619 nights : 23,482 miles travelled : countries visited: 24
“The soul exceeds it’s circumstances” Czeslaw Milosz
DRAFT SAVED FOUR MONTHS AGO
Four months ago? Where has the time gone? It is certainly a much more precious commodity when we are back in the UK. We returned for our first outing as parents of a beautiful bride, and then stayed for a hectic happy family Christmas. Now as we prepare to cross the Channel for another trail around mainland Europe, we must tell you about our journey home from Scandinavia.
Viking Line ships thoughtfully provide a sandpit doggy toilet which Kipper appreciated having crossed his legs for most of the 17 hours from Greece to Italy last year! So it was a comfortable three hour ferry crossing which took us from Helsinki to Estonia’s beautiful capital, Tallinn, a spired city by a blue sea.
Tallinn has plenty to enjoy and we loved mooching around the old streets and squares.
On the west coast of Estonia is Haapsalu, a delightful little town with the quiet still air of a spa resort. Previous visitors include Tchaikovsky whose presence was marked by a bizarre musical bench which played some of his melodies as you approached.
Tsar Nicholas and many other distinguished visitors from Russia travelled here to benefit from the healing mud which explains Europe’s longest single platform at the terminal station and what are the biggest engines we have ever seen.
Driving through the Estonian countryside, we noted the lack of boundary fences which enhanced the bucolic loveliness. However the lack of a road surface as we approached the Sooma National Park rattled us out of our idyll and we wondered if the offer of a free night at the visitor centre was worth it!
It was. We followed the trails looking at evidence of moose and beavers, and even though we were a major food source as we walked through the ‘mosquito nursery’, we really enjoyed the campfire, electricity and water provided by the national park authority.
Estonia has a great tradition of choral and folk music and Viljandi has a wonderful traditional music centre and hosts it’s own summer folk festival…a good reason to return. Add in a wonderful castle ruin and scenic lake and we really fell in love with this town close to the Latvian border. Quirky sights include a huge outdoor choral auditorium and a disused water tower which offered great views of the rooftops below.
But I was really taken with the wooden buildings and the range of decorated doors!
The joys of motorhoming include waking up to views not available to others. Bliss!
Another joy of motorhoming is that if the weather is good and the place feels right, then there is usually little to prevent you from staying put. And so it was with Raiskums, our first halt in Latvia. A late burst of summer warmth, the most peaceful campsite imaginable and even a brewery in the village, meant that we lost a week on the road. Who cared?!
As we travelled the road towards Riga we realised we were following the route of the Baltic Way. In 1989, two million people joined hands from Vilnius to Riga and on to Tallinn to demonstrate their desire for independence. This was accompanied by what is known as the Singing Revolution where people gathered in public spaces and sang national and protest songs, many of which had been banned by the Soviet authorities. The more we learned, the more we found this peaceful fight for freedom humbling and inspiring, especially in our current uncertain times.
Riga has it’s own crown of beautiful spires but we were keen to learn more about Latvia’s recent history.
The Freedom Monument was paid for by public donations in the 1930’s and stands where a statue of Peter the Great once stood. On the top, Liberty holds three gold stars representing the original cultural regions of Latvia. While the Soviets did not demolish the monument, it was off limits to the people and any paying homage here were punished. A Latvian Guard protects this national symbol now.
We learned more about Soviet persecution as well as Nazi occupation at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which was a dignified but sobering reminder of how ordinary people can do extraordinary things, for both good and bad.
Lithuania felt lively as soon as we crossed into the last of the Baltic states. Large areas of woodland were mixed in with busy agriculture which felt familiar to that at home. We found a motorhome stop behind a tidy motel and parked next to a flashy new motorhome with Lithuanian plates. We were quickly asked to move and found that we had unwittingly invaded the film set for a popular soap opera. We were most surprised that Brian wasn’t required to co-star but slunk out of shot and enjoyed a coffee while we watched the actors and guessed what the plot might be.
Nearby was one of the most eerie sights we have seen so far. Thousands of wooden crosses rising out of a hill at Šiauliai have been planted by pilgrims since the 19th century. They were removed and destroyed repeatedly during the Soviet era but people risked their lives by replacing the crosses during the night, as an expression of religious faith evolved into a demonstration of national identity.
Lithuania’s capital leapt straight into our top five favourites. Vilnius has the grand statement architecture and busy shopping streets but it has so much more.
There are so many unrestored baroque buildings led to by pot holed roads that you feel as though you have been transported back in time.
Uzupis means the ‘other side of the river’ and this neighbourhood was declared a separate state within Vilnius (on April 1st 1997) and you can’t help but smile as you walk around.
Once again, we found a free walking tour the best way to orientate ourselves and this gives you the opportunity to hear a young person’s perspective on the city in which they live. We learned about the renewed concern that the Baltic States have about the threat of Russian colonisation and more surprisingly about how highly revered Ronald Reagan is for his support of Lithuania before the end of the cold war. As with Estonia and Latvia, it is evident how proud this nation is of it’s independence and how highly valued freedom is.
We had sensed this pride and resilience in Poland last year and we wanted to return and see the north as we made our way home. The countryside around the Great Masurian Lakes is beautiful and very peaceful. The slow pace of life is enforced by the atrocious quality of roads which feel as though you drive around every field and tree. The Nazis put this inaccessibility and the dense forest to good use by hiding Hitler’s Eastern Front headquarters nicknamed Wolfschanze. The Wolf’s Lair is a complex of enormous bunkers which housed around two thousand people. Hitler spent much of the war here and it was the scene of the failed but significant attempt of assassination via a briefcase bomb, which he amazingly survived. The bunkers were largely destroyed as the Russians approached and the ruins now resemble ancient temples.
It is amazing to realise that the elegant Old Town of Gdansk was reconstructed after World War Two as the streets and harbourside feel as if they are timeless.
It was so atmospheric we were concerned that Mr Kips wanted to run away to sea! Gdansk is the centre of the world’s amber trade and it was fun looking at all the different types of jewelry available, but we were most interested in seeing the fantastic European Solidarity Centre. This is in a huge steel building next to the modern port that was the scene of the momentous strikes at the dockyards in the late 1970’s.
This was the setting of the beginning of the end of the USSR and the birthplace of modern Europe. I remember following the events in Gdansk and admiring the struggle for justice and freedom. I even joined Ronald Reagan’s campaign to light a candle in Solidarity with Poland after martial law was declared by the Soviet authorities! The excellent museum tells the story of the journey towards independence spearheaded by the union Solidarity and it’s leader Lech Walesa, an electrician who went on to become President.
It was an inspiring and timely reminder that we should not take the freedom that we are so enjoying for granted.
M & G x
Treat of the week: The Baltic States were a pleasant surprise and this was symbolised by an amazing lunch we enjoyed in the market square in Tallinn. Graham felt like a judge on Masterchef! However even this was outdone by a popular snack, the Zeppelin. Like a cross between a Cornish pasty and a doughnut. We didn’t want to eat for days afterwards!