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 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 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

Days 70-73 – The Monks of Earthsea

Ă…lands

Ă…land Islands

Between Sweden and Finland lie the Alands.

That, at least, is the way of putting things preferred by the natives. The islands are a highly autonomous region of tumultuous history, currently belonging, officially, to Finland – though for most of its history it was Swedish. The locals speak (often only) Swedish, the road signs are in Swedish, the architecture is Swedish. The only concession to the current owners are Finnish flags flying alongside those of Aland and Sweden.

That the Alands belong to Finland now is an accident of imperial history: they were briefly conquered by Russia in the 19th century, and when the Empire fell and was carved up, Finland took the islands with her. Because of the strategic value of the archipelago at the time, there are now far more traces of Russia on Alands than of Finland, scattered among the few places worth sight-seeing.

You can easily see all the main tourist attractions of the usual kind in half a day. Most of them are conveniently spread around one small area, the tallest and oldest (the continuous rising of the land means that you can usually tell the age of a place by how tall it is) part of the archipelago, in Sandvik and Sund. The largest of these – though easy to overlook even as you pass right through – is the old Russian fortress at Bomarsund; once a mighty rampart, it has been reduced by the British during the Crimean War to a pile of curious rubble. I say it’s easy to overlook, because the way it’s been built – using oddly shaped hexagonal blocks of stone – makes the ruins seem like an oversized crazy golf field, or a zoo. It’s only when we passed a row of cannons that we decided to stop and see what all the fuss is about.

The other set of things to see is in the nearby Kastelholm: a substantial castle, flying the Stag Banner of the Aland, and a small open-air museum of iron-red coated cottages, windmills (of which there are plenty everywhere) and barns. A few miles to the north-west from there, in the middle of a forest surrounding the archipelago’s tallest point, are scattered remains and reconstructions of a Stone Age hunter-gatherer settlement; the bark tents and the dugout boats look as if their owners had just left them to gather some more berries and mushrooms (the forests are bountiful in the summer).

It’s not surprising that the oldest human remains can be found on the tallest hill: the Alands rose from the Baltic mere 10,000 years ago, and keep rising, at the rate of half-an-inch a year. That means some of the reefs and islets scattered around the main islands may be no more than a century old. Seen from above, Aland reminds me of the map of Le Guin’s Earthsea, a vast, scattered archipelago linked with boats and ferries.

The capital Mariehamn is a tiny town, stretched between two harbours. Most of it is rather ugly, built up in the 60s and 70s, a typical seaside resort, with plenty of shopping galleries for the tourists and ordinary, old fashioned cafes and restaurants. It’s hiding one real gem, though – the back alleys of Lilla Torget, lined with old wooden houses on one side, and a pottery and glassblowing barn on the other; in midday, in the summer, the colorful glass playing on the vines and reflecting in the window panes makes a lovely sight.

Overlooking the eastern, busier harbour and marina, is the Alands Parliament building and garden – all neat lines, straight angles, and dazzling white surfaces. Over on the other side, in the western harbour, stands Pommern, a four-master 19th century merchantman, symbol of the town. Linking the two is a leafy, linden-tree-line avenue of old wooden villas. That pretty much expires the list of interesting things to do in the capital, unless you’re fond of visiting small museums and galleries.

Sightseeing historical and architectural landmarks, or strolling about Mariehamn, is not really what tourists flock to the Aland for in the summer – rather, it’s the birch forests, golden beaches, unusually warm sea, or uniquely flat and convenient hiking and biking trails; but for us the finest part of the Aland stay, and one that made it most worth the stop-over (you can simply go from Stockholm to Turku, bypassing the entire archipelago) came last: the slow, leisurely ferry ride between the eastern islands.

We headed for Kokar (or “Shocker”, as the locals pronounce it), a tiny islet south-east of the mainland; non-natives are forced to stay overnight if they want to use this route, but we didn’t mind. In fact, both Kokar, and the ferry ride itself, became one of the highlights of the entire trip. The sea was flat as glass, rippled only by gusts of wind, and the 6000 islets and rocks of the archipelago ensured that the view out the window remained interesting throughout. Kokar itself, though tiny and out of the way now, turned out to have a fascinating past: lying historically in the middle of the fastest route between Stockholm and Turku, it was an important Hansa outpost, manned by a community of Franciscan monks. The excavations, gathered in a ruined monastery chapel near the island’s main church, show that the monks enjoyed a life of relative luxury, dining on Flemish and Flanders plates of the same sort that we used to find while mudlarking in the Thames Estuary, brought in, no doubt, by the same Hansa tradesmen.

I haven’t yet mentioned the food of Aland, for which the islands are rightly famous: the sweet, dark bread, the apples and apple juice, the spring onions, the berries and mushrooms, and the Alandspankakka, a half-an-inch thick pancake served with cream and stewed fruit.

The ferry from Kokar to the mainland reaches a tiny port of Galtby, 70km from Turku. There are no campsites around it, and we reach it late at night – so hopefully we can find a spot at the nearby marina…

 

Kastelholm Castle

Kastelholm Castle

Waiting at the yacht crossing

Waiting at the yacht crossing

The triple flag compromise

The triple flag compromise

Days 67-68 – The Beautiful People

Stockholm

Stockholm

Among many dangers of a trip around Scandinavia, one thing we weren’t quite prepared for was… melting in a 30 degree heat. Luckily, Stockholm turned out to be just the city to be when it’s hot.

A public beach in Stockholm in the middle of the summer represents the pinnacle of human society’s progress towards equality. There are people of all possible skin colours and ethnicities here; young and old; tattooed goths and spandex-clad jocks; fit and disabled; gay and straight; post-chemo kids, teens in wheelchairs and muscle-bound bodybuilders; expecting mothers and pram-daddies; all sharing the water without anyone batting an eyelid, without getting in each other’s way, without the least problem. All gorgeous and free in the sun. A liberal’s dream, a conservative’s nightmare.

After this summer, Stockholm is definitely our second favourite city in Europe. It has most of what makes London great, without many of its drawbacks: the longest commute by T-Ban is half an hour, the crowds are manageable, the traffic leisurely, the canals clean enough to swim, and there are no giant phalluses of glass and steel looming over the city centre, reminding everyone who’s the real master. Unlike other Scandinavian capitals, it is big and old enough so that you don’t feel you’re really in a swollen, overgrown town; and unlike Copenhagen, a close second favourite, it’s not as sterile and perfectly organized. There’s a bit of an edge here, just enough chaos to make a city work. Of course, all this comes at a price: Stockholm is horrendously expensive for a non-native, and it’s not that easy to settle down here unless you’ve already got a job or a place at a school.

Everything is young, vibrant – in the real sense, not estate agent sense -, full of life, and beautiful here in the summer: the streets, the parks, the sea, the people. We had visited Stockholm a few years ago, and saw most of the sights and attractions, so this time we could just wander about Sodermalm – the city’s hippiest, most happening district – and the Old Town, and soak in the atmosphere.

We’ve discovered a few things about the city we didn’t yet know. Swimming on city beaches was one thing; that Stockholm has some of the best urban furniture in Europe: everywhere you go there are benches, trees, fountains, playgrounds, street sculpture; that in the summer it gets as hot here as in the Mediterranean. But the most surprising discovery is that Stockholm is a multi-level city. Its islands are hilly and full of massive rocky outcrops, crags and canyons, and the urban planners took great advantage of it. There are viaducts, bridges, low streets, high streets, stairs and ramps; usually, the pedestrians occupy the bottom, with the cars zooming above – sometimes there’s even a third separate layer in between for cyclists! As the result, there is a LOT more of Stockholm to walk about – and the city is not only perfect to walk or cycle around, but many people also kayak between the islands – than could be guessed just from looking at the map.

The whole northern side of Sodermalm, perched on the edge of a tall rock beyond the massive red-brick facade of the Munchen Brewery, is a stunning, perfectly preserved 18th century garden town – for my money, much more attractive than the tourist-filled Gamla Stan; in the summer it is drowning in flowers, plus it’s within walking distance of some of the finest cafes, bakeries and cheap eateries of Northern Europe, and bounded by a fine park to the west. If we could afford it, this is where we’d want to live for at least a few years…

Filled up on coffee, cinnamon buns, fried herring and positive vibe, we are now almost finished with Sweden – only one more day left – and make ready for the last stage of the journey: Finland!

Once a coal shute, now - air conditioning

Once a coal shute, now – air conditioning

Brilliant idea: floating benches

Brilliant idea: floating benches

Johan&Nystrom - One of the great cafes of Sodermalm

Johan&Nystrom – One of the great cafes of Sodermalm

Days 60-61 – Heat Wave

Blekinge

Blekinge

The antiquity of the Scania province is attested by the many ancient monuments scattered throughout, including two of Sweden’s greatest. We drive to the first of them in the morning, the simply named Ales Stenar – Ale’s Stones; grandiously nick-named “Sweden’s Stonehenge”, the monument is the largest representative of the “stone ship”: a set of standing stones placed, as you might have guessed, in the shape of a ship. These are nowhere near as old as most of Europe’s megaliths, and are rather a strange remnant from what must have been already by then ancient history: Ales Stenar are dated at 7th century AD, so they were set up somewhere between the Dark Age and the Age of Vikings; somewhere between the Anglo-Saxon and Viking burials in actual wooden ships, the Scanians decided to try building their burial ships out of stone.

The stones are set in a marvelous location, on the top of a fairly top, grassy cliff, from which you can easily see Bornholm’s jagged edges. This is another “artist land”, with clear light and splendid, far-reaching vistas. The local “capital” is in tiny Simrishamn, where we stop to treat ourselves to a pizza in a remarkable establishment: a genuine Moorish villa in the middle of a Swedish town. The genuineness comes from the owner having built the villa using authentic Mediterranean techniques, and then crafting an almost magical garden of southern trees (with real citrus fruits) and flowers around it. We’re now in the middle of a Scandinavian “heat wave” (temperatures reaching 22 C!) so the effect is even stronger: the moment you step through the gates of the Apotekarns, you are immediately transferred into the middle of a Mediterranean summer.

From Simrishamn, the road cuts through endless apple orchards, the pride of this region; the first and oldest of these is in Kivik, where we make a brief stop – passing by the second of Scania’s ancient treasures, the Bronze Age “King’s Grave” cairn, almost Egyptian both in its size and strange hieroglyphs adorning its walls. Kivik Apple Orchard is a major tourist attraction, with big shop and an exhibition orchard freely available for all; while it’s a treat to wander among the apple trees, with tiny fruit already blushing red and gold, we can only imagine how wonderful this place must be in April, when the trees are in bloom, or in August, when the apples are ripe for picking.

We leave Scania’s fertile plains and almost immediately we’re in another world. The first sight of Blekinge County goes a long way to answering my earlier question about Sweden’s population. It’s rocky, hilly, cut through with lakes and marshes; the fields are covered with stones and boulders brought in by the Ice Age, and without modern technology seems good enough only for growing potatoes and rye.

Pausing only briefly for a midday stroll in the Brunns Park in Ronneby – reputedly the prettiest park in all of Sweden – we reach the capital of the county, the glorious Karlskrona. Karlskrona is one of the strangest places we’ve yet visited. It is a tiny town – barely 30,000 people – and can be crossed from one end to another within minutes. But once you get inside, and lose sight of the sea which spreads all around it, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the middle of a vast city, on par with Helsinki or Stockholm. You enter a grand square, bordered by two cathedral-like churches; all the buildings and streets leading to and from it are city-sized. The scale of Karlskrona is impossible to grasp, and if it feels like a bit of a big city cut out and thrown onto a small island, that’s because it’s exactly that. The town was built from scratch on an empty field, and to a grand plan; it is a masterpiece of baroque urban planning, designed as the main base for Sweden’s once-mighty (and still quite substantial) navy. It is one of the best protected naval bases in the world – set on an island, surrounded by other islands and reefs, all of them fortified and impregnable; it almost rivals Scapa Flow. There are still navy ships stationed in Karlskrona, and the days of past glory can be witnessed on the museum-island of Stumholmen, to the east of the “city centre”, the only part of the town which hasn’t completely burned down at the end of the 18th century.

We are now staying mostly in marinas – they are much cheaper and nicer than “commercial” campsites; there are boats coming here from all over Northern Europe, though mostly, course, Germany.
Compared to the scarcity of wildlife in Britain, Sweden feels like Serengeti. Again, we can watch birds from the van: Sandwich Terns fighting over fish, an osprey flying out on a morning hunt; cranes, herons, red kites, even good old larks are all rare sights back home, but here they are easily within reach no matter where you go. On calm evenings we witness a feeding frenzy as hundreds of small fish come up to the surface catch insects. The water is boiling.

Staying in a marina

Staying in a marina

Ales Stenar Calendar

Ales Stenar Calendar

Ales Stenar

Ales Stenar

Day 59 – Pearl of the Baltic

Bornholm

Bornholm

It always seems strange that Bornholm belongs to the far-off Denmark, instead of Sweden the coast of which can be seen easily on a clear day from the northern shore of the island. The reasons are, as usual in Europe, historical: Scania, now the southern tip of Sweden, has always been Danish. After one of the lost wars, Denmark lost Scania but held on to Bornholm.

As the result of this conundrum – and the stubbornness of both countries in accepting Euro – we have to change money once again as we leave the ferry. But even without that, we’d know we’re back in Denmark.

We visit Bornholm on foot – taking the van would be far too expensive for the tiny place; the buses drive all around the island’s coast, which helps us see all its parts and sides. South-west corner, near Ronne, is fairly industrial and not very welcoming; as we near Nexo in the south-east corner, the thatched-roof cottages grow denser among the fields of wheat. An occasional windmill pops up on the horizon.

We stop at Nexo not because it’s a particularly beautiful town – it’s as featureless as Ronne, only smaller – but because we’re here to eat. Nexo boasts reputedly the finest smorrebrod in Denmark, one to beat the domination of Copenhagen’s luxurious “Smushi”. From the entry into the tiny Delikatessen Cafe by the harbour, we know we’re in the right place. The smell is unmistakable: the only other places that smell like this are the local ma-and-pa diners in small Japanese towns. It’s the smell of good, simple, homely food prepared from fine, fresh, local ingredients.

We each take one smorrebrod with the “usual” toppings – shrimps, and pickled herring – and one with Bornholm’s specialty, Sol over Gudhjem. Like all the best food in the world, the recipe is deceptively simple and relies on the ingredients: one raw yolk, some sea salt flakes, and one perfectly smoked local herring. It tastes divine.

Bornholm is the capital of Baltic smoked herring, and there are not only large smokeries in each town, but many private homes have smaller ones in their back gardens. The triangular smokery towers rise over Bornholm like pagodas of whiskey distilleries over Islay. As a result, the art of smoking has reached perfection. The Bornholm herring has little in common with the humble kipper, despite similar origins. It is the colour of red gold, the crispiness of hot ember, and the smell of freshly doused campfire. They call Bornholm “the pearl of the Baltic”, but it’s its fish that are the real jewels.

The largest smokery on the island – full five chimneys – (other smokeries make do with three or two) – is in Svaneke, on the north-east corner, and it’s from here that the villages start to look really Danish. The cobbled streets and timbered cottages, painted in the same calm ochres and cinnabars as in Skagen, are tooth-achingly sweet and nauseatingly charming; it’s difficult to find enough superlatives to describe the scenery through which the bus takes us. To bite through all that sweetness, the northern coast of Bornholm is much more rugged than in the mainland, all shattered rocks, reefs, and seaweed-covered boulders, with an occasional formation of standing stones left over from the ancient times.

The last corner of the island, north-west, has the most spectacular nature, rising in a tall, rocky, and densely wooded promontory over the sea. On this high tip rises the grand Hammershus Castle, the largest ruin in all of Scandinavia; the ruined towers and walls strike awe even today – it is comparable with some of the largest castles we’ve seen in Britain, which is highly unusual for a region where most fortresses and castles are, let’s be honest, pocket sized – and must have been even more imposing back in the day, when it was witness to long wars between kings of Denmark and archbishops of Scania over the supremacy of this small, but strategically-located island.

The last bus goes through a dark beech and birch forest, then passes some more charming villages before ending the circle back at the Ronne harbour, just in time for the ferry back to Ystad. While we were gone, the haze had risen from the town, a few more ships arrived at the harbour, and Ystad no longer looks as much like the crime scene as yesterday.

Delikatessen Cafe in Nexo

Delikatessen Cafe in Nexo