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Monday, 31 October 2016

Looking, Listening, and Learning: Cycling the Baltic States - Page 3

Written by Dale Fehringer
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But we needed to move on, so we loaded our bikes, boarded our bus, and went off to Latvia, the middle of the three Baltic states. It was a five-hour bus ride across flat farmland to get to Riga, the capital and largest city. Along the way, Egle told us about this country’s long and varied history, including how in 1986 thousands of men from the Soviet republics (including people from Latvia) were forced by the Soviet Union to go clean up after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Their service was obligatory, she told us, and they did not receive proper safety equipment or training, and they were not informed about the dangers they faced.


Riga is slightly inland, on a river, and it's a very old and diverse city of around 700,000 people. It is sophisticated, and up-to-date in every way. It has an efficient transportation system, good stores and restaurants, lots of culture and entertainment, good schools and universities, and a progressive, democratic government. The residents are educated and industrious, and virtually everyone speaks Latvian, Russian, and English. It's much less expensive than comparable western European cities, so it's a bargain for us western tourists. And, like Lithuania, it has a long and difficult history of occupation and oppression, having obtained its independence from the USSR in 1991.



We followed Egle around Riga on foot to hear the highlights and get the layout of the place. This city was a major power in the 13th–15th centuries, primarily because of trade with central and eastern Europe, and the center of the city reflects the prosperity. Riga is also known for having one of the best collections of art nouveau buildings in Europe, many with elaborate, decorative facades. We finished our tour, boarded our bus, and rode to the nearby resort town of Jurmala, on the Baltic Sea. This has been a vacation destination for wealthy and powerful Russians for decades, and we cycled around town past dozens of incredible seaside mansions and resort hotels, then on to the beach, where we cycled on the hard-packed sand. The weather was perfect, the beach nearly deserted, and it was a great experience to cycle next to the waves.


Back in Riga, we went through a recently-opened Occupation Museum, where we learned about the harsh treatment of the Latvian people by the Germans and Russians during and after the second world war. We were appalled at how badly Latvians were treated and how resilient they have been. A most inspiring story took place in 1989, when (to express their dissatisfaction with Soviet rule) two million people from the three Baltic states formed a human chain, linking hands for over 300 miles, from Tallin, Estonia, through Riga, and to Vilnius, Lithuania. Film footage of the event shows people of all ages holding hands and singing, with looks of determination in their faces, and it proves again that you can keep good people down, but you can’t defeat them.


Like Lithuania, Latvia has been a very pleasant surprise!




Lahemaa National Park

The drive across Latvia to Estonia was across flat lands that look a little like Nebraska -- farmland with tan-colored fields in the foreground and dark trees in the background. Stone farmhouses dot the horizon, occasionally interspersed by small villages with tall, pointed church steeples. Estonia is clean, organized, and slightly wealthier than its neighbors, and like them it has a long history of occupation and struggle. They became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 and have made remarkable progress since, becoming members of NATO and the EU, and gaining proficiency in technology, industry, and shipping. We enjoyed interacting with the locals who are educated, friendly, proficient in English, and tolerant of the many Russians who vacation here.


We spent most of the day cycling in Lahemaa National Park. This very large and beautiful park is on the northern edge of Estonia, on the Baltic Sea. It features lakes, rivers, forests, and gigantic boulders carried here by glaciers thousands of years ago. We stayed in a former manor house with hand-built wooden furniture and comfortable dormer rooms.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 01 November 2016

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