If you’re in a hurry, the distance between Warsaw and Vilnius can be made in half a day.
We were anything but in a hurry to end our expedition, however, so we spent the next two days slowly driving around the post-glacial lakelands of North-East Poland, starting with the quiet and lonely Wigry – with its fortress-like Camaldolese monastery and still strong Lithuanian and Belarussian minorities – and ending in the Masuria, a string of lakes running in an almost straight north-south line from the border of Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast’.
These are tiny bodies of water compared to those we passed in Scandinavia, of course – entire Mazury would fit into one of the larger lakes of Finland or Sweden – but Poland’s most densely populated regions are but a stone’s throw away, and so the lakes are packed full of yachts, boats, marinas, campsites and small tourist resort towns. Historically, this is also a significant region, forming an age-old frontier between East and West; originally, it was inhabited by the Baltic tribes, close relatives to Lithuanians and Latvians, but wiped out centuries ago by Germanic conquistadors so thoroughly that nothing but a handful of place-names and reconstructed pagan rituals remains. After that, the region formed the easternmost boundary of Germany, expanding into, or defending from, Polish, Lithuanian and later Russian neighbours, until finally, the “East Prussia” fell to Poland, after another bout of ethnic cleansing and name-changing.
Centuries of wars left plenty of scars on the landscape – gothic castles, 19th century fortresses, Nazi bunkers – but luckily did not change the character of one of the finest regions of (now) Poland. The roads, now hurriedly fixed with EU money, wound lazily along the avenues of majestic oaks and maples, up the causeways, across the wild forests. The woods are filled with wild beasts and birds – even as rare as lynx and wolves. The birch-grown bogs, though miniature in size, sometimes resemble a more Nordic landscape, reminding us that we are still very much within the basin of the same sea.
We make the last stop at a marina in Ruciane-Nida; a shock of nostalgia: more than fifteen years ago, we (or at least half of us) used to sail from here with friends every summer. Surprisingly little has changed since then; even the yachts remain the same, except now everyone has an electric hook-up to charge their wi-fi-enabled gadgets.
Originally, we were supposed to fly through the Baltic States, stopping only in major cities; we changed our minds at the last moment, and it’s a decision we don’t regret. At a little over a thousand miles, and mere 9 days, this was still a short episode in the entire journey, but then these really are small countries, even on the European scale. That said, they proved surprisingly diverse, from landscapes to the ways in which their people chose to cope with the remnants of Soviet past. Incidentally, the people of the Baltics – when they make an effort – turned out to be among the most attractive in Europe, combining the best of the Nordic and Slavic features into one hot pile of gorgeous.
Nowhere in Europe have we been welcomed with such an enthusiasm and joy as in the Baltics. All the cheering, flashing, v-signs, thumbs-up, satan’s horns and general glee made us feel eventually as if we were carrying the dreams and hopes of the entire region on our backs. Just seeing the old VW putter along seemed to make everyone feel young and free again.
After 99 days and over 7000 miles, our Baltic odyssey is over: too soon; we ran out of money before we ran out of steam this year, and if we only could, we’d keep on driving.
To our surprise, the car fared brilliantly once we left London, though we deliberately ignored a few obvious signs of failure in the last weeks, hoping to reach Warsaw before anything serious breaks down. It remains to be seen how costly the repairs will be… The weather was the opposite of last year’s: dry and unbearably hot, though it certainly didn’t seem so at the start: in Norway we were still freezing under the snow-capped peaks of fjords. But the heat is better than cold, and we remain in far better shape than last October, and not just because the journey was a whole month shorter.
It was supposed to be a “Scandinavia trip”, but it turned out to be an expedition around the Baltics (with the exclusion of Poland’s coast, though we’re familiar enough with that part): we’ve even peeked briefly into Russia. We made a lot of the route up as we went along: we were never supposed to reach the Arcic Circle, or spend more than a couple of days in the Baltic States. But if I regret anything it’s that the journey was too short, and that we visited too few places. The Baltic is a fantastic sea, full of history and wild nature, and though its shores have once been awash in blood, these days it remains possibly the only sea in the world that you can still safely circumnavigate in an old, rickety Volkswagen van: a testament to the hard-won unity and prosperity of Europe.