An amazing bike ride through the Baltic States of Lithuania,Latvia and Estonia. Our cycling adventure starts in Vilnius and ends in Tallinn. We will also be spending time in Warsaw, Helsinki and St Petersburg.
  • Day31

    Back Where it all Started

    July 3, 2019 in Australia ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    In so many ways the worst part of any trip is the long flight home - and so it was with this one. But let me first wind the clock back a few hours, maybe about three days.

    Our final day in St Petersburg once again dawned warm and clear. That means that the fine weather that greeted us on our arrival in Warsaw has now followed us for the entire trip. Not once did we get wet on the bikes. None of the wet/cold weather gear that I brought with me ever got worn. That is always the trouble with packing. Half of the stuff you pack, you find you don't need. The problem is that you never know which half to leave out. The last time I was in this part of the world at this time of the year, it was cold and drizzly virtually every day. This time it was the complete opposite.

    I had no ambitious plans for the last day, especially with the trouble I was still having with my knee. I started first with a slow walk along the Neva River bank. This time I decided to turn right and head towards the large passenger ships that were already lined up along the wharf. A fleet of large buses was assembled alongside, ready to transport the masses of tourists to whatever "highlights" they had been promised. I was just glad that I was not a part of it.

    The long walk also gave me a good chance to reflect on the past four weeks. Although this was a relatively short trip, compared to most of our previous cycling adventures, the planning had probably occupied more time than any of the 40 or so overseas rides we had done in the past. In particular, it seemed that everything to do with travel in Russia was complicated.

    When I finally tracked down an agent that was willing to look after our arrangements, it had proven very difficult to get any information from them. It seems that, when you are travelling in this region, you just have to trust that everything will be looked after. This goes against my nature. I really like to have every detail nailed down well before departure, but that was never going to happen on this trip.

    I have to admit that I was more than a little nervous when we reached Tallinn and began the second section of our adventure. As it turned out, my worries were completely unfounded. Everything went exactly according to the script. The hotel in Helsinki was excellent and the hotel in St Petersburg was positively luxurious - far in excess of our expectations. The transfers occurred according to plan and the vehicles were more than adequate for our small group. Our guides were all very professional. We all had to agree that we had actually received great value for money, even though I had probably grown even more wrinkles in the process. Now that it was almost time for me to return home, I could finally start to relax. Our Baltic States Adventure had been another undoubted success.

    After walking slowly for several hours, at times stopping to just watch the events happening around me, I worked my way back towards our hotel. When we first arrived in St Petersburg three days earlier, the whole city had seemed strange and confusing. Now it all felt familiar. I knew what landmarks to look out for as I navigated around. The generally rectangular array of wide streets also helped make it easy to stay oriented. To my surprise I actually found myself liking the place. If I had arrived expecting to find a dour, Soviet style, oppressive city, that is NOT what I found. On the contrary, St Petersburg is a modern city with clean, wide streets, lovely gardens, great cafes and a lovely network of canals and rivers. In the summer time at least, it was not a bad place to be.

    I found a nice, Italian style cafe for lunch. The seafood pizza was delicious, but my thoughts were already turning towards home. The part that I was not looking forward to was the long flight back.

    It was time to return to the hotel to check out of my room. The problem was that our flight was not due to leave until 11:55 pm that evening. I still had quite a few hours to fill in, so I went out for my final long walk in St Petersburg. About three hours and 7 km later I was back at the Sokos Valisievsky Hotel, sitting in a comfortable leather chair in the hotel library. Gradually the remaining five other members of our group joined me.

    At 7:15 pm a comfortable bus pulled up outside, driven by a jovial Russian called Rashid. We loaded our bags on board and were soon heading to the airport. The traffic was flowing smoothly, many families and young lovers were out walking in the parks. Overhead the sun was still high in the sky. It was not the stereotypical picture that most Australians would have of Russia.

    The check-in process went quickly and smoothly and we settled down to wait for our flight. Well four of us did anyway. Jim had lashed out some of his vast personal fortune on business class tickets and he disappeared to enjoy some champagne and caviar in the Emirate Executive Lounge. When the time came for boarding we caught a brief glimpse of Jim being carried to the plane on a golden pallanquin, being carried aloft by four burly staff. It's amazing what money can buy.

    I settled myself down in my economy seat and tried to pretend I was in a coma. For most of the next 24 hours I think that it was true. I have vague memories of watching parts of movies, short periods of troubled sleep, anxious thoughts about DVTs, visits to the fetid toilet, trying to eat airline meals without spilling most of it down the front of my shirt, hours of incessant baby cries, watching the tiny image of the plane crawl across the screen map at a glacial speed and trying to find a halfway comfortable position for my head and legs.

    Long flights are never fun, but they do eventually finish. The journey that had begun late Sunday night in St Petersburg finally finished at 5 am on Tuesday morning when the plane touched down at Tullamarine. It had been the best part of 2 days since I had been in a bed. I was a mess - but I was home,

    When I turned on my phone I found a message from Marg Jones. She had arrived back in Melbourne earlier that day on a different airline, only to discover that her luggage had been lost again! The same airline that had lost her luggage on the flight to Vilnius had managed to repeat the exercise on her return to Melbourne. I guess that means it is consistent at least.

    Although our luggage seemed to take an inordinate time to reach the carousel, it did arrive safely. All through the trip my bag had suffered a torn seam, but somehow it had held together until the end. Outside the sun was rising and Melbourne was coming to life, but all I could think of was getting into bed and sleeping for several days.

    A couple of hours later I was finally home. The memories of the flight were already fading and I was starting to think about the next European ride, beginning in just a few week's time. Travel is like that.
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  • Day27

    Far from the Madding Crowds

    June 29, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ☁️ 16 °C

    In case I have not made something clear enough in previous posts, I will say it just once more - I do not like being part of a crowd. I don't like being herded like cattle. I don't like queuing for ages, just to see something, solely because it is supposed to be a tourist highlight. I certainly don't like following some flag carrying tour guide. I have always found the real pleasure in travel comes from unexpected moments in much quieter places. Over the years I have enjoyed amazing, but entirely unplanned, conversations with complete strangers. Most commonly these have occured while walking in parks or while sitting on a bench somewhere.

    After the crowds we had encountered yesterday at the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Hermitage Museum, the last thing I needed today was another crush of people. I desparately wanted somewhere quiet - and I found one.

    On our initial drive from the station to our hotel we had passed the huge military museum. It had an interesting array of artillery and missiles displayed out the front and the place had looked quiet. It looked the sort of place that the tourist buses avoid, in other words, my sort of place.

    I guess I could have saved time by taking either the metro or a taxi, but I have always preferred to explore a city on foot. Even though I was still in a lot of discomfort (ie pain) with my stiff left knee, I hobbled off along the left bank of the Neva, past the two sphinxes (stolen from Egypt) , past the huge tall pirate ship (actually a fake tourist attraction) and onto the museum. I paid my 300 roubles entry fee (about $8) and started wandering the cavernous halls inside. I was almost the only one there, just what I had hoped for.

    The displays covered everything from the medieval ages up to modern times. Although it was interesting to see how military technology had developed, I could not help but think of what a complete and utter waste the whole nature of war really is. After the long walk from the hotel I was feeling in need of a coffee and when I saw the Cafe sign, I decided it was time for a break. Even though I have only been in Russia for three days, I am starting to recognise the Cyrillic characters already and can actually understand quite a few of the common signs.

    In the cafe I was thrilled to find that I was the only customer. I settled down with my latte and started to read more about the murders of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. I have always been intrigued with the story of Anastasia and the various legends about her escape. The true story really is quite horrific and, no matter how you feel about the excesses of the imperial rulers, no one actually deserves what happened to them.

    After a couple of hours at the museum, I continued my walk to the sprawling Summer Gardens. In many ways they reminded me of the famous Tuileries in Paris. Lots of young couples were taking advantage of the glorious weather to carry out their courtship rituals in the park. Some things are the same the world over and the short summer is obviously the prime time for love.

    I discovered a lovely cafe in a tented marquis and ordered Chicken Kiev. It seemed appropriate to have a Ukrainian specialty while in Russia. It was delicious and modestly priced. Just near the gardens my attention was caught by the onion shaped spires on the impressive Church of the Spilt Blood. I started to walk closer, until I noticed the jam of tourist buses and hundreds of tourists all heading in the same direction. It was even worse than the Hermitage. No church was interesting enough to entice me to go through that again.

    I took a couple of photos from a distance and then headed in the opposite direction. It took some time to walk back to the hotel. When I checked my GPS it registered about 14 km, and that did not include all the walking I had done inside the military museum. It was a bit short of my normal 20 to 25 km, but considering that I was walking with a handicap, I thought it was not a bad effort.

    After a short nap I went out for the final walk of the day - in search of dinner. I found a famous Scottish restaurant, not too away. It was called Macdonalds.

    Tomorrow we begin the long journey home.
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  • Day26

    The Hermitage Museum

    June 28, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    When I was putting this trip together it seemed like a good idea to add an extension to Helsinki and St Petersburg. At the time I thought it would be a relatively simple matter, however it turned into being something of a nightmare. After starting arrangements with three different Australian Travel Agencies (all of who abandoned the task as being "too hard") I eventually found a travel agency based in Latvia who said they would make the arrangements for us. The problem was that it was difficult (ie nearly impossible) to get any information from them for months at a time. Often phone calls went unanswered and email were ignored. It was certainly a cause of stress.

    About two months prior to our departure the time came to make the full payment for this part of our trip. The stress levels escalated further. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had the fear that we were being fleeced.

    Fortunately it has turned out that none of my fears were warranted. The arrangements have gone almost exactly to plan. The hotel that we were given in Helsinki was great and the Sokos Vasilievsky in St Petersburg was easily the best hotel of our entire trip. It was a wonderful way to finish a memorable adventure.

    This afternoon was our chance to tour the famous Hermitage Museum, one of the three largest museums in the world. Its vast collection of priceless works of art and pieces of antiquity would take a lifetime to see. We only had three hours, so we didn't manage to see quite everything. What we did see was about ten cruise liners worth of passengers all trying to force themselves through the museum at the same time as us. In many places the throng of people actually made the experience quite unpleasant, but that is the price you must pay to view such famous artworks.

    Svetlana led us through the bewildering sequence of massive rooms at a breakneck pace. From time to time we stopped to examine a particular item in greater detail. The Hermitage contains two pieces by Leonardo da Vinci and these were obviously one of the major attractions for the thousands of visitors.

    In 1985 a crazed young man attacked Rembrandt's Danae painting. At the time it was regarded as the most beautiful and valuable piece of art in the entire collection. At first it was thought to be so badly damaged that it could never be repaired. After thirteen years of painstaking repair and restoration, it is now back on display. It is no longer claimed to be the entire work of Rembrandt as some parts had to be completely repainted. It is still a remarkable piece of art, but it is now securely protected by armoured glass.

    By 5 pm we were all absolutely exhausted. It had been a very long day and we were well and truly ready to return to our hotel for a little quietness and rest. In spite of the crush of people, we still considered ourselves fortunate to have had the opportunity to view some of the greatest artworks of all time.

    Tomorrow will be our last full day here, the following day we begin the long journey home.
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  • Day26

    Learning About Leningrad

    June 28, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    Over the past hundred years St Petersburg has been known by numerous different names. For a time after the revolution it was known as Stalingrad, later changed to Leningrad. It was here that the German advance was halted at the infamous Siege of Leningrad. This prolonged blockade of the city lasted for over two years from September 1941 to the start of 1944. The lifting of the siege by the Russian army marked the end of the German eastern advance and the beginning of the end of the war for Germany.

    In the 1990s the citizens of the city voted to return to its original name of St Petersburg, named after Peter the Great of Russia who founded the city in 1703. Over 300 years later his name and image is everywhere in the city.

    The modern city shows very few scars of the massive destruction that took place during the siege, in fact our first impressions of the place were very positive. It feels like a modern, prosperous city with a lot of vitality. It is a city of islands and hundreds of bridges, dominated by the wide Neva River. For this reason St Petersburg is often referred to as the "Venice of the North". Our task for today was to explore the place and learn more about its secrets.

    At 9 am we were met in the foyer of our hotel by a young and attractive guide who introduced herself as Svetlana. She spoke excellent English, probably because she had a masters degree in Linguistics. Apparently she also conducts tours in Spanish - a very smart woman indeed.

    I had been dreading that we would lumped in with about 50 other people and be following a flag lady all day, but I needn't have worried. Our group consisted of just the 6 of us, plus Svetlana and Igor the driver. Even though it turned out to be an exhausting day, it was the best way to make use of our limited time here.

    The morning part was spent visiting some huge churches and museums. The size and opulence of these places give an insight into the power and wealth of the imperial rulers of the past. It is staggering to see the scale of the buildings and the inestimable number of man hours of labour that went into their construction and decoration. One common theme is gold. It is everywhere and on everything. I wondered why it had not been looted during the revolution and was told that some of it had been. This is apparently what was left. It is truly a staggering display of what unlimited money can buy.

    One particularly poignant location is the small sanctuary in the Peter and Paul Fortress that has been set up in the memory of the last Tsar and his family. Nicholas and his entire family were brutally murdered and dismembered in St Petersburg in July 1918. There were several stories that one of children (Anastasia) may have survived the massacre, but these have now been disproved. At least the modern Russians appear to have some remorse for what happened on that dreadful day, just over 100 years ago.

    Our major highlight for the day was the Hermitage Museum, one of the three biggest museums in the world. Since I am restricted in the number of images that can be included in each footprint, I will make a separate entry for our afternoon's activity.
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  • Day25

    Ghostriders in Russia

    June 27, 2019 in Russia ⋅ 🌧 15 °C

    This was always going to be a long and eventful day. And that is exactly how it turned out. It began when my alarm went off at 5.30 am in my hotel room in Helsinki. A quick look out the window showed that the blue skies that we had enjoyed for the past three and a half weeks had disappeared. They had been replaced with a long lying blanket of grey clouds. A steady drizzle of rain had already soaked the roads and footpaths.

    That was exactly the type of weather that I had feared could have followed us for our entire time in the Baltics. I must admit that I was almost glad to see it now as it would have seemed a bit unreal for us to have spent so long in the region without getting some of their "normal" weather.

    After breakfast I donned my waterproof jacket for the first time on this trip (I was wise packing it in my bag after all) and headed out for the final time. After a little aimless wandering, I found myself in the city museum. It had an incredible series of huge photographs of Helsinki that showed life in the city at various times since 1866. The detail was amazing, so much so that you could spend a lot of time at each image, just to look at what the people were doing.

    I finally worked my way to the top floor, where a complicated array of data projectors were showing some sort of movie. It was quite dark and I nearly had a heart attack when a voice came from below me. "Hello Dennis", it said. I know that technology is smart, but how could it know my name when I had come from the opposite side of the planet ?

    The mystery was solved when I discovered that it was Sue. She had made herself comfortable as part of the exhibit and was watching the movie. I asked her how she understood Finnish. Apparently she had already read the script and knew what it was all about.

    I continued to the market near the pier. Already several new ships had docked and disgorged their human cargoes. Quite a number of them (about 500 I reckon) were animatedly shoving themselves and taking selfies around the market stalls. I decided that Helsinki is a lovely city, but I was ready for something different.

    Our train for St Petersburg was due to leave at 4 pm. At the appointed pickup time of 3 pm our small group of 6 were all waiting with our luggage in the hotel foyer. When there was still no sign of a driver at 3.15 pm, I decided that it was time for us to walk. It was only a 10 minute walk and the rain had now stopped.

    We found the St Petersburg train and climbed on board. It was a shame that there was no room for our luggage - only a small overhead rack for hand luggage. Fortunately I found a small storage compartment at the end of the carriage and,after a little rearrangement (throwing everyone else's luggage out into the aisle) , I was able to find a nice secure spot for my bag.

    Right on schedule at 4 pm we were on our way towards Russia. The scenery consisted of trees - mile after mile of forests and very occasionally a house or two. This area really is remote and very lightly inhabited. All the time we knew we were getting closer and closer to Russia.

    It was what happened over the next 90 minutes that was the really interesting part. Firstly a large guy with absolutely no neck at all, wanted to see our passports and make sure that our Russian visas were in order. A short time later a group heavily armed and very serious Finnish immigration police wanted to examine my documents.

    They slowly worked their way through the carriage, until it was my turn. The serious faced official slowly turned over every page. He seemed concerned about something. I was certainly concerned. I was far too old to be sent to a Russian gulag, or even a Finnish one for that matter. He eventually told me that I must have entered Europe illegally,since I had no arrival stamp. This was my worst fear come true.

    Trying to remain calm, I explained to him that I had entered through Warsaw and that he had better have another look. He went back through the pages again and finally found the stamp he was looking for. Thus satisfied he added a new stamp to my passport and handed it back. He seemed a little disappointed that he had missed the chance to make his first arrest of the day.

    The border crossing itself was a little anticlimactic - just a sign, lots of barbed wire and CCTV cameras. We were now in Russia, little wonder that the weather seemed gloomier and the forests looked like they had more weeds than trees. The sides of the railway line were lined with miles of coiled barbed wire and numerous cameras. It was a delightful way to welcome foreign tourists to your country.

    The carriage was then filled with a succession of uniformed Russian officials. There were so many of them that they filled all the standing room in the aisle. Some were dressed like police, while others looked like army generals. It was an impressive show of force. Sweat started to drip from my chin as they worked their way towards me. I started to wonder whether I would be offloaded to the next train to Siberia. To my relief I was eventually awarded the coveted Russian entry stamp, but not before another long and detailed examination of my passport.

    Right on time we rolled into St Petersburg Central Station. Another adventure was about to begin. I wondered whether our driver would be waiting for us. Would we have a hotel to sleep in that night ? It was very reassuring to see a man holding a sign with my name on it outside the station. He even had it spelt correctly. I started to relax.

    We were ushered to a waiting large mini bus and were soon heading towards our hotel. I watched the progress on my GPS, but soon noticed that we were heading in the opposite direction to our allocated hotel. Maybe the driver was a KGB agent and we were being taken to Siberia after all?

    A few minutes later he stopped outside the very impressive Sokos Vasilievsky Hotel and indicated that this is where we would be staying. I was not so sure, but we unloaded our luggage and rolled into the fancy lobby. To my relief the guy at the desk spoke excellent English and was obviously expecting us.

    We were directed to our rooms and discovered them to be far in excess of our expectations. In fact the rooms were enormous, the beds magnificent, the air conditioning was functioning and the bathrooms alone were as big as some of our previous rooms. I even found that my window could be opened - something that many hotels no longer allow you to do. When I looked out my window I found that I looked straight down into a yard filled with broken toilet cisterns. I am not joking, but I am not complaining either. I am very happy with the hotel and my room.

    At 8.30 pm we met to have our first foray into the unfamiliar city. We immediately discovered a new challenge. It is impossible to read most signs, because the alphabet is so different. Since no one speaks English,ordering anything to eat is a complicated matter of pointing and grunting, but somehow we managed.

    The next couple of days will be interesting.
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  • Day24

    Caught up in the Invasion

    June 26, 2019 in Finland ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    With only full day in Helsinki, it seemed to be a good idea to include a personal guided tour of the city for the members of our group. At the appointed hour a smiling lady appeared in the hotel foyer. Since she was wearing a prominent badge labelled "GUIDE", we made the logical assumption that she was to be our guide. It turned out to be true.

    We were ushered back outside to the same luxury Mercedes that had brought us from the ferry terminal the previous day. It certainly was a comfortable way to see the city. Our first stop was at the Sibelius Monument. When you only have a tiny population of around 5 million people, I guess there are not too many candidates for the role of national hero. The composer Jean Sibelius is obviously Finland's favourite son and his presence is seen all over the city.

    The monument consists of a collection of huge stainless steel pipes, all welded together. It would have been nice to take a picture of them without first having to wait for busloads of tourists,all wanting to have their own pictures taken standing right in front of the monument. The cruise liners had obviously arrived in the port and their toxic cargoes of thousands of camera carrying tourists were all over the city.

    Our next stop was the new Oordi Library - a massive construction made entirely of wood. It is amazing how a brilliant piece of architecture can revitalise an entire district and this is exactly what this building had done. With its sloping floors and soaring ceilings, it certainly challenges the senses when you are inside. It is much more than just a library - it has become a vibrant meeting place and community hub.

    The other major place we were going to visit was the famous Lutheran Church in the Rock. The entire church has been built into the rock in the centre of Helsinki.

    I remember being very impressed by this place five years ago and was keen to spend some quiet time there again. That turned out to be impossible. The super cruise liners have changed (ie ruined) all that. You cannot even get close to the building now because of the jam of the tourist coaches. The crowds of loud people all streaming towards the building looked more like a Grand Final Football crowd than people going to a place of reflection and prayer. To make matters even worse, our guide raised a flag. I could have died of shame.

    You now have to buy a ticket to enter and the queues stretched far back from the entrance. Once inside you are confronted by a souvenir shop where you can buy mementos and drinks. Is this really still a functioning Lutheran church or a type of Disneyland ? In front of me a family was having trouble with their two smartphone carrying young children. One of them was having a tantrum because he had lost his Internet connection. At that stage I lost interest and was ready to leave.

    I could not help but feel sad that the place had changed so much for the worse. It reminded me of what had now happened to Macchu Picchu since it had been prostituted in the name of mass tourism. To me, the effect of these massive passenger liners has been to destroy much of what you come to Europe to experience. I could not wait to escape the masses to somewhere much quieter.

    After the tour finished, I spent the remainder of the day wandering the city on my own. Thanks to a dose of Neurofen, my knee was giving me a little less trouble. By the middle of the afternoon the cruise passengers were all back on their floating cities and Helsinki was much more liveable once more.

    In the evening our group (now reduced to 8) went out for our final dinner in Helsinki. Tomorrow we will lose another two, when David and Sue start their return journey to Australia. The remaining six of us will be continuing to Russia. That should be quite an experience.
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  • Day23

    Hobbling in Helsinki

    June 25, 2019 in Finland ⋅ ☁️ 16 °C

    There is absolutely no doubt that Tallinn is a very appealing city. It's small size makes it easy to get around on foot, it's lovely medieval buildings are enchanting and the clean air makes it easy to breathe. In fact, if it weren't for the ferocious winters and the daily invasion of thousands of cruise ship passengers, it would probably be a great place to live.

    While we never had to experience the harshness of the winter months, we certainly witnessed the daily ritual of the giant cruise ship invasions. Every morning these behemoths of the ocean dock at Tallinn port, disgorge their thousands of selfie snapping passengers to crowd the centre of the old town, then by mid afternoon they are off to repeat the same procedure at the next Baltic port. I fail to see how this can in any way be enjoyable for the passengers who are herded from place to place, just like sheep. It is little wonder that many towns in Europe are now actively complaining about how this modern phenomenon is ruining their cities.

    This was our last morning in Tallinn, and it also marked the official end of the first part of our trip. Our group is now breaking up to head in their different directions. It also marked the end of UTRACKS involvement with our arrangements. Up to now everything had gone exactly according to plan, but now I would be putting ourselves in the hands of another (and completely untried tourism operator). Time would tell how it all panned out.

    When putting together the Russian part of our trip I went through three different travel agencies in Melbourne. None of them had the experience and competence to undertake our trip. That is when I decided to try out a local agent, based in the Baltics. Putting so much responsibility in the hands of someone you will never meet is very scary. It's even more scary when you you to transfer large sums of money to their bank account. Somewhere in the back of my mind there was a fearful little voice telling me that it was probably just a front for the Russian mafia.

    After a final short walk around the town, we returned to the hotel to wait for our transfer to the port. It arrived right on time and we were soon at the very impressive Tallinn passenger terminal. This was my first chance to test the arrangements that had been made by Baltic Events and Travel. I walked to the check in desk and presented my voucher. The lady looked at it and went off to collect the tickets. So far so good.

    I was handed a pile of ten tickets. That much was correct. It was only when I checked the names that I discovered that several were jumbled up. Christian names were swapped at random. I hoped that it would not matter too much. Fortunately no one checked passports and we were all able to board without incident. Our ship was the very impressive Megastar. Hundreds of noisy foreign passengers were jostling to get on board first. I was really glad that we were only doing this once, for many others this is a daily ritual.

    Our group of ten managed to secure a small block of seats and then block it off with a barricade of our luggage. All around the cacophony continued unabated. I don't understand why so many people feel the need to carry on every conversation at the same volume as a bellowing elephant. I plugged in my headphones and listened to Australia playing England the World Cup Cricket.

    Fortunately the crossing to Helsinki only takes around two hours and we were soon shuffling our way off the Megastar onto the pier at Helsinki. A glance around revealed a large assemblage of massive cruise ships already docked. Some of these were like floating versions of Fountain Gate Shopping Centre. We just wanted to get away from the crowd.

    I had been promised that someone would be waiting for on arrival, and there was. He had my name spelt wrong, but what the heck, at least he was there. We were led to a waiting luxury Mercedes Benz bus and driven to our hotel in the prestigious Kluuvi district of the city.

    The GLO Kluuvi is a lovely hotel - easily the most luxurious of our trip so far. It was a little disconcerting when they had been given the wrong names for some of the rooms, but this seems to be a recurring theme here. (Dana at UTRACKS would NEVER make such mistakes). At least the number of rooms was correct.

    After checking in, I spent some time hobbling around the local district. My left knee is still very stiff and painful, meaning that I was not able to travel far. I did however see some familiar sights that I remembered from my previous time here in 2014. After dinner at a nearby cafe, I went back to the hotel for an early night. It was only about 10 pm, so the sun was still high in the sky.

    Over the past couple of days the local news has been full of alarming reports about the European heat wave. In many parts of central Europe the temperatures have been souring to near 40C. Although we are now too far north to be affected by the heat, the weather has continued to be exceptional. Virtually every day has been fine and sunny, ever since we arrived in Warsaw. It now looks like this will follow us all the way to St Petersburg. That wet weather gear looks like staying at the bottom of the case after all.
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  • Day22

    Estonia Greets the Ghostriders

    June 24, 2019 in Estonia ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    I don't suppose it really should have come as such a surprise. After all, for the past three weeks, our bright yellow and pink jerseys have been attracting attention wherever we went. On more than one occasion, locals had been so impressed that they actually looked us up on the Internet to see for themselves just how famous we were.

    I must admit however, that I was a little taken aback to find out that the day after our triumphant arrival in the capital city of Estonia had been declared a national holiday (presumably in our honour). We weren't expecting that, but it was a fitting way to finish our cycling adventure across the three Baltic States.

    I had previously visited Tallinn briefly in 2014 and I was curious to see if my impressions of the place had changed in those last five years. There is no doubt that Tallinn is a pretty city with its lovely combination of forested outer suburbs and its delightful medieval old city. The traffic appears to flow smoothly, the infrastructure is modern and the air is clean.

    Scratch a little below the surface, however,and you find that all is not perfect. In the first couple of hours after our arrival, I saw more homeless men and women than I had seen in the previous three weeks. The town is now firmly on the tourist radar and the streets of the old city are crowded with a continuous onslaught of tour groups following their flag waving guides. Like many other European cities, smoking is very common among all ages. Outdoor dining is spoilt by the constant puffing of toxic tobacco smoke, and if you look down at the ancient cobbles you will likely see them covered with discarded butts.

    The influx of tourists has had another unwelcome side effect - the prices are much higher than anywhere else we have travelled in the Baltic States. You can now expect to pay around 5 Euro (about $8 AUD) for a cup of coffee. Meals are similarly very expensive.

    While the influx of tourism dollars has no doubt bought prosperity to some sectors of the population, it is also evident that the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots", has also grown.

    On another topic entirely, I thought I might make a medical comment. One of the unfortunate side effects of growing old is that you never seem to know which part of your body will hurt or fail next. You can go to bed without a worry in the world and then wake up in the morning feeling like a bus must have run over your left foot during the night. Aches, pains, strains and assorted other bodily breakdowns seem to occur at random, mostly at a time when it will cause the greatest inconvenience.

    For the few weeks before this trip started I had been having trouble with pain at the base of both of my thumbs. This had made changing gears on my bike quite difficult and painful and I had been worrying how I would cope with the pressure of daily cycling during the trip.

    For some completely unknown and bewildering reason, that pain has now disappeared. That's the good news. There is always bad news as well. Over the past few days I have been conscious of a growing soreness and stiffness in my left knee. Although I tried to ignore it while on the bike, it did make it hard to climb stairs or walk without pain.

    When I awoke this morning the pain had increased significantly, meaning that I had to hobble down to the breakfast room like a 68 year old man. Come to think of it, I AM a 68 year old man, so I guess that is perfectly normal. By the same token, I wonder what body part will fail next when the giant wheel of potential medical problems is spun next.

    Tonight we have our final dinner together as a group. After breakfast our team will split into numerous sub sections as our members begin their long journeys back to Australia. After the incredible run of fine weather we have enjoyed here, the shock of arriving back in the middle of a bleak Melbourne winter will be a little hard to bear. And what will be the first thing I will do when I get back home ? Take this DELL computer back to JB HiFi to get the rotten space bar fixed. It has plagued me the entire tripand Iamsickofhaving totype thesamesentenceoverandoveragain.
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  • Day21

    Castles, Craters and the Capital

    June 23, 2019 in Estonia ⋅ ☁️ 15 °C

    While it is true that we have seen and visited several castles already on our travels in the Baltics, it would also be true to say that most (all) did not really come up to scratch as "real" castles. My idea of a castle is something of a mammoth structure, complete with moat and drawbridge. A few cannons at the front would also add credibility to the castle credentials as well.

    For all those reasons,the castle in Kuresaare, really qualifies as a genuine, grade one, certified castle. It turned out to be the highlight of our final day on the bikes. Almost as big a highlight would have been the glorious, silky smooth bike path we followed from our hotel, all the way to the castle. It was what all other bike paths should aspire to be. It even came complete with a tail wind ! Absolutely perfect.

    The episcopal castle dominates the lovely city and, after a little trouble finding the entrance (something designed to confuse would be attackers no doubt), we parked our bikes and went inside. Not only was the castle itself quite magnificent, the location by the waterfront was also breathtaking.

    The inside of the castle has now been set up as the Saaremaa Museum, containing a fascinating insight into the extended history of the island over the past several thousand years. The exhibitions relating to the war times and Soviet occupation were the most fascinating, although it was a shame that very little was in English.

    Although the sign said that the roof top cafe would not open till 11 am, I discovered that the sign was only intended to deter less intrepid coffee drinkers. The young sales girl was quite happy to make me a coffee and serve me a slab of Neapolitan cake, even though it was only 10.30 am. The coffee was actually quite good. We have now learned that, if you order a latte, you get much better value than ordering a cappuccino. Certainly the views from the windows were amazing.

    I guess I should have mentioned that the weather was just as good as every previous day. The sky was cloudless and the temperature was high enough for us to ride in our Ghostrider jerseys. We have asked several locals about this and they have all agreed that it is most unusual at this early time of the year. We should have been getting cold and wet days for the entire ride. You might call this luck, but I would attribute it to superb planning by me.

    After leaving the castle we knew that we only had around 30 km left to ride. Unfortunately the bike path ended and we returned to the road. It is worth noting that traffic on Saaremaa is very light and we found that all vehicles gave us a very wide berth when passing. Our brilliant new Ghostrider tops made us visible from a distance of about 5 km, so we never felt in any danger when riding on the public roads.

    Our final stop during the ride was at a small cafe at the side of the road. Although it looked a little nondescript from the outside, inside it was a real surprise. The young owners had stripped back all the old wall linings to reveal the original construction and had obviously tried hard to build a good business.

    The owner himself noticed our shirts and then came out to chat with us. "Are you really all the way from Australia ?", he asked. "Yep", we proudly replied.

    He spoke excellent English and went on to explain that he used to be a civil servant in Tallinn, but decided to take on this challenge two summers ago. I told him that we would love to know what it was like in the winter. He immediately decided that he would put some winter pictures on his walls, so that travellers would be able to see just how different it is. When I asked him how the kids got to school in the middle of winter, he explained that they all ski to school. Now that would be a sight to see.

    The final 10 km of the ride took us to the Kaali Meteorite Crater. This is apparently the most famous natural wonder on the island, although the crater itself was a bit smaller than I had been expecting. It even took us a bit of effort to find it.

    The bikes which had served us so well were packed onto the trailer for the final time. We had suffered no punctures, no mechanical issues and no injuries in the entire ride. I could also add that we had not even had a single drop of rain while we were riding. I guess that constitutes a successful ride in anyone's language.

    All that remained for us was to climb back on the bus for the drive to the capital city of Estonia - Tallinn. That will officially mark the end of our Baltics Cycling Adventure, although for some of the team, the trip will continue for a little longer as we travel to Helsinki and St Petersburg.
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  • Day20

    Lighthouses, Rocks, Kites and Bumps

    June 22, 2019 in Estonia ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    In most of Europe the 22nd of June marks the official start of Summer. That means that it is a common time of celebrations and, in the Baltic States, of massed communal singing. For us the first day of summer dawned fine and clear, but a little cooler than the past couple of weeks.

    Our plan was to transfer by bus to the impressive lighthouse at Saare. This is at the southernmost point of Saaremaa Island, situated at the very end of a very exposed promontory. We arrived in time to step out into the teeth of a force nine gale. Of course everyone immediately checked to see which direction it was blowing. To our relief, it was mostly in the direction that we would soon be riding. If it had been blowing in the other direction, I suspect that we would have just climbed back on the bus and called it a day.

    After a short time exploring the towering lighthouse, we climbed on the bikes, hoisted our spinnakers and set off downwind. It was a wonderful feeling to have the wind sharing some of our workload and we managed to make excellent progress. It was only when we turned off the sealed road and found ourselves bouncing along a rough dirt track that the going got more difficult.

    At one stage we came across a rocky beach where previous visitors had erected hundreds of stone cairns. This reminded me of other places around the world where this is done. It is obviously a manifestation of an innate human need to create order from disorder. I erected a small tower and dedicated it to my new grandson Jossi. I have not met the little guy yet, but hoped that my efforts would somehow be felt by him all those thousands of kilometres away.

    After riding about 30 km, we began seriously looking for a picnic location. In this region public picnic grounds are rarer than pink unicorns. They just don't exist. Since we were in need of rest and some food I announced that the next time we found some mowed grass, we would stop there , even if it was someone's front yard. So that's exactly what we did.

    It was a lovely patch of short green grass and there was no obvious sign of the owners. We figured that if anyone turned up, we would just plead ignorance telling them that in Australia we do that all the time. Fortunately no one showed and we all enjoyed a marvellous time in the sun.

    The rough road continued for a few more km, eventually bringing us to a popular kite surfing beach. Dozens of young kite surfers were flying back and forth, sometimes soaring high above the water and then returning with a huge splash. It was interesting to watch, although we were left wondering how they managed to avoid crashing into each other.

    The final few kilometres of the ride was along a beautifully smooth bike path. The combination of smooth bitumen and tailwind gave us a glimpse of what cycling in heaven would be like.

    Tomorrow will be our final day on the bikes and, by tomorrow evening, we will reach Tallinn, the final destination for this section of the trip. After two nights in Tallinn our group will begin to break up as we head off in multiple different directions. For ten of us, the adventure will continue a little longer as we catch the ferry across the Baltic to Helsinki.
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