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.

Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands

Vaeroy – A – Reine – Ramberg – Nusfjord – Justadtinden – Henningsaer – Rorvika Beach – Nokksaeta – Sortland – Nyksund – Sto – Andenes – Blevik

Wow. What a stunning part of the world. When we drove back across the border into Norway we were so happy to be back in this beautiful country – endless dramatic mountains, sunshine, lush green valleys and clear blue sea.  Here is a little summary of the island archipelagos of Lofoten and Vesteralen (mainly Lofoten as we were there for longer).

Island of Vaeroy

So good it deservers its own section. We started our trip to Lofoten by exploring Vaeroy – one of the furthest islands south. Most of the main islands in Lofoten are connected by a network of bridges and tunnels but Vaeroy is too far off the main archipelago so we had to get a ferry. The island is largely made up of a mountain ridge in a horseshoe shape, a flat plateau where most of the houses are and lots of beautiful bays with turquoise water. We walked 10 miles up and down a mountain that scared me silly, cycled 14 miles around the island exploring the coastline, saw a sea eagle, and finished the day with a rare drink in the evening sun. It was mentally and physically exhausting but absolutely wonderful!

Fishing villages

The second most famous thing about Lofoten, after its incredible scenery, is its fishing history. We visited the fishing villages of A, Henningsaer, Reine, and Nusfjord but there was evidence of the fishing industry everywhere you looked. The industry is built on Arctic Cod, caught in the winter and hung up to dry on large wooden frames throughout Spring. The smell, as you can imagine, is horrendous but the locals call it the smell of money. Because of the temperature and wind on the islands the fish don’t need to be salted or smoked and they don’t freeze or rot.

Beaches

The beaches on these islands are essentially the arctic version of the Caribbean. Crystal clear waters, with white sandy beaches backed by lush green mountains. The main difference being that word, arctic! I managed a few swims and it was f*#king freezing but exhilarating. I even manged to get Graham in the water once. The main beaches we visited were Ramberg, Rorvika and Blevik.

Hikes

One of our favourite walks of the trip so far was up to Jusradrinden peak. When we initially got towards the top we were surrounded by thick cloud, which was a shame as we had read it was one of the best and most open views in Lofoten. But we are patient, so we sat and waited, slowly the clouds blew away and mountain after mountain was revealed as far as you could see.

We also had a typically Norwegian walk up to Nokkaseata hut. The path started off with nice duckboards over bogs and got us into a false sense of security. But then the standard, more difficult terrain hit us with a mixture of steep rockfaces, piles of snow, bogs with no duckboards and paths that essentially were walking down waterfalls. It’s always a bit of a challenge in Norway.

Not being a big fan of heights and still recovering from 4 years living in flat Norfolk means I find some hill walking quite tricky. Our day walking the horseshoe shaped ridge from the fishing village of Nyksund to the fishing village of Sto and back was my most physically and mentally exhausting day yet. The hardest parts were scrambling up a steep ridge, the narrow sections of some of the paths and the continuous up and down, up and down. But the views were great, I was very proud of myself for being able to do it and I very much enjoyed the beer at the end!

Wildlife

Most of our wildlife spots were in Vesteralen. We splashed out and went on a whale watching trip off the coast of Andenes. We saw a humpback very close to the boat and a pod of about 10/15 orcas. The orcas were an incredible sight! Other highlights were watching an otter wrestling a big fish, seeing sea eagles being mobbed by gulls, nearly walking into a moose on a walking route and fluffy little oyster catcher chicks. As well as lots of other bird species and some seals.  Scooby makes a great evening hide!

The most beautiful place on earth

We took our trusty inflatable kayak out on Reine fjord. The ‘thing’ to do there is kayak to the other side, then walk 45 minutes up a small hill to a stunning beach on the other side of the island only accessible by boat. This was lovely but the best part was further down the fjord where no one else was. We stopped for lunch on a kind of rocky beach. The photo doesn’t do it justice – insanely clear water (could see at least 15 meters), lots of great sea life and snow on the mountains. Our version of heaven and not another soul. Truly the most beautiful place I have ever seen.   

Into the Arctic Circle

Jamtland – Handöl– Ȧre – Ottsjö – Ostersund – Storforsen – Jokkmokk – Stora Sjöfallets National Park – Kiruna – Nikkaluota Valley – Abisko National Park – Kärekevagge Valley

Our return back into Sweden started off very snowy, walking a small section of the 3 day hike known as Jamtland triangle. We managed half a day trudging through thick slushy snow and snow-covered bog. We didn’t see anyone else the whole walk, had our picnic in heavy snow and got completely soaked through. It was ace! Though drying everything out in the van afterwards is a little complicated and smelly.

Right next door to Jamtland triangle is the creepy village of Handol. It used to have a big soapstone industry but now that has closed down it’s a rather quiet eerie village. Our guidebook said it was good for birdwatching so while Graham did some work on his papers I went off to the one bird hide which overlooked a massive bog. There wasn’t a lot going on in the way of birdlife but I had a very relaxing breakfast and saw my first red throated diver. Handol waterfall was very impressive though and worth the trip. In Norway the waterfalls were mainly skinny and running down huge steep cliffs, in Sweden they seem to mainly be big wide rivers carrying lots of snow melt with a series of drops and rapids.

Our next area on our journey up north was Are (via visiting some more waterfalls), it’s a popular ski area and mountain bike area in the summer. Apparently, no one apart from us would be silly enough to visit in Spring because there isn’t a lot to do as still far too much snow / snow melt for most of the walks. We did our best with a few short walks. That evening we travelled just south of Are to Ottsjo. It isn’t as high in altitude as Are so there wasn’t snow around when we got there, but overnight about 10 cm of snow fell and we woke up to our version of paradise. We had an amazing walk along a lake and through a forest making fresh tracks in the snow and looking across the water to snow covered mountains. That night we stayed at a campsite right by the river with a stunning big waterfall next to it.

We had a couple of days driving to get closer to the arctic circle. The driving in Sweden is less distracting than Norway – in summary largely straight flat roads with dense pine forest as far as the eye can see interspersed with lakes. The one good thing about the drives is the roadside wildlife; we saw loads of Reindeer (including albino ones that have pink antlers) and two moose. We visited Ostersund which was a nice town on a huge lake and visited another amazing waterfall/rapids called Storforsen.

We made it to the artic circle yay! It was very sunny and warm on arrival and no snow so didn’t feel very arcticy but we felt incredibly happy that Scooby had made it this far. We hadn’t planned to visit this far north when we left so couldn’t really believe we were now officially in the arctic circle!

We actually did a cultural thing (!) and went to a great museum in the town of Jokkmokk. It was all about the Sami culture and wildlife in the area. I normally struggle a bit with museums because there is always far too much reading in tiny print which isn’t very dyslexic friendly and makes me quite tired. But this was all big pictures, sculptures and scenes, all with an audio guide, so I was very happy.   

After a day inside, some hardcore nature was needed to balance things out, so we drove off the beaten track to Stora Sjöfallets National Park which over looks the mighty mountains of Sarek National Park and in-between is an incredible semi frozen lake. It finally felt like we had arrived in the arctic circle. That night in Scooby was very surreal, chatting away in the van you could be anywhere, and then you move your head and look out the window and it’s like looking at a TV. We really couldn’t believe we were in such a beautiful icy landscape! Proper pinch yourself moment.

View towards Sarek National Park
View into Stora Sjöfallets National Park

Driving further North we reached the town of Kiruna which is one of the strangest places I’ve been to. There is a huge iron ore mine which is taking over the city. Our guidebook had said go and see the town hall because in a few years it will be knocked down and rebuilt 3 km east as the mine expansion slowly moves the whole city. Our guidebook is clearly a few years out of date as they were knocking it down in front of our eyes. The whole place had a very depressing feeling about it, but it was pretty fascinating at the same time. The wider Kiruna area however has some very nice scenery and we had a lovely day walking in the Nikkaluota Valley with reindeer for company.

The furthest northern part in the Swedish artic circle is Abisko National Park. Small but beautiful with a wide winding river full of rapids, artic tundra, beech woodland, a huge clear lake and snowy mountains in the distance. That night we saw our first officially midnight sun, though it had been light throughout the night for a while we hadn’t until now actually seen the sun at midnight.

Our final day was spent walking in the snow up Kärekevagge Valley. It was a really interesting rocky landscape thick with cloud on the way up and then we were lucky that the cloud parted and revealed an even more beautiful landscape complete with snowy mountains and semi frozen lakes for our trip down.

Norway – Beautiful but challenging

This became our catchphrase (as well as “F/*k me Norway”) as we toured around, because it simply is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been, but man is it hard to get around (see epic driving section for more details).

It would take me aaaaaages, and I would go into far too much detail, if I wrote a day to day blog of what we did in Norway. So instead I’m going to run through our highlights.

Our route

Oslo – Flekkefjord area – Stavanger – Pulpit rock – Haugesund – Bergen- Hardangervidda – Gudvangen – Vik – Jostedalsbreen Glacier – Loen – Geiranger – Alesund – Molde – Ocean Road to Kritstiansund – Innerdalen – Trondehiem

Mountains

Everywhere you look. They are the reason for Norway’s raw immense beauty and also the reason it’s so bloody hard to get anywhere. Our favourite mountain hikes were Pulpit rock (big tourist attraction but going out of season it wasn’t too bad. It’s a very sheer drop from the pulpit and great views), Mount Ulriken (a 16 mile horseshoe walk from one mountain to another) and Mount Hoven (snowy mountain top, all to ourselves with 360 views of mountains as far as you could see).

Pulpit rock

Mount Ulriken

Mount Hoven

Snow

Every time we saw snow we got exited, it never gets boring. Our first night in Norway it snowed, which is still our coldest night in the van – slept in 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of trousers, t-shirt, fleece, fleecy dressing gown and a hat and still was a bit cold! Our initial plans did somewhat change slightly as we had no idea how much snow would still be around in Spring, and that many of the roads and hikes we wanted to do were still caked in too much of the white stuff. Our three snowy highlights…. 1) Driving through the incredible landscape of Hardangervidda mountain plateu, just rolling white hills, frozen lakes and the odd hut for two hours of driving! 2) The drive to Geiranger. This mountain road had only opened 2 days before we drove down it. We drove past snow packs higher than Scooby, along narrow roads with everything else in sight white and fluffy. 3) The previously mentioned Mount Loen walk which we did in shorts and t-shirts as it was so warm!! 

Hardangervidda

Drive into Geiranger

Making fresh tracks on Mount Hoven

Waterfalls

Everywhere you look. Spring is a great time of year to travel if you’re a waterfall fan as all the snow starts melting off the mountains creating waterfalls everywhere, straight off the mountains and into the fjords.

Fjords

So many of them. It kept blowing my mind how far inland the waters were saline. We didn’t see the coast for about a week yet everyday you would look into the fjord and see seaweed, fish, starfish, jellyfish and seals. I swam in every fjord we camped near – man they are cold but very refreshing and awakening. And we went kayaking once in our trusty inflatable and for my birthday we splashed out hiring some sea kayaks. One of the most amazing moments in Norway was sitting, having a sunset beer, looking out across Sognefjord at the snowy mountains and waterfalls, where we both heard a noise and looked at each other to say ‘really did you just hear that’, we then watched harbour porpoises playing around in the fjord and the sound of their breathing carried so far it was like we were swimming with them.

Swimming and kayaking around

Coast

Mainly rugged and rocky, with many small islands and with some incredibly beautiful white sandy beaches.

Insane driving

You don’t really need to get out of your car in Norway because the views while driving are breath-taking enough.  As beautiful as the driving was, it was equally as challenging. Scary narrow winding mountain passes, massive tunnels (24km was the longest), road closures due to snow, a lot of expensive ferry crossings and all the tolls.

Other things to note

We are nature people so really that’s what did it for us. We did visit several cities – our main synopsis is pretty wooden houses and expensive beer (up to £10 a pint!!!), Trondheim was our favourite then Oslo and Stavanger. We also obviously passed through many villages along the way, so many red wooden houses, lots of grassed roofed mountain huts and a beautiful stave church.

To be continued….

We are currently back in Sweden for a bit to travel North along some easier roads and visit some national parks. We then will be back in Norway around the Lofton Islands in June. Already looking forward to going back!

See you soon Norway

Pine forest, lakes and red wooden houses

That’s Southern Sweden in a ….pine cone….

We started our Sweden adventure in Malmo as it’s the first place you get to when going over the very expensive Copenhagen toll bridge.  Blogs can often just highlight all the best bits of the trip and make it sound like every day is amazing, when in reality you have several not so good days thrown in there too. This day was taken up with spending far too long trying to find somewhere to empty the van toilet, interrupting someone breaking into a car, stressing at how much money food shopping costs, driving around for 40 minutes trying to find somewhere to park the van, and getting bad anxiety about leaving the van in a city where car break-ins are high!! All this only left us with about 2 hours to wander around Malmo. There are couple of nice places to visit but wouldn’t feel the need to go back. The highlight was an amazing falafel wrap. They love middle eastern food in Sweden.

The next day in Lund, however, was much better. Half an hour away from Malmo, it’s a small city with a big university presence. It a lovely place to walk around with some gorgeous old buildings. There’s also a really great botanical gardens, and our personal highlight, it’s a great city for vegans! We had some vegan ice cream and found lots of good vegan products in the shops.

We then drove up to an island on the west coast called Tjorn, which was our favourite part of Sweden. It’s a rugged island with rock boulders everywhere, lovely clear blue waters and wooden houses squeezed in and around the rocks. We had a great day walking a loop around a smaller island off Tjorn called Djorn (there’s a lot of Islands in Sweden).

We spent that night parked in a marina and the next day had an amazing view from the kitchen window watching boats being transported into the marina.

From Tjorn we travelled across the country stopping in Jonkoping. Its not a standard tourist stop but its where Icky (my brother) did an Erasmus year so we wanted to go check it out. Just outside Jonkoping we visited Habo Church – an amazingly colourful wooden church – it felt like you were inside a boat. Jonkoping is sat on a huge lake with a sandy beach and fresh air coming off the hills which makes it feel like you’re at the sea. In Icky’s honour we went into town and had a few beers (which is a very rare thing on this trip as our budget prevents us from doing it too often).

After Jonkoping we continued east towards the Stockholm archipelago. Via a small town on the lake called Grana which is famous for its red and white mint sweets. The whole town is crazy about red and white stripes. The driving in this part of Sweden is pretty predictable, pine forests interspersed with lakes and rivers.

Orno was our archipelago island of choice, we took our bikes on the ferry and had a day exploring. It was fun but hard work. Very undulating ground, a new bike which has sticky brakes, bizarre gears and I’m generally rubbish at cycling. Whereas Graham, who has cycled every day to work for the past five years was having a lovely if not rather slow time waiting for me. The island was predictably made up of pine forests and lakes but as a nice change we also went through some woodlands with oak and birch trees. We spent a long lunch snoozing on the beach resting our legs which was lush.

The day after we went into Stockholm which we did not do justice. The hard thing about this trip is finding the balance between seeing lots of places in a time frame or seeing less places but in more detail. As we are not really city people and generally much prefer a day walking in nature, we only really give cities one day, but Stockholm was huge and required more. It’s on the list of places to go back to one day when our budget is less tight and we can actually eat, drink, visit museums and go on boat trips. We did however have a great day wandering around. We stared in the SoFo district which is up on a hill on the other side of the river and gives great views onto the city centre. The old town is gorgeous with endless tiny lanes but it is very touristy. We walked through the formal palace grounds and had our pack lunch in a park by the water with a very hungry duck who kept sitting on my lap trying to steal my crisps! We also really enjoyed walking around Skeppsholmen island which had lots of beautiful old tugboats moored up, each one had a little info board outside describing the boats history.

Our following day was spent in Upsala, a university city just out of Stockholm. We accidently went there on one of their busiest days of the year, 30th April, when the whole town and especially the university students celebrate the arrival of Spring. The day starts with a raft race down the river, literally everyone in Upsala seems to go to watch – the streets were full with people, food stands and balloon stalls. Then everyone goes to the parks for picnics, followed by watching the choir sing in the afternoon. All the university students wear captain hats and throw them up in the air at 3pm before the choir sing. Then in the evening they have bonfires and fireworks. Though we missed most of these activities, and between driving only had a few hours there, it is was fun to soak up the atmosphere.

Our last stop in central Sweden was Lake Run in the Dalarna region. We got an amazing spot for Scooby by the lake and spent a very Swedish day walking in the forests, kayaking in the lake and having a fire in the evening.

Copenhagen – our new favourite city

Copenhagen, like many of the main cities we have visited, has a low emission zone, so we parked Scooby just outside in a free car park at a marina where we also spent the night. We then cycled about 30 minutes in to town. Copenhagen is incredibly well set up for bikes, even better than Amsterdam! Bikes pretty much have priority, the bike lanes are very well marked and nice and wide, and various locations have free air to pump your tyres up. It’s a fairly flat city which also made it a nice and easy ride, especially for me!

We started our day by exploration Christiania. It’s a small commune of people who squatted and took over a military base in the 70s and have turned the area into a great community neighbourhood, they have their own set of rules and way of life. The residential area is away from the touristy hub and has a very laid back feel with a park on one side and a river on the other. The main area tourists go to has a few bars, bakeries, shops, small art galleries, and the main attraction loads of stalls selling green. You aren’t allowed to take photos in Christiania mainly because of the amount of people selling green. This area has a great festival vibe with music playing, lots of graffiti and art, people chilling in the sun and getting high. I just took a couple of photos on the way out.