Island Hopping Estonian Style
In Estonia, it’s legal to ride on the road or the footpath. It’s not necessary to wear a helmet in either circumstance – Exiting Tallinn we chose the footpath as the traffic was thick and the road quite narrow. Becoming a hood ornament on a Scania just isn’t part of our plans!
I’ve gotta say, though, I hate riding on the footpaths. It’s slow, you have to dodge people and other cyclists (often not watching!), dogs and a squillion holes. Every driveway has a sharp lip, and each road crossing meant crashing over a 4-inch high curb with no ramp – both bike killers, especially when you’re carrying 30 kg of gear.
But “curb it” we did, so it took a while to exit the city. We were heading South West to the seaside town of Haapsalu about 100kms away. We’d planned to camp in the forest at about the 60km mark via a small rural road that passes through several lakes. When we looked at out maps and saw all the lakes, we figured camping would be easy with all the water around. Unfortunately (and to our surprise) the lakes are, in fact, swamps. Vast areas of Estonia are low-lying swampland. So, not much surface water, just lots of swamp grass, mud and insects. And, not just any insects like a few pesky mossies. They’ve got an infestation of giant horseflies. These babies can bite a hole in your body through your clothes. Within a minute of stopping on the side of the road, they’d appear and begin doing their dirty deed. They drew blood on Shazz several times and gave her multiple other bumps and bruises.
Between the swamps and the killer flies, it was enough to cancel any ideas we had of camping that night. We made an executive decision to cycle on. At the 90km mark, we found a B&B, 2kms south of Linnamae. They take tents, and we were the only guests on a lovely field of soft, green grass. They have a well-equipped kitchen and lots of cool looking sports equipment for the kids. None of it would pass Australian safety standards, but it looked like a whole lot of fun. Not enough for me to try any of it, though!
It’s not that easy to find. Turn right onto the 230/Eurovelo 10 just past the small “Gazebo/lookout” on your right as you come into the town. Follow the B&B signs that lead you off the road and in and around some farms. Eventually, you’ll turn left onto a gravel path through the fields. Continue until you come to an intersection with three choices and no signs. Turn onto the right path and go straight until you see a the house with the big flagpole at the front.
The next morning we took our time as we were only 15kms from Haapsalu. This part of the journey was mainly on Eurovelo 10, so the bike paths were fine until you reach the outskirts of town at a large shopping centre. At that point, they disappear altogether, and you can either ride in the busy, impatient traffic or dodge pedestrians on some of the crappiest footpaths we’ve encountered yet.
The campground is about 2 km out of town. We found a small area of grass near the fence so we could secure the bikes. The young fella who booked us in was so excited that we were Aussies, he took down the Latvian flag from the front pole and hoisted an Aussie one! We were just impressed they had one and figured we were on another winner here. Later, when we’d showered and set up camp, he drove us into town and showed us all the things of any import to give us our bearings. We bought him a coffee and had a chat for a while about travelling, Estonia and more – Very nice guy!
Old Haapsalu is quite lovely with its Swedish style houses and summer flowers adorning window ledges everywhere. There are ruins of an old fort in the centre and some beautiful old buildings on the esplanade with views over the Gulf of Riga.Everything looked great with the sun making a welcome appearance.
It was raining again the next morning, but it stopped long enough for us to decamp and make a dash for the ferry nine km away. It became a time trial as we were cutting it a bit short. We arrived just in time, albeit a bit breathless.
It takes about an hour and a half to cross over to Hiiumaa. We immediately headed out on the very deserted roads, taking our time as the sun shone again. For the first time in ages, we could just relax and enjoy the pedalling and scenery.
We only had about 20 km to Kassari on the southern peninsula. The campground was on the far end of the tiny village and doubled as the pub – excellent!! There were small barrel-shaped cabins too – but a bit expensive for 40 Euro. With the weather fine, we pitched the tent and settled in. We met a Dutch couple cycling as well and shared breakfast the next morning. We traded info on the road ahead as we were headed in opposite directions.
We were surprised when we arrived at the ferry for Saaremaa an hour early. It was preparing to leave, and we were ushered on quick smart as it departed. Lucky we hadn’t hung around. We had been given the wrong timetable from Tourist Info in Haapsalu and had just lucked out. Karma we reckon. If we’d been 5 minutes later, we would have had a 6-hour wait!!!
Handy Hint: Check dates on ferry schedules as times tend to change at certain points in the holiday season.Even those in the know can get things wrong.
While on the ferry, we discovered another less frequent route that could take us to the remote island of Ruhnu and then onto Parnu the next day. The Dutch couple had told us they’d had trouble finding accommodation in the stretch between Parnu and Haapsalu. The ferry crossing to Ruhnu and this new route would save us around 120km and leave us more time to explore further on. We confirmed dates and times with the crew onboard, and it seemed an excellent opportunity to see a part of Estonia, most tourists don’t. One of the helpful locals we met told us it was the Pearl of Estonia and couldn’t wax lyrical enough about this tranquil little paradise in the Bay of Riga.
NOTE: This route doesn’t work out so well if you are coming in the opposite direction (ie. Parnu-Ruhnu-Saaremaa) due to the ferry arrival and departure times you will spend very little time on Ruhnu itself or have to stay extra days.
So, once on land our plans changed again. Instead of following the coast East to Orissaare, a very strong wind saw us head south to Kuressaare, the capital. Rain punctuated the 45km – lots of it! The skies opened up; the temperature dropped, and we got soaked to the bone. Once again, the ride became a time trial as we tried to get there as quickly as possible with the favourable wind at our back. By the time we reached the outskirts, we were starting to shiver. We managed to find a shopping centre with a Hesburger where we could get out of the downpour, have a hot drink, some food and use the free WiFi to find accommodation.
Shazz found us what seemed like an excellent deal on Booking.com. Unfortunately, finding it became a bit of a problem as various directions from people led us back and forth around Kuressaare. By the time we arrived at Merily we were cold and shivering, wet thru and not in the best of moods. Fortunately, the affable manager Marco put us in a great room and even helped to lug some of our luggage up the stairs for us.With unloaded bikes, but not a restaurant in sight, we pedalled 500m back into town in the rain to pick up supplies before finally having a hot shower and settling in for the night. Another character building day had been and gone.
The weather, once again, took a turn for the worse, and the wind picked up significantly. So much so, that the next morning when we pedalled out to the port to catch the ferry to Ruhnu, it had been unceremoniously CANCELLED! We would have to spend another two days in Kuressaare! There was no guarantee it would go then, BUT it was the fortnightly changeover of the crew, so they had a lot of incentive to sail. Back to see Marco and straight back to our room, before they’d even had a chance to make it up!
We spent the next couple of days exploring Kuressaare and frequenting the old restored “scales” house that was now a pub with some excellent craft beers. Sheltered from the brutal wind that lashed the island, we were fortunate to be able to enjoy some much-missed sunshine from mid-afternoon on their flower-adorned terrace.
Once again we loaded up, said goodbye to our new mate Marco, and forged out against the wind to the port. This time the ferry was going, so we sat in the cafe with a hot coffee and waited to be called. The Harbour Master came and checked on us and would let us know when it was time to board – Nice guy!
The ride to Ruhnu started OK but eventually became very choppy. Shazz had taken a Phenergan and went straight to sleep. I don’t usually get seasick unless it’s pretty rough, but even I was feeling a bit uncomfortable by the time we arrived. The bikes, lashed to the sides of the deck, were wet but otherwise, the bay of Riga had allowed us safe passage.
We cycled three km to the township through a thick, damp forest smelling of pine and wildflowers. The tiny township is scattered through the tall trees. The timber houses obviously hewn from the surrounding woods. There was no signage to tell us where to go or to establish what the buildings were – they all looked like private cabins. We could only head for the place that Google maps had pinpointed. It certainly looked like a guesthouse or campground with large communal areas outside. As we headed around the back of the building, we were met by a rather grim looking older woman who, rather curtly told us to go away! Or at least that what we figured she was saying. We weren’t going to argue with her or her rapid German Shepherd she was barely holding back on a leash.
We cycled back a block or 2 and asked another woman about somewhere to sleep. She pointed to a front garden with a sign over the gate, about 50m down a side road. Liise Talu was a small cottage that doubled as he general store. You just have to make a leap of faith and go through the front door. We were expecting a rustic living room with and old lady knitting next to the fire. We were a little surprised to find a counter in front of a wall bedecked with shelves of food, beer and the usual essentials instead.
The complex had about 6 or 7 quaint log cabins that looked very interesting but were fully booked. We settled for pitching the tent on the lush, green grass instead. An old barn, converted to a communal area served us well for dinner and a couple of beers. That sent us off for a good sleep.
As we rode out the next morning, the skies decided to open up AGAIN! We hastily made our way back thru the forest towards the small Port BUT about half way I got a puncture. I never get punctures!! All I could do was walk it the last 1.5 km to the cafe where Shazz was waiting for me. Better to change it there, under some cover, than on the forest road. Besides, we were expecting the ferry to pick us up, puncture or not! We changed out the split tube, checked the tyre itself and got it back together – no dramas. We even had time for a coffee and something to eat.
Shazz gave me a Phenergan for the 3-hour crossing to Parnu on the mainland. I was out like a light in a minute and never budged until we were just shy of the harbour in the river mouth at Parnu. We disembarked and rode down to the rather swish yacht club to use their wi-fi to find the campground.
There’s not much to say about our one-night stay in Parnu.The campground was way too overcrowded and a miserable example of the lengths people will go to to get away from home. The old city centre was quite a walk away, and I was experiencing the effects of the Phenergan. I was tired, grumpy, dizzy and couldn’t concentrate on the simplest thing – enough said! Shazz has vowed NEVER to give me one ever again even if I beg her.
The next morning we quickly picked up the Eurovelo 10 (Highway) out of town and headed for the Latvian border. There is next to no shoulder on this road, and we counted our blessings when we eventually found a quieter one that took us down to the border. The road is narrow but reasonably quiet, with some campgrounds and wild camping opportunities in the forest.
Overall, the highlight of Estonia (for what we’ve seen) is Tallinn but there are plenty of other things that made our efforts worthwhile. The people are friendly and helpful. They have great supermarkets, good beers and the language is similar to Finnish, which made the transition for us a little easier. Most young people understand English and are always surprised to hear we are from Australia. If I were to go again, though, I’d like to head inland and to the East to see Tartu and the Southern Hills. So many things to see, so little time….
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