The Last Leg

After 7 months travelling in Scooby our final week was spent Travelling from Germany to Belgium with just an overnight stop in France before our Ferry back to the UK from Calais.  

Our Route: Luxembourg, La Roche-en-Ardenne, Brussels, Ghent, Bruges

Luxembourg: We had one day exploring Luxembourg city. It’s a much smaller city than we both thought and only took half a day to see all its sights. The centre is based around posh shopping, not really our cuppa. There’s a small nice old section with some great fortifications, a lovely river and a quiet old residential area to walk around. The highlight of the day was having an 80% hot chocolate with a chocolate, hazelnut and cranberry cake.  

La Roche-en-Adenne – A little nature oasis in a week of cities. And a small dry spell in what had been a week of rain. We had a lovely autumnal walk around the hills and cliffs surrounding the meandering …….. river.

Brussles – Take home message – they love chocolate, waffles, chocolate, a pissing boy and did I mention chocolate. As well as the chocolate, there are also some beautiful shopping arcades, a stunning main square, some great street art, and an interesting mix of architecture. We really enjoyed the city.

Ghent – What a beautiful place! It felt very Dutch – flat, with lots of canals and bikes. The architecture was the real winner! As it was our penultimate day we decided to treat ourselves with some mulled wine to warm up with while wandered around. Followed by a late lunch of savoury waffles, freak shake and sweet waffle. In the evening we also sampled several of the very tasty, but equally very pricey, Belgium beers.

Bruges – It really is just as beautiful as everyone says it is. As always, we parked out of the city and walked in, which means you get to see the less explored side. We started in Kruisvest park which has several windmills along the river and then walked slowly through a quiet residential area. I say slowly because I was stopping to take photos of houses every 5 meters; it was so quaint and picturesque. There are some real pinch points of tourism in the centre and there were a couple of streets that were just souvenir tat shops. But apart from that I have no complaints. It was a beautiful city, and though fairly small, you could spend days slowly wandering and taking millions of photos. It was such a great place to visit on our last day of the trip.

Now we have finished traveling (for a bit) our next blog (which I have been wanting to write for ages) will be all about the realities of vanlife and a summary blog of our trip around Europe.

A Very Wet Return to Germany

We spent a week travelling along Southern Germany. It was not the most direct route from Czech Republic to Belgium, but since leaving Austria we had been craving some mountains again so decided to go and see the Bavarian Alps. Unfortunately, the weather gods weren’t playing ball. It rained every day and during our 3 days in the Alps we didn’t see a single mountain. Sometimes you could barely see 30 meters in front of you, but still we got out and explored.

Our Route:

Regensburg – Munich – Garmisch-Partenkirchen – Neuschwanstein castle – Lindau on Lake Constance – Black Forest –  Heidelberg – Mainz – Bonn – Cologne

Nature

Partnach Gorge – We visited on a pretty miserable day. But there were plenty of other mad people out in the rain and cold trying to make the most of it. With the mountains in thick cloud, hiding in the gorge seemed like the best option. Unfortunately to walk alongside the river you have to pay, so we walked along just up above it and had a lovely view looking down for free.

Lake Constance – Its huge. 63 km long in fact, and borders Austria to the east and Switzerland to the south. Felt like being at the seaside, the lake was so clear and endless (maybe on a sunny day it would seem less endless).

Black Forest – Another wet and cloudy day, which meant we couldn’t get a feel for the scale of the forests from driving through it as we could hardly see the road in front of us. Thankfully our walk started off ok with just some drizzle, which meant we had nice views out over rolling forests. We weren’t enthralled by our day exploring. Most of the paths were wide and open and lacked a feeling of being in the wild. We didn’t spot or hear much wildlife and there was clear evidence of logging and plantations. 

Neuschwanstein castle

We went because it is listed as the castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – one of my all time favourite films. Maybe my expectations were too high. I was hoping for the tour to be very c.c.b.b. focused, but they didn’t mention it once! Turns out it’s just the castle they flew over. None of the film was actually shot there. Once I got over my initial disappointment I was able to enjoy the castle for what it was.

Built over several years from 1868 for Ludwig 2nd, who sounded like a right eccentric. Unfortunately, he only lived there for 172 days before he died in 1886 and six weeks after his death it was turned into a museum. This means the very impressive original interior is incredibly well preserved with detailed paintings and dark woodwork. The castle even has a small room on the top floor which is made to look like a cave (complete with stalactites and stalagmites)! Told you he was an eccentric.

No photos of the inside were allowed. So instead, here’s two cloudy photos of the castle and lack of view.

Towns

Germany know how to do a good historic town. We are always impressed by the beautiful old architecture; and by how busy and lively a lot of the towns are. The high street certainly doesn’t feel dead in Germany. So many independent shops that all seem to be alive and well; plus some great looking bakeries, cafes and always lively beer halls.

Regensburg – Lovely old town which apparently has one of the best preserved medieval centres in Germany. Great cathedral with stunning stained glass, old town hall, cute cobbled streets, very nice vibe, and on the edge of the Danube.

Munich – Not one of our favourite city’s we have visited. It lacked a main hub of old buildings to wander around for the budget traveller. Don’t get me wrong it is a nice city and worth a day trip. There are plenty of nice buildings but they are just dotted around. The main centre is very shopping focused and full of high street shops. The town hall is definitely the highlight.

Lindau – Its essentially a small island on Lake Constance. We walked all the way around and wandered the cobbled streets in the main town. Probably a nightmare in the height of summer but really lovely in autumn. Its old harbour is guarded by a giant lion dating from 1856 and a little lighthouse made it feel like it was beside the seaside.

Heidelberg – Essentially one long main shopping street with a couple of squares and some nice side streets. There’s also a castle with lovely views and a nice old bridge. Not a huge amount to see as a tourist but a nice town to wander around for half a day.

Mainz – Wasn’t really worth the effort. Emission zones, as wonderful as they are, do make visiting some places a bit trickier with a big van – with finding somewhere to park out of the city and finding transport in. The best thing about Mainz was the main square and the small collection of old timber houses.

Bonn – We were lucky enough to have a tour guide in Bonn as we met up with one ofGraham’s Uni friends, Rachael. Such a busy lively place, already gearing up for Christmas. Negatives were that most of the nice buildings; cathedral, uni buildings and palace all had scaffolding up. Positives were the food and drink. We drank Kolsch a local beer made 30 minutes away in Cologne; Rachael made us a veganised German pasta dish called Spatzle for dinner and she brought this amazing bottle of Roter Sauser (a popular autumn drink in Germany made from fermented freshly pressed grapes; it has a slight fizz to it and is essentially a very light wine. The one we drank had a max alcohol content of 9%.)

The following day we had a lovely cycle along the river Rhine, got the ferry across the river and walked up to Drachenburg castle.  

Cologne – The old town had a slight Plymouth feel to it. Mix of nice old buildings and some more functional, less aesthetically pleasing buildings. The cathedral is the main reason to go to cologne. Other than that, the next reason seems to be to shop! The city centre is essentially just focused on shopping.

Hopefully the next we visit Germany it will be a little drier.

Czech Republic

Unfortunately just a short seven days but we managed to cram in 3 towns, 2 castles and 3 days walking in nature on top of quite a bit of driving. 

Our Route: Brno – Olomouc – Bouzov – Krkonose National Park – Cesky raj – Bohemian Switzerland – Prague – Karlstejn castle – Pilsen

Nature

Krkonose – Translates to ‘Giant Mountains’. This (I would say hilly) national park borders Poland, so much so we walked into Poland without realising, as the border runs along the mountain ridge. We walked from Pecpod Snezkou up to Sniezka which is Czechs highest peak at 1603 meters. The day started with very low cloud and equally low energy levels but somehow we managed to lug ourselves up the hill. Just before the top we stopped for lunch in very thick cloud and strong wind, but over the course of eating our hummus wraps the wind blew the clouds away and revealed the peak. Once we climbed the last 100 meters to the top we were rewarded with a great view. On one side of the ridge we looked down through clear skies onto Poland. On the other side Czech Republic was hidden by a blanket of fluffy clouds. It was a totally awesome feeling to have walked above the clouds.

Casky Raj – A very fun place to go walking. We spent the day exploring the tall sandstone pillars which they call ‘rock cities’. The hiking path started by scrambling over rocks, we then squeezed in between large rock columns, and ducked underneath rock tunnels. The path travelled down steeply to the base of a small “canyon”. After walking at the base of the pillars we travelled back up the other side to look down onto the crazy rock city.

Bohemian Switzerland – ‘Bohemian’, because it is situated in an area called Bohemia. ‘Switzerland’, because back in the 18th century it reminded some Swiss artists of their homeland. There are two main attractions here, Kamenice Gorge and Pravcicka Archway. We did a nice big loop walk covering both. The gorge was really nice with a path running alongside for the most part, with one section where you have to get a boat (which only cost €3 and was really fun). The archway was disappointing. One of those things that looks so much more impressive in a photo from a drone.  As a geographer I should have been more inspired by this natural rock arch but really it wasn’t a patch on Durdle Door.

Towns

Brno, Olomouc & Pilsen – All three were nice towns with some interesting old buildings, town squares and churches. Brno & Olomouc are both university towns and had really nice vibes, lots of quirky shops and cafes. Pilsen is the home of Pilsner, and it smelt like brewing which isn’t everyone’s cuppa tea, but I like it as it reminds me of my home town. The vibe in Pilsner when we went, was mainly lots and lots of football fans and some riot police.

Prague – We had a great day in sunny Prague sampling the food, well mainly drink on offer. We started our day on the quieter west side of the river; fuelling the day ahead by seeking out a vegan chimney cake, which was delicious! We wandered around the cathedral, palace and monastery areas before stopping for our first beer in a craft beer place. We manged a whole 20 meters before stopping again to enjoy an incredible view of Prague while sipping a beer made at the monastery. We then hit the hoards of tourist on the chain bridge. Wow a lot of people visit Prague! We slowly made it to the very pretty town hall square and wandered around the old town. Once away from the tourist pinch points it wasn’t too busy and you can easily be distracted from the amount of people by the lovely architecture. Our legs needed a rest so we stopped for a Pilsner before wandering around the new town. We had a dinner of sides (Czech food isn’t very vegetable heavy) and sampled a beer tasting menu in a great beer hall that had 10 different themed rooms. Our final stop of the day was in a traditional beer hall. They served one type of dark beer and two short drinks (a mead and a herby shot). No bars and no menus; waiters wander around with trays of the 3 options and keep a running tab at the end of your table. It was a great place full of atmosphere, lots of people, live music and tasty booze.

Going to Prague in October might have been key to our enjoyment; the sun was out, it wasn’t as busy as it could be, and we only experienced 5 stag-dos.

Austria in Autumn

Austria is beautiful! Everywhere you look there are mountains or hills, dotted with picturesque towns, pastures, lakes and churches. In autumn the colours are incredible.  Starting with the dark blue lakes, and moving along to the bright green pastures, up the hill to the orange/yellow/red/dark green trees on the hillsides, up further past the bare rock to the fresh white snow on top, and we were lucky that above the hilltops everyday was clear blue skies and bright yellow sun.

We spent most of our time enjoying this beautiful scenery, walking every day in the hills, with a brief stop to experience some culture in Hallstatt and Salzburg. Our last three days were spent in Vienna as we had friends visiting from the UK, and visited some friends who now live in there.

The route: Villach – Gailtal Alps – Grossglockner High Alpine Pass – Zell am See – Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves – Filzmoos – Hallstatt – Salzburg –  Mondsee – Melk – Vienna

Mountains

Gailtal Apls – A wonderful first hike in Austria. Our walk was meant to start from Dolomitenhutte, a mountain hut up at the top of a toll road. After taking Scooby a little way up the very steep narrow ‘road’ at the base of the hill, I decided enough was enough and we parked him before the toll road began and hiked the rest. It meant we didn’t quite have time to reach our final destination before dark but starting in the mountain pastures was really nice. We worked our way up towards the shear rock tops where the bright yellow of the trees clashed amazingly with the bare grey cliffs.

Grossglockner High Apline Pass – This day was equal parts terrifying and stunning. RAC described the mountain road as ‘a magnificent test of man and machine’. Well Scooby and our nerves were certainly tested. Before we even got to the toll where the road officially starts, Scooby had climbed 700 meters and had almost over heated, so we had to take a rest by the side of the road for a while. We debated whether this was a ridiculous idea, but Scooby cooled down while we chilled out and we decided to press on. Graham drove it all, I found it hard enough being a passenger. But once we stopped at the many rest places it was always worth it. Incredible views of freshly snow covered mountains all around. We managed a few short walks but snow cover had already closed some areas. Scooby reached the top at 2504 meters above sea level!!! He then failed to start again….. Not sure why but he just kept stalling. There was a slight incline on the parking area, maybe he was knackered, maybe the altitude?! We decided to try and reduce the load so Graham stood at the side with various heavy water carriers and finally Scooby managed to start, and we were off again… once Graham joined us up the hill carrying our water supply. The way down also had many stops to rest the brakes. At one stop we could see 6 glaciers! Once at the bottom we immediately parked for the night and drank some beer to settle our nerves.

Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves – A very ‘cool’ experience. To get to the cave you have to drive up a narrow pass. We decided after Grossglockner to leave Scooby at the bottom and get the shuttle bus. There is then a walk, an incredibly speedy cable car and a further walk to the top, all offering great views. The cave at the top is the biggest ice cave in the world. They don’t use any artificial electric lighting, so we were given small gas lights to guide the way. We walked on small and extremely steep wooden stairs through walls of ice which in areas were 25 meters thick.

Filzmoos – This was my favourite day. We walked from 11am – 7pm, covered around 13 miles and around 700meters of elevation. The walk started in a town along a stream, then gently climbed through woods, up into green hill pastures, past a very lively mountain hut, round a small but beautiful lake, and up until we were alone, walking along the bottoms of the steep cliffs at the top. The views in the distance were insane, rows and rows of snow topped mountains.

Lakes

Here are some photos of the three lakes we went to. Zell am See a large lake at the base of a ski resort, nice scenery around but the lake didn’t have the wow factor I was expecting. Maybe because it was somewhere on the wish list for a while so my expectations were too high. Hallsatt See was beautiful, clear water and steep hills all around gave it a fjord-like feel. We had a lovely kayak in the sunshine and the following morning I braved the cold waters for a refreshing autumn swim. We had a brief stop at Mondsee on route to Vienna. A small town with a famous sound of music church which sits on one side of the lake and gentle hills around the rest.

Towns

Hallsatt – What a strange place! There is lots of hype around this little town. The town has 800 residents and gets around 1 million tourist a year! Its so popular with Chinese tourists that they have even built a replica in China. Yes, it is a pretty village and a very pretty lake. But if you travel around Austria you will see many houses of similar architecture and much nicer surrounding hills. We spent a peaceful day kayaking and decided to go to the town in the evening when we thought it might have quietened down. We were wrong, there were still coach loads of tourists. I wanted to enjoy the village but the main thing I took away from it was how incredibly self-obsessed people are. Unfortunately, we have seen this lots when travelling, but nowhere quite like Hallsatt. No one seems to be looking at the scenery everyone is just taking selfie after selfie, slightly rearranging their hair, slightly different pout, sunglasses on, sunglasses off and then repeat in a different area. If you don’t like crowds and you aren’t obsessed with Instagram I personally wouldn’t bother going.

Salzburg – beautiful city (more like large town) situated either side of the gorgeous blue Salzach river and surrounded by hills. The predominant architecture is baroque with large white and pastel coloured buildings giving the city a very clean and open feel. There are many impressive churches and wide open squares. If, like Graham, you’re a fan of Sound of Music then you can also have fun spotting the film backdrops.

Vienna – We had a lovely weekend in Vienna because two of my oldest friends Harriet and Georgi visited us. We spent our first morning in the natural history museum, a beautiful building with some very well-preserved exhibits but not quite enough interpretation or education. Lunch was at Naschmarkt, which seems predominantly owned by the same falafel chain. In the afternoon we covered all the sights in central Vienna (from the outside, unless free to go in) scession building, opera house, cathedral, the river, all the squares, Spanish riding school, the library, museum quarter and the town hall. Day two we met for a walk around Schonbrunner palace grounds, we also walked around Belvedere palace, went to see the funky Hundertwasserhaus, scootered around Jesuitenwiese park and over the other side of the river and strolled along new daunbe. We had some great suggestions from a friend on places to eat and drink so very much enjoyed that side of Vienna. The city reminded us of London but on a small scale (with a much cleaner and efficient transport system). In our opinion Vienna is missing the cute old town feel of a lot of other European capitals we visited. There’s no narrow cobbled streets to explore and get lost in and we didn’t find a quirky independent quarter to wander around. Most of its attractions are very expensive to go in, so the city doesn’t suit the budget traveller. We finished our trip with a visit to an old university friend and spent a lovely afternoon catching up with her, her husband, their dog and their very cute 6 month old baby girl. Thanks for the hospitality Fani! A lovely way to end our visit to Austria.

Not Hungary

We were originally planning on spending two weeks in Hungary before travelling west into Slovenia. But our first week was spent exploring western Hungary with a couple of friends and we thought travelling back east to then travel back west was a bit silly. So we looked at a map and decided on a small trip to Serbia and a dip into North Eastern Croatia before heading to Slovenia to meet up with another friend.

Serbia

Serbia was very much unknown. All of the countries (bar Germany) have been fairly unknown as we had never visited them before. But Serbia we literally knew nothing about, apart from its troubled past. It doesn’t usually appear in travel programmes, friends haven’t explored there, don’t know about their football teams…. So we were very excited to discover a tiny part of the country.

The Route:

Subotica, Novi Sad, Sremski Karlovci, Fruska Gora NP, Belgrade

What we learned

People: The people are great! Everyone seemed so friendly, very expressive, quite loud but in a chatty way, and they seem to know how to have a great time. We were really impressed by the amount of people outdoors. In the national park everyone, literally everyone was there having picnics, all the family relaxing in the woods, with BBQs, fires, camping tables, tablecloths, games and of course drinks. It was so nice to see. In the UK this happens on the odd occasion when it’s super sunny and Brighton beach might be full or the parks in London, but this was different. It wasn’t incredibly sunny, the atmosphere was very friendly, there was no rubbish on the floor and largely people were there as family unit. Also, in the city, families were out in force during the weekday evenings, relaxing in the squares or playing in the parks creating such a nice friendly community atmosphere.  

Landscape: Northern Serbia is FLAT. Pancake flat, even flatter than Norfolk. And they seem to grow one crop. Field after field after field of sweetcorn. This makes the small hilly ridge of Fruska Gora National Park a very exciting change in scenery. Lovely woods, dotted with monasteries and in the foothills there were vineyards, orchards and bee hives. Apparently the South of Serbia holds much more exciting landscapes with mountains, so we hope we can go back and explore there one day.

City life: We visited 1 town and 3 cities including the capital Belgrade. All of them had some interesting architecture especially Subotica with Hungarian influences and many art nouveau buildings. Novi Sad had some lovely wide pedestrianised streets filled with cafes and bars and a big old river. Belgrade had everything, a big castle park with great views over the river, pedestrianised shopping streets, cobbled roads with quirky shops and bars, a standard modern area but with lovely bars, parks full of life and several grand churches including the most amazing, goose bump creating crypt.

Subotica and Novi Sad:

Belgrade:

Food & drink: We weren’t there long enough to get a real flavour of food and drink. But we did go to a really nice vegetarian restaurant called Mandala, were amongst other things we ate some revolutionary chickpea fries. And I can confirm Serbian white wine and Serbian beer is very good. And although we didn’t sample any, bakeries seem very popular selling lots of flaky pastry and tiny sausage rolls.

A dip into Croatia

We were heading back to Croatia after meeting a friend in Slovenia so our first visit was a quick two days on route from Serbia. We had one day in the capital Zagreb and one day exploring the Medvednica hills behind the city.

As capitals go Zagreb has a pretty small and compact centre. One side has shopping streets, and a big U shaped park including a botanical garden. On the other side, crossing over a busy road with trams, cars and bikes, is the older part of the city. Here you will find the cathedral, lively cobbled streets with lots of cafes and up on the hill the oldest part, a quiet area with nice views and all the museums. Graham really liked Zagreb; I thought it was nice for a day but not a huge amount to do and it didn’t have the atmosphere of our previous capital Belgrade.

The Medvdenica hills are a great thing to have on the doorstep of a capital. Lots of hiking trails through the woods leading to some open views at the top due to a few ski runs.

Stayed tuned for the coastal Croatia blog.

Hannah’s Hungary

Hello and welcome to this special entry of Scooby Van Life! This time it is being bought to you by Hannah & Andrew, two 1st time Van-Lifers, for an adventure through Hungary.This all came about from a little suggestion from Rachael when we were planning a holiday of “hire a van and come and join us” and that is exactly what we did. And needless to say, it was as amazing as it looks in the blog!!

So, let’s get on with it. 

The Van
First things first: Meet Charlie! Not 100% sure how we got to the name, but it stuck and we became very fond of him and you’ll be glad to hear that he and Scooby became great friends on their week long adventure together. Our 1st time as van-lifers and (thanks to Rachael and Graham) we were able to get to grips with the ins and outs of it all by the end (mostly).

The Route:Pest – Buda – Visegrad – Esztergom – Lake Balaton – Tihany – Tapolca – Badacsonytomaj – Badacsony – Balatongyörök – Heviz – Balatonberény 

The City
Budapest is a city split into two halves, Pest to the west – the flatter side of the Danube and Buda the hilly side to the east. We spent the 1st couple of days of the trip within the city seeing the sights including Parliament Square, the labyrinth under the Castle Hill, a boat trip down the Danube (couldn’t not really) and Central Mark
The revolutionary discovery of the trip has to be Lime Scooters! Honestly, they are our new favourite thing! They are hireable, electric scooters and they are AMAZING. Most of our second day was spent transporting ourselves around at great speed on them.
We also happened to be in Budapest for their annual wine festival… more on that later!

The Countryside
Having spent a couple of days in the city it was time for some countryside we headed our way north to Duna-Ipoly National Park. We visited Visegrád Castle – not necessarily worth the entry but the views of the Danube and the Danube Bend were SPECTACULAR. The area seemed to be popular for re-enactments as on our walk we stumbled across both a Roman and Medieval re-enactment. That evening we found an incredible place to park (and by that I mean 100% Rachael and Grahams doing) on a bend of the Danube. 

The following morning, Rachael and Graham went for a swim and we went for a little paddle before heading off to the small city of Esztergom (technically not countryside but it fits better here). We visited the Basilica – a huge building that imposed itself over the city. It’s the largest and tallest building in Hungary and any reverberation made inside can last for 9 seconds!

A little later on in the trip we headed to Balatongyörök and the Batsányi Viewing Tower from here we got some great views of Hungarian countryside including lake, hills and vineyards.

The Water
Lake Balaton is an interesting place, it’s the largest lake in Central Europe and as such is a tourist destination that is fairly built up and during peak season you have to pay to access most areas of the lake. Fortunately for us, it was not peak season! We stopped to have a look before driving round to find somewhere a little more rural.

Just off Lake Balaton is a smaller lake called Belső-tó, next to the village of Tihany. We went for a wander around the lake and through the village and stumbled across a few things. Firstly, and most importantly, Graham found himself a great donkey friend. We also found fresh walnuts, lavender fields and then a gig in the middle of the village. Our night here was ended with the most spectacular lightning – the sky was lit up over and over, with some rather large bolts forking through the sky not too far away.

Our next adventure was to Tapolca and its super cool caves THAT YOU CAN ROW THROUGH!!! We would have gone round and round if we could! It was lovely!

From here we moved our way down the lake to Badacsonytomaj, a tactical location to be able to walk to and from wine! We also visited Heviz an area known for its hot natural baths, this was worth the experience but probably not what we all expected and we were glad we were only there for a short while. 

The Wine
It turns out Hungarian wine is A-MAZ-ING. We had our first taste at the Budapest Annual Wine Festival. We popped along mid-afternoon to a peaceful and calm event with 100 or so stalls from (mostly) Hungarian Wineries. We drank various wines and tried some local foods and just generally lapped it up. We popped back later in the evening and it was a little chaotic – but hey, the wine was still good.

We also visited Laposa vineyard in Badascony. Worth the walk to get up the hill. It had the most beautiful views of the lake, we watched a storm pass and the sunset, whilst trying out a range of (mostly) gorgeous wines.

 And to cap the week off, we had a stunning sunset for our final night at Balatonberény. 

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!

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!