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The early morning sunlight woke me up again and from about 6 o’clock I semi-dozed, finding it hard to get back to sleep, and just turned around to cuddle up again … with Jasper … yep, single beds … despite having pushed the beds together we can’t cuddle up, and anyway, it’s too hot and sticky. After a slow start and breakfast downstairs, we walked into town, along the lake. Yachts, more like big dinghies really, moored along the shore and in some places there were some signs of activity, people having their breakfast, walking back and forth with towels and toilet bags, or fiddling around on the boats. On our right, in the gardens, some entrepreneurial spirits had provided portaloos and washing facilities, all very basic, but presumably for a charge. The atmosphere was rather like a holiday camp. It’s not too hard to imagine how in the recent past this would have been the scene for a Party-organised youth camp. We cut into town across the main square and headed for the small tourist information office, and got some info about local walks, where to hire bikes if we want to, and options for boat trips along the connected lakes. As it was too late for a “proper” boat trip we quickly decided to stay an extra day here, i.e. to do a boat trip tomorrow, and today to go for a walk or bike ride to nearby Łuknajno and it’s lake, only a couple of kilometres away, a spot for spotting lots of swans (home of one of Europe’s largest remaining colonies of wild swans, if I understood correctly). Our Rough Guide wrote about the spectacle of seeing the many swans and the lake covered in their down.

We carried on to the riverfront and bought tickets for a boat ride for tomorrow, and then went for a kawa (coffee) at a riverfront café. I was quite keen to rent a bike and go cycling for the rest of the day, to Lukajno, but Ness was still a little wary, after the Vietnam experience, and so we settled on the plan for Ness to walk while I would rent a bike and we’d just head for the same place and somehow track each other.

Tasty lunch at Łuknajno
Working off lunch!

We walked to the riverfront hotel where we could rent a bike for me, and Ness set off on the walk. The idea was that I would catch up later. I picked a bike which at first looked big enough but I soon found out I had been too hasty, the handlebars were too low, and the saddle was an uncomfortable sports type, but by then I was already well on my way, and I don’t think they had a bigger bike anyway. I cycled back to our hotel first, along the lakefront, and booked us in for an extra night, picked up the binoculars (recommended by the lady at tourist info), sun-tan lotion, hat, bought some water, and returned back to the centre of town and then turned right. After carefully checking the map, and a phone call from Ness to say she had taken the gravel road at a junction, I turned off from the main road onto a smaller path and cycled along the outskirts of Mikołajki and through some fields. After a while I was surprised I hadn’t caught up with Ness yet but just carried on, and on, and soon I was cycling just through very open fields. It was hard work in the 30°C-plus heat, and now began to pay the price for not getting the right size bike, but still felt better for doing something active, could feel my legs and heart working, and just felt pretty good.

It carried on like this for quite some time, and still I didn’t see Ness. We spoke a couple of times on the phone. Ness had already reached Lukajno, and had gone to look at the lake with the swans, and then gone back to farm where there was a café/restaurant for another drink, and was happy waiting for me, while I just got hotter and really started to feel the exercise and heat, and was enjoying the scenery all around – fields, a few farm buildings, and off to my right in the distance I could see the water and some yachts, so assumed, at first, that I had still got the main lake in view, and later that it was Lukajno lake and that somehow I had ended up to the north of it and was making my way all around it. I ended up at a road that just stopped at a mobile telephone mast where there was a sweaty worker surrounded by lots of flies. I figured I had better retrace my steps. On the way back I was harassed by lots of flies, attracted by my sweat no doubt, and found it pretty tough going.

Finally I spotted the road that I should have been on and found a little track through the fields that connected to it – phew! This took me on the gravel road, with lines of trees on either side providing shade, not continuously but enough from time to time, with rolling fields on either side, grain, wheat, and with some colourful red poppies and blue flowers of some kind. Finally I reached Lukajno. Like Ness had already said, it was just a collection of a few farm buildings, or rather a single large farm, a “hoeve”, which now had a rustic restaurant, with a small terrace. I found Ness already sat there, parked the bike and plonked myself on the terrace, totally puffed (although I had walked some parts of the last path as it was too sandy to easily cycle on). We had a nice long relaxed lunch, tasty local fish – I had the fried eel, a chunk of a big fat one, really tasty with delicious Polish fried potatoes, and a cool drink and a beer. There were only a few other customers, and one or two cyclists who also came this way. The birds were twittering in the trees. Might sound trite now but it was just a perfect summer afternoon spot, and we played a couple of games of gin-rummy. Ness had already been to have a look at the lake but rather than the expected masses of swans had only seen a few, so I wasn’t bothered about going to it and we just made our way back after lunch. I cycled some parts, and then waited for Ness to catch up, and just walked the last bit together.

Back at the hotel we had showers and had a kip, and then went out again around 7pm. I cycled ahead and dropped the bike off at the place I had rented it from. Ness caught up and we found a little restaurant on the main square where we had simple pizzas and a couple of beers. It was Italy vs. Germany on television, the Italian owner spoke French with us and offered us some ice creams on the house. There was a relaxed summer mood in town, and just a few people around and on the café terraces, no-one was in a hurry. It felt more Mediterranean than Northern Europe. We sauntered back to our hotel. Even this late in the day there were still some remnants of daylight left in the sky.

No idea! Something along the lake
Summer buzz at Mikołajki

We had our boat trip on the lakes day out today, and had a slightly earlier start to make sure we got there on time. We walked into town, past the small yachts where people were having breakfast or getting dressed and ready, or still sleeping. Quite a few had chosen to sleep on the deck, or even just on the pavement, one guy in a sleeping bag. People walked around with towels and toilet bags, or brushing their teeth and shaving, making use of the water taps from the houses backing onto the river/lake. We bought some of the nice yellow-red cherries from a vendor, and at the main square bought water and a sausage from Super Sam, the local mini-market. I always find places like that colourful and full of info about …erm… local things. Just seeing local brands and products you can’t recognise, as well as familiar ones, and fresh local produce. They give you a bit of an insight into domestic local life rather than the world of terrace cafés.

We went and found our boat and got a nice little table on the sun deck. More people gradually arrived, a mixture of Germans and Poles and not a different nationality noticeable. We were the odd ones out here – great! The boat trip went first out onto the big lake Sniardwy, making a loop over the flat calm mirror-like waters and then entered a side lake, a passage which led round curves and bends and up to a set of locks connecting with the smaller lake Beldany behind, and then on to the little town of Ruciane-Nida. Along the way passed many Polish boaters, usually a group of teenagers or slightly older, who had hired a yacht together. None of the snooty yachtie scene here, just uncomplicated fun and mucking about on the water. On a boat off to our left two girls were flashing their boobs at us – we passed them again later on, much closer this time, as they lifted their bikinis again for our benefit. On a similar theme, a couple of Polish lads on a different boat mooned us, not quite such a nice sight.

There were many informal mooring spots along the shores where yachts had just tied up and were having a bite on board or among the trees, some boats were tucked between the reeds along the shore. A real summer atmosphere. Lots of nooks and crannies everywhere, people just enjoying the lazy summer. We met up with another boat which took a load of passengers from ours back to Mikołajki while we continued on the longer trip to the locks. On board our “guide” delivered his spiel in Polish and German, and then tried a good sell on vodka and lacy cloths. I popped downstairs to get a coffee, we read our books, I scribbled a bit in my diary, and we just sat on the deck enjoying the sunshine. At the locks there was a large group of yachts with their masts dropped.

We reached Ruciane-Nida around half past twelve and got off to have some lunch. There was nothing else to do around here, and a lazy lunch had been part of our plan anyway, so we enjoyed a tasty salad (square plates!) and a cold beer, followed by a vodka and a game of gin-rummy, and then it was time to get back on the boat. Being sufficiently “German” secured us the same little table on the way back. There was also a group of playful school kids but they got off somewhere along the way and the rest of the boat trip was as calm as this morning.

We got back to Mikołajki around 4 o’clock, feeling very sun-baked and totally chilled. We grabbed a coffee and a waffle with fruit and cream and strolled back to our hotel. Later we came back out and did a little “crawl” of the beer tents in the back gardens, which was much more fun than the proper bars and restaurants. At each we had at least a beer or a vodka. It was very quiet, very empty. Strangely, as it is high season and there are people about on the boats, but there were only ever just another couple of people in each bar, at most. After a most successful little crawl we headed back to the hotel in high spirits, had another drink – coffee and vodka – on the terrace, and spoke with two of the older Germans who were both pretty tipsy. “Ja, ve like coming here. You know, zis used to belong to us!”

The improbably massive baroque church at the tiny village of Święta Lipka, with its weird and wonderful organ inside
Storks nesting on top of the lamp posts, a common sight across this part of Poland (for how much longer?)

Not surprisingly, I woke with a rather fuzzy head, but felt much better after a shower and a Polish breakfast (cucumber, tomato, cheese, etc.) We left Mikołajki with the plan to visit Wilczy Szaniec (the Wolf’s Lair, Wolfsschanze), Hitler’s military headquarters, a huge complex of bunkers from which the German eastward advance was planned. This lay just a little to the north from here, and we had then planned to carry on into Lithuania today. Well, that was the plan at any rate… The scenery on the way to Kętrzyn was more of the same, the gentle green rural Polish countryside.

At Kętrzyn we tried to find tourist info and in making a hurried u-turn in a side street I misjudged the height of the kerb and ended up tearing out the entire mud-flap on Eddie’s right front tyre. I was angry with myself for the stupid mistake. Nothing for it but to get it fixed now, as we still had a long journey ahead of us, and I was all the angrier with myself for costing us unnecessary time and money. We found tourist info, parked (without hitting anything else!) and got directions to the Wolf’s Lair – not for today now – and asked about a local Volkswagen garage. Unsuccessfully, but thanks to the booklet in the car we dug up a contact number for Volkswagen and soon had the address of our nearest Volkswagen garage, in Olsztyn, about 80km from here.

Ness took over driving – we both agreed that I was having a bit of a dippy day – and we got to the garage at Olsztyn at about midday. Olsztyn itself looked like a very ordinary town from what we saw. Fortunately the garage was able to quickly, easily and relatively cheaply (€200) carry out the repairs, and I was just grateful that we still in the area of “western” European influence, with all the infrastructure and service centres at hand. We took seats in the waiting area, read and dozed, and after a little over an hour we were on our way again. We had altered our plans now to spend the night at Kętrzyn instead. On the way out of Olsztyn we couldn’t resist driving into the Drive-in McDonald’s, to grab a quick bite for on the go, and again my dippiness caused us to drive on without having received our full order, my quarter-pounder was missing (they said to park and they’d bring it over but that just wasn’t getting through to me!)

About an hour later we were back in Kętrzyn, ready to start again. We decided to leave Wolf’s Lair until tomorrow. As we were getting close to Kętrzyn I spotted a bit in our Rough Guide about a place called Święta Lipka and we made a brief detour, which proved to be very worthwhile. We pottered along a tiny country road through the fields and forests, and then we suddenly emerged into the tiny village of Święta Lipka, with a massive baroque church on our left. It was an impressive sight, and totally unexpected for such a small and out of the way village. Quite a few German motor-homes here. We have seen quite a few of these now.

The church itself was a fantastic example of high baroque, with its twin towers, richly decorated – best see the pics. In front of the very ornate gate workmen were working away on the new cobbled/paved street, laying a fish-scale pattern. We went and found a café, a smart restaurant at the top of the square, along the road, and had a drink on the small patio, a perfect spot from which to admire the church. Then we went and had a look inside, perfectly timed as the organ was just playing. The church felt smaller on the inside, probably due to the rich and lavish decorations. Inside there was a congregation, and a other tourists. The organ, along the front (or rear?) wall, i.e. “above” the entrance, at the non-altar side, was another baroque example. Lots of moving parts, saints and angels that moved around, bowed, etc. The effect they intended was probably one of wonder and beauty, but it just made think of “kermis” (fayre?) and I had trouble suppressing my laughter. Still, it was pretty impressive and beautiful in its own way. After the organ, the congregation sang several hymns, with full voices, singing loudly and confidently, a lovely sound filling the small church.

Next we drove on and covered the short distance to Kętrzyn through the Polish fields, with more stork nests here and there. We twice passed (due to stops) a group of five cycling women, the second one from the front displaying a fine pair as she was bent over her steering wheel. At Kętrzyn we drove around to find the hotel/inn by the castle gate, recommended in our Rough Guide. It was a little find, a charming restaurant/café, right next to an old brick medieval gate/building, with a pleasant shady trees patio in front, and a good value room upstairs. Just what we were after. We had a couple of beers on the patio while our room was being prepared, dumped our stuff and later came back down to have dinner on the patio. Worked out quite nicely in the end.

Sorry Eddie!

Wolfsschanze, the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's eerie bunkers

We slept very well in our cosy room at the inn. It seems we were the only guests. Only one table had been set for breakfast, and we were attended by a young man who was a relative, either son or nephew, couldn’t work out, of the owner, and who was studying in Gdańsk. The inn had that German, central European “woodland” atmosphere, with lots of wood, panels and carvings, and lace and woven materials. You could just imagine a convivial meal here, especially around the large square table for eight placed in the centre of room.

We headed out of Kętrzyn, on the small road north-east, through fields of grain and some settlements consisting of a couple of farmhouses, with stork nests and old wooden farm buildings, and then into the woodlands.

After a short drive we reached the Wolf’s Lair, Wolfsschanze, in the middle of the forest. There was a small touristic setup, dating back to earlier, pre-EU, times. Guides were on offer, offering their services, but we played the “we’re English” card (the guides only spoke Polish or German) as we preferred to go round by ourselves. With the aid of a picture I took of the big map on a board at the start, by the car park – which attracted some grumbling from some old folk sat around. Lots of flies in the air, more than anywhere else I can recall.

The whole thing is targeted at Polish and German tourists, although there were explanations in English too. So, we did our own tour, wandering through the forest along the paths, with the massive old bunkers appearing at various points. With the aid of the picture of the map we identified the various bunkers, all the Nazi big names, Göring, etc. and of course Hitler himself. There was also a lot of info about the famous failed bomb plot, with Colonel Von Stauffenberg as the main protagonist. Detailed plans showed who stood where, and where the briefcase was placed. Lots of old black & white pictures, including one of Hitler and Mussolini peering into the bunker after the assassination attempt, on the same (or next) day.

The presence of the flies made it difficult to just wander round in quiet. Instead we were hurried along, aware that the faster we walked, the more we sweated, and the more we attracted bugs with our sweat. If you ignored the flies it would have been quite a strange atmosphere, and if you had been here in, say, autumn or winter, it would have been very eerie no doubt. Was it just my over-active imagination, but I somehow felt that these bunkers were leading down to deep dark forbidden places, and in fact the flies even added to this sense of “evil” that hung about the place. Anyway, odd atmosphere and a bunch of massive lumps of concrete, ripped and broken apart, with twisted steel rods sticking out. We wandered round the area, took a look at the scale model that showed how it would have looked at its peak, in use. On our way out we started running into large groups of visitors, Polish, Germans, schoolkids. It was definitely a worthwhile sidetrip.

We picked up the road to Giżycko, and Ness did the long drive to the town of Augustów, heading for Lithuania, aka “Twenty-eight”. It was a beautiful drive through green rural Polish countryside, just cruising along and heading for border country. Outside the car it was still hot, 30°C plus, but we had the air-con on, or wind through the open windows, and just watched the green grain fields, the occasional stork nests, the wooden farm houses, the old orange Zuk vans that trundled along. Most of the traffic consists of second-hand German cars, Volkswagens and a lot of Audis, on their second lease of life in the east. Past Augustów we were in border country, pine trees but not much else. The road quality varied, from smooth new EU-funded tarmac on some stretches, to other bits which had not yet had the treatment or were deemed sufficient for traffic as long as you didn’t mind the odd bump or pothole.

We stopped for petrol on the Polish side. A pair of uncommunicative blank-looking Slavs, Tweedledeeski and Tweedledumski, at a smart Statoil station set among the pines. And then we reached the Lithuanian border, not so different from the Polish/German border, except this one was a little country road into the middle of nowhere (i.e. one of the main roads), the borderguards sat side by side in the same building, there was a feeling of some neglect and lack of purpose – borders in the EU are now rather artificial constructs. But at least there was a proper country sign proclaiming “Lietuva Respublika” and then we had officially entered our next country. The scenery didn’t look so different from that on the Polish side at first, but there was something markedly different – the roads were poor, I think that wasn’t so different maybe, but the countryside felt more traditionally rural, wooden farm houses, and the language was totally different and unintelligible.

Our first time in a former Soviet republic, another little “milestone” on our travels. What else? After the initial border country, which always feels a little odd and different, we drove through a (CAN’T DECIPHER WORD – SEE P.38) landscape. My imagination probably, but it felt as if there was a more Scandinavian atmosphere here (yes, rubbish – see later days). Anyway, we headed for the small town of Druskininkai, not too far into Lithuania, as a convenient base for a day or two in or near the national park in this region. The alternative was a tiny little village within the park itself. Rough Guide suggested there was very little by way of accommodation.

We had no idea that Druskininkai was actually a spa town until we got there. “Drus” was very different. Entering it, you hardly noticed there was a town here at all, just very wide roads and lots and lots of trees everywhere, with buildings set discreetly among them. Yes, there was a pretty red-brick church but this too was surrounded by trees. The town felt more like a park. A tidy landscaped lake was off to one side, with a tall fountain, a tall jet of water rather. A few cars trundled along, a few pedestrians strolled around, some with bath towels. On our way into town we drove through the wide avenues with pine trees and pulled up at a modern building with tourist info. Shut today – yesterday was a national public holiday in Lithuania and many places have made the “bridge” to the weekend, but luckily a man, caretaker?, turned up just when we were there and let us in so we could pick up some leaflets and he very helpfully dug out a guide to Druskininkai in English, listing all the hotels and facilities. Using this we drove around and tried several hotels, but after 4 or 5 had told us “sorry, full” we were about to give up and head on. The last one we tried was the rather pricey-looking Druskininkai hotel, a very smart modern block, with wood-effect cladding and lots of glass-encased balconies reflecting the woods in the …erm… glass. Very pleasantly surprised – yes, they had availability, and at €186 for a two-night all-inclusive package (1 x supper, 2 x breakfast, 2 x spa treatments per day, free internet, etc.) it was a good deal.

Na zdrowie!

Not much later we were installed in our modern air-con large smart room, Eddie was safely parked in the car-park. This did feel very Scandinavian now, and the whole atmosphere of Drus was like this, green, laid-back, space and light and woods, but on our drive through in search of a hotel we had seen a little glimpse of what used to be here, and is now rapidly disappearing, the former Soviet spa resort, with wooden villas and guesthouses, now either being revamped in some cases, or still surrounded by fencing, and slowly left to crumble until a western investor snaps it up. With a bit of imagination you can picture the scene as Soviets would be here in groups on “doctors orders” (as long as you could wangle a sick note to be sent here for the cures), with an atmosphere of a regimented pleasure resort. Treatments and meals at set times, joint activities and no doubt music and dancing too. But now it’s just a spa resort – book into a hotel and spend a few days unwinding.

After dumping our stuff we went out for a walk around town, i.e. among the trees along the paths and wide pavements. Round the corner we found a supermarket and bought some water, and noticed “international” being spoken – a couple of young Aussies. Apparently there is an international orienteering championship taking place here, which explains, together with the public holiday, why the hotels are so full. But if the hotels are so full, where are all the people? Only a few can be seen out on the streets, so they must be elsewhere. Across the road we went for a drink and snack (herring!) at a guesthouse-cum-bar/café by a wide pedestrian avenue among the trees. The guesthouse is in a former wooden villa with a big veranda with tables, and a very Polish/Russian-looking family turned up to provide some couleur locale. At our hotel we went for a “Turkish bath”, which was just a steambath and sauna plus Jacuzzis. We shared it with a Lithuanian (?) couple and sweated it all out, then cooled down in the Jacuzzis, and afterwards felt totally relaxed. We took our free dinner at the hotel that evening, a very simple but tasty meal with a glass of bubbly and ice-cream, followed by a night-cap across the road at the terrace café. An excellent find.

Ness talking with Dominic Littlewood, presenter of the BBC Holiday programme
I think Stef's enjoying the mud bath, look at that big grin!

Yesterday we had made bookings at the spa for two treatments today and two more tomorrow. With no hurry before our first session at 12.30, we spent a lovely lazy morning in bed and in our room, also making use of the fast internet connection to upload lots of pictures. Then we walked through the quiet empty town and the leafy pedestrian avenues to the spa complex. It was hot, 30°C or thereabouts, and the heat and laid-back atmosphere zapped any energy, very pleasantly so.

At the spa, we were a little early and met a film crew. Well, a guy with a large tripod and an oversized handycam, and a “soundman”. We heard them speak in English and struck up a conversation, and asked if they were filming for Michael Palin? It turned out that the short stocky bald man we were speaking with was Dominic Littlewood, a presenter for the BBC Holiday programme! We took some pictures of them shooting and then went inside for our sessions. (Note: months later, back in the UK, we saw the programme they had filmed – they had done a nice job of it, switching between moody black and white footage with ponderous music to symbolise the communist era to colour footage to represent the modern European outlook – of course it was nothing like the reality of Lithuania we saw ourselves!)

The spa complex was smart, modern, clean and bright, and smelled fresh. We had to go along one of the two corridors along the outside to find our cubicles, behind which there were sectioned off baths, one per person. Ness and I were next to each other, and were attended by the same lady, who looked like she meant business. The first bath was a mineral/herb bath, nothing very unusual, just a nice soak in the local mineral-rich water. I had to undress and just get in and lie back, that was all, very relaxing. Then the bath lady told us time was up, we got out and dried off, and met again in the corridor. The next session was at 1.30 so we just stayed at the spa. First we had a cupful of the salty and not very nice water to drink, and then plonked on some of the very comfortable lazy chairs and footstools in the quiet relaxation room off to one side. I read for a few minutes and quickly drifted off to sleep. Then the second bath. Again we found our numbered cubicles, same procedure as before, strip and get into the bath… full of dark-brown lumpy mud! My first mud-bath ever. I had a lovely 15-20 minutes soaking in the warm mud, relaxing even more, if that was possible, and then had a thorough shower to wash all the mud and lumpy bits off.

After all this relaxing we both needed to walk a little and went for a stroll around town, and headed for the lake and there went for a drink and bite of lunch, of typically Lithuanian potato pancakes, at a café. Groups of students (?) with various country flags were heading back in various directions. In the background we could hear an award ceremony taking place in English, and across the lake we could see some people running through the woods. After this we went to the supermarket to buy things and then returned to our hotel. Looking at the supermarket you could hardly tell you were anywhere “different” – different brands and a better selection of vodkas, but the format was the same overall.

The oddest thing about Druskininkai is this peaceful atmosphere and feeling there’s hardly a town at all here, just leafy lanes. Cafés are set well back from the road and you really have to spot them, among the trees. Well, not the one across the road from our hotel, which is were we went for a cheap meal. We got poor service though, wrong wine, etc. but it was still cheap so that was ok. A super day, maybe I haven’t done it justice in the clumsy write-up, but the relaxed feeling was superb, partly the spa baths, and partly just the place itself. The couple in the room above us were bonking non-stop, and she was a loud moaner to boot. Ah well, bit of a turn-on in a way, and still managed to drift off to sleep quite easily anyway. Oh, I forgot – back at the hotel we had another Turkish bath, all to ourselves this time.

Relaxing surroundings
Couple of local of musicians

Shouldn’t take too long to cover today … basically, more of the same as yesterday. Another lazy morning, woke up to the sounds of bonking and moaning above us, and we went to the spa for 11.30 for our first bath. Same lady as yesterday morning, slightly different bath – the same mineral water but with the addition of a jug of dark liquid, and … soak.

We had more time between baths this time so instead of staying in the quiet room we went for a drink at a café, on the veranda of an old wooden building, one of the former hotels/guesthouses from bygone days (peeking inside was revealing – the remaining furniture and wall arrangements were enough to give you a good picture of the communal, communist, atmosphere that must have reigned). We played gin rummy on the veranda, returned briefly to the hotel and came out again later on, for session number two, an underwater massage. I had to keep swimming trunks on this time. The treatment basically consisted of being massaged with a very high-powered water jet while lying in the bath. The woman manipulating the hose worked her way up and down your legs, arms, back and front.

Again, I felt very relaxed after all this, but the novelty from yesterday had already worn off a little. After the second bath we wandered back along the promenade by the river, passing an elderly couple of buskers, accordion player and fiddle. A bit further along the park-like surroundings we had a drink at the smart Colonnade café, à la Orangerie. And back to the hotel. In the evening we went out to Nostalgija again for dinner – it stays light until very late, past ten o’clock. We were back in our room for an early-ish night and had another relaxing night’s sleep. Oh, and I uploaded more pictures.

One of many Lenins at Grutos Parkas

After a couple of very chilled and relaxing days, it was time to head further into Lithuania. Our rough plan is to go “up” the eastern sides of the three Baltic states, i.e. the “interior”, and come back “down” via the coast, roughly. On the way to Vilnius we took in two sights, making for a very worthwhile bus day, rather than just driving. The distances weren’t very great anyway, and the roads were passable, ranging from smooth modern tarmac to potholed lumpy affairs with dabs of asphalt splodged here and there where ad hoc “repairs” had been made. Some sections of road were being worked on, with little deviations onto gravel around them. Most, nearly all, roads were single carriageway, which was not a problem when there was hardly any traffic anyway but now and then we got stuck behind a slow lorry and it was difficult to overtake. Not that this is unique in this part of Lithuania, it was the same in northern Poland (and later also in Latvia and Estonia). Driving in this way took us through some very beautiful rural and forested parts of the country, and driving slowly enough to take in the sights, though it still felt to me as if it was just whizzing past us.

Back to the two sights then. The first one was the Grutos Parkas, a theme-sculpture-statue park of sorts, an initiative of a local mushroom magnate and millionaire businessman, who won the bid for this odd theme park. The park consisted of a large collection of now defunct Soviet-era statues, grouped together here under the pine trees and ranged round the pathways. Off the main road and along a small lane, passing through the small village, and to a car park by a lake fringed with reed beds. An old train carriage had been set up as a souvenirs and refreshments stall. A path led up to the park entrance, following a fence on whose right side had been fixed a multitude of articles, letters, documents, most in Lithuanian and Russian, but also some reproduced articles about the park in western magazines and newspapers. The other articles seemed to be Soviet-period komunikats, decrees, etc.

On the other side of the fence was a very large house, a millionaires mansion. It wasn’t very pretty, but it was big! Past a tall statue and into the forest of pine trees. There was a small collection of buildings, a cafeteria, another thing, etc. On our right a wooden open-air stage, with benches fashioned out of pine logs, and tunes from the Soviet period were playing over the loudspeakers, creating a strangely nostalgic atmosphere, despite all the “bad” things. I’m sure that this atmosphere has … blah, blah, blah … basically, some people will no doubt have fond memories of the period, of the good bits.

We wandered through the park, following the path that led round past statues, busts, heads, of Lenin, first and foremost, Stalin second, and a range of other Soviet “heros”, including significant pro-Soviet Lithuanians. A wooden shed along the route held a reconstructed Soviet library and school/office, with lots of posters and articles pasted on the walls about the rigged “elections” (when Lithuania “elected” to join the Soviet Union in …) The artwork had the angular Soviet style, with lots of red and straight lines. Another shed, further along, held many everyday articles and many illustrated childrens storybooks, and music from the Soviet period, including “polyushka” (the song Palin sang in Full Circle … what’s it called?) and others which sounded familiar.

We rounded off the visit with a drink and snack at the cafeteria. They had a separate special menu with “nostalgic” Soviet classics, from which I chose the sprats with black bread, onion and a tumbler of vodka. The sprats came presented on a plain little metal dish, and looked unappetising – which was the intended effect – and a tumbler half-full of rather plain vodka. In a corner four old boys sat reminiscing about the war, and I could hear snatches of their conversation, about lining up and firing. We left Grutos Parkas. By the car park, a Russian (or Polish?) family were picnicking by the lake, looking very …erm… Russian/Eastern European, with their bottles of beer, the women wearing headcloths, the men drying themselves off after a swim. Somehow the scene just looked “complete” – but impossible to point a camera at them and capture the moment.

We drove on and headed onto smaller roads into a little corner of traditional Lithuania, a small village called Marcynkonis, within the national park. Lots and lots of trees, birch, can’t place the others. We had originally planned to spend a night here but had instead gone for Druskininkai, and now were glad we had done so. There was nothing here. Well, no hotels at any rate. Very pretty and scenic though and definitely a traditional side of the country. Wooden houses, in various states of repair, but mostly looking pretty decent, wooden wayside crosses and shrines on poles, patches of cabbages and onions and other crops in small fields, little apple trees.

Informal berry vendors pop up along the road

We drove through the scattered village and tried to find the bog which our guide said was adjoining the national park. It would be good to get under the skin of a place like this, but lacking the language, or inclination to spend much time here, we made do with buying a bag of blueberries from an orange-haired local lady.

Glad we came to have a look, but we then carried on to Vilnius, a short drive of a couple of hours further up the main road. Through the city’s outer approaches, and we tried a few hotels on the north shore, across the river from the centre and old town, but no luck, they were all full. The traffic system drove us to distraction but eventually we found our way to tourist information on a side street in the old town, and booked into a guesthouse a short distance out of the town centre, the “e-guesthouse”. We made our way there and checked in. It was a “concept” hotel, consisting of small apartments in an office block, but was decent value for money, and very clean and crisp, although a shame we didn’t have air-con or any other niceties, but we did get free internet.

We had already got a glimpse of Vilnius and it looked like a very pleasant city with a medieval heart and perfect for a “city break”. Lots of turrets and church spires and red bricks. It was also clear that over the past several years the city has been undergoing a total make-over, still ongoing in parts, being transformed from the Soviet days, from a period of neglect and lack of maintenance, into a colourful and attractive tourist destination. We walked down into the old town, a good fifteen minute walk, and strolled around some of the centre’s old streets. The city’s Hanseatic past was very clear, with some lovely old medieval architecture, and a very relaxed ambience. Lots of young people around also indicated it is a university city. Along a wide street there was a central pedestrian bit with some open-air cafés. We found ourselves a table under one of the funnel-shaped sun-shades and a had a couple of drinks and some nosh, and afterwards went for a coffee, vodka, beer at a themed bar, rural Lithuanian, and caught a cab back to our hotel, where we had a final coffee and vodka.

Old church in Vilnius that hasn't had "the treatment" (yet...)
Eagerly awaiting the world music concert
Excellent world concert in Vilnius

After breakfast in the bright modern room downstairs, we walked into the city centre for a day of exploring the old town. The first “sight” we came to was the Baroque old Dominikonų bažnyčia (Dominican Church), the first of many churches throughout Vilnius. Like so many churches in town, it was a story of restoration now following damage during WWII and many years of neglect during the Soviet days. Religion was of course an unacceptable …erm… thing as far as the communists were concerned, and many churches were put to alternative uses during this period, for example as stores of some kind, or just left to gradually decay and crumble. We saw churches at various stages of this process, from crumbling walls sprouting weeds at the top (the one by the Gate at the end of our walk), to ones in semi-restoration or just with large patches of missing plaster and frescoes, to fully restored to their former glory. Together with the old town houses painted in various colours, yellow, green, blue, white, etc.

Vilnius looked like a lovely old medieval town, with a maze of streets in a typical medieval rather confused layout. Perfect for mooching around. We made our way to the grand Cathedral Square, at the northern end of the old town but in a way the centre of the new state. A large open square and a very Greek/Roman looking church with columns and a big frieze, and a separate bell-tower standing separate in front of the cathedral. Statues of former kings (?) stood in niches along the outside, looking unintentionally comical in their dramatic poses. A stage was being set up on the square, for a world music concert this evening, to coincide with the Unesco World Heritage convention which was taking place in Vilnius. Next to the cathedral a large building was being built with red bricks, a complete reconstruction of the former royal palace. An ambitious project, and it looked like it was progressing rapidly. It should be a real draw once finished, a centre-piece for tourism and cultural things. We climbed the small tree-covered hill behind the palace, up along the old cobbled path and up to the stocky tower at the top, which we also climbed, from where we had excellent views over the town, confirming the large number of church spires dotted all over the old town.

On the other, northern, side of the river we could see the new office towers being built, and old ugly Soviet-era brick tenements being pulled down. This will obviously become the new business district. We took the self-service funicular, which we operated ourselves, rather like a lift, downhill and walked round to the National Museum, a good excuse to get out of the heat! Inside we toured the galleries with a range of interesting exhibitions, including a modest art exhibition by a Lithuanian painter. Virtually all paintings on display were marked as “property of the artist” and hardly any were part of a collector’s collection. There was also a gallery with recreated traditional wooden peasant homes, log cabins with stoves in the corner, on which the old people and children slept as it was the warmest spot in the house, and galleries about Vilnius’ and Lithuania’s Hanseatic past, and more. An excellent museum.

We walked back round to Cathedral Square and went for another coffee at one of the cafés on the street leading into the centre of the old town. The modern “cyclos” were waiting for punters, with their very 21st century bike contraptions, with the plastic cab covered in advertising for Nokia. We continued to amble through the streets of the old town, in and out of some more churches, some more interesting than others. There was a Russian orthodox one, a gothic red brick one, etc. We also took a look inside the university quarter, walking from one courtyard to another. The university was all but abandoned now as it was out of term time, but it was clearly a grand venerable old institution. Along the triangular square in front of the town hall the square and cobbled streets were currently being restored and remodelled, another bit of Vilnius which is being groomed for the future. Past this and down to the southern gate, more churches and a chapel of sorts, but by now we were happy to call it a day. Off to the side of the gate was the “crumbliest” church, with families living in houses in poor repair directly around the church and next to it (like a courtyard). I was struck/touched by two begging people who sat under the gate, especially the old woman. When I gave her ten litas, her two sharp incredulous blue eyes looked up in surprise.

Earlier we had stopped for a lunchtime drink at a café along the brook/canal running through a part of town. Now we went and found a little courtyard at the back of a café on a side street, with locals rather than tourists. We had a couple of beers and played cards, switching to cribbage as I had won the marathon gin-rummy game (first to 10,000 points, we started it in Malaysia I think). Inside the café there was a lovely big bar with lots of wood and potential for atmosphere on a cold autumn evening, but now of course empty in favour of the terrace at the back. We had a bite to eat here and then walked back to Cathedral Square to watch the concert.

By now, 8pm-ish, the square and walls and steps surrounding it had filled with people, though there was still plenty of space in the crowd to easily move around and not feel crowded. On the stage we watched a series of world music acts, African, Cuban (they were the best ones), a fantasy Lithuanian band, a full-on French band with North African music and their own on-stage lighting which pulsed bright white lights. There was a festival atmosphere and some people dancing. Cameras relayed close-ups from the crowd onto a big screen at the back of the stage.

Finally we decided to head back and caught a cab back to the hotel. Across the road workmen were working on a construction site. I think they carried on working all through the night! Still managed to get some sleep despite all the heat and noise. We were both pretty knackered after a lot of walking and trudging around town. Excellent town, Vilnius.

Busker at Trakai

Woke up early again because of the bright early daylight and the noise from the construction site. Today we headed out of town to see some sights around Vilnius. First we drove to the village and castle of Trakai, as shown on the cover of our Rough Guide. Trakai is a bit of an icon for Lithuania, a typical postcard sight. We reached the village after a short drive through countryside, the same gentle and green rural and forested scenery we have seen quite a lot of by now. Trakai was a small village of mostly wooden traditional houses set near a lake. The village is still home to a small number of Karaim, a group of people descended from the Khazars, originally from an area between the Black and Caspian Seas and brought here in the fourteenth century by Vytautas, a Lithuanian king, to form his personal bodyguard. They practice some kind of Judaist religion, whether that means they’re actually Jewish or not I don’t know. Their numbers have now dwindled to around a hundred, which only represents about a dozen families.

The castle was set on a small island within the lake itself, looking very picturesque with the red bricks and green reed beds, and a few white sails in front of it. We crossed the walkway to the island and visited the castle. The main “keep” was small, a pretty red brick affair around a small cobbled courtyard with wooden walkways and stairs around the inside. We peeked inside the various rooms with exhibitions on the history of the castle, weapons and armoury and, in the rooms in the outer castle, a superb collection of ancient coins, glassware and porcelain.

Crossing back to the “mainland” I put some coins in the violinist’s basket, even though she was pretty bad, but the accordion player had wandered off somewhere, leaving his chair and stuff behind. We went for a drink and a “typical” local snack at one of the little lakeside cafés. The typical snack was a pasty/empanada, that was all, but it was supposed to be “Karaim” cooking. Besides the Karaim there are also other pockets of ethnic peoples spread throughout Lithuania and the other Baltic States, such as Tatars, another people from the Eurasian vastnesses. I spotted a display cabinet on them next to the one on Karaims in the castle.

The village itself consisted of colourful low-rise wooden houses in white, yellow, green, blue, pink and with a few apple trees or tiny vegetable plots (I think – it’s beginning to blur a little, a few days after the fact).

On the way out of Trakai and on to Kernavé I got clocked for speeding, on a quiet country road. The police car parked sneakily at the bottom of a hill and I had no chance of spotting the speed gun he had pointed at me. I was just worried about being breathalysed, as I had just had one (or two?) pints, and considered myself lucky to get away with just an on-the-spot fine of 200 litas (no receipt of course, and the fine first started at 500 litas, and was then reduced for “cash payment”).

We carried on, Ness taking over the driving a bit later. I guess I was having another “dippy” day. We drove to Kernavé, a village, where there were supposed to be some hills with fine views over the surrounding countryside but as we couldn’t find anything resembling a hill we just pushed on to the Centre of Europe. It was a pleasure to just cruise through the quiet Lithuanian countryside.

The Centre of Europe was a spot about 20km to the north of Vilnius. A team of French geographers had calculated the location of the spot. The location itself was just off the main road to Utena. (Coordinates: 54°54’ North, 25°19’East) There was a small monument in the shape of a compass, a pillar mounted with a crown, and a series of flagpoles flying the twenty-five EU flags – an oversight/inconsistency I think as this was not the geographic centre of the EU, but of the European continent so they ought to have included the flags of the many non-EU countries, from Iceland to Russia. The visitors centre didn’t count for much, just two log cabins, but there were no multi-lingual leaflets, no info-booths, etc. Determining the exact spot had depended mainly on establishing the exact boundaries of Europe. A panel explained the furthest points, from Spitsbergen, north of Norway, along the spine of the Urals, through the Bosphorus, somehow through the Med, but not including Malta for some reason, whereas the Canary Islands were included, etc. It still has me puzzled how the centre is determined though – a complicated maths puzzle. There was a tiny trickle of a handful of other visitors.

Heading for the Centre of Europe

We left and headed south, towards Vilnius, taking the small road that led to the Museum of the Centre of Europe, a sculpture garden. Along a very potholed road, dodging the very large holes and splashes of concrete repairs. It took us past some rural houses, very primitive despite their proximity to the capital, very basis wooden homes with private vegetable patches. Then we entered the forest of tall firs and pines, and just as we were about to turn round, as it was beginning to look very unlikely that we would find anything at the end of this little country lane, but then we reached the turn-off and walked up to the boot where a girl was sat reading a book.

By now it was past 4pm and it had started to rain quite steadily so, as the museum would shut at 5pm, we decided to leave it for now and return tomorrow. We continued following the road to Vilnius, which did improve significantly from this point on. After several nights of “old town” we fancied a change and so we headed for the large Akropolis shopping centre, i.e. a “mall”, for a night at the cinema. A large mega-mall with a large well laid-out car park. Inside, a smart shopping and entertainment complex with lots of young Lithuanians. It was quite pleasant to walk into this familiar environment, much as I hate to admit it. In the centre of the complex there was an ice-skating rink, surrounded by eateries looking into the lit-up rink. We found the cinema and picked Silent Hill (unfortunately Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t out yet and the other films didn’t appeal). A quick beer at one of the food court cafés, a bucket of pop-corn and we were all set. The film was a crap horror flick, shame as we were in the mood for some good cinema, ah well. Afterwards we had a pizza and a beer, an uncomplicated meal, and then returned to our e-guesthouse, getting very frustrated by the confusing road layout and one-way system in the process.

Open-air sculpture park, the Museum of the Centre of Europe
Tram trundling through Daugavpils, Latvia
Baltic buffet: black bread, herring, gherkins, berry juice, vodka, and we even have a Russian bear!

Our plan for today was to head up into Latvia’s eastern side, the little visited Latgale region, to spend a day or two in Latvia before heading up to Estonia. In the end we drove as far as the non-descript town of Rēzekne. The first stop was the Museum of the Centre of Europe, still in Lithuania, take two. We drove back up on the road through the forest. The town ends very quickly, no miles of urban sprawl, you just get into the pine/fir forest pretty quickly. The girl at the booth recognised us from yesterday. We started walking through the park, with the aid of a hand-drawn map. It was much more low-key, unambitious, unpolished than I had expect, or maybe just unsponsored. The paths were simple woodland paths, the panels very basic, the woodland very …erm… unlandscaped, just a nice patch of woodland. The sculptures, well, they too seemed rather lacking in my view. There were works by artists from around the world, the leaflet said, with a predominance of Lithuanian and US artists. The sculptures seemed rather dull, piles of rocks, some basic bronzes, etc. There were some more interesting ones too, near the main building with the restaurant and shop, which actually looked more like a large private house. In fact, the whole set-up is a private initiative by a Lithuanian sculptor (Gintaras Karosas), whose claim to fame is the largest sculpture made using TV sets… hmm… The large number of flies and bugs drove us through the park, rather than being able to enjoy the surroundings at our leisure. Still, it was a lovely fusion of nature and art, and done in a sympathetic “non-theme park” fashion. We had a coffee and wrote some cards and then returned to the car park, en passant a few of the more iconic sculptures in the park.

We continued north, back along the bad road but soon emerging onto the bigger road further on and then up to the border with Latvia. This was a lovely stretch of Lithuania, with views of the rural landscape, fields of grain, blue lupins, trees and forests, storks, little agricultural settlements, and wooden houses. Also plenty of dull white-brick Soviet apartment blocks, three or four storeys high – obviously they couldn’t build higher than this using their rather basic construction technique – it really did just look like bricks were just stacked and piled to the required height) Sometimes a few were just grouped together in the countryside without an obvious village or town anywhere nearby.

After a drive of a few hours we reached border country, another strangely empty sort of landscape, and then the border with Latvia. A glance at our passports, and a smiled but resolute rejection of my request for a picture, and then we entered the next country on our list, “piggy in the middle” Latvia, number 24. The Rough Guide didn’t say much about the eastern side of the country, apart from the fact that Latgale had for a long time been isolated from the rest of the country, culturally, politically, economically, and still had its very different own language or dialect, different ethnic make-up, etc. so it was interesting to have a look round before passing through. First we reached the rather dull and ordinary town of Daugavpils, not too far from the border. The intervening landscape had been more of the same, green, rolling, undulating gently. I imagine large parts of Russia would be exactly like this.

Daugavpils looked rather dreary, with lumpy roads and old trams and trains shuttling along. We almost drove around it before heading back into the centre to find cashpoint to withdraw Latvian currency. It felt rather poor, like a provincial back-of-beyond. Some nineteenth century buildings along the main street. On the whole, for the brief glimpse we had, it reminded me of Uruguay in a way. Our plan had been to spend the night at Aglona, a small Latgale village with a massive basilica, and the sort of spot where we might be able to get a feeling for this backwater province.

We followed the main road which was just a single carriageway with the occasional lumpy bit, and then onto a smaller road. This took us through some anonymous little groupings of the Soviet white brick apartment blocks, where people were sitting around rather purposelessly. Our foreign number plate and right-hand drive attracted stares, as usual. It was still hot and sunny outside. We drove onto a bad gravel section of road. Aglona was another twenty or thirty kilometres further on, so we decided to turn around and return to the main road. A bit further along we came to the proper junction to Aglona, along a tarmac road. Through more beautiful and scenic countryside and after a while we reached the little village. It straddled two lakes and consisted of a mixture of haphazardly placed wooden houses and barns as well as some ugly apartment blocks. Off to one side of the village, “dwarfing it” as the Rough Guide put it, was the basilica, a large (but not “massive”) white twin-towered church, with a large semi-circular area in front of it which had been created for Pope John Paul II’s visit. A radiating pattern of paths had been laid out, built using plain large concrete slabs. It was a curious juxtaposition of a small rural settlement/village and a significant church, along similar lines as had already seen at Święta Lipka in Poland previously. Another couple of daytrippers were mooching around, looking for an entrance into the church. We found one, round the side, and took a look inside where it was quite richly decorated. An older and a younger woman were sat separately, praying. For the rest it was empty. Another tale of neglect, abandonment, damage, etc. and now a hope of restoration to former glory.

We drove around the loosely organised streets of the village and found a small tourist info office, a small bureau at the back of the village hall. The man we met there spoke very good English and did his best to help us out with accommodation. No hotels, but he did recommend a guesthouse by the lake. The owner wasn’t around until later so we said we’d go for a drink and head there later. Instead we got in the car and drove there directly, and found it a biggish house along one of the narrow village lanes with apple trees and little cabbage and onion plots, and the odd villager slowly cycling along. It did look fine, and had we not been in such a hurry I think it would have made a nice stay, although it was just a room in someone’s I think. As it was, and since we had plenty of time and daylight left, we opted to continue north, to make a dent in the drive up to Estonia for the following day.

On the main road again and on up to Rēzekne, a larger town, but without any “sights” per se, just a convenient pitstop. We reached it by late afternoon. It would have been too far to continue up into Estonia, and I would have felt like a bit of a cheat if we didn’t spend at least one night in Latvia. Rēzekne was, as Rough Guide described, dominated by one long central street at the centre of which was a bland roundabout. On either side were some plain apartment blocks, some trees, and on the whole not very much at all. We wouldn’t have stopped here out of choice, but had to, and managed to find a very pleasant hotel at the southern end of town. It looked very new and very out of place from the rest of the town. Obviously a brand new development and done very stylishly in smart white. Yes, they had a room free. Just by a little brook/canal and a traffic junction. We had a nice bright “very Ikea” room, excellent. We popped across the road and I bought some bits and bobs for an impromptu picnic in our room: some black bread, herring with dill, pickled gherkins, a small bottle of vodka, and a carton of berry juice (from the Ukraine this time), and back in our room we just relaxed and enjoyed the snack. I called Mama, after Mama had left a message on my mobile yesterday, and we had a nice long chat on the phone. As there wasn’t really anywhere to go out, and we were probably in the best place in town anyway, we stayed at the hotel for dinner, in the semicircular dining room overlooking the little brook, with excellent service and (Argentinean?) wine. Good bus day, and another pleasant drive through Baltic countryside.

20060714_P_0440 lo-res
Rural Latvia
20060714_P_0463 lo-res
Locals in Võru
20060714_P_0478 lo-res
Rugs for sale in Rõuge

Excellent breakfast, served at table rather than a buffet for a change. We packed up and left Rēzekne, on the way to Estonia. The roads were decent, the landscape green, rural, forested, and we drove smoothly through this part of Latvia and on to our next little country.

If the landscape was any different from that of Lithuania I can’t remember it now, just general impressions of wheat fields and forests, and then we reached the Estonian border. This time they did check both our passports and car papers. No great changes here either, although I imagine that as we gradually got further north the countryside started to look more “Scandinavian”, meadows with yellow flowers, lupin-like flowers along the roadside, in colourful groups of purple and lilac, and more pine trees. It did actually feel tidier and neater, and the roads were in excellent condition, and there was an orderly quality to the fields and farms, and even to the sky itself. My imagination no doubt.

The road by which we had entered Estonia led to the Russian border a few kilometres beyond our junction so we drove a little further to take a look, and saw some parked cars and trucks, nothing more exciting. We turned round and turned off onto the road to Tallinn.

We made a pit stop at the little town of Võru, our first taste of Estonian smalltowns. Võru looked and felt far more “Scandinavian”. Neat and tidy yet relaxed and with a laid-back summer ambience. There was a market or festival of some sorts, lots of people strolling about. We parked opposite the tourist info office and got some info on the region. Another noticeable difference – fluent English was spoken and there were lots of helpful maps and leaflets. We decided to take a little look around. First to the cashpoint to get some Estonian kroners (another Scandinavian reference) and then we had a refreshing beer on the patio of a pubi, as bars are called in Estonian. People around us looked well-to-do, in that vague “Ikea” sense of wholesomeness, happy-smiley-healthy-tanned-no hassles. We took a walk up and down the street that had been transformed into a market/street fair, with all sorts of wooden products for sale, from toys to chopping boards and furniture, and a range of food and farm products, all very “pleasant” (over-using that word!)

The lady at tourist info, or was it our Rough Guide?, had told us about the Valley of the Nightingales nearby, a worthwhile detour. We drove to the village of Rõuge which looked quite nice, a nice setting by a trio of lakes with reed beds, and with a bit of searching we found the turn off, along a small road, which led to a solid-looking brand new log cabin, the visitors centre, with some colourful woollen rugs for sale, all looking very rustic and slung over the “veranda”. Behind the visitors centre was a grassy clearing, and a wooden observation tower. At the end of the clearing was a small valley with a pretty river running through it. No nightingales in sight or to be heard, but it was a pretty setting all the same. We had a go on the big swing, a wooden platform capable of holding ten or more kids, looked like fun.

Back into the car and we carried on towards Tartu, on the good Estonian roads. We drove into the town centre and parked close to tourist info. No change for the parking machine though, so Ness went on her own while I stayed at the car. From my vantage point I couldn’t see all that much of Tartu, just a cobbled street, a few tidy “German” shops, and some smart modern blocks, with a casino on the ground floor and apartments above, but you could sense there was a …pleasant… medieval city here. After several phone calls Ness returned. We thought we had made a booking for a self-catering apartment close to the town centre.

After a drink at the nearby Wilde Pub (Oscar Wilde and his Estonian namesake, “Vilde”, are local heroes), and some frustrated calls trying to get hold of the owner of the flat, but our calls were answered by the caretaker/cleaner who didn’t speak a word of anything but Estonian, the owner wasn’t around, whatever… In the end we gave up on the apartment, and the alternative offered, and went in search of a hotel ourselves, and found a good deal at the Hansa Hotell, a fifteen minute walk from the centre. It had a mixed country-rural-saloon-western-”down on the farm” theme. On the outside terrace there was a little two-piece band playing “classics”, from Abba to the Eagles and Brotherhood of Man, “killing the unkillable” as Ness put it. There were about a dozen middle-aged and older couples dancing energetically, twirling each other round. They had no hesitation whatsoever getting on the dance floor, and it was a festive summer mood. We stayed at the hotel for the evening, and had a bite at the hotel. Our room was very hot as it was on the western side and the windows couldn’t open, only a small air-vent panel which gave some ventilation.