Marg and Leigh's travels around the world

We are two retired women from New Zealand, busy travelling the world. Our quest is to experience other cultures before they are changed beyond recognition, and see endangered animals and environments before they disappear. We hope you like our blog and enjoy our exploits. We sure have had fun getting here.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Into The Baltic States

Leaving Poland, we drove seamlessly over a border into Lithuania - although you could clearly see where the old border and customs station used to be. We were headed for Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. However, we decided to go to Trakai instead – 30 minutes south of Vilnius. The Trakai camp ground sounded more attractive being on the edge of one of the many lakes in the area.

              Trakai sunset, Marg
The mosquitoes were even more prolific here than in the Białowieża Forest (see last blog) - especially morning and evening - bug stuff is essential.
We are becoming very good at zipping through Vanni’s door and zapping the fly screen shut before they can get in! Thank goodness we have fly screens on all of Vanni’s windows too!
Our neighbours were a Swiss couple who were very interesting to chat to, and they shared information on campsites in other places that we are yet to explore. They said the Vilnius city campsite didn’t open until 1 June so just as well we didn’t go to Vilnius first!

Trakai houses, Marg
Trakai is very pretty, quite old and surrounded by lakes. All the houses there are wooden, which seems typical for Latvia.
There was a rumpty cycle track from the campground, around the lake into Trakai village. We used this several times, avoiding tree roots as best we could, to bike into the village – it was great fun and an interesting cycle.

Trakai castle, L&M
Trakai Castle, Marg
In Trakai, we visited the Trakai Castle which has been restored. It sits on a small island and has been made into a National Museum We had an interesting wander around admiring the wonderful treasures they have there (while avoiding the two
groups of school children!)
Gedimina’s Tower- Vilnius
The next day we cycled into Trakai again, left our bikes there and caught a bus into Vilnius. The Vilnius bus stop is very close to old city and once we had the map around the right way (!!), we set off to explore.

Vilnius Old Town is on the UNESCO Heritage list and we could see why, as we wandered the wee cobbled streets and little lanes.

We walked up a very steep and long cobbled path to Gedimina’s Tower which offered a great view of the city. Once up there, we discovered that we could have caught a cable car to the top – poor cobble-sore feet. Needless to say, we went down by cable car!

Vilnius St Nicolas Church,
We enjoyed seeing the lovely old buildings, churches and city gates, but it seemed so much more subdued than other capital cities we have been to, and lacked some of the vibrancy.

We did however, spy a more progressive looking new city across the river (new compared to the historic old town), but did not have the time to explore it. Vilnius is a small capital city but has a quaint charm and we felt very safe there.

Lithuania still shows signs of its recent communist past with some dreadful communist style apartments, rather drab clothing styles (mostly in older people), and generally a rather reserved outlook on life; it does not seem to be a very wealthy country. English seems to be spoken by only a few people but most are helpful - although sometimes shy to respond with a smile.

Lithuanian country folk
We asked a young teenager and his mother for directions to the bus station and he translated from English to her - they were very helpful and friendly.

Meanwhile, back at the Trakai campsite, a large contingent of German travellers had left, and only two other vans arrived later in the day to replace them, so it was blissfully quiet – until the evening.

The local youth had a party that night and the boom, boom bass of the music was diabolical; and it went on until 5.30 am! Needless to say we had very little sleep, especially as some of the young guys who obviously hadn’t been home decided to have a loud conversation right outside Vanni at 7.30 am! We gave up and decided to get up and to move on.

Trakai Hill of Angels, Marg
Leaving the Trakai campsite we drove to the top of a hill and came across “The Hill of Angels” which is a monument to ‘Faith, Tolerance and Love’.

It is 26 oak angel sculptures with each being around 5 meters tall, and planted all over the hill. It looked quite new but it was great to see.

Centre of Europe, Leigh
Reaching Purnuškės, a small village just out of Vilnius/Trakai area, we stood at the exact centre of Europe. In 1989, the French National Institute of Geography calculated the centre of Europe to be just outside this village. We visited the stone memorial erected on that spot.

Later, we stopped for diesel and an old gentleman came up and expressed much amazement that we were from New Zealand.

His son spoke English and explained that his father was a traveller too, and really admired how far we had come!

Rotten road
We travelled out of Lithuania into Latvia (seamless border) and OMG, the roads were absolutely dreadful with pot holes, patches on patches and just SO awful! Poor Vanni just didn’t know what to do as we rattled and bounced our way north-east.

In the afternoon, we reached Daugavpils, the second largest city in Latvia after the capital, Riga.

Daugavpils Cathedral
Daugavpils is very old (around 5th century) and apparently, was once on one of the most significant trade routes that provided links between Russia and Greece.

The place seemed quite old, dirty, tired and sad. We drove around a bit and could not find an actual ‘centre’ so moved on.

Rēzekne detour road
We then reached Rēzekne - just west of the Latvia/Russia border. It is a decent sized city in Latvian terms (7th largest with a pop of about 35k). We had to take a detour to get into the city and the detour road was unsealed, and one of the worst we had struck! We finally got into the city to find it nicely laid out and clean, with lovely gardens. It was significantly destroyed in WWII and so has been largely rebuilt.

Ludza lake, L & M & Vanni
As we had not been able to find any campsites in this area we moved on to a tiny village called Ludza, which is on the shore of a lake, and found a parking spot right on the lake edge. There were several people fishing, a family having a picnic, and locals walking by - one chappie was most excited by our New Zealand signs and flag. He found it amazing that we had come from so far away and in his very limited English, made us feel welcome.

We had a wonderfully peaceful night and slept very well before heading off to the Latvia/Russia border early next morning.

At the border, we drove through Latvian customs with no problems, and then on to Russian customs. We were feeling a little nervous about the unknown, given the feedback we have had about the Russian customs process at borders.

Our Russian visas were all in order; then they checked Vanni out and all her registration numbers etc. Seemed ok. We then filled out all the customs declaration forms and progressed on through, until suddenly...... DISASTER! They said we did not have the required piece of paper that authorised us to drive Vanni in Russia!

The head Russian customs man, who spoke no English, was very empathetic (Marg thinks this, but Leigh doesn’t!). He spoke very loudly in Russian as though that would help us to understand what he was saying!  He found a traveller who spoke English and was able to explain to us that, the papers we had were not enough and we needed a specially stamped and signed form before they would let us in!

We were worried that if they sent us back to Latvia, our single entry Russian visa may not allow us to return. However, he was able to indicate that we would still be able to use the same visa if we returned to that border control with the correct papers.

All of this took about 3 hours and eventually, we turned around and drove back into Latvia. The Latvian officials were a little stunned to see us back and were a bit suspicious as to why, and asked lots of questions. Eventually after much stress, we were back on the not-so-wonderful Latvian roads, feeling entirely shattered!

We decided our best bet would be to head to Riga, the capital of Latvia, as being a major centre it would most likely be the best place to get signed papers sent to us. So off we set after all that trauma to drive the 320 kms right across Latvia, on crap roads. Unfortunately, Marg missed the turn off to the way we should have gone, and we spent quite a bit of time bumping over 35 km of extremely rough unsealed road (and we were the only ones on it – duuuhhh!), before we managed to get back on the right track and head directly west to Riga.

We made it to Riga and found our way to the city camp site. There we discovered three couples, one from Switzerland, one from Germany and the other from Netherlands who we had meet in Poland and Lithuania. It was nice to meet up with them and off load our dramas.

Meantime, we have decided to tour this part of Latvia while we wait for our correct papers to be delivered from the Czech Republic - then we hope to have another go at the Russian border, provided that we still have time within the limits of our Russian visa – watch this space!

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