Day 96-97 – Warlords and Poets

Lithuania

Lithuania

Everything I said yesterday about odd familiarity with Lithuania’s countryside, is true tenfold when it comes to Vilnius.

I wouldn’t touch the national issues of our little corner of Europe with a barge pole: if it hasn’t been fully Balkanized yet, it’s only because we all usually have bigger problems (read: neighbours) on our heads than each other: trapped between Eastern (Russia and Turkey) and Western (various German kingdoms and/or Sweden) Empires, the Baltics, Poles, and Eastern Slavs have had a complex relationship ranging from forming a proto-EU to attempted mutual genocide.

The resulting stew found its expression in Vilnius, a once multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city, that defies nationalist description. A Polish city in Lithuania, a Lithuanian city in Poland, a Jewish city in Eastern Europe, it is many things to many people. It is, certainly, a grand old city, its Old Town comparable to those of Cracow and Prague in scale and value; it’s easy to get lost in the narrow, medieval streets for a whole day or two.

It being one of the hottest days yet, this northern city resembled Malaga far more than its parallel towns like Novosibirsk or Newcastle. At the beginning, we wandered mostly from one soft drinks kiosk to another, in the sort of vague daze that walking around a 30+ degree brick-and-cobblestone avenues in midday induces, noticing a lot of churches – of several religions – and fancy palaces of the nobles, all built in a variety of styles: gothic, renaissance, baroque…

Very peculiar is the cathedral-palace ensemble at the entrance to the Old Town, and quite unlike anything we’ve seen so far. The cathedral is not your typical gothic or baroque church, but a neo-classical colossus, resembling a great Roman temple. Next to it, a belfry rises on the foundations of an old wall tower, behind it – a Royal Palace, or the Lower Castle, freshly rebuilt from the 200-year-old ashes (so new it’s not even mentioned in our guide book), and still behind, a tall, conical hill, topped with a brick tower, remainder of the Upper Castle. Together, these represent hundreds of years of common history of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine (with bits of Latvia and Estonia thrown in). The fantasy-sounding names of the warlords, dukes and kings are etched in great letters into the walls and pedestals of monuments: Gediminas, Mendaugas, Kestutis, Vytautas, Jogaila…

A visit to the Vilnius University campus brought some well-needed respite from the heat; the campus is a fine compound of courtyards and arcades, well worth seeing even if you’re not interested in the any of the many famous alumni hailing from these walls. For the people of this region, however, this is where the cultural heart is beating: poets, writers, scientists, politicians and philosophers, Nobel prize winners, bards and leaders, have all studied here throughout the ages.

We meet with some friends who are passing through the city in opposite direction, and eat lunch in an unlikely Ayurveda vegan restaurant housed in atmospheric remains of a monastery turned into a yoga ashram, before heading for a very different part of the city: Uzupis, the district of squatters and artists, Vilnius’ answer to Christiania. Naturally, it’s as different from Christiania as Lithuania is from Denmark: it’s a chaotic, neglected jumble of old houses; the heat forced almost everyone inside, though, and the place feels half-abandoned.

We leave Vilnius and turn back towards Poland. We stay the night some 30 km west of the city, on the shores of Lake Galve, a sapphire gemstone dug by the glacier deep into emerald hills, the heart of Trakai National Park. From the “small beach” (this is how the receptionist called it) at our campsite – a once-opulent spa resort – we could clearly see the dazzling red brick towers of the Trakai Castle, our final destination in the Baltics.

Trakai is a tiny village with enough attractions to last for a busy day. It has not one but two great castles: one in ruin, the other splendidly renovated in Gothic brick, the seat of Lithuania’s most famous ruler, Vytautas almost king the Great. It has clear sandy lake beaches and marinas. And it has a significant population of the Karaites, one of the oddest religious and ethnic minority: Turkic followers of Judaism from Crimea. The Karaite houses are beautifully painted and their gardens well kept, making Trakai into the prettiest village in all the Baltic states; they also bake what looks like small Cornish pasties, called Kibin, an increasingly popular local fast food.

We have to take a small detour back through Kaunas, to pick up a cable we forgot the night before at the campsite, and then it’s back on the dreaded Via Baltica, dodging the crazy Lithuanian truckers, and into Poland.

Angel of Uzupis

Angel of Uzupis

Trakai

Trakai Castle

Day 90-92 – Little Finland

Estonia

Estonia

From the outset, Estonia is trying its darnedest to convince you that you haven’t yet left Finland – just crossed, by ferry, to its southern, slightly poorer province. The visual language, the road markings, even the “beware the elk” sign, have been transported wholesale over the border, as had many Finnish brands – Hesburger, Fiskars, and that soft drink that looks like Vitamin Water but isn’t.

However, even as we drive out of the ferry – annoyingly, through a single-file gate, which means spending half an hour in line – we start noticing subtle differences that betray a post-communist country; these are mostly minor annoyances and irritations that we know too well from Poland, such as casual rudeness, asking for change, confusing traffic and turning all the minor tasks into needlessly troublesome quests. Finding a parking machine in Tallinn, for example, proves a major challenge. There seems to be one of these per each parking zone, usually hidden away somewhere in the corner – and the one that’s nearest to you may well turn out to be for the wrong parking zone. This kind of Kafka-ization of everyday life is typical for the post-Soviet zone, but luckily we are familiar with it and after initial shock we ease back into the slightly bumpy groove.

At least the coffee is good; Tallinn, like many Central European cities, used to boast a cafe culture before the war, and is now returning to the tradition – with a twist: the cafes are now a strange, incongruous mix of old, Viennese-style interiors, with modern, hipster menus, full of V60s and Aeropresses.

The suburb where we drink the coffee is leafy and full of lovely old wooden villas, and, like most of Tallinn, looks so much like certain parts of Warsaw and its suburbs that we struggle with an unending sense of deja-vu. Unfortunately, we are caught in a deafening thunder storm, so can’t wander around it for too long. When the sky clears a little, we head off towards the old town.

Tallinn’s old town is everything we expected it to be – pretty, colourful, gothic, and very, very compact. The whole city is tiny – less than half a million people in total – and from the top of the castle hill you can easily see it all. There are bits of the old town that are still in some disrepair and need of renovation, and bits that are already too overgrown with tourists, dining tables, umbrellas and signs, but overall, it is indeed one of the finest places of its kind in Europe – and the size means that you can take a very leisurely stroll down the narrow alleyways and still see all there is to see in just a few hours.

After the long queue at the ferry, parking adventures, and the long walk around the old town, we reach the designated campsite late in the evening. The campsites of Estonia – clean, woody, well organized – are possibly the most Scandinavian thing about this country, aspiring so desperately to be counted among the Nordics that it even considered changing its flag to include the Nordic Cross. We stay in Haapsalu, a small sea-side town sprawled around a needlessly large castle, again consisting of quaint wooden villas, only even more run-down.

We pass through an idyllic, rural landscape: golden fields, ready for harvest, flocks of storks following the tractors, dense northern forests; a ferry takes us to the larger of two Estonian islands, Saaremaa – or “Osilia”, as it was known in the history books I used to learn from. Judging by the brand names in Estonia’s supermarkets, this big piece of land – second largest in the Baltic, twice as big as the Isle of Man – is the country’s granary, much like Aland is for Finland (they even make similar, dark and sweet bread). It’s very sparsely populated, and filled with fields, bogs and forests, apart from the capital town of Kuressaare, another settlement grown around a huge castle. Saaremaa was one of the most fought-over bits of the Baltic coast, so the castle defending its shores is also among the most impressive ones.

We searched for somewhere to buy the famous local produce, and found a small kiosk just in front of the castle gates; a definite instant favourite were the fruit waters, made from diluted buckthorne, red currant and quince, with no sugar or sweetener – the most perfect thirst-quenchers this side of Pocari Sweat.

There are more reasons to visit Saaremaa, not least of which is its curious geology. Although due to the change in weather and poor roads we could not get to the Silurian cliffs on the western and northern coast, we did get to see its most unique attraction, the Kaali meteoric crater, a 100m wide hole in the ground (despite the passage of years, it sill remains distinctly crater-shaped), a remainder of the most spectacular, and most recent meteorite to have hit Europe’s mainland. It struck the earth with the power of two Hiroshima bombs, at some point between 700 BC and 2000 BC, and since the area was at the time already inhabited, the explosion had left a substantial impact in the sagas and legends of the North. The Finnish Kalevala describes it thusly:

Quick the heavens are burst asunder,
Quick the vault of Ukko opens,
Downward drops the wayward Fire-child,
Downward quick the red-ball rushes,
Shoots across the arch of heaven,
Hisses through the startled cloudlets,
Flashes through the troubled welkin,
Through nine starry vaults of ether.

We drive down to Parnu for our last stop in Estonia; it boasts being the second largest city in the western half of the country, but that doesn’t really mean anything – at 40,000 people, and rather run-down with age and neglect, it looks like any old county town in the east of Europe; there’s one nice street, lined with a mish-mash of old wooden and brick buildings, one round tower remaining of the city walls, and a leafy promenade running towards the beach, but you’ll find most locals hang around a spiffy new shopping mall housed in old harbour warehouse.

Just before the border of Latvia, we settle for the night on the coast of Baltic; this is a familiar sea now, very much like the Polish coast – sandy beach, pine forest covering low dunes, and a dazzling bright sunset.

Kaali Crater

Kaali Crater

Parnu Red Tower

Parnu Red Tower

Baltic Sunset

Baltic Sunset

Day 85 – White Walls, Red Square

Vyborg

Vyborg

Yes, we went to Russia! If just for a day, and only a few miles beyond the border, it’s an unexpected achievement on our journeys. It’s not easy to get into Russia without going through a lot of legal hoops or buying a package holidays; so when we heard you can hop over to Vyborg from Lappeenranta in a day without a visa, we jumped on the opportunity.

The stately old cruise ship leaves Lappeenranta before 8am on what may be one of the slowest modes of mechanized transport; it takes over 5 hours one-way along the 40km-long canal, built in the days of Russian Empire to link Lake Saimaa with the Baltic. It is now partly leased by Finland, and there are a number of tall locks to pass, which partly explains the slowness of passage. Luckily, there are just enough curious things to look out for along the way to make at least the first five hours not a total bore, from “floating islands”, through Mika Waaltari’s summer house, to “passport ladies” whose photos we were strictly forbidden to take. And then there’s of course the border itself, a line of white poles running across the water. This is the first time we cross EU’s border not on the plane.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this trip. Vyborg is a very old Finnish city (and the country’s second largest after Helsinki), but a very young Russian one, having only been occupied by Russia since the war. It was once prosperous, then ruined, then rebuilt again; I knew it had some precious historical buildings, both medieval and pre-war, and was hoping to see most of them. But mostly, I was just thrilled at visiting a completely new country, almost a new civilization.

It took us less than two hours to walk around Vyborg’s centre, past all the important buildings mentioned in the tourist guide – from the harbour to the Red Square (and the first Lenin monument we see since 1989), the Library and back; what we saw, once we ventured beyond the freshly painted Potemkin facades of the few tenements that can be seen from the harbour, was nothing short of devastating: literally. The historic Old Town looks as if the war had ended not 70 but 7 years ago; entire blocks are razed, and what’s left, has not seen a lick of paint in decades.

Other than the Vyborg Castle, which is still impressive and a worthy symbol of the city, the only other two buildings that are not in complete ruin are the two dazzling-white stalwarts of the 1930’s functionalism: Aalto’s Library and Ullberg’s Panzerlax Museum (now a branch of the Ermitage). They have been just recently brought back to their full glory, and, at least for the moment, make the entire journey easily worth the effort.

Alvar Aalto was, in the days of paper encyclopedias, probably the best known of all Finns, purely because of his surname, ensuring he was always the first biographical entry. He’s also Finland’s best known architect and designer, and the Vyborg Library was acclaimed as his best work. It is, indeed, a truly superb building, a cathedral of modernism and a temple of reading; too bad making photos inside is forbidden (“nye l’zya!”) unless you pay the hefty fee for a guided tour. Still, it’s great that it’s finally restored, as the state of the building until recently was one of Russia’s (and Putin’s) enduring shames.

The city park is vast, and for the most part well-kept, baring a few broken-down fountains. There’s a curious bronze statue of an elk, whose legs are rubbed to a shine. As we stop to make the photo, at least three groups of passing students pause to touch them: a curious display of lingering superstition in a post-communist country, similar to what we were witnessing in China’s taoist temples…

The rest of the city was not so lucky. The ruined quarters, we have learned, have been demolished just as the Library was being renovated, only a few years ago, by greedy developers. The surviving wall towers are devastated, as are all but one orthodox churches – turned into storehouses in Soviet times, and never again reopened. There is a massive complex of ruined buildings right in the very centre of Vyborg that’s surrounded by a tall fence, and has unknown name and purpose – judging by the shape, I’m guessing these are old tsarist military barracks, but I can’t be sure.

There is life, and commerce, within ruins, and glimpses of what this place could be – we stop at a surprisingly nice and cozy cafe to sip some local beer; but it feels as if this is how life was in Warsaw just after the war, with cafes and restaurants returning to a vanquished city. The market hall – built on the familiar 19th century red-brick pattern – offers a hint at Russia’s would-be might: its food stands offer produce from all over the world: watermelons from Caucasus, honey from Siberia, canned fish from the Baikal… the pickle stand, given a little make-over, could fit easily in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, and the cold gherkins – though grossly overpriced – are some of the best we’ve ever tasted, comparable with kyuri from Ohara – and just as good for the heat. But that makes the overall image even more sad: so much wasted potential…

Vyborg is supposedly changing for the better – the renovation of the Library and the new developing yacht harbour are the first signs – but it’s really hard to tell at a glance. With somewhat heavy heart, and our enthusiasm for visiting Russia again sadly diminished, we embark the cruise ship for the long trip back to Europe.

Vyborg Castle

Vyborg Castle

Old Vyborg - better than new

Old Vyborg – better than new

Day 82-84 – In the Land of Bards

Karelia

Karelia

After swimming in the Pielinen lake, I read a bit about it and discovered that it held a special place in the collective heart of the Finnish people, with the view from the nearby Koli hills lauded in song and art. Naturally, we went there, to one of the tiniest National Parks in the world – encompassing just one hill and its several summits; the view from above was indeed stunning: dark-blue lake, bound with green woods and studded with emerald islands; but it was rather spoiled by the myriad crowds of loud tourists who seemed more interested in shouting at each other than admiring the nature below.

The reindeer have long disappeared, but that didn’t mean an end to road hazards: we had to stop to let a female elk with two youths pass the road!

We were getting ever closer to the Russian border: historical Karelia spans the two countries, with most of the ancient villages stuck on the other side; the almost-border town of Ilomantsi is the cultural heart of what’s left in Finland. It has a large orthodox church in the centre, and on the outskirts, an attractive open-air museum of Karelian architecture and culture. The host ladies in the Bard House were playing the lovely Kantele, the Finnish harp, invented according to the Kalevala myth by Vainamoinen; and the restaurant offered authentic Karelian cuisine including made on-the-spot rice pies, which are ubiquitous on food markets throughout the country.

Another long and slow drive down a gravel road took us to a fine campsite in the middle of yet another National Park (Finland has 37 of them!). The road took us along what looked like a strangely winding man-made causeway or embankment, but was in fact quite the opposite, and one of the two reasons for the park’s existence (the other being the black-throated divers, whose cries echoed in the night as loud as car alarms). The eskers are natural ridges of silt and sand, created in the beds of under-ice rivers once floating under the glacier which crushed Finland 10,000 years ago.  There are pictures in the visitor centre which explain it more clearly.

Being so close to the hard-fought-for border, we pass a lot of war-time mementoes; there is a famous general’s hut in Ilomantsi, and renovated dugouts and trenches in Petkeljarvi. But this border has been fought over for centuries, starting with a conflict between Swedish colonizers and Novgorod merchants, and our next destination is a distant memory of that war: the mighty three-towered island fortress of Savonlinna. Naturally, this one is also a record-holder: the northernmost medieval fortress in Europe (it’s positioned some 50km north from its nearest contender, Haamenlinna).

Savonlinna was built to guard the narrow isthmus across the lake Saimaa; a lake so big and long, that after driving all day we reach another port on the same lake. Along the way we pass another esker, almost 10 km long in Punkaharju (we spend the night on an island on the lake), and the border town of Imatra, whose main claim to fame, apart from a suburban church designed by Alvar Aalto (of whom more tomorrow) is a waterfall, hemmed into a hydro power dam, which is released once a day in the evening; we can’t really wait that long, so we drive on, towards Lappeenranta.

It’s 30 degrees outside, and much, much more in the car; we barely have enough strength left to walk around Lappeenranta’s blazing-bright old town, hidden inside the ramparts of a 19th century Russian fortress, and reach the restaurant for dinner (it’s too hot to cook). The restaurant is set inside, and in the garden of, an old Russian merchant’s house. It’s rather swanky, and we treat ourselves to the most luxurious dinner of the entire trip, which consists mostly of fried fish straight from the lake. It tastes as awesome as it sounds.

We stay two nights on the motorway services in the suburbs; there’s no point paying for the campsite: we spend a whole day, from 6 am to 10 pm, on an exhausting and long trip, of which I will tell more in the next post.

Savonlinna

Savonlinna

View from Ukko-Koli

View from Ukko-Koli

Giant swing in Punkaharju

Giant swing in Punkaharju

Aalto's church in Ruokolahti

Aalto’s church in Imatra

Day 74-75 – Bloodsuckers at Dawn

Tavastia

Tavastia

The ferry from Aland lands at the tiny, one-ship harbour of Galtby; this is still not proper Finland (or “Finland Proper”, as the region is known due to the fact that this is the home land of the original Finn tribe) but only one of a long line of islands connected by road with the region’s capital, Turku. We stay on the summit of a tall rock cliff overlooking the sea, and witness the most spectacular thunder storm unveiling above us. The colours are otherworldly: the sky is bright green, the lightning is pink and purple.

The islands are known simply as “Archipelago” – Skargard in Swedish – and it’s hard to find a definite border between them and Alands: the entire entry to the Bothnia Gulf is made up of thousands of these islets, skerries and islands. It takes two more ferries, a dozen bridges and causeways, and 70 km of road to reach the “continent”, just before Turku.

We have started what promises to be the most arduous and challenging bit of our journey, the long trek North, so we won’t be stopping that often in Finland. We rest briefly in Turku, getting some good coffee and taking a leisurely stroll along the Aura river, to the medieval cathedral and back. As far as I can tell, this is the nicest area of the city. The way Turku is laid out is mystifying: you’d think the three key points of a medieval town – the castle, the cathedral, and the market place – would all be near each other, but here they are miles apart; I assume the Swedes who built the city as the capital of their Finnish colonial endeavour, had good reasons. The Turku Cathedral, incidentally, is Finland’s oldest, one of the largest, and most important church, the seat of the country’s archbishop.

The south-west coast is, apart from the vicinity of Helsinki, the most attractive region of the country in terms of attractions. Not far from Turku, in a picturesque harbour town of Naantali, is Moomin World, a true mecca for the thousands of Japanese tourists pouring here straight from the Helsinki Airport; we get as close as you can without paying for tickets, but stop just short of spending 50 euro on entering the island-based theme park.

As we go north, between the calm, almost standing sea and the lakes, we slowly enter the Mosquito Country. Finnish bloodsuckers are massive, loud, and annoying – though they are also slow and easy to kill; but that is little consolation for one who’s awoken at dawn by the lawnmower-like buzzing of these dreadful insects.

There is now a sauna on every campsite and marina – there have been a few in Sweden, but not as regular. Some we can’t really use – they are big, and have to be rented per hour by groups; but some are open for all – either co-educational “swimsuit saunas” or gender separated nude ones – free, and opening out onto the cold waters of the sea.

We spend a bit more time in Rauma, a small town to the north; the entire Old Town of Rauma is a UNESCO property: six hundred wooden houses line its cobbled streets, unchanged since 18th century; the Old Rauma is surrounded on all sides by the new town, a rather terrible jumble of flats and office blocks that looks like a provincial Eastern European village, and you really have to know of the jewel hiding among all this to be able to find it.

Just east of Rauma we stop in the middle of the forest, to search for, you guessed it, some stones. Sammallahdenmaki is another UNESCO-inscribed attraction, a set of massive Bronze Age burial cairns; two of them are nearly 20 meters long. Though looking mostly like piles of stones, they are impressive in size and age, a unique site in all of Scandinavia.

By the end of the day we reach our good friends in Tampere; we don’t visit the city itself, as we’ve been here before and there isn’t that much to see here for the second time – though if you’re ever passing by, by all means stop for a stroll along Finlayson factory district and the Tammerkoski rapids. Similarly to Norrkoping, Tampere is a city founded on its textile factories, and is also known as a “Manchester” of its country; and just like Norrkoping, it’s now transformed into a thriving high-tech and university hub.

We spend this night in real beds, for the first time in 75 days 🙂

Sammallahdenmaki

Sammallahdenmaki

Rauma

Rauma

Days 70-73 – The Monks of Earthsea

Ålands

Åland Islands

Between Sweden and Finland lie the Alands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kastelholm Castle

Kastelholm Castle

Waiting at the yacht crossing

Waiting at the yacht crossing

The triple flag compromise

The triple flag compromise

Days 62-64 – Gone with the Wind

Småland

Småland

Far to the north of the flat, fertile and idyllic Scania, Sweden goes wild. Smaland is even more rough than Blekinge, a province of dark forests and rocky crags. It has always been a poor land, from which desperate people migrated abroad (mostly to the US) in their thousands, until the coming of modern industry. This desperation produced some of Sweden’s finest and best known companies: IKEA, Husqvarna, and the many glass foundries scattered throughout the forest.

We try to get to one, but the weather drives us away. In fact, the weather turns crazy on us, going from a 20+ “heat wave” to a raging thunder storm. We pass something that looks suspiciously like a tornado in the making; later that day, we spot a waterspout out in the sea, and learn that at least five of these were seen earlier near Malmo.

We drive through Kalmar on the way to Oland, and we stop for a fika in the Krusenstiernska Garden – a cafe set in the middle of an 18th century garden estate; it makes you feel like you’re at a rural party in a Jane Austen novel. Kalmar is famous for its castle, a proper looking medieval fortress, with a mighty moat and massive walls, guarding the narrow strait separating Oland from the mainland. The strait is now easily passable by another of Scandinavia’s great bridges. The Kalmar Bridge’s peculiarity is that instead of being suspended or moving, it simply rises steeply in the middle to make way for the ships, and falls down on the other side, like an artificial hill.

Gone with the wind are our 500 krona, which we waste on paying the most ridiculous parking ticket imaginable – parking in the wrong direction on a two-way street! That leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Kalmar, you were nice, but I don’t think we’ll be returning any time soon…

Oland is that long, thin sausage next to Sweden, one of its two main islands. Gotland, sadly, we have to forego: the cheaper ferry line we were planning to use to get there had to cancel the summer bookings because of a strike in Greece, and the traditional ferry was just way too expensive for a short hop.

Oland is very narrow, and very flat. In fact, it might just be the flattest piece of land we’ve seen so far. That means, of course, winds: gales that throw our little van from one side of the road to another. Nothing we’re not used to after last year, of course, and still not as bad as Hebrides, so we putter on regardless.

The locals, historically, made good use of the weather: there are over 100 windmills scattered all over the plateau, sometimes in groups of two or three. Most of them are small – pocket-sized, almost – as if every family wanted to have a windmill much the same way they later wanted washing machines or indoor plumbing. A sign of progress, no doubt.

Oland’s super-flat landscape is so unique, it’s UNESCO-protected. The southern part of the island – one that, on satellite photos, has a different colour to the rest of Sweden – is a massive limestone plateau, upon which nothing but small, gnarled trees and grass grows. When the summer sun returns the next day, the island looks like an African savannah, only with sheep and cows instead of antelopes.

The island is also filled to the brim with antiquities, untouched by generations – not even the windmills were put on the barrow mounds. The stone circles, stone ships, mounds, cairns, dot the landscape all along the main road, stretching along the ridge of the plateau – in the old days, the edge of the sea. Ring forts are in abundance, too – most unexcavated, but one – Eketorp – reconstructed almost in full, with a massive wall, a gatehouse and many huts inside; sheep and pigs roam freely among the visitors, who come here from all over Sweden to see ancient and Dark Age re-enactments, including a full-on siege once a year.

The southernmost tip of Oland is separated from the rest of Sweden by a wall stretching across the breadth of the island; beyond it is the most precious, and most steppe-like in appearance bit of the Stora Alvaret plateau. The cars stop to let the cows pass lazily between them, and hundreds of fledgling lapwings skip along the grass like so many pigeons. We reach the lighthouse at the very end, and turn back to get to our port for the night: a cosy, half-feral marina – once a thriving timber port – near Vastervik, surrounded by an archipelago of small islands.

Kalmar Bridge

Kalmar Bridge

Oland

Oland

Oland

Oland

Oland

Oland

Waterspout in Oland

Waterspout in Oland

Fika in Kalmar

Fika in Kalmar

Birth of a twister

Birth of a twister

Days 60-61 – Heat Wave

Blekinge

Blekinge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying in a marina

Staying in a marina

Ales Stenar Calendar

Ales Stenar Calendar

Ales Stenar

Ales Stenar

Day 59 – Pearl of the Baltic

Bornholm

Bornholm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delikatessen Cafe in Nexo

Delikatessen Cafe in Nexo

Days 49-52 – Art-slo

Oslo

Oslo

I’ve mentioned before how birdwatching in Scandinavia is a completely different hobby to the grueling slog it is in Britain. Twice already we could watch birds without leaving the van here in Norway: lapwings, oyster catchers, murmurating starlings and knots in Molen, and a couple of shrikes in the nest later on in Halden.

After visiting a few ancient remains, which, frankly, though very prettily set (in a beech forest above Larvik, at the head of the fjord below it, and on a wooded castle hill in Tonsberg) hardly warranted the detour, we’ve finally arrived in Oslo.

From the guidebooks, wikis, etc. I couldn’t quite create an image of Oslo in my head. Unlike Stockholm or Copenhagen, this was one Nordic capital that seemed bland and generic. After wandering about it for three days, I still can’t say much about it, other than, unexpectedly, it turned out to be full of art.

Follow the coffee – that’s usually our plan for visiting a new city, and it usually works. It worked wonders in Oslo. Tim Wendelboe‘s coffee is not just good. If you believe Noma‘s chef Rene Redzepi, it’s the best in Scandinavia – and by extension, the world; the only coffee worth his world-best cuisine. As we searched for Wendelboe’s espresso Bar, we found Oslo’s hippiest, youngest, most vibrant district, centred – of course – around the Architecture and Design School on Telthusbaken. It’s got the usual mix of old worker housing, once-rough (or still rough, depending on who you ask) cul-de-sacs, a nice park, new designer buildings (student housing in the shape of a grain silo) and a super-cool old-factory-turned-food hall where we naturally decided to do all the food shopping while in Oslo.

Oslo’s centre is as small as everything else in Norway. It can be walked about in less than an hour, from the train station to the Royal Palace, and from there onto the harbour. The harbour is being rebuilt with new houses and shops; it’s all very sleek and ultra-modern, but is a bit soulless and lacking character: it could be any city waterfront in Europe; rather similar to the new Thames-side. Opposite it, across the fjord, rises an old fortress – looking mighty and impressive from a distance (and in comparison with everything else), but close up it’s barely a small castle.

At the end of the very end of the pier stands a modern art gallery – the first of Oslo’s art treasures; the collection is surprisingly comprehensive, containing most of the big names in modern art: Hurts, Koons, Emin, Gilbert&George, Murakami etc. Plus, the entry is free with Oslo Pass, which I highly recommend; most of the time, these city passes offer only minor deals, or require visiting everything in the city to make the purchase worthwhile. The Oslo Pass is a very good deal, especially considering how expensive everything in the city is, including transport (50 NOK for  a single bus ticket!).

Oslo’s only building truly (and literally) breath-taking in its scale is the Holmenkollen Ski Jumping Tower. It’s massive curved pillar can be seen easily from any point in the city. It’s reachable with the underground train and a bit of a climb; its top, together with the tall hill it’s standing on, rises to 300m above Oslo, and the view below is well worth the journey. Up to that point, everything is included in your Oslo Pass, but if you feel particularly splashy with your money, you can experience the ride down “as Malysz flies” on a rope.

The entire second day of Oslo was spent on the museum island of Bygdoy. If you have the Oslo Pass, it’s all pretty much free fun for everyone. There’s one massive museum here – the Open Air Folk Museum – and several small ones; the small ones alone are worth the boat trip from the harbour. The Folk Museum is a typical copy of Stockholm’s Skansen, and these things are always fun, especially since it contains an original stave church (unlike the one we’ve seen in Bergen, which is a reconstruction of the original, burned by a death metal musician) with restored interior. Most of the stave churches still in place are high in the mountains of the interior, so this one’s a rare treat.

Most of the smaller museums in Bygdoy are to do with the sea and naval exploration, for which Norway is justly famous. They are not so much museums, even, as showcases for Norway’s most famous ships. The two ancient drakkars in the Viking Ship Museum are the best preserved examples anywhere in Scandinavia, and are simply enormous.  The two polar explorer ships in the Fram museum (including Fram itself, the ship Amundsen used to reach the South Pole) can be freely roamed about, and the two original rafts of Thor Heyerdahl – Kon-Tiki and Ra 2 – are at arm’s reach in their own hall. Taken altogether, these three halls make for an exhilarating experience of being in the presence of the spirits of some of the greatest explorers the world has ever known – made even more exciting, on the day of our visit, by the fact that Thor Heyerdahl Junior himself was guiding a private tour of the Kon-Tiki!

I’ve mentioned art before, but only one gallery so far. The truth is, there was art oozing from the place everywhere we went: street sculptures, galleries, theatres… We didn’t go to the great Munch Museum, but I think we did one better: we went to the actual location where “Scream” is set! (which turned out to be right outside the campsite gate). Also near the campsite – on the other side of the hill – was a sculpture park, freely accessible, with sculptures by Dali, Rodin, Renoir and others.

Stave Church at Folk Museum

Stave Church at Folk Museum

"Scream" location badge

“Scream” location badge

Thor Heyerdahl Jr

Mr Thor Heyerdahl Jr (in blue shirt)

Holmenkollen Ski Tower

Holmenkollen Ski Tower

Jeff Koons at Astrup Fearnley

Jeff Koons at Astrup Fearnley

Oslo City Centre

Oslo City Centre