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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've got the atlas out and this Aussie is following your every move, keep us posted we all love it!!!