Day 221 Warka to outskirts of Krakow, Poland.

Today was a day of contrasts. Our campsite last night was ‘interesting’! We drove about an hour south of Warsaw, to a campsite with mixed reviews. Some said it was the best campsite since buttered bread, others said it was dire, with a disco from 10pm to 3.30am. In reality, it was probably more of the latter! Being the Polish school holidays, it was teaming with children, and more importantly, teenagers. As we arrived, there was loud music blaring from a group of youngsters by a bonfire. The lady who showed us to our pitch seemed  really sweet, if a little apologetic. Within an hour or so, it became apparent why. We started to hear the sound of loud screeching brakes. This was the local youngsters joy-riding round the empty car park next to the campsite. Then there were the trains, going past every fifteen minutes or so. The final finale was the teenagers prowlng in the washblocks. I went for my evening shower, and it was like I was in a rave, with loud music blaring, and hormonal youths everywhere. Strangely, Howard reported the gent’s toilet block as very civilised – they were obviously all in the ladies. When, an hour later, I went for my last pee of the night, the little darlings were noisily throwing up into the sinks – joyous!

The noise of screeching tyres went one until about 3am. 

This morning, the campsite was strangely quiet, but the wash blocks were far from hygienic. I held my nose, as I went in to wash.

We didn’t hang around, and left in good time, with a long drive ahead of us. We stopped briefly in Warka, to take a look at the huge Catholic Church, with people arriving for Sunday mass. All of the town was shut. The people here take Sunday very seriously, with absolutely nothing open, bar the petrol stations. The countryside around here was full of apple orchards at every turn. I had never thought of Poland as a great apple producer, but it clearly is. The drive onwards towards Krakow was tedious. The roads were bumpy and pot-holed, with many roadworks causing delays. Even on the main ‘A’ road, a cockerel stepped out in front of the van, and there were ‘cow warning signs’ along the route. They are clearly building a new road network here, but until then, the driving is slow and quite stressful. Like the Lithuanians, the Poles are inpatient drivers, with a tendency to overtake constantly. We stopped only briefly for a coffee and pee stop. The temperature was soaring to an uncomfortable 32 degrees, and frankly, it was better in the van with the air-conditioning, than outside.

We arrived at our campsite on the outskirts of Krakow in good time. Although, not in anyway near the pleasant countryside of last night’s campsite, and incredibly crowded, it has turned out to be fine. Since the campsite was so busy, we were allocated an area away from all the ‘Big Whites’, overlooking the neighbouring park. The washing machines were available for free – a first in nearly 8 months, and the campsite was very quiet. As we completed our washing, and were hanging it up outside on make-shift lines inside the awning, we started to hear singing. The sound was stunning. It was a soprano’s voice, singing opera. Then a male tenor joined in. After pegging up the washing, we walked over to the park to investigate.

It turned out that there was an operatic concert in the adjacent park – free of charge. A large group of locals were sat on chairs and deckchairs enjoying the music. It was part of the local music festival. The singers were absolutely brilliant – of professional standard. It reminded me a little of the wonderful concerts at Glamis that we have attended in the past. We sat with a glass of wine and enjoyed the music for a while, before returning to the campsite for supper. As we sat outside eating tea, the concert drew to a close. Not before I had enjoyed some wonderful opera classics, as well as some more popular music from ‘My Fair Lady’ (I could have dance all night), and ‘The King and I’. Many of the songs reminded me of my Dad. For years, he was a member of the ‘Kingston Hospital Operatic Society’, and many of these popular classics had been favourites of his, often singing them around the house.

So today, we have gone from loud grungy teenagers to a wonderful operatic treat. Who would have guessed! It is one of the joys of travelling – you don’t know what is going to be around the corner next.

 

Day 220 Druskininkai, Lithuania to Warka, Poland.

Yesterday we left Lithuania, and made our way to Poland. That was easier said than done, since we had to drive through the narrow corridor of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad, neither of which we are allowed to drive through. Our satnav didn’t understand the vagaries of political no-go zones, so we resorted to navigating using a small scale map of Europe. We were so close to the border on much of our drive, that we were in the shadow of the old Soviet watchtowers.

Before leaving Lithuania, we stopped briefly at a charming town on a lake called Lazdijai, and another called Veisiejai, with it’s huge white church. This border area is clearly good for fruit growing, predominantly apples, but we also spotted some small bright orange fruits, which we still haven’t discovered what they were.

Crossing over the border into Poland, the weather started to heat up. For the first part, we drove through the beautiful Wigry and Biebrza National Parks, along heavily forested roads – it was almost like being back in Sweden or Finland. We passed through the pretty lakeside town of Augustow, where pleasure cruisers were taking visitors on boat trips through the lakes, and families were enjoying swimming from the small sandy beach. Just south of this area is the Bialowieza National Park, home to Europe’s last remaining bison, but is so well protected that there are no campsites within the reserve.

So instead, we headed south westwards towards Warsaw. We had both had our fill of staying in cities over the last week or two, but felt that we couldn’t come to Poland, and miss Warsaw. Our plan therefore, was to visit it during the afternoon and evening, and then head on to our campsite to the south. I remember reading about Warsaw in the Second World War as a child. My favourite book, which I read and re-read, was ‘The Silver Sword’ by Iain Serraillier, the true story of a family living in wartime Warsaw, whose children get separated from their parents. The American version of this book was originally called ‘Escape from Warsaw’. It gives a chilling account of the Jewish ghettoes, and the tyranny of the Nazis during the period of occupation.

Indeed, the history of Warsaw is tumultuous. In the 18th century, it became incorporated into Tsarist Prussia, before a brief period of independence after the first world war. By 1939, the city’s population had grown to 1.3 million, including 380,000 jews. In the autumn of 1939, the city fell to the Germans within a month. Prominent Polish leaders were shot to deprive the city of leadership, and a huge Jewish ghetto was formed. Throughout the war, the Jews were systematically deported, train by train, to extermination camps, or simply starved to death. There were two uprisings during this period, the first in 1943 was the Ghetto uprising, which was a futile attempt to save what was left of the Jewish population. It was cruelly crushed, and much of the ghetto burned to the ground. The second came in August 1944, when the entire Polish civilian population that was left in Warsaw undertook the ‘Warsaw Uprising’. Yet again, it was unsuccessful, but so incensed Hitler, that he ordered the complete destruction of Warsaw, with the SS systematically destroying all the buildings that were left. By the end of the war, 850,000 Varsovians were dead or missing, two thirds of the city’s 1939 population. Compare that to the total US losses in WWII of 400,000, and the UK of 326,000 losses, and it puts it in perspective the total annihilation that occurred here.

Post war, under the Soviets, a massive rebuilding programme was undertaken in Warsaw. The Old Town area was painstakingly restored to it’s former pre-war appearance, with new cobbles re-laid, and the baroque and gothic three storey townhouses and palaces reconstructed using old photographs and paintings. Along with that, came the inevitable communist architecture, the most startling of which is the huge Palace of Culture and Sciences, a gift from Stalin to the Polish people, which literally towers over the city.

Driving into the centre of Warsaw was a challenge (understatement!). As a result, we had managed to see most of the City’s highlights, after driving round the one-way system no less than three times. On our second pass across the river (unintentionally), we spotted the famous Plastic Palm Tree sitting in the middle of a roundabout, and extraordinarily, and rather sadly, a large brown bear, stood on a concrete platform in it’s enclosure in one of the parks. The city is a real hotch potch of old and new. Contemporary glass sky-scrapers sit beside ugly soviet concrete monstrosities, and then you are taken aback by the painstaking care that has gone into restoring the 17th and 18th century architecture, that has resulted in it being awarded UNESCO status.

After eventually parking the van, we were pleasantly surprised by the leafy squares and beautiful churches that surrounded us. In a park overlooking the river, we discovered a statue of Marie Curie, who was born in the city, before moving to study in the Sorbonne in Paris. She is one of the few people to receive two Nobel prizes, one jointly with her husband, for discovering polonium, and the second for her work in nuclear physics and the discovery of pure Radium. Sadly, she died from leukaemia, attributed to working with radio-active materials all her working life.

We stopped at a restaurant in a the lovely old square and had a very tasty early supper, before heading off into the Old Town to explore. Stepping through the red brick city gates felt as if we were stepping back in time. The main Old town Square was thronging with people enjoying a Saturday night out, and it was almost unbelievable to imagine that this was just sixty years old, and not four hundred. All around were reminders of the suffering in the war. We passed several plaques and small monuments dedicated to Poles who were shot dead, always with fresh red and white carnations adorning them, the colours of the Polish flag. Around the city walls was a statue of a small boy, wearing an over-sized pith helmet, monument to the children who fought in the Uprising. Around the city, were posters advertising the 74th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising this month. Strange to pick on 74th, but maybe that the episode has such an indelible impression on this city, that they commemorate every one?

I am really glad that we took time to visit Warsaw, albeit briefly. It is not, in truth, the most good-looking of some of the cities we have been to, but it is certainly one of the most inspirational. You could easily spend a week there, and not see everything. The many museums, I’m sure, would tell a gruelling tale of eventual triumph over adversity, and lead you to understand the psyche of the Varsanians better. But for us it was just a taster, and I must say, it left me feeling mad. I was left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, that knowing all that has gone on in Europe’s not-so-long-ago history, that we, as a nation, are choosing to turn our backs on the friendship, security and solidarity that our union within the EU offers. The rest of the EU does not understand it, and neither do I. Just my thoughts!

Day 219 Vilnius to Druskininkai, Lithuania.

Today, we left Vilnius, and headed towards the Lithuanian countryside. First, we stopped at a place called Trakai, 18 miles to the west of Vilnius. The star attraction here is Trakai Castle, situated on an island, surrounded by a moat. This was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until 1323, when the capital moved to Vilnius. The red brick fortification is a stunningly good looking castle, and not surprisingly, attracts hoards of visitors. As we drove into Trakai towards the castle on the peninsula road, fringed with attractive wooden painted houses, a women leapt out into the road with a parking sign, and gesticulated to us to follow her. Indeed, she was so demonstrative, that we did just that. It turned out that she had turned her drive and back garden into a lucrative car park, selling car parking places for five euros a piece to people visiting the castle. She bossily directed Howard into the allocated spot, and took our money. She told us that we could stay all day, if we pleased. We counted fourteen other cars in her back garden!

From the end of her garden, a small path led to a pleasant lake-side walk towards the causeway to the castle. En route, we stopped at a cafe, really because we needed a pee. After ordering two coffees, we stopped to talk to a large group of cyclists, with identical lycra tops. It turns out they were a group of twenty eight individuals, mostly around our age, mainly from Canada, but not exclusively, who were on a cycle trip through Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. We spoke to an English guy from Yorkshire, who had taken part in eight previous trips. They were a lovely bunch of people, very jolly and up for a challenge. None of them looked super fit, but they said it got easier each day, as their fitness level improved. I am always in awe of people up for an adventure. The certainly were having fun, which is the main thing.

We walked across the causeway to the castle, and took a walk around the perimeter. People were offering boat trips around the lake, and there were plenty of stalls selling touristy things on the way in. We didn’t linger, however, unlike the cyclists, who were still sat eating their lunch as we left. With so many miles ahead of them, they seemed incredibly relaxed!

We headed on through the Lithuanian countryside, driving south westwards. As we drove through the Dzukija National Park, a pretty forested part of countryside, we couldn’t help but notice a string of people, every fifty yards or so, along the side of the road, selling what looked like berries and mushrooms in jam jars, either from make-shift stalls, or from the boot of their cars. I later read that the Dzukia people who live in this woodland are known for their cheeriness, their great singing voices, and their ability to make a living out of virtually nothing. It is these berries and mushrooms, which they forage in the woods in season, that provide them with a modest income by selling them along the highways. Afterwards, I felt bad that we hadn’t stopped and bought some blueberries or chanterelles, to help support these people.

We continued on to a town called Druskininskai, a town within a kilometre or two from the Belarus border. I had read about the town in an article someone had sent me a week or so ago from the Guardian (thanks Ian!), and since it was almost on our route, we decided to visit. It is a popular spa town, frequented by Poles and Belarusians, famed for it’s salty mineral water, which is supposed to have healing and beautifying properties. On the road into town, there were plenty of posters, with people covered in mud, presumably having some sort of beauty treatment.

Just after we parked up, I spotted the real reason that I had wanted to visit. Directly ahead, in the balmy afternoon sun, was the spectacular sight of the sky blue, onion-domed Russian Orthodox ‘Joy of All Who Sorrow’ Church. It was just beautiful! I had seen a photo in the online Guardian article, and had been drawn to see it for myself. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. As I snapped away, Howard took to walking around in circles around the church, to get his step count up, much to the amusement of the locals!

We then waked down to the riverside, past the Druskininskei Health Centre, where patients are offered treatment for all forms of diseases and musculoskeletal problems, by therapy with the mineral water, mud and massage. The mineral water is high in salt content with 52g per 100ml. Just past the treatment centre, on the river bank, is a fountain, exuding the healing mineral water. Locals come here and splash it on their faces, since it is thought to enhance beauty. Needless to say, my husband decided to make an exhibition of himself, by standing under the fountain, and dousing himself in the stuff. Despite rousing a round of applause from the locals, I can report that he is no more beautiful tonight!

We decided to give Grutas Park, another local attraction, a miss. It is the world’s only ‘Soviet Theme Park’. Set up by a local entrepreneur, it is a complete piss-take on the Soviet regime. He bought up large statues of Stalin, Lenin and other Soviet leaders at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. They now sit in his ‘theme park’ which is surrounded by barbed wire, and has a mock up of a Soviet concentration camp, playing patriotic Soviet songs, offering herrings and Vodka in the cafeteria, and generally taking the rise out of the Russian regime that dominated Lithuania until they gained independence. It seems utterly tasteless to the extreme, but I guess the only way people who lived through this awful period in their history can deal with it, is to mock it.

Tonight we are camping near the town. It is a pleasant change to be back in Oscar, after our string of nights in hotels. The campsite is fairly basic, with no curtains on the showers, for example, but the people are friendly, and the campsite bar is serving Lithuanian beer, which Howard seems to like. 

Tomorrow, we head for Poland. Several of the campsites have posted that due to the heatwave, they have no water or showers, so I am not sure what to expect. Hopefully, it won’t be too grim. So tomorrow, we have a long drive. I just hope that the Polish driving is more forgiving than the Lithuanian’s. Whatever we find, it will be an adventure. Poland, for both of us, is a step into the unknown. Bring it on!

Day 218 Vilnius, Lithuania.

We have spent another wonderful day in Vilnius. Having an entire day to fill, I had promised Howard a visit to the National Museum of Vilnius, which is combined with a trip around the famous Bishop’s Palace. I must admit to not being a great museum buff, but Howard stood for what seemed like hours, absorbing all the historical information on the boards. There was an exceptionally good 3D presentation on the building of the Bishop’s Palace over the ages, for which you had to put on special glasses. Seeing the excavated foundations the original palace and city walls was also quite cool. However, after two hours, my enthusiasm was starting to wane, which was a shame, since they saved the best until last – a walk through the Bishop’s Palace itself. There were some intriguing tiled fireplaces, and lots of grand furniture, thrones and crowns, and the opportunity to climb up to the observation tower to get wonderful view across the city. Howard seemed to enjoy himself, though, and when we stepped outside, the sun had put in an appearance again.

We spent the rest of the day on a walking tour around the Old Town, following a route in the Lonely Planet guide. We paid to go into the grounds of Vilnius University, which boasts thirteen quads or courtyards. It was absolutely beautiful, very reminiscent of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. We also got to peek inside the Church of St. John’s, which was incredibly ornate and had the most splendid organ.

After a break for lunch, we continued on our tour, of sorts. The guide book had said that mindless wandering through the Old Town was a pleasure, and indeed, we often walked off track, down an alleyway, or stepping into a courtyard here and there, and got a real feel for this great Baroque city. We passed by several places we had seen yesterday, but the light was better, and fortunately the rain stayed off.

Tonight, we are walked off our feet. We sat outside our hotel in the early evening sunshine, and enjoyed a drink, listening to an exceptionally good busker on his violin.

It has been a pleasure getting to know this city. It has an incredibly turbulent history, including being a major force between the Baltic and Black Sea, sometimes in combination with the Poles, being invaded by Tutonic Knights, the Swedes, the Soviets and occupied by the Nazis, and then re-occupied by the Red Army at the end of WW2, who effectively ‘forgot to go away’ for the next 45 years. Despite all this, and the complete decimation of it’s large Jewish population, this city and indeed Lithuania as a country, has managed to maintain it’s identity, and now with independence has been re-born. The Lithuanians are clearly proud of their country, and their entry into the EU and NATO has cemented their role in mainland Europe, despite their large Soviet neighbour.

I would recommend Vilnius to anyone. It has a vitality about the place, and there is music and arts on every corner. The locals are welcoming and have not yet been worn down by mass tourism. Probably the most touching part of the whole city, for me, is that solitary ‘star’ tile in Cathedral Square, with the words ‘miracle’. The story of how this nation cast aside Soviet oppression by peaceful singing and linking arms, rather than through violence, is frankly inspirational. It is a story that will stay with me, long after this trip is over.

Day 217 Siline to Vilnius, Lithuania.

By this morning, the rain had passed, and the sun was shining again. We left our campsite, and drove along the road that followed the course of the Nemunas River, the most significant river in Lithuania. The land remained flat, and the river wide and fast flowing. As yesterday, we spotted many storks in the arable fields. I read that Eastern Lithuania has the highest concentration of storks in Europe, with 13,000 pairs.

We turned off the road at a town called Vilkija, just east of Kaunas to take a look at the river. Here, we could see a small car ferry making regular trips across the river. Looking at the map, I guess this was the most direct route into Russia from this area. Also sat besides the river was a memorial to the Vilkija Synagogue. I later discovered that during the Second World War in 1941, the Naxis slaughtered 800 jews in this town alone, decimating the Jewish population here. Almost unprocessable information. We then followed the road up into the town, where there was a massive two towered Catholic Church. A church service was about to start, and there was a constant flow of people arriving.

A little later we arrived at Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city. Our plan had been to stop there for coffee, but we became so confused with the road system, that we missed the turning to the town centre. The quality of driving here led a lot to be desired. We were constantly being cut up, and in the end, the aggressiveness of the drivers put us off turning round, and we decided just to head on to the capital, Vilnius. Certainly, the outskirts of Kaunas did not appeal, but that’s maybe unfair on the city – a little like comparing the Hammersmith flyover to Westminster.

Our approach into Vilnius was equally stressful. This is one of the largest medieval cities in Europe, and it’s streets are a maize of narrow cobbled streets and one way signs. We had booked a room in a central hotel, which supposedly had free parking. It was not my first choice, but seemed cheaper than most, so we had booked it last night. Once we eventually found the hotel, we were informed that the hotel had overbooked, and so we had been transferred to their five star sister hotel up the road, for no extra cost. We tried not to grin! Having left Oscar parked close by, we walked to the hotel, which was only two minutes away. The hotel couldn’t have been more helpful, as we explained we couldn’t work out how to negotiate the labyrinth of streets to drive to the hotel. They promptly produced the concierge, who walked back to Oscar with us, and sat in the passenger seat, directing Howard around the maize of narrow one-way streets to reach the parking area. The two minute walk took nearly fifteen in the van – we never would have found it on our own. 

The hotel is gorgeous! It dates back to the 16th century, and from our room in the attic, we can see the Bell Tower of the Church of St. John’s, part of Vilnius University. We very quickly decided to stay another day, and to our delight, we were given the same rate as our original hotel. Frankly, the whole process of getting here had been so stressful, that to just stay an afternoon and evening, and then turn around again seemed a step too far.

First impressions of Vilnius are really positive. The Old Town is as beautiful as both Riga and Tallinn, but without the mass tourism that the other two seem to suffer. The streets were still busy with visitors, but not the tons of large tour groups we had noticed in the others. The architecture, which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries is largely Baroque. It is a muddle of narrow cobbled streets, hidden courtyards and lovely church spires. Vilnius University, which dates back to 1579, was run by Jesuits for two centuries, and occupies a campus with thirteen courtyards, 15th century buildings and 300 year old frescoes and the Church of St. John’s. The rector’s office used to be in the hotel where we are staying.

We took a wander through the cobbled streets, and found a lovely cafe for a late lunch. We then headed off to see Vilnius Cathedral, with the adjoining Cathedral Square and Bell Tower. Situated between the Cathedral and the belfry is a famous tile – a star with the words in Lithuanian which translates as ‘miracle’. It was sited there after the ‘Singing Revolution’ 1988 – 1991, when two million Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians linked arms, forming a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius. It is said that if you stand on the tile, close your eyes and turn clockwise, making a wish – it will come true. Of course, both Howard and I had to join in with the myth.

Next we walked up the cobbled track to the Castle, which afforded wonderful views over the city, despite the looming black clouds. The rain started just as we were walking back down, so we took shelter in a cafe, and then made our way back to our hotel.

Tomorrow we will explore the city further. It’s history is chequered with tragedy. Pre-WW2, Vilnius had a Jewish population of 100,000 (out of 240,000 in the whole of Lithuania), and was known as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. The Jewish population was all but decimated during the holocaust. Following ‘Perestroka’ or re-structuring in the mid 1980s under the Soviets, an estimated 6,000 Jews left for Israel.

So far, our stay in Vilnius has exceeded our expectations. The city is lively and stunningly beautiful. The Old Town is like stepping back in time, and refreshingly lacks the usual tourist tat, that so often ruins a place. Even the buskers are up-market. As we took a stroll this evening – a classical quartet were playing along the street. They were so good, a crowd had gathered, and were sitting on the wall opposite, to take in the concert. I guess they must be music students from the university – and provided a wonderful finale to our first day in Vilnius.

Day 216 Riga, Latvia to Siline, Lithuania.

Today we bade farewell to Latvia, but not before visiting one of their premier beach resorts on the Baltic, a town called Jurmala. It is situated about 20 kilometres south of Riga, and is the Baltic’s version of Cannes or St.Tropez. It boasts a ‘Blue flag’ beach, and is a famous haunt of Russian Oligarchs. It’s broad tree-lined streets are rowed up with large elegant Prussian villas, all of slightly different shapes and designs. It is apparently the place to ‘sea’ and be seen, according to Lonely Planet.

We stopped for coffee in a pleasant pedestrianised area, and then took a walk down to the beach. The sandy beach stretched for miles, and was full of holiday-makers enjoying the August sunshine. The area we arrived at had a sign up telling us that this portion of the beach was an ‘Area of Active Recreation’, reserved for active people, rather than those lounging about sun-bathing. Of course, the whole beach was then treated to Howard’s version of ‘Big fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box’ – some strange dance moves that the boys taught Howard about ten years or more ago, when it was in fashion!!  

On our way back to the car, we spotted a stall selling inflatable loungers. As I walked past, Howard rather unkindly took a photo of me, unknowingly stood in front of a ‘Lazy Bag’ sign. His schoolboy humour is starting to wear thin! The item itself, though, was ingenious. It is like a giant stuff sack, that you inflate by running around, allowing air into it. The girl saw us looking, and proceeded to run around on the grass, demonstrating how to inflate one. After that, we couldn’t resist buying one. Within ten minutes of our ‘sun lounger’ purchase, it started teeming with rain!

We headed onwards, towards the Lithuanian border. 

We couldn’t help but notice that the driving was getting worse and worse, the further south we drove. Having spend nearly two months pootling around Scandinavia, where everyone stops, and waves you on, we have been taken aback by the aggressiveness of the driving here. Estonia wasn’t too bad, but the Latvians are a nation that has to be in front. Consequently, they tail-gate and overtake at every opportunity, often on blind corners.

At the Lithuanian border, we were stopped by border police for the first time since being in the EU. They politely checked our passports and Howard’s driving licence, and then waved us on. It was then all the fun started. In what seemed just yards from the border, the driving became even more frenetic. To add to the problem, the roads suddenly became diabolical – or as Howard described them, a giant bumpy patchwork. For the next hour, we were constantly overtaken, especially by huge Latvian lorries, completely disregarding the speed limit, until they spotted a speed camera, when they rapidly applied the brakes.

The countryside, as yesterday, was incredibly flat and featureless. Most of the land is set aside for arable farming such as wheat, but further on, we saw fields planted with potatoes, and a smattering of apple orchards. In one field alone, we counted forty storks. They really are the equivalent of the British crow, here in the Lithuanian countryside.

The other thing that struck me was how dramatically the light has changed. Way back in May, when we crossed over into Denmark from Germany, we were immediately struck by the quality of light, and the wide open skies. That amazing quality of light has followed us throughout Iceland and Scandinavia. Now, heading south into mainland Europe, the light is once more dull and flat, almost monochromatic at times. I find it strangely depressing. This afternoon at 4pm, it could have been a late afternoon in October in the UK.

Before reaching our campsite, we stopped off at a Lithuanian town just off the main road, primarily for a comfort break and to pick up a drink. The town was far from attractive, with remnants of old Soviet buildings, and a very shabby utilitarian High Street. We left Oscar in search of a cafe. We saw a sign for a bakery, and spotting some tables and chairs, stepped inside. It was the most peculiar mis-match of a place. At one end was a sort of confectioners shop, as you would have seen in the sixties, with plastic containers of pick n’mix and an odd array of ghastly fluorescent coloured sugary confection. At the other end was a bakery, but with no bread left, it was just selling a bizarre collection of sugary sticky cakes, most of which looked completely inedible. The guy behind the counter was very pleasant though, and duly made us both a coffee. When I asked for the toilet, he directed me into a small cupboard affair, with an miss mash of brooms, cleaning equipment and a small toilet. It wasn’t exactly dirty, but it didn’t enthuse me with confidence, as on the wall was a poster indicating the ‘twelve stages of hand-washing’. I couldn’t be sure if his was meant for the customers, or the owner – hopefully the latter. I suspect that Bill Bryson could have written an entire chapter abut this place, if not an entire book! Although I should add that the coffee was good, and only two euros for us both!

The campsite is situated just a few miles from the border with Kalinograd, a Russian enclave hemmed in between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea. The nearby River Nemunas was an important logging route into Prussia. We arrived at our campsite in good time, but just as the heaven’s opened, with thunder and torrential rain. It only lasted half an hour, but long enough for us to get completely soaked trying to set up the van. Having cooked an early tea, we are now sat in the van, people watching.

A couple in the corner of the field were virtually ‘making out’ even before they had got their tent up. The German ‘Big Whites’ look organised and orderly, and, as ever, have bagged the best spots. A little orange VW camper has just arrived, and inexplicably has driven up onto chocks just on one side, making it strangely lop-sided. We never use the things (we don’t even possess any), and are always puzzled by the antics of people trying to level their vans. The orange van is parked right by the wash-block, and I know that it’s odd tilt is going to irritate me, just like a crooked picture on a wall.

Perhaps if I have a gin, it won’t seem so crooked? It’s worth a try!

Day 215 Parnu, Estonia to Riga, Latvia.

Our night in Parnu turned out to be anything but peaceful. It transpired that our bargain Guest House was a bargain for a reason – it was situated next door to a 11pm – 7am night club. The booming music started at 11pm, and continued until gone eight in the morning. We both slept fitfully, and at seven in the morning, Howard went outside to check on the van. He was expecting hoards of drunken youths to appear from the club, but in fact the music continued until gone 8am. We had started to regret not staying in the awful campsite, but the strong winds and thunderstorms would have made camping tricky.

The outskirts of Parnu were a little shabby. Howard commented that most of the wooden houses could do with a coat of paint – certainly Dulux would do well here. We also saw more evidence of the previous Soviet occupation, with stark utilitarian concrete apartment blocks, in stark contrast to the much prettier wooden buildings.

The only benefit was that we got an early start, and headed southwards towards Latvia. The road south was lined with trees, first pine forests, then a sharp transition to deciduous forests, with birch the predominant species. The land remained incredibly flat and featureless. 

Before reaching Latvia, we turned off the main road in search of a coffee. We found a small village called Haadameeste, and followed a sign for a coffee shop. It turned to be a garden shed in someone’s garden, but willing to give anything a try, we walked in. It turned out it was run by a pleasant Russian lady, who as well as coffee, had a profusion of home baking on offer. Howard felt obliged to eat something, so went for her home made apple tart. Later, she showed us her garden, with a profusion of fruit trees and vegetable plot. She seemed genuinely pleased to show us her produce. It is these unexpected encounters that make our trip so interesting. It was the first time, however, that we have had any communication difficulties. Up until now, everyone we have encountered has spoken remarkably good English, which seems to be the universal language for Europe.

After taking a little look around the village at the stone built church and music school, we headed onwards. We crossed over the border into Latvia, and noticed almost immediately that there were fewer trees. In no time at all, we were on the outskirts of Riga, the capital.

Driving into Riga was a bit of a nightmare. The drivers seemed more aggressive than in Estonia, and it was with huge relief that we reached our guest house. Thankfully, we were able to park Oscar behind locked gates, which put our minds at rest, while we set off to explore the city.

Riga is the only real city in Latvia, and over the years, has been under the control of German Knights of the Sword, then the Swedes, and more recently under Soviet Control. It regained it’s independence in 1991, in the ‘Singing Revolution’. Apparently two million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians linked arms and sang traditional folk songs to demonstrate their wish to separate from the Soviets. A third of the population of Latvia are Russians, and in Riga, this rises to a half. It has a cosmopolitan feel, and is the largest of the Baltic capitals. Gothic spires and art nouveau architecture dominate. It has a pleasant situation on the Gulf of Riga, with the Daugava River flowing through it. The Old Town, or Vegriga, is the historic heart of the capital. It is surrounded by a picturesque thin ring of parkland, and we entered into Old Riga through Freedom Boulevard, where the copper-topped Freedom Monument sits, guarded by two motionless guards. The UNESCO listed Old Town is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and alleyways, leading to attractive squares. The city is littered with attractive church spires, and a profusion of coffee shops and cafes. St. Peter’s Church, forming the centrepiece of Riga’s skyline, is one of the oldest medieval buildings in the Baltic, and Riga Cathedral, or Doma Laukums, is the largest medieval church in the Baltic, once catholic, but now Lutheran. One of the most impressive buildings in Riga is ‘The Blackhead’s House’. This was once the Guild House for unmarried German merchants. The story goes that one Christmas Eve, following a wild party, the merchants brought a large fir tree into the Guild House and decorated it in flowers, before burning it. This is thought to be the origin of decorating fir trees at Christmas.

Another unusual house is ‘The Cat House’. A begruntled owner fell out with Great Guild opposite his home, after being rejected membership. He retaliated by positioning cats on his roof, with their backsides facing the Guild. The two cats are still there, although today, they face he right way round. In the park, we saw a statue of a couple and their pug dog. It turns out that this is the statue of a man from Yorkshire, George Armitstead, who was Mayor of Riga in 1901 -1912, and is accredited with many of the stunning art nouveau buildings in the capital.

Another unexpected highlight was the exhibition of 140 painted ‘Buddy Bears’ in one of the squares. There was a bear representing every country in the United Nations, and were a centenary gift from Germany, marking a hundred years since Latvia’s first independence in 1918.

We spent a wonderful day exploring this city. We finished off our tour with an Al Fresco supper in one of the open air restaurants, listening to an accordionist busking in the corner of the square.

We are now both exhausted, and ‘citied out’, so plan to spend tomorrow camping in the countryside to draw breath. Latvia has been a revelation – previously unknown to both of us. It has clearly has a difficult past, but now a fully fledged member of the EU, it is looking forward, and seems to be embracing the new Europe. We have enjoyed Riga immensely, and just hope that our sleep tonight is a little more peaceful than last night’s!