Day 97-99 – …and back again!

Mazowsze

Mazowsze

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.

Mazury

Mazury

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Day 95-96 – Amber Road

Lithuania

Lithuania

One surprising thing we’ve learned during this short trip through the Baltic, is that, despite their tiny size and common history, the three countries are fairly easily distinguishable from each other. Estonia is wild and forested, Latvia is mostly rural and industrial; Lithuania, the largest of the three (though not by much) is also the most diverse.

It welcomes us with crowds of tourists: some 20km from the border we drive into the sea resort of Palanga, the “Amber capital” of the Baltic. Its beaches are bustling and over-crowded, and remain so for the entire length of the Lithuanian coast.

Amber is the most magical of gemstones, as anyone who’s ever held a piece of it in his hand must admit. It is a crystal of frozen time: not just because of the insects (and spiders; and plants; and small lizards, as we’ve learned) trapped within, but because it can sprout back to “life” – releasing the resin oils and acids when heated or treated chemically; it’s edible when melted, and, reputedly, has healing properties…

If it wasn’t for amber, Palanga would be barely worth a visit – there are small resort towns like this all over the Baltic. But amber is what makes it a must-see: the beaches of Lithuania are covered in the stuff, and Palangan artisans create literally tons of jewelry with it, from tiny earrings to massive necklaces. The stalls line the main pedestrian avenue, but if you want certified local craftwork, you should head for the gallery and workshop of the Palanga Guild of Amber Workers.

There is also, of course, a museum of amber in the city, housed in a lavish (and neglected) neo-renaissance palace of the Tyszkiewicz family. The palace itself stands in the midst of an attractive park, set upon the location of an ancient pagan temple, famous for the legend of priestess Birute, “the Mother of Dukes”.  it’s deceptively small, until you discover there are more and more rooms filled with amber, from rare inclusions to great examples of masterly craft from the past, as well as artifacts from the days of amber trade – Roman coins and tools found in the area. It’s well worth the small admission fee.

Inspired, we head to one of the nearby beaches, in Karkle, to hunt for amber. We find a lot of what looks like it, though we can’t really be sure until we get home and check; the strongest candidates were surprisingly easy to spot: in the water, real amber glows like gold.

There is very little left of the old port city of Klaipeda/Memel (most of the places in the Baltics have at least two historical names) and it’s hard to see why the Germans had fought so hard to retake it before and during WW2 – though, of course, it’s that very fight which ensured that the “old town” now consists of a few cobbled streets. Still, it’s refreshingly different from other old towns in the region: whatever is left of it, has a very “Prussian” appearance.

We drive through Central Lithuania towards Vilnius – and this is where Lithuania’s landscape becomes the most diverse and unique. Despite the ravages of collectivization, the countryside remains idyllic and, at times, quite beautiful: soft rolling hills, deep and dark river valleys, fields of amber wheat and red poppies. The further away from motorway, the more rustic it becomes, until we suddenly find ourselves in a mysterious land of scythe-wielding peasants, horse-drawn wagons and buxom farm girls milking cows and goats out in the fields.

In a way, this is not surprising to us – indeed, it feels oddly familiar; this is because, through convoluted common history, Poles and Lithuanians share most of romantic literature, and so most of the poems we learned at school describe Lithuania’s “fair countryside” – which, it seems, changed little since the days of Mickiewicz and Slowacki. The combined effect can only be compared to an American, raised on Wordsworth and Coleridge, visiting England’s Lake District for the first time and seeing the daffodils in full bloom…

Sadly, as we approach Vilnius, the fields and forests gradually disappear, replaced by 70s pre-fab tower blocks, factories and power plants, which surround this ancient capital in a dense wreath of post-Soviet grimness.

Some of it HAS to be amber...

Some of it HAS to be amber…

Day 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 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

Days 38-39 – A Brand New Land

 

Hordaland

Hordaland

For the first time in some years, we are actually crossing into a European country we haven’t yet been to!

But first things first. Saving Denmark’s best for last, we spend the day before boarding the ferry in and around Skagen – Denmark’s northernmost, and possibly most beautiful (remember, always check our Flickr photostream to the right of this post), town.

There is an abundance of tourist attractions at the tip of this narrow peninsula. First is the Rabjerg Mile – a wandering dune, the only one left unperturbed in Denmark, both for tourists and scientists to ponder her marvels. Moving at neck-breaking 20m/year, it is a tiny stretch, but just large enough to find a place, near the top, where all you can see in all directions is an expanse of pure, golden sand. I put on the soundtrack from Lawrence of Arabia and feel for a moment as if we’re truly out in the desert.

From the top of the dune, we can see Denmark’s both seas: this is the true marvel of this region. More on this later.

Just before the town proper, we take another side-turn, to the Tilsandede Kirke – the Sand-Covered Church, swallowed by another wandering dune; only the tower remains, sticking out of the sand – the rest of the building is destroyed. The altar itself is still buried somewhere beneath the dunes.

Skagen is Denmark’s St. Ives, it’s little corner of Provence; in the late 19th century, when all of Europe’s hipsters were making themselves look like Van Gogh, and wandered the land in search of “Mediterranean light”, Scandinavian painters discovered Skagen and made it their base. The light here is indeed fantastic – helped by the warm oranges and reds of the houses, which are all painted in the same set of colours; the smell, however, isn’t. The Danes are far too practical people to let a good harbour like this go to waste, and set up a massive fish factory (Denmark’s largest, in fact) smack in the middle of the town.

Luckily, the smell disappears once you enter the narrow, cobbled streets in search of artistic inspiration, designer watches and houses of the locally famous artists such as the Ancher family. This place is possibly the farthest from the idea of “Scandinavia” yet, especially in the middle of the heat wave we’re having.

North of Skagen lies the Grenen – a long sandbar formed by the turbulent waters of Skagerrak and Kattegat, or, more broadly, Baltic and North Sea. It is a fairly inconspicuous feature nowadays, but one look on the massive queue of ships waiting for passage one way, and a row of consequently built lighthouses (beginning with Denmark’s eldest, in the shape of a lever light), betray its importance. The place has been famous for so long, it’s even mentioned by Pliny the Elder:

“Promenturium Cimbrorum excurrens in maria longe paeninsulam efficit quae Tastris appellatur”

In Europe’s maritime history, it is perhaps the third most important crossing, after Gibraltar and the English Channel. Just imagine: every single ship from the dawn of sailing to the building of the Kiel Canal that wanted to cross from or to Sweden, Finland, Russia, Baltic States, Poland and most of Germany, all the goods from their landlocked neighbours, all the furs, timbers, wheat, Hungarian wines and Lithuanian amber, had to cross past this tip at some point in its journey.

We make one last stop at the Skagen Odde Nature Centre: a building straight out of an architects’ journal, a gallery-cum-natural museum housed in a building designed by Jorn Utzon (of Sydney Opera fame) in literal middle of nowhere, out on the dunes. It looks fantastic from the outside, and inside the architecture shines through – but the exhibition itself is somewhat lacking; you come here to see the building, not what’s inside.

And then it’s off to Hirtshals harbour. Being us, we couldn’t possibly do everything right and on time: our van is about an inch too tall for the ticket we had bought. There’s no arguing: we need to pay the adjustment fee and get to the end of the waiting line.

We do get on board, eventually; the journey is calm, if somewhat sleepless (we skimped on comfort – Norway is expensive enough as it is) and in the morning we are awakened by the sight of NORWAY – on both sides of the ship (mainland on one side, countless narrow islands on the other).

Too tired to do anything else this day, we drive quickly past the wonders of Bergen to the nearest campsite. We pay an exorbitant fee for the night – welcome to Norway! – and try to go to sleep despite the fact that the sun doesn’t really seem to set that far north in June.

On that note, I don’t expect we’ll see much of the night sky this summer. Since our arrival in Denmark, we go to sleep and wake by daylight; the official sunsets in Denmark were well past 10pm – with the twilight extending past midnight – but Norway is even more ridiculous. With the sunrise at 4am, it simply doesn’t get dark up here.

A final, less enthusiastic note on Denmark and Danes: the country is beautiful and well worth visiting, but by God, they are among the rudest, most impolite people we’ve ever met. Now, as a seasoned traveller, I know that perceived rudeness often means simply different rules of politeness, (and that everyone thinks other people are either racist or rude) but in Denmark, that just doesn’t seem to be the case; one common rule I managed to pinpoint was “don’t acknowledge others – unless you’re customer service”. They have no knowledge of the rules of queuing, and they fail to respond to polite prompts. Their behaviour on the road is appalling – we’ve never been honked on so much as in Denmark! It’s almost as if in the uber-egalitarian Danish society politeness was considered an outdated superstition.

Outside Copenhagen it gets a bit better, and in the tourist resorts it returns somewhat to international norm, but the bad taste, unfortunately, does remain. Hopefully Norwegians prove a nicer lot.

Rabjerg Mile

Rabjerg Mile