“The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.”
This is a thought I was having back in London for a long time, but our travels have pretty much confirmed it, and it is that, fifteen centuries after the fall of Rome, five centuries after the Renaissance, northern Italy – and, to an extent, France – still radiates its culture throughout the Western world. Only this time, it’s not about art or philosophy or science, but things that are more subtle – though in the archaeological record, centuries from now, may prove to be the most dominant.
For what is a modern hipster – or a 60’s mod, or a 1800s dandy – if not a wannabe “Continental”? Italy and France don’t need hipsters – they are hip, and always have been. When the archaeologists dig up the ruins of central London or New York, what will they find? Vespas and espresso machines; shoes from Milan and artisan pizza stoves from Naples. It will be as if Rome had never fallen. The “fads” of drinking good coffee and eating good food, that the press likes to write so disparagingly about, are no fads south of the Channel, but a way of life: and even if London one day goes back to its pickled eggs and potted prawns and builder’s teas, Italy and France will remain cool, well fed and handsomely-dressed forever, a ready source of inspiration for another wave of “Continentalism” to strike the Anglo-Saxon shores.
This journey was not supposed to happen – the trip to Scandinavia was supposed to be our only one this year; but we felt that one finished too fast: there was still plenty of summer left, and once we rested for a few days, the wanderlust awakened anew. So we scrapped what little money we had left, patched the car up for one final journey, and departed Warsaw in the beginning of September, in a south-easterly direction.
This was a different trip than others: shorter, faster, more intense, and focused less on sight-seeing, and more on relaxing and – naturally, in this part of Europe – drinking wine. It couldn’t have been any other way, since our route took us through Alsace, Rhone, Provence, Veneto and beyond, in the middle of the grape harvest season.
Surprisingly, we tasted our first local wine already the next day, in Prague. This was our first time in Prague, and the city is definitely not overhyped – in late summer, it is one of the finest cities we’ve ever visited (and that’s saying something!).
To save money, we avoided motorways wherever possible, except Germany where they were free – that way we could also see plenty of surrounding countryside along the way. In Germany we stopped at Nuremberg; what’s left of its old town after the war is well worth seeing, especially if you have time to sit down with a large beer on the steps leading to the castle.
Heading towards the Mediterannean, we stopped at Strasbourg, Besancon and Vienne, before arriving into the magnificent Papal City of Avignon: another highlight of the journey. The following couple of days, between Avignon and the marshes of Camargue, were, in hindsight, the best of the entire trip – the weather was perfect, the pace of the journey most leisurely, and the wines, in the southern Cotes du Rhone region, the tastiest. However, the marshland of Provence was also where the plague of this trip started.
If the bane of last year’s British expedition were the gale-force winds, and the heat wave made the Baltic trip at times unbearable, this Mediterranean journey was marred by insects: flies and mosquitoes, some of them of the more tropical variety. And of all three, this plague proved the most annoying and exhausting, ridding us of sleep on worst nights. Nothing we were able to muster could stop those beasts from leaving our bodies pock-marked with bites in the morning.
This inconvenience aside, we moved slowly along the Mediterranean, with stops at the beach resorts in Cassis, Hyeres and St Tropez. Once again, travelling in a campervan proved to be the best solution by far (mosquitoes apart) – I don’t see how else we could get a spot 150m from St Tropez’s famous Pampelonne Beach, on a weekend, without booking, for 20 euro for two people!
Nice, which I was really hoping to see next, turned out to be a disappointment – not because it wasn’t nice, but because it was unsuitable for visiting in a campervan. There were no campsites on the outskirts of the city, and not a single parking space for a car our size (all parking slots were underground). That day was our greatest challenge; from crowded, narrow-laned Nice we trundled on to Monaco’s even more crowded, and narrower streets, and then, in search of a campsite, to a small border town of Menton.
The Menton campsite – the only one for miles – is on top of a mountain, in an olive grove. We were at the bottom. At the end of this tiring day, we had to drive up a series of hairpin bends, where we discovered that a 40-year old campervan can drift 🙂
The campsite in Genoa was luckily much easier to access, and we could spend the next day strolling through the city which turned out our favourite of the entire trip. Genoa is an archetypal Italian city, with narrow canyons of tall renaissance tenements, rugged, dirty and smelling of urine and garbage, but somehow oozing a fantastic charm; the Via di Canneto il Lungo, a small, narrow alleyway on the old town, filled with fishmongers, greengrocers and small trattorias, has risen to the top of our favourite food streets in the world, just after Nishiki-koji!
Emilia-Romagna region, which we drove through next, may be the industrial and agricultural heart of Italy – but it’s well off the tourist path, and for a reason; there are only two campsites between Piacenza and Bologna, both of them rather terrible and over-priced. It’s an ugly region, and worth passing only if you’re a fan of Italian cuisine – or cars, as Modena is not only the centre of balsamic vinegar making (we took a tour of one of the private villas where it is being made) but also the seat of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Masseratti. The renaissance-rich cities along the way – Piacenza, Parma, Reggio – are also worth a detour, but we drove straight into Bologna, to see the oldest university in Europe; the old walls are still awe-inspiring, even before you remember the names that strolled the grand piazza, from Dante to Copernicus.
There’s an easily accessible campsite at the bottom of the San Marino mountain, so naturally we stopped there, too – and got another flag on the “virtual sticker board”! The next day we were back at sea again – but this time, it was the Adriatic. Here, the autumn was already in full, with the haze and the wind and the rain-storms which wreaked havoc with our electrics. The sea-side resorts were dead – the season ended a few days earlier; only one campsite out of five was open, but that didn’t matter – we had the entire coast to ourselves 🙂
Veneto is marshland again, so we were back to fighting mosquitoes. A long day in Ravenna, where we saw all there was to be seen in the city – every single mosaic and ancient church – and off we went towards Venice, with a stop-over in a “miniature Venice” of Chioggia, and its immense fishing fleet.
Venice, like Strasbourg and Vienna, was a city we knew well, so again we just strolled its streets from an ice-cream stall to a pizzeria, soaking in the atmosphere rather than the sights. Venice was also where we took a fateful decision of cutting our journey short. Originally, we were supposed to continue hugging the Adriatic coast, through Trieste, to Rijeka, possibly beyond, and then back across Hungary. But it was not to be. We had reached the end – of our strength, of our money, of the weather – not in Italy, but we knew it was getting cold in the north – and of the car, which began to develop minor technical faults one after another. With a heavy heart, we decided to go back, the shortest possible way, through Vienna.
We did make one detour, into Budapest, to finish the wine tour in style and at least bring a crate of the finest Hungarian wines, if we couldn’t travel across the country. Racing the frosts (the temperature in Austria went down to 3 degrees at night) and the exhaustion, we drove through Slovakia in one go, and reached Warsaw, a week earlier than we had originally planned, but not a day too soon.
The trip took us 27 days, and 5000 kilometres. Altogether, we drove nearly 30000 kilometres since we departed from London last June. The car passed through 21 countries (and several autonomous territories); we reached the Arctic Circle and the Mediterranean, we drove across the Alps (reaching 1100 metres on the Austrian passes) and through marshland, and spanned all of Europe between Ireland’s coast and Finland’s eastern border. The deep south of the continent is still a virgin territory for us and the car – we failed to make it to Spain, Sicily or Greece – if we had a month more, we’d have done it, but it was not to be. But at least this leaves us with something to look forward to next year!
If you’re in a hurry, the distance between Warsaw and Vilnius can be made in half a day.
We were anything but in a hurry to end our expedition, however, so we spent the next two days slowly driving around the post-glacial lakelands of North-East Poland, starting with the quiet and lonely Wigry – with its fortress-like Camaldolese monastery and still strong Lithuanian and Belarussian minorities – and ending in the Masuria, a string of lakes running in an almost straight north-south line from the border of Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast’.
These are tiny bodies of water compared to those we passed in Scandinavia, of course – entire Mazury would fit into one of the larger lakes of Finland or Sweden – but Poland’s most densely populated regions are but a stone’s throw away, and so the lakes are packed full of yachts, boats, marinas, campsites and small tourist resort towns. Historically, this is also a significant region, forming an age-old frontier between East and West; originally, it was inhabited by the Baltic tribes, close relatives to Lithuanians and Latvians, but wiped out centuries ago by Germanic conquistadors so thoroughly that nothing but a handful of place-names and reconstructed pagan rituals remains. After that, the region formed the easternmost boundary of Germany, expanding into, or defending from, Polish, Lithuanian and later Russian neighbours, until finally, the “East Prussia” fell to Poland, after another bout of ethnic cleansing and name-changing.
Centuries of wars left plenty of scars on the landscape – gothic castles, 19th century fortresses, Nazi bunkers – but luckily did not change the character of one of the finest regions of (now) Poland. The roads, now hurriedly fixed with EU money, wound lazily along the avenues of majestic oaks and maples, up the causeways, across the wild forests. The woods are filled with wild beasts and birds – even as rare as lynx and wolves. The birch-grown bogs, though miniature in size, sometimes resemble a more Nordic landscape, reminding us that we are still very much within the basin of the same sea.
We make the last stop at a marina in Ruciane-Nida; a shock of nostalgia: more than fifteen years ago, we (or at least half of us) used to sail from here with friends every summer. Surprisingly little has changed since then; even the yachts remain the same, except now everyone has an electric hook-up to charge their wi-fi-enabled gadgets.
Originally, we were supposed to fly through the Baltic States, stopping only in major cities; we changed our minds at the last moment, and it’s a decision we don’t regret. At a little over a thousand miles, and mere 9 days, this was still a short episode in the entire journey, but then these really are small countries, even on the European scale. That said, they proved surprisingly diverse, from landscapes to the ways in which their people chose to cope with the remnants of Soviet past. Incidentally, the people of the Baltics – when they make an effort – turned out to be among the most attractive in Europe, combining the best of the Nordic and Slavic features into one hot pile of gorgeous.
Nowhere in Europe have we been welcomed with such an enthusiasm and joy as in the Baltics. All the cheering, flashing, v-signs, thumbs-up, satan’s horns and general glee made us feel eventually as if we were carrying the dreams and hopes of the entire region on our backs. Just seeing the old VW putter along seemed to make everyone feel young and free again.
After 99 days and over 7000 miles, our Baltic odyssey is over: too soon; we ran out of money before we ran out of steam this year, and if we only could, we’d keep on driving.
To our surprise, the car fared brilliantly once we left London, though we deliberately ignored a few obvious signs of failure in the last weeks, hoping to reach Warsaw before anything serious breaks down. It remains to be seen how costly the repairs will be… The weather was the opposite of last year’s: dry and unbearably hot, though it certainly didn’t seem so at the start: in Norway we were still freezing under the snow-capped peaks of fjords. But the heat is better than cold, and we remain in far better shape than last October, and not just because the journey was a whole month shorter.
It was supposed to be a “Scandinavia trip”, but it turned out to be an expedition around the Baltics (with the exclusion of Poland’s coast, though we’re familiar enough with that part): we’ve even peeked briefly into Russia. We made a lot of the route up as we went along: we were never supposed to reach the Arcic Circle, or spend more than a couple of days in the Baltic States. But if I regret anything it’s that the journey was too short, and that we visited too few places. The Baltic is a fantastic sea, full of history and wild nature, and though its shores have once been awash in blood, these days it remains possibly the only sea in the world that you can still safely circumnavigate in an old, rickety Volkswagen van: a testament to the hard-won unity and prosperity of Europe.
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.
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.
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.
As we approached the campsite last night, we passed a sign pointing even deeper into the forest, towards “Japanitalo“. With our limited Finnish knowledge we already knew this is not something like a dealership of Japanese and Italian cars, but a “Japanese House”. This, naturally, piqued our curiosity. This part of Finland already looked a lot like rural Japan, complete with half-abandoned accommodations run by single elderly people… so we drove another few miles down an unsealed road. The house was closed that day, but from the outside it looked indeed very Japanese, surrounded by a soothing garden in several styles, with zen stones and a trickling stream. A brochure we found later explained that this was, in fact, the northernmost Japanese house in the world, and the northernmost place to experience Japanese culture like tea ceremony or Zen meditation.
Being this near Arctic, we’ve passed a lot of these “northernmost” places, including the northernmost pottery factory and a novelty coffee cup museum in Posio. We turned right just before Kuusamo, to visit Ruka. Finland being mostly very, very flat, it is not as keen on winter sports as its neighbours (except jumping), so any “mountain” (Rukatunturi is less than 500m tall) is turned into a massive ski resort.
As we were leaving the Japanese house, we were stumped by an appearance of a strange deer-like animal on the road. It vanished before we could tell what it was, but pretty soon, as we approached Kuusamo, we stumbled on another one, and then still more – there was now no doubt: these were reindeer. We were in reindeer pastures; all animals had tagged collars, and were not in the least bit perturbed by the cars which had to stop to let them pass. By the time we left the pasture area, we’ve seen dozens of reindeer, and the novelty wore off, replaced by the worry that our brakes might one time prove not up to the job…
After a night at another nearly-empty lakeside camping, we entered Karelia – the land of Finnish bards, poems and songs, Finland’s most celebrated area. The landscape changed little – the woods grew a little wilder, the marshes a little boggier; but the houses grew a lot prettier, decorated with intricate details in painted wood. In Kuhmo, we stopped to visit the Kalevala centre: a modern building constructed using old Karelian methods. Kalevala is Finland’s national myth, an epic tale comparable with Illiad and Odyssey, painstakingly gathered in 19th century from songs sung by old bards in Karelian villages hidden in the deep woods.
Far from abating, the heat wave is rising, so we stop for the night simply on the beach in Nurmes, spending the rest of the day in the cool (though not very) waters of the beautiful Lake Pielinen. We began to make use of the electricity poles which in Finland stand on virtually every parking; we were yet to discover their true intended use, but they served well to power our tiny fridge, struggling valiantly with the heat.
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.
We follow the steep shores of the narrow Iddefjord due south for a while, skimming the Swedish border. The land is densely wooded and sparsely populated; we finally saw an elk – and a couple of deer, fallow and red, as we speed through the forest.
The border – over which so many battles had been fought in the past – is marked with a small sign; the first difference is the price of petrol, no longer eye-wateringly high. The border, insignificant these days, was of course non-existant in ancient past, before either Norway or Sweden existed; and so the ancient rock-carvers crossed freely from Norway to Sweden. The Swedish rock paintings, focused around the hamlet of Tanum, are greater and more impressive than the ones in the north – so much so that they are inscribed into the UNESCO. The stone canvases are massive – 20 metres in one place – and filled with vivid images, not just of hundreds of ships and oarsmen, but with oxen, women worshipping the sun, and even a small whale in the corner of one. It’s not just a comic strip, it’s an entire graphic novel written in stone.
From ancient history, to modern. The industrial hub of Trollhattan, rising along a network of canals, sluices and waterfalls, produced of old train engines, hydroelectric turbines, and other heavy machinery, but most importantly of all, it is – or rather was – the headquarters of SAAB Automobiles. The SAAB museum, though small in size, is a must-see for any fan of the cult brand, as it traces the entire history of rise and fall of one of the most innovative automobile companies, and boasts both the very first and the very LAST SAAB every produced in the Trollhattan factory; as well as a number of models in between, including many custom, one-off and prototype ones.
From Trollhattan we went to camp on the nearby shores of Lake Vanern, the greatest body of fresh water in Europe outside of Russia; though we can’t really appreciate it from the narrow inlet that the campsite is on, our eyes reaching only as far as the horizon on one side, and a tall cliff on the other.
Sweden, from the view of the car speeding down the highway, is vast, flat and empty – though the population statistics bely that image; most people live along a narrow strip of coastline, so narrow that the settlements can hardly be spotted from the road. Other than the fact that most of the interior is taken by two huge lakes, it’s hard to see why the country would be so sparsely populated. It certainly seems fertile, as the motorway cuts through miles upon miles of corn fields and orchards – and still more barrow mounds.
Two out of three largest cities of Sweden fit into this narrow strip of populated land, and, passing a massive Bodehus fortress (formerly Norwegian, when the border extended all the way here) across the river, we enter the first of these on Day 2 – Gothenburg, the City of Goths. We are in the land of Goths now, the Gotaland, from which according to a legend these warrior people have supposedly come from. It’s a brief stop at Gothenburg, for coffee and cake – following the Swedish custom of “fika” – but it’s enough to capture the mood of the place, young and vibrant; it feels much more like a city than the much greater Oslo, perhaps because it is more compact. The city centre is on an island made of moat-like canals and river outlets surrounding a tall hill, but we take our “fika” outside of it, in the charming district of old timbered houses called, after the Dutch settlers who lived here, Haga.
The third day passes uneventful as we ride through Halland. Halland is the province infamously – and uniquely – avoided and sneered at by the geese flying with Nils Holgersson in the “Wonderful Adventures” novel. The birds saw nothing of interest here, and frankly, neither do we, although the road-signs point us towards a number of towns and castles, no doubt very picturesque. We stop for a “fika” at an old chocolatier in Halmstad, the river-side capital of the province. The town is small but curiously laid out; there are remnants of old town, especially a very lively main street lined with cafe gardens, leading to a small square over which looms a town hall; there’s a small red “castle”; and there are a few half-timbered tenements strewn along the river and further down the road. But it’s all checkered with modern buildings, some nice, some ugly; coming from a country which has suffered so badly during the war, I dismiss it naturally as filling the scars left over some battle, until I remember that Sweden stayed neutral through both World Wars, and the damage done to the old city tissue was done by the city planners rather than bombs.