Tuesday, June 27, 2006

We´re in Latvia – is that just absurd or what?

We´ve been gone a week and it feels like a month already.

Quick summary. Get out your atlas and trace along.

We left Berlin and drove due east through Frankfurt (Oder) and got as far into Poland as Poznan on the first night where we successfully lit the new gas barbie without removing eyebrows, a feat which could not be repeated the second night I´m afraid and DrH is looking slightly lopsided. Day 2 got us as far as Ostroda, where we camped on the side of a lake in a camping ground with no toilets, let alone showers. However there was a small hut in which the owner lived during the summer months and from which he sold beer on tap and let us watch Australia get done over by Brazil.

DrJ: There are no showers. There are no toilets. But we have beer on tap.

DrH: Yes, DrJ. We´re in POLAND.

Day 3 and we got as far as Ketryzn (pronounced Ken-chin), birthplace of DrH´s mother (when it was called Rastenburg) before they had to flee the Russian army. (Just a quick history/geography note: this whole area of Poland, known as Masuren, was German until The War. In fact, so was Kaliningrad-in that little bit of Russia stuck on the Baltic coastline but cut off from the rest of Russia – it was called Konigsberg and when Kaliningrad celebrated it´s 900th anniversary, the Russians failed to mention that for 850 years it was German. Well for me it´s just weird, you know, like if all locals were driven out of Victoria, it was resettled and called Tölingaard and everyone spoke Swedish. You know. Just like what happened two hundred years ago there I guess.)

We spent the night at Wolfschanze (Wolf´s Lair) which, as all WWII buffs would know, was Hitler´s biggest bunker complex, where he spent most of his time between ´41 and ´45 and, most famously, where the failed attempt to blow him up took place. A comedy of errors almost, the meeting was moved from a bunker to a normal building (which couldn´t concentrate the force), one of the two bombs couldn´t be detonated and a big-arse oak table stood between Hitler and the bomb so that, although the room was quite devasted and four people were killed, Hitler was able to greet Mussolini at the train station 3 hours later.

What would the world have been like, hey?

It´s a strange place to walk through. The SS blew all the bunkers up when they retreated three days before the Russians arrived, and the forest has been left to reclaim the huge concrete slabs. Almost no signs, limited directions around and, to me, that felt right. It doesn´t deserve glorification in that way. The campsite was in the grounds. We were literally 50m from one of the bunkers and as dusk settled we took the dog for a run on our bikes through Zone 2 in complete quiet, only the birds disturbed it. That and the twisted concrete breaking through the undergrowth.

Day 4 we crossed the Lithuanian border by the southernmost border crossing. We were completely prepared, including the officially demanded European Pet Passport which identifies Leon Dog Wonder as having all his shots and not being a harbinger of disease. This, however, seemed to throw the officials somewhat and we came to the conclusion that they had never seen one before judging by the way it was being passed around the office to large smiles and loud Lithuanian. But they let us through (of course – it is now EU) and I have a pretty new stamp in my passport. We spent the night in Druskininkai, 7km from the Belarus border and a surprisingly gorgeous spa town. Although I know it´s had 10% growth a year, it was a shock to see how well the country is actually doing. I had visions of Soviet-era greyness, decaying concrete buildings and depressed-looking people. But it is not like that at all and an amazing number of shiny Audi´s are driving around. Why Audi´s specifically I´m not sure, but there were an awful lot.

Day 5 was…. STALIN WORLD! In reality it´s called Grutas Parkas, but that didn´t stop the world´s media nicknaming it and the owner, a canned mushroom tycoon, from getting an Ignoble Peace Prize. He organised to get a lot of the removed Russian statues and put them up on his private property, where you can wander around looking at them all while listening to piped Russian propaganda music. I had visions of Disney-esque theme rides (“Muuum, I want to go on Lenin´s Loop, pleeeease!”) and costumed Lithuanian´s posing for photo´s with visitor families (“Say `Deportation to Siberia!´” Click!), but it was in much better taste, with the statues positioned throughout the green parkland. In fact it was too nice – it was easy to forget just what monsters posed for these objects.

In the evening we got to Trakai, just outside Vilnius and got to swim in the lake before bed. That was truly bizarre. There I was, swimming in a lake in Lithuania with the gorgeous Trakai castle directly in front of me and IT DIDN´T FEEL BIZARRE AT ALL. It was all so normal it was freaking me out.

Day 6 was spent in Vilnius in insane heat. I´m afraid I couldn´t really enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage baroqueness because I was too busy wiping the sweat out of my eyes. In the end, the most I could conclude was that it´s a pretty city, a small city, and a city that looks like almost any other of a similar age and wealth in Europe. I feel I´ve short changed it, but on that day, in that heat, to me Vilnius was just a town like any other.

Day 7 we headed across Lithuania for the coast, pausing in Kaunas and ending up in Klaipieda. This was a day of mostly driving and the Midsummer Night celebrations in the camping ground (involving leaping over a bonfire for good luck) were welcome indeed. The only downer was the toilets. Apparently, although the country has embraced growth and improvement, the sewage system hasn´t and instead of flushing toilet paper, one has to put it in a bin next to the toilet. HAVE YOU ANY IDEA HOW GROSS THAT IS? I MEAN, REALLY? Oh, and if you are planning on visiting start practicing some squats.

Day 8 we crossed to the Curonian Spit by ferry, as to drive onto it would require an extra 90 km trip south and an entry visa to Russia. We visited the maritime museum and aquarium in an old fort on the end of it and then went and sat on the beach. It´s a hard life. Beachcomb as we might, we couldn´t find any amber and I´ve decided that the rumour it just washes up on the beaches was made up to make tourists look stupid (“I´ve found some! Oh no. It´s a rock. Here, here! Oops, dead ladybird”) and really it is found in inland reservoirs by specially trained rodents of unusual size. Eventually we pulled ourselves away from sun, sand and fruitless searching and headed up the coast to Latvia.

The Latvian border crossing was far more relaxed than that from Poland to Lithuania – perhaps because they weren´t trying to keep up appearances to a bigger neighbour. Driving through the Lithuanian exit post we were quite thoroughly ignored and at the Latvian entry post we had to wait while the border guard finished turning his sausages and wandered over from the barbeque set up on the side of the road. I got another passport stamp and, after turning down the pop music blasting out of the building so he could hear it while eating, he admired the car and wished us well in three languages.

We stopped for the night on the coast north of Ventspils, with more mosquitos than I knew were possible. Normally I´m not bothered by mosquitoes – sometime around puberty I discovered they rarely bit me and if they did I´d get no lumps or itchiness. If any pharma company is reading this, I´m quite willing to share my blood for medical research in exchange for, say, 50% royalties. Anyway, these mozzies were a cut above and although I wasn´t getting bitten, the vicious battle between at least ten of them for the pleasure of going up my nose while I was eating dinner was enough to drive us to bed early.

Day 9 we continued up the coast. About 20 km north of the campsite the road became gravel and the next few hours were teeth-rattling. We stopped in some traditional villages of the Livonian people with 100-200 year old wooden houses and went swimming off the Kolka Cape, where the Baltic Sea becomes the Gulf of Riga. We detoured inland to Dundaga to take a photo of a crocodile statue. It seems that a Dundagan bloke fled Latvia, wound up in Australia and spent the rest of his life wrestling crocodiles and this is the guy that Crocodile Dundee is based on. How´s that for a new spin on an Australian icon`? Hey Paul, how´s your Latvian? As thrilling as the statue was, we backtracked up that bloody gravel road and drove down the gulf coast. By 6pm we´d reached Jurmala just outside Riga and decided to camp here in order to do Riga the next day.

Day 10 was far to relaxed. We didn´t get into Riga until after lunch and by 4pm all we´d done was the Art Nouveau quarter, the Freedom Monument and some bookshops. So we headed back to camp and decided to spend an extra day in Riga.

So here we are, Day 11. Wandering the old city of Riga which, to me, is more impressive than Vilnius. Tomorrow we head for Estonia, probably Tartu but we´re not sure yet.

I've uploaded some selected photos to Flickr, so have a look at the slideshow or via the flicker album in the right column to get the full descriptions of each.

From Latvia With Love

I have a terribly funny and comprehensive post written, but left it in the car so you'll all just have to settle with knowing that I'm alive, I'm hot and I'm in Riga, Latvia. Now I'll take a moment for more important news:

My sister gave birth to her first child, a little girl called Ella, a week ago. That makes me an auntie for the second time and maybe one day this century I'll actually get to meet them both.

Glad you could join us Ella. We're a pretty nice bunch.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

She´s off, like a bucket of prawns in the sun

Well Blogger ate my entire post, which was one of extreme wit, fascinating events and belly laughs, and I have no time to try and remember it all now. The summary is: I suck at footy tipping, so will stop now; Yay Australia!; Man, those Swede´s are EVERYWHERE; and Holidays woohoo.

So we leave in about 2 hours. A few days later than planned, but now we have bought all those essential necessary´s for 6 weeks of camping through the Baltic wilderness - a camera, red wine, dog muzzle.... hang on, that sounds like a list for a Baltic porn film.

I found a map online (FROM THE CIA) on which I´ve drawn a rough guess of our route in, but now Blogger´s being an extra bastard and not letting me upload it. I´ll try later. Anyway, we´re making it up as we go along so it´s only rough - we probably will go north through Finland now instead of Norway, and we decided today not to go through Sceczin to Poland but through Frankfurt (Oder). I can´t say how often I´ll update, if at all, but I´ll try. Otherwise talk to you in 6 weeks!


Monday, June 12, 2006

Double or nothing?

Ok, so my prediction of the germany game was a bit out, so how about double or nothing on Australia vs Japan?

I´m not sure about Australia in this competition. I think we´ll do a lot better than any European expects, but I would still be mildly surprised if they got through to the second round....but you never know.

Anyway, my prediction is for a close game...1:1

Friday, June 09, 2006

And they´re off and kicking

Well today´s the day. Start of the World Cup 2006. Of course you wouldn´t of realised it, what with all the advertising going on here , you´d of thought the World Cup started 3 months ago. By now I´m already well and truly sick of footballs, German flags and pantless stuffed lions.

DrH and I spent about an hour last night deciding what to do for the opening game. First there´s a huge concert in treptow park including SEEED, one of his favourite local hip-hop bands, which will show the game. But we didn´t buy tickets. The there´s the “Fan Mile” which has stopped all traffic between Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column for the next month. But that´s too many tourists. Then there´s the local pubs which will show it. But they´re too smoky.

So we´re sitting on the couch watching it. We have the beer, the chips, the frozen pizza. Kick off is in twenty minutes and we´ll be taking bets up till the whistle.

So who´s on that Costa Rica will win 1:0?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

When the star pops her head in for a brief visit

I can´t begin to explain how frustrating the last 6 weeks have been. We´ve finally finished moving - it only took A MONTH - and on the weekend handed over the old flat. SOME relief at least.

I´ve now finished my full-time working stint and can go back to the things I´ve been trying to do.

The internet was finally connected yesterday and now I can find out what´s happened in the blogosphere over the last month. Man, I´ve felt cut off from the world.

The new flat is one giant pile of boxes.

And we´re leaving next week on holiday!

I wanted to post about this trip earlier but the abovementioned problems, and the uncertainty of whether or not we would actually go because of them, got in the way. We´re planning on leaving on the 14th (although it may be a few days later), throwing the dog in the VW Bus and heading around the Baltic Sea.

The plan is leave Berlin (just after the start of the World Cup and all those damned football tourists who KEEP STANDING IN THE WAY IN UNDERGROUND STATIONS WITH LARGE MAPS WHILE BERLIN IS TRYING TO WALK AROUND THEM); head quickly across Poland (as we´ve been there a few times already, but maybe I can convince DrH of a 500km detour and go to warsaw, ´cause I´ve never been); skip around the little bit of Russia stuck on the edge o the Baltic (which is a shame as we really wanted to see Königsberg/Kalingrad, but we weren´t organised with visa´s); go up through Lithuania, Lativa and Estonia; a ferry across to Finland (and all it´s trees); drive across the south of it to another ferry to Sweden (to see the really old ship they pulled up from the Stockholm harbour); drive north to enter Norway and head up to the North Cap (to see the 24 hours of sunlight, but we´re a bit worried we won´t make it in time now); back along the coastal fjords of Norway (they give it a lovely baroque feel you know), a ferry to Denmark and then drive back into to Germany.

Or we might go clockwise. We don´t know. We´re making it up as we go along.

Should be fun and I think we need a bit of time away from everyday life and goddamn moving boxes. Speaking of which...