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

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