Break for Latvia border
We hadn’t intended to cross the Lithuania Latvia border and enter Latvia. Well not that night, anyway. We’d been hoping to stay in or just beyond Palanga, to give time to prepare ourselves for the transition, learn a few phrases, get some local currency.
Palanga was billed in our guide as Lithuania’s ‘party town’ but after a few moments riding down the main street, Lithuania’s answer to Blackpool, we were soon wondering if there was any space left in town for even one extra family of five.
Palanga party madness
Men in alarming Speedo shorts with deep suntanned bodies, with a woman on one arm and a basketball in the other, strolled around or drank beer in bars. Huge families promenaded with ice creams. We could have hooked a duck a dozen times, or shot basketballs into hoops till infinity. People on penny farthing bicycles forced leaflets for shows into our hands, as we brushed past synthetic pink candy floss clouds. Music pumped from every stall and everyone carried or walked a dog.
A man with a parrot demonstrated his unique pet’s agility and magnificence from the safety of a chain wrapped around its foot, while artists waited to pounce on tourists, caricaturing their natural or man made beauty for a handful of Litas. Children swung round on carousels and teenagers bombed around in go karts while striped pedi-cabs carrying four or more people played havoc with the crowds, beeping as they went.
It was too much for five tired cyclists. We had an ice cream and decided to move on to a quieter town down the road.
Things weren’t much better up the road
Sventoji wasn’t even marked on our map but was soon etched into our memory as a frightening down-market version of Palanga. At every part of the connecting cycle and beach path, people had set up crammed makeshift campsites in fields or gardens with ‘for sale’ signs. Ice cream and beer changed hands all the way along the cycle path. Caravan sites that normally had cabins to rent were so packed they resembled gypsy encampments, and when we passed a river our children were drawn to the huge see through plastic orbs people were running downriver inside at several miles an hour, dodging lazing swimmers and bathing dogs. The sun was still shining, the Lithuanians were on holiday, and it was heading towards dusk; we had no accommodation and the campsites were full.
Latvia was only a few kilometres away, and seemed a very different proposition. There were no party towns or people, just peace, forest and sky. We had no Latvian money, and a very sketchy map. But when we found ourselves stuck on a seaside path behind two girls drinking cocktails while pedalling plastic green tractors to the beach, we decided we really had to make for the border.
Into the sunset and Latvia
The Latvian border was deserted, a set of abandoned police and customs posts. Not a soul to be seen let alone any money changing facilities. We pushed onwards, onto gravel track, in deep forest, in thirty degrees of heat, sweating and salty from an earlier dunk in the sea. Two wild local dogs found us very attractive and followed us for several kilometres. They were soon joined by horse-flies the size of fingernails, who mistook our human perspiration for horse sweat and our blood for equine soup. We were a five course sunset dinner for the insects of the forest and even clanking up and down great big pot-holes in the road failed to shake them off. Matthew had a spare sock and began whacking my back with it every time a horse fly landed, often too late to stop it poaching my blood. By 10.30pm with darkness in pursuit, we made tracks for the village of Rucava. A smudge on our map suggested there may be accommodation there but our intuition said it was highly unlikely we would be able to find it, comminicate with it or pay for it, unless they were willing to accept the handful of Euros or Litas we had to offer. Still, despite the odds, any faint chance of a bed seemd better than the prospect of pitching our tent with the horse-flies.
The village was unlike any European settlement we had ridden into so far, a long sprawl of Russian style low-rise apartments interspersed with wooden cabins. And there in what appeared to be the deserted village centre, a space ship. Amongst the dust, dirt and cracked blocks of buildings, stood a huge clear plastic booth, with silver logo’s and tiny flashing lights , a beacon in the night; a cash point for weary travellers. And next to the cash point a list of accommodation, including a 54 bedded house somewhere in the village.
“Perhaps this is the enchanted wood,” I muttered as Stuart entered the space pod and bleeped instructions into the command console.
A drunken welcome
A wodge of Lats shot out, at about the same time as the local drunk left his mate’s house. By the time the money was in my wallet, an old man in a filthy two piece suit was gripping my hand with his, and, perhaps mistaking me for a Spaniard, called me his ‘amigo.’ I smiled politely, looked down and shook his three fingered hand.
“We need somewhere to sleep,” I said in English, in the vain hope he could descramble my words in his alcoholic haze, translate them into Latvian and then recall where the local B and B was situated. Instead, he nestled his head into my chest and indicated that a family of five and a Latvian man in a suit could easily all sleep there for the night.
“I want to go now,” I said to Stuart, trying to dislodge the three fingers from my hand and the head from my bosom.
“Go,” he said, with some urgency. “Cycle.”
Both Matthew and I were off the bike, and the buggy was open. I beckoned him onto the saddle and tried to shake of the hand, which was now around my waist. I thought of the horseflies mistaking me for a horse and wondered if it would work on befuddled Latvian gentlemen. With a gee-up, I galloped away as fast as I could, stealing my soft pillow away from the head of the drunk.
We need a place to stay
At the edge of the village, a dirt track wound into the forest. Neither of us could face it. Pursued by bloodsucking flies, we circled wagons and made for a large building with an obvious playground and cut grass, the only one not surrounded by scrub. I called out a ‘hi’ in Latvian to some local youths who were standing around having a coke, instantly offending them by my incorrect use of some Lativain linguistic gender rule as Stuart pointed out. But anyway, they didn’t speak any English. So we stood around helplessly, looking at a sign that said ‘music school,’ and hoped it might creatively materialise into some form of comfortable accommodation. It was either that or the tent in the playground.
A car drew up and two women got out. “She’s female. Try out your ‘hi’ on her,” said Stuart. This time there was no recoil, and the women even spoke a little English.
“It is a kind of hostel and we are staying here,” she explained, “I will call the manager and see if she has some beds.”
By midnight, we lay in clean sheets on the five hardest mattresses in history, in a family dormitory, our legs swelling up with horsefly bites. I was glad to have found a home that didn’t involve anyone taking a nap on my chest and wondered as a drifted off to sleep if all of Lativa would be like this?