And so it ends (well for this trip anyway!)

Our last post of call, before the call of the port so to speak, was Brugge. The one sure plan we have always had was a day in Brugge before we caught the ferry home. Quite frankly we were both fairly gobsmacked as to how we managed to arrive with such impeccable timing.

Brugge is said to be one of the world’s first tourist destinations, having set up a Tourist Information as far back as 1909, they have certainly had time to work out what the tourist wants and they have it with abundance – medieval architecture, lace and chocolate are  everywhere.  We find it hard to believe anyone leaves the city without purchasing chocolate, you need a steel brace to avert your eyes from the mouth watering displays.

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The Markt – Brugge

By luck or whatever Brugge remained relatively unscathed during the war and retains most of it’s medieval architecture. We struck lucky and both the Church of our Lady and St. Salvator’s Cathedral had their scaffolding removed recently, on the downside the insides of both buildings are being restored so we missed seeing the interiors.   It was be churlish to complain though when instead we visited the Burg Square, the Markt and several other areas containing some of the most sensational buildings we have seen anywhere.

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Burg Square

We popped in Sunday for a couple of hours and decided to go back for a full day Monday thinking it would be quieter. Not a bit, possibly busier on Monday – we stayed on the town aire next to the coach drop off and pick up, hundreds of buses in and out all day with at least half of them British and the other half school children.

Despite Brugge giving the impression of a a tranquil place to visit it really isn’t. The sheer numbers of tourist, the horses and carts clattering around the cobbles and the carillon of 48 bells, added to the bells of several other churches, meant at times it was difficult to hear yourself speak.  Surely though one of the highlights of Brugge is when the carillon in the Belfry of Brugge strikes up a ringing rendition of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” on the hour, every hour – truly amazing.

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When in Rome….so obviously when in Brugge chocolate is mandatory. I never thought it would be possible to say this but, there are too many chocolate shops. It is mind blowing, hundreds and hundreds of them on every street. I needed to shop for chocolate so left Iain to his own devices for a couple of hours whilst I perused. I then came to realise the benefits of so many shops – everyone I actually went in offered me a sample chocolate! On a roll I visited eight shops before purchasing :), now slightly sick of the taste of Belgian chocolate.

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Aside from chocolate we wanted to visit Brugge to see the canals. I am going to have to say it didn’t come across as the ‘Venice of the North’ to us, a fair few canals but mainly small with lots of dead-ends. That isn’t too take away from the charm of  the canals and their setting alongside 17th century warehouses and homes, it stands on it’s own merits without needing a  Venice type canal label.

We of course took the obligatory canal boat trip, forget sedate and flowing – think more pack ’em in and speed ’em round. Due to the low bridges there are just one type of boat and they fair nip around causing a few wakes as they go.

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There endeth the Grand Depart tour around Europe for us, Zeebrugge tonight and ferry home tomorrow.

We have had the absolute time of our lives, we have seen and done more than we thought possible – it has been everything we hoped it would be and so much more. In summary :31 border crossings, 20 countries, 19,000 miles, (passports checked just twice).

We are well under our budget, amazingly, but sure we will see a lot of that go with the 25 essential maintenance jobs on the list required for the van (thank the Lord for gaffer tape its all that’s holding us together right now).

There have been a few navigational related skirmishes, but trying to get us around Europe on a 1:3 200 000 atlas was always asking for a few headaches!

We would do it all again without a moments thought – well we did think we might like one of these to go with, but guess our van will have to do.

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The first question is always where we did like best? We didn’t, honestly, every country we visited we found amazing sights, lovely people and had fun. Whenever anyone asked that questions during the trip it was always the country we had just left.

Every day was an experience, things we had only read about previously were seen in the flesh : visiting Meteora, driving Trollstigen, flying in an Airship, crossing Millau Bridge, walking into Russia (ok only two steps but we did it). Others were stark reminders of how lucky we are: the ferry fire on the Norman Atlantic, Auschwitz, the WWI and WWII battle-grounds and the military cemetery.

Our lack of real planning and direction paid off more than we could have hoped mainly because Europe is stuffed full of incredible things to see – you would struggle to miss them – luckily for us!

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In the words of the that famous 20th century commentator “That’s all folks”.

Wrong turn – right good result

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The last few days we have pottered around on the South Coast of Sweden, enjoying the sunshine and working out what to do next. Once we turned the corner from the South East coast it all became more urban, more holiday town, more people and much less the Sweden we have found so wonderful.

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Our final night was just outside Ystad, amongst the dunes with 30-40 vans, all very peaceful and quiet. Come 7am the rumble of wagons, many wagons, the circus is coming to town and pitching up in the next field – yippee! It took nearly 2 hours for all the circus wagons to pull on, at least 50 or so including plenty of proper old fashioned circus caravans.

I was telling Iain about memories of circus having camels and elephants – Iain was laughing that circus don’t have camels – at which stage they start unloading the camels 🙂 followed by a call that can only be the elephants unloading :).

To leave Sweden our options were to drive back through Denmark or catch a ferry direct to Germany. The latter seemed favourite and we found loads of ferries that run from both Trelleborg and Ystad. One of the cheapest options was to catch a ferry from Ystad down to Swinoujscie, which is in Poland but only a few miles over the German border.

We sailed with Unity Line, somewhat old fashioned but have to say a perfect crossing. We asked for electric for the fridge (our experience of the Greek ferry practically cooking the insulin still gives us palpitations), which was no problem but meant they loaded us three hours before the sailing time. So even though it was due to be a six hour crossing we were on-board for nine hours.

We went mad and plumped for dinner out on the boat – everything was bread-crumbed, no really everything – and not a vegetable in site other than some sauerkraut. Maybe not our finest hour in the culinary stakes of travel but it was the first time we had eaten out of the van since Holland, so a treat none the less.

After a mill-pond crossing we arrived in Poland, a vague plan set that we would drive 5 miles along the coast and stay on a camper-stop in Germany. All seemed good even though the ferry appeared to be docking on the wrong side of the estuary.

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Late evening arrival in Poland

Problem one -we needed to cross the estuary to get to Germany – there isn’t a bridge. We found mini-ferry and also found problem two, it takes cars only. No worries we re-routed Sat Nav – 590 km if we avoid the ferry!! It’s a very long estuary. Iain went off to see the ferry man who told us there was another ferry several miles up the road (our Sat Nav obviously hasn’t heard of it).

By then it was nearly 9 pm, we didn’t know the route, we didn’t have any Zloty to pay for a ferry, it was nearly dark – it seemed easier to just head for a campsite in Poland, and there was one 15 minutes up the road in Miedzyzdroje. We arrived as the gates were closing but they let us in to what seemed in the dusk a very busy site.

Woke up this morning to the busiest of busy sites, heaving with tents, caravans and motorhomes. People were everywhere – a massive shock to our system after being used to no more than a handful of vans anywhere. Our pitch was an unpopular one as we were a wee bit close to our German neighbour, so much so we could hear him slurping his morning cuppa – we moved to the next one and avoided any diplomatic incidents.

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Being totally unprepared for Poland we set off on the bikes to explore and more importantly find some Polish money and do a bit of shopping. On the good news front, we can afford anything we like again :). Prices in Poland are incredibly cheap after being in Norway and even Sweden. We did a small shop and priced that a similar basket cost us £24 in Norway, £15 in Sweden and just £7 in Poland – after a few months of watching every penny we spent its fabulous to just shop without counting for a change.

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It does appear we have inadvertently arrived in the Blackpool of Poland! The village has a permanent population of 6000 – in summer this swells to 200,000 (and pretty sure we met most of them walking in the opposite direction to which we were cycling).

The road through the village runs for about tow miles and consists of tourist tack shops, arcades and cocktail bars. To be fair it all looks very clean, its full of people, the atmosphere is a cheerful and friendly one and there seems to be enough things to do to keep people occupied for a week or so.

 We went to the beach where people were squeezing themselves onto the smallest specks of sand, with another few thousand heading their way hate to think what it was like by lunchtime.

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We did think we were going to stay a few days, the sheer numbers of people make it not for us and we have sat out the afternoon in the sunshine (a very warm afternoon at 86 degrees (27 degrees) at its hottest. Tomorrow we will head down the Polish border looking for some peace and quiet and apparently even warmer weather before crossing into Germany somewhere in the South.

 

 

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 

Get ready, get set…………..

After 12 months of talking about it at last, we are ready for the off! The van is packed to the gills and we have a plan of sorts, a big map book and we think everything else will fall into place as we go, so tomorrow morning our Grand Tour of Europe commences (destination exotic Brentwood!).

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The packing went well, everything we want to take fits, and as long as it fits somewhere I don’t really mind where that is. Iain has built some rather ingenious cupboard spaces in what was previously wasted gaps; such as in the outside locker above our loo (for the non campervanners – no the toilet is inside but there is a locker outside to take it out and empty it) we have a 12 month supply of toilet chemical, not glamorous but essential as now we don’t have to worry about how to translate a request for “blue stuff to stop the toilet smelling” in several languages. I have managed to fit all my clothes into a small cupboard, which is about the size of a hand luggage suitcase, how on earth that will last me a year I don’t know but on the upside it will take away a lot of the decisions on ‘what to wear’.

We are now on winter tyres, our awning is fixed, we have glued or screwed down any wobbly bits in the van (except for Iain) and its polished to within an inch of it’s life. All the essentials are onboard – decent coffee, Tetley tea, Marmite, Weetabix, Bovril, ginger biscuits and shampoo. Other than that we agreed on taking essentials only : walking gear, bikes, a tool kit, a kite (?), Kindle, camera and enough medications to keep a small country fit and well.

Our route could be termed very fluid – we have drawn it on a map in pencil so it’s flexible! The plan, as of today, is head as far South as we can for some sun then go North for several months, then home via the middle bit 🙂 . We appreciate that as plans go it’s probably only slightly better than those of mice, but at least we know which direction to turn when we arrive in Calais so we feel confident with that being covered! The first and most obvious question everyone asks us is how far will we get? No idea, we would like to think we will cover several countries every couple of months but we don’t want to rush, less maybe more.

The budget is very much set and this is neither vague nor flexible. We have a fixed sum to live on each week, if we overspend then we are going to be home much sooner than 12 months. We set the amount by adding up what we can afford – saying “that sounds like a fair amount” and dividing it by twelve, so obviously that is going to be the exact amount required!

We will post here as and when we can find a free wifi connection which should be reasonably regularly we hope. So all that’s left is curry night a la Bate then tomorrow morning the big adventure starts 🙂

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