Motorhome News from Lithuania Lithuania Chapter I
Saturday 28th April 2012
Once again we turn into new territory; up into the Baltic States beyond Poland, edging our way northwards towards the southern shores of Scandinavia and the western fringes of the old USSR; to delve into the history, the landscape, wildlife and culture aflicted by invasion from all sides for centuries. Is that why we continue to travel; to learn more about that which is beyond the horizon; that Christopher Columbus feeling I was talking about?
There's a little bit of the old Soviet Union tucked into the corner of the Baltic coast to the northeast of Poland, leaving us little choice of roads northwards into Lithuania. Some roads run through the small Russian enclave of Kaliningrad that gives access to the Baltic Sea when ice seals ports further east, but to the best of our knowledge a Visa is necessary to pass that way. The main route for traffic from Poland into the Baltic States runs between the narrow gap to the east of Kaliningrad and Hrodna in Belarus up to Kaunas in Lithuania The old border post out of Poland
into Lithuania stands abandoned and neglected on a small stretch of patched-up tarmac as if patiently tapping its fingers awaiting the return of Russian occupation. But beyond, a dozen petrol stations are busily filling Polish petrol tanks at cheaper prices; healthy revenue for a Nation striving to balance its books since the Russians departed. Vast fertile fields stretch across the gently rolling landscape, a distant house and red-roofed barn on a shallow hill, and on the horizon the last wintery outline of a copse of hornbeam. Off the highway amongst small farming settlements an elderly man, reins in hand, seated behind a trotting horse with its V-shaped wooden cart, a bent-backed lady hand-sowing potatoes and a farmer scattering fertiliser on quite tiny fields in anticipation of a healthy hay-crop to see the cattle through the next hard winter. Lithuania at first glance, is close on the heels of Poland, with but the last remnants of a generation sternly reluctant to part with yesterday's life and reach above the parapet into tomorrow. That's one tiny piece of the traveller's culture jig-saw.
The purpose of our coastal route through the Baltic States was to catch the occasional glimpse (with the aid
of binoculars and a telescope) of birds at sea as they make their annual passage to their breeding grounds in the north. We will be following them, up the little coast that Lithuania has been blessed with, along the pine forest and windswept dunes of Latvia and into Estonia where we plan to meander for a couple of weeks. It would be possible for us to cross into Finland from Tallin; and for a few minutes that seemed an option, but we have been there before and there is more of Poland to explore, turning us eventually through 360 degrees, back through Latvia and Lithuania before the end of May.
The long sandy Curonian Spit straddles the southern coastline of Lithuania on its border with Kaliningrad and huge numbers of migrating birds head south along this stretch in the autumn. We're accustomed to 'bird ringing' on our doorstep near the home of the British Trust for Ornithology, (BTO), but the bird ringing station at Vente on the Curonian Lagoon puts us in the shade; the nets here are seventy feet high at the mouth! It's spring right now, however, and the birds are threading their way northwards to their
....where the road ends in the watery marsh.
breeding grounds - but they were few and far between out on the lagoon when we visited in the early evening.
Way out along yet another dusty gravel road, the boating and fishing village of Minija reminded us of the Norfolk Broads back home; flat and wet, with hardy fishermen in wellington boots on the jetty where the road ends in the watery marsh. Picturesque 19th Century wooden houses line either side of the river, their windows and door-frames attractively outlined in blue, but they're missing the tourist opportunity here; the builders are at work, tarting up their historic heritage and totally losing the plot with modern materials - and the cafe is on the other side of the river beyond our reach! Fishing is perhaps even more popular here than in the UK. Just when you think you're on your own at last in some remote spot a fisherman appears like a nymph from out of the water; from the bitter windy sea, the placid lake, the mirrored ponds and even the tiniest of puddles. You're rarely far from a lake aong this western shore.
Camping is free in Lithuania's National Parks; somewhat basic but well served
Camping at Lake Plateliai
in the company of two goldeneye.
with a fire pit, a 'short drop' lime toilet not fit for purpose, and lonely as it might seem to some, we discovered a quiet spot at Lake Plateliai, facing the lake, to share with just one pair of goosanders overnight.
With a population of just 3.4m and all that space, there are few roads in Lithuania. The one and only motorway crosses the country from Vilnius in the east to Klaipeda on the west coast. Klaipeda, Lithuania's second city, is the country's only sea port and heavy midday traffic prompted us to pause only briefly to gape at the huge out-of-town shopping malls. You can't see it all. We learned that many moons ago. Most of the population was in the seaside resort of Palanga by the time we arrived at mid-day on the sunniest Sunday Lithuania has seen since the Russians left in 1991. Cars were parked cheek-to-cheek on every street and every turn we took seemed to be a blind alley jammed with traffic! Happy families with kids and push-chairs, crazy bikers and Sunday strollers straddled the pavements in a frenzied burst of applause for the coming of spring. We'll drink to that.
.......Sventoji was closed
bid to catch a glimpse of the sea we moved on to Sventoji further north, 'a quiet fishing village' our guide book said. And quiet it was, in total contrast to Palanga, though it doubtless has its day when summer eventually breaks. For the moment though, Sventoji was closed. Shut! There were no fishermen or boats anywhere to be seen and the dozens of wooden seaside stalls remained shuttered, but there were a few people about amongst the thousands of beach huts nestling in the dunes - that could be Skegness.
From here we drove north into Latvia and finally Estonia, skirting along the coast up to Tallinn and then eastwards across along the coast to the Russian border. The blog for Estonia was published first as we will complete a clockwise circuit there. That should give you just enough time to nip into the kitchen and put the kettle on - for this particular episode of our journey into the depths of the old Soviet Union will be completed as we return through Latvia and back into Lithuania again in a few weeks.
****************** Lithuania Chapter II
23rd May 2012
The lost village...
We returned to Lithuania on the 23rd May having recently met up with our motorhoming friends, Brian and Kathryn from Australia, crossing the border from Latvia at Zarasa and venturing through pretty lakeside villages on rolling hills as far as Salakas. The bright yellow dandelion meadows of Latvia were left behind with the advance of spring, their globes of white seed heads left bobbing on the wind, the hay fields now graced by nature's gift of gold; cheerful glossy buttercups smiling their way towards summer. Together we ventured into the Aukstaitija National Park, through delightful rolling countryside of tree-framed meadows, sparkling lakes and small farmsteads, log built barns and timbered cottages with corrugated roofs. Camped overnight in the park, we played boules before dinner and sat round our crackling campfire under the cathedral spires of lofty pines swaying above us with the gentle rythm of a bobbing yo-yo on the evening breeze. We tried to teach the Ausie pair to sing 'Ging-gang-goolie' after a few glasses of our best red wine, but they didn't know the words. I'm surprised at that! After all, any self-respecting Brit could rasp out a few words of Waltzing Matilda, couldn't they?
the south amid the gentle hills, wild-flower meadows and glistening waters of the Moletai Lakelands, we took a short walk through mixed forest; another rare delight to find swathes of Lily of the Valley, wild strawberry and Solomon's seal in bloom. Just one of those sights so rare to find back home. Perhaps that's why we love to travel.
It is just 200 years since Napoleon brought his troops through Vilnuis to the delight of Lithuanians who had suffered under the influence of Russia. But, like us, Napoleon didn't stay for long. After six months his army was forced back from Moscow to the sound of much canon-fire and music and the land fell back under Russian domination. His overture, so to speak. I wonder if the event will be celebrated in town. Let's ask at Tourist Information.
It was celebration time in Vilnius they told us, but there was no mention of poor old Napoleon. However, a Folk Festival was in full swing with international singing on stage in the Town Hall Square. Appreciative crowds sat on benches amidst the craft stalls and coffee houses and we joined them for a beer late in the afternoon; absorbing
the atmosphere and casually people-watching. Vilnius Old Town is larger than the capital cities of either Estonia or Latvia, its streets lighter and wider, and it's very much a working city. Well-dressed young ladies strolled elegantly along the paved streets and chatted in cafes, adding to the striking image of this as a young people's city, rich in promises. There are few narrow cobbled alleys as one would see in Tallinn or Riga and with city-centre traffic and wide streets it lacks the same 'touristy' feel. But tourists there were, groups of sombre looking Russians looking around whilst the guide spouts on-and-on about nothing of particular interest, beautiful buildings, classically 17th and 18th Century, grand but seamlessly samey. A long line of ladies, some quite refined, were standing outside the local supermarket next to their handbags as if waiting for the invitation to the next dance, selling bunches of lily of the valley, lettuces, bunches of flowers, herbs and parsely, rhubarb and peonies.
There are few Rusians living in Lithuania these days but a film crew had closed a narrow street where they were filming a 'Russian' scene with soldiers in period army uniform and ladies and gents dressed
A wedding at the Cathedral
in 'Doctor Zivago' style costumes. The street was layered with sand for the day.
There are also sandy streets in the little 'lost village' of Zervynos, hidden away in the woods of The Dzukijos National Park near Varena on the border with Belarus. The road is tarmac to the edge of the village where the clock turns back a hundred years, to hand-hewn picket fences and meandering lanes, picturesque wooden houses with net-curtained windows, water in buckets pulled from wells, crumbling log-built barns and wild-flower meadows buzzing with bees. Idyllic. This would be a good place to come to write a book or two, a period novel perhaps?
Brian and Kathryn left us in Vilnius with sad farewells. Their travels will take them northwards to Tallinn before they too turn around, continuing their passage through time across Europe. They are not expected back in the UK before next spring. We would shortly be pointing the compass in the opposite direction, southwards, out of Lithuania and back into Poland.
Trakai Island Castle, seen on the front of every Lithuanian tourist brochure, a few miles out of Vilnius, was restored by the Russian authorities in the 1950's, not with
In the marketplace
tons of concrete as one might imagine, but quite tastefully in red brick and pantile; rebuilding this fanciful island stronghold in the style depicted in old paintings. Arriving early, we crossed the long wooden bridge to the island and managed to avoid most of the tour groups jostling to hear their tour guide's comentary and blocking all the doorways. The castle is a true delight and now houses a fine modern museum to lure the visitors.
Our final stopover in Lithuania was in the charming Spa-resort town of Druskininkai close to the border with Poland. The campsite was bustling when we arrived; crowds waiting for the end of season Local Football League presentations; three 'Oscar' trophies lined up on the table and dignatries on hand to make the speeches. It was a quiet even as football things go, but fireworks followed around our bed-time, keeping us awake and lighting the sky for the next hour. Druskininkai is another one of those lovely surprises where money has been invested in the interests of tourism. The town's wide leafy streets are all brick paved, the parks and fountained lakes sprucely manicured and adorned with spring flowers. It was Whit Sunday; smartly
attired locals trailed into the town's churches and a long line of craft-market stalls brought a delightful holiday atmosphere to the park, like any sunny Sunday on London's Portabello Road. That's progress.
David and Janice
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