Alsunga

Days 13 and 14 – the 449 km mark.

After departing from Kuldīga, I rode 28 km to the small township of Alsunga.  Alsunga is home to the Suiti culture.

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As can be seen on the sign that greets visitors as they enter Alsungas novads, the Suiti Cultural Space was placed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

So, who are the Suiti people?  Well, first and foremost, they are Latvians who inhabit a small pocket of the Kurzeme historical region in the west of Latvia.  Unlike other ethnic Latvians who are generally from a Lutheran heritage, the Suiti people are Roman Catholics.  But there is much more to the Suiti than Roman Catholicism.  They have also developed a rich culture of songs, music, and handicrafts which are unique to their way of life.  Sadly, it is a culture that could be lost if special efforts are not made to preserve it.

I arrived in Alsunga on Sunday 9th June and stayed at the Spēlmaņu Krogs guesthouse.  I was only supposed to be there for one night.  However, while in Alsunga, I was so impressed with the hospitality of the local people, I arbitrarily booked to stay on an extra night.

The owner of the guesthouse was very sympathetic to my cause, and after making a number of phone calls, he was able to get somebody to come out and unlock the Livonian Order Castle, Alsungas Pils… just for me.

It’s not everyday that castle doors get opened just for my benefit.

Yours truly, inside the Livonian Order Castle in Alsunga.
Livonian Order Castle in Alsunga

It did not stop there.  My hosts also had the local museum opened up, just for me, as well as the Church of Saint Michael – Alsungas Sv. Miķeļa Romas katoļu baznīca.  And I was taken to other places, too.  Here’s some photos:

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Christ statue Alsunga

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Would you buy a used car from this man?
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I also noticed that there is a very strong tradition of making beautiful handcrafted ceramics in Alsunga.  Here’s a few photos of things made by local Suiti people:

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Oh, if you’re ever visiting Alsunga and you’re looking for a nice little place to have a coffee, or even something a little stronger, I can thoroughly recommend the Sapņotava.  Dace Oberšate-Veisa who manages it is a very friendly and welcoming host, and the regulars are quite a friendly bunch, too.

Tējnīca Sapņotava

 

I call upon the government of the Republic of Latvia to help ensure that the Suiti culture space is preserved and protected now and into the future.

On Tuesday 11th June, I rode out of Alsunga to the coastal town of Pāvilosta, narrowly avoiding a hail storm which caused damage to property in Alsunga.

 

 

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Kuldīga – The People Have Spoken

Day 12 – 421 km mark.

I had been so conflicted while staying in Ventspils.  Where should I go next:  Užava or Kuldīga?  In the end, I allowed the matter to be put to democratic vote via Latvia Weeklywho ran a poll on 6th June via their Facebook page to ask readers which town should be my next destination after leaving Ventspils.

Kuldīga was the winner, with 58% of voters choosing it over Užava.  So, that’s where I headed on Saturday 8th June.  Don’t quote me on this, but it may very well be the first time a touring cyclist’s itinerary has been crowdsourced.  I would be very interested to hear if anybody knows of this being done by another long-distance cyclist.

I had already been to Kuldīga before on two occasions, but that was quite some time ago.  Arriving in Kuldīga again after several years reminded me of what I liked about it in the first place.  Kuldīga is a very photogenic town that should be raking in the international tourist euro.  Alas, the majority of people outside of Latvia have never heard of it.

A Stender’s restaurant – not to be confused with the pizza place – on Liepājas iela.
Stenders

Kuldīga is home to the widest waterfall in Europe, but definitely not the tallest.

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The would-be tourist to Kuldīga could spend all day exploring the streets, snapping off photos.

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And when finished taking photos, those so inclined might partake in a few pints of the amber stuff at a place such as Pagrabiņš, which was once a prison.

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As it happens, I was so inclined.

I only stayed in Kuldīga for one night but, frankly, I regret that.  I wish I had stayed around for at least another day or two.

After a night in Kuldīga, I departed to visit somewhere very special:  Alsunga, the home of the very special Suiti culture.

Ventspils

Day 9, 10, and 11 – 365 km mark.

On Wednesday 5th June I rode into the city of Ventspils, one of Latvia’s nine republican cities, and the sixth largest city in Latvia.

Sitting on the western coast of Latvia, blessed with its sandy beaches and beautified by its immaculately manicured parks and gardens, Ventspils is generally regarded as one damn good-looking city.  Of course, the city is not without its controversies but, for the purpose of this blog, I’ll save the politics for another time and place.

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Ventspils is a port city, noted for its 365 day a year ice-free port.  Consequently, in military circles, it’s considered to be a strategic location within the Baltic Sea.  I have long suspected that a certain leader of a certain country – I’m not going to say who – would just about give his right arm to have full jurisdictional authority over this city so he could significantly improve the access of his considerably large fleet into the Baltic Sea.  But I won’t take that narrative any further.

Aside from its enviable position in the Baltic Sea, Ventspils can boast very high quality roads and streets, lots of bicycle paths, pavements that are in an impeccable state of repair, plenty of trees, and a kaleidoscope of flowers.

They also have a lot of statues of bulls that adorn the cityscape.

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Everywhere you look, it is almost impossible to not see a beautifully designed botanical feature.

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The Ventspils Bobsled Team?
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I decided to spend three nights in Ventspils, mainly because I needed a rest and I wanted to have a good look around town.  One of my favourite Tex Mex restaurants is located here.  I managed to make a complete show of myself when I ordered a soup as a side dish and accidentally spilled it all over myself.  I don’t think the lovely waitress will forget the tip I gave her as an apology for making such a mess!

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A bobsled on display in one of Ventspils’ many parks.
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Ventspils is a city that divides the masses.  Nobody seems to have a middle-road opinion about the place.  Personally, I’d recommend a visit if you’ve never been there.  You can make up your own mind.

On Saturday 8th of June, I rode out of town on my way to Kuldīga.  There was quite an unusual reason why I decided to go there… or, it could be said that somebody else decided it for me.  In fact, for the first time on my journey, my route was “crowd sourced”.  You can read about that in my next instalment.

 

Irbene – A former Soviet secret

Day 8 – 337 km mark.

As most readers will already know, the territory which falls under the rightful jurisdiction of the Republic of Latvia, a sovereign republic which came into being on 18th November 1918, was illegally invaded and occupied by the USSR during the 1940s.  This resulted in Latvia spending five decades under the yoke of one of the most unforgivably corrupt, brutal, and repressive regimes of the 20th century.

During that time, the Soviet authorities built two large parabolic dishes at a secret location called Irbene.  It is believed these dishes were used to spy on military communications among the armed forces of NATO countries in Europe.

Irbene’s existence was a military secret.  Irbene didn’t appear on any maps, and only authorised personnel could gain access to the area.  At the site, numerous apartment buildings were constructed to house the military personnel who had been assigned to the site, along with their families.

When Latvia finally regained its rightful independence, the occupation forces eventually abandoned the site, leaving behind a ghost town.  Today, that site is used by scientists to conduct radio astronomical research.

After leaving Kolka, I rode out to take a look at Irbene before checking into a disused school in the tiny community of Rinda.

The Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre, Irbene.
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I have to confess, I learned a little lesson while making the trek from Kolka to Rinda:  don’t assume anything.  I was only carrying 750ml of water (much less than I would normally carry) and I just assumed that there would be plenty of roadside shops along the way where I could get a drink.

There wasn’t.

I was in quite a state when I arrived in Rinda.  So much so, once I had rested a little, I cycled another 20km to and from a neighbouring township called Ance, just to buy up more requirements, lest I get caught short again at a later date.

Note to self:  ALWAYS carry plenty of water and make no assumptions about the availability of anything along the way.

On Day 9, I peddled out of Rinda to make my way to the shining city by the sea, Ventspils.

Stay tuned for further details!

Until then, take a look at the abandoned apartments at Irbene.  In real life, they’re kind of spooky.

Former Soviet military apartments at Irbene
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Kolka and the Livonian Coast

Day 7 – 271 km mark.

If heaven was a place in Latvia, it would be here:  Zēņu dīķis.

I have dreamed of a place like this deep in my imagination.  Imagine a lushly green little pocket located somewhere in a quiet corner of the world where everything is so green and serene.  That’s what Zēņu dīķis is.  I only wish I was able to capture the vibe of this place on camera as faithfully as the eyes see it.  Alas, you, the reader, will have to make do with my second-rate photos.

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Zēņu dīķis is only a short distance south of Kolka, which sits on a corner of territory in the north of the Kurzeme region of Latvia.  In fact, the word “Kolka” comes from a word in the Livonian language, Kūolka, which means “corner”.

Which brings me to the Livonians.  The Livonians, or Livs, are an ethnic sub-group within Latvia who traditionally spoke a uralic language that is related to Finnish and Estonia.  To that extent, it is nothing like Latvian.  The last native speaker of the Livonian language died in Canada in 2013.  To date, only about 30 people are said to speak Livonian fluently.  There are a number of others who can speak it to varying extents.

I made my way from Upesgrīva to Kolka on 3rd June, 2019.  It might not seem like the most spectacular place on the planet, but reaching Kolkasrags – Cape Kolka – has been on my bucket list for quite a while.  It’s special place on the Livonian Coast where the Gulf of Rīga meets the Baltic Sea.

Located within Kolka, I took a sneaky look inside a little wooden Roman Catholic church.

Kolkas Jūras Zvaigznes Dievmātes Romas katoļu baznīca, known in English as Church of Saint Mary Star of the Sea, Kolka.
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The next day, I was on my way to visit a former top secret Soviet facility over 50km away from Kolka, as well as spending a night in a former school in a little town that most people have never heard of.

More about the top secret Soviet facility next time!

The “Aluminium Horse”

I’ve had a request from one of my valued readers to tell a bit about the bike that’s taking me on this journey.  So, without further ado, here it is:

Profile view of my bicycle, fully loaded.  Photo taken on Audēju iela, Rīga on 28th May.
Touring Bike (side)

The bicycle itself is a Polish-manufactured “Kross Trans-Siberian”, which I bought at a bicycle shop in Rīga.  It has a 108cm wheelbase, being the distance from the front to rear axle, which is quite large but important for a touring bike because you need to be able to attach front and rear loads without having one’s heels or toes constantly kicking the loads while riding.  Furthermore, it has – I think – a 46cm chainstay, being the distance between the front crankset and the rear axle.  That’s also fairly large by most standards.

It has a triple front crankset – pretty standard for a touring bike – and a seven speed rear cassette, adding up to 21 gears.  That’s actually quite modest.  Many touring bikes will have a nine speed rear cassette leading to 27 gears.  For me, that wouldn’t be necessary.  Latvia is quite flat and I spend most of my time in eleventh gear anyway, rarely needing to depart from that.

The Kross Trans-Siberian isn’t specifically engineered to carry a front load, however I was able to purchase a Finnish-manufactured commuter front rack while I was in Stockholm, Sweden earlier in May and it attached very neatly and easily to the bike.  This rack allows for me to attach “low-rider” front pannier bags while also storing a light load on top of the rack.

About the pannier bags:  they are manufactured by a German company called Ortlieb.  This company really does have the market cornered for pannier bags designed to be mounted on touring bikes, and their bags are very much a touring standard.  The two front bags, red in colour, mounted on my front commuter rack, have a combined capacity of 25 litres.  I use these bags to store a supply of food that I carry with me.  More specifically, I like to have 72 hours worth of food with me, just in case something goes wrong and I need to survive independently while I wait to be rescued.  To be honest, I think I could make that 72 hours worth of food last a lot longer than that if needed.

Now, if you look at the rear of the bike, there’s two big, black pannier bags with a combined capacity of 40 litres.  I used these bags to carry most of the things that I need:  clothing, self-inflating mattress, sleeping bag (rated to sub-zero temperatures), my laptop, and a few other odds and ends.

Strapped on top of the rear rack is my tent, a Pavillo Navaho x2 tent.  Not the lightest tent on the market, but excellent value for money and it does the job.  If you check out the photo above, the tent is the bright orange package on the rack.

Above the tent, you’ll see a black and blue carry bag strapped onto the bike with bright red bungee straps.  We call them “occy straps” back in Australia and that’s what I will continue to call them hereinafter.  That bag is carrying a hotchpotch of items that I like to keep close at hand, including insect repellent (ticks are a menace in Latvian forests), underarm roll-on deodorant, antiperspirant, soap, my cookset, gloves, disposable shavers, lighter, hexamine stove, spare hexamine tablets, and a grab-bag of other bits n’ pieces.  Really, I sometimes forget what I’ve got in there.

Just before the handlebar, you might notice a little black, red, and white thing strapped to the frame.  In there, I keep my mobile phone, earplugs, a small torch, a little point-and-shoot digital camera, and a USB cable.  I sometimes tuck some small snacks in their, too.

Attached to the front of the handlebar is a handlebar pannier – just a cheap one – that I used to store emergency disposable raincoats, the keys to my bike lock, loose change, more snacks, my wallet, Australian and Latvian passports, and a few other things that I might need to produce quickly.

The plastic bag you see strapped on top of my commuter front rack using occy straps contains a fleecy-lined hooded top that I can put on if the temperature drops.

Here are a few more photos of my bike:

Front view.
Touring Bike (front)

Rear view.
Touring Bike (rear)

So, that’s my “aluminium horse”.  If you have any questions you’d like to ask me, feel free.  For the record, I’m not an expert about touring bicycles or long-distance touring.  I’m just some bloke who is giving it a go.

Scandinavian burial, and a little cabin on the coast.

Day 6 – 225km mark.

After packing up my tent and other effects at Lūrmaņu avots, I started to make my way back to the coastline to stay the night in Upesgrīva.  However, there was no way I would even consider doing that with taking a little detour to a place called “Bīlavu velna laiva”.

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The “velna laiva”, or “The Devil’s Ship”, is an ancient burial place protected under Latvian law.  It is believed to have been constructed by Scandinavian settlers in the area some time between 750 and 950 BC.  The tradition involved burying their dead in a grave site that was fashioned like a ship.  Similar burial sites can be found throughout the Scandinavian peninsula, but this particular site is unique in Latvia.  Let’s take a look…

“The Devil’s Ship”
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The Scandinavian people have had a long association with Latvia over the centuries.  Indeed, Latvia’s capital city, namely, Rīga, was once the largest city in the Swedish Empire.  Latvia has been part of quite a few empires over the years.  Not usually by choice, might I add.

Let’s move along.  From the burial site I made my way back to Valdemārpils where I got onto a 15km stretch of road that would take me to Vandzene.  Though I like to focus on the positive, I have nothing positive to say about that road except that it took me to where I was going.  The road surface was shocking.

Upon arriving in Vandzene, I took the P127 to Upesgrīva where I stayed in one of the most charming little rented cabins you could hope for.  I wish I could live there.

Rented cabin on the premises of “Bērzlejas”.
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If you’re ever in need of a place to stay while making your way up the coastline of the Gulf of Rīga, I can thoroughly recommend this cabin.  It has everything you need and the married couple who rent it out are very nice people.  My bedroom was upstairs, while downstairs features a lounge area and kitchen, as well as bathroom and toilet.

Oh, there are a couple of absolutely beautiful dogs living on that property.  One of them, in particular, is super friendly.

The next day, I packed my gear to make my way to Kolka, where the Gulf of Rīga meets the Baltic Sea.