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 93-94 – Off-road

Latvia

Latvia

The border between Latvia and Estonia was one of the shortest, and shortest-lived in Europe’s history – some twenty-odd years between the countries’ independence and their accession to Schengen – but that didn’t stop the two nations from building a substantial, now-defunct concrete crossing point.

Even without it, however, we would guess we’re in Latvia now; this is more than a border between two small neighbours: this is a cultural, ethnic and economic boundary between the Nordic people and the closely related Baltics and Slavs to the South. Despite a shared recent history, and common friends and enemies, Latvia and Lithuania are very different and distinct from Estonia, much more so than we’d expected.

The quality of roads is the first marker of the new land – right from the border it becomes barely possible to drive; it gets better after some 20km, but never gets really good until we’re into Central Lithuania. It doesn’t help that our sat-nav fails to distinguish road types in Latvia, treating motorways the same as tractor-rutted gravel paths; we tend to end up off-road far too often for our liking, passing through empty quarters where the only living things are lazy cows sleeping under the trees – and storks, dozens of them. But even when we’re “on road”, on broad, main highways linking Riga with the coast, the paving can randomly disappear from our wheels. The EU money are hard at work fixing this sorry state of affairs, but there’s still a long way to go.

Latvia has been sovietised to a far greater extent than Estonia. The remnants of the collective farm buildings, centrally-planned factories and military facilities dot the landscape like so many medieval ruins. The land seems more densely populated, and developed, as well – more fields, small towns, canals; the road signs warn of deer rather than moose. The storks are now a constant feature of the landscape, at times the only birds for miles; we have been brought up thinking of these birds as completely normal in Poland, but now, after a few years away, they seem an odd sight, these distinctly African animals. We spot one fighting a snake on the side of the road: something more likely seen on a David Attenborough documentary rather than in Central Europe.

All the minor gripes about rural Latvia – and there are many – aside, its capital city is a true hidden gem of the Baltics. The Hanseatic Riga is definitely one of the finest of Central and Eastern Europe’s capitals, and even the years of Soviet occupation did little to mar its historic charm. Unlike Tallinn, it is a proper city – bigger than Manchester or Liverpool – and consisting of far more than just an old town and some suburbs. It’s a city of broad avenues and parks, of very decent coffee and good food; the old town area proper is vast, good enough for hours of slow wandering, if a bit run-down in places: the castle of the Knights of the Sword, for example, is yet to be renovated.

But it’s not the old town – not even the wedding-cake-like buildings of the Blackheads Guild – that’s Riga’s main attraction; rather, it’s the boulevards of the outer centre, lined with grand Art Nouveau buildings which miraculously survived the war, and are now among the best representatives of the style outside Paris and Vienna.

Though Riga itself is a sea port, those wishing to stay by the seaside must travel west, to the spa-resort of Jurmala. Back in its heyday, this must have been another hidden jewel of the Baltic, as can be clearly seen by the high number of romantic wooden villas from the interwar period: there are at least 10 miles of them along the main “prospekt” (avenue), hidden among the pine-grown dunes. The Soviets appreciated Jurmala in their own way, leaving behind enormous hotels, now abandoned, empty, and creepy.

But the creepiness of abandoned Jurmala is nothing compared to our next Latvian destination, Karosta on the western coast, a former Russian and Soviet naval base north of a quiet, industrial town of Liepaja. The tourist guides will tell you mostly about its prison, former KGB and Tsarist jail in which you can spend a night and request, at a fee, to have the Soviet prison conditions “reconstructed” for you (presumably, you can cross the border to Russia, break some of its laws and get the same experience for free…) – but, much more interestingly for us, Karosta was the port from which the Pacific Squadron set sail towards Japan to find its doom in the Battle of Tsushima, during the Russo-Japanese War.

As Russia’s, and later Soviet Union’s, main Baltic naval base, for decades Karosta was the most important war port in the region, and most secret. In Tsarist times it was apparently called “Little Petersburg”, and the traces of the old glory – grand church, lavish officers’ mess, etc. – can still be seen among the hectares of 1970s prefab apartment blocks. After the fall of the Soviet Union it was abandoned, and is now being slowly repopulated by adventurous Liepajans. Uncannily, Karosta has a popular, if eerie, beach, nestled between the fantastical remains of demolished fortifications, some of which rise from the sea like remnants of an ancient, submerged civilization.

The heat wave is turning into drought: it’s now constantly above 30 C, day and night; and as we sweat buckets, we begin to almost appreciate the strange, salty mineral waters sold in the Baltics; the “Soviet Vichy”, Borjomi Water, is yet palatable, once you get used to the taste, but the local specialty “Mangali no. 3” tastes too much like something you’d dreg from the bottom of the Baltic and does nothing to quench the thirst. An acquired taste, if there ever was any.

The coast south of Liepaja, once off-limits and pocked with military installations, is now as a result much less populated and wilder than across the border in Lithuania. So if you stop, like us, on one of the many campsites there, you will have access to a rare treat: a wide, golden Baltic beach that’s as good as any in the touristy resorts further south, but one that is nearly empty – and at times, completely empty – for miles each way.

(insert inspirational quote)

(insert inspirational quote)

Riga, House of Blackheads

Riga, House of Blackheads

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 86-89 Melting Away

Helsinki

Helsinki

When it comes to travel and sightseeing, being scorched by the sun is better than being cold, wet, and blown away, but only marginally so – especially in a country which is so unused to that kind of weather. And of course, our car fares worse in anything but ideal conditions; the heat affects the mechanical and the electric systems just as badly as last year’s rains.

Still, mustn’t grumble! We plod on, stopping once in a while to cool down ourselves and the engine. One of these stops is in the town of Hamina – or Fredrikshamn, as the GPS insists, having suddenly switched to Swedish placenames. “Hamina” means simply “harbour” in Finnish, but the town is a former fortress rather than a cosy marina. Built on a spider-web’s grid, it’s refreshingly pretty, clean and organized after the chaos of Vyborg.

But the chief destination of the day is Porvoo, and it’s a fine day indeed to visit the riverside town. The old district, rebuilt after an 18th century fire,  is one of the most picturesque in all of Scandinavia, certainly the best in Finland; the famous line of bright red, tar-smelling warehouses, (one of them houses a coffee roastery, the rest are now antique galleries) is its highlight, but the cobbled, undulating streets beyond are just as worth a casual stroll, culminating in the cathedral hill (where Finland’s first parliament had gathered in the 19th century). There are still more signs of the nearly cult-like popularity of Alexander I, who lived in the town’s most prominent building, and more stories of fair Finnish maidens attracting his attention.

We reach Helsinki in the evening, and stay there for a few days with our family; we know the city all too well, so like in Tampere, there will be no sight-seeing this time. We don’t have energy for that, anyway. It’s now 30 degrees in the shade – of which there is little in a city which for most of its history was preoccupied with getting as much sun and warmth as possible, rather than vice-versa.

Of course, in a city as happening as Helsinki, even if you stay at home, the attractions will eventually come to you, and so the next day we are treated to a WRC rally under our very windows; for the Finns, rallying is a national summer sport (it’s ski jumping and hockey in winter), and massive crowds have gathered along the street course to see their heroes (for those who know anything about WRC: the event featured, among others, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen; for those not aware of the sport, that’s like coming to a charity basketball game with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird).

We are leaving Finland on a ferry to Tallinn, on a long return road to Warsaw. This has been the longest stage of this year’s journey – 1700 miles in 19 days; and possibly the best. We drove mostly through wild forests and bogs, and pretty wooden towns; we saw reindeer, elk, and some rare birds; we met some of the friendliest people of the North, and many like-minded travellers, like the Finnish-English couple, travelling in a reverse direction in a car nearly as old and battered as ours, or a woman hiking the length and breadth of Finland on her own. Even the stout, silent old men (and women) of the northern forest proved surprisingly friendly in the end.

There are some signs of economic decline, especially in the East: closed-down campsites, hotels and petrol stations. Not sure if it’s just temporary, due to lack of Russian tourists this year, or something a bit more ominous. We struggled against the heat and the mosquitoes (each night we had to make a decision whether we wanted to stew in the car with closed windows, or get eaten alive). But we will miss Finland, and we wish we could return to it some time soon.

 

Porvoo

Porvoo

At the WRC event

At the WRC event

Day 76-78 – Chasing the Sun

Lapland

Lapland

Due to Orca’s venerable age and less-than-stellar condition, one crucial factor that determines our route is the quality of roads and ease of driving. Uniquely in the North, Finland’s roads are all flat, straight, and (mostly) wide, so after some deliberation it became obvious the Finnish part of the trip will be by far the longest and furthest. Our target: the Arctic Circle.

We drove from Tampere due north, almost without stopping, before reaching the coast near Kokkola; the final 10 km to the campsite was our first – but sadly, not last – taste of the unsealed, gravel roads that link the motorways with the smaller settlements in the bogs and forests of northern and central Finland. The car survived it, driving at the brisk walking pace, but we ended up looking like a Camel Trophy vehicle rather than a stately old camper 🙂

The middle of Finland is a rough, post-glacial landscape, dense “timber factory” forests growing on rock-rubble; there isn’t much farming or pasture land to be found between the boulders and marshes, and what little there is, sustains only some oat. The settlements are tiny and far between, and it’s surprising to suddenly emerge, three hundred km later, onto the fairly densely populated coastal strip.

Historically, this is a Swedish-speaking country, which some of the inhabitants mark with yellow-on-red flags (similar to flag of Scania) on their houses. After our adventures in Northern Ireland last year, seeing flags segregating neighbourhood by language spoken brings back chilling memories, but luckily, the Scandinavians are too relaxed about their differences to turn them into anything violent.

There are populous towns all the way from Vaasa to Oulu and beyond, towards the Swedish border. Many of them are locally famed for their well-preserved timber old towns – Rauma being the largest of them; there is one in Kokkola, nicely set along a river, and we pause here to see one of the most unique sights in Europe. Everyone knows (or should know) about the Winter War, but here in Kokkola’s riverside park, was another, older proof of why you shouldn’t mess with the Finns: the only Royal Navy vessel still in foreign hands. Rather underwhelming up close – just a small, battered 9-men sloop hiding in a glass shed – this is a remainder of the Battle of Kokkola, when, during the Crimean War, a British invading flotilla was forced out of the harbour, with heavy casualties, by a handful of local militia supported by two ancient cannons.

Oulu is a large and rich city by Nordic standards, and holds a number of records, due to its northerly location; for one, it’s the northernmost 100k city outside Russia. Its oldest part, centred on a red brick market hall and marketplace, surrounded by timber warehouses, reminded us strongly of Hakodate: not surprising, really, as they both started out as trade outposts on the edges of Russian Empire. It’s the first – but by no means last – clear reminder of the vastness of Russia linking Finland and Japan together. Maybe that explains why we travel most to these two places…

We stop at a confusingly named town of Ii, just before Lappland, in an old campsite in the middle of another historical harbour village, Hamina, transformed into a living museum. The information plates mention the Tsar, Alexander I, struck by the beauty of “local girls”. We’ll later find out it’s a cliche common throughout Finland. Alexander I seems to be treated in Finland with no less celebrity than John Paul II in Poland; the only person mentioned more often in local histories is Mannerheim, the uber-marshall of the Winter War.

We cross the Lappland border the next day, and after a brief stop at the Kemi harbour – nice cafe in a red-paint warehouse overlooking the sea – we drive full steam towards Rovaniemi. The Arctic Circle crosses through the Santa Claus Village (you know, where Santa lives), a few miles north of the city, and this is where it’s easiest to make the crossing; as you can imagine, July is the lowest of low seasons for a Santa Claus-themed attraction, and the village is mercifully empty and quiet, comparably – there are still a few bus-loads of tourists, but nowhere near what this place is prepared to cater for.

We cross the marker, and drive for a few hundred meters more, to make sure Orca has actually visited “the Arctic”, before turning back and heading east. Everyone we spoke to before and after tells us that by not going further we missed out “the best part” of Finland, but in truth, we’ve already strained the car, the budget, and the timeline as much as was possible to get even this far – and it would still take a few days more to reach the true North.

It seems to be the National Day of Closed Campsites, as we approach Kuusamo. The first address on the map is missing entirely – we simply can’t find it anywhere; the second one, as the proprietor, a distinctly Tomte-like tiny old man in a blue Smurf hat explains, has “mumblemumbletoiletproblemmumble”. He gives us the address of another nearby place, on the shores of Samojarvi Lake near Ranua. This one looks empty and abandoned too, until the landlady comes out. She speaks little, and none of it in English (even though the place is advertised in the English brochure), sipping from time to time from a near-empty vodka bottle; but at least we are offered a place for half the usual price, with electric and something resembling a toilet. As the polar night “falls” around the lake – the sun never truly sets, and before twilight can come, the new dawn already begins – the buzzing mosquitoes and the haunting cries of the arctic loons lull us to uneasy sleep.

Royal Navy Gunboat in Kokkola

Royal Navy Gunboat in Kokkola

Arctic Circle

Arctic Circle

Polar Midnight

Polar Midnight

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

Day 117 – The Last Night

Kent

Kent

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 102-103 – Coffee and Gannets

Lothian

Lothian

We stay in Edinburgh for two nights, waiting for the final fix to the rear wheels; the garage is in Newtongrange, a former mining colony on the southern outskirts of the city with rows of identical red brick houses and a tall, disused railway viaduct; so is the campsite we’re staying at. Edinburgh centre is a mere half an hour on a fast bus, so we get to walk around the Old Town for a bit before coming back to learn the wheel bearings we ordered are still not the right ones. Third time’s lucky, though, and the next day we get the proper bearings fitted, along with the new brake drum. Hopefully this will last us all the way to the end – and more!

There isn’t much that can be said about Edinburgh that wasn’t said before by hundreds of travel writers and guidebook editors. Britain’s second most famous city, Edinburgh is basically all tourists, bagpipes, artists and students. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great place, but can feel a little monotone at times, and I don’t just mean the yellow-grey of its walls. Plus we have been here before, so this time we focused just on finding good places to have a sip of coffee. Between our last visit to Auld Reekie and now, the Edinburgh cafe scene has exploded, and now you can’t pass two kebab shop on Clerk Street without stumbling onto a new cafe.

If I mention kebab shops and indie cafes, it’s because that’s what Edinburgh’s high street seems like; for someone coming from London, with its massive social divisions and bubbling class war, Edinburgh is remarkably ungentrified. Apart from the row of department stores on Princes Street, you get everything together: Polish delis, posh restaurants, halal butchers, indie cafes, organic grocers, pubs, clubs and curry houses. It’s all mashed up together in a combination which makes one dizzy and wonder, what social-economic sorcery is this?

Another thing we’ve noticed this time is how small everything is in Edinburgh. It’s as if we had grown up since the last visit; I remember climbing to the top of Calton Hill – it seemed as if we’d conquered Ben Nevis; and when we got down, the prospect of climbing again to the castle was a daunting one. This time, we found ourselves at the castle gates pretty much by accident (admittedly, coming from the direction of Old Town it’s much easier) and we almost missed Calton Hill and its monuments altogether.

The cafes of Edinburgh are up to highest standards, especially around the Old College, and the Brew Lab alone is worth the journey; there are several outlets of the Artisan Roast which we have already met in Glasgow. Other than that, everything in the tourist section of the city centre is far too expensive, but then that’s to be expected anywhere. The Asian and Middle-Eastern shops around the Central Mosque, on the other hand, were brimming with cheap and tasty goodies we eagerly stocked up on.

Once we got the car back, we made our way towards North Berwick. It’s a small harbour town, which would be perfectly missable if it wasn’t for a bit of rock jutting out of its bay: Bass Rock, world’s largest gannet colony.

To the naked eye, the Rock looks just like another off-shore reef, albeit strangely silver all over. But even in the sights of poor binoculars, the silver turns into a countless, chaotic myriad of birds. Gannets, as we’ve discovered before, tend to live in huge cities; and the one at Bass Rock is the largest of all, a mind-numbing 150 thousand strong.

What was a shock for us was just how close the Rock is to the town. We expected having to sail deep into the Firth of Forth to see it, and we didn’t really have time for that anymore, after all the delays. Instead, the Rock loomed over the campsite in the morning, over the town, and even popped over the horizon a few times later in the day as we drove on, like some Hitchcockian nightmare.

In the town there’s a modern building, proudly named “Scottish Seabirds Centre” – but since it costs £8.50 just to get inside, we’ll never know what exactly is it that they do there, other than having cameras pointed at the Rock and a few other nearby islands – if somehow you still didn’t have enough of gannets. The seabird season is coming at an end, anyway, with all the guillemots, razorbills and puffins long gone to their winter abodes.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

Scottish Seabirds Centre

Scottish Seabirds Centre

 

 


Tantallon is a large holiday park on the North Berwick coast; it’s split into three parts – tent site, static caravan site, and touring site. It’s the touring site that’s the closest to Bass Rock, a breathtaking site in the morning, as it emerges from the mist. The facilities are a bit meh, though, and not justifying the price tag of £20 per night.

Day 92-93 – Muddy Harbour

Shetland

Shetland

With the ferry departing Lerwick at 5pm, we have a leisurely half a day to stroll around the town.

Lerwick, like all of Shetland, is unashamedly Scandinavian, and nowhere more so than at the harbour, where warehouses of red and green timber tower over the marinas. It is a surprisingly busy port, with oil boats going to and fro, tugboats whizzing past long and short range ferries and exclusive visitors, such as the Norwegian tallship Statsraad Lehmkuhl. In one of those coincidences that make you think Jung was right about synchronicity, this is exactly the same ship we’ve seen in Kirkwall five years ago, on our first ever campervan trip.

The sea-side walk takes us towards the Shetland Museum and Archives – a large building made up of several wharf warehouses joined together; the museum admission is free, and the interior is laid out in the shape of a succession of ancient buildings – a cave, a broch, a wheelhouse and so on. The exhibition is extensive, including plenty of Viking gear, Pictish stones, a separate hall filled with historical boats, and a gallery of Fair Isle jumpers. A more unusual for Britain is a small exhibition about Hansa traders – Lerwick had been one of the very few Hanseatic ports in British Isles, and the trade in herring and whale oil (and woolen socks) was a mainstay of its economy until after the Act of Union English wars forced the Dutch and German merchants out of Shetland.

Still further along the harbour we found ourselves in the area of Lerwick we had first seen on arrival to Shetland – the ferry zone; turned out this ugly industrial area wasn’t really Lerwick proper, only its northern outskirts. We were looking for a wool broker‘s warehouse here, and found it on one of the back alleys; the famous Shetland yarn here, filling the tightly packed shelves, was prepared for shipping all over the world, but judging from the labels, most of it was going straight for Japan. The wool of Shetland sheep is naturally colourful – you can get it in any shade of brown or grey here, and it will never fade or wash off.

From the wool broker’s we retraced our steps back to the Victoria harbour, and then ventured into the narrow streets of Lerwick Old Town. As in Peel and Stromness, the main town centre is set along a street separated from the harbour esplanade; it’s filled with the usual array of shops and art galleries, but in keeping with the Nordic vibe, it’s also pocked with designer stores, selling unique design ware from Sweden, Norway and London.

Lerwick doesn’t have many old buildings, having been razed to the ground by several invading armies in its history. Apart from Fort Charlotte – a grim, grey bastion looming over the town, pointing its cast iron cannons at any incoming Dutch (who turned from the chief merchants to sworn enemy after Shetland got involved in England’s wars) – the oldest bit of the town is at the southern edge of the high street, where there’s a small beach, bookended by two pairs of small stone buldings. That’s a lodberry – an old Norse word, meaning a place where a single merchant lived and worked; it consisted of a bit of sandy quay to berth the ship at, a warehouse, just big enough to stock the goods from the one ship, and a house where the merchant and his family lived.

As a further sign of its Nordic connections, Lerwick has something that was seriously lacking in nearer-to-Scotland Orkney: decent coffee. There are two fun-sized (or “peerie” as the locals say) cafes by the harbour, and in one of them – Peerie Shop Cafe – we chose to wait the rest of the day until the arrival of the ferry.

The ferry journey was shorter than expected, but far more bumpy than we could have guessed from the wind back on Shetland. By the time we passed by the lonely mound of Fair Isle, the swell heaved the boat so much it made walking straight a real challenge. Somehow, the car made the nearly four-hour journey through this in one piece – or so we thought.

We trundled up to a campsite in Kirkwall deep into the night; it was closed, and the barrier was down. We were facing a night on the car park. Luckily, a young backpacker open the gate for us. His name was Alexander, and he was another half-Swede we met on Orkney, this time the other half was Russian. What do a half-Russian and two Poles talk about at midnight in Orkney? Politics, of course 🙂

The next day we made our way to yet another ferry – a smallish catamaran from St Margaret’s Hope back to Scotland. Despite a clear blue sky, the swell was still there, made even worse by the small size of our vessel. Apparently, two such journeys in a row proved too much for our little van, and as we rolled off the ferry, we heard the dreaded screeching from the rear wheel. It was time to get serious about fixing it.

Unfortunately, that plan had two major drawbacks: it was Friday, and we wouldn’t find a free garage until Monday; and we were a hundred and fifty miles from the nearest city with specialists who could handle that sort of thing – Inverness.

A lodberry

A lodberry

The Old Harbour, Lerwick, Shetland

The Old Harbour

IMG_0450

Flotel in Lerwick


Like Lerwick, Kirkwall has its own leisure centre and campsite nearby. Due to late arrival and early departure, we were unable to assess the merits of Kirkwall’s centre, but it seems largely similar, with an addition of a cinemaplex in the same set of buildings. The facilities at the campsite were top of the range – I shudder to think of what we may encounter back at the mainland in terms of showers and sinks – and the price similar to that in Lerwick, £15 per night with hookup.

Day 48 – Valeria Victrix

Starting mileage: 18610 km
Day started: 12:00 
Day ended: 21:00

Cheshire

Cheshire

We rarely spend an entire day in one city, but Chester has just such an embarrassing richness of attractions that even over the many hours of sight-seeing I feel we’ve only just skimmed the surface.

The town is one of the most ancient and historical in Britain. Both its English and Welsh name, Caer, means simply “a fort” – and that signifies its origin as Britannia’s prime legionary fortress, the seat of the ever-victorious XXth Legion, Valeria Victrix, from which the town got its Roman name – Deva Victrix.

Unlike Caerleon on the other side of Wales, Chester’s historic importance did not end with the departure of the legion; it remained a vital strategic and merchant town well into the Middle Ages and beyond, which resulted in the city having one of the richest and prettiest old towns in England.

The first sign of Chester’s antique coolness was the pub. A pub in the city centre is usually a good indicator of what a place is about, and the Falcon oozed atmosphere. Set in an original, painstakingly restored 13th century black-and-white-walled house, with Samuel Smith’s outstanding ales on tap (£2 a pint!) it was the perfect introduction to Chester. Things could only get better from there.

We don’t do many museums on this trip, but Chester’s town museum was free and had two big rooms full of Roman stuff, so we could not give it a miss. Hundreds of artefacts were excavated from underneath the city, including an entire Roman cemetery with complete gravestones and sarcophagi, altars, temples, masonry, weapons and tools. There are several more floors of the museum, and an entire Victorian house reconstructed in the back, if you have more time to spare; definitely worth a longer visit than ours.

Shortly past the museum starts the pedestrianized medieval old town, the Rows quarter: street after street of quaint, dollhouse-like facades. Uniquely for Chester, constructed on two levels, which allows two sets of shops on every street.

Of all the attractions in Chester, one was highly disappointing: the Deva Roman Experience. It’s also the only one you have to pay to see (£5.50 pp); don’t. Not even if you are with little children, at whom the place is targeted. The “reconstruction of a Roman street” is tiny, dark and poorly made; the only thing worth seeing are several layers of excavated Chester street, showing stones from Roman times to Tudor, but considering what else you can see in the city for free, it’s hardly worth the admission fee and time spent locked in a dark room listening to audio play.

The covered market and the adjacent shopping centre are also not up to the hype (and up to the high standard of Swansea and Cardiff), although there’s word that they are being refurbished, so there’s hope.

With the very few bad things out of the way, you can focus your attention on the rest of what the city has to offer. The city walls, incorporating Roman masonry, encompass the entirety of the centre, and make for a good long walk. The cathedral square and the cathedral itself are very fine examples of Norman architecture – all built in the blood-red sandstone, typical for Cheshire but rare anywhere else in England. The Eastgate Clock – the second most photographed clock in Britain after Big Ben – is an intricate piece of Victorian sculpture and machinework; St John’s church, near the amphitheatre, is one of the finest early Norman churches in all of Britain, with its thick, low columns, grave effigies and Romanesque arched windows. The list goes on and on, as can the visit to Chester.

And there’s more Roman work to be seen all around the city. In the basement of a Spudulike joint – of all places – there are remains of the baths; there are foundations of a fortress tower near the walls, and further outside the city, in the middle of a field, stands a shrine to Minerva. Most of the columns and bits of masonry are gathered in the Roman Gardens stretching along the city walls near the river. But the finest of all is the amphitheatre: excavated only half-way, it is far greater than the one in Caerleon – in fact, it’s the greatest amphitheatre known in Britain. All of that, combined with the scale of other Roman buildings discovered prompted some historians to theorize that Deva Victrix was well on its way to taking over as the capital of Britannia from Londinium.

In fact, even the whole day seemed too short to fully appreciate Chester; we didn’t do the wall walk, didn’t see all the gates; we did visit (by accident) a fairly new and well needed addition to the town’s commercial landscape: an indie cafe called the Harvest Moon, with one of the most enthusiastic baristas we’ve ever met – and he makes a mean iced long black, too 🙂 Make sure to pay him a visit when you’re around – the cafe is just by the abbey square, on Northgate Street.

The Eastgate Clock

The Eastgate Clock

Chester Roman Amphitheatre

Chester Roman Amphitheatre

Chester Old Town

Chester Old Town


Church Farm in Wirral is a big activity centre near Liverpool with touring pitches tucked up everywhere among the animal enclosures; it is one of the most bizarre camping experiences – not only we could see rare breed goats, ponies and chickens from our pitch, but also along the way to the facilities we could pay a visit to meerkat colony or guinea pig shed.

Since it’s a working tourist attraction, you do get woken up by coach-loads of visiting schoolkids, which some may consider a drawback, but it’s only a minor one, and in exchange you get to be stalked by a quartet of pygmy goats every time you go to the loo 🙂 Also, the on-site dog is fantastic.