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Baltic Journey 2010 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

IN THE BALTIC REPUBLICS AUTUMN 2010

Margaret and Barry Williamson
October 2010

Following our 8,500-mile winter and early spring journey through Italy, Malta, Tunisia, Greece, Albania, Montenegro,UK_2010_(13).JPG Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, etc, we had to settle in the UK for a while. There was much to do. There were friends and relatives to visit from Hampshire to Clackmannanshire; passports, driving licences and MOTs to be renewed; new managing agents and tenants to be organised for our rented house. We had to move our home from Mercedes Sprinter to Fleetwood Flair (image on left); visit Cheltenham's Motorhome Medics for their excellent service, accessories and fitting of a new Pendle Bike Rack (also visit: Pendle Engineering). 

And, not least, Margaret's 95-year-old mother needed comforting in her Care Home just off Beach Road, north of Blackpool (not a mile from where Margaret was born). So, the end of spring passed us by and we finally left England on Midsummer's Eve, on our way to the land of the midnight sun.

Leaving the UK on the Norfolk Lines ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, we travelled slowly along the coast of the North Sea, through northern France (briefly), Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark, before taking the Stena Lines ferry from Frederikshavn (near Denmark's northernmost point) to Gothenburg in Sweden.

We followed the E45 (Inlandsvagen or Inland Road) for 1,110 miles (1,770 km) to its end in Karesuando, having crossed the Arctic Cirlce just south of Jokkmokk. In Karesuando we crossed the river Muonio and a corner of Finland into Norway. Travelling for 440 miles (710 km) across northern Norway (Alta, Russenes, Lakselv, Varangerbotn and along the edge of the Barents Sea), we re-entered Finland for the journey south to Helsinki, hugging the Russian border.

From Helsinki, we took the 2-hour Tallink-Silja Line ferry for a smooth crossing to Tallinn, the capital of the first of our three Baltic Republics, Estonia.

The 2,880-mile journey through Scandinavia (half of it in Finland and 1,060 miles above the Arctic Circle) took 70 days and included cycling to the northernmost and easternmost points of the mainland European Union.

For the full travel log of this earlier part of the journey, click: Holland & Denmark 2010, In Sweden 2010In Norway 2010 and In Finland 2010.

Images of the Journey:

In Holland 2010    In Germany, Ferry Crossing the Elbe    In Denmark 2010

In Sweden 2010    In Norway 2010    In Finland 2010

Articles

Our Paul Hewitt Touring Bicycles   Our Fleetwood Flair Motorhome

From Flair to Sprinter     Summary of Tour of Southern Europe and Tunisia 2010

From Greece to Tunisia 2010      In Malta 2010      In Tunisia 2010

Lest We Forget     From Greece to the UK 2010 

Images

Pendle Bike Racks From Sprinter back into Flair

1 Dover-Dunkirk Ferry

2 Afsluitdijk enclosing the Zuider Zee

3Frederikshavn - Gothenburg Ferry

4 The Arctic Circle

5 Nordkapp

6. EU Easternmost Point

Scandinavia_Summer_2010_H.jpg
This is the information we give for each stage of the journey:

The start and end point of the day's journey
The country or countries for the day's journey
The name of the campsite or place where we spent the night
The cost of the place we spent the night (if any)
The distance covered that day in miles
The height above sea level (asl) of the place we spent the night

For example:

Nuorgam to Kaamanen, Lapland, Finland (via Norway)     Jokitorma YH & Camping     €20     157 miles       510 ft asl

On days where we don't move on, we simply give the location, country and place where we spent the night. For example: For example:

At Manamansalo, Kainuu, Finland     Martinlahti Camping     

Overall, in the travel log, distances are given in miles; heights in feet; and costs in Euros. 1 mile = 1.6 km; 1 foot = 0.3 metres and, at present, 1 Euro = about 0.85 Pounds Sterling. The current exchange rate for each non-Euro country is given in the log. The daily rate quoted for campsites includes 2 adults and an electrical hook-up (children and dogs are often extra).

OCTOBER 2010

(continued from In Finland 2010)

Lahti, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia     Salzburg Hotel & Camping     300 EEK (€20)    81 miles (71 in Finland, 10 in Estonia – and 50 miles by ferry)     100 ft asl

After a last view of Finnish TV over breakfast (the Australian series 'Auction Squad' – why are the Finns interested in house prices 3 years ago in Sydney?), we were on the road. It was 3 miles back to rd 12 at Hollola, then left onto rd 296 for 5 miles to join the toll-free 4-lane motorway E75/rd 4 to Helsinki. A beautiful morning, driving south into the low sun.

At 29 miles we took exit 13 for a top-up at Mantsala Services, where both Shell and ST1 charged the same (€1.09 per litre diesel, €1.38 petrol) – a good price for Finland, though fuel will be cheaper in the Baltic Republics. There are no service stations actually on the motorway but this one is very near (and a good place to park overnight, as we have done in summer when not wanting a hook-up).

Back on E75 (busy for Finland but remarkably quiet compared with UK or Germany), there was a small rest area/cafι (not fuel) at 53 miles. Exit 3 at 62 miles is the one for Rastila Camping (nearest to Helsinki, open all year, generally crowded and expensive). We continued into the capital, where the motorway ended abruptly in a traffic jam at 66 miles.

Only another 5 miles to the ferry (West Terminal) but allow plenty of time for wrong turns, even using a SatNav! Turn right a mile after the end of the motorway (signed 'Vδstre Termin'), then weave your way between tramlines, pedestrians, road works and traffic along narrow, sometimes cobbled, streets. Signs are infrequent and inconsistent (look out for 'Toolo' or a picture of a ferry, as well as 'Vδstre Termin').

We arrived at the West Terminal (an area under development) at 11 am and parked by the new terminal building with a sense of relief. A great improvement on last time, when we mistakenly went to the East Terminal first and only just made the ferry! Tallink-Silja Line's check-in booth was closed until the ferry arrived at 1 pm but we checked inside the terminal building that no tickets were needed. The printout of our email confirmation was enough.

With time in hand, out came the laptops. We enjoyed editing the article on Greece that Rosemary &Andy Newton had sent for our website: 'Pippins in the Peloponnese'. Then we had a quick lunch (remembering the awful food on board last year) and drove round to check-in as we saw the ferry arrive. The queue was not very long – mostly trucks – and we were the only motorhome/camper/caravan – and the only British. In fact, we've not met any Brits since Belgium last June!

The fine 'M/S Star', a fast new vessel, sailed promptly at 2.30 pm and the smooth passage across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn (which lasted 5 hours back in 1999) took less than 2 hours! The catering looked much improved since last year, though we only tried the coffee - with half-price refills. We had avoided the weekend 'booze cruise' sailings and our fellow passengers were mainly sober business-persons or truckers.

We shopped in the spacious Supermarket for bargain chocolate, liquorice allsorts and a pack of 4 half-litre bottles of Estonia's speciality, which M had sampled back in Sodankyla. To quote our LP guidebook “Vana Tallinn is in a class of its own. No-one quite knows what the syrupy liqueur is made from but it's sweet and strong with a pleasant aftertaste. Best served in coffee, over ice with milk, over ice cream or in champagne or dry white wine.” It had also tasted good with lemonade - will 4 bottles be enough?

By 4.30 pm (same time zone as Finland) we were exiting the docks in Estonia's capital to negotiate more traffic and tramlines, following signs for E67/rd 4. Tallinn was a Hanseatic League port, with a splendidly restored Old Town that we had visited in quieter days (Sept/Oct 1999 and again in Aug 2006). Now the country is not only a tech-savvy EU member (WiFi in all public areas by law!) but is set to adopt Euro currency in January 2011. This will replace the Estonian Kroon (EEK), currently valued at about 15.6 to the Euro (or over 17 to the Pound Sterling).

Knowing that Tallinn City Camping closes during September, we drove south (Parnu direction), looking out for an overnight opportunity. Our busy road 4 (E67, the 'Baltic Highway') became dual carriageway out of the city. At exactly 10 miles from the port we passed a Caravan Parking sign at the Hotel Salzburg on the left. We recalled camping here in 1999 (when it was a Best Western Hotel, the Peoleo) and taking the bus into Tallinn.

Making the next U-turn, we drove back to the refurbished renamed Salzburg for the night. There is parking with hook-ups outside the hotel and access to toilets, shower and WiFi inside. The price of 300 EEK could be paid by credit card or cash – or with an excessive €20.

Tallinn to Parnu, Estonia     Konse Guesthouse & Camping     200 EEK (€13)     72 miles     25 ft asl

On a sunny autumn morning we rejoined rd 4/E67 towards Tallinn, U-turning south at the next traffic lights. The dual carriageway ended after 8 miles, narrowing into a straight level road at around 275 ft asl, through mixed forest with Elk warning signs. At 14 miles the Hotel Kernu on the left had a Caravan sign, though the place looked abandoned. Again, it had changed name since we spent a night camped there at the 'Estonia Motel' in 2006.

Continuing through farmland and forest, the road was busy with trucks and cars and we noticed a 24-hour fuel station/cafι at 31 miles (petrol 17.55 EEK/litre). Unlike Scandinavia, autogas (LPG) is also available at some filling stations. A police car lurking in a layby with radar gun stopped 2 cars but we were in no danger of speeding, using cruise control. There were no settlements along the way, just the village of Marjamaa lying a mile or two west of the highway.

At 68 miles a roundabout, service station and shops heralded the suburbs of Parnu, with houses, 3-storey flats and a cycle path. A mile later road 4 turned left to bypass the city, while we kept straight on the old main road, crossing the bridge over the Parnu River into the centre. It was useful to recognise a few words of Estonian from their similarity to Finnish: keskus (centre), jogi (river) and sadam (harbour).

For an excellent all-year campsite, turn left after the bridge along Lai (between river and Old Town), then turn left along the river bank half a mile later on a lane called Suur-Joe. The Konse guest house/camping is not signed until the gate - we found it by GPS co-ordinates: 58Ί 23' 05” N and 24Ί 31' 35” E. See also http://www.konse.ee/index.php?section=11.

It's a very friendly place, a short cycle ride or 15-minute walk along the river from the centre of Parnu. Campers have the use of excellent showers, toilets and kitchen in the guest house, as well as a computer (or intermittent WiFi outside). Breakfast buffet costs €4 and there is a laundry at €2 per wash or dry. Reception hand out a good map of Parnu and a useful leaflet of 18 campsites in Estonia (also on http://www.camping-estonia.ee/?keel=eng with an interactive map). Our only disappointment is that we can't get any TV picture at all: the Estonian channels come through as radio, with sound only!

We settled in by the river, with just one Finnish motorhome neighbour, and had lunch before taking a walk into the town centre. Try http://www.visitparnu.com/ for more.

At Parnu, Estonia     Konse Guesthouse & Camping 

A few days passed quickly in Parnu at the ACSI-listed campsite, which opened in 2002. The site (claiming 60-70 places) must be crowded in summer but is very quiet now. We caught up with the usual chores (baking bread, pies and biscuits, laundry, cleaning, etc) and also made good use of the internet. The words and images of our summer in Scandinavia are now processed, despite the frustrating unreliability of the campsite WiFi signal.

Able to listen to BBC radio via the internet, we were appalled to hear of the tragedy unfolding in Hungary, where a dam had burst. We learned with mounting horror of the flood of toxic mud sludge, and it seems there could be more as the dam continues to crumble. Our good friend and fellow traveller, Ian Shires, is a member of a volunteer team of Land Rover and other 4wd vehicle owners who help out when tragedy strikes, anywhere in Hungary. A member of the team, Pados Zsolt, lived not far from the scene of the sludge. Ian says that Pados heard about the problem on the radio and immediately went there to see what was needed and what the team could do. As he was driving over the bridge in Kolontar the vehicle was washed into the river. He managed to get out of the vehicle but was himself washed away. His body was found one kilometre away.

Suddenly a tragedy heard distantly on the radio comes much closer.

Parnu is another Hanseatic port, founded in the 13thC at the mouth of its river. Today it's a University town with a young population and the rowing teams (ranging from eights to single scullers) regularly swept along the river past our window, sometimes with their coach alongside in a small motor boat. M recalled her days at Durham, when the rowing coach would cycle along the banks of the Wear shouting into a megaphone.

We refreshed our memories of the Old Town, last visited in the autumn of 1999 when we camped in the Yacht Club compound (no longer possible unless you are a yacht). The historic buildings – largely restored since their destruction in 1944 when the Soviets drove out the Germans - are sited along and between the parallel streets of Pikk (= Long) and Kuninga (= King). The Tourist Office is next to the yellow & white classical 18thC Town Hall. Both of the Baroque 18thC churches were named after Russian Empresses: St Catherine and St Elizabeth. The later Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord (1904) looks neglected in comparison.

The Red Tower (now white, since its restoration in 1980!), built as a prison at the SE corner of the vanished 15thC town walls, is the only remaining medieval structure in Parnu. One of the gates in the 17thC Swedish ramparts, Tallin Gate, has also been preserved at the west end of Kuninga. The Old Town has a range of bars and restaurants, while huge indoor shopping malls (Port Artur and Port Artur 2) have appeared to the north of the centre, between Pikk and Lai.

The whole town is well wooded, with several leafy parks where acorns crunch underfoot. Koidula Park has a sculpture of Lydia Koidula, a 19thC writer and poet of the National Revival, who appears on a current Estonian banknote. There is also a Memorial Museum on the north side of the Parnu River, in the school she attended.

The weather is sunny and dry, with daytime temperatures around 12ΊC – perfect for cycling:

Ride 1 (27 km) began west along the river bank, skirting the town centre, past the Yacht Club. Rounding the estuary through the extensive Ranna (= Beach) Park, we reached the long sandy beach and resort of Estonia's 'Summer Capital'. The elegant neoclassical Mud Baths, a symbol of Parnu since 1927, are being rebuilt as an exclusive spa hotel. The name 'Ladies Beach' recalls the more modest era, when separate areas were designated for sunbathing, thought to be beneficial to the health(!) We rode along the fine new promenade, built in 2006, its cafes and attractions closed now the season is over. The enormous 1930's Ranna Hotel once contained a Presidential suite, became a Soviet Sanatorium after WW2 and is now a thoroughly renovated hotel. The promenade ends at the brand new Paradis Hotel complex (complete with Estonia's biggest indoor water park and pools), from where we headed back into the east side of town. We crossed the Parnu River on the Papiniidu Bridge, then followed a cycle path westwards along the north bank, returning over the Kesklinna (= town centre) Bridge to ride back to Konse Camping, mid-way between the 2 bridges. Most of the ride was on safe cycle paths or foot paths (including the 2 busy bridges), with a few quiet roads.

Ride 2 (39 km) took us over the Kesklinna Bridge to the north, then westwards on quiet roads through forest and past a new golf course to the coast. The cafι and campsite we came across near Audru were all closed. A gravel road took us inland, past the abandoned buildings of a collective farm. The storks' nest was also empty – but they may be back. We returned on road 60, pausing at a rambling cemetery near an old church. The peace was tangible, the graveyard still in use. Re-entering Parnu at the harbour, opposite the Yacht Club, the docks were piled high with timber awaiting shipment. We pondered the widespread effects of recession in the building trade.  

Parnu, Estonia to Svetciems, Latvia     Rakari Hotel & Camping     13 lat (about €18)     54 miles     18 ft asl

Heading south out of Parnu on Riia Mnt (= Riga Street), we stopped after 2 miles at a huge shopping mall on the left. The Rimi supermarket had all we need (including a few American DVD films at €1.85 per DVD – with soundtracks in a choice of English, Lithuanian or Russian, subtitled in Estonian or Latvian).

Continuing down the E67/rd 4, which follows the Baltic coast down to Riga (capital of Latvia), there was a hotel/camping sign pointing right at 33 miles. Probably near the shore, hidden behind the continuous fringe of mixed forest.

At 40 miles we crossed the border by the Estonian village of Ikla, driving straight through into the Latvian ship-building and former naval town of Ainazi, with no passport checks. Amazing progress, with all 3 former FSU countries now not only independent republics but EU members (and so included in our motorhome insurance). This north-eastern region of Latvia is called Vidzeme and the Baltic Highway now ran closer to the Vidzeme coast, with occasional glimpses of empty strand and grey sea. The road was now signed 'A1' but that didn't apply to its surface, grooved by heavy lorries and logging trucks!

After 6 Latvian miles we passed a sign to camping by the sea (probably closed) and continued into the busy port of Salacgrivas at the mouth of the Salaca River. At 48 miles traffic lights and road works caused a long delay on the Salaca bridge, where we had a good view of the harbour stacked with logs awaiting shipment, as at Parnu.

We noticed that fuel cost slightly less than in Estonia: 0.777 lat per litre (about €1, or less than £1), with diesel no cheaper than petrol. The current exchange rate is 0.81 lat = £1 or 0.71 lat = €1.

5 miles south of Salacgrivas, just after crossing another river in the village of Svetciems, turn right (signed for 'Rakari') along half a mile of rough gravel road towards the sea, to a surprisingly modern hotel/restaurant/camping built in 2007 (see http://www.rakaricamp.lv/en/). We have the spacious all-year campsite to ourselves, with the use of toilets and shower in the hotel as all outside water has been turned off for winter. There is free WiFi inside the hotel too, though as usual the outdoor connectivity is intermittent.

Rakari is one of 15 members of the Latvian Camping Association (http://www.camping.lv/English/index.php with an interactive map) , any of which issue a brochure with all campsite details and a discount card. This gives a 10% reduction on any further sites used (but not the first one).

After lunch and an afternoon's writing, we watched one of our new DVDs. Kevin Costner should be ashamed of his performance as an Elvis impersonator in such rubbish as '3000 Miles to Graceland'! We hope the rest aren't as bad, though at least they cost very little. We've been spoilt by watching some excellent films lately and have become more sensitive to good acting and directing – a recent example being the brilliant Johnny Cash biopic 'Walk the Line' with an intense portrayal by Joaquin Phoenix.  

At Svetciems, Latvia     Rakari Hotel & Camping

After a stormy night we had our first taste of wintry weather, with a bitter wind from the north.

A day or two ago Barry had emailed Darren of Motorhome Medics in Cheltenham with a progress report. Darren had sourced our Flair motorhome in the USA, imported it into the UK, modified and registered it and, since then and with partner Martin, has serviced and maintained it. After over 4,000 miles since last leaving Cheltenham, most of it in Scandinavia with over 1,000 miles above the Arctic Circle, we could report no problems at all. Everything was working as it should be and no air pressures or fluids had needed any topping up – except the petrol.

The very next morning, as the engine was started to leave the campsite in Parnu, the electric step refused to retract. No amount of switching, jiggering or pokering would cause it to change its mind. For over 50 miles yesterday we drove south with the step sticking out, wary of pedestrians' legs. Arriving at Svetciems, Barry rang Darren, who was as amused as Margaret had been at the turn of events. But Darren was able to give some good advice, including, if all else failed (which it did), how to remove a split pin and rod to enable the step to be moved in and out manually. So today the problem was solved – or rather passed over to Darren when next we meet.  

After lunch we braved a short walk to the sandy beach, through pine forest dotted with picnic tables and a simple summer parking and camping area. Once we left the shelter of the woods, we didn't linger on the dunes – just long enough to photograph the turbulent sea and return to the warmth of the motorhome.

We dined in style in the Rakari Restaurant, with a seafaring theme – not just the dιcor but the menu. For example, we chose the 'Man Overboard' (pork chop with potatoes & salad) and 'Chicken Mutiny' (chicken fillet with potatoes & salad). For breakfast we could have had 'Boatswain under the Blanket' (ham & cheese toastie) or a 'Jump in an Icehole' (hot vegetarian sandwich)! For soups, there was 'Salvage of a Wreck' (solyanka with meat), 'Storm in a Teacup' (white wine & fish) or 'In Search of the Horny Fish' (solyanka with sea products). 'Hullabaloo in the Deep' (steamed salmon with potato & cream shrimp sauce) lay beyond our budget!

Svetciems to Iecava, Latvia     Brencis Motel & Camping     5 lats (or €7)     86 miles     85 ft asl

Back to the E67/A1 to drive towards Riga, through squalls of rain. For 5 miles the Highway ran close to the Baltic, its silent white dunes visible through the pines with one or two empty parking areas. We passed the site of a camp we'd used 4 years ago (Meleku Licis) but it had disappeared, the land now for sale. Then the road turned a couple of miles inland and headed due south, straight and level through a forest devoid of settlements, or much else.

At 20 miles a gaudy sign pointed right for Munchausen's Museum: a waxworks of historical Latvian figures in the Baron's former home. Not on our itinerary! The coastal Camping Lauca was signed on the right 3 miles later.

We bypassed the seaside resort of Saulkrasti (exit right at 31 miles), continuing on the now improved A1 and pausing after another 3 miles at a new fuel station/cafι (petrol 0.765 lat/litre = £0.95 or €1.08). They accepted credit cards and also sold LPG. At 43 miles we crossed the Gauja River, with 3 campsites signed nearby (eg Camping Gauja, left before the bridge). The Gauja Valley forms a National Park further inland between Sigulda and Valmiera, where we explored the forests and castles back in 1999.

The A1 gradually became busier, Polish trucks keen to pass as we drove into the outskirts of Riga, with housing, factories and more fuel stations. At 50 miles we ignored rd 51, which turns right into the capital, and continued south for 15 miles on A4 – an unimproved road grooved by heavy lorries. Meeting A6, we turned right into Salaspils, a town 13 miles SE of Riga with a grim history. It was still raining with a blustery wind (7Ί C outside at 11.30 am).

At 67 miles, just beyond the junction with A5, we took a right turn off A6, inconspicuously signed to the Salaspils Memorial - the site of Kurtenhof, a German concentration camp operating from 1941-44. The lane led us through a mile of woods, past a church graveyard where a funeral was taking place and over the ominous railway line to a car park.

We walked the path to and around the site in astonishment. The large clearing in the forest is dominated by several massive crude concrete sculptures and a monstrous sloping bunker of concrete, housing a very small exhibition of drawings and information. There is also a strange oblong block of polished grey stone, dated 1995, that emits a regular sound like a heartbeat. All this blocked the opportunity of experiencing the horror of the camp itself.

Nothing remains of the original work and holding camp, where between 2,000 and 3,000 prisoners died, most of them Jewish and many of them children. Earlier Russian estimates of 100,000 dead have been discredited recently: this wasn't an extermination camp and prisoners died from the abuse of overwork and primitive conditions. A few tributes had been left by visitors in the form of toys or Christian icons but there are no Jewish candles or Hebrew inscriptions – Latvian and Russian only. Our guidebook translates the words of a Latvian writer imprisoned here, now engraved on the bunker: 'Behind this gate the earth groans'. Chilled both physically and emotionally, we returned to the motorhome for a warming lunch.

Back at the A6 we turned left towards Salaspils, then almost immediately right onto A5 southwards. This road, its condition (and ours) aggravated by road works, skirts the western side of a lake built by the Russians in the Daugava River to provide hydro-electric power and water for Riga. It was a relief to leave the dam wall at 73 miles, turning right at a roundabout, then left at the next, onto the A7. After this industrial area we reached more fields and forest, though still busy with trucks, heading south for Bauska and the Lithuanian border.

On the left of the highway, 3 miles short of Iecava, we spotted a caravan/camping sign outside Brencis Motel on the left. It offers free overnight parking and outside toilets, with a charge of 5 lat to use one of the 5 hook-up points. Hot showers are available in the motel for 1 lat per person, and there is a small restaurant and free WiFi. We're surprised that it's ACSI-listed, having no real camping facilities, but it is open all year and we were pleased to stop, in heavy wind and rain.

Tuning in to the internet it was good to hear from Rod, newly arrived in Finikounda for a winter at Camping Finikes and Keith Dear updated us on his recent unhappy stay at Camping Sapanta near the Merry Cemetery in the Maramures region of Romania.

Iecava, Latvia to Suwalki, Poland (via Lithuania)     Swiss Club TIR     €5     215 miles     540 ft asl

Still raining as we continued south on A7/E67, through Iecava. Children walking to school wore woolly hats and little satchels on their backs. What do they learn of their history? We'd left the forest and now saw ploughed fields, apple orchards and stands of woodland. Tractors were at work, with none of the cart-horses seen in earlier years on both land and roads.

After 18 miles, in the Zemgale (Southern Latvian) town of Bauska, we paused by a Rimi supermarket/fuel at a roundabout to consider our route. We could turn west, past Pilsrundale (Rundale Palace), then south into Lithuania for the Hill of Crosses (north of Siauliai) - but we had visited both these places in quieter days (see 16 Oct 1999).

As it was now pouring with rain we decided to skip the diversion and head south on A7, crossing into Lithuania at 29 miles. The Norwegian motorhome entering Latvia was the first we'd seen since Parnu, where there were a few Finns returning home. With no border checks (these took 2 hours in 1999), we continued on A10/E67, a busy truck route with fuel and motels at regular intervals. Lithuanian currency is the Lita, currently 4.1 to the Pound Sterling, and we noticed petrol was exactly 4.1 Litas per litre (diesel and LPG cost less).

At 68 miles we turned right onto A17 to bypass the city of Panevezys, exiting 12 miles later onto E67/A8. Continuing south for Kaunas, through the small town of Ramygala at 90 miles, we crossed flat rainswept agricultural land, the tractors carrying newly lifted beet or turnips, winter wheat starting to sprout. Just past the exit for Kedainiai we finally saw a rare layby to stop for lunch. Meeting the A1 at 126 miles (a real 4-lane motorway which links Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, with its largest port, Klaipeda), we turned left towards Kaunas, the country's second city.

Kaunas developed around a strategically placed 11th C castle (now a ruin) at the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris Rivers and grew to become the capital of Lithuania from 1920-39, while Vilnius was in Polish hands. Not wanting to negotiate the narrow Old Town (nor the pedestrianised New Town beyond), we turned right from A1 onto A5, skirting the west side of the city.

In an extensive area 7 km (nearly 5 miles) north-west of the city centre, just west of the A1/A5 interchange, lies 'IX Fortas' (the Ninth Fort) which we did visit, though it took some finding! Going south on the A5 dual carriageway, we unknowingly passed the very first exit, just before a Statoil garage, that leads along a narrow unsigned lane to the Fort. Reaching the bridge over the Nemunas River, we realised we'd gone too far, so turned back towards Kaunas at the next opportunity. We almost missed the exit on this side, shortly before the A1 junction, with a faded old sign 'IX Fortas'. This road led us under the highway, after which we were left to flounder on narrow lanes until suddenly a stark monumental sculpture of agonised faces and clenched fists appeared on the hillside. Turning towards this landmark, we eventually found the Fort car park, still unsigned.  

The extensive moated 19th C fort, built by Tsarist Russia on its (Nemunas River) border with Prussia, was again used by Russians during the First World War to defend their western frontier against Germany. In World War Two the Germans turned the fort into a death camp and murdered an estimated 50,000 people here, mainly Jewish: 30,000 from Lithuania itself, including the Kaunas ghetto, along with convoys sent from France, Germany, Poland … the list goes on. Returned to Russian hands under Stalin, the building became a Soviet prison and site of execution.

This dark and brutal history is very well presented in two separate museums (open 10 am–6 pm except Monday in summer; 10 am-4 pm except Mon and Tues in winter). The Old Museum, in the fort itself, covers the period up to the end of WW2, with displays of heart-rending photos, artefacts and documents (labelled in English and Lithuanian) in those very cells, from which so few escaped. There was, however, one successful break-out by a group of Body Burners. Their infernal role was to exhume the bodies of victims and burn them, hiding evidence of the atrocities – a task they could no longer endure.

One cell was devoted to Chiune Siguhara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania from 1939-40. With the help of a Dutch diplomat, he saved some 6,000 lives by issuing transit visas (against orders) to Polish Jews who were fleeing the advancing German terror.

The New Museum, a modern structure nearby incorporating a chapel, concentrates on the Soviet era. Photos of Hitler and Stalin, with their henchmen Ribbentrop and Molotov, are shown at their evil duplicitous plans to share out Poland and the Baltic Republics. The long post-war years of Russian occupation, resistance, execution or deportation are well documented. Exhibitions of objects painstakingly made in the Siberian prison camps include meticulous needlework, socks knitted from dog-hair and a skilfully carved chess set.

They reminded us of similar exhibits we've seen in Riga's 'Museum of the Occupation of Latvia', or Tallinn's 'Museum of Occupation & Fight for Freedom': the three Baltic Republics sharing their grim history. In Kaunas there is also a 'Museum of Deportation & Resistance', as well as 'Sugihara House' telling the full story of the 'Japanese Schindler' – these we left unvisited (till the next time).

We must thank the kindness of a member of the New Museum staff for enabling this experience. The old lady in the ticket booth (speaking only Lithuanian) turned us away when we tried to pay the entry fee (2 Lt per person per museum) in Euros. As we left, disappointed, a younger woman called after us in English 'Please, come back, you are welcome'. She issued us with tickets for both museums free of charge - a very touching gesture – and allowed us to take photographs. However, we didn't know that an extra camera fee was payable and Barry was severely reprimanded by a different custodian in the Old Museum.

Outside the Fort, the sculpture that led us there stands on the site of the mass grave. Other notable memorials include that from the friends and relatives in France of a convoy of young Jewish men sent here to their deaths and – incredibly – a plaque from the city of Munich (describing itself as Bavarian, rather than part of Germany). Translated from the German, it reads:

“In sorrow and shame – and appalled by the silence of the (German) bystanders – the provincial capital of Bavaria, Munich (in Germany), commemorates the 1,000 (German) Jewish men and women, who were deported (by Germans) on 20 November 1941 from Munich to Kaunas and were brutally murdered at this site (by Germans) five days later.” (We supplied the missing words in italics)

Back in the motorhome, late on this cold wet afternoon, we needed a pot of tea before finding our way back to the A5/E67 to drive south, crossing the Nemunas River again at 142 miles. The busy 4-lane highway turned south-west 7 miles later towards Marijampole, as drivers flashed warnings of a lurking police speed trap.

We saw nowhere for camping or an overnight stay along our route, apart from a large TIR truck park at 174 miles, short of the exit for Marijampole. We bypassed the town on A5 and continued towards the Polish border, now signed 'Warsaw'. At 200 miles, a mile before the frontier, we stopped to fill our tank at the last Lithuanian fuel station. Some trucks were parked there for the night but it was noisy and we know a better place in Poland.

Entering Poland, our third country today and again with no passport check or queue, we recalled how impossible this would have been a decade ago, with delays of two and more hours at every border. Poland is on Central European Time (1 hour behind Finland and the Baltics), so it was only 5.30 pm as we drove along the immediately narrower and twisting rd 8/E67 in the rain and half-light of dusk. We passed a cluster of cabins offering currency (the Zloty at about 4.4 = £1) and Vignettes (only needed by HGVs). There were also several TIR parking places along the way, advertising WC/showers, internet and bar, though not electric hook-ups.

Just 15 miles into Poland there is a good TIR park on the left, a couple of miles before the town of Suwalki, which we've used twice before. Inside the 'Swiss Bar Club' is a restaurant/bar with a cosy log fire, as well as modern toilets, hot showers (for a small fee), and free WiFi internet accessible inside or out. We were soon enjoying large pork chops smothered in cheese and mushrooms, followed by lemon cheesecake or delicious hot apple pie with ice cream.

We paid by credit card, then sat by the log fire to check emails before returning to the motorhome, to look out an extra blanket and hot water bottle for the bed! The night watchman came by for some money and was happy with a €5 note – in fact he tried to give us a few Zloty in change, though we didn't take it, not envying his job as a cold hard rain swept across the lorry park.

(for the next stage in this journey, click: In Poland 2010)