The forecast was for drizzle all day, so I wrapped everything in plastic bags, put my sunhat, sunblocker and sunglasses out of reach, donned my rainjacket, and set off. For the next twelve hours it was sunny and baking hot.
It was also, rarely for the gravel-based Latvian rural road network, tarmac all day. Even on the side roads.
Last night’s accomm had no wifi, so I stole some from outside last night’s pizza place. I thought this was reasonable, as they’d tried to overcharge me (eight plus four is twelve in my book, not fourteen as they’d made out, and my book was Bluff Your Way in Maths, you know).
I also stocked up on breakfast pastries and lunch fodder from a supermarket, mindful that this would be the last big town for a couple of days.
The unexpectedly precipation-free day was a delight. Easy, quiet cycling with virtually no traffic (well, except for an eight-mile stretch on a fast main road to Riga, which had a few logging lorries barrelling down it, but it was dreary rather than dangerous, and there weren’t actually that many vehicles on it).
And all in characteristically gentle, rustic Latvian scenery: woods, trees, arable farmland, grey wooden farm buildings and huts, birdsong all the way. (Lots of cuckoos, all following the 24-hour clock.)
Rolling low hills, too, with easy ups and downs. (You don’t get to freewheel much in Latvia.)
Imagine North Norfolk but without the litter and you’re not far away. But add in the occasional elk: I spotted one by the roadside before she spotted me, and lumbered off into the woods.
Lunch was on the shady village green of Lejasciems, with my bike parked under a heart-shaped arbour. I dropped into the library opposite, partly to use their free wifi, partly to see what it was like: every village seems to have one. I chatted to the friendly librarian and two laid-back girls who had confident basic English.
It was a friendly, airy, new-feeling little place with a one-room bibliotech and stacks of local information, all in Latvian of course. A room in the back had displays on writer Zenta Mauriņa, who was born here. Maybe one day there’ll be a similar room celebrating me in Ferriby. Maybe.
I had a look in the village museum next door. There wasn’t much to see – a single woody room full of farm implements – but the woman at the desk talked to me about life here. She loved it: nature, peace and quiet, outdoor stuff (walks in summer, cross-country skiing in winter) and a safe and joyful place for kids.
LATVIA FACTS 2Latvian women are the tallest in the world, averaging 1.70m / 5ft 7in
But not everyone feels that way. Like many places in rural Latvia, Lejasciems is shrinking: once a city, then a town, now a village, down from 3,000 inhabitants twenty years ago to 1,500 now, depleted by the magnetic pull of Rīga, the rest of the EU, even Britain. But for now it’s still got heart and soul – and most importantly, a school.
More pleasant, easy cycling. The village of Ranka promised a Manor House, but the gates were firmly shut. Also a ‘castle’, which was a dumpy house, and a ‘lake’, which was fenced off, and a pond which was a bit scabby. I carried on.
I got to Jaunpiebalga about three, in plenty of time to find my rural guesthouse. Which was just as well, seeing as the booking.com map was hopelessly inaccurate. Fortunately a series of locals gave me advice in various combinations of Latvian, English, and mime.
I gradually iterated towards it, using the traveller’s equivalent of Newton’s Method of Approximation, that doesn’t depend on understanding the language: ask someone, go where they point, and two minutes later ask someone else.
The guesthouse was a pleasant little place, presumably someone’s dacha-like country cottage with half of it separated off as a tiny, cosy, woody apartment. I used the microkitchen to rustle up my dinner: a jar of that Latvian speciality ‘grey peas’. It’s much nicer than it sounds: a hearty and tasty bean and bacon stew. Post-shower I rocked in the garden hammock in my guesthouse bathrobe, and listened to the birds.
I sipped a local Piebalga beer – I’d ridden past the brewery in town – and had the entire place to myself. (The owners were away and having a good time somewhere. Such a good time that it took them five goes to message me the correct wifi password.)
It had been a lovely day in Latvia.
Miles today: 51
Miles since Borderland: 66