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.

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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.

Super Slovenia

What a country! It’s now the second favourite country we’ve visited because of its nonstop rolling hills and beautiful landscapes; combined with the extremely friendly and welcoming people, and lovely towns (Norway can’t be shaken off that no 1 spot, but Slovenia has just pipped Slovakia to no 2). We also had our friend Jonny visiting for the most part, so that made it extra great. He hired a car (as we unfortunatly only have 2 road worthy seats) and kipped on the floor in scooby – it was fun fitting 3 of us in the van!

Our route: Ptuj – Raeče fishponds -Maribor – Pohorje – Ljubljana – Vintgar gorge & Lake Bled – Vogel mountain & Lake Bohinj– Soca Valley – Skocjanski Nature Resersve – Piran – Strunjan to Izola – Škocjan caves

Let’s start with the people

Literally everyone we met (people out walking, campsite owners, people at the bar, the market, ticket offices) was incredibly friendly, helpful and happy. 

Wild camping in Slovenia is illegal (which is the only downside to the country), but instead of paying for expensive campsites, sometimes you can find other businesses who have a little patch of land on their site and will let you stay for about a third of the price. On our first evening with Jonny we stayed at an agro-services business out in the countryside. When we arrived, the mother of the business-owner greeted us and was very friendly, offering us coffee and biscuits.

The following morning, we met the owner and his father who insisted giving us some local wine to try. At first, we thanked them but tried to make some excuses as it was 11am! But it’s hard to say no when someone is so friendly. So, we found ourselves in their kitchen with a large glass of very delicious white wine. The father couldn’t speak English, but his son was acting as translator for us and we had a lovely chat. Another son came along purely to say hello. We then ended up having a little piano recital in the owner’s bedroom, and found ourselves singing along to “Piano-Man” already a little fuzzy at 11.30am. He tried to persuade us to stay and try some local schnapps, but we did want to see Ljubljana that day so reluctantly declined. We all regretted this decision later as we had such a nice time with them. It was the best way to start a country.

Once in Ljubljana we walked around the market where all the vendors were really friendly. I brought a broccoli, which I was very excited about as they don’t sell them in supermarkets, and the lady gave me 3 free carrots. Simple gesture but I was beyond happy about her kindness.

The following day on our walk, everyone we passed said hello to us. One couple asked if we knew where Vintgar gorge was. I assumed they were lost and started to explain how to get there. Turned out they knew exactly where they were, but just wanted to be able to help us in case we didn’t know. The friendliness seems to be compulsive. 

Another occasion that sticks out was when we stayed on some land owned by a small scale winey for free (it had great views overlooking the Adriatic Sea). The following morning the owner showed us the wine they were in the middle of processing and took us to see their wine cellar. We tried some homemade schnapps and obviously couldn’t resit buying some wine.

The Landscape

I’ll let the photos do most of the talking here. Hopefully they will give you an idea of how stunning it was. Just merely driving around was hard work because the scenery was so distracting.

First couple of days we visited Race fishpond for some bird watching action and Pohrojre hills right on the doorstep of Maribor town.

One of the most visited nature spots in Slovenia, because of its proximity to Ljubljana, is Lake Bled. And its easy to see why as it’s a beautifully clear lake. We visited it on a grey but atmospheric day, went for a walk around the lake, took a rowing boat across to the island and had a quick evening swim. Behind the lake is the beautiful clear Vintgar Gorge. You have to pay €10 to walk right alongside it, which is beyond our budget, so we took a walk up in the hills and looked down onto it.

On one of the days we got a cable car up towards the mountain of Vogel in the Julian Alps to save our legs for a day of walking along the mountain tops. There were incredible views down through the clouds to Lake Bohinji (an equally beautiful lake and a lot less developed and touristy than Bled), as well as across to more mountains and even out to sea. This was the first view of the sea we had for 7 weeks and to see it from a mountain was our version of heaven. The day ended with a refreshing swim in the lake.

We spent a day exploring the Soca Valley, walking alongside the turquoise river, paddling (far too cold to swim), stopping at the otherworldly Kozjak waterfall, the impressive Boka waterfall where the water comes straight from source and drops 106 meters over the cliff. Our final stop was at the stunning ‘Grand Canyon’ of Soca.

We visited Skocjanski nature reserve at the wrong time of year for birds but both me and Jonny (who is a reserve warden) felt at home amongst the grazing marsh and reedbeds. And we both geeked out over the incredible hide. 4 Storeys! Including an underwater level so you could watch the fish and frogs in the reedbeds!

Slovenia has a tiny strip of coast, but man it was so good to be back at the sea! We wandered around the coastal town of Piran for about 45 minutes before I couldn’t resist the urge to go swimming (I never visit the coast without a bikini in my bag). The following day we had a lush walk along the cliffs of Strunjan looking down onto the turquoise waters. We walked through some olive trees and down to the coastal town of Izola. We also went snorkelling over a seagrass bed dotted with huge clams.

Our last day was in the Karst region with rolling wooded hills and limestone outcrops. We visited the Skocjan caves where we repeatedly said ‘wow’ and ‘this is insane’.  The cave had everything you could want – all the stalagmites and tites and huge underground chambers. The Reka river runs through the cave and has created a massive cavern ~100 meters high and ~60 meters wide. During spring floods the river can fill the cavern to above the bridge we walked on at about 60 meters high. We walked on a ledge about half way up the cavern, crossing over small wooden bridges on dimly light paths. We felt like we were in lord of the rings! It was such an insane space to be in.

Towns

Every city and town we visited was lovely. Clean, colourful, independent, and interesting. Ptju was like the Slovenian Totnes (Devon), one main street of independent and alternative art galleries and cafes along a river, and a small castle. Maribor was clean, quiet, pretty and famous for wine made with the world’s oldest productive vine (440 years old). Ljubljana was a capital I would be happy to live in, small and compact and filled with independent shops and cafés, and surrounded by hills and mountains. Piran and Izola were the perfect quaint old seaside towns.

Ljulbjana:

Ptuj, Maribor, Piran:

My new future plan is to move to Slovenia and open an affordable campsite. Feel free to come visit.

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.

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.

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.