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July 31 - August 11, 2014 - Biking in the Baltics!

The German version of our route thru Lithuania (Litauen) and Latvia (Lettland)
We are so lucky and blessed to be able to live the life we're living!  We spent the first 11 days of August in Europe on a bicycle trip with Marty's sister Linn, brother-in-law Terry and their daughter Krissy.  We biked in Lithuania and Latvia and ended the trip by taking a bus ride to Tallinn, Estonia.   I guess you could say we took a vacation from our vacation.

Here is a link to flickr where Marty posted all the pictures from our trip:

We left Chicago at 3:45 on Thursday (7/31) for our flight to Europe and 12 hours later we were at our hotel in Vilnius, Lithuania.  The airplane ride was horrendous - the leg room was a joke, I don't know how Marty stood it.  They also didn't have any air circulation vents above our seats so it was horribly hot.  Oh, and did I mention the three crying babies?  We switched planes in Helsinki and that short leg of our trip was wonderful (I slept for the whole hour and a half).

It was 11:30 Friday morning in Lithuania (3:30 A.M in Chicago) when we arrived so we lost eight hours. We settled in and took a nap while we waited to meet up with Linn, Terry, and Krissy.  Once they arrived around 4:00 (and took a quick rest) we took a short stroll thru Old Town Vilnius looking for a place to eat.  We ate outdoors and had a traditional Lithuanian dish of cepelinai, a potato-based dumpling dish.  After dinner we were all pretty tired so we headed back to the hotel for some sleep. Of course we woke up in the middle of the night due to the jet lag, not to mention the lack of a/c in our room and the fact that when the bars closed in the area our street got very noisy.  The temperatures in Lithuania at this time of year are supposed to be in the 70's but somebody didn't get the memo.

I love European hotels because they usually have amazing breakfast buffets.  The Hotel Artis lived up to our expectations - blitzes, crepes, croissants, fruit, cheeses, meats, and so much more than what you get in the U.S. - a great way to start the day!   We're hoping all our breakfasts will be like this -
we need to keep up our strength for all our biking :).

After breakfast our American group of five walked over to the Vilnius tourism office to get ideas on what we should see.   We needed to be back at the hotel at 5:00 to meet the rest of our biking companions so we only had about five hours for sight-seeing.  The girl in the office recommended the Museum of Genocide Victims and the Money Museum - hmmmmm, this should be interesting. 

Straight Jacket
The Museum of Genocide Victims was in the building where the KGB operated for almost 50 years.

 In the basement of the building were interrogation cells, solitary confinement cells (more like closets), torture cells where the prisoners were forced to stand on a small elevated disk surrounded by ice cold water, and one cell that was padded and sound-proofed.  They also had an execution chamber down there - pretty gruesome.  We did see the exercise yard so I guess they did care about the welfare of their prisoners (sure they did).

During the soviet occupation Western visitors to Lithuania were only allowed into a few Lithuanian cities to make it easier for the KGB to spy on them.  We saw the eavesdropping room along with a few more KGB offices on the upper floors.  I found it interesting to see the requisition forms that had to be filled out, just another day in the office for them except what they were requisitioning was different from any office I've ever worked in.

Lithuania History Lesson #1
Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire from 1795 until 2/16/1918
Lithuania was independent from 1918 until 1940
Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union from 6/15/1940 until 6/22/1941
Lithuania was occupied by Nazi Germany from 6/22/1941 until July, 1944
Lithuania was again occupied by the Soviet Union from July, 1944 until they gained their independence in 1991.

After that very interesting museum it was time to head over to the money museum.   We thought it was just a short walk over the bridge and to the right but that was the historic church, we read the map wrong.  A very nice lady got us pointed in the right direction and after a quick stop at McDonalds for an ice cream cone (thanks Terry!) we arrived at our destination.   We needed the ice cream because it was very hot (in low 90's).

I don't think I can spend this.
The money museum was unique.  We wandered around looking at coins from around the world and pushed buttons on a large screen to learn about currencies and other facts from different countries.  Then the museum docent took us in hand and walked us around explaining the different exhibits.  She even sat us down at a computer to answer some questions and win a prize.  The prize was your picture on a Lithuanian lita.  Lithuanians will start using Euros in January, 2015, Lita's will not be accepted after July of 2015.

We headed back to our hotel to clean up because we were meeting our bike trip leaders and the other cyclists at 5:00 in the hotel lobby.

Our group is pretty eclectic - 10 Germans, 5 Americans, 2 Finns, and 2 Australians.  Our youngest biker is Kirsi at 37 and our oldest biker is Cilli who is 80!  Kirsi and her husband, Tuuka are from Finland.    Kirsi was an exchange student with Linn and Terry 20 years ago.  She even visited Chicago while she was in the U.S. so Marty and I met her back then.  

Everyone else in the group were strangers to us and mostly to each other.   We started out by introducing ourselves to each other but I didn't thing I would ever learn all the names. The two Australians were John and Deborah - easy enough.  Then came the Germans - ach du lieber!   10 names - Annette and Ernest, Cornelia and Alexander, Brigitta and Henno, Sabina and Ulrich, Maria and Cilli.  How would we ever remember all these names and who was with who?

By Tuesday we knew everyone and by the end of the week we felt like we were saying goodbye to some of our best friends.

Our guides were Florian and Adam.  Florian leads the ride and Adam drives the van and prepares our picnic lunches and handles any problems that may arise.

Vilnius Cathedral
After all the introductions had been made it was time for a two hour walking tour of Old town Vilnius.  Our Lithuanian guide, Beata, walked us around and took us to four very old churches and we also saw where the Jewish Ghetto had been.

Lithuania history fact #2
Lithuania is 79% Catholic.
The Jewish population of Lithuania before WWII was 240,000; only 24,000 survived.  Today the Jewish population is only 5,000 - 200 of whom are holocaust survivors. 

After walking around the old town for two hours and having had no lunch we were more than ready  for dinner.  Our whole group ate at a traditional Lithuania restaurant where we once again had cepelinai.  Lithuanians really like their potatoes.

Day 1 of Bicycling (Sunday/14.3 miles)
Trakai Castle
Sunday morning we met in the lobby at 9:00 with our luggage which was loaded into the van like a Rubik's cube by Adam and Florian.  Our group then hopped onto a tour bus which took us close to our first stop - Traika Castle.   We got off the bus about 2 miles from the Castle and started pedaling. Beata was again with us to tour the castle and to give us our daily history lesson. 

Taking "stock" of the situation at Trakai Castle
Houses of Karaimes
Trakai is also known for the Karaimes (a people speaking the Turkic language), who have lived there since the 14th century and have preserved their traditions. The kenesa – a
Karaime sanctuary – and houses of Karaimes have survived in Trakai, and the national dishes (the most popular is kybyn – a small pasty stuffed with minced meat) of this ethnic group can be tasted at the Karaime Restaurant which is where we stopped for lunch.  Kybyn are very much like empanadas - yum!

Biking to Kaunas
Old Town Kaunas
After lunch we rode for about 12 more miles and then met up with Adam for a snack/water break and hopped back on to our tour bus for a one hour ride into Kaunas. 

The Europenas translated centigrade into fahrenheit for us Americans so we would know exactly how hot it was today - 95 degrees!!!!   This is very unusual weather for the Baltics, the average temperature at this time of year should be in the 70's. 

The first of our four picnic lunches - great job Adam!
 Day 2 of Bicycling (Monday/24.8 miles)
Day 2 of bicycling was crazy!  In the morning Beata took us on a walking tour of Kaunas (the 2nd largest city in Lithuania).  Then we took the bus two hours north to be closer to the sea.  We got off the bus, grabbed our bikes and pedaled about six miles for our lunch break.  Easy, right?   WRONG!!  It was only 90 today, not 95 like yesterday but the road we were on was loose gravel and sand which made us forget all about the hot sun beating down on our heads as we focused on not falling off our bikes. Also, some Lithuanian drivers take great pleasure in driving fast and creating huge clouds of dust for cyclists - sadists!  

Lunch was nice, a picnic on a farmers property.  Very primitive, he had a well to draw water from and no bathroom.   We then continued on the dusty road for another mile or two before we finally saw pavement   I was ready to kiss that asphalt.  The rest of the ride was good until the last few miles, I got so tired that I would have hopped into Adam's van if only he had driven by.  I haven't been this exhausted (and dusty and dirty) in ages. 

We ended the day at the Hotel Ventaine which is on the Curonian Lagoon.  On the other side of the lagoon is the Curonian Spit and on the other side of the Spit is the Baltic Sea which is our destination for tomorrow.  Our nickname for our hotel tonight was the "hot hotel" - no A/C and very little breeze.   We (I) seriously considered skipping dinner but we slowly made our way across the parking lot to the restaurant where we had another traditional Lithuanian dinner (including yet more potatoes).

Day 3 of Bicycling (Tuesday//21.7miles)
Best day yet!  The weather was overcast and temps were probably in low 80's.  We had some sprinkles but nothing major and it was a perfect day for bicycling.
We started by loading our bikes on a boat for a two hour ride to Nida which is on the Baltic Sea.  The lagoon water levels were low so only about half the group could get on the boat with the bikes.  They took us to where the water was deep enough for the rest of the group to join us via speed boat.  The week before the boat had gotten stuck so this was the safest way to make sure that didn't happen again.

Sand Dunes looking over the Baltic Sea
 Once we got to Nida we rode to the sand dunes, dropped off our bikes and climbed 166 steps to the top for a beautiful view of the Baltic Sea.   To our right we could see Kolingrad which is part of Russia so we can honestly say we saw Russia, eat your heart out Sarah Palin.   After we got back on the bikes we took a short ride to a cafe for a break.   Then we rode a few miles to what was the summer residence of the famous German author, Thomas Mann (I had no idea what he wrote but he is very popular with the Germans).  Back on the bikes and a ride of about 8 miles to where we stopped for another amazing picnic lunch.  Then we hopped back on the bikes and rode about 13-14 miles to a beach on the Baltic Sea where some people swam and some people just dipped their toes - Marty and I were in the toe dipping group.   While riding today we did have one incident -  80 year old Cilli (ceelee) was clipped by another bike and fell.  Luckily she just scraped her knee and elbow.   Also, luckily, we have an orthopedic surgeon and his doctor wife traveling with us along with two other doctors.  We are well prepared for any emergencies.  
Maria and Cilli (nothing slows her down!)
That was it for the day, our bus picked us up and drove us to the Hotel Navalis in Klaipeda where we are spending our last night in Lithuania.    Today I was actually sorry to be done riding, it was absolutely perfect weather and no hills. 

Day 4 of Bicycling (Wednesday//24.2 miles)
Another beautiful day of biking!
This is our last day in Lithuania, we will be in Latvia tonight.  We started out with a walking tour of
Beach Break
the "old town" in Klaipeda and then we rode on busy city street for about a half hour.  After leaving the streets we rode on beautiful flat trails thru Lithuanian forests until we took a break at the botanical gardens and Amber Museum.  After another short ride we reached the seaside town of Palanga.  Lunch was on our own today so we walked around looking for somewhere to eat.  We found a nice outdoor cafe and our group of five Americans and two Finns all ordered pizza.   Considering we were in Lithuania it was pretty good pizza!   Biking continued at 2:00 and we rode about 9 more miles to the beach where we were given an hour beach break.  Since we were leaving Lithuania and since we still had Lithuanian money (lita's) to spend Marty and I got back on our bikes and rode back to the town to spend it.   It was tourist junk in the shops so we ended up with ice cream cones and six bottles of coca cola.    Back at the beach area we sat in the bar waiting for our bus driver to take us to our next destination - Kuldiga, Latvia.

We were on the bus for two hours and Marty and I sat in the back with the Germans (I'm practicing and re-learning my two years of high school German, they humor me by nodding and smiling at all my "sehr guts" and "wunderbahrs".

One of our co-riders, Annette,  told me about her father who was in a Canadian POW camp for most of the war because his u-boat was captured by the British in 1941.  He spent  6 years there which was a much safer place than being in a U-boat!    Her parents had been dating before the war and while he was a prisoner they were married via mail!   When he went back to Germany in 1947 they were married again in a church ceremony.  All the Germans we are riding with were born after the war except Cilli (80) and Maria (76).  I wish I had asked more questions, I'm sure there were some interesting stories in this group.

Once we got to our hotel in Kuldiga, Latvia we were informed that there was a change in our hotels.  We were supposed to be staying at the Hotel Metropolis but for some reason they changed us to a  hotel about three blocks away.  That was ok except that dinner was still scheduled at the Hotel Metropolis and we didn't start eating until 8:00.  We got back to our hotel around 11:30 and still had to be up for breakfast at 7:30 and start riding at 9:00 so not much free time - it's all just part of the adventure.     

Only two more days of biking, hard to believe we are almost done!  It does get easier each day.

Day 5 of Bicycling (Thursday/20.5 miles)
As we've done most mornings, we started out with a walking tour.  We toured the charming city of Kuldiga.

Our walk led us to the Venta waterfall which is the widest waterfall in Europe.  The old brick bridge across the Venta was built in 1874 and is the longest bridge of this kind of road bridge in Europe. 

Group Selfie walking back to our hotel
Riding today was often on gravel roads - our guide, Florian, calls it "friendly" gravel because it's not very sandy which makes it a little easier.  It's not the most fun way to ride but we've all gotten better at it.  We finished the day in the small village of Sabile, Latvia where our group was split into two different hotels.   Our group rode our bikes to the other hotel where dinner was.  After dinner we left the bikes and walked the mile or so back to our hotel.

Quite often, before dinner, some of our group likes to hang out in the bar (Happy Hour).  On Thursday when we joined them two of the men (John and Ernest) were putting together a song about our biking adventures to the tune of "Ain't She Sweet".  We had so much fun with them thinking up things to add to the song.  The plan is for everyone to sing the song at our last dinner tomorrow night.

Day 6 of Bicycling (Friday/13.2 miles)
It's so hard to believe that it's our last day of riding!  We had another great day (even though the majority of it was on "friendly" gravel).  As we rode towards Riga we stopped to visit a ruin of a former estate of Baltic Royalty.  It was fun to imagine bringing it back to all it's former glory (I watch way too much HGTV).  It's in the middle of nowhere so I don't know what it would be used for even if it was fixed up. 

We are going to miss these picnic lunches!
We ended our cycling in the village of Zemite.   We were treated to some Latvian songs and dances from girls at a nearby school.  At one point they got everyone up to dance and even though I looked like a dork I had fun doing it.  After the performance the girls placed their handmade floral wreaths on the heads of some of our bikers.    After the performance we walked back to where we had parked our bikes for our final picnic :(.  We took a photo of our group, said goodbye to our bikes and then got on to the bus for the one hour ride to Riga.

Latvian Singers and Dancers

We're really going to miss this group :(
Riga is a beautiful city.  Just like Vilnius it has an "old town" section which is where our Latvian guide, Anita, took us for yet another walking tour.  It was so interesting hearing Anita talk about Riga and Latvia, she was so passionate about the history of her homeland.   At the end of our two hour walking tour we ended up at a Latvian restaurant for our final group dinner.  This is where we planned to sing the lovely song that Ernest and John had worked so hard on.  Unfortunately, we were at three different tables and there was no way it would work there.  Plan #2 - after dinner we went back to the hotel and used a small meeting room to share our thoughts about the trip, thank Florian and Adam for being such wonderful guides and, finally, we got to sing the song.  There was even a little bit of dancing involved.  At the end of the evening John and Deborah said goodbye because they were leaving very early Saturday morning for a flight to France.
 Here's the link to our infamous music video-----

Day 7 - No Bicycling (Saturday/walked 1 hour)
This morning we said goodbye to Florian and Adam.  Adam was driving to Poland where he was leading another bike tour and Florian was heading home to Austria.  Last night's guide, Anita, met us in the hotel lobby for one last walking tour of Riga.   This was more of an architectural tour with lots of art nouveau buildings.   At the end of the walk it was time to say goodbye to all our fellow riders.  All of the Germans were headed home that day,  Kirsi and Tuuka were heading off for some shopping before getting on a plane back to Finland that night.  We five Americans stopped at a small grocery store to pick up some snacks for the next phase of our trip, a 4 1/2 hour bus ride to Tallin, Estonia.  The bus was nice, it had internet and mo

We arrived at our hotel in Tallinn around 5:00 except when we got there we were told they were overbooked!  No worries, they had booked us into another, nicer hotel about a block away and we were closer to where Linn, Terry and Krissy were staying.

We met the Mitchell's around 6:00 and walked around looking for somewhere to eat.  The hotel had recommended "Lieb" so we walked over there but it was completely booked.  We ended up at a nice outdoor restaurant and enjoyed a pleasant meal accompanied by an accordianist. Accordians - they're everywhere!

Sunday - Tallinn Estonia 
After a quick breakfast we headed over to meet the Mitchell's and explore Tallinn.  We walked over to the Information Center and learned that there was a free walking tour scheduled at noon. That sounded like a pretty good deal so after a short stroll thru part of the old town we returned to the Information Center for our tour.  We have had amazing tour guides on this whole trip.  Our guide today, Aurelia, was as passionate and knowledgeable about Estonia as our previous guides had been about their countries.  Maybe because all three countries have only been independent since 1991 they appreciate and care about their freedom more than we do.  Americans don't always realize how lucky we are. 

After the tour we decided to squeeze in one more museum - the Seaplane Harbour Museum.  We didn't have much time so we only visited the 4 ships outside, PT boats and the Suur Toll Icebreaker.  The icebreaker is the world's largest steam-powered icebreaker surviving in its original form. 

When we left the museum, we caught a cab back to the Lieb restaurant.  Since it was mid-afternoon we were hoping we could get in.  Luck was on our side and we had a delicious meal along with some excellent brown bread (Lieb means bread in Estonian).   The menu includes many locally grown items and they have a large selection of beers and wines to go with your meal.  It was a great place to have our last meal in Estonia. 

Terry, Linn, and Krissy were heading over on the ferry to Helsinki Sunday night to visit Kirsi and Tuuka for a few days so it was time to say goodbye.  Marty and I had a wonderful time with them and all our new friends on this trip.  We left Tallinn on Monday morning and we were back in Chicago by evening rush hour.