Estonia’s coastal landscape is flat. Like a pancake. If it wasn’t for the trees, you could see your dog run away for a week. It’s flat like Holland, where I grew up. It has another thing in common with Holland: it’s windy. But that’s life by the sea. And when there are no topographical challenges, the wind rules the landscape.
Lucky for us, the wind was blowing west when we left Tallinn. And it was a lovely sunny day, to boot. Before long, the busy city was behind us and we happily rode along quiet roads in the countryside, skirting the coast. Pine forests mostly prevent views of the water but occasionally we did get a glimpse of the Baltic Sea.
The miles effortlessly rolled away under our wheels and by mid-afternoon we had cycled nearly 80 kilometres. Time to look for a place to camp. Estonia’s forest service, RMK, maintains a myriad of camp sites, hiking trails, recreation areas and even forest huts and observation towers. The camp sites all have toilets, fire wood, tables and many of them have shelters from the wind, as well. They are free for anyone to use. They have an excellent website, as well as an app for your smartphone.
We found a great RMK site near Keibu, just two kilometres down a small gravel road, on a large bay with the same name. The camp site was in the forest, protecting us from the wind, while a short walk through the trees brought us out on to a sandy beach stretching for several kilometres along the bay.
We made our camp in the trees but took our dinner and libations to the beach where we watched the sun traverse the horizon. At nearly 60 degrees north, the sun doesn’t set until around 11 p.m. and rises again at 4 a.m. White nights, they call them. Despite the sun, we wore our down jackets to stave off the cold wind blowing off the Baltic Sea. They call it summer, I guess.
With the wind still pushing us, we continued west to Rohukula where we boarded a ferry to the island of Hiiumaa, the second largest island of the Muhu Archipelago. Human settlement here dates back 2,500 years. It has been under the rule of Germany, Sweden and Russia until it finally gained independence with the rest of Estonia after World War I, only to be annexed again by the Soviets in 1940, Nazi Germany in 1941, and the Soviets again in 1944, until finally in 1991, Estonia gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
We had been in touch with our friend Christoph, who was cycling from Riga to Helsinki, and planned to meet in Kassari on Hiiumaa. The weather had turned blustery cold and wet, so when we arrived in Kassari at a small inn called Ilus Villem, it was an easy decision to stay there in one of the barrel houses. Christoph arrived shortly after us and we had a great reunion. We watched the driving rain from the comfort and warmth of the hotel’s lounge while catching up on each other’s journeys.
In the afternoon, we had a sauna, followed by a fabulous dinner prepared by the inn’s chef. The people who own the inn took it over only a few months ago and have tried to give it their own flavour. They’ve worked hard and it shows. The attention they gave us was first rate and we were made to feel at home. They even gave us a key to lock up after the restaurant closed and they went home, while the three of us chatted into the white night over wine. All the while, the weather raged but we tucked ourselves into the tiny barrel houses for the night. I could just stand up in there and the bed was just long enough.
We said our farewells to Christoph in the morning, as we cycled off in opposite directions. We cycled through damp, misty forests and small villages to the northwestern peninsula of Hiiumaa. We halted at a bus stop to take off a layer. An old lady with a walker was waiting for the bus, we presumed. A bus pulled up but it turned out to be a grocery store. It travels around the island servicing outlying farms and towns on the island. We bought some bananas and cookies.
Near Palli, we found a beautiful RMK site in a windblown pine forest, complete with a rickety-looking observation tower that we scaled to get some elevation and a view of the surrounding landscape.
Twelve degrees meant we were not lounging about for long. After a long beach walk, we made dinner and sought the shelter of our tent. Nothing wrong with 10-12 hours of sack time. After all, we are on holiday.
We rode south on Hiiumaa to Söru where a ferry took us to Saaremaa, the largest island off the Estonian coast. Human settlement here dates back about 5,000 years. Today, it is a thriving island with a population of 30,000 people, half of whom live in Kuressaare at the south end of the island. It’s a tourist destination for both Estonians and foreigners alike, and seems to thrive economically.
We found yet another lovely RMK site at Abula all to our selves after a lovely ride on small gravel roads through a mixed landscape of forest and farmland. The weather had changed from foul to fair and we were finally getting some sun after a couple of days of cold, damp weather. Life is so much easier when it’s warm.
Kuressaare is the capital of the island and is a bustling town with hip restaurants and a castle built in the 14th century. It now houses a museum. We found camping in a backyard of an enterprising family who cater to travellers like us. It had excellent facilities for cooking, and bathrooms, complete with showers. There were several other cyclists from Germany, France and Finland.
Six of us headed to Ruhnu the next day: a Finnish couple, a French couple on a tandem, and us Canucks. Ruhnu is a tiny island in the middle of the Gulf of Riga and a bucolic little paradise of island living. It took three hours on a small high-speed catamaran passenger ferry to get there. You can not get to Ruhnu with a car, although there are a few vehicles and farm machines on the island. Our kind of island.
We headed to the Ruhnu’s only town, more or less in the middle of this 12 square kilometre island. A small inn with a collection of huts and cottages also offered camping on the field between the buildings and we had arranged for a meal ahead of time. There were some Estonian families on their holidays, and a bunch of us sat around after dinner chatting over drinks, while the kids played into the white night.
One of the notable sights on Ruhnu is a wooden church built in 1644. It still stands. A new church built in the 19th century stands beside it.
In spring 2006, a brown bear made its way to Ruhnu on an icefloe from mainland Latvia. It was an elusive creature and all efforts to capture it failed. It became a huge tourist draw as people tried to get a glimpse of the animal. It is believed the bear made its way back to the mainland, however, the sign warning of the bear still stands in the forest on the edge of town.
Another 3-hour ferry ride brought us to Pärnu, Estonia’s beach resort capital. Again, we found backyard camping in the centre of town. Very convenient and a safe place to leave our gear while wandering about the town taking in the sights and hunting for a restaurant to dine in.
Dining out has been relatively affordable in Estonia. Although not cheap, it’s a bargain compared to many European countries, especially compared to neighbouring Scandinavia. While a beer in Helsinki cost me 8 euros, here it’s generally between 3 and 4 euros. We’ve had dinner with drinks for anywhere between 20 and 60 euros, with the latter being fairly upscale fair in fancier establishments catering to the tourist crowd.
The Eurovelo 10 cycling route that we had loosely been following continued south along the coast into Latvia and the capital Riga. We decided to go inland to see some different landscape. We angled toward Cēsis and Gauja National Park in search of some other kind of topography.
Dating back to the 13th century, Cēsis is also a tourist draw because of its castle and has been developed as somewhat of a health resort as a spring is believed to have healing powers. We did not take the waters. In fact, we tried to find a place to have some dinner but the restaurants did a good job of hiding and we ended up buying groceries and cooked dinner in the camp site on the outskirts of town.
For three days, we cycled through the Latvian countryside from Pärnu to Latvia’s capital, Riga. We did find a few hills to ride along the way. Some of them quite steep but never very long. Out of Cēsis, we also found some very bad gravel roads that slowed us to a crawl but eventually, gravel gave way to asphalt and the hustle and bustle of Riga where we had arranged an apartment for two nights to meet our Frank and Lindsay from Helsinki. Unfortunately, Frank had to cancel the trip to Riga, so, we explored that lovely city on our own.
Plans can always change unexpectedly, especially when you’re cycling. Bad weather, an injury or a mechanical issue can wreak havoc with plans and schedules which is why we usually don’t plan too much and just go where the road and our desires take us. You can’t see it all anyway, so it’s good to be flexible.
Here is a map of the journey. Click on it to go to an interactive page where you can zoom in for more detail. The days are listed individually on the left or you can click on “show all on map” and see the entire route.
5 thoughts on “A Serious Lack of Elevation”
That was a great trip! I love the “here is the key, lock up when you are done story!” There is nothing better than riding along the sea!
You guys know how to make a cold and blustery place look like a great place to go! Thanks for sharing the adventure-love the stories!
Looks like a fabulous trip!
We are now back from Netherlands (it was a really great bike tour)!
Paul and Jan,
You know how to unlock memories…
Following on from my comments in your Tallinn blog ; On my visit in 2000, I reserved tickets to the Latvian State Opera. My two Estonian friends and I drove one afternoon from Tallinn to Riga, hoping to arrive in time for dinner and of course to take our seats in the theatre for a performance of Handel’s ALCINA. We realized we were late, so Loora Raiste was speeding over the Latvian countryside and inevitably we were caught in a radar trap. Being the seasoned school principal she was, and seeing that the young policeman could have been one of her students, she was able to sway him into letting us go. Even though both countries are so close in every way, neither spoke the other’s language. They had to communicate in Russian. Loora told the officer that I was an opera person who had just arrived in Estonia from Canada and we were going to Riga to attend an important opera concert – and that we were late. The policeman let us go.
To match the city and the Latvian people, the Riga Opera House is one of the most elegant theatres I have seen. I was amazed when during the performance there were English language surtitles projected over the proscenium.
But on the return trip the next day, the three of us were talking excitedly and speeding along when suddenly there was a siren behind us and yet another young policeman pulled us over. This time we had no excuse. Loora went off to talk with the officer.
After a few minutes she returned to ask anxiously, how much Latvian money did we have left. We had a few bills between us and I threw in a $20 US banknote. Loora nervously slipped the money into her passport and hurried up the shoulder to the parked police car. Once we were on our way she explained that to pay the fine we would have to go to the police station. The station closed for civilian business at 5 pm. Where we were on the road it was 6 pm. In order to pay the fine and be allowed exit at the Estonian border we would have had to find a hotel for the night and appear at the Police Station at 9am the next day. The police officer offered to take the fine money and he would pay our bill the next day on our behalf. Loora was beside herself with frustration as she drove along, just at the speed limit. “I hate doing that”, she said. “The police officers are not paid enough so they try to get money on the side”.
As you have amply demonstrated, Paul and Jan, the Latvian and Estonian countryside is a wonderful salve to look at. And with the music from the opera still in my head, my $20 US dollars were no loss at all.
Thanks again, Jim, for a great story. Speeding drivers along the Tallinn to Riga highway is exactly why we chose to go inland. The bike route is mostly on the old highway, but in places we had to ride along the new highway which has almost no shoulder. I have to say, though, that most drivers, particularly the big rigs, were very respectful of us little cyclists.