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

Days 26-29 – Shiny Happy People

Region Zealand

Region Zealand

King Canute had the right idea. Denmark should really be united with England. It is everything the middle-class, rural English aspire to be, and what they think they could be, if it wasn’t for those pesky proles and/or immigrants: clean, rich, covered in lush gardens, fertile fields and quaint thatched cottages.

Just as expected, the home land of the Angles looks just like East Anglia: flat marshland criss-crossed with canals, dotted with windmills. Even the square cathedral tower of Ribe rises from the sea of green just like that of Ely. The modern borders seem fairly ridiculous to a traveler: East Anglia, Friesland, Lower Saxony and Jutland are all part of the same scattered, marshy, sandy shoreline of the Northern Sea, and if it wasn’t for signs in different languages, you’d be hard pressed to tell where one country ends and another begins.

It’s an impossibly beautiful country, so much so that it’s beginning to feel disturbing. It’s certainly the most attractive countryside in Northern Europe, in early summer; all soft rolling hills, fields of green wheat and scattered poppies. There is not a single ugly building in Denmark. Everything modern – a power station, an office building, a road-side tractor dealership, a chemical plant – whether through planning, public demand, or simply the need to make a statement, is designed to the best modern standard, each a singular work of art made of cold steel, glass, grey stone. Everything old, or pretending to be old, is straight out of a fairy-tale, thatchedhalf-timbered, painted bright, hidden in lilacs and dark crimson roses. Cobble-stoned streets. Sculpted wooden pillars. Hand-blown glass in windows. All immaculate. All perfect. Even the county logos (above) are sleek and modern.

By the third day we’re getting slightly fed up with the chocolate-box little towns: Ribe, Kolding, Middlefart (sic! also: the signs warning of fartkonrol), Koge – a first world problem if there ever was any. The towns are bright, open and spacious, leafy, calm. The Danes are among the happiest people in the world, and it’s easy to see why. There is very little to stress about in Denmark, once you figure out the recycling; it all feels a bit unreal, like a giant Scandinavia-themed amusement park or open air museum.

After a day strolling about Odense – the district around Andersen’s house is by far the most idyllic we’ve yet seen –  we cross the largest road bridge in Europe to Zealand. A slightly busier day: we stop for shopping at Koge (another perfect, fairy-tale town), stop for a photo at Vallo Castle (heart-breakingly stunning drive under the ancient lime-trees, ending with exactly the kind of small, fairy-tale castle you’d imagine in this place) and a brief respite overlooking the Stevns Klint: a rarity in this part of the world, steep chalk cliffs dropping into the Baltic, and a geological curiosity on a global scale: here you can see the Dinosaur Extinction with the naked eye, as a dark line of iridium-rich clay in the rock.

The sea is two-tone: pure emerald where the chalk shines through, even purer sapphire further from the shore. Sweden looms grey on the horizon, and we could be there the next day, but that’s not the plan: tomorrow we head for Copenhagen, and from there, we get back to the mainland, towards the North.

Odense, Andersen Museum

Odense, Andersen Museum

 

Great Belt Fixed Link

Great Belt Fixed Link

The Sea from Stevn Klint

The Sea from Stevn Klint

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.