic and its associated seas. It's been intriguing. It struck me that we know much of the history, culture and influence of the Mediterranean and its surroundings, but relatively little of the equivalent of this region. But it's just as interesting and as deep and as multi-layered as its southern neighbour. And just as pertinent to us in Britain.

The Curonian Spit
We took the ferry from Klaipeda (we liked it there) to the Spit full of excitement.

Ferry to the Spit
On the spit there are huge sand dunes. These massive geological features are almost living beings. There were villages there once, but the movement of the dunes, up to five metres per year, wiped them out. Judging by the pleading signs urging people to stick to the wooden walkways (and the visitors we saw ignoring them), you got the feeling that the authorities might be losing their battle to preserve this delicate ecosystem.

View from dune-top
There is also an eerie bird sanctuary made up of cormorants and herons. The acidic bird droppings strip the trees of foliage. It looks apocalyptic. There are over 6000 birds there.

Naked trees...
And we had to cross the border into Russia. It. Was. Slow. In fact, we were russian (geddit?) more than they were (one vehicle per half-hour). Hmm.

(We had to complete a customs document. There was only a Russian version. A young bilingual Lithuanian woman offered, unbidden, to help is with ours. People are kind.)

So tired, tired of waiting...
We're here now, though (Kalinigrad!). 🙂

Here follow the items I was going to address today, but this blog is too long!
Fatigue and Morale
Yoga is bad for you
Parking in Kaliningrad

*Estimated figure - though we have now topped 4.5k - because I forgot to check final mileage AGAIN when I got off the bike.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Fishy stuff in Riga

The central market in Riga is one of the largest in Europe. It's situated in old Zeppelin hangars.

The fish hall makes me wish I lived here. I'd be a regular customer.

Just learning what all the different fish are and how they're traditionally cooked / served, etc, would take years. But what a delicious learning process.

How does an island race like ours lose its connection to the sea? 🤔

Walks, Roads, Borders and Spits (3992)

In Riga now. I was expecting to report that we'd topped 4k miles at this point, but that's for the next ride.

Before we left Estonia we walked the coastal path from our camp site to the Latvian border.

Evidence of fauna
Our bit of the path (it seems to run from France to Tallinn) was mostly along a road, but it was a nice stroll anyway.

Proof of destination
And we saw this (below). Look closely. For those who don't know it, the scallop is the sign for the Camino - the ancient pilgrimage route to Satiago de Compostella in Spain. This symbol is an old friend of mine. I've encounered it all over Europe on my bike trips through the years. This is the most northerly so far.

The Camino
Then we rode to Riga. They drive the same in Latvia as they do in Estonia. It gives the pilot something to think about, I suppose.

When we leave here we're going to ride the coastal road from Riga, through Jürmala, Cape Kolka and down to Klaipeda. Then, and here's the coolest bit, we're going to enter Kaliningrad along the Curonian Spit. Check them out. We're both looking forward to the trip. We'll be off the main roads, mostly riding within sight of the sea. Lovely.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Bikers and more ♡

From the Pillion
There is a camaraderie between bikers I really like. On the road we greet each other by nodding, raising an arm or extending a foot - when overtaking. There’s often a sense of connection, of freedom and adventure.

Of course, bikers always express some curiosity about another bike’s make, size, luggage, and more interestingly, the journey. There are tips (often useful, e.g. take a jar of peanut butter - thank you Len Brown!), info re the best routes, or just some plain showing off.

As you ride into a rest or parking area where a motley crew of bikers are sitting round a table sizing you up, care has to be taken as to how you dismount.

The one thing you don’t want to do (as Pillion) is to get your foot caught in some luggage strap and tumble off the bike like a sack of potatoes in front of an audience. Very embarrassing (it nearly happened). It’d be a bit like getting your leg caught in your handbag straps as you fall out of a taxi.

I watch with envy as some Scandi pillions swing their long legs gracefully over top box with tent attached in one graceful motion. My latest technique, being somewhat challenged on the vertical front, is to slide a bent leg over the seat and squeeze in between Pilot and luggage as gracefully as I can. Working on it!

On other matters, we are now south of the Baltic Sea, crossing Estonia, and it’s different. The forests have changed from mostly birch and spruce to a more varied selection of trees - and the drivers are more impatient.

Walking in Estonian woods
Estonian is part of the Finno-Ugric language family, they don’t bother with prepositions or articles, but their nouns have 16 cases! Anyone who considers German or Latin a challenge, think again.

During our walking tour in Tallinn we learnt that some Finnish and Estonian words share the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings.

One word means ‘marriage’ in Finnish and ‘problem’ in Estonian!

Where is Freud when you need him??

Different (3912)

They have a language that sounds similar - and which apparently is as structurally complex, a history that is intertwined, they've copied their national anthem (the tune at least) and from a distance they may look the same, but the Estonians are a different proposition from the Finns. And not altogether in a good way.* (Love the flag, though. It's made it's way on to the 'pins of the trip' display on my cap.)

Pins of the Trip
I encountered my first truculent barmaid in a month here in Tallinn - the Finns are unfailingly polite. And national driving styles are particularly noticeable when you're riding a motorbike. All through the nordic countries, drivers are patient and considerate. In Estonia a failure to attempt an overtaking manoeuvre at any opportunity seems to be considered a failure of manhood. I had to dodge 'overtakers without room to reenter the traffic' several times on the trip from Tallin to our current domicile in the south of the country. Also, Tallinn Old Town, sadly, has been surrendered to boozers and stag-partiers so a good night's sleep was impossible there. You just couldn't imagine that in Finland. (We also found ourselves privy to a late night three-hour drunken domestic row on our campsite last night - but I can't swear that the perpetrators were locals.)

Estonia is interesting. It has only been a self-governing country for about 52 years in total. Tallinn has always been a town concerned with making money. A member of the Hanseatic League, it once vetoed membership for a town further east because that would have undermined its position as main portal for imports to Russia.

Anyway, our current location is beautiful.

Baltic sunset #1
Baltic sunset #2
We're on free campsite close to the border with Latvia. It's situated right by the beach and directly on a national walking trail that runs through both countries. We'll walk some of it today. And we paddled in the sea last night.

Now, you know how we decided not to go to St Petersburg? Well, we now have visas (thanks to the perseverance of the Pillion) for Kaliningrad! 🙂 We'll be there in a week.

And (thanks to the indulgence of the Pillion) I'll be playing in the Nürnberg Backgammon Open early next month.

*In all fairness, I have to remind myself of the charming, intelligent Estonian lad I met watching the Jyväskylä World Rally Car special stage at Moksi. He filled me in on the detail of what was going on and and generously invited us to visit him if we passed his way. Nice chap!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Finland and the Finns

We're on the ferry across the Baltic to Estonia. Back to the mainland of Europe. I know that's not quite correct, but you know what I mean.

The Finnish tourist authorities, parliament and bilingual president will be delighted to know that the Pillion and I heartily approve of the country, its people and all that these entail.

From north to south we've found politeness, a ready sense of humour (when provoked) and general friendliness. But they don't intrude. They're great folk.

They have two official languages; Finnish and Swedish. The latter is the residue of 650 years of Swedish rule. They were then governed for 100 years by Russia, which amongst other things left them with a pretty splendid Russian Orthodox cathedral in Helsinki.

Arty cathedral shot #1
We did get told off for attempting to cross the road other than at a zebra crossing when in Turku, but it was done politely. I guess that's the flip side of being in a rule-abiding country.

Some facts
a) The Finnish name for their country, Suomi, translates as 'Our Swamp' - and 'Finland' is suspiciously close to our 'Fenland', the name we give to the low-lying, swampy areas of north-east Norfolk. Go figure.

b) There is a Finnish word that means 'staying in alone getting drunk in one's pants'; such a useful concept.

c) The Finns finished paying WW2 reparations to the Russians in the mid 1970's. The effort of meeting this requirement to supply finished goods and raw materials was the catalyst that created modern, technologically, socially and educationally advanced Finland.

d) The Finns have two official languages and when the president addresses the nation he does so in both languages simultaneously (sentence and sentence about).

e) Karaoke is huge here.

f) The official religion is Lutheranism. They have a cathedral, too.

Arty cathedral shot #2
I wrote the people here some verses. Here's the first.

Caught between the Russians and the Swedes / The Sami and the Hanseatic League / Eking out a living from our trapping and our trees / Shipping and shipbuilding and the offering of the seas / Up here where the western ethos ends and east begins / We are the Finns.

Also, this bloke rowed from Copenhagen to Helsinki. Maybe he couldn't afford the ferry.

Man & row boat (being applauded)
Also, we met some great folk on the camp site in Helsinki. John (cyclist), from Sweden (originally 'made in Korea' as he put it), Miriam (motorcyclist, Germany), Leen (motorcyclist, Holland), Thomas (cyclist, Finland), nice French chap whose name I didn't get (cyclist) and Timor (motorcyclist [Africa Twin as it happens], Germany - though originally 'made in Turkey' [which, lacking both John's wit and self-deprecation, he definitely didn't say]).

We sat together in the camp-site gloom, swatting away the insects, drinking beer and talking about travelling, people, life and everything. Great to meet you all!

Tallinn in one hour!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Flow Festival in Helsinki (3770)

We're enjoying a concert-going phase:

Ready to go
The Cure
Robert Smith
Here's my new biggest hero. He's been where he's been, he's done what he's done and he still gets up there and performs. And he means it. A Star. (Are you listening so-called Father John so-called Misty?!)

Turkish Wedding Band
Regarding the trip, a question: What does it mean to set off to travel for a year living 24/7 in the pocket of your life-partner? Well, Angelika and me are finding out. I always knew it was the journeys within the journey that would prove the most interesting.

We're at our most easterly point. South and west now for a while. The signs on the camp site here are in Finnish, German, English and Russian. And we're two hours ahead of UK time. And yes, we're camping. I love the enforced informality.

The Pillion's gone into town for a cake, coffee and read and I'm pretending to tinker with the bike. I'm going to have a sauna this afternoon. I've developed a liking for it.

Tallinn in two days time. Hoping for Kalinigrad visa confirmation soon!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Chicago blues in Rauma

This was a great concert.

It was interesting to see how the blues-gig vibe occasionally sat uneasily with Finnish reserve and protocol. Enjoyable evening, though.

John Primer
Fine harp accompaniment
We'll take the bus back to Turku and then on to Helsinki.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

I think I'm going back...

We heartily recommend Youth Hostel Turku - and the cool, friendly, interesting city it serves.

BTW, why is this photograph interesting to people who like numbers? I was dead excited. (Look closely.)

An interesting chimney 
Anyway, we're getting the bus this morning back to Rauma for the first evening of the blues festival; a masterclass and concert. Then back here to the yourh hostel where we'll collect the bike and set off to Helsinki.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Finland ♡

From the Pillion
Finland is beautiful.

Forests and more forests and lots of lakes, nearly 188,000 (well, 187,888 according to Wikipedia).

We rode by their shores and sometimes across them, some are eerily dark and silent and some are adorned by the typically red-coloured timber cottages of the Nordic countries. You have to make do with parts of a postcard, there was no real opportunity to stop and take a leisurely photo.

Much of the activities and facilities here are geared towards winter sports and a promise to see the Northern Lights, but it’s lovely to experience the country in the summer.

There are 40 National Parks, all inviting you to hike and explore. And here’s the thing: the Finns must have a more developed masochistic streak than the Brits. There is no way on earth you could enjoy a hike unless you ventured out in full-monty beekeeper’s gear. The mozzies would eat you alive! We decided to give it a miss.

Pilot and Rider have been on high moose-spotting alert. These beasts weigh up to 600kg and have caused some serious accidents. Luckily we haven’t encountered any so far.

Here’s another curious thing: in some of the Airbnbs we stayed in and in most of the toilets in hotels, bars and restaurants, there is a hose with a showerhead attachment. Sometimes next to the sink, sometimes next to the WC. I presume it’s some sort of Nordic bidet. Most of these conveniences also have drainage in the floor, like a wet room. The last WC I visited had all of the above and was so small, you couldn’t even swing a mouse in it! How you are supposed to use said device without emerging as if you’ve been in a water fight, I don’t know.

I haven’t tried to find out.

Btw, though we've travelled the length of the country heading south, were still as far north as the Shetlands!

Turku (aka Åbo / Turun) (3653)

A short ride from Rauma to Turku.

Moving from the infamously cold west coast of Finland to the south seems to have completed a transition from 'North' to somewhere that isn't quite so. It's noticably milder here. This is our first sophisticated big city since Stockholm and we both like it. It's a university town with all that that entails. It has canals, young (and older) people on bicycles and lots of polite, friendly though never intrusive, Finns.

We listened to an organ recital in the cathedral last night. It was overwhelming. And there was something cleansing, pure, about listening to music without being able to see the performer.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

Circumnavigation (3597)

We decided to head from Jyväskylä and the adrenaline scream of high-powered motors south west to a very different vibe.

We're in Rauma, UNESCO heritage city. It's old, wooden and one of Finland's longest established ports. We're going to do the museum thing today.

It dawned on me yesterday that we've more or less made it around the Gulf of Bothnia. The truth is I wouldn't have known where it was six months ago. It's exciting. If we had a big enough telescope we could look south west and see Kappeln (on Germany's only fjord, we learned) where we stayed four weeks past.

Find Rauma, S-W coast...
I must spend more time looking at the full map and not just the part relating to today's journey.

Anyway, we have an excellent Airbnb here with a sauna (lots of Finnish flats have them) and took advantage last night. We like it very much.

The parking is handy, too.

Handy parking 
Now, where's the tourist information office?

Friday, August 2, 2019

Jyväskylä (3354)

We've been rallyin'... it's fun! (The Finns and the Estonians take it ever so seriously.)

We went to two 'Special Stages'; Harju and Moksi. The former we went to twice. It's in a park in the city centre.

The latter, Moksi, required a longish ride out into the country with the final several kilometers being on unsurfaced tracks. We arrived early. I thought we'd have the pick of the viewing. I underestimated the enthusiam here for such an event. In fact, there were hundreds in situ when we arrived, many having camped overnight.

I overshot the bike parking area, almost getting stuck in an ever-narrowing track in the woods. I retrieved things in the end courtesy of a welcome turning point.

Special stage: Moksi