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 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 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 54-56 – The Land of the Goths

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Halland

We follow the steep shores of the narrow Iddefjord due south for a while, skimming the Swedish border. The land is densely wooded and sparsely populated; we finally saw an elk – and a couple of deer, fallow and red, as we speed through the forest.

The border – over which so many battles had been fought in the past – is marked with a small sign; the first difference is the price of petrol, no longer eye-wateringly high. The border, insignificant these days, was of course non-existant in ancient past, before either Norway or Sweden existed; and so the ancient rock-carvers crossed freely from Norway to Sweden. The Swedish rock paintings, focused around the hamlet of Tanum, are greater and more impressive than the ones in the north – so much so that they are inscribed into the UNESCO. The stone canvases are massive – 20 metres in one place – and filled with vivid images, not just of hundreds of ships and oarsmen, but with oxen, women worshipping the sun, and even a small whale in the corner of one. It’s not just a comic strip, it’s an entire graphic novel written in stone.

From ancient history, to modern. The industrial hub of Trollhattan, rising along a network of canals, sluices and waterfalls, produced of old train engines, hydroelectric turbines, and other heavy machinery, but most importantly of all, it is – or rather was – the headquarters of SAAB Automobiles. The SAAB museum, though small in size, is a must-see for any fan of the cult brand, as it traces the entire history of rise and fall of one of the most innovative automobile companies, and boasts both the very first and the very LAST SAAB every produced in the Trollhattan factory; as well as a number of models in between, including many custom, one-off and prototype ones.

From Trollhattan we went to camp on the nearby shores of Lake Vanern, the greatest body of fresh water in Europe outside of Russia; though we can’t really appreciate it from the narrow inlet that the campsite is on, our eyes reaching only as far as the horizon on one side, and a tall cliff on the other.

Sweden, from the view of the car speeding down the highway, is vast, flat and empty – though the population statistics bely that image; most people live along a narrow strip of coastline, so narrow that the settlements can hardly be spotted from the road. Other than the fact that most of the interior is taken by two huge lakes, it’s hard to see why the country would be so sparsely populated. It certainly seems fertile, as the motorway cuts through miles upon miles of corn fields and orchards – and still more barrow mounds.

Two out of three largest cities of Sweden fit into this narrow strip of populated land, and, passing a massive Bodehus fortress (formerly Norwegian, when the border extended all the way here) across the river, we enter the first of these on Day 2 – Gothenburg, the City of Goths. We are in the land of Goths now, the Gotaland, from which according to a legend these warrior people have supposedly come from. It’s a brief stop at Gothenburg, for coffee and cake – following the Swedish custom of “fika” – but it’s enough to capture the mood of the place, young and vibrant; it feels much more like a city than the much greater Oslo, perhaps because it is more compact. The city centre is on an island made of moat-like canals and river outlets surrounding a tall hill, but we take our “fika” outside of it, in the charming district of old timbered houses called, after the Dutch settlers who lived here, Haga.

The third day passes uneventful as we ride through Halland. Halland is the province infamously – and uniquely – avoided and sneered at by the geese flying with Nils Holgersson in the “Wonderful Adventures” novel. The birds saw nothing of interest here, and frankly, neither do we, although the road-signs point us towards a number of towns and castles, no doubt very picturesque. We stop for a “fika” at an old chocolatier in Halmstad, the river-side capital of the province. The town is small but curiously laid out; there are remnants of old town, especially a very lively main street lined with cafe gardens, leading to a small square over which looms a town hall; there’s a small red “castle”; and there are a few half-timbered tenements strewn along the river and further down the road. But it’s all checkered with modern buildings, some nice, some ugly; coming from a country which has suffered so badly during the war, I dismiss it naturally as filling the scars left over some battle, until I remember that Sweden stayed neutral through both World Wars, and the damage done to the old city tissue was done by the city planners rather than bombs.

image

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Day 4-8 – Chilling Out

Zuid Holland

Zuid Holland

We’ve spent one whole day in Hamburg, partly to soak in the mood of the city in the rain, partly to try and find the one piece of camping gear we failed to obtain beforehand – a CEE electric plug, which we could use on continental sites. We eventually found it the next day near Bremen, but by Sod’s Law, of course, we never had to use it again all the way to England. Hopefully it will come useful when we get back on the main land 🙂

From there we drove south-west, towards Holland, through Saxony, which looks just like rural Southern England. Flat, green, fertile, with fair country houses of red brick or half-timber, thatched or neatly tiled. It seems, just like the Vikings in Scotland, and Frisians in East Anglia, the Saxons were searching for a land most like the one they had come from. I can only assume Denmark will look like Yorkshire.

Dummer See is a large, almost perfectly round lake in the middle of all this green and pleasant land, roughly half-way between Hamburg and Amsterdam, so we make our stop there. The season is still far away, so with most facilities closed shut, and with the weather more suitable for November, it feels we’ve come here in the middle of winter. The only sign of it being May are the maypoles, decorated with flowers and ribbons, standing in every village and even in the middle of the campsite, and the fresh strawberries and white asparagus being at the roadside stalls.

Leaving Dummer See, the car splutters to a halt and refuses to move. A summoned mechanic discovers the reason for this – and most of our other engine troubles so far – to be a loose wire at the idle pressure valve. It never ceases to amaze (and slightly frustrate) me how almost all the problems with this car can be solved with pliers, a set of screwdrivers, some masking tape and a good wrench.

Rain, rain, wind, cold, drizzle, cold. That’s the succession of weather patterns over these four days. Everything in the car is soaked through, and fighting the headwinds on the motorway uses up all of our fuel and patience. It’s 10 degrees C when we drive into Amsterdam, and a furious, lashing rain. In the middle of May! The forecast for the next week is giving us some hope – there’s a warm front coming into England from Tuesday.

John Holt’s “Police in the Helicopter” playing in the campsite reception tells us we’re in the right place to finally relax and unwind 🙂 We spent another full day in Amsterdam, following our by now usual itinerary of “Amsterdam’s best”: a falafel in Maoz for lunch, pancakes for dinner, a smoke in a coffee shop, a glass of beer and jenever in a bar and a good cup of java in an indie cafe. Personally, I get a lot more relaxed from drinking the coffee than from the joint, but I put that down to lack of experience as a smoker 🙂 (also, it’s a damn good coffee)

Netherlands is where we start sight-seeing properly. We’ve never been outside Amsterdam/Schiphol area before. Heading for the Hook of Holland ferry, we stop first at Delft. As postcard-perfect doll-house quaint little Dutch town as you can imagine, criss-crossed, naturally, with a myriad of tree-lined canals, with the main square ensemble preserved in its entirety: the cathedral, the town hall and the weighing house are all in place, reflecting in each other’s stained glass windows. We drink another coffee – of course, the Dutch would have good coffee, having once owned the island of Java… what don’t they have…?

Rotterdam looks just like we imagined. A big, modern, vibrant harbour city. By luck we turn first into the district inhabited by immigrants from the former Dutch colonies: Suriname, Indonesia, India, the Antilles… Over half of Rotterdam’s inhabitants have “non-Dutch” origins – hardly surprising, considering the city’s sea history. The mix of peoples and cultures here is a completely new and different to that found in London – I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Suriname or Aruba before – and here it’s also mingled with a nascent Chinatown. As a result, the supermarkets store every food imaginable and the bars and restaurants offer meals from every corner of the world.

We find the more central part of the city later, with the shops, the skyscrapers and the old harbour museum of antique ships and port gear. The area around the old docks is the one that’s suffered the most in the 1940 bombing – of which the anniversary is nearing – and here is where Zadkine’s famous “Destroyed City” monument stands, by the waterline.

Our last night before crossing the Channel we spend on the Hook of Holland. The causeway road leading to it passes through the greatest continuous expanse of greenhouses in the world. For a moment, I’m sure we’re driving through a fake village of model houses, scattered between garden centres, narrow canals and fields of glasshouses, but no, this is where actual people live. The houses and gardens of Westland are impossibly immaculate, even though they have to nestle sometimes on a tiny strip between a motorway and an agricultural equipment warehouse. It’s like a model train village built out of ready-made kits by somebody with severe ADHD.

The campsite is by the sea, and it’s the first beach we see this year. It still feels like November as we climb the wind-swept dunes between a closed beach bar and a shut-down marina. The beach here is another world-first: this is where the ever-industrious Dutch have constructed the Zand Motor: the Sand Engine, a way to build up the South Holland coast with sand using the power of waves and currents.

We may have driven around thousands of miles of British coast, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a beach like this one. A flock of sheep is grazing on the dunes (as everywhere else in Holland: sheep, cows, goats and horses roam freely around every empty piece of grassland); a couple of surfers and a group of horse-riders meet half-way in the waves; an Indonesian-style beach bar lies closed and half-covered in sand like some forgotten Bali ruin; the sand motor churns to the North, the refineries and harbour cranes labour to the South, tankers and coast guard ships pass along the horizon to the West.

And, as if all that was not enough excitement for one evening, as we head back to the campsite, six airplanes come roaring out of nowhere, pass over our heads in a tight formation and treat us to a free acrobatic spectacle against the setting sun.

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Day 109-110 – The Hungry Sea

Suffolk

Suffolk

The many affluent villages of the Norfolk coast are among some of the prettiest and daintiest in all of England, with the only possible exception of those thatch-roofed Hobbitesque cottages in Surrey and Wight; they are all built in red and white stone, sandstone and chalk or flint, in various patterns and combinations. Those colours reflect Norfolk’s geology, best visible in the famous Hunstanton cliffs – which, in the shape of a Polish flag, are painted in two strips of red and white: the red is actually subtly divided into two shades, one of sandstone, one of red chalk; the white is your plain blackboard chalk. The cliffs also house a great colony of fulmars in summer, filling the air with the noise of their screeching and the foul smell of their stomach-oil.

The birds rule this coast, where once Romans had – the Norfolk being the location of the northernmost forts of the Litus Saxonicum, Saxon Shore, defending Britannia from the Germanic pirates, the remains of which still linger around villages like Brancaster and Burgh; the abundance of rare wading birds and proximity to Victorian London meant that Norfolk and Suffolk played a major part in the creation and evolution of RSPB. Its most popular reserves are still here – from Titchwell Marsh near Brancaster to Minsmere near Dunwich, filled with flocks of graceful pied avocets, the symbol of the Society.

With so much to see and do, in fine late autumn weather, the first day is a slow paced one, and we barely reach Cromer by the afternoon. Cromer, the “gem of Norfolk” is a seaside resort renowned for its crabs and other seafood; unexpectedly, it also has a good surfing beach – and even in the middle of the week there are still surfers here, struggling with the September swell.

After weeks spent in the barren wastelands, brown heaths and sheep pastures of the North, it is a strange experience to find oneself in the midst of a land so fertile and intensively farmed. Fields spread everywhere, and the farm shop displays heave with autumn produce – heads of sweetcorn, apples, plums, cabbages, potatoes, all freshly harvested from the land we drive through. There’s even lavender, grown in the Norfolk Lavender centre, to flavour honeys, beers and cosmetics. Further in Suffolk, the vegetable patches make place for pig pastures, acres upon acres of sties, where the bacon-givers roam freely in the muck.

The Norfolk Broads that we enter on the second day are another reach of a reclaimed land; now a quasi-National Park, the network of long, deep lakes, winding rivers and canals among the reed-beds and marshes is now one of the favourite holiday destinations from London, and even in late September the marinas are filled with small yachts and motor boats. The Broads had started simply as great ditches cut into the medieval peat fields to provide the surrounding monasteries and cathedrals with fuel; the sea raised and began to flood the region, despite the local efforts, and even the Dutch failed to dry the peat marshes. The landscape that remained after all that is very much that of Holland: all windmills, dykes, and canals. National Trust owns one of the windmills, a particularly attractive one at Horsey, and we turned from the main road to see it; it’s an idyllic site, great for picnics, with thatch-roofed cafe on the shore of a reed-strewn lake.

The Broads lie on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, and our next stop is in the southern of the East Anglian shires; the final of Britain’s Cardinal Points on our journey – the Easternmost.

Until you arrive at the very point, nothing betrays that there’s anything of interest here – the road winds through gas terminals and chemical plants of Lowestoft, with almost no signs to point the way. At the end there’s a small car park, a single tall wind turbine (tallest in England, incidentally), and a large, round plaque set into the ground. This marks the Ness Point itself, and shows the absolute distance to all the cities of Europe, and the rest of cardinal points; we learn it’s 850 miles to Warsaw, as crow flies.

The eastern gale batters against the foreshore, and tankers ply the Channel on the horizon; the wind turbine turns slowly, and the gas refineries belch fumes behind us. There are a few passers-by here, one or two tourists who seem lost, and a lonely bird watcher, looking at some unknown point in the distance. It is a scene as remote from the wind-swept, romantic emptiness of Dunnet Head, Lizard Point or Ardnamurchan as possible – and yet somehow remains, against all odds, quintessentially British.

The sea plays with the East Anglian coastline; the tides here are on a Biblical scale, fast and epic; in places the low-lying marshland is slowly submerged, in others, the beach expands and multiplies into moving tombolas and nesses, like that at Orford. People who live here must be constantly aware of this battle, which man must inevitably lose: just as, over the centuries, he had lost the villages towns of the Suffolk shore, and none more so than the nigh-legendary burgh of Dunwich.

We arrive late to Dunwich; but since the last remnant of a church wall fell from the cliffs twenty years ago, there’s not much to see here. It’s being here that counts, seeing the famously receding cliff and the cruel sea, lapping at its feet, and trying to hear the bells ringing beneath the waves.

Dunwich is now a tiny village of few streets, one church, one pub, and a ruined monastery. But just beyond the beach lies another Dunwich: a wealthy trade port of four thousand souls, devoured over the course of several storms in late Middle Ages. It’s not a mythical Atlantis, but a true lost city; the ruined monastery survived only because it was on its outskirts – and it was one of the two within its borders.

For decades the archaeologists believed that little or nothing of the old Dunwich remains on the bottom of the sea, but since 2008, with use of the newest techniques, the city has been thoroughly surveyed and mapped; still more work remains to be done, as most of the old town is buried by several feet of sand. Hopefully when we come here next, there will be some new discoveries made.


We cross the Dunwich Heath – still in bloom!, past more pig farms and beech forests, before arriving in Rendlesham Forest, not far from Woodbridge. The campsite here is in the middle of a dense open woodland, not far from the defunct RAF base known as “British Roswell” due to a famous UFO incident (we didn’t know about it during our stay).

It’s a decent site, well laid out, level and with good facitilies; it’s also a fairly small one compared to other forest camps we’ve visited earlier, and a fair bit cheaper – just £16 with hookup.

Day 56-58 – The Lake Highway

Starting mileage: 19261 km
Day started: 10:00/11:00/07:30
Day ended: 22:00/21:00

Fermanagh

Fermanagh

The lakes of Fermanagh were our last major stop on the tour of Northern Ireland. They stretch the length of the county from north-west to south-east, stretching out into the twisted loughs of the Republic in the south, and connected with the Atlantic to the north.

Before the advent of modern transport, for hundreds of years the lakes served as the major highway to all the people living around them, a route of choice for pilgrims, merchants and Viking raiders alike. As a result a number of historical monuments – especially of monastic nature – grouped all around them, on tiny islands and peninsulas scattered everywher. The largest of these – and indeed the finest in all of NI – is the Devenish Monastery, on an island of Lough Erne.

Now, we discovered a trick about getting there in high season: although the sign at the entrance of the long and winding road to the jetty (turn left on the final, traditionally unmarked crossroad) says the ferry travels only every two hours, it is not so: the NIEA speedboat simply travels back and forth picking up whoever waits on shore. The whole journey takes less than a minute, and costs £3 both ways, so it really is an easy and fun trip if you’re in the area.

The buildings on the island – or rather, what’s left of them – span several centuries of the monastery’s former glory, starting with 12th century – after the whole site was burned down and replaced with new stone-walled church and tower. The round tower of Devenish stands 30 metres tall, and is one of the few you can actually enter (though not while we were there). There is a small 12th century church with an old graveyard.

Further up the island stand two more churches, of increasing size and importance – a 13th century one, and a large 15th century priory with a ruined cloister and naves, surrounded by a more modern graveyard in the middle of which stands a carved stone cross of peculiar, intricate design – its relatively recent age (500 years younger than most others) making it a unique example of this carving style.

Lough Erne is still a busy highway for yachts, motor boats and canoes, a popular destination for boaters sailing in from either side of the Lakeland, and even in the rather rough weather we had we were passed by several vessels – and one flying boat from the nearby airport. During WWII the RAF base on Lough Erne housed the famous Catalinas, the flying boats which made such great impact on the Battle of Atlantic, and there is now a museum here, though sadly without any actual planes on permanent display.

We drove for a bit north along the shore of Erne, passing through small villages and towns with odd-looking petrol stations; this bit of Fermanagh is strongly protestant – based as it is around Enniskillen, which was L/Derry’s twin Williamite city during the 1688 sieges; the main town of the area, Kesh, was festooned in Union Jacks and bunting in preparation for the “Maid of Lough Erne” festival, the highlight of which seemed to be the tractor parade (Harry Ferguson, inventor of the modern tractor being the famous son of Northern Irish soil).

The Boa Island, an elongated strip of land on the northern shore of Erne, connected by causeways to the mainland, was our destination next – a small Caldragh Cemetery off the main road, to be precise. Among the typical catholic gravestones there stand, weirdly and inexplicably, two ancient carved sculptures from late Iron Age / early Christian age. The idols are mysterious in their purpose and origin – all that is known is that the smaller one is older and brought over from another nearby island to ‘keep company’ the first one, larger and more detailed Janus-like two-headed figure. Even though they are so out of place on a Christian cemetery, the locals and tourists alike seem to embrace their mystic presence freely, as evidenced by many offerings of coins and small things before and on both of the statues.

On the way back from Boa we spotted a sign pointing to a stone circle a mere 3 miles away. Thinking nothing of it, we followed; half a mile later another sign said the circle was 4 miles and a half… some five miles of going up and down a narrow country road later we actually did find the circle, and it was actually quite an interesting one: not content with setting up a small circle of standing stones, the builders of Drumskinny topped it off with a line of stones leading off into the marshes, and adding a small cairn just outside. Altogether, it was an example of a complex stone composition for which the marshes of NI are famous: there are more of them in the bogs of central Tyrone, where we didn’t get to on our trip.

The car was slowly dying under us, so we began to look for a place for the night; there were plenty of caravan parks nearby, but none of them suited our tastes, and so we drove around the shores of Erne for far too long before finally stopping at another caravan park on the hillside above the lake.

There is not much to be said of our journey back to Belfast the next day. We stopped at Enniskillen for completion’s sake – that way we ‘ticked’ all six county capitals of Northern Ireland; the local castle was opened from 2pm – which is a very strange custom if you ask me – so we contended ourselves with an outside photo of the wall turrets.

Half-way through we embarked on another futile search of an ancient burial mound, but could not find it anywhere: the last arrow on the route pointed us first to the right, and after a long walk another arrow pointed us right back where we came from; there were a couple side roads jutting out into the forest, and for all we knew it could have been any of those.

In Belfast we first drove up to the docks to see whether we could find the ferry jetty easily (we couldn’t; there are too many docks and ferries leaving Belfast, and the Steam Packet jetty is well hidden among them), and then visited the city centre to drink an obligatory pint in the only working pub owned by the National Trust: the Crown, a former gin palace, lavishly decorated and restored to its original Victorian glory.

We found ourselves in Belfast on the day between riots: on Friday, 56 policemen were injured; on Sunday, a police station was attacked with firebombs; but on Saturday, when we got there, it was hard to tell anything was amiss. The high street was full of foreign tourists. and the Union Jacks and Republic flags fluttered in the wind in their respective districts as they always had.

The ferry took us out of Belfast the next morning, heading fast towards Isle of Man. On the way out we passed one last attraction of Northern Ireland: a mighty, 100-year old ship; no, not the Titanic, on which Belfast seems to be basing its entire economy nowadays, but HMS Caroline: the last survivor of the greatest battleship battle in history, the Battle of Jutland. The only one out of 250 warships that took part in the fight still afloat, it now rusts slowly in the Belfast docks, like a grizzled veteran watching the young whippersnappers whizz past it back and forth.

Devenish Monastery

Devenish Monastery

Drumskinny

Drumskinny

The Crown Bar

The Crown Bar


Drumhoney Holiday Park  is, basically, a vast expanse of tarmac, filled with caravans; it has the usual full range of facilities (glad to report both their laundry machines and tumble dryers work well, and we spent £10 on drying and washing) and typical price of £25, but it would be nothing to write about if it wasn’t for a great male red deer which lived in an enclosure right next to our pitch, with a donkey friend. The deer bellowed through the night, desperate to find a mate – the donkey was not interested.

Sometimes when all seems lost, you can find a campsite where you least expect it. It was Saturday when we arrived in Belfast, which meant everything we could find was fully booked and this time we couldn’t stay overnight at the terminal. In desperation we turned to our Sat Nav; surprisingly, it knew of a campsite nobody else on the net knew about: the Lakeside View, near Hillsborough.

The Lake in question was a small local lough, which meant of course abundance of midges, but other than that it was a perfectly normal small site, with good pitches and decent facilities, something we had struggled so hard to find in NI before. And being only half an hour away from the docks, it was ideal to stay the night before the ferry to the Isle of Man.

Day 46 – The Kingdom of Slate

Starting mileage: 18555 km
Day started: 10:00 
Day ended: 22:00

Gwynedd

Gwynedd

It’s not easy to see the summit of Snowdon – like Mount Fuji, it is almost always hidden behind the clouds. But the clouds over Snowdon are a show of their own, especially at dawn or sunset; a rising reflection of the mountain one moment, a baroque conglomerate of three-dimensional shadows the other, and for a brief moment when the sun paints them bright pink, a great bowl of candyfloss.

It is at the foot of the mountain, at the head of the glen that forms lake Padarn, that a town of Llanberis was built; first as one of the chief outposts of the kingdom of Gwynedd, underneath an imposing castle of Llywellyn the Great, guarding the pass into the heart of Snowdonia, and itself guarded by the nigh impassable mountains. Centuries later it became the capital of another kingdom – of slate quarries.

The Welsh are proud of their slate – an ancient metamorphic rock, used in a variety of industries, famously easy to split one way, but then extremely resistant against weathering – and rightly so; they quarried it in millions of tonnes and exported all over the world. “The Welsh slate roofed the world,” the saying went; in 19th century it became the principal industry of Wales, employing thousands of people in dozens of quarries.

The legacy is still strong in North Wales, and everywhere you go there will be something slate-related – remains of a quarry, a railway track built to transfer slate, a slate harbour, a slate gallery; most souvenir shops hold slate plaques and coasters, just like those of the South Wales sell sculptures made of coal. And in Llanberis part of one of the largest quarries was turned into a slate museum.

But neither of these was what had brought us to Llanberis in the first place; our main target was to ride the choo-choo train. There are several heritage railways in North Wales, most of them built over the narrow-gauge slate lines, and the Llanberis Lake Railway is the best compromise if you’re short on time and budget: an hour-long return trip along the shores of lake Padarn, for a mere £7.50 pp, behind a small steam engine once used to carry slate wagons from the quarries above the lake to the larger harbour on the coast.

The museum itself is quite extensive (and free), and does a good job of showing the life in the industrial-sized quarry, which had to be self-sustainable in most aspects of life: with its own foundry, smithy, wood mill, it was expected to produce everything needed for the labour in situ, apart from the food. The foundries alone are factory-sized, and hold at least eight furnaces.

Everything in Llanberis is also very, very grey. Slate-coloured, would be the good description.

From Llanberis we climbed the passes out back towards the coast, heading east to Conwy along the North Wales Expressway. We halted at Penmaenmawr, where I had read we could find a large sized stone circle, Circle of Druids (as if we hadn’t had enough old rocks yet) but after a while of driving around very narrow and steep streets of the town, and consulting the map, we discovered it required a long walk uphill into the fields to see, and decided we actually did have enough of the old rocks, for now.

We did not have enough castles, though – at least not the Edwardian ones. There was one last left on the UNESCO list in Conwy, and that was our final destination for the day. First we stopped by the Conwy RSPB reserve, but only briefly; this is a typical entry-level reserve, oriented at families (family ticket costs £6.50) and activities rather than actual bird spotting. A few little egrets, lapwings, knots and a family of oystercatchers was enough to not make the stop a complete waste of time, but with the castle tantalizingly rising right across the river from the car park, we skipped the remaining hides and headed back to the town gates.

Conwy mighty town walls, black as night, look almost unreal, so perfectly they surround the centre, climbing  the hills and descending into the river harbour just as they had on medieval drawings or old engravings. A walk along their top took us from the car park to the castle gate; the original gate and drawbridge did not survive – and there doesn’t seem to be any plan to replace it, which is a bit of a shame – and so the visitors enter through the side door in the ruined gatehouse before emerging onto the wide open courtyard.

The remarkable thing about Edward’s castles is that, despite all being designed by the same architect, James of St George, each of them is completely different. Harlech is compact and tight, like a clenched fist striking against the Welsh; Caernarfon is sprawling, angular, palatial; Beaumaris is squat and labyrinthian. Conwy (£7.00 pp and usual discount if you are member of EH) is perhaps the most “castle-like” of all – it looks just like a “medieval castle” should look like. It’s got many well proportioned towers, thick walls, open courtyard filled with remains of grand halls, including a chapel and the royal chambers, kitchens, stables and granaries; it is an archetypal epic castle.

There are several bridges linking the castle grounds with the land below, and, built in 19th century, they are remarkable buildings in their own rights, especially the railway suspension bridge cutting right through the castle mount. One of the roads leading out of the town also drives underneath the castle ramparts – and that was the road we took to leave Conwy and head further north.

lake Padarn

lake Padarn

Slate quarry

Slate quarry

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle


We weren’t sure if we could find a nice, quiet campsite in this part of Wales, between the crowded tourist traps of Conwy and Llandudno; but our efforts were rewarded when we reached Tan y Bryn. The campsite – not to be confused with a nearby caravan park of the same name – stands on top of a tall hill, looking down towards a very industrialized part of the Irish Sea: our view comprised of several oil platforms, tankers and a wind farm – which we didn’t mind at all.

The facilities are basic and few (one of each for gents and ladies) but there is a fridge and freezer, and the owners are very accommodating with pitches, allowing us to stay where we wanted as long as our hook-up cable allowed. The place is also not at all as hard to get to as some of the web reviews would claim.