After our big Japan expedition in late 2013, there were too many work and other obligations to schedule a longer bike tour in 2014. But with two touring bikes standing around, and the Nordic summer being short as it is, we obviously had to get out on the road for at least a week or so.
It was already late July when we came up with the idea (and the sudden opportunity) to go explore Finland’s southern neighbour Estonia. With the two capitals only a two-hour ferry ride apart, getting to Tallinn was easy. Roll on, kill some time, roll off. And then lunch.
Estonia does not have an excessive railway network, but there are some interesting connections from Tallinn, mostly operated with brand-new commuter trains that have plenty of space for bicycles. Which travel for free, by the way.
We aimed to ride the train to the western terminus at Riisipere and then cycle towards the island of Saaremaa. Despite some minor roadblocks on the way – namely the train was replaced by small buses for a few kilometers – we made it just in time for our first campsite in the Matsalu national park.
During the next days, we made our way from Matsalu via the tiny island of Muhu (with a very nice, if wasp-infested, campsite and a wonderful restaurant at the outdoor museum of …) and the eastern parts of Saaremaa to the island’s main town of Kuuressaare.
On the way, as we were looking out for a good spot for stealth camping, we discovered the newly opened Kõiguste Marina which catered to campers as well. The opportunity of a nice shower at the end of the day made it a no-brainer to pay the few euros to stay. Which turned out to be a great decision, since coincidentally friends from Helsinki were mooring here for the night and so we even got some surprise company – here and the next evening at Kuuressaare. Sometimes it is amazing how small this world is!
The days after Kuuressaare – where we spent our only night not camping, in the hostel inside the airport terminal building – we then went down all the way to the southern tip of the island. Besides being beautiful landscape, this part of Saaremaa testifies for the tough history of this area, and Estonia as a nation, as it has been over and over occupied by various forces – most notably this was the site of severe battles between the Soviet army and Nazi-Germany’s Wehrmacht in the final phases of WWII.
Well rested after two days on a well-maintained and peaceful camping area near Tehumardi, we then made our way back via the northern neighbouring island of Hiiumaa. On the way, we discovered a windmill museum, a former Soviet farm transformed into a hostel (with attached camping facilities, which we made use of), a bird tower in a nature reserve and a wool farm selling self-made wool products. The latter felt a little excessive – buying wool socks on day eight of a bike tour during a heat wave – but once again reassured us why the speed of cycle touring is just right: fast enough to get to places, slow enough to get to see them.
The final leg of the tour was the rail trail following the former train line from Haapsalu (featuring a nice railway museum) to Riisipere. A dusty, but well-prepared surface, though riding in the July heat was made a little tricky because there were so many bugs it was almost impossible to stop for a rest.
Looking back, we were stunned to realize what a cycle touring gem has been existing a few hours journey away from our home without us being aware of it. Interaction with the locals was limited (not so much a language issues, as Finnish is very close to Estonian, but probably more a cultural trait), but the infrastructure was good and the landscapes most beautiful.
Oh, and not to forget: this part of Estonia is almost entirely flat. Even just going through an underpass in Kuuressaare felt like hard work after riding in the flat for so many days. Winds can be fierce on the coast at times, but at least in the summer of 2014, that was only a welcome opportunity to cool down a bit.