Leaving the Baltic states, our original plan was to head into Belarus. Unfortunately to travel visa free in Belarus you have to enter by air not by land, that was not an option. With Belarus now out of the equation we headed slightly west to Poland. I had already visited Poland about 10 years ago but Pete hadn’t so this was still a good option. Also I had a friend, Marcin, in Warsaw so it was a good opportunity to be able to catch up.
Marcin researched and recommended Majawa campsite located close to the CBD with good public transport access.
We met him after work and he took us on a walking tour of the city. It was great to have someone who is local and passionate about their city and country show you around. You get far more interesting information and see things off the beaten tourist route. He loves walking so he made sure we saw as much as we could!
We started in the old town area that, following the Warsaw uprising in 1944, Hitler and Himmel vowed to wipe it from the face of the earth as an example to other European cities.
On our way out, we stopped to admire the large monument to Chopin. Sadly we weren't there for any concerts, what a great venue it would be to have a picnic and listen to an orchestra.
Time to get back to the van and on the road again heading to Krakow.
Marcin had felt guilty not taking us to a ‘Polish restaurant’, even though hanging at a cool local bar was way better for us, so we promised him we would go to one before we left.
For main I ordered roasted pike perch in white wine sauce with a mushroom risotto and quail egg and Pete had veal cheeks au jus with roasted vegetables, parmesan cheese and couscous. The portions were large, the food delicious and the waddle back to our van required!
Over 1.1M people died in Auschwitz, it can only be described as dark, solemn, moving and emotional. However their motto is in order to prevent future wars, we cant forget the past.
It was early evening by the time we had finished our visit so we decided to drive a little out of town and look for a place to stay.
An hour and a half later we crossed the border into Czech Republic. We had googled a campsite along our route, the reviews said ok, so good enough. The manager staggered drunkenly from his caravan, unlocked the office then refused to communicate with me. He just kept saying “no English”. Now I am not one to demand people speak English. I live in a country where English is the second language. So I am more than happy to attempt communicating with hand signals, body language and google translate. But this guy just wasn’t cooperating. Sad, it was the first time we came across someone who wasn’t friendly and helpful in the campsites. The place was full, bar one spot by the river. We soon realised that although the place was full it was pretty empty of people. 90% of the caravans were permanents. Anyway, we just wanted to cook dinner and get to bed.
The next day was a road trip, destination Croatia.
Most of you know we have no end date to our travels. So really, there is no rush. However, we do have one major time restraint hanging over our heads. Fortunately as Australians, visas aren’t required for a majority of the countries we intended to visit, most countries offer us 90 days visa free. Unfortunately the bloody Schengen visa allows 90 days in 180 day period for the entire Schengen zone. Schengen area comprises of 26 countries, how does one cover everything? And to top it off, the Schengen is growing, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria are set to join next year. Currently I can spend three months in each of these counties when they join it will be three days (if I want to see all Europe) Maybe they need to rethink such rules, an applied visa extension or something!
Early in our travels Pete had made out an excel spreadsheet with the dates going from green to orange to red. Green was our safe time, orange we had to start thinking of making our way out of Schengen and red was get out of there now. We were starting to get close to the orange area, so we were making our way down to the first of the non-Schengen countries, Croatia.
Our plan is to travel around the non-Schengen countries until our 180 days is up, then we can re-enter. From Poland to Croatia is actually not that far... just Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the corner of Slovenia between them! (They will have to wait until our return) Sounds incredible to someone who grew up in Australia.
We arrived at the Croatia border 6 hours and 5 countries later.. passport stamped....AND.... relax!!!!
Travel note: putting AUS stickers on a van is absolutely pointless. People see the D on the number plate and are blind to the bloody great AUS sticker right beside it, they still automatically start speaking German and are surprised when we don’t understand. One guy did, in fact, see the sticker and then proceeded to ask us, in German, if we had been to Australia!! Go figure!
I have to admit we were crossing the Gulf of Finland to lands I knew very little about. Though I had never travelled through Scandinavia or the Nordic countries I felt I knew a bit about them, Fjords, Vikings, vodka, reindeer, Santa Claus and dumb songs by Monty Python. My knowledge of the Baltic states was limited to the fact they had been part of the Soviet Union and, after growing unrest and something called Baltic way, finally gained independence in 1991. I certainly wasn’t aware of the secret Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Nazi’s and the soviets to divide their ‘spheres of influence’ over Central Europe, and while I had learnt about the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis I wasn’t aware of those inflicted on their populations by the Communist occupation. This oppression saw approximately one fifth of their population either murdered or sent to Siberian gulags, in towns we had visited only months before, Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Perm. The soviets also ‘encouraged’ hundreds of thousands Russian citizens to immigrate in order to Russify these countries. I vaguely remember the struggle for independence growing through the 80’s and the ‘black ribbon days, that culminated in the Baltic way, a peaceful protest on the 23rd of August 1989 (50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) that saw approximately two million people join hands to form a human chain spanning 675.5 kilometres from Tallinn in Estonia through Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. The three countries are now proudly independent members of the EU and after financial hardships in the aftermath of the soviet collapse they are now appear to have prosperous future, though the struggle ahead is a little more evident in the rural communities.
We picked up some pork kebabs, chicken teriyaki, lamb sausages and a couple salads, set up the barbie, kicked back and enjoyed the balmy evening with a glass of wine, a bbq buffet and watched the yachts slowly return from their weekend sail or heading off back to Helsinki.... sitting a little lower in the water!
We were booked into Ribe that evening, a restaurant known for its Nordic inspired dishes using fresh local ingredients. We headed in a little early to try to tick off a couple more site. Unfortunately as we arrived the heavens opened and we hadn’t bought umbrellas or raincoats. We slowly made our way from the bus stop in the direction of the restaurant dashing between overhangs and Porte Corcheres whenever the rain eased a little.
The nice weather had returned the next day so we made a concerted effort to get back on track with our sight seeing, a list that now included the ‘Balti Jaama Turg’ market, new ‘arty hipster’ neighborhood and a vegan chocolate shop that were recommended by the friendly campsite host.
The chocolate shop was obviously the first stop, and despite being vegan the chocolate was amazing, really intense flavors and extremely rich. Next the market with its great range of fresh, non-vegan, produce, we would be back.
Ok still had that list and we needed to plan and focus...
Alexander Nevski Cathedral, tick
St Nicholas Church, tick
Danish Kings Gardens, tick
Maidens Tower, tick
Toompea Castle, tick
Town Hall Square, tick
Town Hall, tick
St Olaf’s church, tick
Ok now back to the market for the lamb and that shop for the vegan chocolate!
That night I cooked roasted saddle of lamb with wild mushroom purée, garden peas, burnt onion and a red wine jus. Rather tasty I must admit!
We have been finding these city-camps in all the European cities they are usually set up on large areas of pavement such as yacht club hard stands and exhibition hall car parks, they are a great idea generating income from underutilized space and offering travelers easy access to explore the city.
Riga is a small, attractive, city of around 700,000 people set on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava. It’s medieval old town and beautiful timber buildings have established it, like Tallinn, as a must do stop on the cruise-liner circuit.
Before leaving Riga we hit the market one more time to get some ingredients for the following days.
We headed toward Liepaja on the Latvian west coast, Tom Tom knew how to get there, unfortunately, however nobody told her that the intersection she suggested had not been built yet! She quickly recalculated and sent us on 30km detour over corrugated gravel roads that shook the bejeezers out of the van. We finally arrived and camped up in a lovely forested camp near a lake a little out of town.
We found a wonderful place called City Forest Hostel and camping right on the edge of Vilnius historic centre. It was a cool hostel, with a great outdoor bar and BBQ terrace, that had 4 or 5 spots for campers. Not sure we were their target market!
We found a statue of a mermaid under a bridge then discovered that legend has it that if you find this secret sculpture and stare into her eyes you are destined to stay in Uzupis forever... nah.. we needed dinner. We found a cliche tourist restaurant in the middle of the ‘old town’ serving traditional Lithuanian dishes, and against our better judgement decided to try it. I had quail with buck wheat and pears (allegedly a 17th century recipe) Bea had beaver stew, I never thought I would ever see Bea eating beaver!
We walked back into town the next morning with a more planned itinerary which included The Gates of Dawn, Gediminas Castle and several of its famous cathedrals along with Palace of Concerts and Sports and of course the Hales Market.
That afternoon, after swinging through the Hales Market for dinner ingredients we headed off, via decathlon for running shoes, toward Poland.
By Belinda (with help from Monty Python)
Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping or just watch T.V.”
And its this outdoor life style that makes it such a great country to visit
Leaving Santa’s house and the arctic circle we initially planned to stop early so we could do slow cooked lamb dish for dinner, however nowhere was proving suitable to stop. It was raining and unpleasant so we just drove on, the lamb would have to wait. In the early evening we found a larger lay-by on the road suitable for us to pull off and free camp for the evening.
The next morning we woke to a spread of traditional Finnish delights, open rye sandwiches with cold cuts, cheeses & rollmops, yogurts with fresh berries and delicious rye tarts with a rice & potato filling (Karelian pies), on to which we added salted buttered eggs. The breakfast was so good we ended up stopping the next day to buy our own supplies. Thanks so much Siri & Ilpo for a wonderful time.
Eating breakfast or dinner
or snack lunch in the hall (fall)
Finland, Finland, Finland
Finland has it all
We drove into Jyväskylä, the home of famous Architect, Alvar Aalto, a bit of a legend when Pete was studying. Pete was keen to see the University and visit the museum dedicated to his works. The museum was small but very interesting, even from a non-architect point of view! I’m still sure one of his vase designs was in my Mum’s cupboard whilst I was growing up (sadly I’m sure it isn’t there now). (Note from Pete, I cant believe my mother-in-law had anything that cool in her cupboard ;-) )
We reached our campsite on the southern shore of Lake Saimaa. Lake Saimaa is the largest lake in Finland and the fourth largest freshwater body in Europe. It has a shoreline length of 8,500 miles, which is the longest lake shoreline in the world. I was starting to think how the landscape really reminded me of Russia, it had such a similar look and feel. I have to admit, I was really surprised to learn how close to the Russian border we were.. In fact, the Campsite at lake Saimaa is just 30 mins from Russian border, and reminded us how far we have come and how far we still have left to go.
You're so near to Russia
so far away from Japan
Quite a long way from Cairo
lots of miles from Vietnam
We were on our way to Helsinki when I read about a small town, Porvoo, worthy of a visit, so the guides said, just outside Helsinki. I had seen a few thumbnail photos on the web but it hadn’t prepared me for what to expect, another charming old town with colourfully painted timber buildings, cobblestone streets and an unpretentious atmosphere. It was one of those great finds. We walked around admiring the buildings and small streets, dodging tourists from a cruise ship that had taken a day trip from Helsinki. I love that feeling when you discover an unexpected gem like this.
We arrived in Helsinki early in the afternoon and found a campsite close to the city area, with a metro stop right outside the gates, a perfect location. We went exploring the nearby area, bought a few supplies for the van then spent the evening lazing around and catching up on our blogs. Dinner that night we went traditional Finnish with open sandwiches and our recently purchased delights.
In the last few days Helsinki’s new library had won the award for ‘Best Library in the World’, the latest amongst many accolades that had been bestowed on it, so Pete was keen to visit.
There was a coffee shop on the curvy balcony, not only an interesting design (don’t fill your coffee mug too full), but with a great view. They do have books - yes books! I learnt there are libraries in each community and are extremely popular and well frequented. In fact one problem they encountered when they first opened was that people would visit the library, borrow a book, but return it to their local library... leaving the main city library short on books!
As we strolled trough the city centre we were surprised by the sheer number of tourists, our local friends had all commented on the increased tourism over the past few years.
You're so (you were) sadly neglected
And often ignored
A poor second to Belgium
When going abroad (but not any more)
In the afternoon, we decided we had to do the ‘in thing’ and have afternoon tea at Ekberg Cafe. An establishment that has been going since 1852. We sat and had a coffee and their traditional cakes - Napoleon and Thousand Leaves. As you do!
Through Scandanavia ‘share ride’ electric scooters are a popular method of urban transport and we had been wanting to try them so we took the opportunity. They were a lot of fun and surprisingly I stayed upright! When we parked them up 15mins later we discovered that it had cost 12euros! We also discovered our love of walking!
We took the ferry to Suomenlinna. An inhabited sea fortress built on 8 islands. With many walking trails, museums and cafes. I had just expected 1 fort on one small island. Apparently Suomenlinna was shaped by three historic eras when it helped to defend first Sweden, then Russia and ultimately Finland. It was originally built midway through the 18th century, when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom and in 1991 was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
That evening we caught up Razi and Anna at Teurastamo, a former abattoir precinct that has been redeveloped into an arts and restaurant space. There were a couple of alternative theatrical events happening in the centre square, very hip. We had cocktails at the Helsinki Gin Distillery. OMG great local gins! Then on to B-Smokey, a local smokehouse that specialised in ribs, wings and pulled pork. After a great feed, we wobbled back to the Gin house for a final nightcap. By then the long day of sightseeing and second hand stall selling was taking its toll and we sadly parted ways. Yet another amazing display of hospitality that has made our trip so memorable. We are so privileged to be able to have several friends in various countries over here that have been making our trip special.
We do try to learn a few words of local language in each country we visit. Finland with one of the best... Kalsarikannit! Which, apparently translates to “getting drunk at home in your underpants!” Thanks again Razi and Anna!
We crashed into bed with an early start to catch the ferry to Tallin in Estonia.
Finland Finland Finland
The country where I quite want to be
Your mountains so lofty
Your treetops so tall
Finland, Finland, Finland
Finland has it all
Finland has it all.....(Fading)
(Apologies to Monty Python)
Emmas Drommekjokken (Emma’s Dream Kitchen) could be classed as a high end bistro, stylish but not over done. It prides itself on unpretentious, home cooked food created with seasonal produce and Norwegian seafood. The wait staff were super friendly, happy and chatty.
As we strolled around the harbor area the next morning we came across the ‘Energy Observer’ the first vessel in the world to both generate and be powered by hydrogen, with zero greenhouse gases. It was a pretty amazing sight, covered in solar panels and very sleek. Pete was desperately trying to work out a way how he could join them! We visited Polaria, an arctic aquarium housed in a funky designed building that represents large ice chunks. We didn’t actually go inside the aquarium due to time restraints and quite costly for the amount of time we would be able to spend there. Further down the street we came across a local butcher, a rarity in Scandinavia as we have mentioned, and we took the opportunity to buy various locally produced meats, including reindeer snags, for the next few meals.
This was it, time to start making our way south.... and east, to Finland.
We discovered that the E8 we were on was known as the ‘Northern Lights Route’. This road is where the 3 countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland connect. Starting in Tromsø it follows the boarders of Finland and Sweden for 600km crossing back and forth over 7 bridges. The area has the highest fells of Finland and these make it one of the best advantage points to view the northern lights... in winter. It seams everywhere above the arctic circle prides itself on being the best place to see those bleeding lights... in winter!
Shortly after our lunch stop, overlooking the last of our fjords, the cars in front of us had come to a halt. Just in front of them was a car on its roof with a group of people trying to flip it back. Smoke was coming from it and a campervan was in the side of the road. The guys righted the car and a lady crawled from the car, thankfully, unhurt. The ambulances had arrived and they were in no rush, so obviously no one else appeared seriously hurt. Unfortunately the car was a total right off and lay across the middle of road. No one was going anywhere - either direction!
We had been trying to work out an alternative route but there didn’t appear to be one though many cars were turning around. We eventually spoke to a guy who had been talking to the medics, he said it would be at least another hour then gave us directions to the ‘old road’. He was a journalist and had come to see what was going on. He lived on the old road and had noticed the sudden increase of traffic, so he knew something had happened.
Back on the road again, Pete questioned whether I was ok to continue continue south in Finland or stay north and try to find a reindeer herd. He knew I was a little disappointed not to have seen herds of reindeer.
As we approached the boarder we saw a few more so I agreed, reluctantly to continue south. Minutes later, literally at the Finnish Boarder we were greeted by a large herd! They were running around the immigration building crossing from one forest area to another. We think they, like most people, were actually confused! do we take the green or red lane? I was very happy now and allowed Pete to turn south.
800m later we stopped in to the alcohol shop to replenish the supplies, we were running on fumes given the Norwegian prices (no Mum, I’m not an alcoholic). Finland also has the same strict laws that alcohol can only be sold in one particular shop. Shopping done Pete wanted to continue on a little as it was only 5.30, I was keen to find a camp site as it was 6.30pm!!!! After a little confusion we realised that some how my watch had changed to Finnish time and Petes was still on Norway time... an hour time difference - doh! I won!
We couldn’t come to the Arctic Circle without visiting its most famous resident so the next morning we set off for Rovaniemi, Santas home town - yes contrary to my understanding, Santa lives in Finland! The drive down was lovely, through forest areas with many reindeer, but I was still desperately wanting to see a moose. Once I had seen my first reindeer I was on the lookout for a moose, but yet to find one.
We arrived in Rovaniemi mid afternoon and found a proper campsite situated next to a lake. After setting up we headed into town about 15 minutes walk around to the other side of the lake. The town is small and many of the locals were making the most of late Friday afternoon summer sun, hanging out in the outdoor bars and restaurants. We did a bit of shopping, looked around and headed back.
We had chosen this campsite in order to get free WiFi for the final round of the AFL home and away series. The next morning was the last game for Freo’s season (we weren’t making the finals again). Sadly, another disappointing loss. (Note; two days later the coach and CEO were fired, which made Pete Happy) Oh well it is the beginning of a new era for the club and let’s hope that next season they can turn things around with the new coach. In order to celebrate the last game we cooked up a hotdog lunch.. not just any hotdogs - but more appropriately Scandinavian style - Reindeer hotdogs!!!
We spent over an hour in Trondheim before finally getting a new sim- then decided to head into Sweden where we could top up our old cards anyway!!.... that’s how unplanned this trip can be at times!
Heading east we left the jagged coast through the rugged beauty of the Scandes and into the softer, rolling hills of Sweden. Arriving in Östersund in the early evening I illegally parked while Bea ran in to top up our Swedish sims... you can never have too much data these days!
We camped that night at a large campsite with free WiFi so we didn’t need to use our sims!
Dinner that night, Pollock ceviche followed by crumbed Pollock... Pollock meal 3... getting over it.
The next morning we turned north and, while listening to the second test slowly ebb toward the inevitable draw, meandered through the rolling hills and lakes of central Sweden. After lunch, leftover crumbed fish sandwiches Pollock meal 4... totally over it!, we crossed 66*33’47.8”- we were now in the arctic circle.
Not that we knew it at the time, it wasn’t until the next morning we realised we were in the arctic, there was no sign or acknowledgement. Maybe Bea’s first reindeer sighting, and her ensuing excitement, should have been a clue! We camped that night down a forest track next to a lovely lake and Bea spent all night dreaming we were going to be murdered in the wilderness by the psychopathic, hoody wearing, walking dead!
Still alive the next morning we continued north through grey skies and light drissle toward Abisko. Northern Sweden isn’t heavily populated and doesn’t have the developed infrastructure of Norway or Finland so it has a real frontier vibe, even the ski resorts are a little more than caravan parks with a couple of ski tows.. these were for die hard skiers not the apre ski crowd! Abisko is one location in Northern Sweden that has some tourist development as it is one best places to see the northern lights.
Anyway on to Tromso.