I’m going Baltic for my latest End to End, riding Latvia’s quiet back roads through woods. In fact, outside its busy eurocapital Rīga, the entire country is quiet back roads through woods.
Latvia is also as flat as a Saturday night karaoke singer – the highest point is barely three hundred metres, though from the top you can probably see the whole country.
And it’s the EU’s most uncrowded state: under two million people (a third of them crammed into Rīga) in an area as big as Scotland. Perfect if you like (a) tranquil cycling amid nature and (b) your own company, as I do. Because I have the best, wittiest, wisest conversations that way.
Plus it does good beer and cheese, and accommodation is usually cheap – though food-and-drink expenses are up to inflated EU standards these days.
Anyway, I’ve just spent a couple of days on foot in Rīga, then some time with friends in Gulbene. This is a small rural town – like every other town in Latvia – in the north-east of the country.
From its centre a heritage narrow-gauge railway runs to Alūksne, another (small, rural, obvs) town not far from the Estonia–Russia–Latvia border up top right, and this seemed an opportune place to start my End to End, heading west and down to Liepāja as the bottom left.
I’m doing it on a borrowed bike. I said ‘friends in Gulbene’: the cycle belongs to my lifelong best-mate Gary. He is married to a Latvian, lovely Evija, and we were staying at her parents’ farm there to enjoy the midsummer celebrations of Līgo.
(This consists of staying up all night, drinking lots of beer, and jumping through bonfires. We managed one of those three, anyway.)
Today I said goodbye to them and glided off on my/Gary’s bike to Gulbene station, from where the timewarp Bānītis railway chugs every day north to Alūksne.
Usually it’s diesel, but on selected days – such as today – it’s a steam loco, munching its way through tons of wood. As the scenery for the entire 50km journey consists of trees either side, they’re unlikely to run out any time soon.
At Alūksne I rode some lakeside paths, islands and bridges, along with lots of families out enjoying the midsummer holiday sunshine on rented novelty bikes.
Delightful and relaxing stuff, rounded off with a beachside beer before rolling to my guesthouse in town. I feel some important groundwork for the trip has been done.
Just as well it was a warm night. I could repurpose my blanket as a curtain for the door to my room, which creepily had a window that otherwise enabled all corridor users to see right into it…