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

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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

Days 65-66 – Naturally Industrious

Stockholm

Stockholm

The motorway along the eastern side of Sweden goes through a beautiful country, a true Northern landscape of spruce forests and lakes, green rye fields, golden rapeflower and seas of flax in full bloom, azure, gleaming like water from a distance.

The land is rich with the legacy of industrial revolution: canals, ruined factories, remnants of paper mills; and nowhere more so than in Norrkoping: Sweden’s “Manchester”, once the capital of a thriving textile industry, based on a crossing of rapids and waterfalls pouring through the centre of the city. Once the factories floundered, unable to compete with cheap Asian products, Norrkoping drastically reinvented itself (as one does) as a hub of design, creativity and student life. The waterfalls, once harnessed to power the mills, are now tourist attractions and stunning visual landmarks, as is the old factory district, taking up most of the city centre, now transformed into offices, university campuses and museums.

The Gota Canal cuts through all of Sweden from east to west (or west to east); it links Baltic and Atlantic, is an immense engineering achievement, and a great alternative way to see inland Sweden. It links the two great lakes, reaching Goteborg in the West, but in the East it starts inconspicuously in a small hamlet of Mem, where we stay the night. It is a charming bit of the country, where river, canal and sea join together seamlessly, and reminds us very much of the canals of England and Poland. The entry lock is busy all day, as small steam cruise ships putter back and forth between the small sea islands and the towns along the canal. Too bad that, among all this natural beauty, somebody decided to have a loud rave party nearby, which shatters our hopes of sleeping peacefully.

We move fast towards Stockholm, with one final stop at the Tyresta National Park: a swathe of forested marshland 20 km south of the capital, criss-crossed with hiking trails. The easiest and shortest one, the Owl Trail, takes us on a 3km loop around the chosen locations, showcasing the virgin forest’s unique ecosystem. Summer is budding here in the north; there are bilberries aplenty, among orchids and other swamp flowers, amazing beds of moss, and birch trees leaning against each other dangerously. The forest is untamed, which means the trees rot and fall on their own, and after the recent winds we need to tread carefully among the fallen trunks.

Twenty minutes drive from the centre – passing the huge white globe representing the Sun in the bizarre (and epic) Swedish replica of a solar system – of a virgin spruce wood, and suddenly we’re in the middle of Stockholm – the largest city on our Scandinavian route! There is a basic-looking, but decent motorhome site smack in the centre of the city – 2 km from the Old Town – and we’re lucky to find a place for the full planned three days of our stay.

 

Tyresta National Park

Tyresta National Park

Norrkoping

Norrkoping

Day 35 – Wales, Painted Roughly

Starting mileage: 17402 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 22:00

Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire

Did I say Wales would not inspire a painter? I didn’t mean Pembrokeshire countryside in the summer!

The landscapes here are painted with broad strokes; vast swathes of basic, earthy colours, like from a cave artist’s pallette: deep ochre on empty, untilled fields, rusty gold on ripe wheat, burnt dirty green on sun-scorched pastures. All this can be glimpsed from the roads which are carved thinly into these fields like canals, walled by gorse hedge and tall grass.

We drove down these tunnel-like roads towards one of the two coastal walks we had planned for the day. The Pembrokeshire NP coast is a walker’s dream, and can be hiked comfortably throughout; we had chosen two small bits of the entire hundreds-of-miles-long path that we thought representative of the whole. The first one was on Marloes, the southern of two broad and long peninsulas that border St Brides Bay. There is a tiny village of the same name at the foot of the peninsula, but after that there are barely any human dwellings for several miles, until a youth hostel and NT car park mark the start of the long coastal walk.

Right past the hostel the path runs towards Marloes Meres – a pair of long ponds and marshes which are somewhat attractive to birdwatchers; there’s even a hide, from which we saw a small flock of lapwings and some ducks. The sightings notepad mentioned an ibis appearing every evening for the last month, but as we were in the middle of the hot day there was little point waiting for the elusive visitor.

South Wales possesses in abundance something that is dying out in England: a real meadow; there is a richness of butterflies, field birds and insects in the unmowed fields that puts the rest of Britain to shame. Perhaps if the owners of every single campsite we stayed at wouldn’t mow their lawns to an inch of height, there would be a bit more of those around.

We turned towards the sea, with the small tidal island of Gateholm right in front of us. The islands in these waters all have Viking names – Skomer, Skokholm, Gateholm – a mark of an enduring presence of these robber warriors; no church or abbey in the Pembrokeshire and Cardigan coast survived the Viking age unscathed, no town unpillaged.

The cliffs and rocks before Gateholm were mildly interesting and we spent a while watching a rather large male kestrel hovering above the field and sea; the bird would follow us for the most of our route. But it wasn’t until when we turned right and followed the path for a couple more minutes that the real wonder of this coast emerged before us. A string of striking angular rock formations, perfect triangles of slate pointing right out of the turquoise sea (the water in Wales is generally a far greener shade than anywhere else so far) like overturned pyramids. On these rocks we could clearly see a pair of adult choughs. We had seen these birds before this year, but not yet so close. They are striking and elegant birds, rightly chosen as a symbol of the Celtic coast from Cornwall to Wales: raven black, but with deeply crimson beaks, as if bloodied. They are the finest fliers out of all crow-like birds, and unmistakable once you see them up close.

From the clifftops we could see towards other islands of the Pembrokeshire coast: Skomer and Skokholm nearest, Ramsay in the north, and far off in the distance, a strangely two-coloured, grey and white islet of Grassholm; we would learn the reason for this odd discolouration the next day, but for now we returned towards the car park along the cliff path, past a beach which, though secluded and hard to get to, was full of people; we would see an even more striking example of the Welsh affinity for wild, secluded beaches later on in the day. The cool water lapping over seaweed-covered stones was a welcome relief to our weary feet.

After a short pit stop at Haverfordwest – we had been to this town a few years ago, and remembered little of interest, so there wasn’t much point of visiting it again – we headed for the northern peninsula for another brief walk. This region, with the “city” of St David’s at the end of the road, wasn’t as empty and desolate as the previous one. Our route started in an affluent village of Porthgain, once a thriving quarry harbour, now a cluster of holiday homes, art galleries and pubs. Of these the more popular was The Sloop, set in an unassuming white-washed building, which turned out to be a 18th century inn with good selection of local ales and meals at prices which made even us balk. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a lemon sole dinner for £20.

The major, easily spotted feature of Porthgain are massive red brick buildings of the old quarry, looming at sharp angles on the slopes over the harbour; this is where, at the beginning of the previous century, the slate and stone were carried on great conveyor belts from the quarries along the coast straight to the hauls of waiting ships. This was a high-tech, industrial scale mining, which scarred the coast leaving curious features in the rock which we were about to discover. The path climbs to the top of the cliff, over the conveyor belt base and past the ruins of quarry buildings. The rock face here is sheer, dropping straight into the sea in great gorges; with the bright sun in our faces and the turquoise water below, these deep coves would not be out of place in Mexico. All that was lacking were careless youths leaping from the cliff tops into the dark sea.

Fans of “tombstoning”, as this pastime is called, do frequent this coast, however, their favourite haunt was still before us. First we had to pass two more of these hidden beaches mentioned before. Miles away from anywhere, accessible only on foot, they were nevertheless full of people, sunbathing, swimming and diving.

Marked with a characteristic rectangular building on top of a bald hill was the target of our journey, the Blue Lagoon, or Pwll Glass; a great hole in the ground left over from a quarry operation, now filled with water the colour of amethyst. Being completely artificial, the Lagoon has perfectly straight walls and deep bottom, and this is where tombstoners gather. Depending on their skill and courage, they jumped from various shelves and levels, from a few feet high ledge to a twenty meter-tall wall. We watched them from a cliff above, which was so high that the sound of their splashes reached us a good half a second later than we saw them.

It was near 7 pm when we finally returned to Porthgain, and we still had to stop by St David’s to pick up tickets for the next day’s expedition. Tired and hungry, we searched for a campsite as near to the St Justinian’s quay as possible.

Marloes

Marloes

Porthgain's quarry

Porthgain’s quarry

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon


I don’t even remember the name of the campsite we stopped at. It was one of the C&CC-friendly sites near Caerfai Bay, but I have little good to say about it, and if we weren’t so tired, we would have searched further. It’s expensive, at £20, with only basic facilities. The view over the bay and towards Skomer was nice, but the next morning we discovered there were campsites right outside the quay we were going to sail from, and I wish we would have found out about those sooner.

Day 26 – Where the moor meets the sea

Starting mileage: 16548 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 21:00

Somerset

Somerset

What started as another slow day, turns into a long trudging trek through Exmoor heights, as we finally leave Devon and for the first time in almost two weeks enter a shire we haven’t seen before.

The name of the small town of Woolacombe has a distinctly Australian sound – it’s the “Woola-” suffix that you’re much more likely to find near New South Wales rather than the old South Wales – and the beach looks Australian as well, two miles wide and at low tide stretching for hundreds of meters; the sea shallows stretch even further, making the conditions generally excellent for surfing; not today, though. The combination of ebbing tide and easterly winds made the waves flow sideways, almost parallel to the beach. The water was otherwise calm and good for swimming, but for some reason terribly cold, so we only managed a few minutes. There was a much more fun place to splash about on the beach though – a proper “rock pool” left over by the tide among the boulders, vast, full of seaweed, palm-sized crabs and in places chest-deep – and of course, much warmer than the sea itself.

Just to the east of the surfing “combes” of North Devon starts the Exmoor National Park; the second of Devon’s grim highlands, it has a distinct advantage over its southern counterpart, Dartmoor, in that the granite hills and heaths reach here all the way down to the ocean, making them not only more accessible for us, but also creating spectacular views over tall, massive, jagged cliffs. England’s tallest cliff, the Hangman, is here, as is the number of other grand summits. We stopped briefly at the gateway to Exmoor, Combe Martin; the town has little in the way of attractions, and the only beach is quite narrow and grey, but again it stretches far out at low tide, and is flanked by rugged granite edges on both sides, where a few fulmars nest in good view (it is always shrewd to keep away from the nests as fulmars can spit a foul-smelling oil). Despite it being famous for its strawberries, we could find none – only one last punnet in the nearby farm shop.

The A39, the “Atlantic Highway” as it’s called along the Cornish and Devon coast, is one of the most beautiful roads in England, but also one of the most difficult. It winds constantly up and down steep hills and buffs of Exmoor, straining the engines and breaks of older vehicles – like our poor van – to the limits. It’s a good test before any Alpine roads. In places there are toll roads allowing big trucks to bypass the particularly steep gradients – the worst hill is in Porlock, a sheer 25% drop. The views, however, are splendid: at times, there is nothing but a several hundred feet of sharply dropping heath between you and the muddy-blue waters of the Bristol Channel.

The entire Exmoor coast is dotted with sites of national importance and great natural beauty, and it’s a hard choice if you only have time to see one. We headed for the small town of Lynton, which promised us one of the finest, and easiest to get to, vistas of the entire National Park.

Whoever was naming geographical features in this part of the world, ran out of imagination when he got to Lynton. The place we were to visit was called simply The Valley of Rocks. It was undoubtedly a valley, and, fair enough, there was a lot of rocks, but for a place this magical you’d hope for something a bit more epic.

The Valley of Rocks is a deep glen, once carved by a river into the granite tors; the steep slopes are overgrown with fern and tall grass, and topped with sharp rocky outcrops. It’s one of those places that look like straight out of a fantasy movie, and something about the high summits and vast, flat grassland on the top makes you half expect Legolas to pop up from behind the rocks, shouting “they’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!“. And that’s even before you reach the coastal path, from which you can see clearly all the way towards southern Wales.

A special mention must be made of the café at the entrance to the valley, the Mother Meldrum’s – named after a witch from a 19th century historic romance taking place around Lynton – which not only is set idyllically among two gnarled, sprawling trees, but also serves some of the genuinely best cakes I’ve had since leaving London: proper huge slabs of luscious apple and cherry pies and big steaming bowls of rhubarb crumble – or crumble à la rhoubarbe as our friend from Ilfracombe would have called it.

Past Lynton we got back on the A39 and, making only the briefest of stops on top of one of the great Exmoor hills to watch a herd of grazing ponies, crossed into Somerset and embarked on the search of a campsite for the night. It wasn’t an easy task – this close to Weston-super-Mare, and on a day this beautiful, most of the places were full. In the end, with some trepidation, we found ourselves in a place called “Home Farm Holiday Park” in Watchett.

(Along the way we whizzed past the small town of Dunster, which we’d normally visit if we had more time – and I recommend anyone to make a detour towards it if you’re in the area; it has an abundance of memorable sites, including a fine castle (NT) on a clifftop and a medieval market hall).

Woolacombe Bay

Woolacombe Bay

Combe Martin

Combe Martin

The Valley of Rocks

The Valley of Rocks


Almost a small village, “Home Farm” is vast and full of static caravans and tourers, but it has two major advantages over other sites of this sort: it’s perfectly located, between a deep forest and the sea (it has a private beach) and it’s cheap. In fact, the nice landlady only took £10 from us due to late arrival (the normal cost is mere £15 with hook-up!).

NB it would be nice if more sites had the policy of late arrivals paying less. We are being ripped off every day, paying for a full day’s stay, electricity and water, despite us arriving late in the evening and departing early in the morning.