These are raw, undeveloped photos from the September trip, but I figured we had to put something up before the end of the year 🙂
This is a thought I was having back in London for a long time, but our travels have pretty much confirmed it, and it is that, fifteen centuries after the fall of Rome, five centuries after the Renaissance, northern Italy – and, to an extent, France – still radiates its culture throughout the Western world. Only this time, it’s not about art or philosophy or science, but things that are more subtle – though in the archaeological record, centuries from now, may prove to be the most dominant.
For what is a modern hipster – or a 60’s mod, or a 1800s dandy – if not a wannabe “Continental”? Italy and France don’t need hipsters – they are hip, and always have been. When the archaeologists dig up the ruins of central London or New York, what will they find? Vespas and espresso machines; shoes from Milan and artisan pizza stoves from Naples. It will be as if Rome had never fallen. The “fads” of drinking good coffee and eating good food, that the press likes to write so disparagingly about, are no fads south of the Channel, but a way of life: and even if London one day goes back to its pickled eggs and potted prawns and builder’s teas, Italy and France will remain cool, well fed and handsomely-dressed forever, a ready source of inspiration for another wave of “Continentalism” to strike the Anglo-Saxon shores.
This journey was not supposed to happen – the trip to Scandinavia was supposed to be our only one this year; but we felt that one finished too fast: there was still plenty of summer left, and once we rested for a few days, the wanderlust awakened anew. So we scrapped what little money we had left, patched the car up for one final journey, and departed Warsaw in the beginning of September, in a south-easterly direction.
This was a different trip than others: shorter, faster, more intense, and focused less on sight-seeing, and more on relaxing and – naturally, in this part of Europe – drinking wine. It couldn’t have been any other way, since our route took us through Alsace, Rhone, Provence, Veneto and beyond, in the middle of the grape harvest season.
Surprisingly, we tasted our first local wine already the next day, in Prague. This was our first time in Prague, and the city is definitely not overhyped – in late summer, it is one of the finest cities we’ve ever visited (and that’s saying something!).
To save money, we avoided motorways wherever possible, except Germany where they were free – that way we could also see plenty of surrounding countryside along the way. In Germany we stopped at Nuremberg; what’s left of its old town after the war is well worth seeing, especially if you have time to sit down with a large beer on the steps leading to the castle.
Heading towards the Mediterannean, we stopped at Strasbourg, Besancon and Vienne, before arriving into the magnificent Papal City of Avignon: another highlight of the journey. The following couple of days, between Avignon and the marshes of Camargue, were, in hindsight, the best of the entire trip – the weather was perfect, the pace of the journey most leisurely, and the wines, in the southern Cotes du Rhone region, the tastiest. However, the marshland of Provence was also where the plague of this trip started.
If the bane of last year’s British expedition were the gale-force winds, and the heat wave made the Baltic trip at times unbearable, this Mediterranean journey was marred by insects: flies and mosquitoes, some of them of the more tropical variety. And of all three, this plague proved the most annoying and exhausting, ridding us of sleep on worst nights. Nothing we were able to muster could stop those beasts from leaving our bodies pock-marked with bites in the morning.
This inconvenience aside, we moved slowly along the Mediterranean, with stops at the beach resorts in Cassis, Hyeres and St Tropez. Once again, travelling in a campervan proved to be the best solution by far (mosquitoes apart) – I don’t see how else we could get a spot 150m from St Tropez’s famous Pampelonne Beach, on a weekend, without booking, for 20 euro for two people!
Nice, which I was really hoping to see next, turned out to be a disappointment – not because it wasn’t nice, but because it was unsuitable for visiting in a campervan. There were no campsites on the outskirts of the city, and not a single parking space for a car our size (all parking slots were underground). That day was our greatest challenge; from crowded, narrow-laned Nice we trundled on to Monaco’s even more crowded, and narrower streets, and then, in search of a campsite, to a small border town of Menton.
The Menton campsite – the only one for miles – is on top of a mountain, in an olive grove. We were at the bottom. At the end of this tiring day, we had to drive up a series of hairpin bends, where we discovered that a 40-year old campervan can drift 🙂
The campsite in Genoa was luckily much easier to access, and we could spend the next day strolling through the city which turned out our favourite of the entire trip. Genoa is an archetypal Italian city, with narrow canyons of tall renaissance tenements, rugged, dirty and smelling of urine and garbage, but somehow oozing a fantastic charm; the Via di Canneto il Lungo, a small, narrow alleyway on the old town, filled with fishmongers, greengrocers and small trattorias, has risen to the top of our favourite food streets in the world, just after Nishiki-koji!
Emilia-Romagna region, which we drove through next, may be the industrial and agricultural heart of Italy – but it’s well off the tourist path, and for a reason; there are only two campsites between Piacenza and Bologna, both of them rather terrible and over-priced. It’s an ugly region, and worth passing only if you’re a fan of Italian cuisine – or cars, as Modena is not only the centre of balsamic vinegar making (we took a tour of one of the private villas where it is being made) but also the seat of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Masseratti. The renaissance-rich cities along the way – Piacenza, Parma, Reggio – are also worth a detour, but we drove straight into Bologna, to see the oldest university in Europe; the old walls are still awe-inspiring, even before you remember the names that strolled the grand piazza, from Dante to Copernicus.
There’s an easily accessible campsite at the bottom of the San Marino mountain, so naturally we stopped there, too – and got another flag on the “virtual sticker board”! The next day we were back at sea again – but this time, it was the Adriatic. Here, the autumn was already in full, with the haze and the wind and the rain-storms which wreaked havoc with our electrics. The sea-side resorts were dead – the season ended a few days earlier; only one campsite out of five was open, but that didn’t matter – we had the entire coast to ourselves 🙂
Veneto is marshland again, so we were back to fighting mosquitoes. A long day in Ravenna, where we saw all there was to be seen in the city – every single mosaic and ancient church – and off we went towards Venice, with a stop-over in a “miniature Venice” of Chioggia, and its immense fishing fleet.
Venice, like Strasbourg and Vienna, was a city we knew well, so again we just strolled its streets from an ice-cream stall to a pizzeria, soaking in the atmosphere rather than the sights. Venice was also where we took a fateful decision of cutting our journey short. Originally, we were supposed to continue hugging the Adriatic coast, through Trieste, to Rijeka, possibly beyond, and then back across Hungary. But it was not to be. We had reached the end – of our strength, of our money, of the weather – not in Italy, but we knew it was getting cold in the north – and of the car, which began to develop minor technical faults one after another. With a heavy heart, we decided to go back, the shortest possible way, through Vienna.
We did make one detour, into Budapest, to finish the wine tour in style and at least bring a crate of the finest Hungarian wines, if we couldn’t travel across the country. Racing the frosts (the temperature in Austria went down to 3 degrees at night) and the exhaustion, we drove through Slovakia in one go, and reached Warsaw, a week earlier than we had originally planned, but not a day too soon.
The trip took us 27 days, and 5000 kilometres. Altogether, we drove nearly 30000 kilometres since we departed from London last June. The car passed through 21 countries (and several autonomous territories); we reached the Arctic Circle and the Mediterranean, we drove across the Alps (reaching 1100 metres on the Austrian passes) and through marshland, and spanned all of Europe between Ireland’s coast and Finland’s eastern border. The deep south of the continent is still a virgin territory for us and the car – we failed to make it to Spain, Sicily or Greece – if we had a month more, we’d have done it, but it was not to be. But at least this leaves us with something to look forward to next year!
If you’re in a hurry, the distance between Warsaw and Vilnius can be made in half a day.
We were anything but in a hurry to end our expedition, however, so we spent the next two days slowly driving around the post-glacial lakelands of North-East Poland, starting with the quiet and lonely Wigry – with its fortress-like Camaldolese monastery and still strong Lithuanian and Belarussian minorities – and ending in the Masuria, a string of lakes running in an almost straight north-south line from the border of Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast’.
These are tiny bodies of water compared to those we passed in Scandinavia, of course – entire Mazury would fit into one of the larger lakes of Finland or Sweden – but Poland’s most densely populated regions are but a stone’s throw away, and so the lakes are packed full of yachts, boats, marinas, campsites and small tourist resort towns. Historically, this is also a significant region, forming an age-old frontier between East and West; originally, it was inhabited by the Baltic tribes, close relatives to Lithuanians and Latvians, but wiped out centuries ago by Germanic conquistadors so thoroughly that nothing but a handful of place-names and reconstructed pagan rituals remains. After that, the region formed the easternmost boundary of Germany, expanding into, or defending from, Polish, Lithuanian and later Russian neighbours, until finally, the “East Prussia” fell to Poland, after another bout of ethnic cleansing and name-changing.
Centuries of wars left plenty of scars on the landscape – gothic castles, 19th century fortresses, Nazi bunkers – but luckily did not change the character of one of the finest regions of (now) Poland. The roads, now hurriedly fixed with EU money, wound lazily along the avenues of majestic oaks and maples, up the causeways, across the wild forests. The woods are filled with wild beasts and birds – even as rare as lynx and wolves. The birch-grown bogs, though miniature in size, sometimes resemble a more Nordic landscape, reminding us that we are still very much within the basin of the same sea.
We make the last stop at a marina in Ruciane-Nida; a shock of nostalgia: more than fifteen years ago, we (or at least half of us) used to sail from here with friends every summer. Surprisingly little has changed since then; even the yachts remain the same, except now everyone has an electric hook-up to charge their wi-fi-enabled gadgets.
Originally, we were supposed to fly through the Baltic States, stopping only in major cities; we changed our minds at the last moment, and it’s a decision we don’t regret. At a little over a thousand miles, and mere 9 days, this was still a short episode in the entire journey, but then these really are small countries, even on the European scale. That said, they proved surprisingly diverse, from landscapes to the ways in which their people chose to cope with the remnants of Soviet past. Incidentally, the people of the Baltics – when they make an effort – turned out to be among the most attractive in Europe, combining the best of the Nordic and Slavic features into one hot pile of gorgeous.
Nowhere in Europe have we been welcomed with such an enthusiasm and joy as in the Baltics. All the cheering, flashing, v-signs, thumbs-up, satan’s horns and general glee made us feel eventually as if we were carrying the dreams and hopes of the entire region on our backs. Just seeing the old VW putter along seemed to make everyone feel young and free again.
After 99 days and over 7000 miles, our Baltic odyssey is over: too soon; we ran out of money before we ran out of steam this year, and if we only could, we’d keep on driving.
To our surprise, the car fared brilliantly once we left London, though we deliberately ignored a few obvious signs of failure in the last weeks, hoping to reach Warsaw before anything serious breaks down. It remains to be seen how costly the repairs will be… The weather was the opposite of last year’s: dry and unbearably hot, though it certainly didn’t seem so at the start: in Norway we were still freezing under the snow-capped peaks of fjords. But the heat is better than cold, and we remain in far better shape than last October, and not just because the journey was a whole month shorter.
It was supposed to be a “Scandinavia trip”, but it turned out to be an expedition around the Baltics (with the exclusion of Poland’s coast, though we’re familiar enough with that part): we’ve even peeked briefly into Russia. We made a lot of the route up as we went along: we were never supposed to reach the Arcic Circle, or spend more than a couple of days in the Baltic States. But if I regret anything it’s that the journey was too short, and that we visited too few places. The Baltic is a fantastic sea, full of history and wild nature, and though its shores have once been awash in blood, these days it remains possibly the only sea in the world that you can still safely circumnavigate in an old, rickety Volkswagen van: a testament to the hard-won unity and prosperity of Europe.
Everything I said yesterday about odd familiarity with Lithuania’s countryside, is true tenfold when it comes to Vilnius.
I wouldn’t touch the national issues of our little corner of Europe with a barge pole: if it hasn’t been fully Balkanized yet, it’s only because we all usually have bigger problems (read: neighbours) on our heads than each other: trapped between Eastern (Russia and Turkey) and Western (various German kingdoms and/or Sweden) Empires, the Baltics, Poles, and Eastern Slavs have had a complex relationship ranging from forming a proto-EU to attempted mutual genocide.
The resulting stew found its expression in Vilnius, a once multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city, that defies nationalist description. A Polish city in Lithuania, a Lithuanian city in Poland, a Jewish city in Eastern Europe, it is many things to many people. It is, certainly, a grand old city, its Old Town comparable to those of Cracow and Prague in scale and value; it’s easy to get lost in the narrow, medieval streets for a whole day or two.
It being one of the hottest days yet, this northern city resembled Malaga far more than its parallel towns like Novosibirsk or Newcastle. At the beginning, we wandered mostly from one soft drinks kiosk to another, in the sort of vague daze that walking around a 30+ degree brick-and-cobblestone avenues in midday induces, noticing a lot of churches – of several religions – and fancy palaces of the nobles, all built in a variety of styles: gothic, renaissance, baroque…
Very peculiar is the cathedral-palace ensemble at the entrance to the Old Town, and quite unlike anything we’ve seen so far. The cathedral is not your typical gothic or baroque church, but a neo-classical colossus, resembling a great Roman temple. Next to it, a belfry rises on the foundations of an old wall tower, behind it – a Royal Palace, or the Lower Castle, freshly rebuilt from the 200-year-old ashes (so new it’s not even mentioned in our guide book), and still behind, a tall, conical hill, topped with a brick tower, remainder of the Upper Castle. Together, these represent hundreds of years of common history of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine (with bits of Latvia and Estonia thrown in). The fantasy-sounding names of the warlords, dukes and kings are etched in great letters into the walls and pedestals of monuments: Gediminas, Mendaugas, Kestutis, Vytautas, Jogaila…
A visit to the Vilnius University campus brought some well-needed respite from the heat; the campus is a fine compound of courtyards and arcades, well worth seeing even if you’re not interested in the any of the many famous alumni hailing from these walls. For the people of this region, however, this is where the cultural heart is beating: poets, writers, scientists, politicians and philosophers, Nobel prize winners, bards and leaders, have all studied here throughout the ages.
We meet with some friends who are passing through the city in opposite direction, and eat lunch in an unlikely Ayurveda vegan restaurant housed in atmospheric remains of a monastery turned into a yoga ashram, before heading for a very different part of the city: Uzupis, the district of squatters and artists, Vilnius’ answer to Christiania. Naturally, it’s as different from Christiania as Lithuania is from Denmark: it’s a chaotic, neglected jumble of old houses; the heat forced almost everyone inside, though, and the place feels half-abandoned.
We leave Vilnius and turn back towards Poland. We stay the night some 30 km west of the city, on the shores of Lake Galve, a sapphire gemstone dug by the glacier deep into emerald hills, the heart of Trakai National Park. From the “small beach” (this is how the receptionist called it) at our campsite – a once-opulent spa resort – we could clearly see the dazzling red brick towers of the Trakai Castle, our final destination in the Baltics.
Trakai is a tiny village with enough attractions to last for a busy day. It has not one but two great castles: one in ruin, the other splendidly renovated in Gothic brick, the seat of Lithuania’s most famous ruler, Vytautas almost king the Great. It has clear sandy lake beaches and marinas. And it has a significant population of the Karaites, one of the oddest religious and ethnic minority: Turkic followers of Judaism from Crimea. The Karaite houses are beautifully painted and their gardens well kept, making Trakai into the prettiest village in all the Baltic states; they also bake what looks like small Cornish pasties, called Kibin, an increasingly popular local fast food.
We have to take a small detour back through Kaunas, to pick up a cable we forgot the night before at the campsite, and then it’s back on the dreaded Via Baltica, dodging the crazy Lithuanian truckers, and into Poland.
One surprising thing we’ve learned during this short trip through the Baltic, is that, despite their tiny size and common history, the three countries are fairly easily distinguishable from each other. Estonia is wild and forested, Latvia is mostly rural and industrial; Lithuania, the largest of the three (though not by much) is also the most diverse.
It welcomes us with crowds of tourists: some 20km from the border we drive into the sea resort of Palanga, the “Amber capital” of the Baltic. Its beaches are bustling and over-crowded, and remain so for the entire length of the Lithuanian coast.
Amber is the most magical of gemstones, as anyone who’s ever held a piece of it in his hand must admit. It is a crystal of frozen time: not just because of the insects (and spiders; and plants; and small lizards, as we’ve learned) trapped within, but because it can sprout back to “life” – releasing the resin oils and acids when heated or treated chemically; it’s edible when melted, and, reputedly, has healing properties…
If it wasn’t for amber, Palanga would be barely worth a visit – there are small resort towns like this all over the Baltic. But amber is what makes it a must-see: the beaches of Lithuania are covered in the stuff, and Palangan artisans create literally tons of jewelry with it, from tiny earrings to massive necklaces. The stalls line the main pedestrian avenue, but if you want certified local craftwork, you should head for the gallery and workshop of the Palanga Guild of Amber Workers.
There is also, of course, a museum of amber in the city, housed in a lavish (and neglected) neo-renaissance palace of the Tyszkiewicz family. The palace itself stands in the midst of an attractive park, set upon the location of an ancient pagan temple, famous for the legend of priestess Birute, “the Mother of Dukes”. it’s deceptively small, until you discover there are more and more rooms filled with amber, from rare inclusions to great examples of masterly craft from the past, as well as artifacts from the days of amber trade – Roman coins and tools found in the area. It’s well worth the small admission fee.
Inspired, we head to one of the nearby beaches, in Karkle, to hunt for amber. We find a lot of what looks like it, though we can’t really be sure until we get home and check; the strongest candidates were surprisingly easy to spot: in the water, real amber glows like gold.
There is very little left of the old port city of Klaipeda/Memel (most of the places in the Baltics have at least two historical names) and it’s hard to see why the Germans had fought so hard to retake it before and during WW2 – though, of course, it’s that very fight which ensured that the “old town” now consists of a few cobbled streets. Still, it’s refreshingly different from other old towns in the region: whatever is left of it, has a very “Prussian” appearance.
We drive through Central Lithuania towards Vilnius – and this is where Lithuania’s landscape becomes the most diverse and unique. Despite the ravages of collectivization, the countryside remains idyllic and, at times, quite beautiful: soft rolling hills, deep and dark river valleys, fields of amber wheat and red poppies. The further away from motorway, the more rustic it becomes, until we suddenly find ourselves in a mysterious land of scythe-wielding peasants, horse-drawn wagons and buxom farm girls milking cows and goats out in the fields.
In a way, this is not surprising to us – indeed, it feels oddly familiar; this is because, through convoluted common history, Poles and Lithuanians share most of romantic literature, and so most of the poems we learned at school describe Lithuania’s “fair countryside” – which, it seems, changed little since the days of Mickiewicz and Slowacki. The combined effect can only be compared to an American, raised on Wordsworth and Coleridge, visiting England’s Lake District for the first time and seeing the daffodils in full bloom…
Sadly, as we approach Vilnius, the fields and forests gradually disappear, replaced by 70s pre-fab tower blocks, factories and power plants, which surround this ancient capital in a dense wreath of post-Soviet grimness.