Day 97-99 – …and back again!

Mazowsze

Mazowsze

If you’re in a hurry, the distance between Warsaw and Vilnius can be made in half a day.

We were anything but in a hurry to end our expedition, however, so we spent the next two days slowly driving around the post-glacial lakelands of North-East Poland, starting with the quiet and lonely Wigry – with its fortress-like Camaldolese monastery and still strong Lithuanian and Belarussian minorities – and ending in the Masuria, a string of lakes running in an almost straight north-south line from the border of Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast’.

These are tiny bodies of water compared to those we passed in Scandinavia, of course – entire Mazury would fit into one of the larger lakes of Finland or Sweden – but Poland’s most densely populated regions are but a stone’s throw away, and so the lakes are packed full of yachts, boats, marinas, campsites and small tourist resort towns. Historically, this is also a significant region, forming an age-old frontier between East and West; originally, it was inhabited by the Baltic tribes, close relatives to Lithuanians and Latvians, but wiped out centuries ago by Germanic conquistadors so thoroughly that nothing but a handful of place-names and reconstructed pagan rituals remains. After that, the region formed the easternmost boundary of Germany, expanding into, or defending from, Polish, Lithuanian and later Russian neighbours, until finally, the “East Prussia” fell to Poland, after another bout of ethnic cleansing and name-changing.

Centuries of wars left plenty of scars on the landscape – gothic castles, 19th century fortresses, Nazi bunkers – but luckily did not change the character of one of the finest regions of (now) Poland. The roads, now hurriedly fixed with EU money, wound lazily along the avenues of majestic oaks and maples, up the causeways, across the wild forests. The woods are filled with wild beasts and birds – even as rare as lynx and wolves. The birch-grown bogs, though miniature in size, sometimes resemble a more Nordic landscape, reminding us that we are still very much within the basin of the same sea.

We make the last stop at a marina in Ruciane-Nida; a shock of nostalgia: more than fifteen years ago, we (or at least half of us) used to sail from here with friends every summer. Surprisingly little has changed since then; even the yachts remain the same, except now everyone has an electric hook-up to charge their wi-fi-enabled gadgets.

Originally, we were supposed to fly through the Baltic States, stopping only in major cities; we changed our minds at the last moment, and it’s a decision we don’t regret. At a little over a thousand miles, and mere 9 days, this was still a short episode in the entire journey, but then these really are small countries, even on the European scale. That said, they proved surprisingly diverse, from landscapes to the ways in which their people chose to cope with the remnants of Soviet past. Incidentally, the people of the Baltics – when they make an effort – turned out to be among the most attractive in Europe, combining the best of the Nordic and Slavic features into one hot pile of gorgeous.

Nowhere in Europe have we been welcomed with such an enthusiasm and joy as in the Baltics. All the cheering, flashing, v-signs, thumbs-up, satan’s horns and general glee made us feel eventually as if we were carrying the dreams and hopes of the entire region on our backs. Just seeing the old VW putter along seemed to make everyone feel young and free again.

After 99 days and over 7000 miles, our Baltic odyssey is over: too soon; we ran out of money before we ran out of steam this year, and if we only could, we’d keep on driving.

To our surprise, the car fared brilliantly once we left London, though we deliberately ignored a few obvious signs of failure in the last weeks, hoping to reach Warsaw before anything serious breaks down. It remains to be seen how costly the repairs will be… The weather was the opposite of last year’s: dry and unbearably hot, though it certainly didn’t seem so at the start: in Norway we were still freezing under the snow-capped peaks of fjords. But the heat is better than cold, and we remain in far better shape than last October, and not just because the journey was a whole month shorter.

It was supposed to be a “Scandinavia trip”, but it turned out to be an expedition around the Baltics (with the exclusion of Poland’s coast, though we’re familiar enough with that part): we’ve even peeked briefly into Russia. We made a lot of the route up as we went along: we were never supposed to reach the Arcic Circle, or spend more than a couple of days in the Baltic States. But if I regret anything it’s that the journey was too short, and that we visited too few places. The Baltic is a fantastic sea, full of history and wild nature, and though its shores have once been awash in blood, these days it remains possibly the only sea in the world that you can still safely circumnavigate in an old, rickety Volkswagen van: a testament to the hard-won unity and prosperity of Europe.

Mazury

Mazury

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Day 118-125 and beyond… – Overwintering

Mazowsze

Mazowsze

Well, here we are. October 15th – exactly four months after leaving our London flat, we are in Warsaw.

As we had planned, it took us six days to drive across Europe – with stops in Brussels, Cologne, Hannover, Berlin and Poznan. We drove for 200-300km per day, all on motorways (including the new one in Poland – it wasn’t here the last time we traveled the country), at speeds the van hadn’t dreamt of… we think something may have gotten broken again, but we made it through all in one piece, and now have the winter to figure out if, and what, to fix.

We stayed with family in Brussels, with friends in Poznan, and on campsites in Germany. It was cold, windy, rainy, and for the last night in Berlin we had a fierce thunderstorm above our heads competing with airliners landing on a nearby Tegel airport.

We didn’t do much sightseeing – it wasn’t that kind of a trip; we did eat, though (and drink) in some of our favourite places, even if it meant standing 2 hours in a queue in Berlin for Mustafa’s legendary Gemusekebap. We did stroll around Brussels and Cologne for a bit, but that wasn’t our first time in either of them. We still need to go back to Cologne to visit the Roman Museum – it was already closed by the time we got there, and it looks like a full day trip anyway.

The campsites in Germany are of a completely different standard than the English ones. I’m not saying better – just different. There’s a very 70s working class holiday vibe in them; the one in Cologne is probably the best of the three, right on the Rhine; there’s fantastic Autumn going on in Europe right now, and there is no better sight in the world than autumn trees reflecting in the water (those who’ve been to Kiyomizudera in November will know what I’m talking about); Germany had plenty of that on offer.

We got into Warsaw on the last moment; the night before it was already frost on the ground, and first of the winter fogs, dissipating as we entered the motorway for one last time. It’s still Indian Summer in Poland, but it feels like the snow might come at any moment now, and we’re not fit to face the winter – not just yet, at least. So ,like a Great Heathen Army staying the winter in Repton, we’ll be in Warsaw, waiting for the spring thaws, before moving on.

This is definitely not the end of our journeys. Next year – next trip! And until then, we’ll be posting more summaries of last year, things we forgot to mention, tips, and whatever else we can think of – only not as often as before. So don’t go away too far!