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Baltic Journey 2009 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

IN THE BALTICS - AUTUMN 2009

The Travel Log of a Motorhome Journey from the North to the South of the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Margaret and Barry Williamson
September 2009

This illustrated travel log describes our motorhome journey from the North to the South of the three Baltic Republics in the autumn of 2009. We had spent the spring in the south-east corner of Bulgaria, based at the quiet Sakar Hills Camping in Biser. After driving back to England for essential repairs, service, MOT and family visits, we took a ferry from Harwich to Rotterdam. Driving through Holland and Germany, we boarded the ferry from Sassnitz to Trelleborg near the southern tip of Sweden. All this was the prelude to a fascinating 1,300-mile journey through Swedish forest and lakes, north along the western edge of the Gulf of Bothnia.

We entered Finland at the top of the Gulf, over the Tornio River in the neighbouring towns of Haparanda and Tornio. After crossing the Arctic Circle some 50 miles north of Rovaniemi - Santa's home town – we made our slow way south through the centre of Finland to Helsinki on this, our fifth visit to this amazing country of forest and lake.

Making the 2-hour crossing from Helsinki to Estonia's capital city, Tallinn, we began our third visit to the three Baltic Republics. Small they may be (the largest, Lativia, is smaller than Ireland), but each has its own fascination and completely different language, history and culture. Only 20 years ago, all three republics were just a part of the USSR, ruled from Moscow. Not least, our interest was to learn more of their progress since out first visit in 1999, now that they are members of the European Union.

Click: A full account of the journey from England to Finland
Click: A full account of the journey south through Finland to Helsinki
Click: A full account of the continuing journey through Poland
Click: Galleries and Slide Shows of images of the journey through the Baltics
Click: Images and a description of our Fleetwood Flair motorhome
Click: Images and a description of our Paul Hewitt touring bicycles

Map of the Motorhome Journey through Sweden and Finland into the Baltics

Baltics_Close_Up_Extra.jpg

16 September 2009   104 miles   Riihimaki, Finland to Palmse, in Laheema National Park, Estonia   Laheema Kohvikann Restaurant   150 EEK (or €10.00)

To Helsinki for a ferry to Tallin, then east along the northern Baltic coast of Estonia

It rained all morning as we drove 5 miles south-west to Riihimaki, then south on E12/road 3, right into the maelstrom of the Helsinki traffic. The E12 was a very busy 4-lane motorway, with only one ABC services along the way.

At 36 miles we crossed the outer ring road. Keeping south on E12, the traffic became pretty chaotic, with bus lanes and trams, even though 'rush hour' was over. Rain still poured and there were literally no signs to any of the ferry terminals until they were almost in sight! Helsinki is not our favourite port, or city. To add to the difficulty, Silja's Olympia Terminal in the city is used for the overnight ferry to Stockholm but all the ferries to Tallin currently depart from the West Terminal (Vastra Terminalen), some 20 minutes drive away. Check carefully which terminal is being used! We eventually found the West Terminal, poorly signed amongst road works, arriving at check-in after 50 miles' driving which took 2 hours! With less than an hour to spare before departure at 1430 hrs, we had no time to make lunch.

It was a smooth 2-hour crossing on what is a basic Finnish shuttle boat, its supermarket well stocked with alcohol. Lunch in the self-service café was disappointing and expensive - over €8 each for lukewarm meatballs or pork schnitzel, with boiled potatoes and vinegary coleslaw, served on a paper plate with plastic cutlery. The price of the alternative restaurant buffet was extortionate!

We arrived in Tallin (where the city campsite had closed yesterday!) in time for that capital's evening rush hour. There were no customs or passport checks (all 3 Baltic Republics now in the EU and Schengen) as we left the port. The large area of open ground where we'd parked on our last visit, 3 years ago, was now built over. Tallin has an interesting old centre but, having visited twice before, we were happy to turn left for E20/road 1, eastwards and away.

With an exchange rate of about 15.6 EEK (Estonian Kroon) to the Euro (17 to the pound) we noticed that petrol is on sale at around €1 a litre - marvellous! The rougher roads are the downside.

Gradually leaving the city behind, we followed the 4-lane dual carriageway E20 east, parallel with the Baltic coastline. Elk warning signs marked the transition, as we skirted the southern boundary of Estonia's largest National Park (and the first one designated by Russia). After 48 Estonian miles, we turned north on a minor road (signed Palmse and Vosu) into Laheema (= Land of Bays) National Park, where we knew of a campsite on the coast.

We didn't need to drive as far as Vosu, though. After 5 miles, just before the National Park Visitor Centre at Palmse Manor, we passed a new restaurant advertising camping and stopped to check. At the Laheema Kohvikann (= coffee pot), run by Dieter and Julia Holscher - from Germany and Russia (St Petersburg) respectively - we found a very warm welcome. They have installed hook-up points on the car park and have a toilet and shower for campers. Payment is accepted in euros, local currency or by credit card. There is also WiFi internet, which we were welcome to use - in fact, Dieter told us that by law it has to be freely provided in all public places in Estonia! This was hard to believe, but we found it to be true.

We had found our base for exploring Laheema by bicycle - and an excellent restaurant. Highly recommended: see www.kohvikann.ee .   

17-18 September 2009   At Palmse, Laheema National Park, Estonia   Laheema Kohvikann Restaurant

Cycling the boulder-strewn coast and forest of Estonia's largest National Park

Less than a mile from our base, Palmse Manor, a restored 18th century baronial hall, is open to visit for a fee (see www.svm.ee). Its various outbuildings have been converted into a hotel/restaurant, a guesthouse/cafe, souvenir shop, coach house museum, tavern, etc.

Of more interest to us, the Laheema Visitor Centre is in one of the buildings on the Palmse estate. They supplied us with an excellent large-scale free map of the National Park, marking hiking and cycling routes, campsites, shops, etc – and the many erratic boulders for which the park is famous, brought from Finland by glacial action millions of years ago. The Centre also offers a free slide show about the flora and fauna of the Park, founded in 1971 (the first in Russia). Visit www.laheema.ee  Armed with this map, we had two good 30-mile rides, sheltered from the blustery wind by the belt of mixed forest fringing the Baltic shore. With gentle hills and empty roads, it's splendid cycling country.

The first ride was to Vosu, a seaside village 10 miles north, where we found an ATM for Estonian currency (situated inside the only shop, open 9 till 9). Vosu also had a pub, post office and hostel. Access to the beach was very limited, with the odd track or rare glimpse through the woodland. A mile west of Vosu at Lepispea we checked out 'Eesti Karavan', a large campsite charging 190 EEK per night, including electricity, showers, sauna and WiFi. However, it closes tomorrow (www.zone.ee/karavanid)

To the west of Lepispea, we rode north to the top of the 5-mile Kasmu Peninsula. Kasmu (Captains' Village) is an old sailing and fishing village with a Mariners Museum, guest houses, cafes and campsite – all firmly closed, the season over. The beach was mostly bordered by private houses denying access but we did find a path from the car park by the caravan park. This led through the trees to a view of a row of boulders in the sea, though we were more impressed by a large colony of Mute Swans, tails up, feeding along the shore line and swimming out at sea. The swans breed here (along with storks, both black and white, though these have long flown south). A hiking trail continues round the peninsula but we retraced our route on the tarmac, then circled back to Palmse via Vatku, through the hilly hinterland of woods and farms.

Our second ride took us east to Sagadi (where there is another restored Teutonic manor house to visit, complete with Forest Museum and hotel/restaurant), then north to the tiny port of Altja, where the café was closed, and then west round the invisible coast, returning via Vosu. Very bracing!

On both evenings we sampled Dieter's menu in the Kohvikann – a real treat. Chicken shashlik, pancakes with shrimps and mushrooms, escalope Cordon Bleu, pan-fried salmon fillet, all served with home-baked rolls, herb butter, salads and sauces … not to mention the Bavarian nougat mousse with mango sauce! Dieter speaks fluent English (as well as German, Russian and Estonian), all perfected during his international career as a Master-Chef. He talked to us at length about Estonia and its history and brought us a baguette warm from his oven for breakfast. We didn't want to leave!

19 September 2009   93 miles   Palmse to Laagna, Estonia   Laagna Spa Hotel & Camping   200 EEK (or €13.00)

East along the coast in Ida-Virumaa County, past the port of Sillamae

Returning 4 miles south to Viitna, we rejoined E20/rd 1 by a simple petrol station (open on this Sunday morning and accepting our credit card). Then we continued east on the wide dual carriageway (built with EU money), which became a 2-lane road 6 miles later! Traffic was light and we had no problem parking for lunch in a layby.

At 51 miles, after Varja, we passed the left turn for Saka Cliff Hotel & Spa (with camping), a mile or so north on the coastal cliffs. In a green and leafy landscape, we saw no evidence of the reputed Soviet industrial blight east of Laheema, apart from a couple of distant ash mountains as we bypassed the oil-shale mining town of Kohtla-Jarve. At 68 miles there was another left turn for the seaside Toila Spa Hotel (and camping). It seems that many campsites in Estonia are sidelines to a restaurant or hotel, shown by a caravan symbol on their signs.

Then came an abandoned uranium factory (closed down in 1991) by the port town of Sillamae at 75 miles. Here we turned left into the EU's easternmost sea gate, 15 miles from the Russian border. As well as cargo vessels, there is a new passenger ferry to Kotka in Finland (east of Helsinki). See www.narvaline.com for details. The modern 'Town of Fresh Sea Winds' has broad tree-lined boulevards and some classic examples of Stalinist architecture in the Town Hall and Cultural Centre. A small market was selling local produce and second-hand clothing but we could find nowhere to park. During the Soviet years this was a classified secret town, off-limits to visitors, due to the uranium plant ('oil shale chemistry factory') and an offshore nuclear submarine base.  

Continuing eastwards on E20, we finally turned left at 92 miles along a narrow lane towards the sea, following the signs for the 'Laagna Resort': the nearest camping site to the Russian border. (www.laagna.ee) The modern hotel offered camping on its lawns by a small lake, with hook-ups and the use of toilets and public showers inside the separate indoor pool (though swimming cost €5 pp extra). Once again, payment was acceptable in Euros, Estonian currency or by card, and WiFi was freely available inside the hotel – which proved to be the norm in Estonia. We had the lawn to ourselves, for a very peaceful night once the baths closed at 9 pm.

20 September 2009   At Laagna, Estonia   Laagna Spa Hotel & Camping  

Cycling 30 miles to Narva-Joesu and Narva: the Russian border

After catching up with laundry, emails and post card writing, the afternoon was spent cycling to and along the Narva River: the Estonian-Russian border.

The first 2 miles, from the hotel to the coast, was on muddy tracks, then we turned east along the wooded road to the small resort of Narva-Joesu at the mouth of the Narva. There are several new hotels and high-rise holiday apartments, as well as a supermarket. A few people walked on the sandy shore (Estonia's longest sea-beach), others were fishing by or in the river, famed for its lamprey. This is the far north-eastern corner of Estonia and from this point we have to turn back south. Across the river an almost empty shore line gave the first of several glimpses of Russia, the once mighty USSR we spent most of our lives fearing.

Turning inland, we followed the river bank for 9 miles to Narva – Estonia's third largest city and an entry point to Russia. Along the route we passed several military cemeteries (both Russian and German) and memorials, one complete with a WW2 Russian tank. This border has long been a battleground, from the Northern War of the early 1700's to the Red Army crossing the river here to drive the Germans back in July 1944.

In Narva the strategic bridge over the river is guarded by the massive 17th century Swedish-built Hermann Citadel, facing the picturesque Ivangorod fortress on the opposite bank. A long queue of cars stood on the bridge waiting to enter Russia and lines of pedestrians walked across in both directions. We guess that Estonians take advantage of cheaper shopping and fuel over the border. There were plenty of men fishing (some waist-deep in the fast-flowing river), while families strolled through the park, along the bank below massively towering citadel walls.

Riding into the quiet city centre, we eventually found coffee on sale at a stall near the checkpoint. We returned directly to Laagna, 10 miles along E20 in a light head wind. Trucks, not crossing the border today (Sunday), were parked along the highway, stretching for 5 miles and more! They were mostly Estonian, with a few Latvian or Polish lorries – no Russians. The portaloos thoughtfully lining the verges showed that long delays are the norm here.

The population of Narva is 95% Russian, living nearer to St Petersburg (150 km) than Tallin (210 km). The 2 cities are linked (through Narva) by the Via Hanseatica highway and by rail.

21 September 2009   57 miles   Laagna to Alajoe, Estonia   Suvi Holiday Centre 150 EEK (or €10.00)

A visit to Puhtitsa Monastery on our way to the northern shore of vast Lake Peipsi

After an hour on-line in the Laagna Hotel's conference room, we returned to highway 1/E20 in the motorhome and headed west. A left turn 5 miles along points to the memorials, graveyards and trenches of the Sinimae (= Blue Hills) Battlefield: the front line at the end of July 1944. This chain of 3 hills, between the Baltic Gulf of Finland and the bogland around Narva Reservoir, has been described as an Estonian Thermopylae (where a small force can block an enemy advance). Here the retreating German forces took up position, their ranks swelled by Flemish, Norwegian, Danish and Estonian volunteer divisions, all commemorated here. The battles resulted in heavy losses (especially on the Soviet side) but the Red Army finally occupied Sinimae in September 1944, to remain in control for almost 50 years. The first memorial cross did not appear until 1994, after they had gone.

Having had a surfeit of sombre reminders yesterday, we didn't stop until the port-town of Sillamae, 3 miles further west, to post some cards to the UK (which did arrive, 11 days later). In the well provisioned Konsum store we found a good map of all 3 Baltic Republics, as well as groceries and bottled water - credit cards accepted. (A recent fill of Estonian water had proved clean and potable but with a strong metallic taste, which didn't improve our morning tea!) Opposite the supermarket was the largely derelict collection of grim kiosks and stalls that once provided the meagre basics for the head-scarved Babushkas, who still huddled on the wooden benches to chat or sell a few apples, plums or berries.

Back on E20, drivers flashed to warn us of sneaky police radar traps tucked down side lanes, though we're unlikely to exceed any limits! We left the highway at 20 miles, just before Johvi, turning south across the railway line then left onto road 32. This led south for 10 miles to Estonia's oldest functioning convent: the 114-year-old Russian Orthodox nunnery (signed 'Klooster') at the village of Kuremae. Freely open from noon to 6 pm, its name 'Puhtitsa' means Blessed Place of the Holy Virgin.

Turning into the empty car park, we ate our lunch as a coach full of elderly ladies (and a single old man walking with sticks) arrived. All respectfully dressed, heads covered, they trooped to the sacred spring to fill their 5-litre plastic bottles with its holy water, reputed to have healing properties (and perhaps no metallic taste). The more able then climbed the hill towards the green onion domes, past the nuns' cemetery and through the splendid gates into the walled convent, while others waited back on the bus.

We enjoyed an hour's walk round the complex, where the nuns grow their own produce and tend colourful flower gardens. Sadly, cameras were not allowed to be used past the gates so we could not photograph the pretty houses, the lovely cats or the amazingly high winter log piles, shaped like haystacks, nor the main church, tended by a severe-looking young nun, clad in a warm array of home-knitted woollens over her dusty habit. Like all good monasteries and pilgrimage centres, this convent is on the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary, seen by a 16th century shepherd in an oak grove. The church houses the holy icon that was later found among the roots of an oak, portraying the Dormition of Mary, and copied on a fresco inside the gates. Visit www.orthodox.ee for more information.

Altogether it's a delightfully peaceful place, whatever your beliefs, or none. Returning to the car park on a different path, there was a cosy little café with hostel rooms upstairs, though the larger restaurant nearby was closed.

Retracing our route north for 2 miles, we turned left onto quiet forest road 35 that bumped its way south-west to join the wider E264/road 3 at 42 miles. We followed this south for 5 miles, then turned left after Iisaku, past the Vaikla Holiday Centre (its caravan park down a lane on the right that looked too narrow). Driving through the Alajoe Vald (= Woods), skirting north of Alajoe village, we turned left along the northern shore of Lake Peipsi. The all-year Suvi Holiday Centre, 3 miles later, set in splendid isolation near the lake, includes a restaurant/bar, cabins and a caravan parking area (with hook-ups) below the trees, past the modern hotel.

For less than €10 a night, we have the use of a good toilet/shower in hotel room 28 and a WiFi signal that reaches the motorhome. Wonderful – we tuned into BBC Radio 4 and made some free Voipwise calls on the laptop. As the only guests, we were well outnumbered by friendly staff in this very peaceful park. See www.peipsi-suvi.ee 

22-24 September 2009   At Suvi Holiday Centre, Alajoe, Estonia  

A 21-mile cycle ride to the Russian border village of Vasknarva

The weather was wet - ideal for domestic jobs, baking, processing photographs and internetting - with a short walk between showers, through the woods and dunes to the lake. Peipsi is the third largest lake in Europe (though the Russian border cuts through it). Standing on the white sands (its northern shore is the longest beach in the country, stretching over 20 miles), we could just discern the eastern edge in Russia, but to the west and south it disappeared over the horizon like a forbidding sea, empty, dark and stormy.

On the one dry afternoon we cycled east for 10 miles, mostly on a firm dirt road, through forest and the hamlet of Smolnitsa to the remote border fishing village of Vasknarva. It lies at the end of the road, on the banks of the Narva, where the river leaves Lake Peipsi to flow north to Narva city (via the dammed Narva Reservoir) and on to its estuary at Narva-Joesu. Though less than 50 miles long (only 78 km), it's Estonia's deepest and swiftest river.

Entering the village we were surprised to see a splendid new walled Russian Orthodox monastery with the date 2002 on its Cyrillic plaque. Unlike the convent we'd visited at Kuramae, the gates were firmly locked. There was very little access to the river, bordered by the gardens of homes old and new. Some were closed up, their apple and plum trees groaning with ripe fruit, while others were tended by elderly villagers. The ruined tower of a 14th century Teutonic castle looked across the water to Russia, still under observation from a radar tower in the forest along our way.

Surprised to learn the Suvi Hotel restaurant was open, we dined there one evening on a very good steak in wine sauce, a pork fillet covered in melted cheese and tomatoes, piping hot chips and crisp salads, followed by ice cream with fresh fruit salad or chocolate sauce. All prepared freshly to order: total under €15.   

25 September 2009   66 miles   Alajoe to Kallaste, Estonia   Willipu Guesthouse & Camping   150 EEK (or €10.00)

Via Mustvee to Kallaste on Peipsi's western shore

Turning west we drove along the lake shore, hidden behind a belt of trees, on a narrow bumpy road (signed as Cycle Route 3, which we'd seen along Estonia's north coast and in several places between). At Alajoe we crossed a river mouth and saw a large Orthodox church but little else, apart from a group of women gathering mushrooms in the forest.

After 12 miles, at the little beach resort of Kauksi, we turned south on the better road 3/E264 following the lake past Lohusuu. This western shore of Peipsi is known for its smoked fish (lake trout and salmon) and we passed one or two roadside stalls, all closed.  At 28 miles we turned off the highway to drive through the lakeside market town of Mustvee (pop 2,000) but somehow missed the centre, seeing nothing of its shops or churches before rejoining the E264.

Shortly after Mustvee, the highway turns away from the lake towards Tartu. We had to take it, as the minor road 43 following the shoreline to Kallaste was closed. At 44 miles a left turn onto a narrow road was signed as the diversion for Kallaste. We parked in a lay-by at the junction for lunch and checked out the caravan there selling 'Suitsukala' – Smoked Fish – at 75-85 EEK (£4-£5) per kilo. Only whole unfilleted fish were on display, far too big for us, and the vendor (woken from his lunchtime nap) was unwilling to split or cut one, so there was no sale.

The back-country road led through forest, the broad leaves burnished with gold. There were Elk signs but, as ever, no sight of them. At 55 miles we drove through Pala village, with a small school, a bus stop and a 'Pood' (grocer's). At Kodavere 3 miles later (a church and a bus stop) we reached Lake Peipsi once again and turned south for 6 miles to Kallaste, a fishing village of over 1,000 Russian-speaking souls.

Parking was easy in the square and we walked round, finding a supermarket (with ATM inside), an outdoor clothes market and a post office. The tourist information café had closed at the end of August. Strolling to the southern end of the village, we passed Anna's inviting café/guesthouse, advertising 'Zimmer' in German and a daily lunch at €4. Eventually we came to the beautifully kept Old Believers' Cemetery, overlooking the beach. Kallaste, dating from 1720, is the largest of several Old Believer settlements in this area. Apparently they were a sect of the Russian Orthodox church, persecuted in the 18-19th centuries for refusing to accept liturgical reforms, who took refuge on the remote western shores of southern Lake Peipsi.

Continuing for just 2 miles south of Kallaste, we turned left following signs along a sandy lane to the new Willipu Guesthouse, complete with cabins and a camping meadow with electricity. The friendly owners, who live in the guesthouse, even offered the use of the shower in their sauna, as the campsite facilities were unheated. There is a tap for a fill of potable water, a ground level dump point, WiFi which reaches our motorhome, use of the washing machine for €2, and a splendid view of the lake. It closes at the end of the month and we relished the peace and space, alone again. It will be hard to start sharing campsites again when we reach busier countries!

Our hostess hinted that Dutch visitors had arranged for the site to appear in the ACSI guide and Germans promised an ADAC listing. We very much regretted that there is no British equivalent. See www.willipu.ee and www.eurocampings.nl for ACSI.

We rarely find a TV signal in Estonia, watching our stock of DVD films when we want evening entertainment. At the moment we're working through 4 films featuring American military stories, squeezed onto a single disk, from our favourite Bulgarian market in Harmanli! Tonight it's 'GI Jane'.

26-27 September 2009   At Kallaste, Estonia   Willipu Guesthouse & Camping 

Cycling and bird watching among the Old Believers

A stream, running through the campsite, joined the lake at a short breakwater visible from our window. This was the favourite spot for the local Cormorants to dry their wings, sharing the rocks with a pair of patient Grey Heron who kept watch right alongside them. Ducks and gulls completed the fishing fleet, closely observed through our binoculars. Noticing skeins of noisy geese heading west, we urged the cormorants and herons to follow!

A brisk 33 mile (53 km) cycle ride, on flat quiet roads in a light wind, took us south to the village of Alatskivi, where we paused at its Castle, tucked away in the woods. Dating from the 15th century, it was rebuilt in the 19th C, apparently modelled on Balmoral Castle. Never having been invited to Balmoral, we can't say if this asymmetrical pile is a faithful copy! We didn't pay to go in, though the café with coffee and cakes might have been tempting, had we ridden more than the 4 miles!

From Alatskivi (which also had a restaurant and petrol station), we turned south-east for 5 miles to the lake shore at the little fishing port of Kolkja.  This is another village of Russian Old Believers, complete with Old Believers Museum (closed), a green wooden church and the blue-painted Fish & Onion Restaurant, offering a sample of local fare. Continuing south down the lake (to which there was no access) through Kasepaa, we reached the end of the bitumen at Varnja, where a coastguard kept watch over the slipway. These are tiny Old Believer settlements of simple wooden houses, whose occupants still draw water in zinc buckets from wells, living on produce from their gardens and the lake. Several homes had strings of onions or garlic hanging out to dry or on sale but we saw no shop or café. Returning to Kolkja, we might have tried its little restaurant but a tour bus of mature ladies out on a jolly had just arrived, filling the place and dispelling any charm! Riding up the coast on 2 miles of dirt road to Nina village, we then returned to Alatskivi and home. Our reward was watching the DVD film of Somerset Maugham's 'The Painted Veil' set in 1920's China: an excellent production.

Willipu was a super place to catch up with cleaning, laundry and emailing, as well as spying on the birdlife. We would have stayed longer if the weather had not turned wet and stormy. On a second cycle ride, north through Kallaste and Kodavere with a strong side wind, we intended to ride as far as the road closure. However, we gave in after 8 miles when our route turned north-west into a strong gale and the shelter of the forest gave way to open fields. Turning tail, we were soon back at Kallaste, anticipating a treat at Anna's Café, only to find it closed at 3 pm on Sundays (and all day Monday). Next time!

28 September 2009   77 miles   Kallaste to Voru, Estonia   Kubija Spa Hotel & Camping   200 EEK (or €13.00)

Via Tartu, Estonia's second city, to peaceful Voru

Leaving in the rain, we drove through Alatskivi and continued south-west on road 43 to meet the busier road 3 at 22 miles. In Tartu, 7 miles later, we turned right, across the River Emajogi into the centre of Estonia's religious and academic capital. Traffic was very busy and rain poured, with no chance of parking anywhere near the old centre, so we had only a brief glimpse of its classical architecture and riverside parks, being more intent on following road 3 through and out the other side!

Luckily, once past the centre, we saw a Rimi supermarket with large car park on our right, which made a good place for lunch. It was also a chance to shop for food, including a hot roast chicken and freshly baked cakes. We even bought DVD's showing BBC series ('The Office' and 'Prime Suspect') in English at 19 EEK (just over one pound) apiece – they can't have been too popular in Estonia!

We left Tartu on road 2, heading south after pausing at a Statoil filling station (no problem with credit cards anywhere in Estonia). The good 2-lane road ran through a region of gentle forested hills, climbing to 490 ft then settling across a plateau at about 430 ft. It was still raining heavily as we gradually descended, turning off at 70 miles for the town of Voru, on the eastern shore of Lake Tamula. Following the one-way system round its centre, we parked by the Tourist Information for a map giving directions to the Kubija Hotel, lying low at 290 ft in the forest near smaller Lake Kubija, 3 miles south of Voru,

This large new 3-star spa hotel also has an ACSI-listed campsite on a field, beyond the crazy golf, officially open from April through October. The ground being too soft and wet for us, we were offered a place on the quiet staff car park, surrounded by forest on 3 sides. The price included an electric hook-up and the luxury of a heated shower room inside the hotel, as well as access to a computer terminal and WiFi up on the first floor. The spa also offers a range of massages and beauty treatments – even a sleep disorder specialist for those suffering insomnia (not a particular problem of ours!) See www.kubija.ee.

We had good TV reception on 2 channels, one showing a film (with Estonian subtitles) featuring Denzel Washington as the paraplegic crime scene investigator Lincoln Rhyme, a character we'd first met in a talking book.

29 September 2009   At Voru, Estonia   Kubija Spa Hotel & Camping

Working on-line while rain poured

A steady downpour lasted all day, banishing thoughts of cycling around Voru. We made good use of the time on-line, working on the photographs and travel-log of Finland – now Finnished!

Also defrosted and cleaned the fridge/freezer, noting that a pile of frost tipped outside on the grass didn't melt before it went dark! Yes, a cold night, warming ourselves with the aid of a fan heater and the curried remains of yesterday's roast chicken.

30 September 2009   64 miles   Voru, Estonia to Aluksne, Latvia   Jaunsetas Camping   (Free, officially closed)

A great find in Voru, then south across the border into Latvia

Driving 3 miles back into Voru, we parked easily at the Kagukeskus shopping centre next to the sports stadium, a short walk from the town centre. In a computer shop at Kagukeskus we found a 120-watt power-pack, switchable for 11 different voltages between 12 and 22 volts, with a range of connectors for a variety of laptops including our ageing Dell. After searching in vain for such an adaptor in Finland, we'd resigned ourselves to having to arrange an address for mail order, so this was a great find. No more excuse for getting behind with the travel-log!

We celebrated in the Spring Café by Lake Tamula – another great find (www.springcafe.ee ) with a 'daily special' bargain lunch. The desserts were superb - we can speak for the white chocolate cheesecake with cherries and the hot chocolate sponge with strawberry-caramel sauce and ice cream! Before leaving Voru, we changed our remaining Estonian currency into Latvian money in the bank and spent the small change at a supermarket. Latvia is one of very few countries with a currency unit worth more than a pound sterling – currently 0.8 Lats to the pound.

After 2 weeks in modern Estonia we shall certainly miss its widespread WiFi; universal credit card acceptance; friendly campsites at restaurants, hotels and guest houses; and the peace of the coastal and lakeside locations we had found. The bumpy roads were the only negative feature. We decided to keep down the eastern side of Latvia - the Latgale Lakeland - as we had explored the country's Baltic coast, the capital city of Riga and the central towns of Sigulda and Valmiera on our previous visits in 1999 and 2006.

It turned cold and wet again as we left, regaining the E263/road 2 a mile east of Voru to head south-east. As we climbed through birch forest in the Haanja Nature Park, we reached over 600 ft. At 18 miles we passed Vatselina village, then turned right 7 miles later, on meeting E77/road 7. (Left would have taken us to the Russian border at Luhamaa, just 2 miles away.)

At 37 miles we entered Latvia, driving straight through on E77, now subtitled A2. There was no sign of the former guardhouses and customs posts – nothing at all, in fact. We were welcomed by the sun finally breaking through as we continued through wooded hills, climbing to 700 ft. After 13 Latvian miles we left the A2 (on its way to Riga) and turned south-east on minor road P39 for Aluksne, its surface even rougher than Estonia's back roads!

After the village of Alsvik, its telegraph poles crowned with empty stork nests, the road was mysteriously smooth for the last 4 miles to Aluksne. A mile before the town we turned left down a dirt lane signed to Jaunsetas Camping (ACSI-listed as 'open all year'), by a lake at 600 ft. It looked a splendid place with a cosy log-built restaurant/bar, where the nice young lady made a quick phone call before explaining in halting English: 'Camping Closed – Season Over'. The power points were turned off, the ablutions locked. However, we were welcome to stay overnight on the car park: 'No Charge'. Unable to argue at that price, we were only sorry that we couldn't manage another restaurant meal to repay the kindness.

It was a bitterly cold night, warmed by our gas fire for the first time in months. We compensated for this extravagance by leaving the fridge off, since it stayed cold enough overnight! Without mains power, we couldn't test the newly acquired power-pack but we did watch an episode or two of 'The Office', thanks to the inverter running the DVD player.

1 October 2009   92 miles   Aluksne to Ludza, Latvia   Dzerkali Recreation Centre   9 lats (c €12)

Rough roads and wintry weather in Latgale - Latvia's Lakelands

The temperature inside was 45ºF at 8 am, so we made an early start to keep warm, waving farewell to the curious wood statue of a man fishing from a boat in the water. We drove 2 miles into Aluksne, a small town by the same lake, where an army of sweepers (mainly women) were busy in the leafy autumn parks, wrapped against the cold. It looked like a steady, if seasonal, job.

The lass in Tourist Information, hidden away inside a splendid old hall in need of some restoration, provided us with good local maps. Surprised to learn that Jaunsetas Camping was closed, she kindly phoned the next 2 sites on our route - Dzerkali and Selena - to check that they were open. What great service, at no charge. The museum in the hall was closed, though the Bible Museum was recommended, in the home of one Ernest Glueck (a 17th century Lutheran pastor who translated the Good Book into Latvian).

From Aluksne we drove south on road P43, the first couple of miles running alongside a narrow gauge railway (to Gulbene). At 21 miles in Litene we turned east on P35 (no smoother than a P-road should be!) for 11 miles to Balvi, a town poised between 2 lakes. Since P35 continued to the ever-present Russian border (24 miles east), we now turned south for 15 miles on P47. The chilly wind was fetching the leaves down in swirls but at least it was dry.

Meeting P36 (on its unshod way from Gulbene), we turned left for Rezekne, relieved that its surface was sealed from here on. The colour of the thin lines on our maps is not a reliable guide! At 75 miles in the hamlet of Audreni we parked for lunch by a Soviet monument, then continued towards Rezekne, meeting the A12/E22 (from Riga) a couple of miles north of the city. We turned left (east) along it for Ludza. It may call itself an A-road but it's still patched and bumpy!

At 91 miles (6 miles before Ludza) we spotted the sign for 'Dzerkali Recreation Centre – 1.2 km' on the left and followed the muddy dirt road to the site, on the southern shore of Lake Cirma at 465 ft. By now the weather was bitterly cold and raining so we were pleased to find Dzerkali open, after sending the helpful caretaker to fetch an 'Administrator'.  We parked opposite the Reception building (with toilets), by a hook-up and fresh water tap. Showers behind a curtain in a cold non-locking unisex cubicle cost 1 Lat each (that is, over a UK pound!) – an offer we easily refused.

The Recreation Centre consists mostly of wooden cabins to rent, along with a café/bar (open at the weekend for drinks only). See www.dzerkali.lv for details. We are clearly between seasons, as photos showed jolly groups at hot-tubs and summer barbecues, as well as winter fun in the snow. But it's open, with credit cards accepted, and we are delighted to have the peaceful site to ourselves with a WiFi signal that works in the motorhome. There is no TV reception but we have a good stock of films to watch – and a small colony of Great White Herons by the lake. What are they doing here, at any time of year?!

2-3 October 2009   At Ludza, Latvia   Dzerkali Recreation Centre 

Shelter from the Storm

During a very cold, windy, showery spell we kept busy indoors with the usual range of activity on- and off-line: emailing, phone calls, reading and writing, cleaning and baking. Margaret managed to persuade the cleaning woman to allow use of the staff washing machine (for a consideration), since the guests' machine was out of service.

We did wonder why the site was open at all, but there were some strange comings and goings at the weekend involving heavies in a BMW 4wd, a posse of cars and an outrageous stretch limo! It's less than 25 miles to Russia, remember.

Clear nights meant a star-studded cloak of darkness enfolding the forest, while a full moon shone brilliantly onto the lake. The Great White Herons stayed on, unaware of the distribution map in our Birds of Europe book! They were too big to be Egrets (which would also be vagrants here), nor did their black legs end in yellow feet. Cold feet maybe, but not yellow!

 4 October 2009   45 miles   Ludza to Kaunata, Lake Razna, Latvia   Selena Camping   6 lats (c €8)

A walk round Ludza Castle and a drive via Rezekne to the Raznas National Park

Returning along the mile of dirt road to the A12, we drove 6 miles east into Ludza, noticing a fuel station with LPG on the way. Petrol costs slightly less than in Estonia, at about £0.86 per litre (credit cards accepted).

Ludza, Latvia's oldest town founded in 1177, sits between two lakes - Big and Little Ludza – its strategic position originally defended by a hill-top castle built by German Knights in 1399. We parked at the foot of the hill opposite the Craftsmen Centre (closed today, being Sunday) and climbed a flight of steps up to a large Roman Catholic church and the adjacent castle ruins. The church (built in 1992 on a 17th century site) was definitely open for business, in competition with the Orthodox church in the town below. The castle, destroyed in 1775, covered a huge area with a commanding view. Its crumbling walls are of red brick on a base of grey boulders, the roof long gone, and we didn't linger in the bitter wind.

Before leaving Ludza we shopped at Maxima (a supermarket chain in Latvia and Lithuania, like a down-market Lidl), then returned westwards along A12. Where the forest had been cleared for farming, the land lay flat and sodden. There were hand-built haystacks, black & white cattle, beehives, and empty stork nests built on top of dead trees.

At 23 miles we turned onto P54, into the industrial city of Rezekne 4 miles further. It was very quiet and we easily found space to park for lunch, next to a large church on our right, by the junction with P55. Turning south-east on P55 (bumpy as ever), we entered the Raznas National Park at 33 miles, before spotting the top of Lake Razna (Latvia's largest lake by volume) and driving down its eastern side.

At 43 miles, a mile after passing a left for Kaunata village, we turned onto P56 towards Lake Razna (signposted Malta). Two miles later a short dirt track on our left led steeply uphill to Selena Camping at 660 ft – declared open (May-Oct) by Luksne Tourist Info. Arriving at a cluster of assorted wooden cabins on a wet grassy hillside across from the lake, there was no apparent parking area for tourers. An elderly ruffian approached us, speaking only Russian. He passed us on to a kindlier chap, deep into digging up beetroot, also speaking only Russian, who summoned his missus, busy lifting carrots – and again speaking only Russian. She indicated that we should go higher up, on a slope, among low branches and tree stumps!

As we prepared to leave, she fetched a mobile phone, rang a young English-speaking woman and handed it over. The phone passed to and fro between Margaret and the caretakers, with the interpreter acting as intermediary. Once it was understood that we simply needed a large level space to park with an electric hook-up, we were settled outside Reception, plugged into a socket in the WC and warned not to drink the water in the shower (being the same colour as the lake). We were very happy with the arrangement, especially as another rainstorm blackened the sky, discouraging us from a walk down to the lake.

The range of cabins and huts included 2 elderly caravans from the Soviet era (as seen in the fields of Bulgaria), each with a new wooden superstructure resembling a garden shed. There were also animal figures hewn from logs, a model windmill with revolving sails, a children's play area, bikes for hire – a simple but lovingly equipped holiday site.

5 October 2009   35 miles   Kaunata, Lake Razna to Skaista, Lake Dridzi, Latvia   Dridzi Recreation Centre   7 lats (c €9)

Through the Latgale Lakelands to the deepest lake in the Baltics

After a very wet stormy night the sun broke through the blanket of cloud over breakfast, bringing light enough for photographs before leaving. We drove 2 miles back up Lake Razna to rejoin P55, then continued south through the Lakelands of Latgale (the least developed of the 4 regions that make up Latvia), passing Lake Ezezer at Ezernieki. The hilly road (up to 700 ft) was in poor condition,

At 21 miles in Dagda, on Lake Dagda, we parked at a Maxima store to shop and walk round the small town, collecting a free map for the next stage of our journey from the Tourist Information office. This was in the same building as a clinic, with a long queue of doleful patients. Behind was a street market selling clothes, tools, tyres and hardware to the hard-worn people, mostly coming on foot or by bus.

After continuing south from Dagda on P61 for 12 miles, we turned right down a short lane to Skaista, then right again on a puddled dirt road following signs for 'Dridzi Kompleks' (mentioned in Lonely Planet, including 'campervan parking' and 'open year round'). After a muddy mile we began to regret the detour but there was no turning back (or round). The track ended at a seemingly deserted holiday site on the eastern finger of Lake Dridzi (the deepest in the Baltics), with some fine log cabins and cottages scattered round another grassy hillside above the lake shore.

Sure enough, the obliging caretaker emerged from his work shed, though (of course) he spoke only Russian. Lucky we hadn't bothered to learn Latvian! He welcomed us to park alongside his cabin, fetching an extension lead for a hook-up, as the caravan field was waterlogged. As he couldn't change our 10-lat note for the fee of 7 lats, we tried to give him the difference. Instead, the dignified chap drove his ancient car into Skaista village for change, only accepting 1 lat extra for his trouble.

As we took a short walk round by the lake in a biting wind, there was no sign of any other facilities and the restaurant was firmly closed. It must look very different in summer – wood-burning sauna smoking, hot tub bubbling, 'Latgalian cultural heritage meals' being served and a 50-seater raft floating on the lake. But we like it as it is now, remote and empty, full moon still glowing in the inky night sky! See www.dridzi.lv

6 October 2009   180 miles   Skaista, Lake Dridzi, Latvia to Trakai, Lithuania   Slenyje Camping   65 Lt (or €19.40) with the 6th night free

A long day via Kraslava to Latvia's second city, Daugavpils, and into Lithuania

Back along mud lane for a mile and a half, we rejoined road P61 at Skaista and headed south-west for 13 miles to Kraslava: a town on the Daugava, just 4 miles north of Belarus. The Daugava River has long been an important trade route, winding its way from Russia through Latvia's 2 largest cities (Daugavpils and capital Riga) to an estuary in the Gulf of Riga – the Daugava Valley, now followed by the A6 and a railway line.

In the town centre we turned right on meeting A6, then spotted a parking area on the right by the common where 2 horses grazed. Walking round the busy town we found a little market where local women sold the fruits of their labour – bags of mushrooms and glass jars of berries, fresh from the forest, alongside warm knitted socks and gloves. Autumn's bounty soon gives way to winter's snow! The Maxima supermarket was also doing good business and we spent our last Latvian currency on honey, coffee, tea, chocolate, walnuts, bread rolls and donuts, requiring careful arithmetic to avoid embarrassment. The old lady behind us at the check-out was alarmed at being handed our coupon-stickers – very suspicious behaviour!

There was a lovely display of flower arrangements in the square, incorporating fruits, leaves and vegetables – for harvest festival or a school competition? Kraslava is also known as the cucumber capital of Latvia, with a 'Cucumber Days' celebration in July!

We eventually found Tourist Information on the upper floor of a mysterious building, indicated by a woman sitting downstairs with baskets and rugs for sale, though who would ever find her? The girl in TI, speaking a mixture of English and German, was extremely generous with local maps, including (free of charge) a beautiful spiral-bound guide in German to 44 cycle rides of varying lengths in the Lake District across the Latvian/Lithuanian border (and into Belarus, requiring a visa, at least for us). Each ride has a detailed map, description, photographs, phone number for local accommodation and tourist attractions. Sadly the current weather is not conducive to cycling but we'll keep the guide for the future. Clearly a lot of work had been put into developing this series. There was also internet access on the landing at the TI, standing at a computer with a touch-screen keyboard.

As we left Kraslava we detoured over the bridge (on the left opposite the Castle Park) to photograph the Daugava River, returning to the A6/E22. This road, with the usual patched surface, rolled west to Daugavpils.

Entering Latvia's second city (meaning 'Daugava Castle') at 40 miles, we saw a campsite sign pointing right for 'Kemping Vilnis' with (as ever) no indication of the distance or opening dates. It was surprisingly easy to drive through the city, following signs for A13/E262 to Medumi (the last village before the border), with little traffic on this cold bright Tuesday morning apart from a tramway serving the centre. We passed a huge well-tended cemetery with flower stalls at the gates, a colourful Orthodox church and, by contrast, a grey concrete prison, all bars and barbed wire. As we left the city, before crossing the Daugava, we passed the grim Fortress built by the Russians in 1810. The Germans used it as a concentration camp, Stalag 340, before it was reoccupied by the Soviet army until 1993. We read that part of it is now used for decrepit state-assisted housing, though we can't imagine how desperate you must be to live in such conditions.

Heading south-west for the Latvia-Lithuanian border, we passed our first horse & cart on this visit to the Baltics. We lunched in a handy lay-by in tiny Medumi at 52 miles, then crossed into Lithuania 3 miles later. No longer are there any frontier buildings in use or queues - just a police van and a customs official, who waved us straight on.

Two miles further, we drove through the town of Zarasai on a cobbled street. It lay by a lake with a camping sign on the right after the town. Continuing south-west on E262/A6, a newly surfaced 2-lane road through lovely mixed forest and cleared meadowland, there were many vacant stork nests. In fact Lithuania has the highest population of these lofty birds in Europe, celebrating their arrival as 'protectors of the home' on Stork Day (25 March).

In the city of Utena, 33 miles into Lithuania, we found an ATM for cash outside a Maxima supermarket. The lit is worth about 3.8 to the pound sterling, so petrol at 3.65 lit is a little below £1 a litre – a price fixed across the country. LPG was also on sale. From here we took A14 south towards the capital, Vilnius. Just after bypassing the town of Moletai we took a left turn at 110 miles, signed 'Camping 5 km', anticipating a lakeside site. After 3 miles of narrow forest road we reached a second sign pointing uphill on a rough puddled dirt road, so we returned to driving south on A14.

This country looks generally more affluent than Latvia (which it seems to have overtaken in the last decade). Its prosperity is reflected in the number of cars, good road surfaces, the glossy urban stores and shiny new petrol stations. Unfortunately the better quality of the main roads results in faster driving, with speeding cars keen to overtake. The 2-D cardboard models of police cars along the roadside don't fool anyone! Another difference is that Lithuania is predominantly Roman Catholic rather than Russian Orthodox, with beautifully carved wooden crucifixes at the wayside in rural areas.

At 138 miles we passed a monument to 'Europas Centras' (Europe's Geographical Centre) - however that may be defined! Three miles later we turned west onto the minor road 108 rather than continuing for 12 miles into Vilnius, as we knew Vilnius City Camping closes in mid-September. Sadly, the same applies to the Dutch-run Camping Harmonie Rudiskes, recommended to us by Malcolm Hill as a good base south-west of Vilnius (see www.harmonielitouwen.nl and see Malcolm Hill's article on our website.) Our goal is the all-year campsite we know near Trakai.

After 11 miles of country lane, through cow pastures, cabbage patches and cart horses, we met and crossed motorway E272/A2 at Maisiagala, continuing on 108 to Vievis. Here we crossed the railway, passed under motorway A1, then turned south on 107 towards Trakai, a historic town on a peninsula between 3 lakes, its red-turreted castle featuring on the cover of our LP guide to the Baltic Republics. Just after the hamlet of Brazuole, about 3 miles before Trakai, turn left and follow the signs for a mile or so to Camping Slenyje - a large site on the north shore of Lake Galve, looking across to Trakai Castle.

We had camped here 10 years ago, almost to the day, and it has certainly changed. A camping field with modern hook-up points is surrounded by various new or renovated buildings: conference rooms, holiday cabins and cottages, guest house, manor-hotel, restaurant, etc. The old facilities block is closed fir the winter, but workmen were putting the finishing touches to a small new toilet/shower/sauna suite as we arrived. The whole thing was probably an early 20th century estate for the gentry. See www.camptrakai.lt - and www.camping.lt for others in Lithuania.

The price was something of a shock - about twice as much as we'd been paying in Estonia and Latvia - and the warden insisted on cash (Lits or Euros) rather than credit cards. No wonder we are alone here! We were also alone in the spacious restaurant, which closed at 8 pm and which also refused credit cards. The pork steaks with creamy mushroom sauce were fine, accompanied by luke-warm boiled potatoes or rice (no chips or bread) and 'fresh vegetables' (meaning coleslaw).

7-11 October 2009   At Trakai, Lithuania   Slenyje Camping

Splendid, if damp, isolation and a chilling visit to the Paneriai Memorial

For the next 3 days overnight temperatures plummeted and the castle hovering across the lake disappeared behind a sheet of rain. Once the wind dropped, the view was shrouded in damp mist. Abandoning any plan to cycle into and around Trakai, we took advantage of the '6 nights for price of 5' to spend some time at our keyboards, with free use of WiFi in Reception, We updated the travel-log and caught up with emails, sending friends a piece about the Baltics. Also did some domestic chores, though not laundry: 'Machine Closed' the taciturn warden informed us.

On Saturday the weather was brighter, though bitterly cold. We drove 3 miles into Trakai, alongside a new cycle path for a mile or so, until it met the busier road from Vievis and disappeared! All car parks in or near the town are Pay & Display but at least there was space, with no height barrier. Being declared 'Bus' by the attendant, we paid 6 zl for an hour (3 times the rate for 'Car'). That hour was just long enough to find an ATM, argue fruitlessly with the po-faced woman in the PO who wouldn't change the single large note it had dispensed, then walk back along the lakeside as far as the footbridge to the restored Island Castle of 1400. An earlier Peninsula Castle is mostly in ruins.

We'd seen the historic sights of Trakai by bicycle 10 years ago, as well as taking a bus into the capital and a train from there to the Paneriai Forest, just one stop south-west of Vilnius (see *** Oct 1999). Now we wanted to revisit the memorials at Paneriai: the site where over 100,000 people were murdered, buried and burnt by the Germans in 1941-44 (mainly Jewish, along with Russian PoW's, Poles, Catholic priests and other victims of various occupations and nationalities).

Hidden away as it is, deep in the woods, it proved difficult to find the Paneriai Memorial site by road. We took E28/A16 east from Trakai, turning off to the right a few miles before reaching Vilnius and homing in on its address 'Agrastu Gatve' with the aid of our struggling unmapped SatNav, despite a few wrong turns leading to impassable woodland tracks or railway lines. It's about 20 miles from Trakai, less than 7 miles from Vilnius, and not signposted until you're almost upon it.

Meeting the railway at tiny Paneriai station, we remembered alighting here a decade ago, clambering across the rails and heading down the path, wondering if we'd ever find a train back. Now there's a new footbridge over the tracks but little else has changed. Turning left we drove a mile to the large empty car park, at the end of the lane beyond a few houses and Soviet-era flats, wondering who could live among these ghosts. At the Paneriai Memorial entrance, brightly painted pebbles spelt out the Lithuanian word 'ATMINK' (meaning REMEMBER!)

It was hauntingly cold, still and eerie as we walked round the site of the burial pits and trenches and the memorials of different faiths and nationalities. Many inscriptions were in Russian from the Soviet era, with more recent plaques in Hebrew and Lithuanian (some new since our last visit). 'Fascist Terror' and 'Hitler's Occupation' (a double entendre there) were oft-repeated phrases. A small memorial museum has been added, open from June to September. Outside, it displayed a map and information boards in Lithuanian and English, listing and attempting to describe the unbelievable with facts and evocative poems. See the Killing Grounds of Paneriei article on this website for the full text, copied from our photographs.

As we walked slowly through the still forest, empty but for us and a few thousand ghosts, clambering around the edge of pits and trenches, we remembered - but could not imagine - that every one of the 100,000 people murdered here was killed with a single bullet to the back of their heads, falling forward from where they stood on the edge of one of the pits before us. Later victims exhumed the bodies, burnt them and pulverised the bones. No-one can possible imagine such horror, but this is where it happened to ordinary people, like you and me. These were people of the 'wrong' ethnicity; people who thought and questioned. Killed cold-bloodedly, systematically and individually by fellow human beings, while others waited nearby for their life to abruptly end.

Some kind of official delegation had made a recent visit. The many fresh wreaths and flowers at the monuments included those from the Lithuanian President and from the German Ambassador. What could they have said? What secret thoughts? Most poignant were the lines of now-extinguished night-lights laid on the ground to form a Star of David. Examining the tin containing one, it was labelled 'Memorial Candle - Bougie Memoriale - Kosher' beneath a picture of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall and some words in Hebrew. Too much. Chilled to the bone, we returned to the car park to heat up some soup, just as a young school party arrived for a noisy visit.

Back on E28/A16, we drove into Vilnius and through the centre, turning right on meeting the Neris River. The old centre was busy with traffic and trolley buses, locals and tourists, visiting the sights of the Baroque capital which we'd seen before. (More at www.vilnius-tourism.lt).

Today we crossed to the north bank and turned west along it, through a brand new city of high-rise offices and shopping malls. The 3-storey Panorama mall had free outdoor parking for buses (and for cars run on LPG, banned from its underground car park). Inside was a supermarket, a range of glossy shops and some expensive places to eat, with a group of young ladies line-dancing in the central foyer to entertain the well-heeled of Vilnius! We did buy a couple of English books in the Pegasus book store, which stocked set texts for the university as well as novels.

Returning to Trakai after regaining the A16, we'd driven a total of 68 miles, experiencing something of the brutal horrors of the past and the aspirations and challenges of the new united Europe.

12 October 2009   115 miles   Trakai, Lithuania to Suwalki, Poland   Swiss Bar TIR Parking   10 zloty

Via Marijampole and along the TIR route into Poland

On a damp grey Monday morning we drove to Trakai and turned west on A16/E28, past an Iki supermarket/fuel station. Parking here was easier than at the busy Maxima in the town itself. The 2-lane road rolled along with a much better surface than highways in Latvia.

After 44 miles, at Birstonas village, there was just one mile of dual carriageway through the Nemunas Crook Regional Park, tucked in a loop of the river. The Nemunas delta at the Curonian Spit provides a very important nesting ground for storks and other birds. We crossed the river 3 miles later in Prienai, continuing west on A16.

Marijampole (at 75 miles) is a busy industrial town of smoking chimneys, less than 25 miles from the Polish border on a main transit route. No 'tourist objects' or campsites here! We parked in a side street by a Maxima supermarket to spend our last Lithuanian coinage, giving the small change to a vagrant at the entrance – the first begging we'd seen since Bulgaria. Much of the actual car park was taken up with vehicle accessory and repair places, while the yard behind was full of used cars, fresh off the Autobahns of Germany (on transporters with Russian graphics). The ring road skirting Marijampole and leading south for the border was badly signed and we eventually left on the old A5, joining the E67 at Kalvarija 14 miles later.

The new EU-funded road has only 2 lanes, quite inadequate for the number of international trucks using it, and we shared our lane with road works and a horse-drawn cart loaded with manure. The area is still high (nearly 500 ft) but much less forested, with open fields and cattle. Approaching the border there were several filling stations. The automated Neste pumps (cheaper than the others, with no staff to pay) wouldn't accept our foreign credit card: a situation we'd had in Finland. Most annoying. We did buy fuel at a new TIR park, where we ate our lunch, at 99 miles.

A mile later, following the grooves that the heavy trucks had already worn in the new road, we reached the Lithuanian frontier post (abandoned), then the Polish control checkpoint, which waved us through. A few cabins offered currency exchange and 'Winiety' (vignettes, the pan-European word for road toll stickers). We changed some notes for Zloty (pronounced Zwoty, worth abut 4.5 to the pound sterling) and checked out 'Winiety', pleased that only HGVs and commercial buses, etc, need one - not private vehicles. With our clocks put back one hour (onto Central European Time) and the mobile phones tuned to Poland, we had left the Baltics after almost a month and 920 miles. Welcome to Poland at the border village of Budzisko.

Along E67/road 8 we passed several TIR parks offering a place for the night, fuel, a restaurant, showers, even free WiFi. Some now include a motorhome emblem or the word 'Camping' on their sign. None has ever refused us a night, for a small parking fee, though hook-ups are not generally available.

After 13 Polish miles on the smooth 2-lane road, very busy with trucks and still wet from recent rain, we came to a long traffic jam on our side, with nothing coming through towards us. A young Pole in the GB-registered car in front was proudly showing the guy in front of him the right-hand steering wheel. Gradually, cars managed to leave the queue, turning round and down a side lane – a manoeuvre neither we nor the line of lorries could make.

The delay lasted for an hour, the queue almost 2 miles long. When we finally filtered through past the cause, we were shocked to see an articulated lorry on its side on a bend, surrounded by police, and a burnt-out pulverised car being taken away on a breakdown truck. It was sickening to imagine the crash.

Less than a mile later we came to a TIR park we'd used 3 years ago, at the Swiss Bar Club on the left: a welcome refuge from the continuing hold-up. We paid 10 zloty to a roughly-dressed man who banged on our door and who, we hoped, was also the night watchman. The 'Club' has a very cosy bar/restaurant, complete with log fire and pool table, excellent toilets and free WiFi, which reached our motorhome parked in the furthest corner. Good clean showers are available for an extra charge and euros, zloty or credit cards are all accepted.

Towards evening we did a little writing, listening to BBC radio 4 (another benefit of WiFi internet), though the signal wouldn't support Voipwise calls. As the temperature dropped, we moved across to the Club to watch the log fire, eating pork chops with cheese & mushroom sauce and a pile of super-fresh hot chips. Excellent food – we were only sorry that the hot apple pie & ice cream was sold out.

The downside of TIR parks (like motorway services) can be the noise of engines, coming and going at all hours. Separate breakdown trucks brought the cab and trailer from the doomed lorry to park alongside us, and a fresh fruit carrier kept his diesel-engine-powered fridge running all night.

(to be continued with our journey south through Poland)