November 21, 2015
We’re up early the next morning though there’s little need. Espoo sits less than two hours away, and a steady pitter-patter of rain on the tent keeps us inside hoping for a break. Eventually, the rhythmic beat subsides, and we break camp, strapping gear to the bikes while looking to the heavens. The weather pauses for ten minutes and, as the last bag closes and the last glove donned, it begins again. But once we’re in our gear the weather rarely matters.
It’s a straight shot to town; the ferry will be waiting for us tomorrow morning, and the views to the north of Helsinki reiterate those that have draped the landscape along our route throughout Finland. Trees run along the edge of two-lane roads creating a never-ending corridor of green, interrupted violently by the random field. The roads lay pin-straight, and the only real corner deposits us onto a motorway heading straight south to Espoo.
The rain has eased, and now a blanket of grey hangs in the sky but no longer threatens. Rather, it reminds us of an old wool blanket; purposeful and ready.
We arrive at the Hellsten Espoo with plenty of time left in the day, and a room prepared for us. It feels more like a well-equipped hostel rather than a hotel and offers a nice respite from a long stretch of camping. The hot showers and comfortable bed deliver a welcome alternative to our tent. Once the dirt’s scrubbed from our bodies, we make our way into town aboard a nearby tram and find a place to eat inside a giant shopping centre. It’s a Malldate™, something Nita and I would enjoy every once in a while back at home and, if we’re honest, it’s a bit of a treat.
It’s all a bit nondescript, but areas like this on the outskirts of large cities often are; harbingers of outlet malls and familiar brands, columns of drone-like Mercedes and BMW’s filing line by line into parking areas designed for shopping efficiency. Still, it’s always interesting to see how H&M and Subway now appear as commonplace in Finland as North America.
Back at the apartment, the sun drifts past a concrete horizon, and we soon fall asleep, our dreams filled with ferries and Eastern Europe.
In the morning we awake to discover that someone’s tried to remove the fuel bottles from our bikes. It’s the first time anyone has tried to steal something from our bikes (the throw rug taken in Tunisia fell to the ground before being whisked away by the lightest of fingers)! Fortunately, the canister’s filthy strapping deters the would-be thief leaving them frustrated enough to abort their attempt. It’s a shock to the system; the neighbourhood feels safe, and we’ve become confident in our ability to discern whether a situation warrants extra precautions. Usually, we do very little to protect the bikes from prying eyes, and Espoo didn’t raise alarms for either of us.
We load the bikes and, after breakfast, make the short trip to Helsinki where a line of cars and bikes sit, waiting for the ferry. Near the front of the line, a navy-blue Ural quietly demands our attention, and it’s owner Marcel shows us around his unique ride. As often happens while waiting in line for a ferry, a crowd of curious riders gather, sharing their stories; almost everyone’s topic in this queue involves Nordkap.
It’s a two-hour journey by ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn and the time passes quickly with our new friends. The main room appears as we’d imagine a cruise-ship, adorned with brass rails, an abundance of seating and even some live entertainment in the form of a man, a mic and a keyboard. His sincerity while singing unrecognisable interpretations of Billy Joel songs endears us to him immediately.
Soon enough, the giant ship pulls into Tallinn, and the usual excitement of releasing our motorcycles into a new country takes hold. Estonia comes in at “Country twenty-four” on our personal odyssey and, while the city looks to be beautiful, torrential rains to the east encourage us to head south towards Pärnu in search of drier days.
Also interested in kinder weather, Marcel rides with us for a while but, as his Ural struggles to keep up, he decides to meet us in Pärnu or perhaps Riga, Latvia, later in the week. We exchange numbers, say our farewells and watch him disappear into the background as a flat, straight road stretches out in front of us for what looks to be an eternity.
We arrive in Pärnu mid-afternoon, and Nita’s found us a great little spot by the marina at the Jahtklubi Külalistemaja where we secure our bikes in a fenced shipyard before being greeted by welcoming staff who deliver us to a small but clean and comfortable room. The weather which has threatened since Tallinn appears to have abated and, instead, blue skies welcome us while we eat dinner on the patio, watching the yachts meander along the Pärnu River and towards the Gulf of Riga.
The next morning we decide to stay an extra night and spend the day walking through the Old Town, just to the east of the marina. We’re immediately struck by the lack of Cyrillic lettering. Since these Baltic countries had made up the north-western flank of the Soviet Union, I imagined a visual landscape filled with Russian lettering. In reality, my ignorance remains an artefact of a childhood education borne during the cold-war. In point of fact, the language of most Estonian’s resembles it’s neighbours to the north more than the east.
Our walk takes us along treed streets and through many of the parks on this eastern stretch. Past Vallikäär we cross towards the Endla Teatrigalerii where techno music shatters the quiet while runners prepare for what looks to be a yearly race. Well, we’re not confident they’re getting ready – it could be over! There’s no rush to prepare in anyone’s eyes, but the athletes appear to be ready for anything. Pärnu feels mellow today, and it’s perfect for our mood.
We continue south, towards the sculpture of August Jakobson, a Socialist Realism piece that hints not only at Estonia’s history as part of the USSR, but also of Jakobson’s Stalinist slant. Even now, in early September, as the summer dissolves into a long fall and the streets empty of beach-hunting tourists, there’s a feeling of life here. The colourful Hanseatic buildings that remind us of Bergen act as a counterpoint to the empty pathways where the occasional local greets us with a bewildered smile. There’s a sense that summer-life in Pärnu is winding down and there’s no better place to take it all in than a small table in a little café. As the sun fades in the city, we make our way back to the marina and an evening view of the water.
The next morning there’s a text on my phone from Marcel – he’s made it to Riga in a single shot and has a room in the Wellton Elefant Hotel. Looking out our window, it’s evident that our luck with weather has run-out. A dark cloud fills the sky in all directions, and a light rain begins to deepen every colour outside. We load the bikes and begin our journey south towards Latvia with little hope of arriving dry. Getting going on days like these requires digging a little deeper but, once we’re moving, there’s almost always a joy that follows.
The day dissolves into a blur – literally and figuratively. The water streams from our visors in torrents making it difficult to see much of anything along the coastal two-lane road. The border into Latvia lies decaying, bleak and overgrown, now hinting at its previous importance. We ride through the abandoned gates; a couple of trucks sit idling in overgrown parking spaces, and remnants of a long-passed market litter the ground.
The road unfurls more worn and potholed than it’s Estonian counterpart with washboard-like undulations appearing even along the endless straights that make up much of this tree-lined route. We pass through a number of small towns stopping only once to change from soaked gloves to dry; we’re travelling with the end in sight, undoubtedly missing the real beauty of Latvia. Riga welcomes us with a polite rush hour along cobblestone streets, contrasting architecture and the promise of warmth that’s evaded us all day.
Inside the Wellton Elefant Hotel, we’re handed a note from reception: “Welcome! Text me when you arrive – Marcel” A warm greeting from a familiar face makes a pleasant surprise! There’s no need to text; on the way back to the bikes Marcel spots us, and we make a plan for the night. Though, right now drying our gear comes first. The comfortable accommodations and heated towel rack provide the perfect spot for squeezing water from our gloves.
We decide on a quiet night out of the rain and enjoy dinner with our new friend trading stories of life at home and tales from the road. There’s a part of me that will regret not exploring Riga but, for now, we’re content to be still. With Nita’s heart surgery only a month away, there’s lot’s of adventuring yet to be had. I ease my anxiety with promises of returning, and that seems to work.
The next morning we find Marcel eating breakfast and looking quite ready to hit the road. He’s heading towards Vilnius to join another couple we’d met on the ferry from Finland and plans to stay with them for a few days before continuing. By the time we begin packing the bikes, Marcel’s loaded his Ural and waving to us while disappearing into Riga’s morning traffic.
Our plan changed overnight; there’s a massive storm brewing in the East and the idea of another few days spent as human sponges has lost its appeal. Rather than heading to a campsite near the island castle at Trakai, we’ve opted to ride into Šiauliai, Lithuania and meet up with Daniel Rintz (Somewhere Else Tomorrow) and finally meet Joey! Great friends trump tourist hotspots any day of the week.
The blue sky and cold air stay with us for the day, and for that we’re grateful. Turns remain infrequent, and the landscape varies in only the slightest way from town to town. The border into Lithuania is marked by a signpost and a decaying Soviet-era building, sporting strong, angular lines augmented with a row of strange arches that seem out of place – as if added to erase the past with as much efficiency as possible. The roads south of the border suffer considerable deterioration and the views strike us as less important than an hour of “Dodge the Potholes.” We’re happy to be in another country.
It’s not long before we find ourselves sitting on a café patio, enjoying an excellent meal with Daniel and Joey. The sunlight casts a beautiful yellow glow and laughter fills the air – especially when we broach the topic of the flute as a camp instrument. Somehow the idea of it fails to meet the requirements for a “Motorcycle Traveller.” Still, there’s got to be a place for it somewhere in the adventurer’s pannier?!
Almost an exact reversal of the loop we just did through Scandinavia, Daniel and Joey’s route acts as a test-run while preparing for their upcoming journey through the Americas (visit Open Explorers). Sitting there, waiting for Daniels dessert to arrive, it strikes all of us that we feel like old friends. What beautiful people!
Soon enough, the shadows begin to lengthen, and it’s time to say goodbye. We wheel the bikes (illegally) on into the square where no-one seems fussed with our infraction. With the bikes lined up, our waitress takes a photo and, just like that, we’re off again not knowing when, if ever, we’ll see them again. It’s a thought that leaves us a little blue as the road south leads us toward Kaunas.
It’s a little less than two hours before we arrive in the city and the roads lift us higher and higher, twisting left and right until we reach Eco Hotel Babilonas. We’re surprised at how well-equipped this place is for the cost; it all feels brand new. The staff greet us with warm smiles, and soon we’re ready to walk the old town in search of dinner and a feel for what local life means here.
The streets appear empty – but Kaunas’ old town delivers a maze of monochromatic buildings that understate the beauty of this place. We head west towards Kauno Pilis, a 14th-century gothic castle whose red-brick walls and giant turret make it architecturally unique in the city, before heading south-east back into the heart of the old town. We find a restaurant that looks closed but isn’t. Inside, we’re greeted with something akin to suspicion which then transforms into genuine warmth. Our waitress welcomes us to Lithuania with cautious smiles and delicious local fare.
Satisfied with our short time in Kaunas, the hill back to our hotel feels much more strenuous with full bellies and reminds us of the “Scali-naaa-taaaa” we faced in Gaeta. We welcome the amenities in our hotel with tired eyes and, soon enough, we’re fast asleep.
After enjoying the complimentary breakfast, we make a plan for Poland and Camping Wagabunda near the picturesque town of Mikołajki. The roads begin to improve as we make our way closer to the Polish border until we’re motoring down pristine tarmac. It’s a welcome relief after days of dodging some brutal potholes. The entry into Poland remains as smooth as any other country in the EU, the only difference being a large group of police and officials standing atop a hill watching the traffic filter along. It’s the first time in a while we’ve seen any security at a border! Got to love Europe.
It doesn’t take long for riding in Poland to become another unique experience. The roads harken to the narrow lanes that swept us south through France toward the Mediterranean, but here the dense forests come right to the edge of the tarmac with little more than room enough for a single car. We’re also quick to notice that while we’re often alone for hours on the French routes, these roads serve as secondary freeways for truckers – the same Polish truckers whose reputation has become a hot-topic through-out the other area’s of Europe we’ve travelled.
It’s gorgeous here.
For a while, the road rolls towards us in good shape but soon degrades; deep ruts form in the asphalt dropping us four to six inches at a time, and the traffic picks up in a major way. At one point, a convoy of trucks stretches in front of us, and we pass them one at a time, dropping into the ruts before getting the bikes up to 90 km/h, then riding up the rut and into the two or three meters of space between them. And so it goes for some time.
Once we’re free of the trucks, we notice cars driving half-on and half-off the road at half-speed; an easy pass except that some would hit the brakes hard for no apparent reason. The last group of drivers to appear to announce themselves by sitting inches from our rear wheels; tailgaters follow for miles before choosing to pass – most often in our lane.
Having spent a few hours weaving our way deeper into the countryside and acclimatising to our new riding environment, we stop for a bite to eat. The truck-stop resides in an old brick house with a bar, a few tables and a television tucked high in the corner of the room. The TV series “Gold Rush” plays on the tube in English though no one appears to be paying it much attention. It makes me feel homesick for a moment.
Our first communication in Poland goes well; she doesn’t speak English, we don’t speak Polish but somehow we each end up with a delicious bowl of stew and, eventually, a smile.
Outside, the temperature is perfect for riding. To our left, gas pumps sit locked behind a chain-link fence. We could use some fuel, but with no-one around, we decide to press on. The roads continue to narrow, and the trees draw closer, embracing each other over our heads to form beautiful green arches that block views of both land and sky. I become aware that the arrival times presented by our GPS’s appear completely wrong – there’s no way we’re getting into Mikołajki anywhere near the time we’d planned.
An hour or so later it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere. With no signs of life for a while now and the woods feeling far too dense, I stop for a moment to take stock. There’s no reception on the GPS, but the road only goes in one direction. “Fuel.” my inner voice says. “We should have gotten fuel.”
“Shut it.” I say, in response to a voice that Nita can’t hear over her headset.
“You okay?” She says.
“Good. Let’s keep going for a bit.”
Three corners later the woods open into fields and that most beautiful sight in the world appears: a gas station.
It’s not long before we pull into Camping Wagabunda, perched on a hill overlooking the picturesque town of Mikołajki. With Nita’s birthday tomorrow we splurge the $30 and get a basic cabin for two nights. While the outside looks somewhat modern, the interior remains unfinished plywood, a two-by-four bed and a bare-bones bathroom. It’s heaven.
Once settled into our digs for the next couple of days we make our way down the hill into town for dinner by the Jezioro Mikołajskie. A small footbridge takes us over the water and into a square, sided by colourful buildings, a fountain and touristy vibe that’s welcoming. We take some time walking the streets, exchange euros for some złoty, and make our way to the lake.
The sun begins to fade, but the light on the water feels warm and welcoming. We find a restaurant with a small table next to the footpath and a beautiful view. It’s a perfect night to celebrate Nita’s birthday albeit a day early. We order food, sip our drinks and take it all in. It’s all so good.
Sometimes, these dream-like moments offer up a dose of reality when we least expect it. Our bucket of cold water comes in the form of an email on my phone:
“We’ve been following your trip and it looks great! We, too, have just started our trip in Europe and were wondering how you were able to stay in Europe for so long. I am American (my boyfriend is British) and the visa regulations say I can only stay for 3 months.”
My mind starts reeling. Did I miss something? It appears I did. Nita and I start furiously investigating on our phones, and the answer is clear: in researching all the complicated visa’s we require, we’ve misinterpreted the easy one. If we stick to our plan, we’ll have overstayed our welcome to the tune of twenty-two days, so we make an adjustment over dinner: No Romania. No Croatia. No Albania. No Montenegro. We’ll have to stay within the Schengen Area until we leave for Nita’s heart surgery in Canada.
It’s deflating. I wonder aloud if my British citizenship could help. It would, but Nita would need to apply for status, and there isn’t enough time. “What if we just plead ignorance?” Nope. We know – and neither of us lies well. Plus, an exclusion on our passports is unwanted on our journey. It’s disappointing but, in reality, our time in this part of the world must come to a close.
We finish our meal and make the long walk back up the hill to our cabin in complete silence. It’s not turned into the day we’d hoped for and once again Nita’s birthday takes a strange turn. Curling up on the bed, we hope to dream up an alternate way to continue.