Day 1-27 – The Wine Tour

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 Loot :)

The Loot 🙂

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!

Day 96-97 – Warlords and Poets

Lithuania

Lithuania

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.

Angel of Uzupis

Angel of Uzupis

Trakai

Trakai Castle

Day 95-96 – Amber Road

Lithuania

Lithuania

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.

Some of it HAS to be amber...

Some of it HAS to be amber…

Day 93-94 – Off-road

Latvia

Latvia

The border between Latvia and Estonia was one of the shortest, and shortest-lived in Europe’s history – some twenty-odd years between the countries’ independence and their accession to Schengen – but that didn’t stop the two nations from building a substantial, now-defunct concrete crossing point.

Even without it, however, we would guess we’re in Latvia now; this is more than a border between two small neighbours: this is a cultural, ethnic and economic boundary between the Nordic people and the closely related Baltics and Slavs to the South. Despite a shared recent history, and common friends and enemies, Latvia and Lithuania are very different and distinct from Estonia, much more so than we’d expected.

The quality of roads is the first marker of the new land – right from the border it becomes barely possible to drive; it gets better after some 20km, but never gets really good until we’re into Central Lithuania. It doesn’t help that our sat-nav fails to distinguish road types in Latvia, treating motorways the same as tractor-rutted gravel paths; we tend to end up off-road far too often for our liking, passing through empty quarters where the only living things are lazy cows sleeping under the trees – and storks, dozens of them. But even when we’re “on road”, on broad, main highways linking Riga with the coast, the paving can randomly disappear from our wheels. The EU money are hard at work fixing this sorry state of affairs, but there’s still a long way to go.

Latvia has been sovietised to a far greater extent than Estonia. The remnants of the collective farm buildings, centrally-planned factories and military facilities dot the landscape like so many medieval ruins. The land seems more densely populated, and developed, as well – more fields, small towns, canals; the road signs warn of deer rather than moose. The storks are now a constant feature of the landscape, at times the only birds for miles; we have been brought up thinking of these birds as completely normal in Poland, but now, after a few years away, they seem an odd sight, these distinctly African animals. We spot one fighting a snake on the side of the road: something more likely seen on a David Attenborough documentary rather than in Central Europe.

All the minor gripes about rural Latvia – and there are many – aside, its capital city is a true hidden gem of the Baltics. The Hanseatic Riga is definitely one of the finest of Central and Eastern Europe’s capitals, and even the years of Soviet occupation did little to mar its historic charm. Unlike Tallinn, it is a proper city – bigger than Manchester or Liverpool – and consisting of far more than just an old town and some suburbs. It’s a city of broad avenues and parks, of very decent coffee and good food; the old town area proper is vast, good enough for hours of slow wandering, if a bit run-down in places: the castle of the Knights of the Sword, for example, is yet to be renovated.

But it’s not the old town – not even the wedding-cake-like buildings of the Blackheads Guild – that’s Riga’s main attraction; rather, it’s the boulevards of the outer centre, lined with grand Art Nouveau buildings which miraculously survived the war, and are now among the best representatives of the style outside Paris and Vienna.

Though Riga itself is a sea port, those wishing to stay by the seaside must travel west, to the spa-resort of Jurmala. Back in its heyday, this must have been another hidden jewel of the Baltic, as can be clearly seen by the high number of romantic wooden villas from the interwar period: there are at least 10 miles of them along the main “prospekt” (avenue), hidden among the pine-grown dunes. The Soviets appreciated Jurmala in their own way, leaving behind enormous hotels, now abandoned, empty, and creepy.

But the creepiness of abandoned Jurmala is nothing compared to our next Latvian destination, Karosta on the western coast, a former Russian and Soviet naval base north of a quiet, industrial town of Liepaja. The tourist guides will tell you mostly about its prison, former KGB and Tsarist jail in which you can spend a night and request, at a fee, to have the Soviet prison conditions “reconstructed” for you (presumably, you can cross the border to Russia, break some of its laws and get the same experience for free…) – but, much more interestingly for us, Karosta was the port from which the Pacific Squadron set sail towards Japan to find its doom in the Battle of Tsushima, during the Russo-Japanese War.

As Russia’s, and later Soviet Union’s, main Baltic naval base, for decades Karosta was the most important war port in the region, and most secret. In Tsarist times it was apparently called “Little Petersburg”, and the traces of the old glory – grand church, lavish officers’ mess, etc. – can still be seen among the hectares of 1970s prefab apartment blocks. After the fall of the Soviet Union it was abandoned, and is now being slowly repopulated by adventurous Liepajans. Uncannily, Karosta has a popular, if eerie, beach, nestled between the fantastical remains of demolished fortifications, some of which rise from the sea like remnants of an ancient, submerged civilization.

The heat wave is turning into drought: it’s now constantly above 30 C, day and night; and as we sweat buckets, we begin to almost appreciate the strange, salty mineral waters sold in the Baltics; the “Soviet Vichy”, Borjomi Water, is yet palatable, once you get used to the taste, but the local specialty “Mangali no. 3” tastes too much like something you’d dreg from the bottom of the Baltic and does nothing to quench the thirst. An acquired taste, if there ever was any.

The coast south of Liepaja, once off-limits and pocked with military installations, is now as a result much less populated and wilder than across the border in Lithuania. So if you stop, like us, on one of the many campsites there, you will have access to a rare treat: a wide, golden Baltic beach that’s as good as any in the touristy resorts further south, but one that is nearly empty – and at times, completely empty – for miles each way.

(insert inspirational quote)

(insert inspirational quote)

Riga, House of Blackheads

Riga, House of Blackheads

Day 90-92 – Little Finland

Estonia

Estonia

From the outset, Estonia is trying its darnedest to convince you that you haven’t yet left Finland – just crossed, by ferry, to its southern, slightly poorer province. The visual language, the road markings, even the “beware the elk” sign, have been transported wholesale over the border, as had many Finnish brands – Hesburger, Fiskars, and that soft drink that looks like Vitamin Water but isn’t.

However, even as we drive out of the ferry – annoyingly, through a single-file gate, which means spending half an hour in line – we start noticing subtle differences that betray a post-communist country; these are mostly minor annoyances and irritations that we know too well from Poland, such as casual rudeness, asking for change, confusing traffic and turning all the minor tasks into needlessly troublesome quests. Finding a parking machine in Tallinn, for example, proves a major challenge. There seems to be one of these per each parking zone, usually hidden away somewhere in the corner – and the one that’s nearest to you may well turn out to be for the wrong parking zone. This kind of Kafka-ization of everyday life is typical for the post-Soviet zone, but luckily we are familiar with it and after initial shock we ease back into the slightly bumpy groove.

At least the coffee is good; Tallinn, like many Central European cities, used to boast a cafe culture before the war, and is now returning to the tradition – with a twist: the cafes are now a strange, incongruous mix of old, Viennese-style interiors, with modern, hipster menus, full of V60s and Aeropresses.

The suburb where we drink the coffee is leafy and full of lovely old wooden villas, and, like most of Tallinn, looks so much like certain parts of Warsaw and its suburbs that we struggle with an unending sense of deja-vu. Unfortunately, we are caught in a deafening thunder storm, so can’t wander around it for too long. When the sky clears a little, we head off towards the old town.

Tallinn’s old town is everything we expected it to be – pretty, colourful, gothic, and very, very compact. The whole city is tiny – less than half a million people in total – and from the top of the castle hill you can easily see it all. There are bits of the old town that are still in some disrepair and need of renovation, and bits that are already too overgrown with tourists, dining tables, umbrellas and signs, but overall, it is indeed one of the finest places of its kind in Europe – and the size means that you can take a very leisurely stroll down the narrow alleyways and still see all there is to see in just a few hours.

After the long queue at the ferry, parking adventures, and the long walk around the old town, we reach the designated campsite late in the evening. The campsites of Estonia – clean, woody, well organized – are possibly the most Scandinavian thing about this country, aspiring so desperately to be counted among the Nordics that it even considered changing its flag to include the Nordic Cross. We stay in Haapsalu, a small sea-side town sprawled around a needlessly large castle, again consisting of quaint wooden villas, only even more run-down.

We pass through an idyllic, rural landscape: golden fields, ready for harvest, flocks of storks following the tractors, dense northern forests; a ferry takes us to the larger of two Estonian islands, Saaremaa – or “Osilia”, as it was known in the history books I used to learn from. Judging by the brand names in Estonia’s supermarkets, this big piece of land – second largest in the Baltic, twice as big as the Isle of Man – is the country’s granary, much like Aland is for Finland (they even make similar, dark and sweet bread). It’s very sparsely populated, and filled with fields, bogs and forests, apart from the capital town of Kuressaare, another settlement grown around a huge castle. Saaremaa was one of the most fought-over bits of the Baltic coast, so the castle defending its shores is also among the most impressive ones.

We searched for somewhere to buy the famous local produce, and found a small kiosk just in front of the castle gates; a definite instant favourite were the fruit waters, made from diluted buckthorne, red currant and quince, with no sugar or sweetener – the most perfect thirst-quenchers this side of Pocari Sweat.

There are more reasons to visit Saaremaa, not least of which is its curious geology. Although due to the change in weather and poor roads we could not get to the Silurian cliffs on the western and northern coast, we did get to see its most unique attraction, the Kaali meteoric crater, a 100m wide hole in the ground (despite the passage of years, it sill remains distinctly crater-shaped), a remainder of the most spectacular, and most recent meteorite to have hit Europe’s mainland. It struck the earth with the power of two Hiroshima bombs, at some point between 700 BC and 2000 BC, and since the area was at the time already inhabited, the explosion had left a substantial impact in the sagas and legends of the North. The Finnish Kalevala describes it thusly:

Quick the heavens are burst asunder,
Quick the vault of Ukko opens,
Downward drops the wayward Fire-child,
Downward quick the red-ball rushes,
Shoots across the arch of heaven,
Hisses through the startled cloudlets,
Flashes through the troubled welkin,
Through nine starry vaults of ether.

We drive down to Parnu for our last stop in Estonia; it boasts being the second largest city in the western half of the country, but that doesn’t really mean anything – at 40,000 people, and rather run-down with age and neglect, it looks like any old county town in the east of Europe; there’s one nice street, lined with a mish-mash of old wooden and brick buildings, one round tower remaining of the city walls, and a leafy promenade running towards the beach, but you’ll find most locals hang around a spiffy new shopping mall housed in old harbour warehouse.

Just before the border of Latvia, we settle for the night on the coast of Baltic; this is a familiar sea now, very much like the Polish coast – sandy beach, pine forest covering low dunes, and a dazzling bright sunset.

Kaali Crater

Kaali Crater

Parnu Red Tower

Parnu Red Tower

Baltic Sunset

Baltic Sunset

Day 86-89 Melting Away

Helsinki

Helsinki

When it comes to travel and sightseeing, being scorched by the sun is better than being cold, wet, and blown away, but only marginally so – especially in a country which is so unused to that kind of weather. And of course, our car fares worse in anything but ideal conditions; the heat affects the mechanical and the electric systems just as badly as last year’s rains.

Still, mustn’t grumble! We plod on, stopping once in a while to cool down ourselves and the engine. One of these stops is in the town of Hamina – or Fredrikshamn, as the GPS insists, having suddenly switched to Swedish placenames. “Hamina” means simply “harbour” in Finnish, but the town is a former fortress rather than a cosy marina. Built on a spider-web’s grid, it’s refreshingly pretty, clean and organized after the chaos of Vyborg.

But the chief destination of the day is Porvoo, and it’s a fine day indeed to visit the riverside town. The old district, rebuilt after an 18th century fire,  is one of the most picturesque in all of Scandinavia, certainly the best in Finland; the famous line of bright red, tar-smelling warehouses, (one of them houses a coffee roastery, the rest are now antique galleries) is its highlight, but the cobbled, undulating streets beyond are just as worth a casual stroll, culminating in the cathedral hill (where Finland’s first parliament had gathered in the 19th century). There are still more signs of the nearly cult-like popularity of Alexander I, who lived in the town’s most prominent building, and more stories of fair Finnish maidens attracting his attention.

We reach Helsinki in the evening, and stay there for a few days with our family; we know the city all too well, so like in Tampere, there will be no sight-seeing this time. We don’t have energy for that, anyway. It’s now 30 degrees in the shade – of which there is little in a city which for most of its history was preoccupied with getting as much sun and warmth as possible, rather than vice-versa.

Of course, in a city as happening as Helsinki, even if you stay at home, the attractions will eventually come to you, and so the next day we are treated to a WRC rally under our very windows; for the Finns, rallying is a national summer sport (it’s ski jumping and hockey in winter), and massive crowds have gathered along the street course to see their heroes (for those who know anything about WRC: the event featured, among others, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen; for those not aware of the sport, that’s like coming to a charity basketball game with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird).

We are leaving Finland on a ferry to Tallinn, on a long return road to Warsaw. This has been the longest stage of this year’s journey – 1700 miles in 19 days; and possibly the best. We drove mostly through wild forests and bogs, and pretty wooden towns; we saw reindeer, elk, and some rare birds; we met some of the friendliest people of the North, and many like-minded travellers, like the Finnish-English couple, travelling in a reverse direction in a car nearly as old and battered as ours, or a woman hiking the length and breadth of Finland on her own. Even the stout, silent old men (and women) of the northern forest proved surprisingly friendly in the end.

There are some signs of economic decline, especially in the East: closed-down campsites, hotels and petrol stations. Not sure if it’s just temporary, due to lack of Russian tourists this year, or something a bit more ominous. We struggled against the heat and the mosquitoes (each night we had to make a decision whether we wanted to stew in the car with closed windows, or get eaten alive). But we will miss Finland, and we wish we could return to it some time soon.

 

Porvoo

Porvoo

At the WRC event

At the WRC event

Day 85 – White Walls, Red Square

Vyborg

Vyborg

Yes, we went to Russia! If just for a day, and only a few miles beyond the border, it’s an unexpected achievement on our journeys. It’s not easy to get into Russia without going through a lot of legal hoops or buying a package holidays; so when we heard you can hop over to Vyborg from Lappeenranta in a day without a visa, we jumped on the opportunity.

The stately old cruise ship leaves Lappeenranta before 8am on what may be one of the slowest modes of mechanized transport; it takes over 5 hours one-way along the 40km-long canal, built in the days of Russian Empire to link Lake Saimaa with the Baltic. It is now partly leased by Finland, and there are a number of tall locks to pass, which partly explains the slowness of passage. Luckily, there are just enough curious things to look out for along the way to make at least the first five hours not a total bore, from “floating islands”, through Mika Waaltari’s summer house, to “passport ladies” whose photos we were strictly forbidden to take. And then there’s of course the border itself, a line of white poles running across the water. This is the first time we cross EU’s border not on the plane.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this trip. Vyborg is a very old Finnish city (and the country’s second largest after Helsinki), but a very young Russian one, having only been occupied by Russia since the war. It was once prosperous, then ruined, then rebuilt again; I knew it had some precious historical buildings, both medieval and pre-war, and was hoping to see most of them. But mostly, I was just thrilled at visiting a completely new country, almost a new civilization.

It took us less than two hours to walk around Vyborg’s centre, past all the important buildings mentioned in the tourist guide – from the harbour to the Red Square (and the first Lenin monument we see since 1989), the Library and back; what we saw, once we ventured beyond the freshly painted Potemkin facades of the few tenements that can be seen from the harbour, was nothing short of devastating: literally. The historic Old Town looks as if the war had ended not 70 but 7 years ago; entire blocks are razed, and what’s left, has not seen a lick of paint in decades.

Other than the Vyborg Castle, which is still impressive and a worthy symbol of the city, the only other two buildings that are not in complete ruin are the two dazzling-white stalwarts of the 1930’s functionalism: Aalto’s Library and Ullberg’s Panzerlax Museum (now a branch of the Ermitage). They have been just recently brought back to their full glory, and, at least for the moment, make the entire journey easily worth the effort.

Alvar Aalto was, in the days of paper encyclopedias, probably the best known of all Finns, purely because of his surname, ensuring he was always the first biographical entry. He’s also Finland’s best known architect and designer, and the Vyborg Library was acclaimed as his best work. It is, indeed, a truly superb building, a cathedral of modernism and a temple of reading; too bad making photos inside is forbidden (“nye l’zya!”) unless you pay the hefty fee for a guided tour. Still, it’s great that it’s finally restored, as the state of the building until recently was one of Russia’s (and Putin’s) enduring shames.

The city park is vast, and for the most part well-kept, baring a few broken-down fountains. There’s a curious bronze statue of an elk, whose legs are rubbed to a shine. As we stop to make the photo, at least three groups of passing students pause to touch them: a curious display of lingering superstition in a post-communist country, similar to what we were witnessing in China’s taoist temples…

The rest of the city was not so lucky. The ruined quarters, we have learned, have been demolished just as the Library was being renovated, only a few years ago, by greedy developers. The surviving wall towers are devastated, as are all but one orthodox churches – turned into storehouses in Soviet times, and never again reopened. There is a massive complex of ruined buildings right in the very centre of Vyborg that’s surrounded by a tall fence, and has unknown name and purpose – judging by the shape, I’m guessing these are old tsarist military barracks, but I can’t be sure.

There is life, and commerce, within ruins, and glimpses of what this place could be – we stop at a surprisingly nice and cozy cafe to sip some local beer; but it feels as if this is how life was in Warsaw just after the war, with cafes and restaurants returning to a vanquished city. The market hall – built on the familiar 19th century red-brick pattern – offers a hint at Russia’s would-be might: its food stands offer produce from all over the world: watermelons from Caucasus, honey from Siberia, canned fish from the Baikal… the pickle stand, given a little make-over, could fit easily in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, and the cold gherkins – though grossly overpriced – are some of the best we’ve ever tasted, comparable with kyuri from Ohara – and just as good for the heat. But that makes the overall image even more sad: so much wasted potential…

Vyborg is supposedly changing for the better – the renovation of the Library and the new developing yacht harbour are the first signs – but it’s really hard to tell at a glance. With somewhat heavy heart, and our enthusiasm for visiting Russia again sadly diminished, we embark the cruise ship for the long trip back to Europe.

Vyborg Castle

Vyborg Castle

Old Vyborg - better than new

Old Vyborg – better than new

Day 82-84 – In the Land of Bards

Karelia

Karelia

After swimming in the Pielinen lake, I read a bit about it and discovered that it held a special place in the collective heart of the Finnish people, with the view from the nearby Koli hills lauded in song and art. Naturally, we went there, to one of the tiniest National Parks in the world – encompassing just one hill and its several summits; the view from above was indeed stunning: dark-blue lake, bound with green woods and studded with emerald islands; but it was rather spoiled by the myriad crowds of loud tourists who seemed more interested in shouting at each other than admiring the nature below.

The reindeer have long disappeared, but that didn’t mean an end to road hazards: we had to stop to let a female elk with two youths pass the road!

We were getting ever closer to the Russian border: historical Karelia spans the two countries, with most of the ancient villages stuck on the other side; the almost-border town of Ilomantsi is the cultural heart of what’s left in Finland. It has a large orthodox church in the centre, and on the outskirts, an attractive open-air museum of Karelian architecture and culture. The host ladies in the Bard House were playing the lovely Kantele, the Finnish harp, invented according to the Kalevala myth by Vainamoinen; and the restaurant offered authentic Karelian cuisine including made on-the-spot rice pies, which are ubiquitous on food markets throughout the country.

Another long and slow drive down a gravel road took us to a fine campsite in the middle of yet another National Park (Finland has 37 of them!). The road took us along what looked like a strangely winding man-made causeway or embankment, but was in fact quite the opposite, and one of the two reasons for the park’s existence (the other being the black-throated divers, whose cries echoed in the night as loud as car alarms). The eskers are natural ridges of silt and sand, created in the beds of under-ice rivers once floating under the glacier which crushed Finland 10,000 years ago.  There are pictures in the visitor centre which explain it more clearly.

Being so close to the hard-fought-for border, we pass a lot of war-time mementoes; there is a famous general’s hut in Ilomantsi, and renovated dugouts and trenches in Petkeljarvi. But this border has been fought over for centuries, starting with a conflict between Swedish colonizers and Novgorod merchants, and our next destination is a distant memory of that war: the mighty three-towered island fortress of Savonlinna. Naturally, this one is also a record-holder: the northernmost medieval fortress in Europe (it’s positioned some 50km north from its nearest contender, Haamenlinna).

Savonlinna was built to guard the narrow isthmus across the lake Saimaa; a lake so big and long, that after driving all day we reach another port on the same lake. Along the way we pass another esker, almost 10 km long in Punkaharju (we spend the night on an island on the lake), and the border town of Imatra, whose main claim to fame, apart from a suburban church designed by Alvar Aalto (of whom more tomorrow) is a waterfall, hemmed into a hydro power dam, which is released once a day in the evening; we can’t really wait that long, so we drive on, towards Lappeenranta.

It’s 30 degrees outside, and much, much more in the car; we barely have enough strength left to walk around Lappeenranta’s blazing-bright old town, hidden inside the ramparts of a 19th century Russian fortress, and reach the restaurant for dinner (it’s too hot to cook). The restaurant is set inside, and in the garden of, an old Russian merchant’s house. It’s rather swanky, and we treat ourselves to the most luxurious dinner of the entire trip, which consists mostly of fried fish straight from the lake. It tastes as awesome as it sounds.

We stay two nights on the motorway services in the suburbs; there’s no point paying for the campsite: we spend a whole day, from 6 am to 10 pm, on an exhausting and long trip, of which I will tell more in the next post.

Savonlinna

Savonlinna

View from Ukko-Koli

View from Ukko-Koli

Giant swing in Punkaharju

Giant swing in Punkaharju

Aalto's church in Ruokolahti

Aalto’s church in Imatra

Day 76-78 – Chasing the Sun

Lapland

Lapland

Due to Orca’s venerable age and less-than-stellar condition, one crucial factor that determines our route is the quality of roads and ease of driving. Uniquely in the North, Finland’s roads are all flat, straight, and (mostly) wide, so after some deliberation it became obvious the Finnish part of the trip will be by far the longest and furthest. Our target: the Arctic Circle.

We drove from Tampere due north, almost without stopping, before reaching the coast near Kokkola; the final 10 km to the campsite was our first – but sadly, not last – taste of the unsealed, gravel roads that link the motorways with the smaller settlements in the bogs and forests of northern and central Finland. The car survived it, driving at the brisk walking pace, but we ended up looking like a Camel Trophy vehicle rather than a stately old camper 🙂

The middle of Finland is a rough, post-glacial landscape, dense “timber factory” forests growing on rock-rubble; there isn’t much farming or pasture land to be found between the boulders and marshes, and what little there is, sustains only some oat. The settlements are tiny and far between, and it’s surprising to suddenly emerge, three hundred km later, onto the fairly densely populated coastal strip.

Historically, this is a Swedish-speaking country, which some of the inhabitants mark with yellow-on-red flags (similar to flag of Scania) on their houses. After our adventures in Northern Ireland last year, seeing flags segregating neighbourhood by language spoken brings back chilling memories, but luckily, the Scandinavians are too relaxed about their differences to turn them into anything violent.

There are populous towns all the way from Vaasa to Oulu and beyond, towards the Swedish border. Many of them are locally famed for their well-preserved timber old towns – Rauma being the largest of them; there is one in Kokkola, nicely set along a river, and we pause here to see one of the most unique sights in Europe. Everyone knows (or should know) about the Winter War, but here in Kokkola’s riverside park, was another, older proof of why you shouldn’t mess with the Finns: the only Royal Navy vessel still in foreign hands. Rather underwhelming up close – just a small, battered 9-men sloop hiding in a glass shed – this is a remainder of the Battle of Kokkola, when, during the Crimean War, a British invading flotilla was forced out of the harbour, with heavy casualties, by a handful of local militia supported by two ancient cannons.

Oulu is a large and rich city by Nordic standards, and holds a number of records, due to its northerly location; for one, it’s the northernmost 100k city outside Russia. Its oldest part, centred on a red brick market hall and marketplace, surrounded by timber warehouses, reminded us strongly of Hakodate: not surprising, really, as they both started out as trade outposts on the edges of Russian Empire. It’s the first – but by no means last – clear reminder of the vastness of Russia linking Finland and Japan together. Maybe that explains why we travel most to these two places…

We stop at a confusingly named town of Ii, just before Lappland, in an old campsite in the middle of another historical harbour village, Hamina, transformed into a living museum. The information plates mention the Tsar, Alexander I, struck by the beauty of “local girls”. We’ll later find out it’s a cliche common throughout Finland. Alexander I seems to be treated in Finland with no less celebrity than John Paul II in Poland; the only person mentioned more often in local histories is Mannerheim, the uber-marshall of the Winter War.

We cross the Lappland border the next day, and after a brief stop at the Kemi harbour – nice cafe in a red-paint warehouse overlooking the sea – we drive full steam towards Rovaniemi. The Arctic Circle crosses through the Santa Claus Village (you know, where Santa lives), a few miles north of the city, and this is where it’s easiest to make the crossing; as you can imagine, July is the lowest of low seasons for a Santa Claus-themed attraction, and the village is mercifully empty and quiet, comparably – there are still a few bus-loads of tourists, but nowhere near what this place is prepared to cater for.

We cross the marker, and drive for a few hundred meters more, to make sure Orca has actually visited “the Arctic”, before turning back and heading east. Everyone we spoke to before and after tells us that by not going further we missed out “the best part” of Finland, but in truth, we’ve already strained the car, the budget, and the timeline as much as was possible to get even this far – and it would still take a few days more to reach the true North.

It seems to be the National Day of Closed Campsites, as we approach Kuusamo. The first address on the map is missing entirely – we simply can’t find it anywhere; the second one, as the proprietor, a distinctly Tomte-like tiny old man in a blue Smurf hat explains, has “mumblemumbletoiletproblemmumble”. He gives us the address of another nearby place, on the shores of Samojarvi Lake near Ranua. This one looks empty and abandoned too, until the landlady comes out. She speaks little, and none of it in English (even though the place is advertised in the English brochure), sipping from time to time from a near-empty vodka bottle; but at least we are offered a place for half the usual price, with electric and something resembling a toilet. As the polar night “falls” around the lake – the sun never truly sets, and before twilight can come, the new dawn already begins – the buzzing mosquitoes and the haunting cries of the arctic loons lull us to uneasy sleep.

Royal Navy Gunboat in Kokkola

Royal Navy Gunboat in Kokkola

Arctic Circle

Arctic Circle

Polar Midnight

Polar Midnight

Day 74-75 – Bloodsuckers at Dawn

Tavastia

Tavastia

The ferry from Aland lands at the tiny, one-ship harbour of Galtby; this is still not proper Finland (or “Finland Proper”, as the region is known due to the fact that this is the home land of the original Finn tribe) but only one of a long line of islands connected by road with the region’s capital, Turku. We stay on the summit of a tall rock cliff overlooking the sea, and witness the most spectacular thunder storm unveiling above us. The colours are otherworldly: the sky is bright green, the lightning is pink and purple.

The islands are known simply as “Archipelago” – Skargard in Swedish – and it’s hard to find a definite border between them and Alands: the entire entry to the Bothnia Gulf is made up of thousands of these islets, skerries and islands. It takes two more ferries, a dozen bridges and causeways, and 70 km of road to reach the “continent”, just before Turku.

We have started what promises to be the most arduous and challenging bit of our journey, the long trek North, so we won’t be stopping that often in Finland. We rest briefly in Turku, getting some good coffee and taking a leisurely stroll along the Aura river, to the medieval cathedral and back. As far as I can tell, this is the nicest area of the city. The way Turku is laid out is mystifying: you’d think the three key points of a medieval town – the castle, the cathedral, and the market place – would all be near each other, but here they are miles apart; I assume the Swedes who built the city as the capital of their Finnish colonial endeavour, had good reasons. The Turku Cathedral, incidentally, is Finland’s oldest, one of the largest, and most important church, the seat of the country’s archbishop.

The south-west coast is, apart from the vicinity of Helsinki, the most attractive region of the country in terms of attractions. Not far from Turku, in a picturesque harbour town of Naantali, is Moomin World, a true mecca for the thousands of Japanese tourists pouring here straight from the Helsinki Airport; we get as close as you can without paying for tickets, but stop just short of spending 50 euro on entering the island-based theme park.

As we go north, between the calm, almost standing sea and the lakes, we slowly enter the Mosquito Country. Finnish bloodsuckers are massive, loud, and annoying – though they are also slow and easy to kill; but that is little consolation for one who’s awoken at dawn by the lawnmower-like buzzing of these dreadful insects.

There is now a sauna on every campsite and marina – there have been a few in Sweden, but not as regular. Some we can’t really use – they are big, and have to be rented per hour by groups; but some are open for all – either co-educational “swimsuit saunas” or gender separated nude ones – free, and opening out onto the cold waters of the sea.

We spend a bit more time in Rauma, a small town to the north; the entire Old Town of Rauma is a UNESCO property: six hundred wooden houses line its cobbled streets, unchanged since 18th century; the Old Rauma is surrounded on all sides by the new town, a rather terrible jumble of flats and office blocks that looks like a provincial Eastern European village, and you really have to know of the jewel hiding among all this to be able to find it.

Just east of Rauma we stop in the middle of the forest, to search for, you guessed it, some stones. Sammallahdenmaki is another UNESCO-inscribed attraction, a set of massive Bronze Age burial cairns; two of them are nearly 20 meters long. Though looking mostly like piles of stones, they are impressive in size and age, a unique site in all of Scandinavia.

By the end of the day we reach our good friends in Tampere; we don’t visit the city itself, as we’ve been here before and there isn’t that much to see here for the second time – though if you’re ever passing by, by all means stop for a stroll along Finlayson factory district and the Tammerkoski rapids. Similarly to Norrkoping, Tampere is a city founded on its textile factories, and is also known as a “Manchester” of its country; and just like Norrkoping, it’s now transformed into a thriving high-tech and university hub.

We spend this night in real beds, for the first time in 75 days 🙂

Sammallahdenmaki

Sammallahdenmaki

Rauma

Rauma