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 101 – Summer’s End

Lothian

Lothian

The summer went out with a bang, offering us on its last day something we hadn’t dreamed of happening ever again on this trip: a warm, sunny day out on the beach, eating gelati.

It’s hard to tell at first what St. Andrews is more famous for: as home of golf, or as Scotland’s oldest, and the English speaking world’s third oldest university. But once you get into the town itself, it becomes pretty obvious: this is a town of students far more than the town of golfers. After all, golfers only visit here – the students are here to stay.

In the bright, amber light of the last summer sun, St Andrews is an exceptionally beautiful town; the South Street – linking the University grounds with the cathedral grounds – takes an air of a Provencal town, a bit Arles, a bit Aix-en-Provence; the cast iron gates, the pastel walls and the narrow passages with paint peeling off remind us unexpectedly of Warsaw Old Town; but most of all, St Andrews resembles Oxford – not in architecture as much as the atmosphere.

The town has its share of historical ruins – the ruined cathedral, with relics of Scotland’s patron, once the greatest in all of Scotland, now sprawls over an entire district to the east of town centre, almost as big as the ruin of Glastonbury, with a vast cemetary set on a downward hill which, in a strange way, resembles the streets around Kiyomizu in Kyoto; and the castle, a picturesque shell on a promontory, not unlike the Dunnottar from the day before. As if all of the above wasn’t enough, St Andrews is blessed with two wide, golden beaches within walking distance from the town centre; the North Sea is warmer than we expect, and we wade its waters barefoot, maybe for the last time this year – definitely the last time this summer.

And like a scene from Harry Potter (written just some 30 miles away, after all) a gaggle of students climbs the sea wall, all dressed in sumptuous red gowns; the students of St Andrews are expected to wear these wherever they go (except St Mary’s College, who wear black gowns); it does not half increase the magic of the town, and the deep scarlet of the outfit works wonderfully against the turquoise sky. Once again, I feel like I’m on a movie set.

There’s just one last thing we need to try before leaving St Andrews – the ice cream; “world famous” is much bandied about when it comes to ice cream in Britain, for some reason (not what you’d normally think of English ice cream), but the Jannettas parlour in St Andrews might just be the only one deserving the praise, considering the numbers of foreign tourists passing through South Street. It certainly is a big one, and an old one – four generations of Italian gelati makers are shown on the walls – and it has plenty of flavours, but nothing exactly breath-taking; the green tea is disappointingly sweet.

It’s a weird place, St Andrews. It’s one of the prettiest towns in Scotland, if not in Britain, but we’re quite sure we couldn’t move here: it would remind us too much of other places we’d rather be.

This being the day of the equinox, we are setting off in search of an appropriate stone circle; it would be a great shame if, having visited so many of them in the past months, we’d miss out on a stone circle visit during one of the four most important days in their builders’ calendar.

There is one easily accessible stone circle in Fife, part of a larger landscape near Glenrothes (the one in Fife, not in Speyside), with the rest of it hidden in the nearby forests; there’s not much of it left – just two stones, a henge and some wooden post markings – but the setting makes the journey all worth it. It’s the only stone circle that I know of that has a modern housing estate built around it. With tightly packed bungalows all around the circle, the locals – celebrating the equinox in their own special way, by blasting reggae out of the windows – have a unique claim to fame: their village green is at least 6000 years old!

From the centre of the circle, we hail the departing summer sun, and get back into the van. There’s just one more place we need to visit today, before crossing the Forth; and it ties in neatly with what we had seen a few weeks ago, on the other side of Scotland.

The sanctuary of Iona had been Scotland’s first royal mausoleum, and it had served many generations of the Pictish kings, who died one after another in fighting the Viking invaders; but after it was finally taken over, a need for a new mausoleum arose: and the choice was the Dunfermline Abbey.

With royal patronage, the abbey grew immensely; several Scottish kings were either buried in its crypt, or born in an adjacent palace. These days it’s mostly another vast ruin, having been abandoned and largely dismantled after the reformation. The abbey church itself remained, a fine and grand example of romanesque architecture – the column patterns similar to those of the Durham munster – and its most important burial is now prominently displayed in its centre, with a new brass plaque (and a sign carved in stone at the top of the church tower, pointing to it) – that of Robert the Bruce, that most famous of Scottish kings.

It’s a fine stroll around the abbey grounds, in that last of summer afternoons, with trees in the park turning gold and red; the horse chestnut trees grow crimson and deep pink, something we managed to forget about – it seems the chestnut-eating insect plague had not yet reached that far North. On our way back to the car we pass the Carnegie Museum, set in a cottage where the great 19th century philanthropist was born; we only enter it to make use of the toilet, but the people inside insist on us taking a short tour of the place. We try our politest to leave.

There are two ways to get across the Firth of Forth, both have their drawbacks; going through Queensferry means missing out on Falkirk Wheel; going through Falkirk means missing out on the Forth Bridge. With our van on its last wheels, we must choose the shorter way, and are treated to the magnificent view of the latter, the iconic rust red structure gleaming in the evening sun. As we enter Lothian, the last summer sunset falls beyond the Uplands.

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St. Andrews

Balfarg Henge

Balfarg Henge

Dunfermline Abbey

Dunfermline Abbey


Linwater Caravan Park is a surprising gem of a campsite; the location is its only fault – it’s set rather randomly in the middle of a non-descript field. But everything else is top notch; it’s small and well laid out (none of that “showers here, toilets half a mile away” nonsense), the facilities are modern and squeaky clean, with glassed-through hot showers, and the landlady has enough enthusiasm to spare for four campsites this size.
And despite being some 10 miles away from the centre of Edinburgh, it’s a fairly bargain £18 with hookup.