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…

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Day 79-81 – The Reindeer Lands

Karelia

Karelia

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.

OMG it's a Reindeer!

OMG it’s a Reindeer!

Posio Coffee Cup Museum

Posio Coffee Cup Museum

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 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

 

Days 34-37 – Songs from the Past

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North Jutland

From Copenhagen we head on in a zig-zagging fashion across Zealand and Jutland, from sea to sea. It’s a route filled with Denmark’s history. We start with Helsinborg, or – as the English speaking world knows it, Elsinore. “Hamlet’s Castle” is actually Castle Kronborg, a mighty fortress guarding the narrowest passage through the Danish Straits – the connection between Baltic and Atlantic is no bigger than a large river, with Sweden seemingly a stone’s throw away.

We speed on to Roskilde, to the first Viking site on our way: the Viking Ship Museum, holding not only remains of five different vikings ships (built all over the Viking world – from Ireland to Norway – and then deposited at the mouth of Roskilde fjord as blockade) but also their accurate, working reconstructions and a small “viking village”. The temporary exhibition at the museum is worth the ticket alone, an inspiring true story of three 9th century travelers, whose interlocking paths trace the early Medieval globalisation, and an emerging common market ranging from Suzhou in China to Lofoten in Norway and beyond.

A ferry takes us to Aarhus; a fairly big city (by Scandinavian standards) and pretty-looking, which we pass by, not wanting this trip to be all just about sightseeing cities. Our destination for the night is Danish Lakeland – not terribly impressive as lake districts go, a couple of small ponds and a few 100m tall hills. But like everything else in Denmark, it’s compact, convenient and very pretty – and very crowded on (yet another! Do Danes ever work?) bank holiday weekend.

Continuing the north-westerly zig towards Vorupor – a small fishing village lost among the North Sea dunes, and the farthest point from Copenhagen on mainland Denmark – we pass through barrow mound country. There are more barrow mounds in Jutland than we’ve seen anywhere in England; small clusters, big clusters, tall, low, single person burials, group burials… the mounds are perhaps the most common and distinct feature of this otherwise featureless, flat landscape, apart from the Tuscany-reminding white-washed church towers. It’s as if, for the lack of natural hills, the ancient Danes decided they would more than enough of their own.

Vorupor is in Thy, a region (and a national park) we’re now familiar with as the one whence the best Danish dairy comes from. Indeed, we pass herds of healthy-looking cows roaming freely on salty marshland – which no doubt gives their milk the distinct flavour. Thy coast is wind-swept, desolate, full of small fishing boats and Germans. Always flocking together, the Germans chose Vorupor and its neighbouring villages as their favourite spot on Denmark’s coast, and we get by with out smattering of German far better than with English.

The Danes, uniquely, can choose two seas to holiday on – Baltic and Atlantic – and so do we; our north-easterly zag from Vorupor passes by the bird-watcher’s paradise of Limfjord. We stop at a random hide, chosen because of its thatched roof; it’s right on the highway, between two lakes, and we don’t expect to see much other than Greylag Geese that come here to breed. Spotting a couple of avocets is reward enough (we haven’t seen even one all last year), but then a flock of what we dismissed as egrets turns out to be… EIGHT spoonbills.

You’d have to be a UK birdwatcher to understand the flutter of our hearts. We’ve seen ONE in all our years in UK, an accidental tourist in the Norfolk marshes. Here there were eight of them, wading unperturbed no more than a hundred meters from the edge of a busy motorway. Really, life’s too good for the Danes.

We pass two more remnants of the past Viking glories as we approach the eastern coast: the largest of Harald Bluetooth‘s round forts (Ring Castles) at Aggersborg, and an immense burial ground of Lindholm Hoje, near Aalborg, where for nearly 600 years men were buried in ship-shape stone graves. The remains track the line of Limfjord’s natural canal, linking the two seas: these were important waters in Viking days, allowing the ships to pass safely from Baltic to Atlantic and beyond.

We reach the eastern coast near Fredrikshavn, for our last night in Denmark. The beach here is formed of debris and detritus thrown across the straits from both seas. Half of it is golden sand, half – heaps of tiny, crushed seashells, foot-deep. Walking on it barefoot is the oddest sensation.

There’s one more stop to make tomorrow before we board the overnight ferry to Norway – but that’s for another post.

Seashell Beach

Seashell Beach

lindholm

Lindholm Hoje

vorupor

Vorupor Beach

kronborg

Kronborg Castle

Day 117 – The Last Night

Kent

Kent

 

One final stage left of our great circle – the road from London to Folkestone. One last day on the English coast. We’re almost back to where we started, four months ago – in Kent.

In early October t’s looking a lot more the “Orchard of England” than it did back in June. The orchards are heaving with ripe fruit, the woods glimmer gold and amber in the sun. The weather is dreamy, warm but not hot, the air is clear and fresh. England is wearing her best to bid us farewell.

If it’s Kent and sea, it must be Whitstable; we used to visit here once in a while, as it’s a rather lovely little town (possibly the finest within commute reach) and easy to get to from London, and the shingle beach is nice too, in low tide.

We haven’t been here for a few years, though, and we’re in for a surprise: the town looks better than it ever did. The fishing harbour is cleaned up and full of activity; some of the typical black-paint fishermen huts and warehouses are rented out for accommodation, some host an art and crafts market, some house bars and restaurant – but most importantly, many are still  in proper use, by the owners of a fleet of tiny fishing crafts crowding the busy harbour, This is not one of those dead, fake fishermen communities that can be seen in other parts of the coast.

It’s October, which means it’s the middle of oyster season, and Whitstable oysters are among the best in the world; we pass by a tiny black hut, which looks like a former smokehouse, just by the sea wall, surrounded by crowds of customers; this is the unlikely headquarters of the Whitstable Oyster Company. The sea wall itself is the bar of this establishment, and we sit there, enjoying expertly shucked native oysters, local organic ale, and listen to one of the employees explaining the business to a couple of impressable Americans.

The oysters of Whiststable – now protected by the PGI designation (unlike their northern brethren in Colchester, across the bay) grow uniquely big, old, and tasty; we learn that it’s due to the amount of calcium in the water – we are surrounded by chalk downs, and the Thames brings its share of nutrients and minerals into the mix. The oysters grow on beds that are built by hand from recycled shells – heaps of which lie all around the harbour in this high season. The resulting produce is – as we could have tasted – a delicate, almost sweet morsel of brine and muscle. Flash-frozen alive, the oysters are sent all over the world, including – where else – Japan.

Since we’ve been to Whitstable so many times, it may seem surprising that we’ve never been to nearby Canterbury. Well, now’s our chance. We don’t know much about the town – apart from its history as the cradle of English Christianity, of course – but we are agreed on one thing: no more cathedrals. Luckily, to even enter the gardens of Augustine’s cathedral it’s £9 per person, so we are glad to get by with just casting a glance at its famous towers through the gate.

The old town surrounding it, however, was more than enough to occupy us for the remainder of the afternoon. It turned out to be one of the prettiest old towns we’ve seen, comparable with that of Chester, with buildings from 15th and 16th century still in modern use; Canterbury may just have the most impressive Nero Cafe and Pret-a-Manger in England, both behind ancient, wood-carved facades.

Canterbury looks like a place worth spending a whole day in, and I regret a little we haven’t visited here before; beyond the old town walls there are even more ancient ruins, of the Abbey, established by St Augustine himself, and a Norman castle – begun as one of the first in England, even before William reached London after Hastings. But the true gems are within the finely preserved walls, on the pilgrim road just off the West Gate (itself a massive construction, the largest city gate in England): a 12th century Pilgrim Hospital, open to public, and the Weavers’ Houses along the River Stour. The Weavers were the Huguenots, escaping from France in 16th century, and the district they inhabit looks like carried over directly from a small town in Alsace, somewhere around Strasbourg: dainty black-and-white timber houses facing the canal, festooned with ivy and flowers.

The whole place has a cosmopolitan flavour; Kent, separated from the rest of Europe only by the narrowest of straits, has always prided itself on Continental connections – even Caesar writes about its good relationships with Gaul – and it remains the most Continental-looking part of England, not least because all the cafes and restaurants in Canterbury are either French or Belgian. We leave the city and head for Dover and Folkestone, with one small but important stop in the middle of the marshes near Sandwich. Here, visited only by rabbits and pheasants, stands a mighty Roman wall of a Saxon Shore fortress of Rutupiae; today’s Richborough.

We started this journey from another such fort, at Pevensey; that was a place where William the Conqueror had landed in 1066. We end the journey at Richborough: the site of an equally important landing, that of Emperor Claudius’s troops in 43 AD. This is where Britain’s written history begins (excluding Caesar’s little adventure, which also may have begun around Dean/Sandwich coast); this is the first Roman-built settlement, and for many years the chief port of Britannia (until overshadowed by Dover). The local oysters which we had so eagerly eaten, where known in Rome as Richborough Oysters, and favoured as an incomparable delicacy.

The site is, unfortunately, closed on Tuesdays, but it’s enough that we are here to see it, from beyond a wire fence; where all had started, we finish. What would the Roman soldiers have said about our journey? What would William’s knights? It took us four months to get to Ultima Thule of their geographers – Shetlands – and back; we didn’t have to fight any barbarian tribes along the way, although we did have to brace the same cold winds and rains that they would have on the journey north. We’ve been to the Hadrian’s Wall, and to the Legionnary fortresses of Caerleon and Chester; two thousand years have passed, and the walls still stand, and the names of the Emperors, generals and even common centurions still ring familiar in our ears. The Romans, the Saxons, the Normans, are all here to stay.

We drive through Dover, its gigantic castle casting a dark shadow in the setting sun; from a National Trust car park we climb half-way down the white cliffs – quite possibly the most famous cliffs in the world – towards the ferry harbour; we’ve never seen anywhere as busy as this. A never-ending snake of countless HGVs pours forth from the ferries, which pass each other in the narrow entrance without stopping. Easily a third of the trucks bear Polish signs and names; they had made the same long journey as we are about to endure – the final stage of the long holiday, getting back to Warsaw for winter. We’re talking it slowly – the journey that could be done in a day will take us about a week; but then that’s the most we can safely squeeze out of ourselves and the car. Brussels, Cologne, Hannover, Berlin… this is just a taste of what we hope to see next year. But that’s a long-term plan. For now, the short-term plan is: get to Folkestone in the morning and board the Chunnel shuttle…

It’s night now; the last night in Great Britain. The campsite is a fine one, in a gorge carved into the snow-white chalk cliffs; it overlooks the sea, and we can hear the waves churning against the shore below; the ships in the Channel glint and glimmer, and still further on the unseen horizon, the light of a French lighthouse peeps occasionally through low clouds. It’s warm and dry, and quiet, and the smell of sea lingers in the air. Somehow, at the very end, everything is just as it should be.

Day 101 – Summer’s End

Lothian

Lothian

The summer went out with a bang, offering us on its last day something we hadn’t dreamed of happening ever again on this trip: a warm, sunny day out on the beach, eating gelati.

It’s hard to tell at first what St. Andrews is more famous for: as home of golf, or as Scotland’s oldest, and the English speaking world’s third oldest university. But once you get into the town itself, it becomes pretty obvious: this is a town of students far more than the town of golfers. After all, golfers only visit here – the students are here to stay.

In the bright, amber light of the last summer sun, St Andrews is an exceptionally beautiful town; the South Street – linking the University grounds with the cathedral grounds – takes an air of a Provencal town, a bit Arles, a bit Aix-en-Provence; the cast iron gates, the pastel walls and the narrow passages with paint peeling off remind us unexpectedly of Warsaw Old Town; but most of all, St Andrews resembles Oxford – not in architecture as much as the atmosphere.

The town has its share of historical ruins – the ruined cathedral, with relics of Scotland’s patron, once the greatest in all of Scotland, now sprawls over an entire district to the east of town centre, almost as big as the ruin of Glastonbury, with a vast cemetary set on a downward hill which, in a strange way, resembles the streets around Kiyomizu in Kyoto; and the castle, a picturesque shell on a promontory, not unlike the Dunnottar from the day before. As if all of the above wasn’t enough, St Andrews is blessed with two wide, golden beaches within walking distance from the town centre; the North Sea is warmer than we expect, and we wade its waters barefoot, maybe for the last time this year – definitely the last time this summer.

And like a scene from Harry Potter (written just some 30 miles away, after all) a gaggle of students climbs the sea wall, all dressed in sumptuous red gowns; the students of St Andrews are expected to wear these wherever they go (except St Mary’s College, who wear black gowns); it does not half increase the magic of the town, and the deep scarlet of the outfit works wonderfully against the turquoise sky. Once again, I feel like I’m on a movie set.

There’s just one last thing we need to try before leaving St Andrews – the ice cream; “world famous” is much bandied about when it comes to ice cream in Britain, for some reason (not what you’d normally think of English ice cream), but the Jannettas parlour in St Andrews might just be the only one deserving the praise, considering the numbers of foreign tourists passing through South Street. It certainly is a big one, and an old one – four generations of Italian gelati makers are shown on the walls – and it has plenty of flavours, but nothing exactly breath-taking; the green tea is disappointingly sweet.

It’s a weird place, St Andrews. It’s one of the prettiest towns in Scotland, if not in Britain, but we’re quite sure we couldn’t move here: it would remind us too much of other places we’d rather be.

This being the day of the equinox, we are setting off in search of an appropriate stone circle; it would be a great shame if, having visited so many of them in the past months, we’d miss out on a stone circle visit during one of the four most important days in their builders’ calendar.

There is one easily accessible stone circle in Fife, part of a larger landscape near Glenrothes (the one in Fife, not in Speyside), with the rest of it hidden in the nearby forests; there’s not much of it left – just two stones, a henge and some wooden post markings – but the setting makes the journey all worth it. It’s the only stone circle that I know of that has a modern housing estate built around it. With tightly packed bungalows all around the circle, the locals – celebrating the equinox in their own special way, by blasting reggae out of the windows – have a unique claim to fame: their village green is at least 6000 years old!

From the centre of the circle, we hail the departing summer sun, and get back into the van. There’s just one more place we need to visit today, before crossing the Forth; and it ties in neatly with what we had seen a few weeks ago, on the other side of Scotland.

The sanctuary of Iona had been Scotland’s first royal mausoleum, and it had served many generations of the Pictish kings, who died one after another in fighting the Viking invaders; but after it was finally taken over, a need for a new mausoleum arose: and the choice was the Dunfermline Abbey.

With royal patronage, the abbey grew immensely; several Scottish kings were either buried in its crypt, or born in an adjacent palace. These days it’s mostly another vast ruin, having been abandoned and largely dismantled after the reformation. The abbey church itself remained, a fine and grand example of romanesque architecture – the column patterns similar to those of the Durham munster – and its most important burial is now prominently displayed in its centre, with a new brass plaque (and a sign carved in stone at the top of the church tower, pointing to it) – that of Robert the Bruce, that most famous of Scottish kings.

It’s a fine stroll around the abbey grounds, in that last of summer afternoons, with trees in the park turning gold and red; the horse chestnut trees grow crimson and deep pink, something we managed to forget about – it seems the chestnut-eating insect plague had not yet reached that far North. On our way back to the car we pass the Carnegie Museum, set in a cottage where the great 19th century philanthropist was born; we only enter it to make use of the toilet, but the people inside insist on us taking a short tour of the place. We try our politest to leave.

There are two ways to get across the Firth of Forth, both have their drawbacks; going through Queensferry means missing out on Falkirk Wheel; going through Falkirk means missing out on the Forth Bridge. With our van on its last wheels, we must choose the shorter way, and are treated to the magnificent view of the latter, the iconic rust red structure gleaming in the evening sun. As we enter Lothian, the last summer sunset falls beyond the Uplands.

IMG_0684

St. Andrews

Balfarg Henge

Balfarg Henge

Dunfermline Abbey

Dunfermline Abbey


Linwater Caravan Park is a surprising gem of a campsite; the location is its only fault – it’s set rather randomly in the middle of a non-descript field. But everything else is top notch; it’s small and well laid out (none of that “showers here, toilets half a mile away” nonsense), the facilities are modern and squeaky clean, with glassed-through hot showers, and the landlady has enough enthusiasm to spare for four campsites this size.
And despite being some 10 miles away from the centre of Edinburgh, it’s a fairly bargain £18 with hookup.

Day 91 – The Jarls and the Lairds

Shetland

Shetland

They say first impressions are the most important – but in case of Shetland, Day Two changed our perception of the place completely.

With the weather improved – I’m not saying “good”, but at least we could see beyond the nearest bend – and us moving to a more densely populated south of the Mainland, we soon discovered the pretty and interesting side of Shetland.

The small town of Scalloway lies on the shore opposite to the current capital of Lerwick; it used to be the capital itself, some centuries ago, and it is here that the infamous laird Patrick Stewart (no relation) had built his prominent castle. The Scottish lairds, and then British landlords feature in Shetland’s history very much as villains, persecuting the native Norse settlers, destroying their livelihoods and removing them from the land.

Despite ridding the islands of their native Norn language, the endeavour was, I’m happy to report, not entirely successful. Today still, the Shetlanders have 60% Viking blood, the Scalloway Castle is a grim, tall ruin, and the town is surrounded by the red and blue wooden houses which scream “Here is Norway” from afar. While the old rural houses are built on the Highland pattern – grey stone walls with two chimneys on opposite gables – all the new builds are of the Scandinavian sort.

There’s little to see and do in Scalloway these days; unlike many of these “second towns”, it never outgrew its fall, and is now merely a few, surprisingly green and colourful, streets wide; its main claim to fame, other than the castle, is its role in World War II as the headquarters of the Shetland Bus – a Norwegian Resistance operation utilizing small fishing boats to maintain contact with Britain: smuggling spies and refugees between Allied and Occupied parts of Europe.

The road takes us further south, towards Shetland’s main set of archaeological wonders; not far from Sandwick we spot the ferry to Mousa, and decide to have a look. Now, Mousa is a tiny island with several important features, and normally we’d hop over, but the timetable of the only boat going there and back was terribly unfavourable. It would have meant spending three hours on the island, which may have made sense in the middle of a summer heatwave, but it was really not something we were looking forward to in the cold September, even with Scotland’s best preserved Broch and the largest population of Storm Petrels to look out for. You can see the broch from the land, anyway.

We did spend a few more minutes in Sandwick and surroundings, searching for a mysterious Visitor Centre (of what, we never learned), but found instead a small bakery selling traditional beremeal (flour from an ancient Scottish/Viking variety of barley) bannocks (flat breads). The rural shops of Shetland are a whole separate story to tell: from the outside, they are often grim, bleak, with paint peeling off; in other parts of Britain, their stock would consist of some potatoes and farming implements. Here, they are situated somewhere between Sainsbury and Waitrose. Certainly, it seems the locals are not lacking in oil cash.

A short detour to make a photo of St Ninian’s Isle and its spectacular moving sand spit later, we arrive at the very edge of Shetland, the Sumburgh Head. Not having too much of flat space to share, Shetlands make do remarkably with what they have; the main road north-south crosses the runway of the Sumburgh Airport at a railway-style level crossing. It’s a surreal experience, having to wait in queue for a turbo-prop airliner to land or start before moving on. (In a similarly surreal experience the next day, we’ll have our breakfast interrupted by a Coastguard helicopter landing right above our heads in the middle of the campsite).

Just off the airport, the first Iron Age site stretches along the road: the Old Scatness, a Pictish village of roundhouses and brochs; sadly, it’s as yet inaccessible to the public other than via appointed groups – the excavations are still going on. But that’s still not why we’re here.

Yet a mile further south, a ruin of a 16th century manor house rises tall on a wind-swept seaside plain. It is now called fancifully, The Jarlshof, although it used to be known simply as “The Old House”. The low mound upon which it rises remained just that – a low grassy knoll – until a fateful stormy night in late 19th century, which revealed part of the extensive ruins underneath.

The excavations lasted decades and proved that the site had been continuously occupied since Bronze Age until the demise of the manor, four thousand years later. In an inspired move, the excavators decided to leave successive layers of settlement visible, like a peeled onion or a slice of cake, for the future generations of students, rather than simply going straight for the oldest one. The result is a remarkable lesson in history of Shetlands, and all of Scotland.

An audio guide takes the visitor, in a rough spiral, from the oldest, simplest, smallest Bronze Age hut, through a large, many-chambered smithy, then an Iron Age broch with extensive courtyard, a cluster of later wheel houses, some scattered Pictish remains, and finally, the main settlement, a complete village of Viking longhouses that lasted and was expanded upon – with additions such as the grain kiln and mill, and a sauna – for five centuries, until the arrival of the Scottish lairds, who had built the manor and a garden; the final stage of the site’s history (before the archaelogists came) was its use as an overspill cemetery of a nearby church – thus the living finally gave way to the dead.

Of all the buildings in Jarlshof, the two wheelhouses are the most impressive; the best known examples of their kind, their sophisticated layout inspires even today: a hearth and kitchen in the middle of a circular wall, with spokes dividing the interior into cozy rooms, to this day perfectly protected from COLD AND RRAIN (as the audio guide said) even without the roof. Make it a bit bigger, and add modern plumbing, and it wouldn’t feel out of place in Grand Designs.

Scalloway

Scalloway

Sumburgh Airport's barrier

Sumburgh Airport’s barrier

Jarlshof

Jarlshof

 

 

 


There are campsites which have their own swimming pools; but the Clickimin is a swimming pool with a campsite attached.

The Clickimin Leisure Centre is the largest one of several such establishments in Shetlands; a charitable trust makes sure every inhabitant has access to a full range of indoor activities. The one in Lerwick has the addition of a small, well laid-out campsite; the campers even get a concession at the centre, which we soon made good use of, spending the next two hours at the pool and in the adjacent saunas and turkish baths. What a difference it made from the night before, on a lonely pub car park!

The Clickimin campsite has more unique features; as far as I know, it’s the only site overlooking an Iron Age broch, and the only one adjacent to a working helipad. Sadly, it seems we were one of the last campers to use it, as the council – which runs the site – decided to close it down in October to make place for a school, a decision not wholly understood even by the locals, as it will mean ridding the Shetland capital of any camping sites for the near future.

Day 83 – If Rocks Could Talk

Starting mileage: 22452
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 18:00

Sutherland

Sutherland

We are now going through the most remote part of British mainland. A region with population of 1 person per square kilometre – and that only confined to the coastal areas; a region so far away from anywhere else, that the nearest people to give it a name lived on Orkneys; Sutherland: the land of the South.

We weren’t sure what exactly it is you do in Sutherland, other than drive through it to get to Orkney ferries. Turns out, you watch rocks – which, as you probably could tell by now, is perfectly fine with us. This part of Scotland is dedicated to geology – and its history – and is covered by a vast geopark, stretching from Ullapool in the south, to beyond Durness in the north.

A neatly presented visitor centre at the Knockan Crag explains the story behind the geopark, and the importance of the rock formations within. It was through researching the strata here that Victorian scientists proved once and for all that the continent foundations move, collide, and had once been one. From the centre you can climb up the cliff to see where the two layers of rock 500-million years apart meet each other, in the special way which made the geologists first scratch their heads: the older one is right on top of the younger. This is the Moine Thrust Belt, the first thrust fault – a place where the order of rock layers is reversed due to tectonic plate movement – ever discovered.

The landscape of Sutherland came from a meeting of two major geological forces: the upheavals of the archaic past, which raised the incredibly old rocks from the bottoms of the oceans, and the icebergs of the ice age, which tore deep canyons through them; the resulting mountains rise straight up from the bottoms of the deep carved valleys like chimney stacks. The Norse legend says that this is where the Gods came to learn how to make mountains, and judging by the results their early efforts must have been confined mostly to making giant sand castles and piling boulders on top of each other.

We are headed north, towards the seaside village of Scourie – more precisely, to a beach on its outskirts. We are searching for the oldest rocks in Britain – and one of the oldest in the world; the Lewisian Gneiss – at 3 billions years of age, not much younger than the Earth itself – outcrops here in scattered boulders, a beautifully striped and veined through with red and pink granite. There are more rocks here on the beach – including silvery quartzite which forms the cores of the mountains here and makes them look from a distance like giant piles of anthracite, and marble-white chert, which due to its flint-like qualities was used to start fires by the Stone Age inhabitants of this inhospitable land. There’s also a staggering multitude of sea shells of all shapes, sizes and colours, and an RSPB booth from which to hide and observe the wading birds which swarm the beach in calm weather.

The thin veins of red granite and black basalt striking through the gneiss boulders on Scourie is just a small taste of what’s still before us: the Laxford Bridge and the northern approach to it, cut right through the rock outcrop, leaving open the mighty canvas on which nature painted its expressionist masterpiece. Here the veins of igneous rock thrust through the gneiss backdrop show clearly how Earth is very much a living thing: the invading granites and dolerites spread through the older rock like wildfire, except on a scale of hundreds of millions of years. It’s a humbling experience to stand in front of this nature’s painting, which is still being created – at a leisurely pace of fingernail’s growth per year.

As the trunk road trundles on towards the deepest north, the ubiquitous white-on-brown signs point to the sides, to settlements that the highway bypasses. On each is listed a number of amenities provided in each village – “food”, boasts one, “b&b, pub, phone, post office”, lists another. “Fuel” is missing on most of them: lack of competition drives the price of petrol to heights unheard of further south – 157p per litre is what one of the stations charges.

In the parish of Assynt a ruined remnant of a tower over a loch attracts our attention, before a mighty gabled wall looms out from behind a turn. This is “historic Assynt”, as the sign board calls it, a group of buildings from various ages of local history, preserved by chance in one place. The tower is one of the northernmost castles on the mainland, and the gabled walls are what’s left of a grand house built by the laird for his wife who didn’t appreciate the lake-side location (and presumably the accompanying midges). There’s also a ruined mill and kiln of the sort we’ve seen on Hebrides, and a few other things which we didn’t explore further as the wind and rain of the previous days were finally beginning to catch on to us.

We drive around Kyle of Durness hoping to outrun descending mist – one of the several fjord-like inlets of the Atlantic along this coast – and as we enter the village, a bright orange sign points us to something we certainly weren’t expecting, but are very glad to see in this cold and damp place: a chocolate factory! Needless to say, if our tires could screech that’s what they would do.

It turns out the Cocoa Mountain is not even the most surprising thing we find in this remotest of villages; it’s merely one of some twenty craft and art establishments in what looks like a set of darb military barracks on the very edge of the world: and indeed, that’s what it is. The Balnakeil Craft Village, to give the place its full name, started out as a nuclear attack watch station in the 1950’s. Decomissioned a decade later, in an initiative called “Project Far North” it was taken over by a community of artists, craftsmen and all around hippie types, and thanks to the foresight of the local council, it remained so to this day. This is probably the closest we’ve yet seen to a succesful Christiania-style venture in Britain, although the hardest “drug” you can find here is a cup of delicious hot mocha, and a stunning example of what a bunch of creative people can do if they are only given some land, a few empty walls (the buildings had originally no plumbing or electricity) and peace of doing what they want.

Sutherland

Sutherland

Laxford Bridge rocks - 3000 millions years old

Laxford Bridge rocks – 3000 millions years old

Balnakeil Craft Village

Balnakeil Craft Village


The Sango Sands campsite is another of the string of perfect little gems strewn along this cold, wind-swept coast. With a golden beach on either side, and a view all the way towards Orkneys in good weather, the location is as good as you may wish for. Two sets of utility blocks provide each camper with close access to facilities, including campers kitchen in which to hide from the omnipresent wind.

The wind is back, by the way, and with a vengeance; that means another night of anxious sleep. I do wish for it to go away one day…

Day 77 – All Hell’s Bellows

Starting mileage: 21962 km
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 20:00

Outer Hebrides

Outer Hebrides

The last time we had sailed three hours in rough waters was on the way to Scilly Isles; we are now directly north of those islands – nearly 600 miles north, to be exact. This time, there will be no last-minute miraculous clearing of the skies, and no sub-tropical paradise awaits us on the other side. If anything, the weather gets even worse.

The Southern Isles – Uists and Barra – are so tiny, so flat and so far out in the Atlantic, that the only difference between dry land and sea is that the ground does not roll as much. The shipping forecast is the only reliable weather information in these parts – and there are gale warnings for the next few days, with gusts of up to 8 Degrees. It is the kind of wind in which you can hear the baying of the hounds of the Wild Hunt, and the kind of rain normally reserved for the monsoon season of Asia. It may well be the worst weather we’ve seen not only on this journey, but in our life so far – and we’ve lived through some harsh Polish winters. Still, foolhardily, we trod on, to see the few sites we have on schedule today. Like the mariners of old, lashing their sails, we have to lash our roof with an extra length of rope for fear of it being blown off by a sudden sideways gust, and off we go, down the narrow, many-causewayed roads of Southern Hebrides.

The eastern, mainland-facing side of the Uists is somewhat similar to Skye, with its swathes of heather and bald rock – in this case, some of the oldest rock on Earth, the Lewisian Gneiss; but there’s a lot more water, in all sizes and forms, small marshy ponds and vast lochs crossable only via thin causeways, and bogs full of valuable peat, which lies along the road in freshly cut heaps. The colours here are amazing, even in the dull, grey light of the stormy day: the heathers seem to glow from inside, fluorescent pink, and the sand is dazzling white – which in turn makes the sea pure turquoise. The beaches of Outer Hebrides are famous – you can’t get a better sand this side of the Carribbean; if only the weather matched all this extravagance of colour…

But on the western side, even the heather is gone, leaving only tall, hardy grass and an occasional dwarfed shrub as the only vestige of vegetation. If there’s anything this part of Britain resembles, it’s the Arctic tundra. We feel as if there’s no more reason for us to visit the rest of Europe: in two months, we’ve travelled from the warm shores of Adriatic and Mediterranean, to the sub-arctic wasteland, all within the borders of one, albeit fairly long, country.

Still, people live here, and in quite fair numbers; the seemingly barren western coast is actually a surprisingly fertile type of land, locally called the machair – a former beach, overgrown by grass. Despite the tragedies of Clearances, of which the evidence is visible everywhere in the form of abandoned croft cottages, or even entire villages, the Outer Hebrides seem more densely populated than Skye or even Islay, although there are no large settlements here apart from Stornoway. There is some minor industry, apart from the ubiquitous arts and crafts; a large smokery, whose specialty are peat-smoked scallops, and of course the textiles, with the famous Harris Tweed at the forefront; tweed was invented in the Hebrides, in fact, and it is still here that the best (and most expensive) tweed is woven, by hand.

Even out here in the middle of Atlantic, the neolithic and bronze age people have made their mark; the main monuments are on the northern isles, but even here at Uist there are significant sites: a large cairn with an accompanying stone circle at Langass, a hundred-feet wide affair known locally as Fionn’s Cauldron (just like the similar one on Arran). Both are set over a pretty loch, and accessible after a bit of a walk through heather and a surprisingly exotic garden of a nearby B&B. I could just imagine a Bronze Age atheist rambler (if such existed) despairing about the monument’s location: “they had to build one even here!“. A more unique type of an ancient site can be seen on North Uist, near the Harris ferry – a crannog, a neolithical settlement on an artificial island. The one here is, in fact, by far the oldest of its kind, 5000 years old, and surprisingly well preserved – it’s still easily visible from the road.

The more recent history of the islands is that of inter-clan strife, marked by varied religious loyalties. The southern isles were – and still are – predominantly Catholic, which resulted in sites not usually associated with Britain, like the giant statue of Virgin Mary, or a large modern church looming over a small village. There is a number of medieval and early medieval ruins scattered throughout; we choose to visit one, that requires the least of a detour through the wind-swept machair, at Howmore. The hamlet has only a few houses, but they are exceptionally beautiful – old, distinctly Norse-looking cottages – so-called Blackhouses – with thatch held down by stones (something we could use for our own roof) and colourful bottle-glass windows. One of the huts is a Youth Hostel, one of a number of such establishment on the islands. The ruins themselves – a monastic settlements, with several Celtic and Viking era chapels – look almost underwhelming by comparison, but they are quite substantial and look rather romantic in the rain; despite their antiquity they are still in use as a graveyard to this day.

We don’t have time or strength to reach Barra, the southernmost of the islands, but we have just enough to get across the longest of causeways to Eriskay – Eric’s Isle – for a brief visit to the local pub; the pub is an unassuming, modern concrete building, with a minimal selection of beers and whiskys, but that’s not why we’re here; the pub is called “Am Politician” – “The Politician“, and the name says it all: that was the name of the ship carrying a cargo of 28,000 cases of whisky during the war, which wrecked on the nearby rocks. The story of a battle between the locals and the government officials over the recovery of the cargo inspired first the book and then, more famously, the 1949 movie “Whisky Galore!”. The rumour has it that the pub has one of the whisky bottles on display, but I couldn’t spot it for certain, and given the auction prize of the bottles when they do show up, I find it quite unlikely. Still, it’s a nice story, and a nice place to have a pint, looking out at the raging sea.

That was all we could manage, however, and as the wind grew even stronger, we headed slowly and carefully back north in search of the campsite near the ferry to the Isle of Harris.

Fionn’s Cauldron

Fionn’s Cauldron

Tobha Mhor Ancient Chapels

Tobha Mhor Ancient Chapels

Causeway to Isle of Eriskay

Causeway to Isle of Eriskay


In good weather, the campsite at Balranald must be stunning; set in the middle of an RSPB reserve famous for its birds of prey and vast flocks of lapwings (we’ll see them the next day, on the way to ferry), a short walk from the beach, with panoramic view in every direction. But it’s the same panoramic setting which makes the wind unbearable. The few tourists who dare to stay with us, huddle their tents in the shadow of the (very decent) toilet block. It’s almost a surprise that the tents (and their inhabitants) are all still there in the morning.

The site is a mere £15 with hook-up, and that includes free Wi-Fi, so it’s a bargain all around, and highly recommended – if you can get there on a sunny day.