Down from Scandinavia : stage 14

Warsaw, Poland -> Berlin, Germany
592 km dep: 08:45 arr: 20:05
Date: 09/08/2012
Weather: Cloudy

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Contrary to what those French girls said at the hostel in Vilnius, Warsaw is a very beautiful and lively city in which I would have gladly spent more time. The Poles were also very nice people, outgoing and welcoming. I did not see much in terms of museums but I walked around the city for a whole afternoon and could really tell it had a glorious past (so many palaces) and is also moving towards a rich future (lots of construction).

For the rest I will be quick because I am heading to restaurant with my girlfriend and frankly, there is not much to say. The route in Poland was just an ordeal from beginning to end. The roads are long, straight, traverse a countryside devoid of anything but fields and pass through villages that are quite ugly and without character. Add a lot of trucks, some reckless drivers, a string upwind and you get a recipe for an unpleasant day. Every gas station has a bar, so I would not be surprised if a lot of people are actually drunk at the wheel.

The moment I hit Germany I was back on the idyllic roads I got a taste of during stage 4 and in no time got to Berlin. I will be spending four days in this city, a very welcome break that will finally allow me to properly visit this city.

Warsaw's old town, well not really "old" because it was entirely destroyed in WWII and subsequently reconstructed.

Down from Scandinavia : stage 13

Vilnius, Lithuania -> Warsaw, Poland
530 km dep: 09:05 arr: 20:20 (-1)
Date: 07/08/2012
Weather: Heavy rain then cloudy with intermittent rain

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Vilnius was like I expected it to be, beautiful but quite boring. Being a student city, most of the action happens during the school year. Interestingly, the city had an unreasonable number of churches; around forty the guide said. The skyline was peppered with them and they all had something different which allows me to guess they used to all cater to specific purpose of religion. I wanted to see the inside of an Otrhodox church in Riga but did not get to because I was wearing shorts! I had another chance to visit one in Vilnius but it was already too late when I found it.

The rest will mostly be weather related because that was all my day was about. I had been lucky so far and only got rained on a couple of times; it was never very serious too. This time, my luck ran out, I woke up and it was already pouring outside. Someone asked the receptionist at the hostel to call a cab and later came to cancel because it had died down. So I took the opportunity and jumped on the bike but as soon as I got going, it started raining really hard. In no time, my feet were soaked and I could feel water dripping down my pants and my back, turns out that my jacket is poorly conceived and leaks at the front zipper.

After 20 kms, I was getting really cold so I decided to stop and put more layers on, another shirt and the emergency poncho that I had stowed away under the seat. Not enough it seems because 15 minutes later, I started shivering. I wanted to find a dry spot to change but had just entered a national park. To make matters worse, I was again sharing the road with a bunch of trucks which means I could not really slow down without them passing me and soaking me with their trailing mist. A very dangerous situation but at last, there was a small café (khaviné in lithuanian) so I stopped there, rushed inside and ordered something to warm myself up.

This really got me reconsidering today’s voyage and was about to ask the waitress at the café directions for the nearest hotel when the sky started clearing up. After a while, the raining had lessened a lot and I could see patches of sunlight on the horizon. It was still raining tough and the weather forecast said intermittent rain so I got dressed up even more. I put on an extra pair of pants, got rid of my wet stocks, put on two fresh pairs and some plastic bags to waterproof my feet and hit the road again.

I managed to go for about an hundred kilometers before the weather decided to jeoparsize my security again but it was not the rain or the cold this time, it was the wind. Near the Polish border it got so windy and gusty that I got pushed into the oncoming lane several times. I decided to stop but once again could not so I pulled to the very small shoulder with a flasher on and slowly made my way to the closest exit. This part was probably where it got the scariest in the whole trip. There is only one road that links Poland to the Baltic countries and believe me there are more vans than cars making the crossing. To make matters worse, the E68 as it is called is only two lanes wide and polish drivers not being much more competent or concerned with safety than their baltic counterparts kept passing me very close and even if there was an oncoming vehicle. Nevertheless, the wind eventually diminished and the road soon started going westward so I got going again. A bit further down, all the trees were mangled with many of them uprooted or simply broken; this must have been the doings of a storm but since all the debris had been swept away to the side, it must probably not too long ago altough not today; which goes to say that this region is quite windy.

The rest of the trip was mixed bag of what I had gotten so far with increasingly more sun as I was nearing my destionation. The land being really flat, I could see rainy clouds from far away and would just stop and let them pass, which also explains why the route took a very long time. Finally, I made it in one piece to Warsaw. The city being a capital, I will be spending two days here and then on to Berlin.

Motorcycling really sucked today.

Down from Scandinavia : stage 12

Riga, Latvia -> Vilnius, Lithuania
339 km dep: 09:30 arr: 16:15
Date: 06/08/2012
Weather: Cloudy

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I am going to keep this short because I only have the evening to visit Vilnius. I had a good time in Riga but felt like two days was enough and I had pretty much exhausted all I wanted to do there. I left quite early for Vilnius and despite the short distance, it is a good thing I did because the road ended up being really frustrating. Since no regional roads would take me to Vilnius, most of my ride was spent on the highway with a front wind so strong I was pretty much limited to 90 km/h and could not go in 5th gear (not enough torque). I did end up finding a smaller road and had great time driving in the Lithuanian countryside but this was not for long and was soon again amongst trucks and speeding cars.

A Mig-21.

Around the halfway point, I saw a bunch of soviet military aircrafts parked near an airfield and stopped for a while to take a closer look. The machines were in bad shape but since this is such a rare sight it was definatly worth my time.

Tomorrow, I will be leaving really early for Warsaw. The original plan was to sleep in between but now I will have to do it in one long stretch. Hopefully the roads in Poland will be as good as they were in the baltic countries.

Down from Scandinavia: stage 11

Tallinn, Estonia -> Riga, Latvia
350 km dep: 12:30 arr: 18:45
Date: 04/08/2012
Weather: Cloudy

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The original plan was to only spend one night in Tallinn but like I was suggesting in the previous post, I did end up spending an extra day there. The city is lively, bustling with activity, beautiful and also interesting (it was under soviet control for a long time) but more importantly it is cheap, a pint of bear is only 2 Euros and a meal is 3. I did not hang around much with the Estonians but those I met were extremely friendly and cultured. The tourists were mostly russians around the streets, but I did not meet any in the two hostels that I stayed in, they mostly keep to themselves, sleep in hotels and eat out at the pricey restaurants.

As is usual after a night out, I woke up with my head up my ass but since the route was short today it was not too much of an issue. Estonia is impressively flat and full of forests. There are only about a million estonians so despite their country being quite small, it is still full of wilderness so I spent the better part of my ride on long, strait roads bordered by trees. On one occasion I decided to take a smaller road both as a shortcut and because the one I was on was not that palpitating. The road was under construction an part of it was paved over but one long section was actually loose dirt and gravel. It felt like cycling on sand, very unstable, dangerous and scary so I had to cut my speed down to 20km/h, which made that part of today’s ride very long. The rest of the road was gravel and dirt but since it had rained in the morning, it was very muddy too; my motorcycle is now very dirty, with mud and dead insects. Many roads including this one bore a sign that said it had been financed by the european union. Estonia has entered the Euro-zone very recently actually, in 2011, and is the first baltic country in so far; not too long ago, until 1991, these countries were behind the iron curtain and under soviet rule.

The road in Latvia looked very much like in Estonia except that it was coastal so it offered glimpses of the sea and had very peculiad vegetation in the form of forests where there were only pines and moss on the ground. It would have made exceptional camping. The traffic on the other end was somewhat scary because people kept passing me between lanes.

I will be spending an extra night Riga because everybody in Tallinn gave me good comments about it and suggested that I only spend a night in Vilnius. Having to be in Berlin on the 9th and spending two nights in Warsaw, my schedule is now fully compressed so I hope nothing will go wrong in between.

Down from Scandinavia : stage 10

Helsinki, Finland -> Tallinn, Estonia
26.6 km dep: 11:36 arr: 19:30
Date: 2/08/2012
Weather: Sunny

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I had an awesome time in Helsinki. I met a lot of peolple from everywhere around the globe and even spent an evening drinking with some Finns at a death metal bar. On my way back from that evening, I got seriously lost and it easily took me twice that amount of time it normally takes. I did not get to see the midnight sun, but it never got completely dark at night and high up in lattitudes, the sun rises so early that what I tought was a sun setting (west) was actually a sun rising (east) and it also does so further up north than in Canada so in the end, that got me going in the opposite direction.

Helsinki may not me as beautiful as Stockholm, but it was much more lively with people on terraces, outdoor concerts, markets and such.

My time there did not end very well tough. Finland is in a different time zone and I had decided not to advance all my clocks and always add an hour instead. That idea backfired on me when this morning, all drowsy and hangover from last night, I tought I had set my alarm and hour too early.
I ended up missing my ferry and the company would not give me a refund. I had to spent part of the afternoon in Helsinki and lost quite a bit of time in Tallinn but since I heard so many nice things about the city I may just end up staying an extra day.

While in Sweden and Denmark, I could somewhat read the signs because those two languages share a common ancestor with English I think. Finnish however is completely incomprehensible and so far I do not think I will fare much beter at Estonian. The Finns are all bilingual (and really like to speak English) and everything is also written in Swedish (there is a big swedish Speaking minority in Finland) so it really is never an issue, but I always find it funny to be illiterate.