The coast was clear today. So I rode along it. Cyclists ‘doing the Baltics’ usually follow the coastline, whereas my End to End of Latvia is mostly inland.
(The joke being, of course, that you rarely see the sea from Latvia’s ‘coastal’ roads: they’re generally a few hundred metres away from shore, screened by pine trees. Be wary of what you read in some glossy, coffee-table, global-bike-route books. Some are a bit overenthusiastic. I know this. Because I wrote some of them.)
Anyway, today was the nearest my End to End will get to cycling the coast, like those intrepid riders who cycle-camp the entire 3,700-mile North Sea Cycleway.
There’s a decent series of bike paths west out of the centre of Rīga to the coast. These are very easy to navigate if you know the trick, which is to wait till you see two bike tourists loaded up with Ortliebs and Garmins, and follow them.
At least the signs aren’t confusing. Because there aren’t really any.
It was sunny, bright and already hot. That cycle route soon becomes a car-free path alongside the railway and through cool woods all the way to Jūrmala, effectively Rīga-by-the-Sea, though it can feel like Moscow-by-the-Sea: the only language I heard spoken was Russian as I breakfasted on the beach with my supermarket pastries.
Jūrmala feels a salubrious, upmarket sort of place, with some well-scrubbed buildings and a very fine, busy beach boasting some marquee bars and restaurants beyond my budget.
No tacky British-style amusement arcades, fairground rides or chip shops here. And no shabby, hollow-faced men trying too sell you skunk, like in Blackpool or Scarborough. No. This is more a cocaine sort of place.
Pastried up, and having cycled a few hundred yards of boardwalk along the beach, I headed out of Jūrmala along the roadside paths past well-to-do villa houses. An hour later I was still heading out of Jūrmala along the roadside paths past well-to-do villa houses: the place goes on a long way.
Eventually the residential area faded away and my route became a roadside path, or the road itself, on the long long straight flat way ‘along’ the coast. The only glimpses you get of the sea, though, are down sandy paths or narrow lanes through the pine woods that line the road forever. It’s a bit monotonous, to be honest. And repetitive. The same thing over and over again. Like being in a loop.
It’s a bit monotonous, to be honest. And repetitive. The same thing over and over again. Like being in a loop.
It’s a bit monotonous, to be honest. And repetitive.
You get the idea.
However, it was bright and sunny and hot – almost too hot, here north of Edinburgh, who knew?, clearly all 1.9 million Latvians, that’s who – and I was very happy just trundling along.
I went through a series of ‘fishing villages’, though Cornwall it’s not: more a series of strung-out houses half-hidden behind trees, bus stops (you’re never far from a bus stop in Latvia), and occasional clusters of stalls selling fresh seafood and restaurants. Not cheap; western European prices. My lunch herring fillets came from the supermarket.
I lunched with those herrings on one of the countless beach spots along this part of coast. No development, no shops or stalls, just a path from road to seaside, clean sand, and a few families gently enjoying a picnic, ball games and paddle or swim.
My particular spot had the benefit of some traditional wooden fishing huts looking on to the sand, which gave me welcome shade. Luckily the owners didn’t find out.
More rolling along hot, shadeless bike paths alongside main roads – a bit monotonous, to be honest, and repetitive – got me at last to Engure, my destination for the day.
The clouds were beginning to roll in, and I thought it judicious to relax with a beer in a bright modern craft-beer pizza cafe. Just as I was thinking five euros was too much for a glass, it started to bucket down, and five euros suddenly seemed reasonable.
But I could spend the next hour happily watching the torrential downpour from the warm, dry comfort of this upmarket bistro enjoying the free wifi.
Except the wifi didn’t work, the staff were a bit clueless, and the beer was a short measure, so five euros seemed expensive again.
But at least my timing was perfect. The rain stopped, I picked up dinner supplies from a supermarket, and set out for the short one-mile hop to my guesthouse. During which it bucketed down again, and I arrived at my accomm soaked anyway.
But this accomm had a major benefit: it was just two hundred yards of sandy path from yet another secluded beach. When the sun came out again, I had a lovely evening’s dip in the Baltic. It was nine in the evening, and people were still out enjoying the water.
Summer swimming the Baltic is delightful but, as someone used to Britain’s chilly North Sea, a few things surprised me.
First, the water was warm and hardly salty to the taste: the shallow waters heat up quickly in the daytime, and being well topped up by several countries’ rivers, have a low salt content. My lakes wild swims have been bracingly cold; this sea swim was more like being in a heated outdoor swimming pool.
LATVIA FACTS 6Latvian place names include Ape, Bites, Code, Lone, Lube, More, Ogre, Pace, Pale, Pope, Pure, Rude, Stare and Spares.
Second, it’s so shallow that if you want to swim properly, you have a long walk out before it’s deep enough. Now I understood why there was always a family standing chatting knee-deep in the water about half a mile out.
Third, the surface underfoot was surprisingly soft, thanks to the ferny green vegetation. No foot-hurting, rocky-pebble misery.
Fourth, at least on this tranquil evening, it was flat calm, the water’s surface as shiny-smooth and mirror-reflective as an oligarch’s BMW windows.
There was another pleasant surprise in my guesthouse, whose games room had a table for ‘novuss’, Latvia’s national sport (after its other national sports of ice hockey and beach volleyball), a kind of cross between snooker, carrom, and air hockey.
But my wonderful, soothing evening dip in the Baltic – just me and a handful of locals in half a mile of silky sand – was one of my highlights of the ride so far. I went to bed relaxed and happy.
Miles today: 50
Miles since Borderland: 240