Stunning Slovakia

Everyone should go its beautiful! All the mountains, nice people, loads of rolling green views dotted with blue water. We didn’t want to leave. Blog Post Done!

Ok I’ll go into some more detail….

Our route:

Western, Low and High Tatra Mountains – Slovak Paradise – Levoca & Spis Castle – Kosice – Slovak Karst – Po’lana – Banska Stavinka – Bratislava

Tatra Mountains

A beautiful mountain range with lots of great hiking – we could have stayed there forever. We had gorgeous sunshine every day, but you had to be off the mountain by early afternoon when the thunderstorms started on most days. There aren’t many things that make me get out of bed early – first ski lift when there’s fresh snow and now the Tatra mountains.

Getting into the centre of the mountain range is tricky, but many of the fringing peaks are accessible with well marked trails. We went to two ski towns where we cheated a bit and saved our legs on the ascent or descent by getting chair lifts and cable cars. This gave us more time and energy for walking around the top of the mountains.

We visited a couple of incredibly beautiful mountain tarns where unfortunately for humans, but fortunate for nature protection, swimming is forbidden.

The sheerness and density of the peaks in the Tatras was a sight we will never forget.

Other Nature

Slovak paradise is just south of the Tartra mountains, it is mainly made up of wooded valleys and steep gorges, and the hiking involves tiny ladders and skinny ledges on cliffs. Although I love mountains, I’m actually quite scared of heights; so we did a tame version of Slovak paradise with an easy walk to a view point, an ice cave and some paddle boarding and swimming in Lake Dedinky.

Our visit to Slovak Karst was a little unplanned, but it turned out that we camped on a great hiking route. We had a lovely loop up and down a hill to some waterfalls, a castle and back up and down a hill again – this kept up our average of 10 miles of walking a day while in Slovakia.

Our journey to Po’lana National Park was quite…. erm …… exciting?! We drove at night up a terrifyingly narrow road with lots of potholes to a camp spot we read about online. When we got to the top we checked how far up we were, to which Grahams said ‘What the f#*k is Scooby doing at 1250 meters above sea level!!’ Then we drank some beer to calm our nerves. The next day’s walk was pretty easy as it turned out we had basically accidentally driven to the top!

Our last nature-based activity was a relaxing walk around the rolling hills and picturesque village of Banska Stavinka.

Culture

So, it turns out the Slovakians love a drink, no matter what time, day of the week or location. Lots of people were already drinking pints as we started some of our walks at 9am. We had a rather funny experience on one of our walks, passing alongside a group who were doing shots at the top of the mountain and then running down 100 meters to stop and take a breather while doing another round of shots and then repeating this all the way down the mountain. But, the best drinking sight had to be a nun in full ‘costume’ with a pint!

As well as the drinking, Slovakians also seemed like very friendly people. There were lots of people spending time outside with their families, mostly walking or mushroom picking and giving us lots of friendly hellos  (or more specially Dobrydens / ahoys / caios ) as we passed.

All the towns we visited (Levoca, Kosice, Banksa Stavincka) were really nice with some lovely architecture and quite a slow pace of life.

Bratislava was my kind of capital – small for a city never mind a capital, the lovely blue Danube flowing through it, nice old town and great food and drink (incredible vegan donuts).

The only one tiny negative about Slovakia is its not next to the coast otherwise I would move there instantly.

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Poland

We didn’t give Poland as much time as it probably deserves. Our sightseeing was concentrated to Eastern and central Poland on our way down to Slovakia. We will just have to go back and see the western side on another van trip.

Biebrzanski Marsh – Bialowieza Forset – Narew – Warsaw – Kozlowiecki Park – Lublin – Ojcowski National Park – Krakow – Zakopane  

Nature

Our introduction to Poland’s nature was quite immersive. We got harassed by swarms of horseflies while walking on a path that took us quite literally through the middle of Biebrzanski Marsh reed beds.  Day two saw us get completely soaked in non-stop rain while walking in Bialowieza Forset. Day three another exciting reed bed experience, this time kayaking in the very shallow and narrow Narew river, where we had to duck under reeds and face planted a few cobwebs.  Ojcowski National Park on the outskirts of Warsaw was a lot tamer in comparison, with some nice geological features. Our last stop was witnessing the immense power of thunderstorms in Zakopane, Tatra Mountains, where post storm we had a stunning walk in the valleys.   

Cities

Our favourite city stop in Poland was Warsaw. The old town had some beautiful architecture which was completely reconstructed after the world war. Just outside the old town is an area with lots of old churches and wide-open streets, and the new town had some great bars. The atmosphere along the river was lively with loads of people enjoying a drink by the water.  On top of this, it was Grahams birthday, so we celebrated by eating as much vegan food as possible. Traditional veganised polish lunch, ice cream in the afternoon, vegan sushi for dinner and the best bakery ever the following morning. Fully recommend Warsaw as a vegan destination.  

A much smaller city stop was lovely Lublin. With an old castle, narrow cobbled streets, art galleries, restaurants in squares, and nice churches – it has all the things you could desire as a tourist, just on a small scale.

Supposedly many people overlook Warsaw in favour of Krakow. In our onion we can’t understand why, but it clearly shows when you’re walking around as there are soooo many tourists. There is an interesting castle area, a very grand large square with some nice streets off it, a historic Jewish quarter with lots of places to eat and drink, some good sounding museums and a lively atmosphere all around. We did enjoy trying several types of vodka and ate a very tasty vegan kebab. But it was just incredibly touristy, lots of people, lots of generic restaurants and all the souvenir tat. We did however see a wild boar on our cycle back to our camp spot which was a great way to end the day!

Lithuania

Our route: Vilnius – Trakai – Neries Regional Park – Lithuania Folk Museum – Kaunas – Krekenva Regional Park – Hill of Crosses – Palanga – Klaipeda – Curonian spit – Birstonas – Zuvinto Nature Reserve

Vilnius

We had our second set of visitors (Graham’s dad and step mum) join us for the first half of Lithuania, which was lovely. And this meant we had a relaxing 2 days and 2 nights in Vilnius rather than our normal rush around a city in one day. Vilnius has everything – an old town with narrow cobbled streets, a new town that doesn’t look new and is filled with cafes and shops, so many incredibly elaborate churches, an independent arty district, lots of museums and history, a nice river and some lovely parks. I would have quite happily spent a third day there, which for me to say about a city means it must be good.

Apart from the usual wandering around taking far too many photos we visited the Dukes Palace which was incredibly good value for money; enough to keep you busy for a day for around £2. We also visited the very sobering Museum of Occupation. It’s hard to believe that Lithuania along with the other Baltic countries only had their independence back in 1991, that’s after I was born! In the Cathedral square there is a very small plaque which marks the spot where, in 1989, around 2 million people formed a human chain holding hands across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in a peaceful demonstration showing huge support for independence.

Kaunas

It’s the second biggest city in Lithuania. The most well-known building in the city is the castle, which has all your standard castle fun; gallows, armour, good tower and people fencing. Across the city there’s plenty of churches and town squares, a very long pedestrianised shopping and café street, lots of great street art and a lovely lake with lots of beaches and water sports.  We also had the best bagel of our lives (all the humous) from Holy donut – it’s a chain around Lithuania – I highly recommend it (they do vegan donuts too).

We visited Christ Resurrection Church, which is an enormous modern church standing out on the skyline and has good views of the city.  The idea of the church was born after Lithuanian’s initial independence in 1918 to thank god for their freedom. The donations were largely made by the public. Unfortunately during occupation, the church was badly damaged. When Lithuania finally gained independence again in 1991 work began to restore the church and it eventually opened in 2010.

Hill of Crosses

Does what the name suggest, but more of a small mound. Although there have been numerous attempts to destroy the monument through the many historical occupations, pilgrims have been putting crosses here since the 1800s. There is now an estimated 100,000 plus crosses. This number grows everyday as tourist buy their wooden crosses from the souvenir stands and squeeze them in somehow. No one really knows why this trend started but it is now a place known as a symbol of endurance of the Catholic religion through its rather rocky Lithuanian history. Currently around 70% of the population are Catholics.

Palanga

The Magaluf of Lithuania. A lovely beach that’s sometimes too rough to swim in, backed by lots of hotels and strip of tackiness…. all the tackiness – arcades, 9D (how is that possible) cinemas, candy floss, trampolines in restaurants and entertainers “signing” in restaurants (basically doing karaoke but badly). However, everyone was having lots of fun! And unlike Magaluf there were less teenagers vomiting in the street.  

10 minutes up the road, however, and you’re on a lovely stretch of beach backed by pine forests and just a few walkers for company.

Curonian Spit

Huge spit, that I would say geographically speaking is more of a bar that has had some holes punched in for maintaining human access to the sea. Anywayyyy. A huge ‘spit’ that connects Lithuania to Kaliningrad and Poland. Its largely a very strict nature reserve consisting of sand dunes, beaches, pine forest and a couple of resort towns in between. It was very expensive to go!  €28 for a 500 meter return ferry crossing!! €30 access to the island (totally unaware we had to pay it, but it would have been pointless ferry journey if we had turned around without paying. And ‘technically’ you were only allowed to camp in the one official payed campsite. We decided to stay for 2 days to get our monies worth. On the first day we went to see ‘Witches Hill’ – a nice forest walk with loads of wooden sculptures mainly of witches and devils. Spent the rest of the day cycling, which is THE activity of choice on the spit; it is very well set up with lots of nice cycling paths. Second day, after another cycle, we spent relaxing on the beach. It was our last day by the sea for a couple of months (hopefully we won’t go insane without our salty friend).

Zuvinto Biosphere Reserve

Our Lithuania trip ended very peacefully at Zuvinto. A huge shallow lake amazing for bird watching, with a vast expanse of reeds surrounded by forests and fields. Summer is not the best bird watching season but there were still huge amounts of cranes, geese, ducks, egrets, swallows and starlings.  I would definitely recommend it. I was very impressed, and it made me miss Cley.  (I wish I could share videos here, as photos don’t do it justice, but I don’t have a fancy enough word press account to do that)

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Sun, Sea and Celebrations

I wanted to call this sun, sea, celebrations and castles. But castles starts with a c but doesn’t sound the same as the c in celebrations. And confusingly sun and sea start with an s but sound like a c. Man I hate English!

Our trip took us to:

Gauja valley – Cesis town – Sigulda caves and castle – Saulkrasti beach – Riga – Jurmala beach – Kemeri National Park – Kandava town – Sabile town – Slitere National Park – Sklandrusi festival – Ventspils city – Kuldiga town – Rundale palace – Bauska town – Raznas National Park – Daugavas Loki Nature Area

Sun

Apart from two days we pretty much had glorious sunshine between 25-28 degrees for our two weeks in Latvia. This, along with lots of other factors, has made it our second favourite country so far (Norway will take a serious amount of beating).

Our first few days in the Latvian sunshine were spent in the Gauja valley. A beautiful national park of forests and streams surrounding the winding wide Gauja river. We parked Scooby up for the night by the river and the next day we were woken by hordes of people bringing rafts, canoes, kayaks and ribs down to the river, non-stop all day. THE activity to do there is floating, the river flows fairly strong and people just float down river to numerous free national park run campsites.

Sea (and other watery bodies)

We very quickly realised that Latvians love wild swimming. Whatever the body of water (the sea, lakes, rivers, a pond) there will likely be a swimming platform, some changing cubicles and people enjoying the water. As per usually we were drawn to the coast – Latvia has some lovely sandy beaches, and around the gulf of a Riga, a very shallow and surprisingly warm sea which involved less swimming and more “bathing”.

 In fact, Latvians seem naturally outdoorsy people, you see families out every evening spending time together, teenagers playing volleyball, basketball or football, lots of people out foraging for mushrooms and berries, and it seemed so natural and normal. I found it funny that in Sweden they make a big deal about this kind of stuff, whereas in Latvia they just get on and do it without all the pretence.

We channelled our inner Latvians and went wild swimming most days (not that I ever need much persuading). It’s the perfect way to start the day refreshed and awake and the perfect way to cool off at the end of the day…..and it’s pretty nice in the middle of the day too.

Celebrations

Latvians love a party and seemingly any excuse for a summer festival; we saw posters for festivals everywhere and ended up going to three.

Cesis – Our first night in Latvia was spent at Cesis festival. Throughout the day there were hundreds of market stalls selling crafts, clothes, jewellery and lots of food and drink. There were skate and bmx competitions at the skate park, and by early evening the music started at two different stages – one for more classical music and one for more indie music. There was a great atmosphere and the music was really good and all free. They set the bar high.

Sabile Wine Festival – The festival happens over several days, but the highlight is on the Saturday when wine sellers across the country gather. Sabile claims the northern most vineyard and the festival started because historically in Latvia you weren’t allowed to sell wine. So the wine would be made at the vineyard and the community would gather to drink it. We went on Friday and timed our visit badly in between events. I wanted to buy some local wine to take home but couldn’t find it in the shops, so I rang the vineyard. A young guy who runs the family business said he was on his farm so just come over and we can buy it there. When we got there, he gave us a private tour and a private wine tasting of about 10 different wines!  He had so much time for us and showed great hospitability before his busiest selling day of the year. We experienced this kind of friendliness all over Latvia.

Carrot Tart – Yep that’s right they have a whole festival in honour of this famous tart. We missed the activities in the day getting waylaid in the sunshine at the beach. But we got there in time to try the potato and carrot tart and watch a rendition of the sound of music in the gardens of a castle. This was followed by live music. The Latvians know how to dance – in England people might be brave enough to get up and dance halfway through a bands set after several pints. In Latvia, first chord and loads of people up dancing together… and properly dancing (waltzing etc) not just bobbing along. They also know how to drink! Everyone came along with big carry bags full of spirits and mixer some preferring to skip the cup and mix in the mouth.

Castles

If you like castles Latvia is a must. There are loads of them in all sorts of forms – fully restored, partly restored, ruins and mounds. I think we saw a castle or some form of castle every day.

Cities and Scenery

I could write about Latvia all day and have really not done it justice, but don’t want to make the blog too long. Hopefully I have given you a little flavour of what Latvia has to offer. We really enjoyed the landscape, wildlife, scenery, towns and cities, the extremely friendly people, and learning about the history and culture. I thoroughly recommend a visit and I already want to go back. Here’s a selection of city related and scenery related photos for you.

Estonia continued

Tallinn (See previous blog post) – Haapsalu Town– Lahemaa National Park – Matsula National Park – Parnu City – Island of Kinhu – Island of Muhu – Island of Saaremaa – Soomaa National Park – Viljandi Town – Tartu City

Nature

Landscape

Our first experience of nature was a day trip from Tallinn to Turisalu and Pakri cliffs and Keila-Joa Waterfall. Here we learnt to adjust our expectations. “Cliffs”, used to mean any form of elevation with a drop (not quite the huge dramatic shear drops of Norway), and “waterfall”, running water with any elation of greater than 50cm (not quite the gallons of falling water we saw in Sweden). Once you make these adjustments, and no longer expect Scandinavia standards, then the nature in Estonia is rather pleasant and much more varied. Yes, like Scandy there is a lot of pine trees, but also lots of bogs, grasslands, meadows, mixed woodland, wetlands and farmland. Our main nature adventures were to Laheema National Park (lots of pine trees, lovely walk around Altjar village on the coast), Matsalu NP (not worth it – farms and observation towers) and Sooma NP (our favourite – forest, bogs and rivers. We had a lovely kayak on the river Raudna.). We also walked and cycled around the islands of Muhu and Saremma which have lots of lovely coastline, windmills, lighthouses and a great castle.

Wildlife

We were amazed by the amount of insects. Positives = all the beautiful butterflies and insect eaters like frogs, lizards and birds. Negatives = all the nasty mosquitoes and horse flies. There is a lot less farmland in Estonia compared to the UK and it really highlighted how many insects we kill in the UK through pesticides. Our wildlife highlight was probably seeing three Adders throughout our two weeks.

Coast

We had to adjust our expectation of the coastal landscape as well. Our first experience of the sea was a rather smelly one. On the beaches across the northern coast of Estonia there were piles and piles of mushy algae washed up creating a lovely sulphur smell, I didn’t swim. However, on the west coast there wasn’t as much algae and we manged to get in the sea a few times. I say sea, but it’s much more like swimming in a large pond – shallow and warm and without the salty smell.

Culture

Swings

Turns out Estonia (along with the rest of Baltic countries in fact) love a good swing. Everywhere we went there were swings. Kiiking (swinging) is a recognised ‘sport’ in Estonia. In the sport you are tied to the swing by your feet and have to squat up and down to create momentum. The aim is to get yourselves to spin 360 degrees over the top bar. We were quite pathetic at it. They also have big communal swings for more gentle swinging fun.

Food

Our favourite Estonian food delicacies were the fried garlic rye bread sticks and the mass amount of gherkins in all shapes sizes and spices. I also recommend Vanna Tallin a very tasty dark rum spirit.

Towns

Apart from Tallinn we visited Happsalu (old spa town on the coast with nice wooden buildings), Parnu (coastal town with a huge flat beach and good bar atmosphere), Viljandi (old town by the river with great castle ruins)  and Tartu (small university town on the river with a lively town hall square and nice botanical gardens). All the towns had nice cobbled streets and colourful wooden houses a recurring theme of our trip so far.

Overall Estonia was an enjoyable, welcoming and relaxing introduction to the Baltics.

Tallinn

Song Festival

We accidentally ended up visiting Tallinn on one of the busiest weekends of the year. The country was celebrating the Estonia song festival – held every five years in Tallinn. It’s a celebration of national pride and linked with the singing revolution (I encourage you to read about this. The history of the Baltic country’s is very tragic but the determination of the people living here to fight for their independence is inspiring). There was an amazing atmosphere all over the city with so many people there to celebrate. On Saturday we watched the parade of the choirs all in national dress, Sunday morning we were treated to mass dancing at freedom square and Sunday evening we went to the main event. An impressive choir of 32,000 people (made up of over 1000 different choirs) and an audience of 80,000. It was a pretty memorable experience but a warning not to go if you don’t like crowds.

With Guests

Graham’s Mum and Stepdad joined us for 4 days of exploring in Tallinn and around. After 3 months with just ourselves for conversation and spending near enough 24 hours a day with each other, it was a nice change to have conversations with other minds. Having guests was a great excuse to have a ‘holiday’. Spending 6 months travelling van style, we are pretty strict with our money and have rarely been out for drinks and food, but this was a great excuse to treat ourselves and to be treated to some great food and drink.

Vegan Food

Tallinn is an absolute dream for vegans! Couldn’t recommend it enough as a vegan city break destination. We ate out at three vegan restaurants V, Vegan Inspiratsioon, and Plant. And they were all amazing, serving interesting creative food for plant and non-plant lovers. We also got treats from a vegan bakery and the highlight was a vegan chocolate shop – I was speechless when I went in and found that everything was plant-based!!!

City

We didn’t just eat the whole time, we did wonder between eateries. The old town is gorgeous, everything you want from a historic city break; cobbled streets, narrow lanes, lively cafes and bars, wide town square, interesting architecture, old city walls, churches after churches and a castle. Staying in the van means we often park out of town and cycle into cities which means you get to explore the more non touristy areas. I also enjoyed my morning runs around the various parks in the city and along the waterfront. Another interesting area to visit is the waterfront, via old industrial buildings, creative hubs, the communist prison and an old boat yard. We didn’t have time to visit museums but there were lots of them. Basically in summary, if you haven’t been go, its great!

Dramatic Skies And Endless Pines

As we couldn’t persuade ourselves to leave Norway on time, we had to do Finland in a flash. We spent two weeks traveling from the top of Finland all the way down to Helsinki. As per usual we planned most of our route around National Parks but also threw in a few towns for good measure. Finland in a flash synopsis – lots of rain, all the mosquitos, flat, pine trees, lakes, more pine trees, interesting people, wooden houses and Santa. For a longer version see below.

Culture

Hobby horses

While walking in a popular nature reserve one day, we saw several teenage girls just walking around with hobby horses and thought it was a bit odd. It turns out it’s a popular ‘sport’ in Finland for girls between 10 -18 and there are several big dressage and show jumping competitions. They literally ride around cantering and galloping like a horse and go over jumps. It seems quite a creative hobby as the teenagers also make their own hobby horses.

Dancing naked

We read about a traditional summer sport in Lapland which involved trying to catch as many mosquitos as possible. You have to stand naked in the forest, with no bug repellent on and wave around some buttered bread. The person that catches the most mosquitos in a minute on their slice of bread wins………… We didn’t try it!

Drinking

They have a word in Finland ‘Kalsarikanni’ which translates to ‘Just drinking in your underwear’. Drinking seems to be quite a big issue, especially in the long dark winters, and Kalsarikaani is all about staying at home drinking alone with no intention of going out. 

Towns and Cities

Christmas village – Posio (literally nothing but a nice interior design shop and museum) – Savonlinna – Porvoo – Turku – Naantali – Raseborg – Hanko – Helsinki

Towns up north were just for food shopping and buying petrol, there really isn’t a lot else to them. We did however make a visit to the village that is Christmas all year round (when in Lapland). If you write a letter to Santa it will end up there at Santa’s official post office. I thought it would look like the village in the Grinch but unfortunately, it’s a very purpose built shopping location with no character. We did accidently end up meeting Santa though. We were walking through a Christmas themed walkway which we didn’t realise was the queue to meet Santa until we got to a rope and were met buy a very happy, high pitched elf. We couldn’t run away so met the main man and chatted about geography. He was lovely. It was very bizarre.

The town and cities only became more interesting from a tourist perspective when we reached South Finland. There is a big difference in the amount of infrastructure and people – the south seemed like a different country.  All the towns had nice old sections with pretty wooden colourful houses and cobbled streets. The all fringed either lakes or the coastline and had lovely marinas. Every town is nice when there’s water involved.

Helsinki was a really nice city. Some beautiful architecture both old and modern, lots of shops, bars, churches and museums and a nice coastline. My main advice if taking a campervan is not to drive right through the city – lots of cobbled streets and tramlines makes for a very noisy van ride with everything in the back moving around.

Landscape and Nature

Summary:

Pine trees, pine trees, pine trees. Some bogs, some lakes, some rivers and lots of mosquitoes. Bears and an eagle.

Longer version:

Pallas – Yllastunturi National Park – I’m sure it’s very nice on a clear day (it looks great on google, especially during the winter snow). We had very thick cloud with very little visibility and got drenched in a heavy rainstorm.  

Korouoma Nature Reserve – Canyon walk. Do not go in summer! 1 ½ hours of non-stop mosquitoes. The photos from winter of the frozen waterfalls look great though. 

Riisitunturi National Park – What Finland calls a peak and what we know as a large mound. Nice views. Standard Finnish habitats of pine forest and bogs. Quite a lot of mosquitos.

Oulanka National Park – Our favourite. A lovely accessible national park. Nice loop walk along the river, through pine forests, and between islands via suspension bridges. It didn’t rain, yay! And we even managed a swim in the river to cool off. Mosquitos ok if you keep moving.

Koli National Park – Big rocks, lovely view across a lake, endless pines.

Kurjenrahka National Park – Small lake, pine forests of different ages and bogs.

Martinselkonen – My siblings brought me a night in a bear hide for my 30th. We didn’t release the people who ran the tours put food out for the bears. This had the advantage of attracting quite a few bears, but the disadvantage of not being a truly wild experience. We spent the evening and night in a hide watching bears come and go, we saw a mother with 3 one-week old pups and had a visit from a sea eagle. It was a really great experience.

With Finland complete we’re saying goodbye to the Scandinavia section of our journey and are off to explore eastern Europe.