What a wonderful week we’ve had: a tailwind, rising temperatures, an idyllic end to my (Tamar) thirties, a most enjoyable start to my forties, a peaceful campsite just 5km from Vilnius city centre (with a friendly Greenlandic motorbiker in the tent next to us) and then, to our continuing delight and astonishment, about an hour after us, the arrival of another laden Pino!!
So, that’s the summary….now for the longer version.
Getting out of Gdansk began badly. We had no choice but to join the busy E77 main road, which was nose-to-tail with trucks. There was no hard shoulder, no space for us next to the trucks, and a very broken pavement with lots of kerb drops at various entrances to industrial estates and petrol stations. After a few kilometres we were pleased to head off onto a minor road. Sadly our pleasure was to be short-lived as we soon came across a guarded barricade that had not been marked on the map. The security guards told us we would have return to the E77.
Thankfully, a few kilometres later the road widened out and a nice smooth hard-shoulder appeared, the wind shifted to our backs, and all of a sudden we were cracking along at over 30kph. So we stayed on the E77 for as long as we could after that and despite not leaving the Gdansk campsite until 4pm managed to put in 80km before finding a nice little woodland to park ourselves in for the night.
The next day was noteworthy only for our fourth broken spoke (again, non-drive side and breaking inside the nipple…what is going on??) and the weather remained cold enough to drive me to wrap my down jacket around my socked feet inside the sleeping bag.
The following morning dawned slightly brighter than previous days, with definite glimpses of cerulean blue between the grey clouds. A short hailstorm tried to dampen our spirits as we packed the tent away, but then the sun came out with more determination and we responded by boldly removing our coats for a while.
It was a Sunday, so the roads were blissfully quiet, with no trucks and very few cars to disturb us. The birds sang and the tarmac undulated gently through a bucolic idyll of billowing green fields and terracotta-roofed farmsteads. Just heavenly. It was particularly pleasing for me as it was the day before my 40th birthday and I couldn’t think of a nicer way to say goodbye to my thirties than to be pedalling along with the lovely Keith in such beautiful and peaceful scenery, reflecting on the ups and downs of the last decade and looking forward with excitement to the next one.
In the afternoon we arrived at a church that our guidebook recommended for its unusual organ. We were not to be disappointed, and listened to a short recital of music on a fabulous instrument, adorned with gilded, automated angels that bowed, gyrated, rang bells and strummed lutes….almost in time to the organ music.
The day of my birthday got off to a rather inauspicious start when the peace of our campsite (in an uncultivated field, next to a small wood, about 500m from the road and out of sight over the brow of a hill) was shattered at 7.30am as we heard a tractor approaching across the field. A rather annoyed looking Polish farmer alighted from the cab and proceeded to chop down the saplings right next to our tent whilst we scurried around packing things away so he would not be delayed as he worked his way towards us. His expression softened somewhat at our haste, to the extent that we parted on good terms….but to be honest we’d have preferred to have our usual lazy breakfast before hitting the road.
The early start had some benefits though as we saw a fox, a deer and a buzzard within the first few kilometres, and even managed to get a photo of the buzzard, just has he was taking to the air in an effort to evade the camera. We enjoyed a day of easy pedalling, lightened our panniers by posting some old maps and other bits and pieces back home, and then celebrated in the evening with a fine dinner of cheese tortellini in a tomato sauce bursting with vegetables and some delicious sausage. The piece-de-resistance was a conical, spiky cake into which we poked some sparklers for that authentic party-feeling.
Poland has given us some beautiful cities, quiet woodland campsites, and generally enjoyable pedalling…but the next country was beckoning….Lithuania. We put in a reasonably big day and crossed the border after 95km, changed our last few Zloty into Litas, put our watches forward an hour and began looking for a place to camp. Oh dear. Every likely looking cluster of trees contained a small house, every enticing hill was hiding a small house, every dirt trail ended up at….you’ve guessed it. It took us over an hour and a further 20km but we finally found a suitably hidden spot and laid our heads down on Lithuanian soil.
Those first 20km in Lithuania thankfully weren’t indicative of what lay ahead. Our first full day there took us through pretty villages separated by long, empty stretches of forest and grassland, dotted with only the most occasional wooden dwelling. We were spoilt for choice camping the next night and found a beautiful open grassy area near the edge of a forest. A van approached at one point but stopped at a logpile about 50-100m from us, then, after a few minutes, drove away having given no indication of having seen us or our tent. We relaxed and enjoyed an evening eating out on the blanket, unusually for this trip as for once there were few mosquitoes.
About 25km before Vilnius is the town of Trakai, where, in the early 14th century, a castle had been built on a small island (and indeed took up the entirety of the island). The misfortunes of war and the ravages of time took their toll and by the end of the 17th century nothing but a ruin remained. Little changed then at the castle for over 200 years; regret was expressed about the loss of heritage (especially as the castle had been significant as the seat of power when Trakai had been the country’s capital) and various restoration plans were mooted, but it wasn’t until 1902 that work actually began to rebuild the castle to its former glory. Disagreements, financial crises and the occasional war intervened over the course of the next 90 years, but for the most part work continued in almost every decade of the 20th century, until it was finally completed in 1992. And what a fine achievement! The castle is now a visual treat, a delight to explore, houses a large museum and the main hall is frequently used for concerts, school award ceremonies and state events. It feels like a shame that the people who had the vision and drive to start the restoration weren’t around to see its completion.
From Trakai it was an easy pedal to the city campsite at Vilnius. On first impression this was a featureless field of motorhomes, on the edge of an industrial site, fenced in with the kind of metal panels you see round worksites, with amenities provided in a row of what looked like yellow metal shipping containers. On closer inspection, the rows of neatly parked motorhomes hid a little oasis of mature trees, and over the fence was natural parkland with a stunning view of the surprisingly beautiful and elegant television tower. The yellow containers were simply but cleanly kitted out with a good laundry, kitchen and shower facilities, and there was cheap, unlimited wifi (whoop!).
Best of all though were the people on the site. The sites we’ve stayed on so far have provided few opportunities for socialising, but here in Vilnius we met the softly spoken Kent, from Greenland, who’s been motorbiking around for the last 2 years and had arrived just a few minutes before we did, and then, a hour or so later, oh treat of treats, Marie-Lise and Paul rolled in on their steel Pino towing a two-wheeled trailer, and loaded with possibly even more luggage than we’ve got! Most impressive of all was their gourmet kitchen…ours is positively meagre in comparison.
After a day doing our own things in Vilnius, the five of us had a most convivial evening last night, drank far too much beer and wine, and undertook a full comparison of the two Pinos, including swapping bikes and racing up and down the road outside the campsite.
Kent left this morning, after sensibly going to bed quite early. The four reprobate pinoists had a somewhat slow start to the day and then repaired to the kitchen where Marie-Lise and I have been writing our respective blogs (check out their blog here – they have some lovely photos), Paul has been painting the most beautiful pictures, and Keith has been replacing the rear rim of our Pino, which, as anticipated, has developed some large cracks. We’ve been disappointed by the Alex DH19 rims and are now trying the Sun Rhyno.