There is a school of thought that completing hard things is more rewarding. Well my time in Latvia definitely fits with that ethos. Where Estonia was easy and handed you things on a plate, Latvia made you work but the rewards were discovering an incredibly beautiful and friendly country.
The first difficulty in Latvia were the roads. Most of the roads I rode on were I think ‘regional’ roads. Now this type of road at worst is unpaved, an often corrugated sand/gravel track. There are the occasional ‘drifts’ which want to send you sideways and you invariably end up covered in dust. They do the job though.
Slightly better are the paved roads. Only slightly though, they are a patchwork of cracks, old surface and potholes. The Latvian technique for filling potholes is to put some tar in the hole followed by gravel. Over time traffic compacts this. However the roads appear to have had so many of these fixes applied, on occasion they’re more patch than anything else leading to a bumpy uneven surface.
Now in fairness I did come across some newly laid roads and the main roads are better. However the appeal of the minor roads is the lack of traffic. I mean what traffic there is will fly past you on the ‘best bit’ (i.e. the middle) of the road at seemingly insane speeds but this will happen once or twice every 30 minutes or so. Naturally on a gravel road you will be engulfed in a cloud of dust. The major roads though which all focus on the capital Riga have much more traffic but still the apparent lunatic speed.
Now I didn’t go to Riga because difficulty two I faced was an increasingly strong headwind that I turned into in Estonia. After crossing the border at Valka I spent two days battling into the wind until Cēsis where I threw in the towel checked into a campsite and had a day off exhausted. From there I decided to give up on heading southwest to the capital and turned south.
Now this route was fairly logical except for the fact I didn’t realise there is no way across the river from Skrīveri to Jaunjelgava. This meant a diversion east to cross at the hydroelectric dam at Aizkraukle. An extra 15 to 20 miles to ride but not without it’s sights.
The finally difficulty was wildcamping. Wildcamping in Latvia is legal with the law being similar to Sweden apparently however that means cultivated land is a big no. So into the woods we go. However I found a lot of the woods dense with lots of undergrowth and virtually unimpregnable. There needed to be an existing trail into them to follow. Most of these though generally led to a farm or a house.
However on day four frustrated with the lack of anywhere to easily wildcamp, at random I had one of the best experiences of my time in Latvia. After looking at a few less than ideal places a sign by the road for a campsite looked very enticing. So I rode down to see how much it would cost me. I was greeted by loud music and people clearly having a party. A man (who turned out to be the owner) approached me and I checked I was in the campsite. I was he said but did I speak German as he didn’t speak English. I speak about four words of German so said I didn’t. No problem he rang an employee of his in his other business laying brick pavements who lived on site and John came to translate.
Essentially it was my lucky day, I could stay for free in a hut on the site, use the facilities and join the party. So after the guided tour by John to see where everything was I showered and set about being sociable. I joined a table and tried to strike up conversation. At this point a woman called Linda appeared with a beer for me. Linda also worked at the campsite and was due to come down at 7 but after a phone call had come down earlier to be my interpreter. Her English was spot on.
It also helped that one of the party guests Vincent who I had sat on a table with was actually French and could speak English too. Now my friend in the UK had said she used to manage a Latvian in her job and that they don’t do small talk. In the conversation at the party it was also suggested that they could be quiet and not forthcoming with conversation until drunk. This sounded like me! If you ever go to Latvia don’t be afraid to start conversation, you get back what you put in and people are very friendly.
At this point the guy sat next to me started plying me with shots of vodka. I learnt a lot about Latvia that night, the people are proud of their country but suprised that anyone else wants to visit it. Also many people leave to go to other parts of Europe. It was suggested because the minimum wage was very low but housing costs still fairly high. This explained the large number of abandoned houses I had seen but I can’t fathom how the cost of housing still stays high.
The birthday party finished around 7 and myself, John, Linda and the owner (who’s name I didn’t get) drove to the ‘neighbouring’ village for an outdoor rock concert. I say neighbouring, it was a good 20 to 30 minute drive at lunatic speed! It all starts to get a biy hazy here as the vodka kicked in but I declined the offer to stay out partying late with John and got a lift back to collapse into a drunken slumber in the hut.
I can highly recommend Camping Forsteri near Madliena though. The next morning it was the most peaceful and beautiful place to nurse my hangover before setting off on the road again. If you go there maybe say you heard about it from the cycling English man Ben.
So Latvia at times was hard work but also incredible. I would highly recommend getting off the beaten track. People will stare at you on a touring bike but what do you expect? Make an effort and the people are friendly and interesting. The landscape is varried with the real jewels being the rivers which give beautiful views and some grear swimming spots. One day I am definitely going back.