Opposite end of the spectrum

The weather in Sventoji was very changable – from brilliant sunshine and shorts one minute to thick cloud cover and thermals the next. We pottered around for an extra day but the wind was blowing a gale so we couldn’t ride our bikes as planned – well we could of but we would probably still be heading in the direction of Poland with the tail-gale-wind we were experiencing.

Our next plan was to find the former nuclear missile base, internet reports were mixed from it was closed down to impossible to find. We struggled with finding anything concrete about it that showed gps and sites that did had coordinates for two places 30 km apart. Taking the chance we headed for the site that seemed most likely, through the forests, 4 km up an un-made road and hey presto Plokstine.

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We were told we needed to join a tour to visit, no problem one leaves in 5 minutes. Did we want headphones? yes please. Tour starts, just us two and guide, we get to an extremely thick iron door – she opens it. In we all go, she then says have a good tour and leaves us! Odd but never mind, we had the place to ourselves, well until a complete battalion of the Lithuanian army turned up and joined us doing a tour themselves – all of whom popped there heads around a door to check to give us a nod and a wave.

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Iain taking no chances whilst he was there

Plokstine was built in 1960, it was the first USSR underground military base, built in response to those the USA was building – back when showing yours was bigger was what bulk of world money was spent on. There was a network of tunnels and four shafts, nearly 34 metres deep that housed the missiles. The concrete domes would have been moved aside on rails in less than 30 minutes, two Russians would have pushed a button each and launched an R-12 Dvina missile with nuclear warhead, that would have been it – goodnight Europe!  Absolutely amazing to visit somewhere that the West didn’t know existed for the first 15 years it was in operation despite it being a threat to life as we know it.

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Nuclear missile launching silo

When it was operational there would have been a large compliment of Russian troops manning the facility and a large barracks not too far away in the forest. There was an electric fence surrounding the whole area – normally set to 200v but with the possibility of raising the voltage to 1700v if they felt necessary. As the missiles had a radius of over 1600 miles not sure who they thought was going to be at the fence anytime before they nuked the hell out of them.

What wasn’t made clear was where and how the missiles were removed. The blurb told how the Russians packed up and left the site, but couldn’t imagine them packing up their 40 ton missiles and sneaking off with them without much fuss or any of the locals noticing.

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Concrete silo cover

We over-nighted at a campsite on the edge of Siauliai, all looked fine and even joined by three other motorhomes. An hour later we were joined by a minibus of local road builders who appear to live in a hostel at the back of the loos. In order to use the facilities it necessitated running a gauntlet of anything from 4-10 workmen stood outside the loo/ shower door in skimpy towels having a post shower ciggy and beer, – tres chic! we moved on next morning 🙂

Whilst we had visited the Hill of Crosses in Poland, the original and better known Lithuanian version wasn’t too far away so we went for a comparison visit. No-one seems to know exactly when the practice of leaving crosses started in Siauliai but it’s believed to be sometime around 1831. It was be impossible to count how many crosses there were, estimates say anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000. Amongst the crosses are giant crucifixes, statues of Saints, and thousands of rosaries and offerings. During the occupation Lithuanians continued to visit the hill and leave crosses, despite the Soviets best attempts  to clear the site  which they bulldozed three times.

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The most obvious contrast for us was the Lithuanian version is not so much on a hill as a large mound of earth. The crosses are contained in an area a fifth of the size of it’s namesake in Poland but as there seems to be as many if not more crosses. We visited early in the morning so were lucky to see the hill before the pilgrimage tours started, would imagine it gets a bit chaotic on the narrow pathways when the buses come in. Worth a visit for sure, they don;t charge an entry fee but there are plenty of ticky tacky stalls in car-park to spend a few Euro on amber of souvenir crosses and magnets.

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Driving through Lithuania it has struck us just how empty the countryside seems, almost as if its been decreed to leave it fallow. Mile after mile of pasture covered in dandelions. The odd square has been ploughed – usually we see it being done by hand – but generally the land is left untouched. Very few livestock, just the obligatory cow outside each cottage, no herds of sheep or cows. It doesn’t feel in anyway backwards or old fashioned – it just feels like no-one has got around to using the land.

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Moving on up

We are back at the sea again 🙂 not sure we have ever been away from the sea so long before. Quick update – it’s Day 193, driven 8000 miles, stocks are low on Marmite and Tetley tea but other than that we are not wanting for anything. Our budget is holding out amazingly well – we have some expensive countries to come but we are massively under forecast so all looks good. The sink has not leaked a drop since the second fixing, all other running repairs are holding out. So over all – everything is very rosey in our garden :).  Added to which photos of these little beauties appeared in our email inbox this week – loving the mini-me Baxterbus (thanks Rickster).

Despite agreeing to head for the Hill of Crosses we changed plan and went for Klaipeda so we could visit the Curonian Spit. Once a part of Germany and then incorporated into Lithuania by the Russians the city of Klaipeda is most famous for gigantic shipyards, dockyards and fishing ports. The docks were like something from 1950’s Britain, cranes working hard unloading dozens of container ships and warehouses all still in use. Most freight must move on railways as we have never seen so many lines all with train after train hauling massive lines of wagons – we counted 60-80 wagons behind most trains.

A big percentage of the city still speak Russian as a first language as the city was re-populated by Russians after the USSR took control and expelled the Germans. As the city is built along the coast it’s reasonably easy to negotiate – you can head either North or South – no arguments on navigation for us then!  We didn’t go too far into the city centre but the bits we did see had lots of open spaces, parks and some very beautiful old buildings – added to which were some pretty gruesome 1950’s apartment blocks which kind of spoiled the aesthetics.

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Lithuanian unification monument, 1923 – in the centre of Klaipeda

Our campsite was a good few miles out of the city, seemed good but we were unsure when Group 3 Security started patrolling on the hour every hour – maybe it was meant to make us feel secure, it didn’t it made us wonder why we needed a dedicated security vehicle! In the night we heard what sounded like gunshots! it was probably something to do with the freight train lines behind the site but late at night with shot after shot it was a little daunting to say the very least.

Rather than drive over to the Spit we planned to take the bikes, according to receptionist there was a cycle path along the coast to the city and down to the ferry. What she meant was there will be one day 😦 We followed the map and it actually had us carrying our bikes over railway line – no not on a crossing, just picking them up and crossing over four lines where massive freight trains were ambling along. Plenty of cyclists, walkers and joggers doing the same – seems to be the norm here to walk on the lines.

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Checking the map before we risk life and limb on the tracks

The ferry over to the Curonian Spit took less than five minutes it was like a speedboat, bikes were free and we paid 40 cents each return – bit of a bargain. Once over there the best way to describe it was think Liverpool (Klaipeda) and the Wirral (Curonian Spit). Pathways galore through woods and along beautiful beaches, very old wooden houses and a fair few tourist attractions including the new Dolphinarium being built. Very scenic and incredibly windy, the wind whistles along there at a rapid rate of knots, great for riding with it, horrendous coming back.

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  The Curonian Spit from the ferry

Whilst the spit is over 98 km long – its ends back in Kaliningrad – we didn’t go that mad – just a few miles to the furthest point North on the spit we could go before it was fenced off for safety, possibly to prevent us being blown into the sea. Very mixed H&S here – risk of injury by a train deemed less than drowning falling off a 40 ft wide path into the sea. However, it may be that it’s less likely people will end up in the sea as there were several signs denoting “No falling into the sea”.

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Whilst there is supposedly a very trendy and wealthy resort on the Spit at Nida, we instead went 50 km North to the resort of Sventoji, accordingly to local tourist information the ‘poor man’s resort’. If it is then it really is none the worse for it, very charming and old-fashioned resort being dragged kicking and screaming into the current century. Everywhere there are wooden holiday shacks, some must be over 60 years old and standing by the skin of their teeth, others slightly newer but all built in the style of your garden shed with a few extra windows. The beach is mile after mile of white sand stretching as far as we could see. Nothing on the beach in terms of tourist cafes, shops, parasols – oh except a wooden sauna, closed for the day but open for the summer season!

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The only building on the beach for miles – The Sauna!

Hidden away in the sand dunes was a sculpture called the ‘Fisherman’s daughters’, unlike most of the many sculptures we have seen that are post 1989 this one was dated 1980. Awaiting the return of their father from a fishing trip they were joined by  a tiny person (ok, the sculptures are 4 metres high). As with many sights in Lithuania there is nothing to point out they are there, you either come across them or you don’t.  Tourist literature is very much aimed at locals as it is only in Lithuanian, then again we have seen a couple of German and Dutch registered vehicles and nothing else so possibly they don’t have a great number of foreign tourists here.

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We are pitched up in someone’s back garden here for £8 a night, a few metres from the beach and have decided to stay a few days. Sventoji is at the end of the so-called “Amber Road” which runs up the coast from Klaipeda. The next resort back down the coast, Palanga, advertises a stack of amber shops and museums so weather permitting we are cycling there tomorrow to see if we can pick up an amber bargain or two.

Once we leave here it’s a week on Cold War attractions – Plokstine Nuclear Missile Base and the abandoned Russian secret military town of Karosta – thrilling stuff! However, our route has changed again and the Hill of Crosses is back on the itinerary so there is good to come too.

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 Sunny but windy on the beach at Sventoji

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 We left our mark 

One small step for mankind..

We were heading up to Polish border to spend a last couple of days there but the worst happened – rain! No point hanging around to cycle in the wet so we agreed to move into Lithuania. Last stop before the border was Suwalki to stock up on food, we found plenty of other motorhomers doing the same. We had over exchanged into Zloty so did a massive shop to get rid of as many as possible, then diesel then LPG – still loads left – Poland was way cheaper than we had estimated.

The border crossing to Lithuania was one of the more spectacular to date, well it was in its day. Being the only main road crossing between USSR and Poland for the Baltic States it must have been incredibly busy. On both the Polish and Lithuanian sides enormous sheds, parking areas and office buildings along with miles of roads for Customs queues are still in place. There was still a lonesome Customs officer in his car, just the one, two army guards and one policeman – all of whom seemed fairly disinterested in who was coming or going. We drove through the border, realised we hadn’t exchanged our cash to Euro so turned around, drove back into Poland. Second attempt we were back in Lithuania – bemused officials watching our second arrival in less than 5 minutes!

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The first and last houses in Lithuania – from the Russian border

The road both sides of the border was quite frankly scary. Single carriageway, no hard shoulder and truck after truck thundering along it in both directions. They still play chicken here with overtaking but in 40 ft arctics. In over 7700 miles it was our worst driving experience – even Bulgaria cannot throw anything at  you that is a patch on it. We came off the main road as soon as we could and took the quiet country roads to Vistytus, right on the lake just a couple of km from the border. The guy who owned it has too much time on his hands, thousands of sculptures, everywhere you looked made of junk metal and wood carvings but the most wonderful views over the lake to Russia made up for it.

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Vytautas the Great 1350-1430 ‘Guarding forever the place where Lithuanian begins’

Iain asked if we could use one of the pedalos (in his best Lithuanian) the owner said no, explaining the lake is mostly Russian water – obviously thought we could cause a diplomatic incident. Having spent an evening watching Russia, watching us there was no way we could pass up the opportunity of standing on Russian soil (I am a bit of a Russophile – everything about it enthralls me).

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Sunset over Lithuania and Russia 

Bikes out – looking less conspicuous than in a bloody great motorhome – we headed for the border which is in the centre of the village. Along the country lanes there were regular signs not to enter ‘no man’s land’ but not a sign of any guards or fences to stop you.  In the village was a wacking great steel fence on the Russian side which just cut the road off. The actual border was alongside the fence where posts denoting Russia and Lithuania with the ‘no mans land’ bit in the middle. Absolutely we did !! both walked right on into Russia – complete with Russian guard watching us from his observation tower 🙂 .

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Iain in ‘no man’s land’

Sure Russia wasn’t too worried by a couple of aging lycra clad cyclists as we hung around for a bit taking photos and stepping in and out of Russia. As well as the Russian guard there were a couple of local workmen but we can’t have been the first people they have seen stepping over the lines as they all pretty well ignored us.  For us, both children of the Cold War era it was a little special – we care not for those that say it was one step – it was a step on Russian soil and get us, we didn’t even need a visa :). We do now have the mindset to take the motorhome to Russia – another trip, another time but it’s moved way up our ‘to do’ list.

Lithuania – (border markers) – Russia

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 Post border crossing celebrations

Onwards into Lithuania, avoiding the main road and it is really rather lovely. Two of it’s major claims to fame being the first country of the former USSR to declare it’s independence and the having the most Northern port that does not become ice-bound. It is very green, very quiet, villages are of the 10-20 house variety, mainly wooden dwellings all with a small arable land area and a cow chained up in the front garden. As well as the crop areas they generally have an area set aside for half a dozen fruit trees – which right now in mid spring are quite dazzling.

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The people must be busy somewhere else because we have hardly seen a person in the last four days, we saw very few cars on the roads, those we did were probably 50% Russian. It seems very rural and under-populated, we were told that the Russians destroyed and removed buildings they felt were not necessary so maybe that’s why there are so few buildings. Lithuania does not however lack  lakes or rivers, over 830 lakes and 22,000 rivers – at every turn we have come across a body of water and there is always a storks nest or two at each one, we love storks.

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Our second stop has been Siline at a honey farm campsite. The rather wonderful and slightly eccentric host is Ovideus, entrepreneur, bee keeper, campsite owner and excellent self taught English speaker. Whilst we have been here there have been a couple of wedding parties come to take their photos, four bus loads of tourists for talks on bee keeping and for most of this afternoon the site has been buzzed at around 100 ft by 20-30 micro-light craft. The buildings around the site are all hand built and thatched by Ovideus and when he isn’t doing that or organising all the other activities he sells honey, which is pretty wonderful stuff. If there is a downside to the site it could be the lake where we are parked next to contains hundreds and hundreds of frogs – not so cute with the “croak croak” level rising throughout the night.

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Beautiful Medau Slenis campsite

Just around the corner in the village is the 17th century Panemune castle, partly restored as a hotel and gallery with a small visitor section. you are allowed in the tower and down to the jail, so not much to see inside but only €1.20 each. The climb up the tower was over 140 steps, after the first 20 it was a steep wooden ladder in three sections, I made it up the first wooden section – then left Iain to do the rest for the views. Coming down is so much harder than going up, horrendous, we both had jelly legs for a fair while afterwards. The hotel and restaurant looked very pricey and somewhat out of our league, as we were leaving Iain went to have a look but the receptionist was quite firm that we couldn’t look in the hotel, we were looking at our usual scruffy best so understandable :).

Panemune Castle