Week 38 – Lithuania week one

Posted by Stuart 

So after Poland, the trip northwards continues through the Baltics. Although the countryside remains virtually unchanged, Lithuania is indeed a very different country.

It feels like we have one foot in Scandinavia already and after nearly nine months on the road we have discovered people who actually love beer! It has been a hard week of research but I’ve struggled on (see the Beer Gallery page in due course)

Anyway, this week has been very different as Helen spent most of it back in Ireland with her mother where she was joined by her children Ciara, Conor and Regan. And swapping places in the passenger seat, my daughter Mary flew in to Kaunas to join me for a   few days on the road.

Just before Helen went back, we kicked off our travels round Lithuania with a visit to a park that has gathered together memorabilia from Russian occupation times. Grutas Park has been dubbed ‘Stalinworld’ as it’s a bit like a theme park of all things Soviet.

It’s a controversial place as the Russians are not much loved here (to say the least) but the argument is that by preserving this stuff people don’t forget. The park is the brainchild of  a local millionaire businessman known as The Mushroom King and it’s an impressive and fascinating place to spend a few hours.

Apparently he had wanted to use cattle trucks (the very ones used to deport people to Siberia) to transport tourists to the park from the local station. The Ministry of Culture put the kibosh on that idea –  this one is for decoration only…

Throughout our travels so far in Lithuania we have had difficulty finding any buildings that are more than a few years old- the Germans and the Russians obliterated most Lithuanian towns during the war and what has come afterwards isn’t exactly easy on the eye.

This diversion to the quaint village of Ciziunai was worth it though…

According to all the guide books, the castle of Trakai is a “must see” in Lithuania- on an island in a truly beautiful location amidst a number of lakes but we were a little underwhelmed. Very touristy, expensive and actually largely re-built in the 60s and 70s. it didn’t help that it was pouring rain.

Anyway, after trying out Lithuania’s signature dish, potato cakes shaped like zeppelins…..

…a meal interrupted by a blast from the past….the jolly jingles of a Hare Krishna parade…….

..I dropped Helen off at the airport in Vilnius and set off to meet Mary off her plane flying into Kaunas.

Hello to Mary and hello to Lithuania’s second city.

Things were looking up ..sunshine, a beautiful old town at the junction of two large rivers, some interesting stuff to see and best of all lots of time with my daughter.

The exploits of Oscar Schindler in Krakow helping to save 1,200 Jews are world famous and rightly so. What is (a lot) less well known is the bravery of Chiune Sugihara, who was a Japanese civil servant in Kaunas. We visited his house to find out more.

Despite there being no instructions from his superiors, from 18 July to 28 August 1940, before he had to leave, he took it upon himself to issue visas to allow about 6,000 Jews to escape Lithuania to Japan via the Trans-Siberian express (the Russians charged five times the usual cost) – he was still signing visas as he left the city. These fortunate refugees then had to move on to other countries before Japan entered the war.

The Old Town was lovely and very relaxing.

Some interesting Art Deco buildings in the newer part of town,

Anyway, some more good food and an occasional beer and we were ready to crash this gig-I’m told that’s what young people say. Very enjoyable but decided to leave before the bouncers realised we didn’t have wristbands. (Anyway, last time I ‘crashed a gig’ was The Undertones in Aberdeen in 19-something)

FYI- Volfas Engelman is a beer not the band.

We really liked Kaunas.

From Kaunas we sped on to the Curorian Spit (otherwise called Neringa). It is a 60 mile long narrow strip of sand covered with pine forests- a larger version of the Hel Spit in Poland.

Slightly stung by the 30 euro ferry crossing – it took all of four minutes- we then had to smile and joke with the toll booth attendant on the other side to reduce our 20 euro charge to drive on their roads. Result = 5 euros- well done Mary.

Whilst there has been a heat wave back home, the weather here has been er…changeable.

Rain-and-cagoule weather unfortunately, so we drove down the length of it and stopped on the border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. We thought better than snapping away at their border post.

A very careful U turn and then back across to the mainland and Klaipeda, the main port of Lithuania …

..where we enjoyed some R&R in the hotel health club followed by some ten pin bowling.

I show this photo as my scores were excellent. It all went horribly wrong later.

All this exercise was undone by some good Lithuanian food and beer.

Blood sausages and sauerkraut and a pint of Svyturys. Yum.

The weather improved so we headed further up the coast to the beach resort of Palanga.

Great place, great beach, great atmosphere.

We headed back to Kaunas and enjoyed the nearby Cade Valley Park- a beautiful place of lakes, woods and lots of happy Lithuanians enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Excellent.

Then to Vilnius which was lovely – the weather was again good to us and we had a good day wandering around.

The Museum of Illusions was entertaining and the staff there helped us to get the most of the exhibits.

And that was the week… quite a lot of miles, weather changing frequently, great beaches, excellent food and beer, some nice towns and then Mary back to England and Helen returning.

Normal service will be resumed next week.

That’s all folks.



Slainte Stuart – glad you had a great week with Mary. I had a great time with my three too! See you back in Lithuania.

Helen x

Week 37 – Poland week two – Gdansk and the Baltic Coast

This week we went to Gdansk, to Hel and back, saw the moving sand dunes on the Baltic coast and had a serious amount of tomato soup.

Heading north from Wroclaw to Gdansk, we broke the journey with an overnight stop at the spa town of  Ciechocinek. We arrived just as hundreds of fire engines were assembling for a convoy into town, all sirens blaring…

…which was an entertaining diversion but not quite as diverting as spotting in the distance this enormous construction. It’s an inhalatorium….

….no, we’d never heard of one either though apparently there a few others in Germany and Austria. It’s a 19th century health therapy which works by channelling streams of brine …..

…. down the blackthorn twigs stuffed into the massive frames of these graduation towers…

… which causes the salty water to vaporise in the wind and sun, creating a microclimate rich in iodine. Breathing in the salty air is apparently as good for the health as a walk by the sea.

So just as they did in the 1800’s, we joined the locals for a stroll along the 1.5 km path around the three giant towers, before getting back in the van and heading for Gdansk. …a journey which without question….

…..wins the passenger’s ‘Are We Nearly There Yet?’ award.

See what I mean?

Once in Gdansk, our first stop had to be here….it’s the European Solidarity Centre…

….a museum  beside the famous Gate Number 2 of the Gdansk shipyards. The centre celebrates the history of …..

….which was founded in 1980 by this charismatic man….

…and tells the story of it’s fight against the Soviet-imposed Communist regime…

General Jaruzelski’s television broadcast on 13 December 1981 declaring martial law and outlawing Solidarnosc

..and how it survived the attempt to destroy it and Polish demands for democracy.

This photograph is considered as the best symbol of martial law in Poland – armed soldiers in front of the Moscow cinema when it was screening ‘Apocalypse Now’.

It was a fascinating, all absorbing exhibition.

Leaving the shipyards and back in the historic old town, we hadn’t expected the city to be so charming and characterful. We had a wander, stopped to listen to the buskers play one of Vivaldi’s seasons …

….browsed in the amber shops  and wandered some more.

Heading further up the Baltic Sea coast, we stopped off to see some of the giant murals in the Zaspa estate. It’s like a giant open air art gallery….

..where the end wall of the high rise is the artist’s canvas.

Further on in the seaside resort of Sopot, the street art was impressive too……

….but the big draw is Europe’s longest wooden pier.

It’s a really swish resort …

…but we didn’t stop for the sniadanie angielskie, tempting as it was to have a full English Breakfast fry up on the pier end.

We were going to Hel.

That’s the little small town at the end of this narrow spit and on the map looks like this….

….but as we drove further down the spit, passing high rises and bill boards and with no sign of the sea, we thought this is not what we expected. But then, thankfully, it all changed. Once you got through the little fishing port…

……and overtook the hordes of day tripping school children and got out onto the walkway along the beachfront, it was all rather heavenly.

After our pierogi-fest last week, we haven’t done much in the way of tasting Polish cuisine  this week. For one good reason….here it is…..

..an enormous carton of tomatoes bought for a few zlotys in a motorway polski sklep….

…a whim purchase which has resulted in a certain sameness to the campervan kitchen menu.

Our last stop this week was to see Leba and the dunes which sounds a bit like an ’80s pop combo.

The sand dunes are in the Slovinkski National Park and judging by the number of coaches ahead of us are a major tourist attraction.

From the car park, we got on board one of the electric cars to drive though the woods and up to the dunes though the first glimpse of sand…

…didn’t prepare us for just how spectacular they are. It’s a 500 hectare complex of moving sand dunes.

Apparently due to the strong westerly winds, the dunes move a few metres every year and in the past have covered a village.

Or in this case a pair of flip flops.

Ah there you are…..we wondered where you’d all got to.

And that ended our journey up the Baltic coast. It was time to turn the van round to point eastwards on our way to Lithuania, a route that took us through the Masurian lake region and an overnight stop in Mikolajaki….

…where we called in to one of the restaurants but scanning the menu options….

..maybe we’ll stick to tomato soup.

Week 35 – Hungary and Slavakia

This week we skirted along the north of Hungary and had one night in Slovakia, stopping off for a thermal bath and a spot of wine tasting.

And sheltering in the van from a monumental thunder storm, there was time for some covert filming of Stuart’s funky dance moves…..take it away Stewey.

Who knew that a pair of toothbrushes could sound that good?!

And back to our travels where we started the week crossing the border into Hungary near Debrecen on the Northern Great Plain.

At the border, the guard was even more thorough than the ‘any drugs?’ question we were asked in Corsica.

“Any drugs, guns or ammunition? Any horinca or homemade alcohol?” he asked. Nope, none of the above, not even a small bottle of the  firewater-like plum brandy we’d had in Romania before virtually every meal.  His colleague joined him. ‘Please can you blow into this? she asked offering me the breathalyser. ‘Wow, the Hungarians are really, really strict’ I thought and was ready to oblige but for her colleague pointing out that in our right hand drive van I was the passenger.

She retreated, not bothering to pursue the test and so we were waved into Hungary and it was time to learn how to divide by 350.

We headed for Hortobagy National Park.

Known as the Puszta, Hortobagy is Europe’s largest natural grassland and is home to herds of grey cattle, water buffalo, horses,  varied birdlife and Hungary’s Wild East cowboys.

We’d seen the elegant dressage of the Andalusian horses in Jerez Week 7 – From Seville to Jerez  and the cheesey performances of the Fort Bravo cowboys in Almeria Week 15 – Back in Spain – Almeria, the Ebro Delta and up to the French border.

Now it was time to see the whip-cracking horsemanship of the Hungarian csikos.

At Mata Stud, we joined one other couple on a leisurely cart drive along the dirt tracks of the steppe. We stopped to peer in at the Racka sheep with their black wool and distinctive spiral shaped horns, hundreds all  huddled together in the cool of the barn, away from the noon heat.

Black sheep in a dark barn – the photos didn’t work out too well. Here’s the barn anyway.

Our cart ride took us on  past a small group of water buffalo  with their calves, sharing a pond with this woolly pig enjoying a splash….

..and up to where one of the herdsmen was waiting to show us how he drives the ox drawn cart without reins, using verbal commands only.

The oxen are the smartest bull steers in the herd, saved from the slaughterhouse by their ability to be trained.

We got close to a skylark in song…

…and then it was time to see the  cowboys demonstrate their skills in horsemanship.

Here’s how to make the horse lie flat, a skill developed by the cowboys of old when trying to conceal themselves from their enemies in the flat landscape.

And here’s how a horse can sit like a dog. Eh, not sure why.

We declined the offer to go for a horse ride….

….posing is fine for me, thanks.

The drive out of the Putza took us through miles and miles of grassland, dotted with a few landmarks like the T-shaped sweep wells …

…and small white-washed farm cottages. We were curious to know why so many of the fields and houses had lighting conductors attached to the roof.

In the campsite at Eger that night, we found out why.

The mother and father of all storms raged for a few hours and the rain poured like a shower off the van’s awning. Watching the lighting flashes all around our tin box, we would have felt a lot more at ease if there were a few lightning conductors nearby to take the strike.

We had a wander around Eger in the evening. It was a pleasant enough town.  Some good restaurants – for goulash soup of course – and an impressive baroque church..

…and familiar names for stocking the van store cupboard..

..and it has an extensive thermal bath complex. We did as the Hungarians do and whiled away a few hours in the pool.

And on the edge of the town, right beside our campsite, there is the wine-tasting area of Szépasszony-völgy (Valley of the Beautiful Women) where there are around 200 wine cellars side by side.

It was time for a tasting….

…of the region’s famous red wine ‘Bull’s Blood’.

So cheers to Hungary. It was a flying visit but now we were off to Slovakia and into Schengen agreement land with no borders. Just a signpost to say we were now in a new country and time to put away the forints and dig out the euros.

So first impressions…..Slovakia has a serious number of solar panels….

….and picturesque countryside ….

…with beautiful beech forests…

…which made a perfect pit stop.

But as we drove on from Kosice northwards, it was startling to see as we came into one of the villages en route rows of tumbledown shacks and makeshift houses, teeming with people, spilling out onto the road in front of us. It looked like the poorest part of rural India.   We read later that while a minority of the 500,000 Roma in Slovakia are well integrated, for most this shantytown is typical of the  living conditions for many in the countryside.

Our destination was a campsite near Humenne. We parked up for the night by the lake…

….and in the morning were back on the road heading for Poland.