Inspired

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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I scratch just looking at this boardwalk!
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Magnificent bracket fungus

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?!

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Happiness is….good food and a decent beer
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Happiness is….a swimming pool to yourself
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Happiness is …..fresh dry laundry
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Happiness is…. a roaring campfire….where is Ray Mears when you need him?!!

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.

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Riga has it’s own crown of beautiful spires but we were keen to learn more about Latvia’s recent history.

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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.

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The Museum of Occupation is temporarily in a Soviet era building

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.

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A replica of 14th century Blackheads House, damaged in 1941 and destroyed by the Soviets

 

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.

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Awe-inspiring

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.

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Vilnius Cathedral
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The Buklaste stone in Cathedral Square is the starting point for the Baltic Way and will grant wishes to those who stand on it and turn three times. Still waiting!
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Church of St Anne

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.

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The constitution of Uzupis is engraved on a wall for all to see.
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Creativity underpins the republic
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The Angel of Uzupis
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Quirkiness has overflowed into the main city

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.

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One of the few undamaged buildings is now a hotel!
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The scene of the assassination attempt and a memorial to Colonel Claus von  Stauffenberg

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.

 

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The Neptune Fountain is the symbol of the city

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.

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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!

Tales of the unexpected

123 nights : 4,460 miles travelled : Countries visited: 9

“The soul of Poland is indestructible…she will rise again as a rock, which may for a spell be submerged by a tidal wave, but which remains a rock.”   Winston Churchill

Speaking to fellow travellers about visiting Poland, we were always warned about the poor condition of the roads. So as we set off on the journey across the border, we took extra care to ensure that everything in and on the cupboards was secured. Kipper tolerates but does not enjoy being rained on by tissue boxes and glasses cases. Walbrzych, the first major town we came to, confirmed our worst fears. There was a bypass but that was closed. The diversion took us into a dead end on a housing estate and our drive through the town centre was a nightmare of roadworks and delays. In between, the surfaces left us all feeling rattled. Luckily we had planned to camp not too far across the border. Bolcow is an attractive town within view and easy reach of the Sudeten mountains, the site was family run and the little field felt like a lovely garden. It also had WIFI which allowed us to pre-book tickets to visit Auschwitz. The memorial museum has received 700,000 visitors so far this year so this was the best way to ensure a day and times that suited us.

We had to wait for nearly a week so we decided to see Wroclaw. We found another site in a back garden but this couldn’t have felt more different. The gates were electronically controlled. There were video cameras and a very scary guard dog. The washing facilities were in a container and the most basic we had seen. We were at the gritty end of the city around 4 km from the centre. Many buildings were very run down and a lot of people in the area took security as seriously as our host. However walking around, we didn’t feel any less safe than in most places in the UK.

SAM_6945We did leave Brian in guarded parking in the city centre. This was right by the Panorama of Raclawicka, a massive 360 degree painting of a 1794 battle in which a Polish peasant army defeated Russian forces intent on partitioning Poland. The story of the battle is told as you walk around it but just as fascinating, is the story of the painting itself. It was commissioned to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle, rather poignantly, as Poland ceased to exist as a sovereign state shortly after the battle. The painting was originally displayed in Lwow until 1944 when it was damaged during an air raid by the Soviet Army. It was stored for safe keeping in Wroclaw and in 1967 an unusual building was built specifically to hang the 120 metre artwork. But the Communist state would not allow it to be displayed until 1985. This was the first time we realised how devastated the country has been by it’s neighbours and just how amazing it is that the Poles have never lost their sense of nationhood.

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Wroclow’s market square required a lot of restoration after WWII and this has been done mostly beautifully with only the occasional oddball building. The huge square is one of the largest in Europe and is a lively and attractive place to walk around.

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The Salt Square is adjacent to the market square
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The occasional modern carbuncle hints at the rebuilding needed after WWII
Most buildings needed to be restored
Most buildings have been restored

We drive between 1  and 2 hours on travel days so found a stellplatz on the way to Krakow. Gora Swietej Anny is a modest village on a solitary hill in the Silesian plains we had crossed. When we arrived, there were groups having picnics on the lower part of the pleasant field and Graham noted there seemed to be a large number of priests among them. We were told that there was a church on the hill and there would be visitors over the weekend. That didn’t affect us and Kipper had a fun game of ball on the empty field before bed.

We woke to the sound of cars arriving and excited voices greeting each other at 6.00am. The buzz and chatter continued to build for an hour and a half. At 6.30 a brass band started to warm up and somebody tested a microphone, then the liturgical singing  began.  At 7.00 the clock bells were joined by continuous ringing. We were giggling beyond control by now so Graham got up to put the kettle on. When he looked out we were completely surrounded by cars and coaches.

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It emerged we had parked right next to the Lourdes Grotto which meant that when the 2 hour service began at 7.30, we almost didn’t need the loudspeakers that relayed everything. And then at 9.30 the brass bands started and tens of thousands of people headed off down the road. Silence.

SAM_7085Slightly stunned we decided not to move on to Krakow but to stay on and see what was happening. Despite living fairly close to Walsingham, neither of us had ever experienced any kind of pilgrimage other than doing the Guinness tour in Dublin. It emerged that the pilgrims were walking a 6 km calvary circuit of 33 chapels. We explored the village whilst they were gone. It now made sense that there were 5 restaurants in a modest community. A statue of Pope John Paul II looks out over wide views over the plains.

You could see for miles
You could see for miles

Every inch of road space was lined with vehicles and 90% of gardens had been turned into parking places. Then most bizarrely, we came across a monument and a 30,000 seat amphitheatre on the site of a disused quarry. The monument stands on the site of a mausoleum built by the Third Reich to commemorate German soldiers lost during the 1921 Silesian uprising. It was destroyed at the end of WWII and the monument in turn, commemorates the rebels who had fought to return Silesia to Poland.

The monument seems out of place on the edge of the village
The monument seems out of place on the edge of the village
The architect of the monument was a survivor of Auschwitz
The architect of the monument was a survivor of Auschwitz
We later visited an excellent little museum to the Silesian Uprisings
We later visited an excellent little museum to the Silesian Uprisings

The amphitheatre was intended to counter the religious significance of the hill and to become a symbolic site for Silesia as part of Germany. It was not used after it’s inauguration in 1938. What the Nazis did not realise is that they had in fact built a brilliant doggy playground and Kipper had great fun while we sat scratching our heads at their bizarre thinking.

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The pilgrims did not return until late afternoon and many stayed on for a candle lit service in the grotto so it was after 10pm before they left for home. The next morning promised a bright early autumn day so we thought we would take a walk along the route the pilgrims had but in reverse. We hadn’t gone far when we saw altar boys sitting around with a line of wicker baskets placed across the pathway.

It seemed so unexpected but then a little further still and we heard singing voices approaching us. A smaller group of pilgrims were  following the trail with a short service at each chapel. We stood by, then continued on our way.

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The chapels varied in size
The chapels varied in size
Each chapel referenced a part of the Crucifixion story
Each chapel referenced a part of the Crucifixion story

The church back in the village was surrounded by stalls selling food and souvenirs. After a warm undulating walk we understood why most of the stalls sold confectionery and ice cream and we felt better qualified to enjoy the festival atmosphere.

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Lody is Graham's only word of Polish
Lody – ice cream – is Graham’s only word of Polish!

 

We didn’t want to visit Auschwitz but at the same time we did. The second world war was so crucial in shaping the Europe that we are now enjoying and I expected that this historical interest would create some level of detachment during our visit. It did not.  Graham expected that he would find it a shocking and horrific place. He did.

The iconic and ironic entrance to Auschwitz I
The iconic and ironic entrance to Auschwitz I
Remains of wooden barracks at Birkenau
Remains of wooden barracks at Birkenau
Gas chambers and crematoria were destroyed before German retreat
Gas chambers and crematoria were destroyed before German retreat
A cattle truck of the type used to transport millions of people to their dreadful fate
A cattle truck of the type used to transport millions of people to their dreadful fate

I joined a tour with an educator who explained the workings of both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau thoroughly but with great feeling. Whilst it was a humid day, I think the reality of what we were being shown had more to do with feeling hot and dizzy.  Graham walked around as an individual at his own pace. The sheer size and scale of the camps was what struck him. For me it was the unimaginable detail of individual lives trying to exist in such circumstances.

Eight people were expected to sleep on each of the three tiered 'bunks'
Eight people were expected to sleep on each of the three tiered ‘bunks’

We learned that Poles were one of the target populations and afterwards I read the memoirs of a Polish violinist who lost not only most of her family but her home town of Lwow (now Lviv in Ukraine) The era saw Poland partitioned by Germany and Russia as allies and fought over as enemies. It seems remarkable that the people and the nation survived at all.

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As our tours were finishing late in the day, we stayed on the car park at Auschwitz I along with two other motorhomes. This is possible with a 24 hour ticket and in a strange way it felt like a privilege to stay on and absorb what we had learnt rather than rush on to the next tourist destination. However we hadn’t realised that goods trains still run near to the site and they operate well into the night. The distinctive sound got mixed in with thoughts of what we had learned in the day.  I admit we kept the light on and read for most of the night. We have talked to each other probably more about this as a single element of the trip than any other and the whole visit will stay with us for a very long time.

 

 

 

Krakow is a beautiful city and there is so much to see. It dates back to the 7th century and thankfully largely escaped war damage. Once again we were fortunate with sunny skies but unfortunately the temperature were in excess 30 degrees which did slow us down. This is near the top of our list of cities to return to at a cooler date.

Rynek Glowny is the largest medieval town square in Europe
Rynek Glowny is the largest medieval town square in Europe
The Cloth Hall straddles the square
Souvenir stalls fill the ground floor of the cloth hall
Souvenir stalls fill the ground floor of the cloth hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 15th century Town Hall Tower
The 15th century Town Hall Tower
Every hour a bugle call is played from the tower of St Mary's church
Every hour a bugle call is played from the tower of St Mary’s church

 

Church of SS Peter & Paul and 11th C St Andrew's Church
Church of SS Peter & Paul and 11th C                               St Andrew’s Church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wawel Hill is topped with both a castle and a cathedral. As with much of Krakow there are some very old buildings in incredibly good condition.

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In the fifteenth century Jews were driven out of Krakow and forced to resettle in a part of Kazimierz , at that time a town next to the city. This Jewish quarter attracted many escaping persecution from all over Europe. During the war the Nazis relocated Jews (at that time around 30% of Krakow’s population) to a walled ghetto the other side of the river before they were murdered, as portrayed in Schindler’s List. Today the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz is unlike any other part of the city, with narrower streets dotted with synagogues and cafe bars playing Klezmer music. There is a lively atmosphere with many of the faded exteriors hiding trendy shops and galleries, reminding us of parts of East London. We loved this end of the town; it is quite unlike anywhere else we’ve been on the trip so far.

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SAM_7247We had intended to spend two or three more days exploring Krakow but I’m afraid we ran away from the heat and headed to the mountains. After our first bumpy day in Poland, the roads we encountered were better than we expected, especially on this journey. Zakopane is a popular resort in the Tatra Mountains and we stayed in a village just outside town, close to a ski slope being used as a mountain bike venue.

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Texture like halloumi. Not like a crunchy pastry full of a sweet filling!
Texture like halloumi. Not like a crunchy pastry with a sweet filling!

 

The area has a unique style of architecture (which we forgot to photograph!) and smoked cheese sold from stalls everywhere. Unfortunately we thought they were some form of cake or bread (one track minds) and bought two. Luckily they are so salty I think they will keep for months!

 

Zakopane was very busy and helpfully it rained for two days, giving us the excuse to sit and absorb our experiences in Poland, those both expected and unexpected and reflect on our admiration for a nation that has survived so much.

M & G xx

Naked!
Naked!

Treat of the week: As seen above, we try to buy local sweet treats to have with coffee. I bought some biscuits unlike any before in Lidl thinking they were a Polish speciality. They are in fact, Jaffa Cakes without the jam and the chocolate. Even calling them Affas does not make them enjoyable. So no they are not TOFW. It has to be the memory of looking out of the kitchen window and seeing three nuns crouching in a row between cars having a pee against a wall in Gora Swietej Anny. It was such a casual act and I felt ashamed of watching but not so much that I looked away and I’m afraid I smile every time I remember.